The batting cages were closed, as were most businesses of repute after the hour of eleven o'clock on a Wednesday night. The only other thing opened on the road was a leaning shack with neon lighting that indicated nothing good could really be happening inside. A couple of teeangers making out at the side of the road and three young men exchanging tiny bags of pills in what they obviously thought was a subtle way. Raylan was willing to bet that between the group of them, they couldn't manage to define what subtle meant. They knew what a black towncar meant though --most in Harlan county did, since it wasn't as if anyone from the place could afford a Lincoln-- and when Raylan slammed the door shut on his the cleared out as fast as they could.
“Didn’t even have to pick up a bat, marshal. Ain’t lost your touch,” Franklin, the owner of the place, chuckled and swung back a pull of something out of a glass that looked to be covered in a layer of film even in the dim lighting. “What you doin’ here so late anyways? Problems with the missus?”
“‘The missus’ is fine.” Though he’d been out of the house for a good forty-eight hours and hadn’t thought to call, so ‘fine’ was really a generous guess. Winona was never ‘fine’ when Raylan ended up swinging away at the cages at near midnight on a weekday, and Franklin knew that. Raylan’s urge to drink and smack at things with a wooden barrel only came about when he’d been fighting tooth and nail with the wife he claimed he would take a bullet for.
It made for a good cover. “So you’re just sneaking into my cages for no reason ‘cept keepin’ me here late and away from my own wife?”
“I got my reasons.” Raylan reached for his pocket. “Twenty and I’ll lock up.”
Franklin held out his hand as the marshal began peeling off bills. “Sixty, and you damn well better lock up.”
He would, though he chose not to mention that he wouldn’t likely be doing that locking up for a few hours still. Glancing down at his watch Raylan tapped his foot impatiently as Franklin gathered his things to leave (probably to drink and gamble away the bribe) and time passed by just about as slowly as it could. Though he hadn’t intended it, he did find himself walking down to the pitching machine and turning it on. And when he’d walked back the appropriate ninety feet he did pick up a bat.
It had been an unnervingly stressful evening and it wasn’t over.
He was twenty swings in before he saw the shadows begin to change, shifting to the left as a new source of light pulled up outside the cages. The slamming of car doors coincided with the next crack of bat hitting ball and Raylan didn’t bother turning around because he recognised the purr of the engine shutting down and the reemergence of the green eyed monster that always seemed to rear its head whenever he had the fortune of being within one hundred feet of the black 1967 Chevy Impala. Raylan wasn’t a car man --not really-- but even he could appreciate a well oiled lady with a full arsenal tucked away under her skirt.
Another swing and another car door closing before Raylan turned around, leaning slightly on the bat. He could have picked it up and swung it again if he’d had to. “You came.”
“I see you’re still walking into everything like it’s a shootout.”
Said the man with the shotguns underneath a false trunk. “Force of habit.”
“Like coming here?”
“Winona,” Raylan grunted and shrugged his response, finally taking his hand off the bat. He leaned the barrel against the chain link cage fence. “You ready?”
Not that Raylan could picture the other man ever being anything but ready. John Winchester was a model follower of the Scouts’ creed, except he sought demons rather than merit badges. Fat lot of good badges did you anyway when there were bootlegging ghosts feuding in your woods.
John held out his hand as Raylan finally pushed away from the fence and started towards the car. “Nice seeing you again.”
“Likewise,” the marshal answered with a firm handshake. “‘Cept maybe we don’t want to be meeting like this a fourth year in a row.”
“Probably not,” John allowed with a nod. He pulled open the driver’s side door. “So maybe we actually get these sons of bitches this year?”
Raylan nodded as he slid into the Impala. “Maybe we do.”
The Southern United States reached its quota on ghosts sometime in 1864 and when no one bothered to tell them the quota’d been filled, people had the nerve to keep dying and clinging to the mortal side of the veil like the rebels clung to their flag and greys.War tended to produce the most vicious, bitter spirits who were the most intent on doing harm to others, but the same could be same for any large conflict.
The Hatfields and the McCoys hunt had been the worst job John had ever worked in the Kentucky and West Virginia area that hadn’t had a thing to do with the Civil War. The area was rife with feuds; nasty little things where prideful men had the habit of promising to haunt and terrorise their enemies from beyond the grave if necessary, not realising that it was actually possible and that something was always listening.
