"Impossible to put down.” —Kelly Link, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist Get In Trouble
From bestselling author Alex Grecian comes a folk horror epic about a ragtag posse that must track down a witch through a wild west beset by demons and ghosts—and where death is always just around the bend.
Sadie Grace is wanted for witchcraft, dead (or alive). And every hired gun in Kansas is out to collect the bounty on her head, including bona fide witch hunter Old Tom and his mysterious, mute ward, Rabbit.
On the road to Burden County, they’re joined by two vagabond cowboys with a strong sense of adventure – but no sense of purpose – and a recently widowed schoolteacher with nothing left to lose. As their posse grows, so too does the danger.
Racing along the drought-stricken plains in a stolen red stagecoach, they encounter monsters more wicked than witches lurking along the dusty trail. But the crew is determined to get that bounty, or die trying.
Written with the devilish cadence of Stephen Graham Jones and the pulse-pounding brutality of Nick Cutter, Red Rabbit is a supernatural adventure of luck and misfortune.
A Macmillan Audio production from Tor Nightfire.
Release date: September 19, 2023
Publisher: Tor Publishing Group
Print pages: 646
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Word of the bounty on Sadie Grace spread quickly: one thousand dollars to any man who could kill the notorious witch of Burden County, Kansas. Ned Hemingway eventually heard about it all the way down in Oklahoma, below the Cherokee Strip.
Skeins of honking geese were returning north, and the black oaks and river birches had begun to turn green by the time Ned crossed the border into Kansas. He was riding with Moses Burke out of Texas and they were taking their time, not especially interested in finding fresh employment until their funds ran out. Moses was vaguely interested in visiting a cousin of his in Nicodemus, and Ned thought he might go along to satisfy his curiosity about the place. After that, they’d discussed the possibility of circling back south to Dodge City, but it was an idle thought and susceptible to change, depending on their whim.
They stopped over in Monmouth, to give their mounts a rest and to play a hand or two of poker. It was late in the day, and Moses was holding two aces and an eight when the saloon door opened and an old man limped into the makeshift saloon. He had a shock of white hair that stuck out in all directions from under his hat, and he was carrying a child’s body over his shoulder.
He dumped the child on a table, then stepped back and addressed the room. By that time, everyone in the place had set down their drinks and their cards to gawk at the new arrival. The women stood up and moved toward the staircase in case the old man meant to stir up trouble.
“She got my boy,” the man said. “The witch got my boy.”
Moses stood and pushed his chair back, abandoning the excellent hand he’d been dealt. He brushed past the old man and bent low, putting his ear to the child’s chest.
“Get away from him,” the old man said. “You ain’t fit to touch him.”
“This child isn’t dead,” Moses said. “But his arm’s out of the socket, and if he won’t wake up there could be something wrong with his head, too.”
“What do you know about it?” the old man said.
Moses grabbed the child’s arm with both hands, braced his foot against the table, and pulled. There was a loud pop and the table shook beneath the tiny body. The old man started forward, but Ned put a hand on his shoulder and spun him around.
“My name’s Hemingway, friend,” Ned said. He let the old man go and rested a hand on his holster. “My partner here is Moses Burke. He learned some medicine in the war.”
“Not on my side, he didn’t,” the man said. He glanced down at Ned’s hand on the butt of his gun and up at Ned’s eyes under the brim of his yellow cattleman, trying to size up his odds.
“I don’t doubt that, sir,” Ned said. “Moses is particular about the company he keeps.”
In fact, Moses had served under Dr John DeGrasse in the 54th Regiment out of Massachusetts. Dr DeGrasse, the only black surgeon to have treated Union troops, had chosen Moses and four other volunteers to help him in the field. In the following months, Moses had learned enough medicine that Ned sometimes thought his friend should have stuck with it, if there were a hospital that would take him on.
“I think this child will be all right,” Moses said. “That arm will hurt for a bit, but it should heal fine. I’m more worried about the head wound. And there’s something else that doesn’t sit right with me, but…”
Moses broke off and shook his head as if arguing with himself. He caught Ned’s eye and motioned him over to the far end of the bar. Ned followed, but kept an eye on the stranger, who was now hovering over the small body on the table.
