After sharing seventeen years of life with his sister, including almost two of them traveling the Columbian West, Brandon had an intimate understanding of the signs that she was using her magic. He also knew the costs and she’d promised she would only sing the orphans one song with the force of her gift. So when the familiar prickle filled the air a second time annoyance surged through him. Quickly wrapping his sandwich in its napkin he pushed up from his table and hustled two and a half cars toward the rear of the train. As he traveled his annoyance changed to bafflement. The song felt different than any other he’d heard Cassie sing and it lasted less than a minute, barely enough for a verse.
And, by the time he’d gotten back to their compartment car, he realized she wasn’t back in the public cars anymore, the buzz of her magic was coming from their part of the train. As he got back to the door of that compartment he realized Roy Harper’s voice was coming from inside. Suspicious and annoyed, Brandon yanked the the compartment door open and stepped in, mouth open, prepared to yell.
He stopped short when he saw Harper talking to the ghost of a wiry old man in dirty denim clothes and blood covering his front. “Why?” Harper demanded, ignoring Brandon for the moment. “Why would you want to just roll over and die?”
“It was time,” the ghost said, its voice soft and echoing as if from a great distance. “You’ll understand when your time comes. I could ask the same – why did you summon me, Roy?”
“We were hoping you could help us understand the situation,” Cassandra said. She was seated beyond Harper, holding a strange bundle of sticks – bones – and leather in her lap. She gave Brandon a meaningful look and motioned him in the door before continuing. “I admit you were not who we were expecting but we’d hoped you could help us understand what is happening here.”
“No,” Harper cut in. “We’re not keeping Jenkins here. You were supposed to bring Colbert, so send the poor man on and try for the captain again.”
“I don’t mind, Roy,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “Now that I’m dead I find the living less taxing than before.”
“And I’d prefer you not press Cassandra’s talents, Mr. Harper,” Brandon said, his annoyance bubbling up again.
“I don’t mind Brandon,” Cassie said, her fingers worrying at the objects in her hand. “He’s right, there is something here we need to be involved in. I’m sure of it.”
Brandon’s jaw worked back and forth as he tried to resolve the conflicting impulses. Finally he glared at Roy and said, “May we have a moment alone, Mr. Harper?”
Harper glanced at the ghost then back at Brandon. “What about him? I can’t very well take a visible ghost into public right now, can I?”
“I’ll meet you in the next compartment,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “It’s empty at the moment.”
Harper gave it a frustrated look. “Sam.”
“It’s fine, Roy. I’d like to do one more worthwhile thing before I’m gone.” The ghost sank into the seat behind it and vanished.
Harper made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. Cassie raised an eyebrow and asked, “What’s the difference between this man and your Captain? You were all soldiers, weren’t you?”
“No,” Harper turned the word into a sigh. “Sam Jenkins never took an oath or marched in the Regulars. He’s lived out West his whole life. Deserved better than he got.”
“Don’t we all?” Brandon muttered as Harper moved past him to the door.
Harper hesitated and glanced over his shoulder. “No. I, for one, already have far more than is just.”
Once Harper was gone Brandon sat down, pulled his red kerchief from a pocket and held it in his lap. “What can you see, Cassie?”
“You’re holding your red kerchief. Brandon, it wasn’t even-”
“Where am I holding it?”
“In your lap!” She threw her hands up in frustration. “Brandon, I’m fine.”
“Cassie,” he said, drawing deeply on well developed patience. “You nearly sang yourself blind just two weeks ago.”
“And my sight came back in time, just like it always-”
“Our father’s doesn’t return anymore. Cassie, there is a price for your gift.”
His sister took a deep breath, clearly straining her own patience. “Brandon. My eyes are fine now. Mr. Harper lent me an -” she glanced down at the fistful of detritus in her hand “- admittedly somewhat distasteful relic of the local people that assisted the song. The world is a little blurry, like it always is after a short song. That’s all.”
Brandon frowned, reached out and took the bones – horns? – and rolled them in his hand. They seemed unremarkable. “What is it?”
“Pieces of some kind of spirit trap.” She held up a handful of leather strings. “This used to hold it all together. You can’t hear it, but when the antlers and strings are near each other they… wail? But there is a tune to it. I was able to draw a song from it to call a ghost known to Mr. Harper.”
Brandon handed the pieces of debris back. “That’s fascinating. Why does he have such a thing?”
“Apparently he’s safeguarding it until it can be stored somewhere more secure.” She wrapped them in her handkerchief and slipped them into a pocket. “We were expecting the ghost Mr. Harper first saw in the orphan car.”
“And instead you got this Samuel Jenkins?”
“Who is he?”
She tied the bundle closed with a helpless shrug. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”