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Washington County, Indiana

Curtis Macurdy gazed out the window of the truck at a field plowed and disked. Near the far end, someone, presumably father, was walking behind the horse-drawn spike-tooth, readying the ground for drilling. Beyond stood the house Curtis had grown up in, the barn nearby, sheds, corncrib, and the ancient white oak that spread across the front yard.

"That's the place," he told the driver. "Just drop me off at the corner." He felt uncomfortable about his homecoming; had since he'd gotten off the train at Volinia.

The driver slowed, turning west on the township road. "Might as lief take you to your door," he said. "Ain't no trouble."

Along the roads, the maples, tuliptrees, elms had all been tinged with the fresh pale green of opening buds, but the yard oak, bare as February, showed no sign yet of wakening. The driver pulled into the driveway and stopped. "My thanks," Macurdy said, and taking the coin purse from his pocket, removed a fifty-cent piece.

The man waved it off. "That's half a day's pay, and this ain't been more'n a couple miles out of my way."

Macurdy nodded, put the coin back, and shook the man's hand. "Thanks," he said. "I'm obliged to you." Taking his suitcase from the seat, he got out, slammed the door, and waved as the driver left. Then he walked to the house. Place needs paint, he told himself. Hard times.

He opened the back door without knocking, took off his jacket and hung it on one of the back hall hooks. "Charley?" his mother's voice called.

"Nope." He stepped into the kitchen. The rawboned woman had turned from the big black kitchen stove. Seeing him, her eyes widened, her mouth half opening. For a moment he thought she might fall down, or worse, weep, but she recovered herself.

"Curtis!" she cried. "Blessed Jesus! Its you!" They embraced, then talked, she asking how he was, how long he planned to stay, her questioning marked more by what she didn't ask than what she did, as if fearing what he might tell her. His answers were brief: He had no plans yet, he said. If needed, he might stay the summer, and maybe through harvest.

His own questions were simply to catch up on the state of the family. Nothing had greatly changed, she told him, except that the price of everything had fallen, both for what they sold and what they bought. Max and Julie were still farming, and Frank had got promoted to shop foreman at Dellmon's Chevrolet, though they paid him less than when he'd started there as a mechanic, four years earlier.

And Charley had hired a man to help with the farming. "Your dad's not as young as he was," she added.

After a few minutes, Curtis put his jacket back on and went out to the field. Charley Macurdy saw him, and stopping the team, walked over, both his aura and his face showing a difficult mix of emotions—mainly joy and uncertainty, Curtis thought. And worry. Curtis was just now realizing what it was like for his parents, this return of a youngest son, who'd left with his bride, bought a farm in Illinois, then abruptly dropped out of sight, never writing for three years.

"Curtis!" Charley said, and reached out a hard-callused hand. "Good God! It's so good to see you again, son!" Then, startling Curtis, his father hugged him, hard arms clasping him against a hard chest. Perhaps, Curtis thought, he didn't want him to see the moisture in his eyes.

For a while they stood talking in the chill late-April breeze, his father as careful in his questioning as his mother had been. Like Edna, Charley feared the answers; most questions could wait till they'd got used to each other again. Curtis was welcome to stay as long as he'd like, Charley told him, but there wouldn't be much money in it. "Especially not while I'm paying a hand," he said, adding ruefully: "Not that I pay Ferris much; not what he's worth. He's been with us three years now, and it wouldn't be right to just cut him loose all of a sudden."

He looked questioningly at his son. "You are going to stay, aren't you? This place can be yours when I can't keep up with it anymore. Maybe sooner, if you want."

Initially Curtis had planned to stay, farm with his father, but the closer he'd gotten to home, the less real it had seemed. After where he'd been, and the life he'd lived there, it likely wouldn't work out. If nothing else, there'd be too many questions without answers—and sooner or later the question of age. Best to start new, someplace where he wasn't known.

"I'll stay till the spring work is done," he replied. "Harvest at the latest. Then I'll need to move on."

Charley nodded, looking at the ground, then brightened a little. "A few weeks ago, some folks stopped by and asked after you," he said. "A woman and two men. Moneyed folks; drove up in a big Packard. The woman did the talking. Seemed real disappointed you weren't here; thought you might have come back. Said they had a job for you. Didn't say what."

He paused, noting his son's frown. "She called herself Louise," he went on. "Kin to Varia, all three of them; I'd bet on it. Same eyes, same build. Hair not so red though. You know them?"

Louise? Not hardly, Curtis thought. No Christian name like that. Idri maybe, with her long, unforgiving memory. "I'm not sure," he answered. "Varia's got lots of kin, but I never knew a Louise. Most that I did know, I didn't greatly care for."

Both of his parents needed to hear something that made sense to them, which meant lying. He'd foreseen the problem and knew what he had to say, but didn't like it.

