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5. Thunder on the Horizon
Adam’s idea of a training regimen wasn’t much. Day after day, he told Maggie to ‘focus her anger’ or ‘really think about it’. Finding her rage was not as easy as it had once been. Over the years, she had found ways around it, trying to come to peace rather than continuously dwelling on the past. As a result, she had let go of the stronger emotions that possessed and guided people like Adam.
Fall came, quickly followed by winter, and the hangings slowed, so they had plenty of time to practice, and even more for Maggie to be frustrated at the lack of progress. While Adam was able to summon his spiritual flash almost on command, she had gotten nowhere. The process was demoralizing and helped none by the constant presence of Otis chuckling to himself and giving tips like: ‘put your back into it’ or ‘focus comes from the mind’. All things considered, they were six of the worst months Maggie had spent at The Hanging Tree.
Training took time away from her rest, and for the first time, Maggie felt tired. The idea of floating down into the dirt didn’t seem so bad after all. Of course, her body was non-existent, so physical exhaustion wasn’t a concern, but her mind felt like old wood, bent near the point of splintering. Focusing so much on her rage reminded her why she had been hung in the first place, and the injustice of it all.
She could still taste the stale desert air and feel the heat on her back as they marched her up the hill. Reggie had ridden beside her, keeping a personal eye on the proceedings as he always did. He had only been back a few times since, but it seemed he never let others do his dirty work. At least the man had principles to balance out his complete lack of morality and empathy. If someone was going to be hanged, he was going to be there for it. That day, he had even gotten off his horse to tie the noose and give an explanation.
Reggie had told her she was ‘bad for business’. That’s how simple it had been. Maggie blinked, trying to come back to the present moment. For years, she had drifted back to her death daily and it had nearly driven her insane. The key was to stay calm and stay present, but everything about ‘training’ with Adam had thrown that out the window. To be truly angry, she had to dwell on the past. Despite the mental gymnastics, Maggie hadn’t managed more than a slight glimmer.
Time passed at an uneven rate. Before Maggie knew it, winter was gone and spring rolled in. She had a vague memory of continuing to train with Adam, but it felt like she never left the tree at all. She sat on the highest branch, watching the seasons change, looking for something on the horizon that never came. A flash of lightning followed by the distant roll of thunder broke her from her stupor. Spring had come and dark clouds were building over the plains, bringing the much-needed rain that would sustain them for the rest of the year. A good storm every six months was enough to bring life to even the most desolate places.
A sound rose above the anticipatory quiet of the hill. Hoofbeats; there were hoofbeats. The telltale dust was tamped down to earth by humidity, but she could pick out the riders on the horizon. She looked down to Adam and Otis who were playing a game of mental cards. It was mostly cheating and trying to lie about it, but it helped pass the time, and there wasn’t much else to do when people weren’t being hung. Maggie savored the moments before they too noticed the noise.
Like a dog smelling a treat, Adam cocked his head to the side. “You hear that, Otis?”
Otis floated slightly higher above the ground. “Indeed, I do. Looks like you’re in luck, kid, I won’t have to finish the beatdown I was giving you.”
“I had a pair of aces!”
“Then how is it that I had three, hm?” Otis shook his head. “I swear, you really don’t understand this game.”
Maggie floated down from the tree. “Otis cheats too, Adam.”
“Don’t tell him that,” hissed Otis.
Adam was distracted, staring in the direction of the hoofbeats. “We going to do this?”
Maggie sighed. “We’ll give it a shot.” In her mind, there was no way in hell they were going to do anything of the sort, but the kid had his heart set. There was nothing to do past that other than give it her best.
Together, the three of them floated to the edge of the barrier, watching the rider’s approach.
“He’s wearing a bag; you know what that means.” Otis faltered. “Sorry, force of habit.”
“Just because we’re trying to stop it doesn’t mean we can’t bet. He’s not wearing a shirt either.”
Otis whistled. “I told you it was a pervert thing.”
“What’s a pervert thing?” asked Adam.
“Watch the leader after he hangs him. Really gets off on this.”
“He’s not going to hang him, because we’re going to stop it,” pointed out Adam.
