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Late afternoon sun baked the clay and plaster buildings of the town. Its dirt streets lay empty, packed as hard as iron. The boarding house sweltered. Luke Honey sat in a chair in the shadows across from the window. Nothing stirred except flies buzzing on the window ledge. The window was a gap bracketed by warped shutters and it opened into a portal view of the blazing white stone wall of the cantina across the alley. Since the fistfight, he wasn’t welcome in the cantina although he’d seen the other three men he’d fought there each afternoon, drunk and laughing. The scabs on his knuckles were nearly healed. Every two days, one of the stock boys brought him a bottle.

Today, Luke Honey was drinking good strong Irish whiskey. His hands were clammy and his shirt stuck to his back and armpits. A cockroach scuttled into the long shadow of the bottle and waited. An overhead fan hung motionless. Clerk Galtero leaned on the counter and read a newspaper gone brittle as ancient papyrus, its fiber sucked dry by the heat; a glass of cloudy water pinned the corner. Clerk Galtero’s bald skull shone in the gloom and his mustache drooped, sweat dripping from the tips and onto the paper. The clerk was from Barcelona and Luke Honey heard the fellow had served in the French Foreign Legion on the Macedonian Front during the Great War, and that he’d been clipped in the arm and that was why it curled tight and useless against his ribs.

A boy entered the house. He was black and covered with the yellow dust that settled upon everything in this place. He wore a uniform of some kind, and a cap with a narrow brim, and no shoes. Luke Honey guessed his age at eleven or twelve, although his face was worn, the flesh creased around his mouth, and his eyes suggested sullen apathy born of wisdom. Here, on the edge of a wasteland, even the children appeared weathered and aged. Perhaps that was how Luke Honey himself appeared now that he’d lived on the plains and in the jungles for seven years. Perhaps the land had chiseled and filed him down too. He didn’t know because he seldom glanced at the mirror anymore. On the other hand, there were some, such as a Boer and another renowned hunter from Canada Luke Honey had accompanied on many safaris, who seemed stronger, more vibrant with each passing season, as if the dust and the heat, the cloying jungle rot and the blood they spilled fed them, bred into them a savage vitality.

The boy handed him a telegram in a stiff white envelope with fingerprints all over it. Luke Honey gave him a fifty cent piece and the boy left. Luke Honey tossed the envelope on the table. He struck a match with his thumbnail and lighted a cigarette. The light coming through the window began to thicken. Orange shadows tinged black slid across the wall of the cantina. He poured a glass of whiskey and drank it in a gulp. He poured another and set it aside. The cockroach fled under the edge of the table.

Two women descended the stairs. White women, perhaps English, certainly foreign travelers. They wore heavy, Victorian dresses, equally staid bonnets, and sheer veils. The younger of the pair inclined her head toward Luke Honey as she passed. Her lips were thinned in disapproval. She and her companion opened the door and walked through its rectangle of shimmering brilliance into the furnace. The door swung shut.

Clerk Galtero folded the newspaper and placed it under the counter. He tipped his glass toward Luke Honey in a sardonic toast. “The ladies complained about you. You make noise in your room at night, the younger one says. You cry out, like a man in delirium. The walls are thin and she cannot sleep, so she complains to me.”

“Oh. Is the other one deaf, then?” Luke Honey smoked his cigarette with the corner of his mouth. He sliced open the envelope with a pocket knife and unfolded the telegram and read its contents. The letter was an invitation from one Mr. Liam Welloc Esquire to partake in an annual private hunt in Washington State. The hunt occurred on remote ancestral property, its guests designated by some arcane combination of pedigree and longstanding association with the host, or by virtue of notoriety in hunting circles. The telegram chilled the sweat trickling down his face. Luke Honey was not a particularly superstitious man; nonetheless, this missive called with an eerie intimacy and struck a chord deep within him, awakened an instinctive dread that fate beckoned across the years, the bloody plains and darkened seas, to claim him.

He stuck the telegram into his shirt pocket, then drank his whiskey. He poured another shot and lighted another cigarette and stared at the window. The light darkened to purple and the wall faded, was almost invisible. “I have nightmares. Give the ladies my apologies.” He’d lived in the boarding house for three weeks and this was the second time he and Clerk Galtero had exchanged more than a word in passing. Galtero’s brother Enrique managed the place in the evening. Luke Honey hadn’t spoken to him much either. After years in the wilderness, he usually talked to himself.

Clerk Galtero spilled the dregs of water on the floor and walked over with his queer, hitching step, and poured the glass full of Luke Honey’s whiskey. He sat in one of the rickety chairs. His good arm lay atop the table. His hands and arm were thickly muscled. The Legion tattoos had begun to elongate as his flesh loosened. “I know you,” he said. “I’ve heard talk. I’ve seen your guns. Most of the foreign hunters wear trophies. Your friends, the other Americans, wear teeth and claws from their kills.”

“We aren’t friends.”

“Your associates. I wonder though, why you have come and why you stay.”

“I’m done with the bush. That’s all.”

“This place is not so good for a man such as yourself. There is only trouble for you here.”

Luke Honey smiled wryly. “Oh, you think I’ve gone native.”

“Not at all. I doubt you get along with anyone.”

“I’ll be leaving soon.” Luke Honey touched the paper in his pocket. “For the States. I suppose your customers will finally have some peace.”

They finished their drinks and sat in silence. When it became dark, Clerk Galtero rose and went about lighting the lamps. Luke Honey climbed the stairs to his stifling room. He lay sweating on the bed and dreamed of his brother Michael, as he had for six nights running. The next morning he arranged for transportation to the coast. Three days later he was aboard a cargo plane bound for Morocco. Following Morocco there would be ships and trains until he eventually stood again on American soil after half a lifetime. Meanwhile, he looked out the tiny window. The plains slowly disappeared into the red haze of the rim of the Earth.

* * *

Luke Honey and his party arrived at the lodge not long before dark. They’d come in two cars and the staff earned its keep transferring the mountain of bags and steamer trunks indoors before the storm broadsided the valley. Lightning sizzled from the vast snout of fast approaching purple-black clouds. Thunder growled. A rising breeze plucked leaves from the treetops. Luke Honey leaned against a marble colonnade and smoked a cigarette, personal luggage stacked neatly at his side. He disliked trusting his rifles and knives to bellhops and porters.

The Black Ram Lodge towered above a lightly wooded hillside overlooking Olde Towne. The lodge and its town lay in the folds of Ransom Hollow, separated from the lights of Seattle by miles of dirt road and forested hills. “Backward country,” one of the men had called it during the long drive. Luke Honey rode with the Brits Bullard and Wesley. They’d shared a flask of brandy while the car left the lowlands and climbed toward the mountains, passing small, quaint townships and ramshackle farms tenanted by sober yeoman folk. Wesley and Bullard snickered like a pair of itinerant knights at the potato pickers in filthy motley, bowed to their labor in dark, muddy fields. Luke Honey didn’t share the mirth. He’d seen enough bloody peasant revolts to know better. He knew also that fine cars and carriages, horses and guns, the gloss of their own pale skin, cursed the nobility with a false sense of well-being, of safety. He’d removed a bullet from his pocket. The bullet was made for a .454 rifle and it was large. He’d turned it over in his fingers and stared out the window without speaking again.

After supper, Dr. Landscomb and Mr. Liam Welloc, co-proprietors of the lodge, entertained the small group of far-flung travelers who’d come for the annual hunt. Servants lighted a fire in the hearth and the eight gentlemen settled into grand oversized chairs. The parlor was a dramatic landscape of marble statuary and massive bookshelves, stuffed and mounted heads of ferocious exotic beasts, liquor cabinets and a pair of billiard tables. Rain and wind hammered the windows. Lights flickered dangerously, promising a rustic evening of candlelight and kerosene lamps.

The assembly was supremely merry when the tale-telling began.

“We were in Mexico,” Lord Bullard said. Lord Bullard hailed from Essex; a decorated former officer in the Queen’s Royal Lancers who’d fought briefly in the Boer War, but had done most of his time pacifying the “wogs” in the Punjab. Apparently his family was enormously wealthy in lands and titles, and these days he traveled to the exclusion of all else. He puffed on his cigar while a servant held the flame of a long-handled match steady. “Summer of 1919. The war had just ended. Some Industrialist friends of mine were visiting from Europe. Moaning and sulking about the shutdowns of their munitions factories and the like. Beastly boring.”