“Regardless of what this man claims,” Moses said in a low voice, “that child is not a boy.”
“As sure as I can be.”
“You think this fella’s lying to us,” Ned said.
“I can think of a few reasons for that,” Moses said. “Not all of ’em sinister.”
“Or it could be he’s not lying.” Ned liked to look at things from all angles.
“In which case he doesn’t know that’s a little girl he’s slinging around like a bag of beans.”
“Might be worthwhile to ask him some questions,” Ned said.
One of the women had fetched a damp cloth from behind the bar. She folded it in half and laid it on the child’s forehead, while another woman pushed the old man toward the bar where the saloonkeeper set out a shot of whiskey. The old man accepted the drink and swallowed it in one gulp.
“Next round’s on me,” Ned said. “What’s your name, old-timer?”
“Tom Goggins,” the old man said. “Of the Omaha Gogginses, if you’re familiar.”
“Well, I’ve never been there,” Ned said. “But why don’t you join us, Tom of the Omaha Gogginses, and tell us what this is all about.”
“What it’s about,” Tom said. “is a witch.”
Rose Nettles found her husband, Joe Mullins, through a classified advertisement in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. The ad was pointed out to her by her mother one evening after they had washed the dinner dishes and put them away. After Rose had dried her hands her mother handed her the paper, opened to the classifieds page. An ad halfway down the right-hand column was circled in grease pencil. Rose found her glasses and read it aloud.
Wanted: A Wife.
Hardworking man with 160 acres of tilled and seeded land seeking compatible woman to help with household and some farming duties. Would appreciate a comely face and pleasant voice, but not essential. Requires a good nature and willing companionship.
Below the ad was an address in Kansas. Rose’s mother had underlined the address twice with the grease pencil. Rose set the paper aside and took off her glasses, setting them on the table next to her while gathering her thoughts and choosing her words. But her mother spoke first.
“You ought to have a husband,” she said. “I want to see you settled before I go.”
Rose’s mother had recently accepted a proposal of marriage from her banker, Giles Bradshaw, who had three grown daughters of his own with whom Rose did not get along. Rose was aware that her mother and Mr Bradshaw had discussed what was to become of Rose after the wedding, since she was unlikely to be welcomed into his home.
“You want me to marry a stranger who lives thousands of miles away?” Rose asked her mother. “I might never see you again.”
Her mother turned away, and Rose knew she was hiding tears. She was glad to see that Giles Bradshaw hadn’t entirely turned her mother against her.
“You’re not getting younger, Rose, and nobody’s come around asking after you in quite some time. I worry you’ve waited too long already. I know Charles Thurmond would have you, but you don’t answer his letters.”
Her mother reached out and squeezed Rose’s hand, then hurried from the room.
There were several points—leaving aside the influence of Giles Bradshaw—that Rose felt she might object to if given the chance. In the first place, she wasn’t certain she needed a husband. Her quiet life suited her: her books, her knitting, her work at the schoolhouse. Charles Thurmond was twenty years older than Rose, and smelled like spoiled milk. Rose had no desire to read Charles’s letters, much less respond to them. And yet her perfectly comfortable life caused her mother distress. There was no arguing with that.
The following morning, with a deep sense of dread, Rose wrote a brief response and posted it to the paper.
My name is Rose Nettles. I am twenty-four years old. I am not too skinny, nor too tall, and I have been told my features and disposition are agreeable. I am in good health and strong, I can read and write, and my singing voice is untrained, but passable. I am willing to enter into an arrangement with you and I await your response.
Three tense weeks passed in which Rose and her mother barely spoke, then a letter arrived for Rose. It was brief and to the point.
Your particulars are acceptable. Please come.