“And it’s not a pervert thing,” answered Maggie. She was looking at the painted lines on the man’s chest and felt her heart leap and sink at the same time. “He’s from the local tribe. Look at his braids and the markings on his chest.”
“Are you saying what you think I’m saying?”
“I’m not sure.” From the distance it was hard to tell what tribe the man was from, but if he was coming to Hangman’s Hill, it couldn’t have been that far. “Maybe we’ll have to pop into a body and ask him.”
The hanging party was composed of five riders and the to-be-hung. Unlike before, none of the men were hiding their faces.
“That’s more than usual. Most we’ve seen is three.” Otis said it more for Adam’s benefit than anything.
Thunder rumbled over the hill. The storm was getting closer.
When the hangmen eventually made their way to the tree, red hot fury pulsed through Maggie. At the lead was Reggie, smiling smugly like he was out for a stroll with the family. She looked at the other men and saw Jeremiah, a bookkeeper from town, as well as some familiar faces from town. These were not usually men that would come out for a hanging, but the hunger in their eyes was all too familiar.
“Why you think they aren’t wearing masks?” asked Adam.
Maggie ground her teeth. “Because they don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, and neither does anyone else.” The markings on the native man’s chest and elaborate decoration on his pants suggested that he was coming from a celebration.
“How could they do that?”
“Kid, you wouldn’t know. I suspect the world likes you just fine.” Otis tried to wring his hands. “For people like me or Maggie over there, it’s different. The world doesn’t like us by default.”
Maggie nodded. “This man is nothing more than a savage as far as they’re concerned. It doesn’t matter if he lives or dies in the eyes of the people, so long as he doesn’t get in the way of civilized life.” The anger pulsed through Maggie and she felt a queer sensation as energy radiated from her spine.
“That’s it!” shouted Adam. “You did it, I saw the flash!”
“Great.” Maggie felt no relief or excitement, only pure anger. “I guess it’s time to make some trouble then.” She charged forward pointing all of her anger toward the horsemen. She looked between the five of them and picked the weakest one. Jeremiah didn’t look like he had much of a fight in him, but there was still a pistol strapped to his belt. She bolted towards him with as much speed as she could manage.
The air cooled noticeably around her as she ran and the shock of feeling anything was almost enough to make her stumble. Wisps of wind cut through the overwhelming numbness that had been normal. Lightning flashed, close this time, illuminating the men in pale white light, making them look somehow more ghostly than the deceased themselves. Rain fell in the charged air making soft pattering on the dry rock below.
In an instant, Maggie was passing through the man and she felt an elastic sensation as her spirit caught on his, pulling her backward and stopping her momentum. There was a brief disorienting whirl as she oriented in his body, and in the next second, she was looking out his eyes. Rain was falling heavy now, making clean lines in the dust-laden wrinkles of his palms. Maggie clenched Jeremiah’s fist, feeling the water run through it. The sensation was heaven and being back in the land of the living was overwhelming.
Standing up slightly in her stirrups, she looked toward where she knew Adam and Otis were standing. She could see nothing. Ahead of her, Reggie was removing the bag from the native man’s head.
“You ok there, Jeremiah?” asked an ugly-looking man beside her.
Maggie recognized him from her own hanging party. On pure instinct, she reached for the pistol at Jeremiah’s hip. “You may not remember me, but you deserve this.” She drew the pistol in a flash, a miracle given Jeremiah’s poor dexterity, and shot the man in the chest. Blood sprayed the desert behind him. He choked on his confusion, looking to Jeremiah, just as the other men began to turn. Maggie watched as her target slumped off his horse. She thumbed back the hammer, ready to fire again.
Excitement and adrenaline ran through the veins she was borrowing, and then something hit her in the chest. It was like being kicked by a horse, and then suddenly, all feeling was gone. Maggie was back in her spirit form, flying. Reacting on instinct, she leaned forward, slowing her momentum but not quickly enough. White hot fire lit up her back, sending bolts of pain shooting through every inch of her ethereal form as she smashed into the barrier. Steam rose in long tendrils from her back.
Maggie ignored the pain, looked back toward the riders, and charged again.
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