“Quite, I’m sure,” Dr. Landscomb said. The doctor was tall and thin. He possessed the ascetic bearing of Eastern European royalty. He had earned his degree in medicine at Harvard and owned at least a quarter of everything there was to own within two counties.

“Ah, a trying time for the makers of bombs and guns,” Mr. Liam Welloc said. He too was tall, but thick and broad with the neck and hands of the ancient Greek statues of Herakles. His hair and beard were bronze and lush for a man his age. His family owned half again what the Landscombs did and reportedly maintained ancestral estates in England and France. “One would think there are enough territorial skirmishes underway to keep the coins flowing. The Balkans, for example. Or Africa.”

“Exactly. It’s a lack of imagination,” Mr. Williams said. A bluff, weatherbeaten rancher baron attired in Stetson boots, corduroys and impressive buckle, a starched shirt with ivory buttons, and an immaculate Stetson hat. He drank Jack Daniel’s, kept the bottle on a dais at his side. He’d come from Texas with Mr. McEvoy and Mr. Briggs. McEvoy and Briggs were far more buttoned down in Brooks Brothers suits and bowlers; a banker and mine owner, respectively. Williams drained his whiskey and poured another, waving off the ever-hovering servant. “That’s what’s killing you boys. Trapped in the Renaissance. Can’t run an empire without a little imagination.”

“Besides, Germany is sharpening its knives,” Mr. Briggs said. “Your friends will be cranking up the assembly lines inside of five years. Trust me. They’ve the taste for blood, those Krauts. You can’t beat that outta them. My mistress is Bavarian, so I know.”

Lord Bullard thumped his cigar in the elegant pot near his foot. He cleared his throat. “Harrumph. Mexico City, 1919. Bloody hot. Miasma, thick and gray from smokestacks and chimneys of all those hovels they heap like ruddy anthills.”

“The smog reminded me of home,” Wesley said. Wesley dressed in a heavy linen coat and his boots were polished to a high gloss. His hair was slick and parted at the middle and it shone in the firelight. When Luke Honey looked at him, he thought Mr. Weasel.

“A Mexican prince invited us to a hunt on his estate. He was conducting business in the city, so we laid over at his villa. Had a jolly time.”

Mr. Wesley said, “Tubs of booze and a veritable harem of randy strumpets. What was not to like? I was sorry when we departed for the countryside.”

“Who was it, Wes, you, me, and the chap from York… Cantwell? Cotter?”


“Yes, right then. The three of us were exhausted and chafed beyond bearing from frantic revels at the good Prince’s demesne, so we ventured into the streets to seek new pleasures.”

“Which, ironically, constituted the pursuit of more liquor and fresh strumpets.”

“On the way from one particularly unsavory cantina to another, we were accosted by a ragtag individual who leaped at us from some occulted nook in an alley. This person was of singularly dreadful countenance; wan and emaciated, afflicted by wasting disease and privation. He smelled like the innards of a rotting sheep carcass, and his appearance was most unwelcome. However, he wheedled and beseeched my attention, in passable English, I must add, and clung to my sleeve with such fervor it soon became apparent the only way to rid myself of his attention was to hear him out.”

“We were confounded upon learning this wretch was an expatriate American,” Mr. Wesley said.


“Ye Gods,” Dr. Landscomb said. “This tale bears the trappings of a penny dreadful. More, more, gentlemen!”

“The man’s name was Harris. He’d once done columns for some paper and visited Mexico to conduct research for a story he never got around to writing. The entire tale of his fall from grace is long and sordid. It’s enough to say he entered the company of disreputable characters and took to wickedness and vice. The chap was plainly overjoyed to encounter fellow speakers of English, but we soon learned there was much more to this encounter than mere chance. He knew our names, where we intended to hunt, and other details I’ve put aside.”

“It was uncanny,” Mr. Wesley said.

“The man was obviously a grifter,” Luke Honey said from his spot near the hearth where he’d been lazing with his eyes mostly shut and thinking with mounting sullenness that the pair of Brits were entirely too smug, especially Lord Bullard with his gold rimmed monocle and cavalry saber. “A spy. Did he invite you to a séance? To predict your fortune with a handful of runes?”

“In fact, he did inveigle us to join him in a smoky den of cutthroats and thieves where this ancient crone read the entrails of chickens like the pagans read Tarot cards. It was she who sent him into the streets to track us.” Lord Bullard fixed Luke Honey with a bloodshot stare. “Mock as you will, it was a rare experience.”

Luke Honey chuckled and closed his eyes again. “I wouldn’t dream of mocking you. The Romans swore by the custom of gutting pigeons. Who am I to argue?”

“Whom indeed? The crone scrabbled in the guts, muttering to herself while Harris crouched at her side and translated. He claimed the hag dreamed of our arrival in the city for some time and that these visions were driving her to aggravation. She described a ‘black cloud’ obscuring the future. There was trouble awaiting us, and soon. Something about a cave. We all laughed, of course, just as you did, Mr. Honey.” Lord Bullard smiled a wry, wan smile that accentuated the creases of his face, his hangdog mouth. “Eventually, we extricated ourselves and made for the nearest taproom and forgot the whole incident. The Prince returned from his business and escorted us in style to a lavish country estate deep in the central region of the country. Twelve of us gathered to feast at his table, and in the morning he released boars into the woods.”

“Twelve, you say?” Mr. Williams said, brows disappearing under his big hat. “Well, sir, I hope one of you boys got a picture to commemorate the occasion.”

“I need another belt to fortify myself in the face of this heckling,” Lord Bullard said, snapping his fingers as the servant rushed over to fill his glass. The Englishman drained his glass and wagged his head for another. “To the point then: we shot two boars and wounded another—the largest of them. A prize pig, that one, with tusks like bayonets and the smoothest, blackest hide. Cantwell winged the brute, but the boar escaped and we were forced to spend the better part of two days tracking it through a benighted jungle. The blood trail disappeared into a mountain honeycombed with caves. Naturally, honor dictates pursuing wounded quarry and dispatching it. Alas, a brief discussion with the Prince and his guides convinced us of the folly of descending into the caverns. The system extended for many miles and was largely uncharted. No one of any sense attempted to navigate them. We determined to return home, satisfied with the smaller boars.”

“Eh, the great white hunters balked at the precipice of the unknown?” Luke Honey said. “Thank God Cabot and Drake couldn’t see you fellows quailing in the face of fear.”

Lord Bullard spluttered and Mr. Wesley rose quickly, hand on the large ornamented pistol he wore holstered under his coat. He said, “I demand satisfaction!” His smile was sharp and vicious and Luke Honey had little doubt the man yearned for moments such as these.

Dr. Landscomb smoothly interposed himself, arms spread in a placating manner. “Gentlemen, gentlemen! This isn’t the Wild West. There’ll be no dueling on these premises. Mr. Wesley, you’re among friends. Please, relax and have another drink. Mr. Honey, as for you, perhaps a bit of moderation is in order.”

“You may be correct,” Luke Honey said, casually sliding his revolver back into its shoulder holster. He looked at Mr. Williams who nodded approvingly and handed him the rapidly diminishing bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Luke Honey took a long pull while staring at Mr. Wesley.

Mr. Wesley sat, folding himself into the chair with lethal grace, but continued to smile through small, crooked teeth. “Go on, Arthur. You were getting to the good part.”

Lord Bullard wiped his red face with a handkerchief. His voice scarcely above a mutter, he said, “An American named Henderson had other ideas and he convinced two Austrians to accompany him into the caves while the rest of us made camp for the night. The poor fools slipped away and were gone for at least an hour before the rest of us realized what they’d done. We never saw any of them again. There was a rescue mission. The Mexican Army deployed a squadron of expertly trained and equipped mountaineers to investigate, but hard rains came and the tunnels were treacherous, full of rockslides and floodwater. It would’ve been suicide to persist, and so our comrades were abandoned to their fates. This became a local legend and I’ve reports of peasants who claim to hear men screaming from the caves on certain, lonely nights directly before a storm.”

The men sat in uncomfortable silence while the windows rattled and wind moaned in the flue. Mr. Liam Welloc eventually stood and went to a bookcase. He retrieved a slim, leather-bound volume and stood before the hearth, book balanced in one hand, a crystal goblet of liquor in the other. “As you may or may not know, Ian’s grandfather and mine were among the founders of this town. Most of the early families arrived here from places like New York and Boston, and a few from California when they discovered the golden state not quite to their taste. The Black Ram itself has gone through several incarnations since it was built as a trading post by a merchant named Caldwell Ellis in 1860 on the eve of that nasty business between the Blue and the Gray. My grandfather purchased this property in 1890 and renovated it as the summer home for him and his new bride, Felicia. Much of this probably isn’t of much interest to you, so I’ll not blather on about the trials and tribulations of my forebears, nor how this grand house became a lodge. For now, let me welcome you into our most sacred tradition and we wish each of you good fortune on the morrow.”

