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"What 'm I bid what 'm I bid what 'm I bid?" Sheriff Tillinghast rattled out like a squirrel complaining. "Come on, fellers, a nice piece like this could set in the finest parlor in New Orleens."
What a grotesquely carven chest like the one at auction would be doing in any kind of parlor in New Orleans was an open question, but a rough-hewn man ahead of Bully Ransden and Ellie in the crowd called, "I'll give ye a dollar fer the blame thing!"
"Bid a dolla bid a dolla bid a dolla!" the sheriff caroled. "Who'll gimme two gimme two?"
He paused for breath and a practiced glance around the gathering, checking for anyone who might be on the verge of raising the bid. Nobody. . . .
The sheriff lifted the jug of whiskey from the table beside him, where his clerk marked down the winning bids against the lot numbers. "Who'll gimme two?' the sheriff repeated. "A dram uv good wildcat fer the man as bids two dollars!"
"Two dollars!" cried a fellow down in front. He probably didn't have the money to his name, much less in his pocket, and the auction was for ready cash . . . but the bidding was already too slow for the auctioneer to dare risk stifling the little life it had finally gathered to itself.
"Two dolla two dolla two dolla, who'll gimma three?" prattled the sheriff.
"Ugh!" said Ellie as she hugged herself closer to Bully Ransden. "Who'd hev thet ugly ole thing in their house noways?"
The Bully grunted without enthusiasm. He was present because Ellie had wanted to come, "t' pick up a purty fer the house," and he wasn't going to have his woman going to an auction alone. Next time, though, she could stay to home. . . .
The chest finally sold for three dollars and a half. Taxes had accumulated for many years on the Neill property, but neither Sheriff Tillinghast nor any of his predecessors had chosen to bring matters to a head while the Baron was in possession. When Baron Neill and his whole clan vanishedno one knew or cared where, so long as the Neills were gone for goodthe sheriff had promptly set the tax sale.
There was a good crowd, 300 at least, swirling around the run-down cabin and sheds, but the bidding was slow. At the current rate, the auction wouldn't bring enough to cover the accumulated tax bills.
"I don't like this place airy bit," Ellie murmured, more to herself than to Bully. He grunted noncommittally and, though he didn't draw away from her touch, neither did he circle her with his strong right arm.
The sheriff wiped his brow with a kerchief. His assistants were Mitch Reynolds and Jeb Cage, a pair of idlers working for the promise of whiskey after the auction. Tillinghast motioned them to bring up the next lot.
This place had an atmosphere even after the Neills themselves were gone. It made folk uneasy and weighed down the bidding. Even the sheriff, spurred by the knowledge that part of the taxes he collected went directly into his pocket by lawand another portion arrived there by other meanswas unable to raise a proper enthusiasm for his task.
Tillinghast's assistants grunted as they lifted a small travelling case containing a uniformly bound set of books. "Here we go!" the sheriff said. "Must be nigh twinty books right here, 'n a real jam li'l chest besides. Who'll start the bid at five dollas?"
"What're the books?" someone called from the crowd.
"Hit don't signify!" snapped Sheriff Tillinghast. "Why, they's so many I reckon thar's one uv airy thing a man might wish t' read!"
"They're Frinch," Jeb Cage said unexpectedly. If Tillinghast had known the blamed drunken fool could read, he would have told Cage to keep his mouth shut on pain of losing the promised popskull.
The crowd burst out laughing. A number of the folk here spoke French from keelboat journeys down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi to New Orleans. The vocabulary learned in the cribs of the French Quarter was not the language of Voltaire; and anyway, speaking was not the same as reading.
"Hey, Shuruff!" somebody called. "I figger you know now whur thet Frinchman disappeared on the way from Columbia back in twinny-siven, don't ye?"
"Some of the books, they may be Frinch, I don't know," Tillinghast said loudly in an attempt to retrieve the situation. He wiped his forehead again. "Now, this is a right fine chest. Who'll start the bidding at a dolla a dolla a dolla, who gimme a dolla?"
"Why, I reckon the Frenchman, he give the durn thing t' Baron Neill fer free!" a heckler called from the crowd.
"Aye!" another chimed in. "An' he fed their hogs fer 'em in a neighborly way too er it's a pity!"
"Cull, I don't reckon I want t' stay much longer," Ellie Ransden murmured to the man at her side.
She'd dragged him to the auction for a change, and in the vague hope that something pretty for the cabin might be going at the slight price she and Bullie could afford. She'd ignored whoand whatthe Neills were, though. You couldn't separate an object from its past, any more than you'd eat pork from a sow been grubbing in a grave. . . .
"I give ye a dolla," offered a farmer named Murchison. "Reckon the case, hit's worth sompin."
Tillinghast glanced around the personality waiting for sale. He saw his chance to keep the bidding alive by throwing in an item he hadn't a prayer of selling by itself. He raised a cubical box some six inches to a side and placed it atop the chest of books.
"Hyar!" the sheriff called. "We'll sweeten the pot fer all you bettin' men out thar. This here box, hit goes with the books t' boot."
Ellie felt Bully Ransden stiffen as though he had been changed to a statue of oak. She looked at him in surprise. His mouth was slightly open.
"Waal, what's in the durned box, Shurrif?" someone demanded from the back of the crowd.
"Don't rightly know, Windell," Tillinghast replied smugly. "Don't rightly see how hit opens, neither. Reckon airy man with a drap uv sportin' blood'll want the box t' larn fer himse'f, though."
The box made no sound when it was shaken. Either it was empty or, just possibly, it wasn't a box at all: merely a block of wood less dense than it seemed from its hard surface to be.
The cube's base and top were smooth. A band around the center of the four sides was undercut in a pattern of vertical half-round sections. The patterning might have been sliced from lathe-turned dowels, but equally they could have been carved from the block's surface by an expert.
There was nothing in the box, or there was no boxbut the object would do to spur the bidding.
"Thet's mine," said Bully Ransden. He pushed forward as though the people in front of him in the crowd were no more than stalks of barley sprouted ankle high. "I'll take hit."
"Cullen?" Ellie said. She caught at the big man's leather vest, more to stay attached than to restrain him. He hunched his shoulders and pulled away, oblivious to her touch.
"Cull, what're ye"
Sheriff Tillinghast drew himself up stiffly, but he did not protest aloud. Murchison didn't face the specter of Bully Ransden, cold-eyed and broad-shouldered, bearing down on him like a landslide. He cried, "Hey naow, what's this? We're biddin' fer riddy cash, we are!"
Bully reached the front of the crowd. He shrugged, clearing a space with his elbows the way an angry bull sweeps his horns across the ground.
"I'll give ye cash," Ransden said in a husky voice that ripped like a saw through pinewood. His great, calloused hand dragged out the purse hanging by a thong on the inside of his waistband. He opened the throat and poured the contents of the purse, all coin and the savings of a lifetime, out onto the clerk's table.
Ellie gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. Her teeth bore down firmly on the first knuckle of her right index finger.
Bully Ransden took the box. Tillinghast quivered with a desire to assert his own authority, but he noticed how easily Bully's hands spanned six inches to grip the box between thumb and forefinger.
"Waal, what's the bid, thin, Shurrif?" Murchison demanded. "Might be I'd choose t' raise my own!"
Ransden turned and faced the farmer before Sheriff Tillinghast formed a response. "This box is mine, Murchison," he said in a voice hard as millstones.
"Three dollar and thutty-sivin cents," announced the clerk who had counted the spill of coins while the others concerned themselves with the human elements of the incident.
"Now, thet's a right good bid, boys," Tillinghast said in false camaraderie.
"You say airy word more, Murchison," Ransden promised, "en ye won't see t'morry dawn."
He struck his muscular right arm out to the side and raised his thumb as if he were gouging an eye. Nobody who had seen Bully Ransden fight doubted the truth of the threat.
The crowd swayed back from Bully Ransden the way a horse shies when he comes upon a corpse in the trail. From the rear of the gathering, a voice called, "Shurrif, hit's time 'n past ye did sompin about these carryins on!"
"There's enough here fer you too, Jake Windell, ifen ye want it!" Ransden boomed. He held the small box against his chest protectively as he glared out over the crowd. His eyes flashed, and his long blond hair caught a sunbeam to halo him.
"Bids closed," Tillinghast said. He rapped his gavel down. "And a right good bid hit was, too. The next item, now"
Ransden strode back through the crowd that parted for him as the waters before Moses. Ellie managed to swiggle to his side, but Ransden gave every indication of having forgotten completely about her.
"Hey Bully!" the sheriff called. "Them books, they're yours now too."
Ransden ignored him. After a moment, Tillinghast began calling out the next lot, a pair of European chairs on which the Neill clan had whittled with their knives.
