Read The Outlander Online

Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (27 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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“Oh, hell.”

The widow uncovered her eyes in time to see a tremor go through the
boy's legs from feet to hip, as if he were trying to keep his balance while
standing on a galloping horse. He pawed at the air with numb hands and his eyes rode
upward, momentarily giving him the aspect of a man recalling the past, perhaps fondly.
Then he fell backward and hit the floor-boards with a mighty thump, and there he lay at
the feet of his colleagues in the front row, barely conscious.

There was silence for a long moment, and only the Reverend's

“God almighty,” said one miner. “The man never

“You wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it

“Resolve,” said the Reverend, panting, “is the way to
the Lord. The way . . . to righteousness. God favours hope, and He favours the
righteous. That's . . . all for today.” He spread Ricky's coat over
him where he slept. “Watch over this boy tomorrow, Stan. Make sure he
doesn't fall into any holes.”

widow woke to the sound of her
father's voice, very close, his mouth nearly at her face, bellowing — a
terrible wordless cry of surprise or shock. She sat erect, breathless, with the clatter
of her terror running through her body. She was alone in her room, the house quiet and
dark, but she knew her father was there with her, an angry male presence. She could feel
him — his breath, his heart hammering. The pure essence of him seemed to gel
slowly before her, like a filament of cold air running through warm. She saw nothing,
and yet she reached out to him. There was nothing before her, and yet she knew he had
opened his terrible mouth. All was lost. He knew of her crimes, her madness. A roar like
a lion woke her again, really woke her, and the widow sat up in bed and saw the real
moonlight. She heard the Reverend drawing his laboured breath. The sound was so familiar
and rhythmic, she closed her eyes and attended it closely, grateful to him, as if this
were his way of comforting her.

But all was not well, and she knew it. John's brothers were looking
for her still. It could not be otherwise. Might they follow her, all the way through
that pass — could they, when she herself didn't know the way she had

After a while she lay back down again and held the blankets to her


a week McEchern held what he
called a soiree, pronouncing it with mock hauteur. Swah-ree. He knew better, but the
little man liked to amuse himself. The aim was to sell whisky and rum to the men, and
the men in turn would sit with him outside the store and complain about the mine, or
debate current events, especially anything involving the rebellion in China, or make as
if wise about women, or speak of God, the latter usually done by one or two unhappy and
unpopular fellows and suffered in silence by the others. Even the Reverend seemed
unwilling to invoke heaven at these events, but chose instead to sit quietly, tending
his pipe.

On these evenings, the widow always sat by the Reverend, off to one side
and away from the men. She remembered Helen, Henry's wife, saying, “Frank is
a vile town.” Looking now at McEchern, acutely drunk, and the rest of the
inebriates congregated on the store's front landing, anyone could see her point.
The widow pulled her hat farther down over her brow and held her shawl tight around

Some weeks ago, the Reverend had introduced her as his “ward,”
but that ruse was met with derision. So he'd said, “Think of her as my
beloved sister,” which seemed too vigorous
a mental exercise
for the men. Finally, he'd simply told them to put her out of their minds.

“Come on, Father,” said one fellow, “you're not
using her, after all.”

The Reverend had looked around at the assembled negotiators, his face as
unfriendly as a judge's. There was strained silence for a moment. “The first
of you gentlemen to get out of hand will be sorry. Am I clear?”

After that, the widow was able to sit in relative peace by her
benefactor's side, suffering nothing worse than constant staring and the
occasional comment.

“Do you let your beloved sister smoke a pipe, Father? Isn't
that the way to perdition?”

“Not the brand she smokes.”

It was on an evening like this, with the sunset long past, the heavy
incense of rot and smoked hides wafting from the tent's door flaps, and the demure
movements of small animals in the trees, that the assembled heard something large coming
toward them. No mere twigs were breaking, but whole branches. The revellers fell silent,
listening to the lumbering footfalls. A bear? No cougar would make such a noise.
Finally, with a crash and a grunt, an enormous man emerged from the night trees like
some steaming mountain giant. Several voices cheered at once.