Dr. Landscomb said, “I concur. As you know, there are plenty of boar and deer on this preserve, but assuredly you’ve come for the great stag known as Blackwood’s Baby—”

“Wot, wot?” Mr. Wesley said in mock surprise. “We’re not here for the namesake of this fine establishment? What of the Black Ram?”

Mr. Liam Welloc smiled, and to Luke Honey’s mind there was something cold and sinister in the man’s expression. Mr. Liam Welloc said, “There was never a black ram. It’s a euphemism for…Well, that’s a story for another evening.”

Dr. Landscomb cleared his throat politely. “As I said—the stag is a mighty specimen—surely the equal of any beast you’ve hunted. He is the king of the wood and descended from a venerable line. I will note, that while occasionally cornered, none of these beasts has ever been taken. In any event, the man who kills the stag shall claim my great grandfather’s Sharps model-1851 as a prize. The rifle was custom built for Constantine Landscomb III by Christian Sharps himself, and is nearly priceless. The victorious fellow shall also perforce earn a place among the hallowed ranks of elite gamesmen the world over.”

“And ten thousand dollars, sterling silver,” Mr. Wesley said, rubbing his hands together.

“Amen, partner!” Mr. McEvoy said. “Who needs another round?”

It was quite late when the men said their goodnights and retired.

* * *

The rain slackened to drizzle. Luke Honey lay with his eyes open, listening to it rasp against the window. He’d dreamed of Africa, then of his dead brother Michael toiling in the field of their home in Ingram, just over the pass through the Cascades. His little brother turned to him and waved. His left eye was a hole. Luke Honey had awakened with sick fear in his heart.

While the sky was still dark he dressed and walked downstairs and outside to the barn. The barn lay across the muddy drive from the lodge. Inside, stable hands drifted through the silty gloom preparing dogs and horses for the day ahead. He breathed in the musk of brutish sweat and green manure, gun oil and oiled leather, the evil stink of dogs swaggering in anticipation of murder. He lighted a cigarette and smoked it leaning against a rail while the air brightened from black to gray.

“There you are, mate.” Mr. Wesley stepped into the barn and walked toward Luke Honey. He wore workmanlike breeches, a simple shirt, and a bowler. He briskly rolled his sleeves.

Luke Honey didn’t see a gun, although Mr. Wesley had a large knife slung low on his hip. He smiled and tapped the brim of his hat and then tried to put out the Brit’s eye with a flick of his flaming cigarette. Mr. Wesley flinched, forearms raised, palms inverted, old London prizefighter style, and Luke Honey made a fist and struck him in the ribs below the heart, and followed that with a clubbing blow to the side of his neck. Mr. Wesley was stouter than he appeared. He shrugged and trapped Luke Honey’s lead arm in the crook of his elbow and butted him in the jaw. Luke Honey wrenched his arm loose and swiped his fingers at Mr. Wesley’s mouth, hoping to fishhook him, and tried to catch his balance on the rail with his off hand. Rotten wood gave way and he dropped to his hands and knees. Light began to slide back and forth in the sky as if he’d plunged his head into a water trough. Mr. Wesley slammed his shin across Luke Honey’s chest, flipping him onto his back like a turtle. He sprawled in the wet straw, mouth agape, struggling for air, his mind filled with snow.

“Well. That’s it, then.” Mr. Wesley stood over him for a moment, face shiny, slick hair in disarray. He bent and scooped up his bowler, scuffed it against his pants leg and smiled at Luke Honey. He clapped the bowler onto his head and limped off.

“Should I call a doctor, kid?” Mr. Williams struck a match on the heel of his boot, momentarily burning away shadows around his perch on a hay bale. A couple of the stable hands had stopped to gawk and they jolted from their reverie and rushed to quiet the agitated mastiffs who whined and growled and strutted in their pens.

“No, he’s okay,” Luke Honey said when he could. “Me, I’m going to rest here a bit.”

Mr. Williams chuckled. He smoked his cigarette and walked over to Luke Honey and looked down at him with a bemused squint. “Boy, what you got against them limeys anyway?”

The left side of Luke Honey’s face was already swollen. Drawing breath caused flames to lick in his chest. “My grandfather chopped cotton. My father picked potatoes.”

“Not you, though.”

“Nope,” Luke Honey said. “Not me.”

* * *

The lord of the stables was named Scobie, a gaunt and gnarled Welshman whose cunning and guile with dogs and horses, and traps and snares, had elevated him to the status of a peasant prince. He dressed in stained and weathered leather garments from some dim Medieval era and his thin hair bloomed in a white cloud. Dirt ingrained his hands and nails, and when he smiled his remaining teeth were sharp and crooked. His father had been a master falconer, but the modern hunt didn’t call for birds any more.

The dogs and the dog handlers went first and the rest of the party entered the woods an hour later. Luke Honey accompanied the Texans and Mr. Liam Welloc. They rode light, tough horses. Mr. McEvoy commented on the relative slightness of the horses and Mr. Welloc explained that the animals were bred for endurance and agility.

The forest spread around them like a cavern. Well-beaten trails crisscrossed through impenetrable underbrush and unto milky dimness. Water dripped from branches. After a couple of hours they stopped and had tea and biscuits prepared by earnest young men in lodge livery.

“Try some chaw,” Mr. Briggs said. He cut a plug of hard tobacco and handed it to Luke Honey. Luke Honey disliked tobacco. He put it in his mouth and chewed. The Brits stood nearby in a cluster talking to Dr. Landscomb and Mr. Liam Welloc. Mr. Briggs said, “You in the war? You look too young.”

“I was fifteen when we joined the dance. Just missed all that fun.”

“Bully for you, as the limeys would say. You can shoot, I bet. Everybody here either has money or can shoot. Or both. No offense, but I don’t have you pegged for a man of means. Nah, you remind me of some of the boys in my crew. Hard-bitten. A hell-raiser.”

“I’ve done well enough, in fact.”

“He’s the real great white hunter,” Mr. Williams said. “One of those fellers who shoots lions and elephants on the Dark Continent. Fortunes to be won in the ivory trade. That right, Mr. Honey?”

“Yeah. I was over there for a while.”

“Huh, I suppose you have that look about you,” Mr. Briggs said. “You led safaris?”

“I worked for the Dutch.”

“Leave it be,” Mr. Williams said. “The man’s not a natural braggart.”

“Where did you learn to hunt?” Mr. McEvoy said.

“My cousins. They all lived in the hills in Utah. One of them was a sniper during the war.” Luke Honey spat tobacco into the leaves. “When my mother died I went to live with my uncle and his family and those folks have lots of kin in South Africa. After college I got a case of wanderlust. One thing led to another.”

“Damned peculiar upbringing. College even.”

“What kid doesn’t dream of stalking the savanna?” Mr. Briggs said. “You must have a hundred and one tales.”

“Surely, after that kind of experience, this trip must be rather tame,” Mr. McEvoy said.

“Hear, hear,” Mr. Briggs said. “Give up the ivory trade for a not-solikely chance to bag some old stag in dull as dirt U.S.A.?”

“Ten thousand sterling silver buys a lot of wine and song, amigos,” Mr. Williams said. “Besides, who says the kid’s quit anything?”

“Well, sir, I am shut of the business.”

“Why is that?” Mr. Briggs said.

Luke Honey wiped his mouth. “One fine day I was standing on a plain with the hottest sun you can imagine beating down. Me and some other men had set up a crossfire and plugged maybe thirty elephants from this enormous herd. The skinners got to work with their machetes and axes. Meanwhile, I got roaring drunk with the rest of the men. A newspaper flew in a photographer on a biplane. The photographer posed us next to a pile of tusks. The tusks were stacked like cordwood and there was blood and flies everywhere. I threw up during one of the pictures. The heat and the whiskey, I thought. They put me in a tent for a couple of days while a fever fastened to me. I ranted and raved and they had to lash me down. You see, I thought the devil was hiding under my cot, that he was waiting to claim my soul. I dreamt my dear dead mother came and stood at the entrance of the tent. She had soft, magnificent wings folded against her back. White light surrounded her. The light was brilliant. Her face was dark and her eyes were fiery. She spat on the ground and the tent flaps flew shut and I was left alone in darkness. The company got me to a village where there was a real doctor who gave me quinine and I didn’t quite die.”