Bully Ransden unhitched his horse and mounted. He blinked in surprise when Ellie finally caught his attention by tugging on his leg. He pulled her up onto the crupper behind him, then turned the horse's head toward home.
"Cull, sweetest?" Ellie asked in a small voice. "What's the box thet ye wanted hit so bad?"
Ransden carried his prize instead of giving it to the woman to carry as he would normally have done. He said nothing for a moment, then admitted, "I don't know quite what hit is. But it war my pappy's box en the thing he loved afore all others. And I reckon I'll larn why soon enough."
* * *
Two cardinals were plucking pokeberries near where Old Nathan sat with his back against a warm rock overlooking the valley. "Waal, is she goin' to make trouble?" one bird demanded of other.
"How 'n tarnation 'ud I know?" the second bird answered in the same harsh, peevish tones; not that anybody was likely to mistake a cardinal on the best day of his life for a songster. "Don't guess she is. They ain't ginerly, humans ain't."
Old Nathan turned his head. The outcrop was in the way of him seeing anything behind him unless he stood up. If the birds hadn't said "she," the cunning man might have been concerned enough to rise. As it washe didn't much care to be disturbed, but he didn't guess any woman was likely to try for his scalp when she found him here.
From the outcrop on which Old Nathan sat, he could see the smoke of six chimneys. The valley was open and sunlit. The cleared fields had been harvested, and much of the foliage had fallen from the woodlots and thickets.
"Hmph!" said a cardinal. "Don't even look et us. Does she think she's sech a beauty herse'f?"
Old Nathan's thoughts had been meandering down pathways in which alternate pasts shimmered as if behind walls of glass; untouchable now because of the decisions the cunning man had made, and the decisions fate had made for him. Some beautiful, some bleak; all void, and after seventy-odd years, all too many of them stillborn.
He didn't want to move, but if someone was coming, he had to. He rose to his feet, straightening his lanky limbs; carefully, because he was an old man and stiff, but with a certain grace yet remaining to him.
Sarah Ransden, coming around the rock with her head lowered, gasped and drew back at the motion.
"Hain't a bear, Miz Ransden," the cunning man said dryly. "En I was jest leavin' anyhow."
" 'Sarah' was a good enough name sixty years ago, Nathan Ridgeway," the old woman snapped, embarrassed at her instinctive surprise. "Reckon hit still might be."
She looked down into the valley. Sarah RansdenSarah Carmichael as she'd been when she and Old Nathan were children togetherwas a tall woman, though age had made her stoop. She had never been beautiful, though she might have been called handsome and indeed still was. Sarah hadn't married in her youth, which was a pity; and late in life she'd wed Chance Ransden, which was far worse.
The old woman shivered and drew her blue knitted shawl more closely about her. "Hit's goin t' storm, I reckon," she muttered.
Old Nathan frowned. The only clouds were some wisps of mare's tails standing out against a background of high-altitude haze.
The cunning man's index finger drew a figure in the lichen of the outcrop. He kept his eyes on the simple character as he muttered a phrase beneath his breath, then gestured Sarah's attention upward toward the sky.
Clouds shifted and began to chase one another with mad enthusiasm across the heavens. Light pulsed into darkness and gleamed again. The mare's tails thickened into a mackerel sky, ridge after ridge of gray-white against pale blue; but that cleared with a rush eastward toward the foot of the valley, leaving the air with a sheen as smooth as that of a knifeblade when the racing images darkened again.
Old Nathan rubbed his thumb across the lichen, eliminating the character. The sky reverted to the bright afternoon normalcy from which the cunning man's art had dragged it briefly.
"Thet's t'day and t'morry," Old Nathan said. "Don't reckon we need fear a storm fer thet while."
"You know what you know, Nathan," the old woman said. She shivered again. Her hand rested on the rock as she gazed out over the valley.
Old Nathan settled his broad-brimmed hat. "Waal . . ." he said.
Sarah looked at him sharply. "Ye needn't t' go, Nathan Ridgeway," she said. "I jest cloomb up t' look from a high place. Hit's a thing I do . . . but I don't see you here, ez a rule."
The cunning man shrugged. The cardinals had resumed their feeding, commenting in griping tones on the quality of the late pokeberries. The humans had shown themselves to be no threat, and therefore of no interest. . . .
"Sometimes," Old Nathan said in the direction of the far horizon, "I think I might move on west. No pertikaler cause. Don't reckon I'll iver do it."
"Thet girl you had back along b'fore ye went off t' the war," Sarah said, also facing the western end of the valley. "Slowly, her name was. Ye think on her, iver?"
"Mebbe," said Old Nathan. "Sometimes, I reckon. But thet's over and done long since."
The sun was still near zenith, but its rays had little warmth now in late fall. When Old Nathan left the shelter of the outcrop to walk back to his cabinhe hadn't saddled the mule, hadn't wanted the beast's company or any companythe trail would be chilly.
Darkness would not be long in coming.
"My datter-in-law, Ellie . . ." Sarah Ransden said. She glanced at Old Nathan. "I b'lieve ye've met her?"
Old Nathan nodded toward the horizon. "I hev."
"Ellie reminds me a powerful lot uv Slowly," Sarah continued. Her tones were flat.
She turned her head away. "I don't see Ellie much." Bitterness tinged her voice. "Nor my son neither, not since he moved out. He allus figgered I should uv left Chance Ransden myse'f, 'stid uv waitin' till Cullen druv him out with an axe handle an' him jest a boy. Cull don't understand what hit is fer a woman married to a feller like Chance Ransden"
She turned to meet Old Nathan's eyes, for the cunning man had turned also. "and it could be thet I did do wrong, fer Cull and myse'f both. The good Lord knows I hain't been lucky with men, Nathan Ridgeway."
Old Nathan snorted. "I hain't been lucky with people, Sary," he said. "But I reckon the most of thet's my own doing."
His thumb had rubbed a patch of limestone free of lichen. He wanted to leave, but that would mean moving past the woman and he didn't much care to do that either. In the forest above, a squirrel berated a crow for startling him, and the crow offered to shit in the squirrel's mouth if the critter didn't shut it. Life went on.
"Chance warn't a bad man," Sarah Ransden said in a tone that reminded Old Nathan of the days when they had been children together. "Only thar was a divil in him. I thought I was blest ez an angel that he picked me, him so handsome and a sight younger. But the divil rode Chance Ransden, harder an' harder iver' day till the last time he tried t' take a strap t' Cull . . ."
She stiffened. In a flat, age-cracked voice she concluded, "Thet war the last I saw Chance Ransden, ten year since. Figgered he run off t' the Neills, he were thick ez thieves with thim. But I niver heard word one uv him agin. Nowadays, I don't reckon I will."
"I reckon I'll be movin' on now," Old Nathan said. He paused to clear his throat. "Good t' see you agin, Sary."
He stepped toward the woman. Instead of edging back to let him by, she put a hand on Old Nathan's arm. Her fingers, tanned and sinewy, stood out against his faded homespun shirt like tree roots crawling over gray rock.
"You don't need a young gal, Nathan Ridgeway," she said. "Ye need an old one what's worn inter the same ruts ez you."
"I don't need airy woman, Miz Ransden," the cunning man said harshly. He lifted her hand away from his arm. Their fingers were much of a kind, dark-tanned and knobby at the joints. "You know thet."
"Thar's companionship," Sarah said. "Thar's hevin' somebody t' say howdy to in the mornin'!"
Old Nathan pushed past her. His boots scuffed bits of stone down the slope until they pattered to a halt among the fallen leaves and pine straw.
"I niver figgered thet was enough t' offer airy soul, Sary," he said gruffly. "Thet's why I sint Slowly away whin I come back from King's Mountain."
He paused and looked westward again. "Thet's as fur as I've been, King's Mountain. Reckon the way thet turned out, I kin see why I hain't been travelin' since. . . . But I should hev gone, Sary. Comin' back here t' lick myse'f where iverbody knew me, thet was wrong. I should hev gone."
Old Nathan started up the trail. Nuthatches disputed sharply over a pine cone. The birds were not so much angry as asserting their kinship and mutual interests.
"Thar's a storm comin', Nathan Ridgeway," the old woman called from the overlook. "You know what you know . . . but my bones tell me thar's a storm coming."
* * *
"Cullen, honey?" Ellie said in a plaintive voice. "Hain't ye comin' to bed, sweetest?"
Bully Ransden sat at the table with his shoulders hunched. Though he faced in her direction, he didn't bother to look up to where his wife lay under the quilt's protection.
The threat of the season's first snow hung in the chilly night, but it was more than the temperature that caused Ellie to shiver.
"G'wan t' sleep," Bully said. He held the simple box he had purchased at the auction. His fingers moved over its surface like the blunt, questing heads of serpents. The fire had sunk to a glow, but an alcohol lamp on the table threw its pale, clean light over Bully's face and the object in his hands.