“Un saluto a tutti gli ignoranti!” the giant said in a
rumbling voice.

The widow gaped in disbelief — she had seen this creature before.
One morning, weeks ago, she had been out alone setting snares, kneeling among tree roots
and low alpine junipers where the rabbits hid, intent on her task, a length of
wire in her hands. She was bending and rebending the wire in order
to snap it. As she struggled with the problem there came a sound to her left. At first,
the widow thought she was seeing some bizarre chimera conjured up by her unslept brain.
A colossal, hump-shouldered creature with a heavy head that seemed to have compressed
his neck was standing among the trees watching her. She gasped, and his sly, goatlike
face broke into a grin. He wore a coat made from the many pelts of a local variety of
tabby, patched together into a misshapen quilt that draped his incredible shoulders. In
some places, the fur had worn away, leaving a troutish pattern on the thin hides. Being
an artist, perhaps, he had reserved a little ginger for each cuff. He spoke to her in a
language she didn't know.

“Poverina. Calmati, calmati.”

The widow had stood frozen on the carpet of cedar needles and fixed him
with a look of undisguised mistrust, and yet he seemed to speak gently to her, or as
gently as a monster could manage. She made as if to run past him but immediately balked.
He towered over her, even as he stepped aside with an absurdly courtly gesture to make
way. His strange mouth seemed to hold an overcomplement of teeth. Yes, she saw far too
many in there. She took a step back. Ghoulish children's tales from her nursery
came back to her. In the woods there were ogres, trolls, wolves that stood on their hind
legs and dressed as men, spirits that came up out of the ground in the form of snow and
smoke and foul odours. And this man smelled
; she could tell from where she

“Stai tranquilla,” he had growled, waving his hand as if to
woo her to him. “Basta così!” The widow, thinking herself
slandered, had gasped in shock, turned on her heel and ran, the
dark cloth of her skirts flying up behind her. And all she had heard behind her was the
low rumble of his laughter.

Now here was this creature, stepping amiably among the other men.
Incredibly, they made room for him. He sat his massive bulk down on an upturned stump,
slapped his thighs — each kneebone as wide as a man's head — and
sighed deeply.

“Hell,” said his nearest companion, “he's worse
than ever.”

A loud fragrance floated on the air, the sweet hammer of carrion, damp
charcoal, and some kind of acrid chemical. “Mi dispiace,” said the cat
skinner, “puzzolente.”

The Reverend turned to the widow. “The thing to know about Giovanni
is that he understands everything we say, but we understand nothing he says.”

“Not true,” said one man. “We got two Italians on my
shift. They can talk to him.”

“He don't talk back, though,” said another man.

Giovanni chuckled.

“The other thing to know is,
he makes whisky
, ” said
McEchern, rubbing his hands together. “Take the black off a train engine. Eh,
Giovanni?” He raised his voice. “You gonna bring me some soon?”

“Primo o poi.” The huge man's hand drifted languidly in
the air, promising nothing.

“Anyone get that?” The dwarf was clearly worried that this
gesture meant bad news for his whisky. McEchern's head, on which was always
perched his bowler hat, didn't even reach the cat skinner's shoulder. He
looked like a child at his father's knee.

“I think he means hold yer piss, Mac. Anyway, it ain't the end
of the month yet. He always brings it round at the end of the month.”

“So he does,” said the dwarf, subsiding, “so he
does.” He patted the monster's ratty sleeve and raised a cloud of dust.
“Good man, Giovanni.”

“Ya,” said one inebriate, “and his whisky don't
freeze, like some others I know.” The dwarf was about to take the bait, his eye
lemony and his finger pointed in accusation, when the giant spoke.

“Avete finiti con queste stronzate? Voglio da bere.”

“What'd he say?”

“Who knows? Give the man a drink.”