The following day Rose handed Charles Thurmond her letter of resignation. The schoolmaster accepted it reluctantly and with a measure of kindness that surprised Rose. She went home that afternoon and packed her old leather valise with two long skirts, three white blouses, and several pairs of warm woolen stockings she had knitted for herself. She chose five novels from her shelves, but put one of them back when she judged the small stack to be too heavy, and replaced it with a selection of sheet music from the piano bench. She had saved one hundred seventeen dollars from her teaching salary, and she left twenty dollars on the kitchen table for her mother. A wedding gift. The remaining ninety-seven dollars she rolled up and hid in the toe of a stocking at the bottom of the valise. She left her best dress hanging in the closet—she did not think she would need it on a farm—and the only jewelry she took was a pocket watch and an old silver locket containing a sepia-stained photo of her mother in one side, and a miniature portrait from her parents’ wedding day in the other. It was the only likeness she had of her father, whom she had never met.
She walked to the train station and bought a one-way ticket to Kansas City.
She had heard of Kansas, and she had the impression it was all dusty plains and howling winds. When she reached her compartment on the train, she locked the door and pulled the curtain before finally surrendering to despair. She set her watch on the seat beside her and cried for exactly fifteen minutes, then wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and unlocked the door.
She read intermittently from The Woman in White, and occasionally marked her page with a finger while she watched the countryside roll by outside her window. In the evening she bought a sandwich and a pint of milk from the porter and lit a lamp, reading until she could no longer keep her eyes open. She packed the book away and set her empty milk bottle in the passage outside her door, dressed for bed, and was rocked into a deep and dreamless sleep by the swaying carriage.
She breakfasted in the dining car, keeping to herself, smiling politely at other passengers as they entered and exited. When she had eaten, she asked for a pot of tea and took it back to her compartment, along with her book. The day passed uneventfully, and she dozed often enough that she lost track of time.
She was awake and had already repacked her bag when the train ground to a halt at the Kansas City station. A cluster of men stood on the platform, talking among themselves. One of them separated from the group and approached her when she stepped off the train.
He took the pipe from his mouth and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “Would you be Miss Rose Nettles?” he said.
“I am,” she said.
He looked her up and down, and nodded.
“You’ll do,” he said. “I’m Joe Mullins.”
He took her valise and led her to a buckboard with two swaybacked mules hitched and grazing. He helped her up onto the seat, then set her bag in the back and clambered up beside her.
As the wagon rolled away from the station, Rose felt a dizzying sensation of separation from her past. Her life as she had known it was now far behind her, and her future was an alien thing, plain and unwanted, squatting somewhere on the path ahead. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, determined to make the best of whatever was to come.
The trip south to Monmouth took more than seven hours, but she was too nervous and uncomfortable to sleep. The landscape surprised her. Yes, there was flat prairie along the rutted muddy road, but there was also lush green woodland. Rippling brooks ran through fields of bright yellow flowers, and a small herd of deer ran alongside the wagon for a quarter of a mile, seemingly as curious about Rose as she was about them. She found herself smiling, but gasped when a deer turned abruptly and darted in front of them, causing Joe to pull up short. Rose bounced up and off the seat, but Joe caught her before she fell from the buckboard.
“Careful there,” he said. The first words he had spoken since they left the station.
Rose sneezed and he handed her a handkerchief.
“Pollen,” he said. “Bad this time of year.”
He snapped the reins and the mules resumed their steady forward pace.
When they arrived that evening, she saw that her new house was a tidy thing of splintery planks that were slotted together without any sign of a nail or wood screw. There were two rooms, and a small kitchen in the back that was open on the sides and covered to keep off the weather. A tin bathtub occupied a corner of the kitchen, and Rose was touched to see that a cheerful yellow curtain was hung around it, the seams still pressed into its fabric where it had been folded and stored somewhere, awaiting her arrival.
The front room held a table and three homemade chairs, as well as a fireplace with a plain cross nailed to the wall above it. A doorway led to the bedroom, where Rose saw a second fireplace. Joe placed her valise on a small vanity next to the narrow bed. He saw Rose’s anxious expression and cleared his throat, looking away out the window.