"Cull . . . ?"
"Shet it, will ye?" Ransden snarled. "Or I'll shet it fer ye!"
Three nights before, a strip along the bottom of the box had slipped sideways to display a hollow base. Inside was a key, shaped from apple wood instead of metal and so cunningly fashioned that it hadn't rattled against its compartment when Ransden shook the box.
The key sat on the table beside him. He had still not found any sign of a keyhole.
Ellie began to cry softly.
Bully Ransden put the box down and pressed the knuckles of his two great fists together. "Ellie, honey," he muttered to his hands, "I'm right sorry I spoke t' ye thet way. But you jest get t' sleep 'n leave me be fer the while."
"Cull," the woman said, "why don't ye jest break hit open and come hold me? Hit's only a scrap uv wood."
"Hit's the only thing I've got uv my Pappy's, girl!" the Bully snapped in a barely controlled voice. "I hain't a-goin' t' smash it t' flinders!"
Ellie Ransden sat up in the simple bed and shrugged the quilt aside. She wore only a linen shift, but she had let her hair down for the night. It hung across her shoulders and bosom in a lustrous black veil. "Cull," she said, "you hated Chance Ransden, an' you were right t' hate him. You oughter take thet box and throw hit right straight into the hearth."
Bully looked up with anger bright in his eyes. His mouth formed into a snarl. The woman faced him, seated like a queen on her couch and for the moment as proud and fearless.
"Ye know what I'm sayin's no more thin the truth," she added in a tone of trembling calm.
He gave a shudder and looked at his hands again. "Tarnation, Ellie," he said. "Hit's jest a puzzle. Whin I figger it, I'll be over 'n done with the blame thing."
He spoke without conviction. Ellie's upper lip trembled minutely, though for the moment she retained her regal pose.
"I thought Ma, she hed done jest thet," Bully said softly. His fingers began playing again with the box. "Throwed hit int' the fire, 'long with airy other thing thet was Pappy's whin I druv him out. Cain't figger how the Neills got aholt uv it. Pappy didn't have it whin . . ."
The young man swallowed. "Whin he left, thet is. And nobody seed him since."
Ellie got up from the bed and stepped toward her man.
"This box, hit set on the fireboard," Ransden murmured. "Time t' time, Pappy took it down and looked inside, but he niver let me nor Ma see what hit was there. . . ."
The upper portion of the box slipped smoothly for a quarter inch across the hollow base. As if a voice had whispered the secret to him, Bully thumbed down one of the half-round ornamentations now that it could clear the base.
Beneath the ornament was a keyhole.
"Oh, hon," Ellie Ransden whispered. She reached out as if to touch the box or the man; withdrew her arm and wrung her hands together instead. "Oh, Cull, don't do thet. . . ."
Bully Ransden inserted the key and turned it. As he did so, a gust of cold air raked through the cabin without disturbing the dim fire. The alcohol lamp flared wildly. The flame touched the thin glass chimney and shattered it an instant before the light blew out.
Silver radiance flooded across Bully Ransden as he lifted the lid of the puzzle box. It was gone in an instant.
Ellie screamed and tossed a knot of lightwood onto the hearth. The pitchy wood crackled into an honest yellow glare.
The box lay open on the table. It was empty. But when the man turned to look at her, Ellie saw a glint of cold light in his eyes.
* * *
Old Nathan woke up when his roan heifer bawled, but he didn't catch the words. A moment later the cat yowled at the cabin's front door, "Hey old man! Ye got somebody messin' round yer shed with a gun!"
Old Nathan swung out of bed. He was wearing his breeches and a shirt. The quilt on his bed with its gorgeous Tree of Life pattern was down-filled and thick, but on a cold night a thin old man didn't generate enough heat to adequately warm the cavity his body tented within the cover.
His breath hung in the air. He stepped silently to the flintlock rifle on pegs above the fireboard.
"I don't think thet feller oughter be here," the black-patterned heifer called, speaking to her roan-patterned partner but in a voice loud enough for all the world to hear.
Spanish King was in the far pasture. The great bull bellowed a question that was almost lost in the wind.
There was a full moon this night, but it rode above the overcast. The sash windows were gray rectangles which scarcely illuminated the dusting of snow that had slipped in beneath the cabin doors.
"Come on, old man!" the tomcat demanded. "He's markin' yer patch!"
The hearth was cold, though the coals banked beneath sloped ashes would bring the fire to life in the morning . . . if there were need for a fire.
Old Nathan loaded his rifle with controlled care. He poured the main charge of powder into the bore and followed it with a ball wrapped in a linen patch to take the shallow rifling. Cold had stiffened the lubricant of beeswax and butter, so the cunning man eased the hickory ramrod home so as not to snap it in his haste to have a weapon in his hands.
He replaced the ramrod in its tubular brackets beneath the barrel instead of dropping the lathe-turned stick on the floor to save time. He might need to reload. . . .
Old Nathan's final act of the operation was to measure the smaller priming charge into the pan. Now it was ready to flash from the sparks the flint struck from the steel frizzen whenever the cunning man pulled the trigger.
When the task was complete, Old Nathan began to shiver with the cold.
He pulled on his boots one-handed. The cold leather scraped his heel and ankles, but the cunning man was scarcely aware of the contact. He would need the boots if he had to run any distance through the snow, hunting or hunted.
If there was only the one man his animals had warned of, Old Nathan expected to be the hunter.
With the rifle in his hands, cocked, and the bullet pouch and powder horn slung over his left shoulder, the old man slipped out by the cabin's front door to avoid warning the intruder in back. Snow swirled in crystals too tiny to have obvious shape. The cat had gone off into the night, though the marks of his paws remained on the drifted porch.
The night was gray rather than black, but trees were indistinct blurs from only a few feet away. Old Nathan moved away from the cabin so that the prowler would have no clue to the cunning man's whereabouts should terror cause him to shoot in desperation
As Old Nathan intended that he should.
The gusting wind drowned any sounds the intruder might make in the creak of branches and moaning air. The heifers continued to complain but in lowered voices, and the mule chose to be silent for reasons of its own.
Old Nathan knelt, murmuring words under his breath. He picked up a pinch of snow between his left thumb and forefinger, spinning it into the air before it could melt. The tiny vortex grew into a loose, twisting funnel of snow. It glowed with the moonlight which would have fallen on it had the night not been overcast.
The ragged cone slid off among the trees. It moved in a pattern of arcs and reverse arcs, like a hound following a scent trail.
Grinning at the proof of his art, the cunning man sent two more snowy will-o'-the-wisps to follow the first. They were man height but as soundless as the transferred light that illuminated them.
Old Nathan squatted among the roots of a century-old oak whose shade had cleared a considerable circle in surrounding woods. Winter had stripped the undergrowth to blackened stems which would not interfere with the cunning man's shot when his prey came in view. . . .
The intruder's bawl of fear was as high-pitched as the scream of a rabbit with its hind legs snared. A gun banged an instant later, the sharp crash of a rifle rather than the snap of a pistol's smaller charge. Even so, the night muted the sound to merely another forest noise.
Wind-whipped snow crystals melted before they reached Old Nathan's flushing cheeks. Anger and the powers he had summoned warmed the cunning man's flesh, though he knew there would be a price to pay when the struggle was over. He trembled with anticipation.
There was a flicker through the treetrunks. A whorl of moonlit snow reappeared, drifting like a ghost toward its creator. Another funnel glimmered thirty feet to the side, while the third was still hidden deeper in the woods where it prevented the intruder from breaking back.
The will-o'-the-wisps were only patterns of snow and cold light, but the purposeful way they moved regardless of the wind gave them an ambiance still more chilling than the night. They drove their quarry like hounds after a raccoon; and, as with coon hounds, a human gunman waited to finish the job the pack began.
Twenty feet away the prowler crashed through the brittle undergrowth like a panicked doe. His breath wheezed in and out. Old Nathan could still not see him for the gloom.
The cunning man muttered a command. A will-o'-the-wisp drifted directly toward the intruder. The third twist of frozen moonlight was now visible through the trees beyond.
The prowler screamed again and swung his empty rifle like a club. The butt slashed through the snow funnel with no more effect than it would have had in a running stream. On the other side of the target, the rifle stock hit a pine and shattered.
The swirl of snow and moonlight quivered closer yet, illuminating its quarry.
Old Nathan sighted across the silver bead of his front sight.
He did not fire. The face of the prowler was that of Bully Ransden, but its bestial expression was not that of anything human.
Ransden hurled away the remains of his rifle. His eyes were too fear-glazed to take in his surroundings, neither the cunning man nor even the will-o'-the-wisps which had driven him to what a finger's pressure would have made his last instant of life. The barrel clanged on a tree.
The funnels of snow settled because the cunning man no longer had the will to maintain them. Bully Ransden blundered off in the darkness, bleating with fear every time he collided with a tree trunk.