The feud between the Givens and the Bennetts was another long standing, bitter thing with a deal of history behind it. The tension between the families ebbed and flowed throughout generations and there was always one fool, preening and fluffing his feathers with too much pride, who managed to throw more oil onto a cooling fire and spark the thing back to life.
“Was it worth it?” John had asked Raylan the first time they’d met. They were both sitting on dew covered forest ground and leaning against a massive tree trunk. The sun was only just peaking up over the hilltops and they’d failed, but there was a sheen of sweat covering their faces.
Raylan turned to face him. “What?”
“Taking a baseball bat to that Bennett kid’s knee when you were sixteen.” John’s eyes were on the sunrise. It was all over at sunrise. “Pissing off whatever spirits of his dead kin you pissed off, drawing out the ghosts from your family. Over what, a high school game?”
Raylan had scowled and muttered, “You didn’t do anything stupid when you were sixteen?” And that was the end of it.
They met each year after that. Same night, same place each time. There were times when Raylan was shoving a member of some Miami drug cartel up against a wall with a gun pointed at one extremity or another, and he’d forget what else was out there. There was the threat of cocaine and then there was the threat of a Bennett bootlegger from 1923 flashing in the corner of the Kentucky home he shared with Winona, jerking in and out of reality as it came at him with a jagged, broken bottle in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Bit of a shock when that’d started up.
Turned out you couldn’t just shoot the things, and even when you had the proper things to do the shooting with you had to wait ‘till the right night-- at least when it came to the Bennetts.
The ghosts made themselves known to Raylan that one day of the year. Always Bennetts first, followed by any other spirit close enough to the veil to break through. They never could decide whether they wanted to attack the Bennetts or just terrorise anyone who came near. Some spirits were more focused than others, depending on why they hadn’t crossed over, John had explained at one point. Spirits borne in conflict were more focused than others and everything had an anchor here in this world. More often than not, bones. Those you had to burn.
“So you want to trespass on Bennett lands for the sole purpose of burning Bennett bones?” Raylan remembered asking with a smirk. “That’s gonna go over well.”
It hadn’t gone over so well, but trespassing was, and still remained, the least of their worries.
“She sounds good.”
Raylan ran his hand over the dashboard. “The car.”
“She was with Dean for a few weeks. He takes good care of her,” John said before scowling. “Except for the bumper. Rammed her into a ghost train and had some iron thing on the grill and headlights. He’ll fix it up when I get back.”
John didn’t talk about his kids much, and Raylan didn’t know much about them aside that he had two and bringing up Sam would bring up about twenty minutes of dead silence. Asking after the boys’ mother seemed risky, so he didn’t. He didn’t talk much about Winona either, though John knew more about Raylan’s wife than Raylan knew about John’s.
Like how Winona was going to be pissed when he got home after dawn.
“I figured we’d start with the graveyard by the creek. There’re five Bennetts buried there and the dates of death match up with the ghosts we’re always seeing.” The road in front of them lit up when John flipped on the brights. They were near the end of the road and they’d have to walk through the woods a bit from there.
Raylan was first to the trunk once they’d pulled over to the side of the road. The officers who cleaned the guns down at the Marshals’ locker got a bit tetchy when you brought them back a government issued shotgun filled with rock salt residue, so he’d taken to grabbing choice pieces from the Winchester stash. Pistols, shotguns, and all the ammunition a man could want. He shoved a pistol into his holster and took a shotgun in his fist while John grabbed the same and two iron rods that weren’t quite crowbars but would still do the trick. They both hooked flashlights underneath their arms.
There was no real trail that lead out to where they were headed, but Raylan had grown up in these woods. The damp grass felt mostly sure under his feet as he led the way down a path that existed only thanks to kids dating back even before he’d been born. The grave site was a historical landmark as well as Bennett land and hard to access on even a good day due to its location. The only path anyone had bothered to make officially led around to the other side of the creek which had the tendency to act more like a river at times. Crossing was never a guarantee and besides, if they were going to be out all night Raylan was at least going to be dry.