“Are you saying you quit the safaris because your mother might disapprove from her cloud in heaven?” Mr. Briggs said.

“Nope. I’m more worried she might be disapproving from an ice floe in Hell.”

* * *

In the afternoon, Lord Bullard shot a medium buck that was cornered by Scobie’s mastiff pack. Luke Honey and Mr. Williams reined in at a remove from the action. The killing went swiftly. The buck had been severely mauled prior to their arrival. Mr. Wesley dismounted and cut the animal’s throat with his overlarge knife while the dogs sniffed around and pissed on the bushes.

“Not quite as glorious as ye olden days, eh?” Mr. Williams said. He took a manly gulp of whiskey from his flask and passed it to Luke Honey.

Luke Honey drank, relishing the dark fire coursing over his bloody teeth. “German nobles still use spears to hunt boars.”

“I wager more than one of those ol’ boys gets his manhood torn off on occasion.”

“It happens.” Luke Honey slapped his right thigh. “When I was younger and stupider I was gored. Hit the bone. Luckily the boar was heart shot—stone dead when it stuck me so I didn’t get ripped in two.”

“Damn,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Briggs and Mr. McEvoy stared at Luke Honey with something akin to religious awe. “Spears?” Mr. Briggs said. “Did you bring one?”

“Nope. A couple of rifles, my .45, and some knives. I travel light.”

“I’m shocked the limeys put up with the lack of foot servants,” Mr. Briggs said.

“I doubt any of us are capable of understanding you, Mr. Honey,” Mr. Williams said. “I’m beginning to think you may be one of those rare mysteries of the world.”

* * *

An hour before dusk, Scobie and a grimy boy in suspenders and no shirt approached the hunters while they paused to smoke cigarettes, drink brandy, and water the horses.

Scobie said, “Arlen here came across sign of a large stag yonder a bit. Fair knocked the bark from trees with its antlers, right boy?” The boy nodded and scowled as Scobie tousled his hair. “The boy has a keen eye. How long were the tracks?” The boy gestured and Lord Bullard whistled in astonishment.

Mr. Williams snorted and fanned a circle with his hat to disperse a cloud of mosquitoes. “We’re talking about a deer, not a damned buffalo.”

Scobie shrugged. “Blackwood’s Baby is twice the size of any buck you’ve set eyes on, I’ll reckon.”

“Pshaw!” Mr. Williams cut himself a plug and stuffed it into his mouth. He nudged his roan sideways, disengaging from the conversation.

“I say, let’s have at this stag,” Mr. Wesley said, to which Lord Bullard nodded.

“Damned tooting. I’d like a crack at the critter,” Mr. Briggs said.

“The dogs are tired and it’s late,” Scobie said. “I’ve marked the trail, so we can find it easy tomorrow.”

“Bloody hell!” Lord Bullard said. “We’ve light yet. I’ve paid my wage to nab this beastie, so I say lead on!”

“Easy, now,” Mr. Welloc said. “Night’s on us soon and these woods get very, very dark. Crashing about is foolhardy, and if Master Scobie says the dogs need rest, then best to heed his word.”

Lord Bullard rolled his eyes. “What do you suggest, then?”

Scobie said, “Camp is set around the corner. We’ve got hunting shacks scattered along these trails. I’ll kennel the hounds at one and meet you for another go at daybreak.”

“A sensible plan,” Mr. McEvoy said. As the shadows deepened and men and horses became smoky ghosts in the dying light, he’d begun to cast apprehensive glances over his shoulder.

Luke Honey had to admit there was a certain eeriness to the surroundings, a sense of inimical awareness that emanated from the depths of the forest. He noted how the horses flared their nostrils and shifted skittishly. There were boars and bears in this preserve, although he doubted any lurked within a mile after all the gunfire and barking. He’d experienced a similar sense of menace in Africa near the hidden den of a terrible lion, a dreaded man eater. He rubbed his horse’s neck and kept a close watch on the bushes.

Mr. Landscomb clasped Scobie’s elbow. “Once you’ve seen to the animals, do leave them to the lads. I’d enjoy your presence after supper.”

Scobie looked unhappy. He nodded curtly and left with the boy.

Camp was a fire pit centered between two boulders the size of carriages. A dilapidated lean-to provided a dry area to spread sleeping bags and hang clothes. Stable boys materialized to unsaddle the horses and tether them behind the shed. Lodge workers had ignited a bonfire and laid out a hot meal sent from the chef. This meal included the roasted heart and liver from the buck Lord Bullard brought down earlier.

“Not sure I’d tuck into those vittles,” Mr. Williams said, waving his fork at Lord Bullard and Mr. Wesley. “Should let that meat cool a day or two, else you’ll get the screamin’ trots.”

Mr. McEvoy stopped shoveling beans into his mouth to laugh. “That’s right. Scarf enough of that liver and you’ll think you caught dysentery.”

Lord Bullard spooned a jellified chunk of liver into his mouth. “Bol-locks. Thirty years afield in the muck and the mud with boot leather and ditchwater for breakfast. My intestines are made of iron. Aye, Wes?”

“You’ve got the right of it,” Mr. Wesley said, although sans his typical enthusiasm. He’d set aside his plate but half finished and now nursed a bottle of Laphroaig.

Luke Honey shucked his soaked jacket and breeches and warmed his toes by the fire with a plate of steak, potatoes and black coffee. He cut the meat into tiny pieces because chewing was difficult. It pleased him to see Mr. Wesley favoring his own ribs whenever he laughed. The Englishman, doughty as he was, seemed rather sickly after a day’s exertion. Luke Honey faintly hoped he had one foot in the grave.

A dank mist crept through the trees and the men instinctively clutched blankets around themselves and huddled closer to the blaze, and Luke Honey saw that everyone kept a rifle or pistol near to hand. A wolf howled not too far off and all eyes turned toward the darkness that pressed against the edges of firelight. The horses nickered softly.

Dr. Landscomb said, “Hark, my cue. The wood we now occupy is called Wolfvale and it stretches some fifty miles north to south. If we traveled another twelve miles due east, we’d be in the foothills of the mountains. Wolfvale is, some say, a cursed forest. Of course, that reputation does much to draw visitors.” Dr. Landscomb lighted a cigarette. “What do you think, Master Scobie?”

“The settlers considered this an evil place,” Scobie said, emerging from the bushes much to the consternation of Mr. Briggs who yelped and half drew his revolver. “No one logs this forest. No one hunts here except for the lords and foolish, desperate townies. People know not to come here because of the dangerous animals that roam. These days, it’s the wild beasts, but in the early days, it was mostly Bill.”

“Was Bill some rustic lunatic?” Mr. Briggs said.

“We Texans know the type,” Mr. Williams said with a grin.

“Oh, no, sirs. Black Bill, Splayfoot Bill, he’s the devil. He’s Satan and those who carved the town from the hills, and before them the trappers and fishermen, they believed he ruled these dark woods.”

“The Indians believed it too,” Mr. Welloc said. “I’ve talked with several of the elders, as did my grandfather with the tribal wise men of his era. The legend of Bill, whom they referred to as the Horned Man, is most ancient. I confess, some of my ancestors were a rather scandalous lot, given to dabbling in the occult and all matters mystical. The town library’s archives are stuffed with treatises composed by the more adventurous founders, and myriad accounts by landholders and commoners alike regarding the weird phenomena prevalent in Ransom Hollow.”

Scobie said, “Aye. Many a village child vanished, an’ grown men an’ women, too. When I was wee, my father brought us in by dusk an’ barred the door tight until morning. Everyone did. Some still do.”

Luke Honey said, “A peculiar arrangement for such a healthy community.”

“Aye, Olde Towne seems robust,” Lord Bullard said.

Dr. Landscomb said. “Those Who Work are tied to the land. A volcano won’t drive them away when there’s fish and fur, crops and timber to be had.”

“Yeah, and you can toss sacrificial wretches into the volcano, too,” Mr. McEvoy said.

“This hunt of ours goes back for many years, long before the lodge itself was established. Without exception, someone is gravely injured, killed, or lost on these expeditions.”

“Lost? What does ‘lost’ mean, precisely?” Mr. Wesley said.