“I got a bedroll and I don’t mind sleeping in the other room until you get to know me,” he said. “It’s a new situation.”
Joe Mullins was a small man with thinning hair and a droopy mustache. His arms and legs were thin, but roped with lean muscle, and he had a small potbelly that he seemed self-conscious about. He spoke rarely—in fact he had been alone on the farm so long that he seemed to have forgotten the art of polite conversation and sometimes went days without saying a word to her—but he was kind. Rose did not consider him to be physically attractive, but she grew accustomed to him as the weeks passed, and one night when a particularly chilly breeze had sprung up, she called him in from the front room and allowed him into their bed.
Ten weeks after arriving in Kansas, Rose received a letter from her mother. Joe brought it to her where she sat reading a Dickens novel, then went and pulled out a chair across from her, watching her, and she knew he was afraid the envelope contained a train ticket back to Philadelphia. Rose opened it, unfolding the single piece of paper inside.
“Dear Rose,” the letter began. “The wedding was a small affair, and I am now Mrs Giles Bradshaw. I am selling the old house. Mr Bradshaw has asked after your health, and I would be glad to tell him that you…”
Rose stopped reading. She folded the letter back up and stuck it beneath the cover of Dombey and Son. She smiled at Joe, then returned to her place in the book and continued reading.
For seven years they lived as man and wife, Joe and Rose Mullins, though there was no formal wedding ceremony. Joe worked the land and brought in supplies, while Rose kept the house: sweeping and washing, cooking their meager meals, and reading to Joe in the evenings as they sat by the fire.
They never spoke about it, but Rose knew that Joe wanted children—preferably sons to carry on both his blood and his name, and to help with the farm when they grew older—but the idea of bearing a child terrified Rose. What if she produced daughters, instead of the boys she was sure Joe wanted? Or—and this was an idea nearly as frightening to her as the prospect of raising a daughter on the prairie—what if she died while giving birth?
It had happened to an acquaintance of hers in Philadelphia, a girl named Marnie, sweet and energetic, with a spray of freckles across her nose that she refused to conceal with makeup. She and her baby had both died in childbirth, and her husband had remarried six months to the day after burying Marnie and her baby. As friends of the family, Rose and her mother were invited to the man’s second wedding reception, but Rose had declined. It had all happened so quickly that Marnie seemed almost disposable, a broken ornament that had been tossed aside and forgotten. Of course, Rose knew this was nonsense. The poor man was incapable of living alone, and he had waited the proper amount of time after Marnie’s death to remarry. Still, Rose knew she would be unable to look at him or to congratulate the new bride.
When Joe and Rose had sex, an act that was both infrequent and awkward, Rose would wait for Joe to begin snoring, then make herself a tea of boiled thistles and arsenic to keep his seed from taking root in her. If Joe was unhappy about her continued inability to conceive a child, he never said as much, but over breakfast one morning he slid a flyer across the table.
“Got this from the general store,” he said. “I was thinking I might take the morning off, if you want, and we could go into town.”
The headline read “Wanted: Homes for Orphan Children,” and beneath that, in smaller type: “A company of homeless boys and girls from the East will arrive in Monmouth, KS, next Saturday. Ages six months to sixteen years. Come and meet your child. Distribution will begin at ten o’clock in the town square.”
There was more, but Rose stopped reading. She set down her spoon and slid her chair back.
“The orphan train,” she said.
“This could be a good home for a child,” Joe said. “It’s awful quiet here with just us two, and it’d be useful to have an extra hand on the farm when he comes of age.”
“Doesn’t have to be. I’m open to your wishes, Rose. It’s only an idea.”
* * *
They arrived early. The train station was located at the town border, across from the stockade, nothing beyond it but farmland and grazing cattle. Joe hoped to get a look at the children before they were led to the square. Other couples had the same idea, and Joe elbowed his way through a small crowd to the platform. Rose stayed with the buckboard. The more she thought about bringing a child into their home, the more nervous she became.
An Indian man stood behind the tall wooden slats of the stockade, watching her. She moved so that her back was to him.