Old Nathan shivered with cold and reaction. There was something badly wrong. The prowler wore the flesh of Bully Ransden, but Bully wasn't the man to skulk and flee. . . .
Old Nathan searched until he found the intruder's rifle. The barrel was kinked, and the stock had broken off at the small. Farther back along the prowler's trail in the fresh snow lay a saddle which the cunning man had hung out of the weather in his shed. The mule saddle was not quite valueless, but it would bring a thief little more than a couple drams of popskull from a crooked buyer.
Old Nathan stared at the saddle and the broken rifle. The yellow tomcat drew himself across the back of the cunning man's boots. "I'm not the one t' tell ye not t' play with things afore ye kill thim," the cat said. "But they hadn't ought t' git plumb clear. 'Specially"
The cat twisted to look off in the direction Bully Ransden had fled. "whin they're the size 'n meanness t' tear yer throat clean out the nixt time, old man."
"Whin I want yer advice," the cunning man growled, "I'll ask fer it."
When Old Nathan returned to his cabin, he didn't pull the load from his rifle as he usually would have done. Instead, he emptied the priming pan and refilled it with fresh powder, just in case snow had dampened the original charge.
* * *
When they came in sight of the Ransden cabin, the mule snorted, "Hmph!" and blew an explosive puff of breath into the chill, dry air. "Whutiver happened t' the horse whut used t' live here?"
Old Nathan frowned at the dwelling a furlong down the road ahead. Ransden's cabin seemed abnormally quiet, but a line of gray smoke trembled up from the chimney. "I reckon Bully Ransden rid off already this mornin'," he said. "Mebbe he figgered we'd come a-callin'."
Or the Shuriff would.
The mule snorted again. "Hain't no horse lived here these months gone," it said. "Don't smell sign uv airy stock a'tall, neither, though thar used t' be a yoke uv oxen."
The mule's forehoof rang against a lump of quartz beneath the inch of powdery snow. The cabin door quivered open a crack wide enough for a man to peer out and down the road.
There was a cry and a blow from within the cabin.
The cunning man's face hardened. "Git up, mule," he said and tapped back with both heels to show that he was serious.
Bully Ransden bolted from the cabin. His galluses dangled behind him and he had to hop twice on his own porch before his foot seated in his right boot. He ran across the road, into the unbroken forest which faced his tract of cleared land.
The mule had obeyedfor a wonder! The beast's racking trot precluded the slightest chance of hitting anything but air from a hundred and fifty yards. Even so, Old Nathan rose momentarily in his stirrups and sighted down the long, black-finished barrel of his rifle, obedient to the predator's instinct that always urged chase when something ran.
He settled again into the jouncing saddle. The muscles of his upper thighs were already reminding him that he wasn't as young as he once had been.
"Waal?" the mule demanded as it clopped heavily along the frozen ruts. "What naow, durn ye?"
"Pull up, thin," the cunning man muttered. He drew back on the reins with his left hand, though he continued to hold his rifle with the butt against his hipbone and the barrel slanted forward at an angle. "I don't figger we need t' go messin' through the breshwood lookin' fer sompin I don't choose t' shoot nohow."
"I don't figger we needed t' go harin' over the ice fit t' break a leg, neither," the mule grumbled as it slowed to a halt in front of Ransden's cabin. "Might hev thunk on thet afore ye roweled me all bloody, mightn't ye?"
* * *
"Mule . . ." Old Nathan said as he rose again in his stirrups to peer into the woods. The Bully was gone past the use of mere eyesight to follow. . . . "Ifen ye keep grindin' thet mill, I'll sell ye t' some fella who'll treat ye jest as you say I do."
The beast's complaint and the old man's threat were both empty rhetoric: the litany and response of folk who'd worn into one anothers' crotchets over the course of years.
The cabin door creaked. Old Nathan turned, swinging the rifle reflexively. Ellie Ransden stood in the doorway with her left hand to her cheek and a shocked expression on her face. She wore only a shift, and her fine black hair was tied back with a twist of tow.
Old Nathan swung his leg over the saddle, pretending that his threatening reflex was merely the first stage in dismounting. "Howdy, Miz Ransden," he called. "Thought I might hev a word with yer man, but I reckon I just missed him."
After a moment he added, "I could come back later ifen this time don't suit."
Ellie straightened. "Oh, law," she said, "I hain't got a thing t' offer ye, sir, but do"
She looked down at the threadbare cotton shift that was her only garment. "Oh law!" she repeated.
She stepped back and pushed the door to. "Shan't be two flicks uv a cat's tail," she called through the closed panel.
"If I leave you be," the cunning man said to his mule, "you kin find a sunny patch in the lee of a wall 'n mebbe grub up some grass. But ifen ye wander off on me, I'll blister ye good er it's a pity. D'ye hear me, mule?"
"Hmph," said the mule. "I reckon with you runnin' the shoes offen me, up 'n down the high road, I got better things t' do than go gallivantin' somewhar er other on my own."
The barrel and splintered stock of Bully Ransden's rifle were strapped to the mule's saddle. By the time Old Nathan had them loose, Ellie threw the door open again. She wore a check-printed dress; an ornate ivory comb set off the supple black curves of her hair.
The girl's usual complement of additional tortoise shell combs was missing. The red patch on her left cheek would become a serious bruise before the day was out.
"Come in, Mister Nathan," she said making a pass at a formal curtsey. "I'm all sixes 'n sivins, b-but"
Her control broke. She didn't blink or avert her eyes, but tears started from the corners of them. "the good Lord knows thet I'm glad t' see ye!"
Old Nathan mounted the porch steps with his own rifle in one hand and the remains of Bully Ransden's in the other. He paused in the doorway and eyed the trees again. No doubt the Bully was watching from concealment like a fox circling to eye the hounds on his scent, but if he'd been willing to meet the cunning man he could have done so from the protection of his own walls.
Had the thing that looked like Ransden been Bully Ransden in fact, he would have died on his porch before he ran from any hundred men.
Old Nathan shut the door behind him.
The cabin was a wreck. All the furnishings had been damaged to some degree. The chairs' slatted backs were punched in, a boot had smashed the face panels of the storage chests, and the bed frame was missing so that the straw tick and blankets lay on the floor in a pile that Ellie had just attempted to arrange.
Someone had with systematic brutality broken the sturdy legs of the table. It stood upright due to repairs made with twine and splints of leather.
Bully Ransden was a better-than-fair journeyman carpenter. Repairs to the table were Ellie's work.
"Where's yer cattle, Miz Ransden?" the cunning man asked with calculated brutality. He set the broken weapon down on the table carefully, but the splints were firmer than he had feared.
Ellie faced him. "Drunk up er gambled away," she said bluntly. There warn't no point tryin' t' put a fine face on the bus'ness, not ifen ye wanted a cure fer hit. . . .
"Hain't like Bully," Old Nathan said aloud.
"Hit's like Cull these three months past," Ellie replied. Her face twisted into an expression Old Nathan had not seen on it before when she talked about her man. "Hit's like the Bully."
The porcelain plate that had held the place of honor on the Ransden's fireboard was gone. The only ornament there above the hearth was a nondescript wooden box with no evident hinges or keyhole.
For the first time, Ellie took in the shattered rifle which the cunning man had returned to its owner's cabin. "Oh," she whispered. "Oh, Mister Nathan, did he . . . ?"
The cunning man frowned in concern. When Ellie saw the gun, her mind had turned to ambush and murder.
"Naow," he said, "nothin' so turrible ez what yer thinkin' on. I heerd some noise in my shed last night, and the feller makin' it dropped this behind him. I thought yer man might know sommat about hit."
"I reckon he might," Ellie Ransden agreed coldly. She daubed unconsciously at the fist print on her cheek, trying it the way one might try a scab. In the same controlled voice she continued, "Last month, whin thet feller from Saint Louie was clubbed down on the Columbia road. . . . ?"
Old Nathan nodded. A traveller had stopped to relieve himself while the other men in his party rode on. One of his friends had gone back when he decided the night was too dark to leave a man alone on an unfamiliar trail. The sound of the companion's hoofbeats drove away a figure crouching with a knife raised to finish what a blow from behind had begun.
"Cull war out thet night," the girl continued. "Like he is most times now. Nixt day he come in 'n he hed a watch 'n chain. He"
Her voice began to break. "He saw me look at it," she said, speaking faster and louder to finish the story before she lost control completely. "He a'mos' hit me thin, an' he told me not t' tell a soul what it was he had" tumbling, word over word "but I've tolt you now, Mister Nathan!"
Ellie turned so that her back was to her visitor. She was sobbing. In a small voice she continued, "Wax Talbot, he took a shot at Cull when his wife screamed out t' the barn whin Cull war s'posed t' be he'pin' butcher some hogs."