* * *

He'd been out of the country, he told them at supper. Varia's family was foreigners; he didn't say where from. She'd gone back to the old country with them; they'd insisted. He'd followed, had farmed there and even done some soldiering. Then Varia had drowned, he went on, had fallen through the ice on horseback, and the current had carried her beneath it. He'd recovered her body at a rapids downstream.

He lied, of course—wrong wife—but Charley and Edna believed him. They felt bad about it, but at least he hadn't abandoned her.

* * *

As the weeks passed, Curtis became more comfortable with the idea of leaving. Ferris Gibbs, the hired man, was a good hand—a self-starter who noticed things and knew what to do about them. He'd had a farm of his own, but lost it to the bank in '31, when he couldn't make the mortgage payments. "A casualty of the Hard Times," Ferris called himself, without apparent rancor. On Saturdays he left right after supper, and came back late Sunday. As Charley saw it, Ferris would leave when times got better—he'd want a place of his own again— but Frank's boy already liked to work with his Grampa Macurdy on the farm, when school let out in Salem. Said he wanted to be a farmer.

The first Sunday, Curtis went to church with his parents. He'd have preferred not to, but he knew it would please his mother. Folks looked askingly at him, but after the service they simply shook his hand, commenting on how good he looked. Pastor Fleming asked how old he was now, and told him he looked as young and strong as he ever had. The young part was ridiculous, Curtis told himself, considering the reverend had known him since he was fourteen.

As young as ever. A foretaste of problems to come.

Max and Julie and their kids came for dinner after church that day, and Julie, being Julie, asked questions his parents never would have, like "What country was it?", meaning where Varia came from. He thought of answering "Hungary"—that would do it—but he was tired of lying. "Yuulith," he told her instead, adding "that's their name for it." She'd look it up when she got home, he knew, and not finding it, would probably let be. Macurdys, even Julie, were pretty good at letting be.

* * *

He got more and more settled in, and stayed longer than he'd thought he might—until one day Bob Hammond, who farmed Will's old place on shares, decided to sell his sheep. Said he "couldn't face another week of Baaaah! Baaaah! twenty-four hours a day." He hired Curtis to help him haul them to the railroad in Salem, unfinished lambs and all, and load them onto a car. It took all day—three trips—and when they'd finished, Hammond took his wallet out of his overalls to pay him. Curtis knew the man couldn't afford the two dollars he'd promised, so he said he'd just take one, and eat supper with them that evening: likely boiled potatoes and stuff from the cellar—home-canned beef, green beans, maybe fruit pie—a good twenty-five-cent meal.

On the way, they drove past Charley and Edna's, and there was a big expensive Packard in the side yard. Curtis stared as they passed it. "Whose car is that?" he asked.

"Darned if I know. Never saw it before." The tenant pursed his lips worriedly. It looked like a banker's car, and more often than not, bankers meant trouble these days. Though he didn't think Charley had any mortgage to worry about: The Macurdy land had been in the family for generations.

It seemed to Curtis it would be one of Varia's Sisterhood: maybe Idri. He wasn't afraid of Idri by herself, but she wouldn't be alone, and he wasn't altogether sure he could handle the men she'd have with her. Besides, this wasn't Yuulith; they might carry guns. And if they killed him, they'd kill his parents as witnesses.

He wasn't very good company for the Hammonds at supper. Half his attention stayed on whoever might have driven up in the Packard. He'd come close on the food: It was canned pig hocks and boiled potatoes, with pork gravy, canned green beans, and peach pie for dessert. Seemed like Miz Hammond kept her family pretty well fed. The coffee was weak of course, but coffee had to be bought.

When he'd finished, he paid his respects and left, walking east toward home. But before he'd gone more than a few chains, he left the road along the old line fence, screened by the growth of serviceberry and young sassafras in the fence row, until the barn cut him off from view of the house. Then he hiked through the potato field to the barn, skirting the manure pile. Trapjaw, Charley's old redbone hound, peered from the barn door, then sauntered out, tail waving, to greet Curtis. From inside, Curtis could hear the sound of milk on pail bottom as his dad began on another cow.

He looked in. Charley was hunkered on the one-legged milking stool, head against a fawn-colored flank, squeezing and pulling, the sound changing from metallic singing to the rushing "shoosh-shoosh-shoosh" as milk jetted into milk, broken just a beat as Charley squirted a stream into an expectant cat's face. With quick tidy movements the animal wiped it off, licking the paw between wipes, then waited primly, hopefully, for her next serving.

"Howdy," Curtis said.

Charley answered without pausing, merely glancing back over his shoulder. "You're back, eh? Your ma put your supper on the back of the stove. You've got company." Ordinarily Curtis saw auras simply as an inconspicuous, layered cloud of colors. Now, however, he focused on Charley's. It reflected distrust, a sense of betrayal. When Curtis failed to respond, Charley added, "It's Varia. The wife you said drowned."

The words struck Curtis like a fist in the gut, but he recovered quickly. "How sure are you it's her? She's got a twin." He'd almost said clone, then caught himself. "Named Liiset."