She had brought a book with her, a lurid gothic novel with a plain black cover, written by Ubel H. H. F. Crane. Joe had bought it because they’d enjoyed Mary Shelley’s novel. Rose turned to the page where she had left off the previous evening.
The floor was formed of dirt and loose stones, and flickering torches lined the walls. At the far side of the room a purple curtain hung from the ceiling to the floor. Men and women were gathered there, around a long table heaped with platters of meat and cheese, decanters of wine, and a cornucopia of bread and ripe fruits. There was a hushed murmur that ran through the gathering like a wave, and a nude woman wearing a mask adorned with cat ears lifted a silver dome to reveal the severed head of an old man. The worshippers at the table leapt upon the head, gouging out its eyeballs and biting off its ears. I tried to look away, but my eyes were drawn against my will to the gruesome spectacle.
The masked woman lifted another dome and some sort of black sludge poured out over the table, glistening in the torchlight. The sludge broke apart, and I saw then that it was a mass of tiny black toads, wriggling and hopping about. The partygoers abandoned the severed head of the old man and leapt upon the toads, grabbing them up and stuffing them into their mouths. They unstoppered the decanters and gulped wine, washing the toads down their greedy throats.
The masked woman tore down the purple curtain, and the earth split open behind it, smoke billowing to the rafters above. An orange glow emanated from the pit.
The gathered throng pushed a young boy toward the pit, and the woman with the cat mask took the boy’s hand and led him to the edge of the pit. I strained against my shackles and I heaved myself backward against the pillar, but it held fast. I screamed for it all to stop. I screamed until my throat was raw, but my efforts were for naught. The priestess pushed the boy and he fell from sight.
The train whistle startled Rose. She closed the book and watched the engine chug the last quarter mile to the station platform. She looked for Joe, but couldn’t see him in the crowd. Behind her, she heard the Indian begin to sing, his voice deep and mournful, and Rose turned to listen.
The crowd around the platform broke up. Men and women moved away down the street, but Rose didn’t see any children with them. Joe rejoined her and leaned against the buckboard, waiting for the man in the stockade to end his song.
“His name’s Traveling Horse,” Joe said. “I talked to him when I come to get a new hammer last week. He took a rhubarb pie off a woman’s porch while it was cooling, so the sheriff sentenced him to thirty days. Seems long to me. That woman can make another pie.”
“What was he singing?” Rose said.
“Indian song about a great hunter they’re scared of. Traveling Horse is worried ’cause the hunter’s around here somewhere.”
“Aren’t there a lot of hunters around here?”
“I guess this one’s sometimes a wolf, and sometimes he’s a man, but you can tell him by his yellow eyes. Traveling Horse says he’s been around as long as there’s been white men in this country. Them Indians are a superstitious folk, that’s for sure.”
“Joe? What happened with the train?”
He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Some town up north of here claimed every last child they had on that train. They was all gone by the time it got here. No point in even making the trip to town, I guess.”
Rose hoped her relief wasn’t obvious. “Why don’t you invite Traveling Horse to supper when his sentence is up?”
“To our home?”
“Well, he never got to eat that pie, did he?” Rose said. “And didn’t you say the house was too quiet?”
* * *
One evening in late December as Rose read to him from Lady Audley’s Secret, Joe clutched his stomach and cried out in pain. Rose set the book down and went to him, but he waved her away.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “A strained muscle, that’s all.”
But he retired early, and in the middle of the night had a seizure. She held him until his spasms subsided, but in the morning he was unable to rise from their bed. His forehead was hot to the touch, and he did not recognize her when she spoke his name. Rose rode into town, but by the time she returned with the doctor, Joe had fallen into a deep sleep from which he never awoke.
After he passed, Rose tore down the curtain from their bathtub and used it to wrap his body. She kept him cold behind the house, and covered him with stones from the creek to protect him from coyotes. When the snow and ice had melted away, and the ground was soft enough, she began the hard work of digging a grave. She buried him at the edge of the property, under the spreading branches of a sycamore tree. It took two full days to carve out a hole deep enough and long enough for his body, and she paused often for food and sleep. She left Joe wrapped in the yellow curtain, now faded and tattered at the ends, and rolled him into the hole.