The cunning man still held his rifle. He was uneasy about many things. The only one to which he could put a name was the possibility that the cabin's owner would burst through the doorway with an axe raised, so the rifle's familiar touch was that of a raft to a drowning man.
He wanted to put a hand on Ellie's shoulder to comfort her, but he wasn't sure that wouldn't be a worse idea than any he'd had before.
"This been goin' on three months, Miz Ransden?" Old Nathan asked. "Why hain't ye been t' see me? Might be I could he'p."
Ellie wiped her face on her sleeve. When the cuff, decorated with home-style embroidery, slid up, Old Nathan saw that her wrists were bruised also. His face didn't change, but it was already set in the lumpy gray lines of a thundercloud.
"I don't guess no woman magicked my Cull this time, Mister Nathan," the girl said wearily. Her expression hardened momentarily. "Though I hear tell some uv the sluts hereabouts, they hain't so perticular as Adele Talbot was."
She shook herself. "He's changed, right enough. He ain't my Cull no more. He's jest comin' out like his pappy, the way folks allus warned me he'd do and I paid thim no nivermind."
"I knew Chance Ransden," the cunning man said uneasily. "Bully hain't no frind t' me, but he hain't noways his pappy."
The thing uv it was, Chance Ransden would hev acted exackly the way Bully acted nowcunning and cruel and as petty as he was deceitful. . . .
"I thought he warn't like thet," Ellie said. "But I was wrong, an' I'm payin' fer it, Mister Nathan, payin' fer bein' a f-f-fool!"
She put her hands to her face again, and this time he did put his knobby old arm around her, holding the rifle out to the side and him no kind of man since the Tory bullet gelded him like a shoat at King's Mountain back in '79. . . .
"Thet blamed old box!" Ellie sobbed against the cunning man's coat. "Thet's what set him off rememb'rin' his Pappy. I'd throw hit in the fire but hit's too late naow. . . ."
Old Nathan looked at the box on the mantelpiece. His face slowly lost its anger. He disengaged himself carefully from the young woman.
"This is the thing ye mean?" he said, leaning his rifle against the cabin wall so that he could take the box in both hands.
"Thet's so," Ellie agreed. The preternatural calm in the old man's voice stilled the trembling of her own.
"Thin mebbe," Old Nathan said softly, "you're wrong about the cause. . . . And hit might happen thet you're wrong t' think I couldn't be airy he'p besides."
* * *
The cunning man stared at the box in his hands. His concentration was so deep that though he heard the sound of a foot on the half-log floor of the porch, the possible meaning of the noise didn't register for an instant.
Ellie Ransden looked at Old Nathan, realized that he had slid beneath the immediate present, and snatched his flintlock rifle from where it leaned against the wall. "I hear ye there!" she called in a clear, threatening voice as she sighted down the barrel toward the door.
Old Nathan tore himself free of the walls of his trance like a beetle emerging from its chrysalis. The girl and the cabin's interior had both been present in his mind; now focus and solidity returned to them the way dough fills a biscuit mold.
"Ellie?" a woman called through the closed panel. "Hit's Sarah Ransden, and I'd admire t' speak with you fer a bit."
The cunning man rolled his shoulder muscles to loosen them. For a moment, it had seemed that his fingertips were growing into the box; that they were becoming roots or that the knife-carved wood changed to flesh and began to pulse with a life of its own. . . .
"Who's with ye, Sarah?" Ellie demanded. She lowered the stock from her shoulder to her waist, but the gunlock was still roostered back and the muzzle aimed toward the door.
"She's alone, child," Old Nathan murmured. Something had brokenor turnedin Ellie Ransden since the time the Bully struck her face this morning.
"I'm alone, child," Sarah said bitterly. "I been alone these ten years gone, since my son left me. As you should know."
"Come in an' set, thin," Ellie replied. "Tain't barred."
She lowered the hammer and replaced the rifle where Old Nathan had set it. "I beg pardon, sir," she muttered sheepishly without meeting the cunning man's eyes. "I shouldn't hev took hit on myse'f t' do thet."
The cunning man sniffed. "En why not?" he said.
Sarah Ransden recoiled as she saw Old Nathan, though he was looking past her toward the empty forest across the roadway. "Mister Ridgeway," she said formally from the doorway. "I come t' speak with my datter, but I don't mean t' intrude."
"Come in er go out, Miz Ransden," Ellie said with evident hostility. "Thar's some uv us here warn't born in a barn."
Sarah flinched. The cunning man stepped to her and drew her into the cabin with his free hand. His boot pushed the door to until the latch clicked.
"I hain't yer datter," the younger woman said. "You let me know right plain thet I warn't good enough fer yer boy the one time I come callin' on ye. He turnt his back on you years ago, but I warn't good enough!"
"Ellie," Old Nathan said quietly, "thar's no call fer thet. Sarah, what is it brings ye here?"
"Yer Cull ain't good enough fer me now, Miz Ransden!" Ellie cried. Her right cheek was bone white, but the swollen print on the left flared like an August rose. "Ifen he don't hang afore he comes back, I'll leave."
The anger that had kept Ellie ramrod straight poured out through a memory, leaving her suddenly vulnerable. She touched her left cheek, then lowered her hand and stared at the fingertips.
"He niver hit me," she whispered. "He niver hit me afore naow."
"Oh, child," Sarah Ransden said. "I felt the storm comin' in my bones, an' the good Lord knows hit was true."
Sarah hesitated, from fear of being rejected rather than calculation, then put her arms around the younger woman's shoulders anyway. They hugged one another, both with their eyes closed and on the verge of tears.
Old Nathan looked away uncomfortably. His fingers began to probe the box again. A thin panel slid aside; the cunning man shook a wooden key out into his palm.
"Whar did ye git thet box, Nathan Ridgeway?" Sarah asked from behind his shoulder. Her tone was controlled and distant, the sort of voice one used to inquire of a stranger found staring over one's garden fence.
"Happen I found hit here on the fireboard, Sarah," the cunning man replied calmly. "What is it ye know about this thing, thin?"
The women stood side by side; both of them tall and striking, though Sarah forty years younger had never been the beauty Ellie Ransden was now. Their clothing, Ellie's check dress and the blue shawl Sarah wore over homespun, was worn and had been inexpensive when new, but there was an unmistakable pride in the womenat what they were, and in the fact that they were surviving.
"Chance had a thing like thet," Sarah said. "Hit opens up, though I niver knew how."
Old Nathan's paired thumbs slid the base of the box rearward. His eyes were on Sarah. In his mind trembled like a tent of shadows the joints and planes of the object with which he had almost merged.
"Like thet, I reckon," the older woman continued. She licked her dry lips. "The one time I asked, he told me his Pappy hed give it to him whin he come of age . . . en he hit me, which warn't new by thin."
Ellie put her arm around Sarah's shoulders.
"I burnt it," Sarah said softly. "I burnt hit whin Cullen run him off, but I swear t' God thet hit war the same box ez ye've got in yer hands."
Old Nathan uncovered the keyhole. As the women silently watched him, he inserted the key and opened the box.
The box was empty. He upended it. Ellie and Sarah relaxed palpably.
"We ain't out uv the woods," the cunning man murmured. "Not jest yet. . . ."
He set the box on the table and reached into the air above him. It was like fumbling on a shelf in the dark. If he looked up there would be nothing to see, only his knobby old fingers closing on
The familiar, solid angles of a jackknife. The German silver bolsters were cool to his touch, and the shield of true silver set into one jigged-bone scale was cold.
He lifted the knife down without meeting the eyes of the women. There were things the cunning man did for show, when impulse or perceived need drove him, but he felt uncomfortable at the notion of showing off before this particular pair. The only reasons he could imagine for doing that were so childishand so foolish in a not-man like himthat his mind danced around their edges like a pit.
Old Nathan held the knife between his thumb and forefinger so that the polished silver plate reflected down into the box. It showed
Nothing. No hidden object, but not the coarse grain of the wood, either. It was as if the silver were mirroring a gray void . . . except that when the cunning man stared at the plate without blinking, he seemed to see flames flicker at the corners of his eyes.
He stepped away from the table and drew in a deep breath.
"No," he repeated, "we hain't out uv the woods. . . ."
Sarah slid a chair beneath the cunning man. He settled into it heavily, straining Ellie's jury-rigged repairs. What was there hed teeth, en it hed took a bite whilst he scouted hit out.
"What is it?" Ellie asked, looking from the box to the door as if undecided as to whence the danger could be expected. "What is it thet you see?"
Old Nathan rubbed his right biceps with his left hand, then raised his arm to put the jackknife away. There wasn't any wonder about the knife. Its blades were good steel, with a working edge on the larger one and on the smaller a wire edge that could serve as a razor at need.