“There are swamps and cliffs, and so forth,” Dr. Landscomb said. “On occasion, men have wandered into the wilds and run afoul of such dangers. But to the point. Ephraim Blackwood settled in Olde Towne at the time of its founding. A widower with two grown sons, he was a furrier by trade. The Blackwoods ran an extensive trap line throughout Ransom Hollow and within ten years of their arrival, they’d become the premier fur trading company in the entire valley. People whispered. Christianity has never gained an overwhelming mandate here, but the Blackwoods’ irreligiousness went a step beyond the pale in the eyes of the locals. Inevitably, loose talk led to muttered accusations of witchcraft. Some alleged the family consorted with Splayfoot Bill, that they’d made a pact. Material wealth for their immortal souls.”

“What else?” Mr. Williams said to uneasy chuckles.

“Yes, what else indeed?” Dr. Landscomb’s smile faded. “It is said that Splayfoot Bill, the Old Man of the Wood, required most unholy indulgences in return for his favors.”

“Do tell,” Lord Bullard said with an expression of sickly fascination.

“The devil takes many forms and it is said he is a being devoted to pain and pleasure. A Catholic priest gave an impromptu sermon in the town square accusing elder Blackwood of lying with the Old Man of the Wood, who assumed the form of a doe, one night by the pallor of a sickle moon, and the issue was a monstrous stag. Some hayseed wit soon dubbed this mythical beast ‘Blackwood’s Git.’ Other, less savory colloquialisms sprang forth, but most eventually faded into obscurity. Nowadays, those who speak of this legend call the stag ‘Blackwood’s Baby.’ Inevitably, the brute we shall pursue in the morn is reputed to be the selfsame animal.”

“Sounds like that Blackwood fella was a long way from Oklahoma,” Mr. Williams said.

“Devil spawn!” Luke Honey said, and laughed sarcastically.

“Bloody preposterous,” Lord Bullard said without conviction.

“Hogwash,” Mr. Briggs said. “You’re scarin’ the women and children, hoss.”

“My apologies, good sir,” Dr. Landscomb said. He didn’t look sorry to Luke Honey.

“Oh, dear.” Lord Bullard lurched to his feet and made for the woods, hands to his belly.

The Texans guffawed and hooted, although the mood sobered when the wolf howled again and was answered by two more of its pack.

Mr. Williams scowled, cocked his big revolver and fired into the air. The report was queerly muffled and its echo died immediately.

“That’ll learn ’em,” Mr. Briggs said, exaggerating his drawl.

“Time for shut eye, boys,” Mr. Williams said. Shortly the men began to yawn and turned in, grumbling and joshing as they spread their blankets on the floor of the lean-to.

Luke Honey made a pillow of the horse blanket. He jacked the bolt action and chambered a round in his Mauser Gewher 98, a rifle he’d won from an Austrian diplomat in Nairobi. The gun was powerful enough to stop most things that went on four legs and it gave him comfort. He slept.

The mist swirled heavy as soup and the fire had dwindled to coals when he woke. Branches crackled and a black shape, the girth of a bison or a full grown rhino, moved between shadows. It stopped and twisted an incomprehensibly configured head to survey the camp. The beast huffed and continued into the brush. Luke Honey remained motionless, breath caught in his throat. The huff had sounded like a chuckle. And for an instant, the lush, shrill wheedle of panpipes drifted through the wood. Far out amid the folds of the savanna, a lion coughed. A hyena barked its lunatic bark, and much closer.

Luke Honey started and his eyes popped open and he couldn’t tell the world from the dream.

* * *

Lord Bullard spent much of the predawn hours hunkered in the bushes, but by daybreak he’d pulled himself together, albeit white-faced and shaken. Mr. Wesley’s condition, on the other hand, appeared to have worsened. He didn’t speak during breakfast and sat like a lump, chin on his chest.

“Poor bastard looks like hell warmed over,” Mr. Williams said. He dressed in long johns and gun belt. He sipped coffee from a tin cup. A cigarette fumed in his left hand. “You might’ve done him in.”

Luke Honey rolled a cigarette and lighted it. He nodded. “I saw a fight in a hostel in Cape Town between a Scottish dragoon and a big Spaniard. The dragoon carried a rifle and gave the Spaniard a butt stroke to the midsection. The Spaniard laughed, drew his gun and shot the Scot right through his head. The Spaniard died four days later. Bust a rib and it punctures the insides. Starts a bleed.”

“He probably should call it a day.”

“Landscomb’s a sawbones. He isn’t blind. Guess I’ll leave it to him.”

“Been hankerin’ to ask you, friend—how did you end up on the list? This is a mighty exclusive event. My pappy knew the Lubbock Wellocs before I was born. Took me sixteen years to get an invite here. And a bribe or two.”

“Lubbock Wellocs?”

“Yep. Wellocs are everywhere. More of them than you can shake a stick at—Nevada, Indiana, Massachusetts. Buncha foreign states too. Their granddads threw a wide loop, as my pappy used to say.”

“My parents lived east of here. Over the mountains. Dad had some cousins in Ransom Hollow. They visited occasionally. I was a kid and I only heard bits and pieces… the men all got liquored up and told tall tales. I heard about the stag, decided I’d drill it when I got older.”

“Here you are, sure enough. Why? I know you don’t give a whit about the rifle. Or the money.”

“How do you figure?”

“The look in your eyes, boy. You’re afraid. A man like you is afraid, I take stock.”

“I’ve known some fearless men. Hunted lions with them. A few of those gents forgot that Mother Nature is more of a killer than we humans will ever be and wound up getting chomped. She wants our blood, our bones, our goddamned guts. Fear is healthy.”

“Sure as hell is. Except, there’s something in you besides fear. Ain’t that right? I swear you got the weird look some guys get who play with fire. I knew this vaquero who loved to ride his pony along the canyon edge. By close, I mean rocks crumbling under its hooves and falling into nothingness. I ask myself, what’s here in these woods for you? Maybe I don’t want any part of it.”

“I reckon we all heard the same story about Mr. Blackwood. Same one my daddy and his cousins chewed over the fire.”

“Sweet Jesus, boy. You don’t believe that cart load of manure Welloc and his crony been shovelin’? Okay then. I’ve got a whopper for you. These paths form a miles wide pattern if you see ’em from a plane. World’s biggest pentagram carved out of the countryside. Hear that one?”

Luke Honey smiled dryly and crushed the butt of his cigarette underfoot.

Mr. Williams poured out the dregs of his coffee. He hooked his thumbs in his belt. “My uncle Greg came here for the hunt in ’16. They sent him home in a fancy box. The Black Ram Lodge is first class all the way.”

“Stag get him?”

The rancher threw back his head and laughed. He grabbed Luke Honey’s arm. There were tears in his eyes. “Oh, you are a card, kid. You really do buy into that mumbo-jumbo horse pucky. Greg spotted a huge buck moving through the woods and tried to plug it from the saddle. His horse threw him and he split his head on a rock. Damned fool.”

“In other words, the stag got him.”

Mr. Williams squeezed Luke Honey’s shoulder. Then he slackened his grip and laughed again. “Yeah, maybe you’re on to something. My pappy liked to say this family is cursed. We sure had our share of untimely deaths.”

The party split again, Dr. Landscomb and the British following Scobie and the dogs; Mr. Welloc, Luke Honey and the Texans proceeding along a parallel trail. Nobody was interested in the lesser game; all were intent upon tracking down Blackwood’s Baby.

They entered the deepest, darkest part of the forest. The trees were huge and ribboned with moss and creepers and fungi. Scant light penetrated the canopy, yet brambles hemmed the path. The fog persisted.

Luke Honey had been an avid reader since childhood. Robert Louis Stevenson, M. R. James, and Ambrose Bierce had gotten him through many a miserable night in the tarpaper shack his father built. He thought of the fairy tale books at his aunt’s house. Musty books with wooden covers and woodblock illustrations that raised the hair on his head. The evil stepmother made to dance in red hot iron shoes at Snow White’s garden wedding while the dwarves hunched like fiends. Hansel and Gretel lost in a vast, endless wood, the eyes of a thousand demons glittering in the shadows. The forest in the book was not so different from the one he found himself riding through.

At noon, they stopped to take a cold lunch from their own saddlebags as this was beyond the range of the lodge staff. Arlen trotted from the forest, dodgy and feral as a fox, to report Scobie picked up the trail and was hoping to soon drive the stag itself from hiding. Dr. Landscomb and the British were in hot pursuit.