As the night wore on, a few exhausted celebrants wandered home. They would
get a few hours' sleep, perhaps in a tent or bunkhouse with other men, and then
get back up before the sun rose, helmets alight. They would trudge to the mine and
disappear down the sloping tunnels and drifts where the air was thin and the darkness
profound, where wisps of gas floated and water trickled, where they laboured like
winking souls in the airless dark. The younger ones, the unlucky, the unwise, would
volunteer to step off the drift into the tiny metal miner's cage and from there be
lowered into the void, down to a lower bowel. In McEchern's view — and he
repeated it often enough — these men were fools hanging by their nuts in the dark.
In his opinion, above-ground commerce was the way to go.

“Look,” he would say, “even Jesus couldn't wait to
get out of the cave. God knows what you'll find down there.”

“God sees you everywhere,” said one drunk, rousing himself.
“He sees everything.”

“Don't you start! Go back to sleep.”

“Talk about spooks,” offered one bent and wizened fellow,
“I been seeing things down there. And hearing them too. Something

“You have not.”

“Yesterday I saw — now, you shut up — I saw something
all lit up, floating along the drift, down a ways from me. Looked like a bunch of
fireflies. Ten, twelve little floaty lights. Made a sort of crackling noise. But when I
went to go see, they kinda flew backward away from me. Like they were afraid.”


“Sparks,” said a sober old voice. “Coal dust sparking

“You'd better hope you don't have sparks down
there,” said the Reverend. “We'd all better hope that.”

“Huh-ho.” A rueful laugh. “We got worse than that,

“He means nothing by that.”

“Naw, he's a ninny.”

“Shut up. A fact's a fact. We got ground tremors now. She
shakes all on her own. We don't even have to set charges much any more. She shifts
a little every day, and down comes rock.”

“It's pretty helpful, really,” a young man laughed.
“Sometimes all we have to do is shovel it up and dump it in the cart.”

do that once you open them up.”


“Of course. She's just settling, is all. A mine's got to
settle. Part of the business. And you, seeing fairies and such.” The old fellow
spat over the edge of the platform into the dark. “Bunch of women, flapping yer

They sat in silence for a few moments, pondering the ground beneath their
feet, the porous earth spinning slowly in its dark socket.

“I seen a ghost once,” said the young miner. He pointed to the
widow. “Just as clear as I can see her.”

“I never saw one, but I heard a few.”

“Ghosts don't exist. It's gas and white dogs and . .


“Anyway,” the boy continued, gazing earnestly at the widow,
“this ghost I saw was all in white. I saw her walking along the railroad tracks.
But I didn't think anything of it at first. Thought it was a man. I was out
checking the back of the station house to make sure it was locked. My dad was the
station master, but, but he was . . . well, he was drunk a lot. I always helped him out.
And I looked over and saw it wasn't a man, it was a girl, dressed all in white.
And she wasn't walking, she was gliding along the tracks . . .”

“Maybe she had roller skates.”

“Leave him alone.”

“. . . and then she vanished. Just like that, she was gone. I mean,
it was like you sitting there, ma'am, and then suddenly you're gone. I saw
her one more time too. She was coming toward me outta the dark. Moving without moving
her feet. And this long hair she had. Spread her arms out wide and opened her mouth,
like to scream. And then she was gone again. I could never figure out an explanation for
it, nothing that made sense. I never told anyone about that. Not even my mother.
Don't know why I told you.”

“Neither do we.” There was laughter from the men.

“Okay,” came a gruff voice. “I got one.” The
speaker was
moustachioed, and he talked round his cigar. “Guy
told me he knew a fellow who had a haunted tree.”

“Did he say tree?”

“Ma, arresto.”

“And this guy said that every night around midnight there was
something, couldn't tell what it was, hanging from that tree. It was dark, and it
was in the woods, so he couldn't tell for sure, but it looked a lot like . .

“His dick.”

BOOK: The Outlander
13.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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