The wonder of the place where Old Nathan kept the knife was another question, but it was a question to which the cunning man himself had no answer. It was like all the rest of his art, a pattern of things known but not studied; the way a clockwork toy moves without understanding in its spring.
And if the toy should cease to move, the spring would be none the wiser for that result either. . . .
Old Nathan sighed and ran a fingertip across the interior of the box. The wood felt as it should: vaguely warm because the cunning man's flesh was cold, and slightly rough because the board had been planed smooth but not polished.
"He found hit et the shurrif's sale," Ellie murmured, not so much to inform as to fill the silence in which she and Sarah Ransden stood with Old Nathan stepped along the pathways of his mind, open-eyed but unseeing. "I was a fool t' take him thar. The Neills was evil on the best day uv thar lives."
"They was evil," Sarah said grimly. "But Chance Ransden had Satan hisse'f livin' in his skull, en I know thet t' my cost."
"Earth 'n air . . ." the cunning man murmured.
He blinked, then shook himself fully alert. His eyeballs felt as though someone had ground sand into them. He rubbed them cautiously. There were risks going into a waking trance with his eyes open. One day the lids would stick that way and he would be blind as a mole; but it hadn't happened yet. . . .
The cabin door opened and closed; Sarah had gone out. Old Nathan looked at the panel, confused and still uncertain. He had dropped back into reality as though it were an icy pond.
Ellie threw another stick of wood onto the hearth. The billet looked chewed off rather than chopped. The axe had gone the way of the Ransden's cattle and seedcorn. The girl was reduced to cutting logs with the handaxe she had concealed in her mulch pile to keep it from being traded for liquor as well.
"Fire and water?" she offered to prompt the cunning man to say more.
"Did I speak?" Old Nathan asked in surprise. "Reckon I did. . . ."
Sarah came back inside. She carried the kitchen knife she had used as a trowel and a cupful of dirt gathered into her lifted dress. She spilled the soil onto the table near the little box. "There's snow mixed in along with this," she said. "Or I reckon there's water in the jug by the fire."
Old Nathan looked from the older woman to the young one. Most folk he worked magic for, they were afraid of what he did and the fellow who did it besides. This pair was rock steady. Their minds moved faster than the cunning man was consciously able to go; and if they were afraid, it was nowhere he could see by looking deep into their eyes.
On the cabin eaves, chickadees cracked seeds and remarked cheerfully about the sunlight.
Mebbe the wimmen 'ud be afeerd if they knew more; but mebbe livin' with the Ransden men hed burnt all the fear outen thim already.
Ellie rose from the hearth with a long feather of hickory, lighted at one end. It burned back along the grain of the wood with a coiled pigtail of black waste above the flame. "This do ye fer fire?" she said as she offered the miniature torch.
"Aye," agreed the cunning man. "Hit'll do fine."
His right index finger traced characters on the table. They were visible only where they disturbed the pile of sodden earth or the wisps of ash which dropped from the hickory. The room began to rotate around the focus of Old Nathan's vision, but the walls and all the objects within them remained clear.
A driblet of mud and melt water curled from the table like a thread being drawn from a bobbin. The ribbon of flame from the hickory attenuated and slanted sideways, as though the strip were burning in a place where "up" was not the same direction as it was in central Tennessee.
There was a keening sound like that which the wind makes when it drives through a tiny chink in a wall.
Old Nathan spoke in a soft, monotonous voice, mouthing syllables that were not words in a language familiar to his listeners. His eyes became glazed and sightless. His tongue stumbled. It was shaping itself to the sounds not by foreknowledge but the way a hiker crosses a shallow stream: hopping from one high rock to the next, then searching for a further steppingstone.
The elemental strandsearth and air, fire and waterwove together as do fibers in a ropewalk, coiling and interweaving into a single tube. It curved into the box, probing the wooden bottom
And slid away, broken into its constituent parts, its virtue dissipated.
Old Nathan awoke with a start, jolting backward in his chair. His arms spread with the fingers clawed in readiness to meet a foe. His spasm flung the feather of wood toward the pile of bedding.
Sarah snatched up the burning splinter. In her haste she gripped it too close to the flame, but she carried it without flinching back to the hearth.
Ellie Ransden cried, "Sir!" and grasped Old Nathan's right arm, both to control it and to prevent the cunning man from tipping over with the violence of his reaction.
He glared at her. His face for a moment was a mask of fury; then he calmed and softened as though all the bones had been drawn from his flesh.
"Tarnation, gal," the old man gasped, pillowing his head against his left arm on the table. He seemed oblivious to the slime of ash and damp earth left on the surface by his attempt.
Old Nathan lifted himself again. He gave Ellie a squeeze with his left hand before he drew his right from her support. "I figgered with all creation t' push, I'd hev thet gate open lickity-split . . . but hit warn't ready t' open."
The cunning man smiled wryly at the miscalculation he had barely survived. "I was betwixt the gate en' the push thet I'd drawed up myse'f."
"The bottom's false, thin?" Ellie asked, glancing toward the little box beside Old Nathan's hand. Her lips curled. "Cain't we chop hit open?"
"Hain't like thet, child," the cunning man said. Sarah Ransden eyed them without expression from beside the fireplace. "Thar's a gate, so t' speak, but not . . ."
He gestured, rubbing his fingertips together as if attempting to seize the air. "Not on this world. Not all this world" his index finger drew a line across the dirt on the tabletop "has airy bit t' do with what's on t' other side uv thet gate, so I couldn't force hit."
Without speaking, Sarah reached into the bosom of her dress. She drew a locket up and over her head. The ornament was suspended on a piece of silk ribbon so faded that its original color was only a pink memory.
Sarah opened the spring catch and held the locket out to Old Nathan. Inside was the miniature portrait of a man, painted on ivory. "Thet's Chance Ransden," she said in a distant voice. "Thet was my husband whin I married him."
Old Nathan set the locket down on the table and examined it. The artist had been skillful, not so much in the depiction of physical featuresthe face on the miniature was thinner than that of the Chance Ransden the cunning man remembered from ten years pastbut rather in the sheen of the spirit glinting through the skin. No single detail in the painting was objectively right, but the result had the feel of Chance Ransden.
And the feel of hot, soulless evil.
Old Nathan stood up, moving with an exaggerated care. I'm too durn old fer sech goins-on. . . . "Blame lucky thing I hain't bruck yer table down, me threshin' about thet way," he grumbled aloud.
He stretched, feeling the tenderness of his muscles. They had locked rigidly against one another while the vortex of power the cunning man summoned tried to crush his mind against immovable blackness.
Mebbe there was a better feller somewhars t' do this thing; but less'n he showed hisse'f right pert, Nathan Ridgeway meant t' do whativer an old man could.
"Thankee, Sarah," Old Nathan said. "I reckon it might serve."
He touched the painted face softly, then raised the locket by its loop of ribbon. This time he would stand.
The locket twisted over the interior of the box while the cunning man mumbled not-words. The face glintedspun behind the unpainted backspun again. . . .
To the women facing one another across the table, it seemed as though the corners of the portrait's mouth were rising into a sneer.
Old Nathan saw nothing. Streaks like the beams of sunlight drawing water through the clouds slid blindingly across the surface of his mind.
The latch rattled an instant before the cabin door burst open. The women looked up. Ellie's hand thrust out, then froze. The long rifle leaned against the far wall.
Bully Ransden stood in the doorway, wild and disheveled. There was a glitter of madness in his eyes, and his powerful arms hung down like the forelegs of a beast.
Beams of light rotated and rotated back. The cunning man raced past them like a fish rushing along the in-slanting walls of a weir.
None of the four figures in the cabin moved. The locket ticked against the bottom of the puzzle box.
* * *
Old Nathan was naked. The damage wreaked on his privates at King's Mountain by a Tory musketball was starkly evident.
He stood at a portal whose upper angles stretched beyond conception. The surface beneath his feet was wood, coarsely finished but seamless. The gigantic door that stood ajar before him was patterned with the same grain as that of the lid of the puzzle box in another place and time.
When the cunning man glanced back over his shoulder, he saw a forest like that on the site where his cabin now stoodbut from the time before young Nathan Ridgeway began girdling trees and clearing undergrowth with a brushhook.
"Come t' be comp'ny t' me, Nathan?" called Chance Ransden from across the threshold. He giggled in a fashion that Old Nathan remembered from life
For wherever this was, it was not life.
Chance was naked also. His appearance was that of a powerfully built man in the prime of life, the way he had looked the night he disappeared. Allus hed the luck uv the devil, Chance did. Nairy a one uv the scars, not even the load of small shot Jose Miller put into what he thought war a skunk in his smoke shed, showed whin Ransden hed clothing on. . . .