“Damn,” Mr. Williams said.

“Aw, now that limey’s going to do the honors,” Mr. Briggs said. “I wanted that rifle.”

“Everybody wants that rifle,” Mr. McEvoy said.

Mr. Williams clapped his hands together. “Let’s mount up, muchachos. Maybe we’ll get lucky and our friends will miss their opening.”

“The quarry is elusive,” Mr. Liam Welloc said. “Anything is possible.”

The men kicked their ponies to a brisk trot and gave chase.

* * *

An hour later, all hell broke loose.

The path crossed a plank bridge and continued upstream along the cut bank of a fast moving stream. Dogs barked and howled and the shouts of men echoed from the trees. A heavy rifle boomed twice. No sooner had Luke Honey and his companions entered a large clearing with a lagoon fed by a waterfall, did he spy Lord Bullard and Mr. Wesley afoot, rifles aimed at the trees. Dr. Landscomb stood to one side, hands tight on the bridle of his pony. Dead and dying dogs were strewn everywhere. A pair of surviving mastiffs yapped and snarled, muzzles slathered in foam, as Scobie wrenched mightily at their leashes.

The Brits’ rifles thundered in unison. Luke Honey caught a glimpse of what at first he took to be a stag. Yet something was amiss about the shape as it bolted through the trees and disappeared. It was far too massive and it moved in a strange, top-heavy manner. Lord Bullard’s horse whinnied and galloped blindly through the midst of the gawking Americans. It missed Luke Honey and Mr. Williams, collided with Mr. McEvoy and knocked his horse to the ground. The banker cursed and vaulted from the saddle, landing awkwardly. His horse staggered upright while Mr. Wesley’s mount charged away into the mist in the opposite direction. Mr. Briggs yelled and pulled at the reins of his mount as it crow-hopped all over the clearing.

“What the hell was that?” Williams said, expertly controlling his horse as it half-reared, eyes rolling to the whites. “Welloc?”

Mr. Liam Welloc had wisely halted at the entrance and was supremely unaffected by the debacle. “I warned you, gentlemen. Blackwood’s Baby is no tender doe.”

Mr. McEvoy had twisted an ankle. He sat on a rock while Dr. Landscomb tended him. Scobie calmed his mastiffs and handed their leashes to Mr. Liam Welloc. He took a pistol from his coat and walked among the dogs who lay scattered and broken along the bank of the lagoon and in the bushes. He fired the pistol three times.

No one spoke. They rubbed their horses’ necks and stared at the blood smeared across the rocks and at the savaged corpses of the dogs. Scobie began dragging them into a pile. A couple of flasks of whiskey were passed around and everyone drank in morbid silence.

Finally, Mr. Williams said, “Bullard, what happened here?” He repeated the question until the Englishman shuddered and looked up, blank-faced, from the carnage.

“It speared them on its horns. In all my years… it scooped two dogs and pranced about while they screamed and writhed on its antlers.”

“Anybody get a clear shot?”

“I did,” Mr. Wesley said. He leaned on his rifle like an old man. “Thought I nicked the bugger. Surely I did.” He coughed and his shoulders convulsed. Dr. Landscomb left Mr. McEvoy and came over to examine him.

Mr. Liam Welloc took stock. “Two horses gone. Five dogs killed. Mr. McEvoy’s ankle is swelling nicely, I see. Doctor, what of Mr. Wesley?”

Dr. Landscomb listened to Mr. Wesley’s chest with a stethoscope. “This man requires further medical attention. We must get him to a hospital at once.”

Scobie shouted. He ran back to the group, his eyes red, his mouth twisted in fear. “Arlen’s gone. Arlen’s gone.”

“Easy, friend.” Mr. Williams handed the older man the whiskey and waited for him to take a slug. “You mean that boy of yours?”

Scobie nodded. “He climbed a tree when the beast charged our midst. Now he’s gone.”

“He probably ran away,” Mr. Briggs said. “Can’t say as I blame him.”

“No.” Scobie brandished a soiled leather shoe. “This was lying near the tracks of the stag. They’ve gone deeper into the wood.”

“Why the bloody hell would the little fool do that?” Lord Bullard said, slowly returning to himself.

“He’s a brave lad,” Scobie said and wrung the shoe in his grimy hands.

“Obviously we have to find the kid,” Luke Honey said, although he was unhappy about the prospect. If anything, the fog had grown thicker. “We have four hours of light. Maybe less.”

“It’s never taken the dogs,” Scobie said so quietly Luke Honey was certain no one else heard.

* * *

There was a brief discussion regarding logistics where it was decided that Dr. Landscomb would escort Mr. Wesley and Mr. McEvoy to the prior evening’s campsite—it would be impossible to proceed much farther before dark. The search party would rendezvous with them and continue on to the lodge in the morning. Luke Honey volunteered his horse to carry Mr. Wesley, not from a sense of honor, but because he was likely the best tracker of the bunch and probably also the fleetest of foot.

They spread into a loose line, Mr. Liam Welloc and Mr. Briggs ranging along the flanks on horseback, while Luke Honey, Scobie, and Mr. Williams formed a picket. Mr. Williams led his horse. By turns, each of them shouted Arlen’s name.

Initially, pursuit went forth with much enthusiasm as Lord Bullard had evidently wounded the stag. Its blood splattered fern leafs and puddled in the spaces between its hoof prints and led them away from the beaten trails into brush so thick, Luke Honey unsheathed his Barlow knife and hacked at the undergrowth. Mosquitoes attacked in swarms. The light dimmed and the trail went cold. A breeze sighed, and the ubiquitous fog swirled around them and tracking soon became a fruitless exercise. Mr. Liam Welloc announced an end to the search on account of encroaching darkness.

Mr. Williams and Luke Honey stopped to rest upon the exposed roots of a dying oak tree and take a slug from Mr. Williams’ hip flask. The rancher smoked a cigarette. His face was red and he fanned away the mosquitoes with his hat. “Greg said this is how it was.”

“Your uncle? The one who died?”

“Yeah, on the second go-around. The first time he came home and talked about a disaster. Horse threw a feller from a rich family in Kansas and broke his neck.”

“I reckon everybody knows what they’re getting into coming to this place.”

“I’m not sure of that at all. You think you know what evil is until you look it in the eye. That’s when you really cotton to the consequences. Ain’t no fancy shooting iron worth any of this.”

“Too early for that kind of talk.”

“The hell it is. I ain’t faint-hearted, but this is a bad fix. The boy is sure enough in mortal danger. Judging what happened to them dogs, we might be in trouble.”

Luke Honey had no argument with that observation, preoccupied as he was with how the fog hung like a curtain around them, how the night abruptly surged upon them, how every hair of his body stood on end. He realized his companion wasn’t at his side. He called Mr. Williams’ name and the branches creaked overhead.

An unearthly stillness settled around him as he pressed his hand against the rough and slimy bark of a tree. He listened as the gazelle at the waterhole listened for the predators that deviled them. He saw a muted glow ahead; the manner of light that seeped from certain fogbanks on the deep ocean and in the depths of caverns. He went forward, groping through coils of mist, rifle held aloft in his free hand. His racing heart threatened to unman him.

Luke Honey stepped into a small grove of twisted and shaggy trees. The weak, phosphorescence rose from the earth and cast evil shadows upon the foliage and the wall of thorns that hemmed the grove on three sides. A statue canted leeward at the center of the grove—a tall, crumbling marble stack, ghastly white and stained black by moss and mold, a terrible horned man, or god. This was an idol to a dark and vile Other and it radiated a palpable aura of wickedness.

The fog crept into Luke Honey’s mouth, trickled into his nostrils, and his gorge rebelled. Something struck him across the shoulders. He lost balance and all the strength in his legs drained and he collapsed and lay supine, squashed into the wet earth and leaves by an imponderable force. This force was the only thing keeping him from sliding off the skin of the Earth into the void. He clawed the dirt. Worms threaded his fingers. “Get behind me, devil,” he said.

The statue blurred and expanded, shifting elastically. The statue was so very large and its cruel shadow pinned him like an insect, and the voices of its creators, primeval troglodytes who’d dwelt in mud huts and made love in the filth and offered their blood to long-dead gods, whispered obscenities, and images unfolded in his mind. He threshed and struggled to rise. A child screamed. The cry chopped off. A discordant vibration rippled over the ground and passed through Luke Honey’s bones—a hideous clash of cymbals and shrieking reeds reverberated in his brain. His nose bled.