Filling it back in was easier work.
The next day she pried the cross off the wall above the fireplace and hammered it into the ground over Joe’s head.
She struggled that spring to till the soil, unused to handling the heavy plow or the two stubborn old mules. When one of them stumbled and fell, she left it in the field where it lay. Summer came and went, and she didn’t touch the bags of seed Joe had left in the barn.
Over the years she had accumulated three new books through the mail. She read those, and the four books she had brought with her, over and over again, and sometimes she stepped outside on a cool evening to sing, thinking Joe might hear, wherever he was, and be pleased.
She knew that she could not stay on the farm forever. It would be impossible for her to plant and harvest one hundred sixty acres by herself. Joe had hired help in Monmouth each autumn to bring in the harvest, but Rose was worried about the kind of men who might come to the farm, and she didn’t know if the ninety-seven dollars hidden in her old valise would be enough to pay them. She thought she might last another season or two in the little wooden house Joe had built for her, but she might not. She had few options, and none of them appealed to her. She began to contemplate her supply of arsenic.
As she was standing on the front porch one evening in early April, smoking Joe’s pipe and looking out toward the crossroads, she saw three men and a child standing by Joe’s grave under the sycamore tree.
Ned Hemingway leaned in close to the tree where a crude straw doll was fastened to the trunk at eye level. A tenpenny nail had been driven through the middle of the doll’s chest. Ned stepped back and tapped the head of the nail.
“Moses, you reckon that’s where a witch’s heart is?”
Moses shrugged. “Never met a witch.”
Tom Goggins was irritated. “They keep their hearts at the same place as everybody else. They look just like a regular person,” he said. “At least, when they want to. You wouldn’t know if you met one or not, Mr Burke.”
The sun was going down, casting long shadows behind the four of them. At the base of the tree was a thick branch, the size of a man’s leg, jagged at one end. A wooden cross was pounded into the dirt a few feet away. Ned nudged Moses in the ribs and pointed.
“I saw it,” Moses said. “Pretty sure we’re disturbing somebody’s grave here.”
Ned took three steps away from the low mound he was standing on.
“Someone’s coming,” Moses said.
Ned looked up the grassy slope behind the tree and saw a woman marching toward them from a tiny house he’d assumed was abandoned. There were no lights in the windows, no smoke wafting from the chimney. It reminded Ned of the homesteads he had seen where people had given up or been driven out, their houses left to crumble away.
As the woman drew near, Ned walked out to meet her.
“I apologize if we’re trespassing here,” he said.
“You were standing on Joe’s grave,” she said, her voice low and guttural. She had a pipe clamped between her teeth and she held a Winchester rifle high across her chest.
“I assure you, ma’am,” Ned said. “We meant no disrespect to you or to Joe. We was just admiring the little dolly stuck to your tree over there, and we had not the slightest idea Joe was underfoot.”
The woman lowered the rifle and used the stem of her pipe to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. The sleeves of her dress were pushed up and Ned noted her sinewy forearms, the dirt embedded under her short fingernails.
“Was Joe your husband or your boy?” he said.
“My husband,” she said. “He took ill.”
“I’m awful sorry. You’re out here alone, are you?”
The woman’s head snapped back and her eyes went wide as she raised the rifle again. Ned patted the air between them in a calming gesture.
“I keep stepping out on the wrong foot with you,” he said.
“I know how to use this.” The woman pointed the rifle at Ned’s midsection.
“I’m sure you do, ma’am, but I was only asking about your situation in a neighborly way. We are not bandits, nor rapists, nor murderers, and I swear we mean you no harm. Well, at least Moses and me don’t mean any harm. I ain’t going to vouch for old Tom here, since we don’t know him too well. If you want to shoot somebody, you might wanna start with him.”
“Hey!” Tom shouted.
“He’s Tom, then,” the woman said, gesturing with the barrel of the rifle. “And you said that one’s Moses. So who are you?”