"I hadn't airy scrap uv use fer ye whin ye were alive, Ransden," Old Nathan said coldly. He stood straight, facing forward. He could not conceal the ancient injury to his manhood, and to attempt the impossible would be a sign of weakness. "I'll be no comp'ny t' ye now, 'cept t' tell ye t' be off whar ye belong. Leave yer son be!"
Chance giggled again. "D'ye want to see my boy Cull naow, Nathan?" he asked.
The portal opened slightly. Hunched behind the elder Ransden was the naked, cringing figure of his son. The image of Bully Ransden was bruised and bloody, as though he had tried to fight a bear with empty hands. He threw Old Nathan a furtive, sidelong glance past the legs of his father.
"Ain't he the dutiful lad?" Chance cackled. "He warn't whin I last wore my body, but he's larned better naow."
"Git up an' fight him, boy!" the cunning man snarled. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach to see a proud man like Bully reduced to this. "He don't belong here. Drive him out!"
Instead of fighting, Bully Ransden launched himself at the crack between the doorpanel and the jamb, trying to reach Old Nathan's side of the portal. His father kicked him aside with contemptuous ease.
The landscape across the threshold was a lifeless gray. The occasional quiver of movement was only heat-spawned distortion.
"Cull, he war a very divil fer strength, warn't he, Ridgeway?" Chance Ransden said. His lips were fixed in a cruel sneer. "Whin strength warn't enough, he bruk like a China cup. He hain't airy more spunk thin a dog since I bruk him."
He dug his toes into the ribs of his son. The younger man whimpered and cringed away.
Old Nathan licked his lips. "Aye, you're jest the bold feller I recollect, Ransden. Come acrost here en do thet, why don't ye?"
"No, old man," Chance said, "you ain't gitting me over whur you stand."
He opened the portal a hand's breadth wider. "But you kin come t' meifen ye dare. And I'll let my Cull here go across t' thet side. A soul fer a soul. Thet's fair, ain't hit jest?"
He began to laugh. Behind him, Bully Ransden huddled with his arms about his knees. He eyed Old Nathan through the opening with a look of desperate appeal.
"Cullen Ransden," the cunning man said. "Listen t' me, boy! What is it thet ye want t' do?"
"I want t' get shet uv this place," the Bully whispered. "Please God, git me shet uv here."
He was afraid to look up as he spoke. As his father had said, Cullen Ransden had broken. There was no sign of the former man who crushed every opponent with his fists and masterful will.
"Git me out, sir," Bully begged. "I swear, there hain't nuthin' I won't do fer ye ifen ye only git me free."
"A soul fer a soul," Chance repeated. "I'll let him go across, s' long ez you pay him clear. Are ye thet much uv a man, Nathan Ridgeway?"
The cunning man shuddered with desire for what he knew he had no right to hope. The boy couldn't know the price. Only the old man who had lived that price for so many decades could understand it
But Cullen Ransden knew what he was paying now; and it was too much for him.
"Listen, boy," Old Nathan said. He tried to speak gently, but his voice was full of too many emotionshope, fear, and the anger of years. Fate had played a cruel trick on him when he was a youth younger still than Bully Ransden. "Listen. If you come through that door, you'll live out the rist uv yer life ez an old man. As no man a'tall, by some ways uv lookin' et it. D'ye hear me?"
Bully Ransden did not speak. His body trembled as he readied himself for another dash toward the openingwhich Chance would stop as surely as his weasellike smile was cruel.
"Boy, ye won't niver git back," Old Nathan said with desperate emphasis. "You cain't know what a weak, pulin' thing ye'll"
Bully sprang for the portal. His father's foot thrust him back. Chance's long toenails gouged like a beast's talons.
Old Nathan felt the calm of a decision made for him, in the clearest possible manner. Warn't right, but warn't my choice neither.
"Let him go, Chance Ransden," he said. "I'm comin' to ye, since thet's what ye think thet ye want."
Old Nathan stepped forward. The portal and the forest behind him vanished, leaving him alone on a lava plain with Chance Ransden.
* * *
The sky was pale and yellowish. The air was bitterly cold, with a tang of brimstone.
Chance Ransden stood arm's-length distant, grinning like a neck-chained monkey. He backed slightly away when the cunning man appeared before him. Bullets had puckered Ransden's flesh in a dozen different places, and a long pink scar snaked up the right side of his rib cage where a knife had just failed to let out his evil life; but he looked a fine, muscular specimen of a man for all that.
If he was still a man. If he had ever been a man.
"Cull, he made me a good dog, Ridgeway," Chance said. "You'll make me a better one."
The cunning man tested the surface with the toes of his right foot. The plain on which he stood was formed by ropes of lava spilling out to cool in arcs across the axis of the advance. Individual ropes lay one against the next in a series of six-foot hillocks, with sharp valleys between ready to break the ankle of an incautious man.
There was no animal life visible anywhere on the plain, and no vegetation save scales of lichenwhite and gray and rusty orangewhich slowly powdered even raw stone. Plumes of vapor marked cabin-sized potholes where rock bubbled, and the wind occasionally burned instead of cutting with cold.
"What I'll make you, Chance Ransden," the cunning man said softly, "is glad t' git off t' whar ye belong."
"You thunk I was afeerd uv ye, back t' thet world, didn't ye, Nathan?" Chance said. "Waal, I'm another guess chap thin ye took me fer."
Old Nathan stepped across the V-shaped trench between his hillock and the one on which Ransden stood.
Ransden hopped back. He raised his hand in the air. "Ye say ye're the Divil's master, old man?" he asked.
Old Nathan stared at the image of the younger, stronger man. "Aye," he said.
Chance snapped his fingers.
The rim of a fuming pothole ten yards behind Ransden began to move. Minerals deposited by steam shivered away in blue-green and saffron patches. Something was coming to life, the way the first rains cause toads to break free of the capsule of hardened slime in which they have survived summer and drought.
"Waal, Ridgeway," said Chance Ransden. "I say I'm the Divil's sarvint. Let's see who's the wiser uv us, shall we?"
The thing from the rock cocoon was gray and looked somewhat like an ape. It would have been taller than most men if it walked upright; instead it shambled forward in a crouch, occasionally touching down the knuckles of a slab-like hand. Its upper canines were the size of a man's thumbs, and each finger bore predatory claws.
"Thar's nowhere t' run, old man!" Chance cackled. "Ye kin run till Hell freezes over, en ye still cain't git away!"
The creature shambling forward was no ape nor any other living thing. The eye sockets beneath its deep brows were pools of lambent flame.
There were fears in the heart of every man. Chance Ransden's soul stood as naked as those of his son and the cunning man, but his master had offered him an ally. . . .
"I'm too old t' run, Ransden," Old Nathan said. He reached into the air. "B'sides, I warn't niver airy good at it."
His fingers crooked and
closed on the hard angles of his knife. There when he needed it, and he hadn't been sure.
But he was sure he would not have run. He'd known since the day the bullet struck and passed on at King's Mountain that there was nowhere to run from the worst fears, the true fears. . . .
The backspring clicked with assurance as Old Nathan opened the main blade. There was a faint sheen of oil on the steel.
Ransden looked startled and backed again. For the first time he may have realized that there was content to the cunning man's boast to be the Devil's master.
But steel wouldn't win this fight, any more than Bully Ransden's strength had done.
"C'mon thin, durn ye," Old Nathan muttered, to himself rather than to the ape hulking toward him. He stepped over a trough in the rock, then stretched his long shanks in a leap to close with the creature.
The ape lifted onto its hind legs to meet the attack, but the cunning man was already within the sweep of the long arms before they could grasp him. He held the knife with the cutting edge up. The creature's hide plucked at the point before giving way. Its breath reeked with an unexpectedly chemical foulness, like that of stale urine.
\Old Nathan started to rip upward against the resistance of the gray skin and the belts of muscles beneath it. The ape bit into the top of his skull with a pain like nothing the cunning man had ever before experienced.
He was on his back. The creature was twenty feet away, patting at the gash in its belly and roaring like the fall of a giant tree. There was blood on its fangs, speckling the froth bubbling across the broad lips.
Old Nathan couldn't see out of one eye and his hands were empty. He sat up and only then realized how much his shoulders hurt. The ape's claws had raked furrows across him before the creature flung the cunning man away.
He wiped his left eye with the back of his hand, then blinked. That cleared enough blood from the eyesocket that his vision, though dim, was binocular again. He needed the depth perception of two eyes. . . .
The jackknife, slimed with a greenish fluid that was not blood, lay beside his right hand. The ichor crusted and turned black where it touched the silver set into one bone scale.
Old Nathan picked up the knife. The tacky ichor would give him a better grip. Despite dazzling flashes of pain, he got to his feet before the monster started toward him again.
The ape bellowed and spread both arms. There was blood on the creature's foreclaws also. Old Nathan stumbled when he tried to leap forward. That worked to his advantage, because his opponent's great hands clapped together above the cunning man so that he was free to stab home again within an inch of the first wound.