Fresh blood is best, the statue said, although it was Luke Honey’s mouth that opened and made the words. Baby blood, boy child blood. Rich red sweet rare boy blood. What, little man, what could you offer the lord of the dark? What you feeble fly? His jaw contorted, manipulated by invisible fingers. His tongue writhed at the bidding of the Other. A choir of corrupt angels sang from the darkness all around—a song sweet and repellent, and old as Melville’s sea and its inhabitants. Sulfurous red light illuminated the fog and impossible shapes danced and capered as if beamed from the lens of a magic lantern.

Luke Honey turned his head sideways in the dirt and saw his brother hoeing in the field. He saw himself as a boy of fourteen struggling with loading a single shot .22 and the muzzle flash exactly as Michael leaned in to look at the barrel. Luke Honey’s father sent him to live in Utah and his mother died shortly thereafter, a broken woman. The black disk of the moon occulted the sun. His massive .416 Rigby boomed and a bull elephant pitched forward and crumpled, its tusks digging furrows in the dirt. Mother stood in the entrance of the tent, wings charred, her brilliant nimbus dimmed to reddish flame. Arlen regarded him from the maze of thorns, his face slack with horror. “Take me instead,” Luke Honey said through clenched teeth, “and be damned.”

You’re already mine, Lucas. The Other cackled in lunatic merriment.

The music, the fire, the singing, all crashed and stopped.

Mr. Williams leaned over him and Luke Honey almost skewered the man. Mr. Williams leaped back, staring at the Barlow knife in Luke Honey’s fist. “Sorry, boy. You were having a fit. Laughing like a crazy man.”

Luke Honey clambered to his feet and put away the knife. His scooped up his rifle and brushed leaves from his clothes. The glow had subsided and the two men were alone except for the idol which hulked, a terrible lump in the darkness.

“Sweet baby Jesus,” Mr. Williams said. “My uncle told me about these damned things, too. Said rich townies—that weren’t followers of Christ, to put it politely—had ’em shipped in and set up here and there across the estate. Gods from the Old World. There are stories about rituals in the hills. Animal sacrifices and unnatural relations. Stories like our hosts told us about the Blackwoods. To this day, folks with money and an interest in ungodly practices come to visit these shrines.”

“Let’s get away from this thing,” Luke Honey said.

“Amen to that.” Mr. Williams led the way and they might’ve wandered all night, but someone fired a gun to signal periodically, and the two men stumbled into the firelight of camp as Mr. Liam Welloc and Mr. McEvoy were serving a simple dinner of pork and beans. By unspoken agreement, neither Luke Honey or Mr. Williams mentioned the vile statue. Luke Honey retreated to the edge of the camp, eyeing Mr. Liam Welloc and Dr. Landscomb. As lords of the estate there could be no doubt they knew something of the artifacts and their foul nature. Were the men merely curators, or did they partake of corrupt ceremonies by the dark of the moon? He shuddered and kept his weapons close.

Dr. Landscomb and Lord Bullard had wrapped Mr. Wesley in a cocoon of blankets. Mr. Wesley’s face was drawn, his eyes heavy-lidded. Lord Bullard held a brandy flask to his companion’s lips and dabbed them with a handkerchief after each coughing jag.

“Lord Almighty,” Mr. Williams said as he joined Luke Honey, a plate of beans in hand. “I reckon he’s off to the happy hunting grounds any minute now.”

Luke Honey ate his dinner and tried to ignore Mr. Wesley’s groans and coughs, and poor Scobie mumbling and rocking on his heels, a posture that betrayed his rude lineage of savages who went forth in ochre paints and limed hair and wailed at the capriciousness of pagan gods.

There were no stories around the fire that evening, and later, it rained.

* * *

Mr. Wesley was dead in the morning. He lay stiff and blue upon the lean-to floor. Dr. Landscomb covered him with another blanket and said a few words. Lord Bullard wept inconsolably and cast hateful glances at Luke Honey.

“Lord Almighty,” was all Mr. Williams could repeat. The big man stood near the corpse, hat in hand.

“The forest is particularly greedy this season,” Mr. Liam Welloc said. “It has taken a good Christian fellow and an innocent child, alas.”

“Hold your tongue, Mr. Welloc!” Scobie’s face was no less contorted in grief and fury than Lord Bullard’s. He pointed at Mr. Liam Welloc. “My grandson lives, an’ I swear to uproot every stone an’ every tree in this godforsaken forest to find him.”

Mr. Liam Welloc gave Scobie a pitying smile. “I’m sorry, my friend. You know as well as I that the odds of his surviving the night are slim. The damp and cold alone….”

“We must continue the search.”

“Perhaps tomorrow. At the moment, we are duty bound to see our guests to safety and make arrangements for the disposition of poor Mr. Wesley’s earthly remains.”

“You mean to leave Arlen at the tender mercy of… Nay, I’ll have none of it.”

“I am sorry. Our duty is clear.”

“Curse you, Mr. Welloc!”

“Master Scobie, I implore you not to pursue a reckless course—”

“Bah!” Scobie made a foul gesture and stomped into the predawn gloom.

Mr. McEvoy said, “The old man is right—we can’t just quit on the kid.”

“Damned straight,” Mr. Briggs said. “What kind of skunks would we be to abandon a boy while there’s still a chance?”

Dr. Landscomb said, “Well spoken, sirs. However, you can hardly be expected to grasp the, ah, gravity of the situation. I assure you, Arlen is lost. Master Scobie is on a Quixotic mission. He won’t find the lad anywhere in Wolfvale. In any event, Mr. McEvoy simply must be treated at a hospital lest his ankle grow worse. I dislike the color of the swelling.”

“Surely, it does no harm to try,” Mr. Briggs said.

“We tempt fate by spending another minute here,” Mr. Liam Welloc said. “And to stay after sunset…. This is impossible, I’m afraid.” The incongruity of the doctor’s genteel comport juxtaposed with his apparent dread of the supernatural chilled Luke Honey in a way he wouldn’t have deemed possible after his experiences abroad.

“Tempt fate?” Mr. Briggs said. “Not stay after sunset? What the hell is that supposed to mean, Welloc? Boys, can you make heads or tails of this foolishness?”

“He means we’d better get ourselves shut of this place,” Mr. Williams said.

“Bloody right,” Lord Bullard said. “This is a matter for the authorities.”

Mr. Briggs appeared dumbfounded. “Well don’t this beat all. Luke, what do you say?”

Luke Honey lighted a cigarette. “I think we should get back to the lodge. A dirty shame, but that’s how I see it.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“Me neither,” Mr. McEvoy said. His leg was elevated and his cheeks shone with sweat. His ankle was swaddled in bandages. “Wish I could walk, damn it.”

“You saw what that stag did to the dogs,” Lord Bullard said. “There’s something unnatural at work and I’ve had quite enough, thank you.” He wiped his eyes and looked at Luke Honey. “You’ll answer for Wes. Don’t think you won’t.”

“Easy there, partner,” Mr. Williams said.

Luke Honey nodded. “Well, Mr. Bullard, I think you may be correct. I’ll answer for your friend. That reckoning is a bit farther down the list, but it’s on there.”

“This is no time to bicker,” said Mr. Liam Welloc. “Apparently we are in agreement—”

“Not all of us,” Mr. Briggs said, glowering.

“—Since we are in agreement, let’s commence packing. We’ll sort everything out when we return to the house.”

“What about Scobie?” Mr. Briggs said.

“Master Scobie can fend for himself,” Mr. Liam Welloc said, his bland, conciliatory demeanor firmly in place. “As I said, upon our return we will alert the proper authorities. Sheriff Peckham has some experience in these matters.”

Luke Honey didn’t believe the sheriff, or anybody else, would be combing these woods for one raggedy kid anytime soon. The yearly sacrifice had been accomplished. This was the way of the world; this was its beating heart and panting maw. He’d seen such offerings made by tribes in the jungles, just as his own Gaelic kin had once poured wine in the sea and cut the throats of fatted lambs. If one looked back far enough, all men issued from the same wellspring and every last one of them feared the dark as Mr. Liam Welloc and Dr. Landscomb and their constituency in Ransom Hollow surely did. Despite the loathsome nature of their pact, there was nothing shocking about this arrangement. To propitiate the gods, to please one’s lord and master was ever the way. That expert killers such as the English and the Texans and, of course, himself, served as provender in this particular iteration of the eternal drama filled Luke Honey’s heart with bitter amusement. This wry humor mixed with his increasing dread and rendered him giddy, almost drunken.