So they walked the back way, carved out by generations of truant Halran County children who played at being Huck and Tom, and Peter and the Lost Boys. Of course, young Raylan and Boyd Crowder had always preferred Frank and Jesse James, but the paths remained the same no matter what use of the imagination they were put to.
“I’d be surprised if it’s only Bennett ghosts haunting these woods,” he murmured.
John, not much of a talker at the best of times, held up a finger to his lips. “You tryin’ to tempt fate?”
“Figure I did that with a baseball bat a few years back,” Raylan smirked.
Sometimes when he swung that iron crowbar through the air, it was like he was sixteen again and aiming for Dickie’s leg. Sometimes it bothered him that he couldn’t, ten years later or so, remember exactly why he’d been so damn angry on the field that day. Sometimes he thought about what might have happened if he hadn’t committed first degree assault before his seventeenth birthday.
But as much as he hated to admit it aloud, he didn’t regret it. Would he do it again? No? Maybe? He didn’t really know, half because he couldn’t remember all of what’d triggered the attack in the first place, and half because he just didn’t like the bastard.
The Marshal sanctioned shrink they made him see whenever he did something ‘questionable’ in the field would have pointed out that if he was picturing Dickie Bennett with each swing, then given the chance, he’d most likely do it again.
And again. Raylan thrust the iron through one of the approaching spirits. It vanished and he found his balance before turning and raking through a second Bennett ghost There was no crunch --that sound of metal hitting bone and obliterating everything in between-- but the fight was just as satisfying. Sometimes it was nice to kill something without consequence.
The office shrink would’ve been delighted to hear that one.
Iron wasn’t a permanent solution anymore than the shotguns full of rocksalt, but the latter tended to hold them off longer. Raylan dropped the bar and hoisted the gun, firing into a spirit so close it was breathing down the back of his neck and he could practically taste the salty gunpowder residue in the air once it vanished. He spat on the ground in that short moment of respite and cracked open the double barrel to reload.
“How long we got, you think?” he asked, not looking up from the cartridges in his hands.
“Five, ten minutes if we’re lucky,” John replied. His breath was heavy from digging through the damp Kentucky dirt himself. One to dig and one to fight off angry spirits, not a one who wanted their bones burnt. Two weren’t enough, but it was what they had and neither man would complain about it. “A few hours ‘till sunrise, and three more graves.”
Raylan nodded, flipping the barrel back in place. “Best pass me that salt then.”
“Y’know, Bobby’s got fifty down we finish it right this year. Rufus went all in we won’t.” The hunter tossed Raylan the container of salt.
“Supportive bunch.” He glanced at what he’d caught mid air. “Dead sea salt?”
“I’m not a religious man, but it don’t hurt.”
Amen to that, Raylan thought, popping the top off and spreading the stuff liberally as he walked a circle around the first grave.
He’d been skeptical the first time John had circled him with the salt making a crack about whether he was fixin’ to throw it over his left shoulder too, just in case. Course, as soon as it’d stopped a ghost clear in its tracks, he’d stopped with the smart assed remarks.
John’s shovel clanked against something buried deep in the ground. Raylan turned. “That a Class D felony in the making, I hear?”
“The first of five.” John may have been smiling, but Raylan couldn’t quite tell and the expression was so rare on the man’s face that it was more likely a trick of the eye and shadow. But it was nice to think that there was something that made the man grin, even if it was hitting paydirt on a near hundred year old casket.
He pulled the thing open before Raylan reached down and the two grasped forearms so that John could hoist himself from the grave. Their hands were slick with sweat, dirt, and gunpowder just like the rest of them. When he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, he was amazed they still could. But instinct was always the best early warning, and following had kept him alive more than once in his career.
John demanded the kerosene and Raylan realised that the man had probably felt the approaching presence moments before he had. He pulled the cap off with his teeth and was dousing the grave when a familiar shimmer in the air appeared not twenty feet from their salted line of defense.
Its eyes were hollow, which was fine as not much of the sockets could be seen beneath a messy snarl of hair that lined its features. Tattered though they were, the clothes pointed to a prohibition era as far as the could both tell. It was the right grave then --one of them, at least-- and they could get the thing if they worked fast enough. It moved slowly, dragging its left leg in a limping gait so much like Dickie’s.