This time the sound the ape made was more a scream than a bellow. It drove its clawed fingers into Old Nathan's sides like the tines of a flesh fork lifting meat to the fire. The cunning man shouted hoarsely, but he used the twisting power of the ape's own arms to tear the blade through rib cartilage that would have daunted mere human strength.
The creature flung Old Nathan over its head. For a moment the cunning man twisted in a kaleidoscope of yellow sky and gray stone, picked out occasionally by the sight of one of his own flailing limbs.
He hit the lava on his left side. His hip and hand took the initial impact, but his head struck also.
Old Nathan lay on the rock. He saw two apes turn toward him, but one image was only a faint ghost. The flap of skin torn from his forehead had almost bled his right eye closed again.
The creature's mouth was open. The cunning man could not hear the sounds directly, but he felt the lava tremble beneath him.
He sat up. The tear in the ape's belly was the size of a man's head. Coils of intestine dangled from the opening, and the fur of the creature's groin and upper thighs was matted by sour green ichor.
The ape lowered its forelimbs and knuckled toward its opponent.
Old Nathan found the knife beside him. The main blade had broken off at the bolsters when it struck the lava. He tried to open the smaller blade and found that his left hand had no feeling or movement.
The cunning man's vision cleared, though it remained two dimensional. He could hear the monster roar.
He gripped the jigged bone scales of the knife in his teeth and snicked out the smaller blade with his right thumb. When Old Nathan took the knife from his mouth, the taste of the monster's body fluids remained on his lips, but that could not be allowed to matter any more than the pain did.
The tiny blade winked in the jaundiced light. Old Nathan had honed its edge too fine to make a weapon, but it would serve until it broke.
"C'mon, thin," he whispered as he tried to lurch to his feet. His left leg would not support him. He fell back.
C'mon, ye ole fool. . . .
Old Nathan began to crawl forward on his hands and knees. The crystalline surface of the lava was bright with blood that leaked through his abraded skin.
The ape rose onto its hind legs again. It was trying to stuff loops of gut back into its belly, but each handful squeezed additional coils out of the knife-cut opening.
". . . whar ye b'long," Old Nathan whispered through the slime coating his lips. He had no peripheral vision. He could see nothing but the figure of the ape standing gray against the lighter gray background of a fumarole, and the edges of even that image were blurred and drawing inward.
"C'mon . . ."
The ape turned away.
"No!" screamed Chance Ransden from where he stood behind the monster. "Ye dassn't leave"
The ape shambled on in its new direction. Chance leaped away.
Old Nathan transferred the knife to his teeth again. He needed his right hand to drag himself forward. White light pulsed at the center of his field of view.
Chance Ransden turned to run, then screamed as the ape caught him in the crook of one hairy arm. The creature stumbled over its trailing intestines. It took two further steps, then looked over its shoulder toward the cunning man.
The ape and Chance Ransden, howling like a stuck pig, plunged into the heart of a pothole crater. Mud so hot that it glowed plopped up, then sank again beneath a curtain of its own steam.
"C'mon . . ." a voice whispered in Old Nathan's mind as he lost consciousness.
* * *
Old Nathan woke up. He could hear the straw filling of a mattress rustle beneath him when he turned his head.
There was a quilt over him as well. Ellie Ransden sat in a chair beside the bed made up on the floor in lieu of a proper frame. It was morning. . . .
But not the same morning. Beside the bed was a pot with a scrap of tow burnt at the bottom of it. Ellie had melted lard into the container, then floated a wick in it as a makeshift candle by which to watch the cunning man's face while he slept.
Old Nathan tried to sit up. Ellie knelt beside the bed with a little cry and helped to support his shoulders.
His hands were bigger than they should have been, and the hairs along his arms were blond. He had awakened in Bully Ransden's body, as he knew he would doif he awakened.
"Sarah took theold man back t' the homeplace," Ellie said. "He'll be right ez rain, she says."
"Gal, gal . . ." Old Nathan said. "I"
He stood up in a rush. Ellie scrambled, flicking the bedding out of the way so that it would not tangle the cunning man's feet.
Sparrows quarreled on the window's outer ledge. Their chirping was only noise, as devoid of meaning to him as it was empty of music. Nathan Ridgeway was no longer a wizard
And no longer an old man.
Ellie Ransden put her arms around him. Her touch helped to support Old Nathan while he got his legs under him again, but it was offered with unexpected warmth. "Child, listen," Old Nathan said. "I ain't yer Cull. He changed place with me."
"Hush, now," Ellie murmured. "You jest hold stiddy till ye've got yer strength agin."
Old Nathan looked down at the supple, muscular arm that was part of his body. "Warn't right what I did," he whispered. "But Bully begged fer it . . . en' I warn't goin' t' leave Chance Ransden loose in the world no longer."
Chance Ransden loose, or Chance Ransden's master.
Old Nathan wore the dungarees and homespun shirt with which Bully Ransden had fled the cabin the morning before, and a pair of Ransden's boots stood upright at the foot of the bed. He detached himself from the girl and began to draw on one of the boots.
"Sarah said she'd keep yer animals, ye needn't worry," Ellie said. "She said she knew how ye fussed yerse'f about thim all."
Old Nathan looked at the young woman. Ellie had plaited her hair into a loose braid. Now she coiled it onto the top of her head, out of the way. Sarah Ransden knew more thin he'd thought airy soul did uv his bus'ness.
He hunched himself into the other boot. His head hurt as though someone were splitting it with the back side of an axe, but the easy, fluid way in which his young joints moved was a wonder and delight to him.
"What is hit thet ye intend, sir?" Ellie asked from where she stood between the cunning man and the door.
Old Nathan snorted. "With the repetation thet Bully, pardon me, thet Cullen hed aforetimes, en' the word thet's going on about him these last months whin his pappy rid himI figger I'd hev to be plumb loco t' stay hereabouts, wearing the shape thet I do now."
Memories flooded in on him the way a freshet bursts a dam of ice during the spring thaw. His body began to shake uncontrollably with recollections of what had been and what might have been.
"Might be," he said softly, "thet I should hev gone off after King's Mountain, 'stid uv settlin' back here en' fixin' a fence round me, near enough."
Ellie gripped his hands firmly. "Take me along," she said.
"I ain't Cull Ransden!" Old Nathan shouted as he drew himself away. What he wanted to do. . . .
"I know who you are," Ellie said. She stepped close but did not touch him. "I know ye treated me decent whin others, they didn't. D'ye think I kin stay hereabouts, sir? Or thet I want to?"
Old Nathan turned away. There was a rifle on the pegs over the fireboard; his own. His mule gave its familiar brassy whinny from the shed, though there was no certain meaning in the sound.
Sarah Ransden en' her son 'ud be set up right purty, what with the two farms
Or three, ifen Ellie wint off with the man who wore her husband's shape.
"I ain't special t' the beasts no more," he said musingly. "Reckon hit's better I try my possibles t' git along with men now, anyways."
He looked at the young woman. "I reckon if I warn't all et up with bitterness whin I come back from King's Mountain," he added, "I might hev thunk a man could be ez good a frind thin a cat. A man er a woman."
"I packed a budget," Ellie said. "Hit seemed t' me thet ye'd feel thet way whin ye come around."
She looked out the window. The sun was already high in the sky. "We kin wait till ye're stronger . . . ?" she said.
"Sooner we're away, the better," Old Nathan replied. The pain in his head was passing as he moved; and for the rest of his bodyhe hadn't felt so good in fifty years. . . .
Ellie handed him a sheepskin coat, cracked at the seams but warm enough to serve until his youthful strength earned him better. Soon
He frowned, then took Ellie by both shoulders and held her until she met his eyes. "Thar's no more magic, girl," he said. "I'm a man en no more. I want ye t' understand thet."
She hefted the bundle of household essentials she had prepared. "Thet's what I wish fer," she said. "A man as treats me decint."
They walked outside into bright brilliant sunlight reflecting from the snow. Old Nathan left the cabin door open. Sarah could deal with the place whenever she chose; Sarah Ransden and the son who now kept her company. . . .
He saddled and bridled the mule, then rubbed its muzzle. The beast gave a snort of satisfaction and made a playful attempt to bite him.
"Git on up," Old Nathan said to the girl. "I reckon I'll walk."
He hefted the rifle he had leaned against the sidelogs of the shed, then crooked it into his left arm. He glanced to see that Ellie was in the saddle, then made a cautious pass through the air with his free hand.
Nothing happened. Old Nathan sighed and said, "Gee up, mule. We've got a passel uv country t' ride through afore we find airy place thet wants t' see us."
"We'll be all right," Ellie said.
She looked back once from the road. In the shadow of the shed, there was a faint glimmer as of fairy lights . . . but very faint, and the young couple had many miles yet to ride.