“My name’s Ned Hemingway.” He tipped his yellow hat.
“What’s this about my tree?”
Ned stepped to one side so she could pass. She kept the Winchester aimed in his general direction and squinted at the tree trunk, but the sun had fallen behind the horizon and the crude doll was just a dark shape against the bark. She might as well have been looking at a boll or the stump of a fallen branch. She lowered her rifle and touched the doll, squeezing it between her fingers.
“It was a real pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Ned said. “But I suppose we better go on our way now and let you get on with your evening.”
“You can stop calling me ma’am. My name is Rose Nettles. It’s getting chilly out here. You all might as well come up to the house and explain why there’s a witch’s hex on my husband’s grave.” She pointed in an offhand way at the silent child Tom had brought with them. “And I ought to take a look at that girl’s head. She needs medical attention.”
Old Tom Goggins watched as Rose prepared a plaster with half an onion, a garlic clove, and a proprietary mixture of crushed spices from a small glass jar she kept on the mantel, heating it in a saucepan over the fire.
“That there’s a boy,” Tom said. “I guess you was mistaken ’cause it’s dark outside.”
Rose ignored him. She tore a sleeve from Joe’s best Sunday shirt and told the girl to sit. The child sank to the floor without a word, and Rose knelt beside her, using her fingertips to comb through the girl’s short hair, removing dirt and brown crumbs of dried blood. The wound wasn’t deep and it didn’t need stitching, which was a relief to Rose. She liked to knit, she was good at it, but sewing wasn’t a skill she had mastered.
“I looked after her some,” Moses said. “But I’m used to a rougher sort of patching up. Soldiers and cowboys.”
“You did a fine job, Mr Burke. This child will heal nicely.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“What’s your name?” Rose said to the girl.
“I call him Rabbit,” Old Tom said. “Cause he give me a hell of a chase when I found him.”
“And where did you find her?”
“Him,” Tom said. “Rabbit was hiding out in the woods where his family’s house got burnt down by the Pawnee. I found the bones of his ma and pa in the rubble, so I guess I’m all the family he’s got now.”
“Is that what you want me to call you?” Rose said to the child. “Rabbit?”
The girl looked up at her with wide brown eyes, and said nothing.
When the poultice had boiled down to a thick paste, Rose dragged the piece of shirtsleeve through the bubbling pan and applied it to the girl’s scalp. Rabbit flinched and Rose gave her a comforting pat on the arm.
She rinsed out the pan and put water on for tea, then took a long-handled knife and cut down half a cured ham hock that Joe had hung up to dry. She set it on the table, along with a loaf of bread she had baked that morning, and eight bottles of beer that had chilled in the creek. The men helped themselves, and Rose put a hunk of bread on a plate for Rabbit, who devoured it greedily and held the plate out for another portion.
When everyone had eaten their fill, Rose settled into the rocking chair Joe had ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog the previous Christmas. She clenched his pipe between her teeth and gathered her knitting in her lap. Rabbit squatted on the hearth, staring into the flames, and the men pulled chairs over from the table, so that the five of them formed a rough semicircle around the fireplace.
Rose cast a critical eye on her guests. Tom Goggins wore a threadbare beaver-skin coat, with sleeves that ended two inches above his wrists and a hem that stopped midway between his shins and his ankles. She guessed it was tailored for a much shorter man, and she wondered whether he had won it in a game or stolen it outright. On his head was a battered felt hat with a turkey feather stuck in the band. He had not removed the hat when he entered her home, and Rose silently gave him a demerit for behavior.
Moses Burke’s shirt was frayed around the collar, but it looked clean enough and well cared for. His boots were similarly broken in, but had recently been polished, and he had taken off his faded brown derby when he stepped over her threshold, hanging it on the peg Joe had used when he came in from the fields. He got no demerits from Rose.
