Published in New Realm magazine.
He couldn’t really blame Elijah, or the Carruthers boy, or any of his other strikers; he’d been scared that first time, too.
November, it had been, with snow two feet deep in the street, and drifts tall enough to block the doors. He’d come downstairs and found the ashes from the forge scattered all over the floor. Damn kids, he’d thought, as he’d swept the ash into the stable. Nothin’ to do, so let’s go make trouble. He had trouble and warmth enough for anyone who wanted some. That night he’d let the furnace burn and gone upstairs for dinner.
Then he’d sat down at the foot of the stairs looking through a knothole in the door. No lantern. Just a shotgun loaded with rock salt. He’d sat and waited. Waited a long time, until the soft glow of the forge seeping through the door had put him into a doze. The scraping had awakened him.
Floating before the fire had been a shimmer. A shimmer in the shape of a woman; beautiful. Her hair was done in intricate, looped braids and she had on a dress that was more flash than substance. In her hands she held, very precariously, a double armful of brick‑red coals. She turned from the forge and threw them, strewing them all along the hard wood floor. Twice more she did this, while Jake had sat rooted to the spot, lip trembling and hands paralyzed.
When the forge was emptied, she turned and seemed to call, soundlessly. Instantly the air was full of shapes; men and women and others too diffuse to recognize. They settled on the coals like vultures on a dead calf; a swirling grey mist, full of arms and legs, clinging to the floor. The coals went black, and the mist grew… fuller. More substantial. The shapes began to drift away, until finally only the original ghost was left. She hesitated before fading, looking outside. Then she turned and saw him through the door. Saw him watching her.
As if the gaze had been a brand burning through ropes, he leapt up, yelling. In what he considered later to be an amazingly smooth motion, he had kicked open the door, leveled the gun, and fired. The apparition had fled through the wall.
There were still bits of salt in that wall.
Jake had crept to the coals, bent down, and picked one up. It had been as cold as the snow outside the smithy. He found himself standing where the ghost had. She had been looking… that way. At the outside door frame. Shivering, he had examined it. There had been nothing unusual about it to attract the attention of a ghost. Nothing at all.
It had been a week before he realized that “nothing at all” was what was unusual. His horseshoe was gone. Someone had stolen it.
But by then he knew too much about the ghosts to want to put it back. And there were lots of them. All blacksmiths had horseshoes over the door; all of them. To find one that didn’t, well… Jake had gotten the impression that he was somehow at the center of a ghostly California Gold Rush. Why a horseshoe should matter so much he didn’t know. “Forges are magical places, Jacob,” was all the old man’s shade would say. “Things happen there that can be done nowhere else; and I don’t mean just with metal.”
The ghosts came for the heat; they needed it for some reason, like food. One of the ghosts, a young man who’d completed half a college degree before he’d died of pneumonia had tried to explain why. It made no sense to Jake, and he didn’t think it did much to the kid either. What did make sense was that the ghosts could feel metal, inside and out. They could take the heat from it all at once, and yet it didn’t go brittle. And fed on the heat, they didn’t dissipate. Didn’t lose their minds and become moaning specters without memory or purpose.