Mr. Wesley’s body was laid across the saddle of Luke Honey’s horse and the company began the long trudge homeward. The dreary fog persisted, although the rain had given out for the moment.

“I hope you don’t think I’m a coward,” Mr. Williams said. He rode beside Luke Honey who was walking at the rear of the group.

Luke Honey didn’t speak. He pulled his collar tight.

“My mama raised me as a God fearin’ boy. There’s real evil, Mr. Honey. Not that existential crap, either. Last night, I felt somethin’ I ain’t felt before. Scared me spitless.” When Luke Honey didn’t answer, Mr. Williams leaned over and said in a low voice, “People got killed in that grove, not just animals. Couldn’t you feel it coming off that idol like a draft in a slaughter yard? I ain’t afraid of much, but Bullard’s right. This ain’t natural and that kid is a goner.”

“Who are you trying to convince?” Luke Honey said, although the question was more than a little self-referential. “The hunt is over. Go back to Texas and dream away the winter. There’s always next year.”

“No, not for me. My uncle made that mistake. Next year, I’ll go to British Colombia. Or Alaska. Damned if I know, but I know it won’t be Ransom Hollow.” Mr. Williams clicked his tongue and spurred his mount ahead to rejoin the group.

Later, the company halted for a brief time to rest the animals and allow the men to stretch their legs. The liquor was gone and tempers short. When they remounted, Luke Honey remained seated on a mossy boulder, smoking his last cigarette. His companions rode on, heads down and dispirited, and failed to notice his absence. They disappeared around a sharp bend.

Luke Honey finished his cigarette. The sun slowly ate through the clouds and its pale light shone in the gaps of the foliage. He turned his back and walked deeper into the woods, into the darkness.

* * *

The shrieks of the mastiffs came and went all day, and so too the phantom bellows of men, the muffled blasts of their weapons. Luke Honey resisted the urge to cover his ears, to break and flee. Occasionally, Scobie hollered from an indeterminate distance. Luke Honey thought the old man’s cries sounded more substantial, more of the mortal realm, and he attempted to orient himself in their direction. He walked on, clutching his rifle.

Night came and he was lost in the endless forest.

A light glimmered to his left, sifting down through the black gallery to illuminate a figure who stood as if upon a stage. Mr. Wesley regarded him, hat clasped to his navel in both hands, hair slick and shining. His face was white. A black stain spread across the breast of his white shirt. He removed a pair of objects from inside his hat and with an insolent flourish tossed them into the bushes short of Luke Honey. Dr. Landscomb stepped into view and took Mr. Wesley by the elbow and drew him into the shadows. The ray of light blinked out of existence.

The objects were pale and glistening and as Luke Honey approached them, his heart beat faster. He leaned close to inspect them and recoiled, his courage finally buckling in the presence of such monstrous events.

Luke Honey blindly shoved his way through low-hanging branches and spiky undergrowth. His clothes were torn, the flesh of his hands and face scratched and bleeding. A rifle fired several yards away. He staggered and shielded his eyes from the muzzle flash and a large animal blundered past him, squealing and roaring. Then it was gone and Scobie came tearing in pursuit and almost tripped over him. The old man swung a battered lantern. He gawked at Luke Honey in the flat yellow glare.

Scobie’s expression was wild and caked in dirt. His face was nicked and bloody. He panted like a dog. He held his rifle in his left hand, its bore centered on Luke Honey’s middle. In a gasping voice, he said, “I see you, Bill.”

“It’s me, Luke Honey.”

“What’s your business here?”

“I came to help you find the boy.” He dared not speak of what he’d so recently discovered, an abomination that once revealed was certain to drive the huntsman into raving madness. At this range Scobie’s ancient single shot rifle would cut Luke Honey in twain.

“Arlen’s gone. He’s gone.” Scobie lowered the weapon, his arm quivering in exhaustion.

“You don’t believe that.” Luke Honey said with a steadiness born of staring down savage predators, of waiting to pull the trigger that would drop them at his feet, of facing certain death with a coldness of mind inherent to the borderline mad. The terror remained, ready to sweep him away.

“I’m worn to the bone. There’s nothing left in me.” Scobie seemed to wither, to shrink into himself in despair.

“The stag is wounded,” Luke Honey said. “I think you hit it again, judging from the racket.”

“It don’t matter. You can’t kill a thing like that.” Scobie’s eyes glittered with tears. “This is the devil’s preserve, Mr. Honey. Every acre. You should’ve gone with the masters, got yourself away. We stayed too long and we’re done for. He only pretends to run. He’ll end the game and come for us soon.”

“I had a bad feeling about Landscomb and Welloc.”

“Forget those idiots. They’re as much at the mercy of Hell as anyone else in Ransom Hollow.”

“Got anything to drink?” Luke Honey said.

Scobie hung the lantern from a branch and handed Luke Honey a canteen made of cured animal skin. The canteen was full of sweet, bitter whiskey. The men took a couple of swigs and rested there by the flickering illumination of the sooty old lamp. Luke Honey built a fire. They ate jerky and warmed themselves as the dank night closed in ever more tightly.

Much later, Scobie said, “It used to be worse. My grandsire claimed some of the more devout folk would drag girls from their homes and cut out their innards on them stone tablets you’ll find under a tree here or there.” His wizened face crinkled into a horridly mournful smile. “An’ my mother, she whispered that when she was a babe, Black Bill was known to creep through the yards of honest folk while they slept. She heard his nails tap-tapping on their cottage door one night.”

Luke Honey closed his eyes. He thought again of Arlen’s pitiful, small hands severed at the wrists and discarded in the brush, a pair of soft, dripping flowers. He heard his companion rise stealthily and creep away from camp. He slept and awakened to the old man kneeling at his side. Scobie’s face was hidden in shadow. Luke Honey smelled the oily steel of a knife near his own neck. The man reeked of murderous intent. He wondered where Scobie had been, what he had done.

Scobie spoke softly, “I don’t know what to do. I’m a man of God.”

“Yet here we are. Look who you serve.”

“No, Mr. Honey. The hunt goes on an’ I don’t matter none. You’re presence ain’t my doing. You bought your ticket. I come because somebody’s got to stand up. Somebody’s got to put a bullet in the demon.”

“The price you’ve paid seems steep as hell, codger.”

Scobie nodded. He remained quiet for a while. At last he said, “Come, boy. You must come with me now. He’s waiting for us. He whispered to me from the dark, made a pact with me he’d take one of us in return for Arlen. I promised him you, God help me. It’s a vile oath and I’m ashamed.”

“Oh, Scobie.” Luke Honey’s belly twisted and churned. “You know how these things turn out. You poor, damned fool.”

“Please. Don’t make me beg you, Mr. Honey. Don’t make me. Do what’s right for that innocent boy. I know the Lord’s in your heart.”

Luke Honey reached for Scobie’s arm, and patted it. “You’re right about one thing. God help you.”

They went. There was a clearing, its bed layered with muck and spoiled leaves. Unholy symbols were gouged into the trees; brands so old they’d fossilized. It was a killing ground of antiquity and Scobie had prepared it well. He’d improvised several torches to light the shallow basin with a ghastly, reddish glare.

Scobie took several steps and uttered an inarticulate cry, a glottal exclamation held over from his ancestors. He half turned to beckon and his face was transformed by shock when Luke Honey smashed the butt of his rifle into his hip, and sent him stumbling into the middle of the clearing.

Luke Honey’s eyes blurred with grief, and Michael’s shade materialized there, his trusting smile disintegrating into bewilderment, then inertness. The cruelness of the memory drained Luke Honey of his fear. He said with dispassion, “My hell is to testify. Don’t you understand? He doesn’t want me. He took me years ago.”

Brush snapped. The stag shambled forth from the outer darkness. It loomed above Scobie, its fur rank and steaming. Black blood oozed from gashes along its flanks. Beneath a great jagged crown of antlers its eyes were black, its teeth yellow and broken. Scobie fell to his knees, palms raised in supplication. The stag nuzzled his matted hair and its long tongue lapped at the muddy tears and the streaks of drying blood upon the man’s upturned face. Its muzzle unhinged. The teeth closed and there was a sound like a ripe cabbage cracking apart.

Luke Honey slumped against the bole of the oak, the rifle a dead, useless weight across his knees, and watched.

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