The barrier softened as Charley considered, and Curtis spoke again. "Did she say anything, or ask anything, that didn't sound like Varia? Maybe something Varia would have known but this one didn't?"

Charley grunted. "Now that you mention it... A twin, you say."

"And Varia wouldn't have brought men with her."

"You saw them then?" Charley asked.

He hadn't needed to. He'd turned Sarkia down on the other side, but obviously she wasn't taking no for an answer. With his reputation, she'd have sent men, very likely tigers, as the clone's enforcers. And if it came to a fight, and he succeeded in killing them, how would he explain to a judge, or even to his parents?

"No," he answered, "I just came from supper with Bob and Hattie. So he wouldn't feel he had to pay me any two dollars. But I saw the Packard in the front yard when we drove by. And there's stuff I didn't tell you. About Varia's family. Stuff just about impossible to explain; stuff you wouldn't believe. Too foreign. I—kind of rounded off the truth."

The strong farmer hands continued squeezing and pulling. As the milk had deepened, the sound had changed to "choof-choof-choof." Charley said nothing, but he was thinking, putting together snippets of observation accrued over more than twenty-five years. The cat, ignored now, stalked off to wait with others by their milk dish.

"Did the men have an accent?" Curtis asked.

"Neither one of them said anything in English. Varia, or whoever she is, did the talking. I think you're right though; she's not Varia. Not by what she said, but what she didn't say. She didn't ask about Julie, or Max, or Frank ... none of them. And didn't tell us anything about you, except they had a good job for you. She excused the fellas with her, said they'd just come from the old country and hadn't learned English yet. Said she's taking them around with her to learn about America. When they talked, I kind of thought they might be Eye-talian."

"Big hard-looking men?" Curtis asked. "Hair somewhere between carrot and bay?"

"I guess you know them."

"Probably not them specifically. But they're not Eye-talian." He spoke a line of Yuultal then, ending with, "It sounded like that, right? Their part of the world is full of old rivalries, with people trained to kill. Finally I had enough of it. More than enough."

Charley nodded, not knowing what to say, his hands still pumping milk into the four-gallon pail.

Curtis continued. "And Varia's not dead. Her family traced us from Evansville to Illinois, and stole her back. She never imagined I could find her, so she ran away from them, and ended up married to someone else, a man who saved her when her kinfolks caught her again. So I joined another group, separate from either of those, and married a woman whose name translates out to Melody. It was Melody fell through the ice, a good good woman, that I came to love maybe as much as I had Varia."

Charley's aura had shrunk from doubt and concern, shrunk halfway to his skin. He'd even slowed his milking, looking over his shoulder at his youngest son.

"But Varia wouldn't have come here with two men," Curtis went on. "If she'd come after me, it would have been alone and it would have been enough."

Soon the jets of milk thinned. After another half minute, Charley rose from the stool, picking it up with one hand and the pail with the other. Together the two men walked to one of the ten-gallon cans, and Charley emptied the pail into it. "What are you going to do now?" he asked.

"Leave. Go somewhere they won't have a notion of. Or you either; that's the way it's got to be." He paused, his eyes intent on his father's. "Did it ever seem to you that Varia was—a little bit witchy?"

Charley nodded. "In a manner of speaking. A time or two. Ask your ma."

"Liiset's got her own witchy powers, so I need to be gone before you go back in. I'll saddle Blaze and ride to Max and Julie's. Leave Blaze with them, tell them I'm in trouble, and borrow some money; maybe twenty dollars. That you promised to pay it back for me. My money belt's in my top dresser drawer, with about sixty dollars. It's yours; I dasn't go in for it."

Charley blinked; sixty dollars was a lot of money.

"Max can drive me into Salem," Curtis went on, "and I'll take the train to Louisville. After you've finished milking, phone up Bob and ask if he knows where I'm at. He'll tell you I started home after supper. Liiset will figure something's fishy, but there'll be nothing she can do except hope I show up later."

Leaving his father staring after him, Curtis went to the horse shed on one end of the barn, saddled Blaze and rode away, keeping the barn between himself and the house. When he came to the lane along the fence line, he rode north through the beginning of dusk to the Maple Hill Road. He wasn't totally sure this was necessary. Perhaps he could just go in and talk to the clone, tell her he wasn't interested. But the two men with her? They'd kidnaped Varia that day in Macon County; they might kidnap him. And if the men were tigers, burn the house to cover the kidnaping. The bones in it would be his parents' and Ferris's.

He wished, though, that he could have gone in and gotten his own money, and the heavy sheath knife Arbel had given him, that had saved his life in the Kullvordi Hills.

Well, he reminded himself, he at least had his memories and all the things he'd learned. He patted the wallet in his jacket pocket: It held six dollars, and the picture of Varia his mother had given him when he'd mentioned not having one.

And he had a destination, too. He and Varia had talked about maybe going there someday. And the clone—Liiset or whoever she was—had probably never even heard of Oregon.

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