So they’ve got a family habit of gettin’ themselves bashed in. It wasn’t the most charitable thought, but when John said near the exact same out loud Raylan couldn’t help but grin.
He raised his gun, just in case, but John already had a match lit. The fire caught so quick it seemed as if the match hadn’t even touched the coffin before it was engulfed in flame. And before their eyes, just like years past, one more Bennett ghost burned up into the ether in front of them.
“Fire in the hole,” he whispered.
“The hell’d you all do to each other?”
“Alcohol in prohibition. Competition.”
“And before that?”
“Damned if I know, but I bet it don’t amount to anything more’n some offense during the war.”
In the natural silence of the early dawn the cracking of John’s bones seemed to echo as he stretched out his back. “Y’know, the hunting’d be that much easier if that damn war had never happened?”
“I’m guessing you avoid Virginia entirely,” Raylan managed a short laugh as he rolled his shoulders gently and pressed the tips of his fingers over soon to be bruises
“Twenty hunters in the state and it won’t do a lick of good until someone takes a torch to the whole of Gettysburg.” John shook his head and glanced at the other man. “I’m starting to think that way about this place too.”
“Can’t blame the whole county for the fact that Bennetts’ve been breeding like rabbits since they settled here.” And wasn’t that the truth of it? Most people, according to John, pissed off a specific ghost. Earning the wrath and haunting of an entire clan was rare, but Raylan had never been one to do things the traditional way and it seemed like there were no end of graves to dig and bones to burn.
It was a queer sense of responsibility that kept him at it year after year. He was stationed in Miami while the ghosts never left Harlan County, and that might have been fine until the first time his Aunt Helen had sworn she’d seen something at the back door just around the proper time of year. He might not have been in the state full time, but Helen and Winona both were and they were Givenses for better or worse. He wasn’t going to let them suffer for something he’d done.
He couldn’t spend all his time digging up Bennett graves though, and neither could John. Especially since they were proving to be scattered about everywhere, and Lord only knew where they’d begin if any of the spirits happened to be tied to some other object. So the one night a year when they actually made themselves known was the night they met. Like clockwork.
And like clockwork they ended their night with another meeting a year ahead. They both leaned against a tree trunk that had been felled before his Aunt’s birth. Whiskey burned in their throats and sloshed against the walls of John’s flask. “We got four.”
Raylan nodded. “Four of how many though?”
“I’m guessing the answer’d be in the Bennett Family bible. You feuding family history types tend to keep the family trees pretty up to date,” John said, not bothering to keep the sarcasm from his voice. “How else would you remember who’d pissed who off?”
“And that’d be a shame, not to have anyone to glare at in church on Sundays,” he smirked.
There was silence before the flask sloshed again as John lifted it to his lips. “So was it worth it?”
“Taking to Dickie Bennett’s knee with a bat and getting into a pissing contest with a mess of ghostly Bennett ancestors?”
He reached for the flask when John nodded and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re catching on, Givens. So was it?”
Raylan thought on it long and hard for a moment. He tried once more to remember what could have prompted him to go after Dickie aside from the usual litany of on field trash talk and accidentally-on-purpose balls thrown on the inside plate, but there was still nothing. It had to be something, but like other childhood offenses it had simply faded from memory. He couldn’t remember specifically why he’d hated Little Greg Wills back when they’d been kids, or why he and Arthur Clark had been at odds all through middle school in a feud that escalated into suspensions for the both of them, and he couldn’t remember why he and Dickie had hated each other from the moment they’d stood across from each other on the first and third base lines singing the national anthem.
Rationally there had to be more to it than simply hating the Bennetts.
Not that there was anything rational about taking a bat to someone in front of a good hundred and fifty witnesses.
He took a long swig of whiskey while he thought on his answer, and when he finally spoke it was accompanied by a shrug. “I can’t rightly say,” Raylan answered after swallowing. “But I’ve been enjoying the company it’s led to keeping every now and then.”
John grunted, possibly hiding a smile behind his hand when he ran it through his beard. “I’ll give you that one, marshal.”
“Same time next year then,” Raylan said. It wasn’t a question.
John nodded. “Same time next year.”