Ned Hemingway was uncommonly handsome, and the most dapper of the three men—the most dapper man she thought she had ever met. Every article of his clothing looked freshly laundered and pressed, even his mustard-colored Stetson, which he hung on a peg next to Moses’s hat. When he unbuttoned his fringed vest after supper, Rose had seen a glint of metal in the firelight, a tin star pinned to the lining. She decided to reserve judgment about him.
“Thank you for the meal,” Ned said. “Nothing hits the spot like a ham sandwich, a beer, and good company.”
“Firstly,” Rose said, “you’re very welcome. And secondly, Mr Goggins, the Pawnee haven’t caused any trouble around here. They’re a peaceful people, and I don’t believe they would burn down anyone’s home.”
Old Tom shook his head. “Did I say Pawnee?”
“That ham you just ate was got in barter from them,” Rose said. “So you owe them some gratitude should you meet up with them on your travels. Now third of all, I want an explanation for why there’s a hoodoo fetish nailed up over my husband’s grave. I need to know what it’s doing there before I remove it.”
“I wouldn’t take that doll down from there if I was you, ma’am,” Tom said. “Putting it up nearly cost that boy his life.”
They all looked at Rabbit, who was sitting close to the fire, rubbing her hands together and seemingly paying no attention to the adults’ conversation.
“I don’t like this one,” Rose said, taking the pipe from her mouth and using it to point at Tom. “Would one of you other gentlemen please explain your situation to me?”
“Well, I do feel like it’s Old Tom’s story to tell,” Ned said. “Although I can’t say I like him any better than you do, Mrs Nettles.”
“Go on then,” Rose said to Tom. “Tell me.”
“Well, I was about to tell you,” Tom said, feeling mildly insulted, but also happy to tell the story again. He had been on the trail for quite some time with no one to talk to but Rabbit, and Rabbit didn’t talk back. “This all started ’cause there’s a sizable reward for the killing of a witch up north of here. It was put up by some farmers after the witch poisoned their crops and murdered their kin. I’m an experienced witch-master, and I’ve killed my share of those foul creatures, but I’m not as young as I was in my youth, and my thinking was I’d do the deed from a ways off, you see? Killing a witch can be a tricky prospect and you got to get at ’em from far off or else with a large amount of men, such that they can’t curse everybody before they succumb to numbers. Now, the farmers who put the bounty on this witch … Well, my thinking is that, if they had the men in sufficient numbers, they wouldn’t have put that bounty on her to begin with, so the best course of action was to kill her from afar. I didn’t feel it was likely I’d get there and find myself equipped with an army.”
Rose puffed on her cold pipe and narrowed her eyes, waiting for him to continue. He cleared his throat.
“So what I did,” he said, “I used some straw and mushrooms and a few scraps of leather from a dead man’s shoes, and I fashioned a likeness of the party in question—the witch, I mean—then I found a tree over a fresh grave and I drove a nail into the doll’s heart. Soon’s I did that, she likely took sick from iron in her blood. By tomorrow, or possibly the next day, she’ll drop dead where she is. I’ve wired ahead to let them know what I done, and when I arrive up there to Burden County I’ll collect what I’m owed without putting nobody in the path of danger or death.”
He reached back to grab another bottle of beer from the table.
“Except the witch,” Rose said. “You intended to put her ‘in the path of danger or death,’ as you say.”
“Well, yes, her.”
“And my husband.”
“The purpose behind the grave and the tree,” Rose said. “The principle is that you have chained the witch’s soul to that of Joe Mullins, and it is now his responsibility to ferry her down the river of souls to perdition, is that correct?”
“Well, that’s the general idea,” Tom said. He was frowning, the firelight causing deep furrows in his brow to shift. “But I meant no harm to your husband. I never even met him.”
“Tell her what happened to Rabbit,” Moses said.
“Well, that’s how we know it worked,” Tom said. “Soon’s I pounded that nail halfway into the witch’s chest, a great heavy branch broke off from above and fell straight onto my boy’s tender head. Knocked him to the ground and laid him out cold. I thought he was dead. Carried him to the nearest civilized place, and that’s where I met these two gentlemen.”
“Now you’re caught up with where we all come into the story,” Ned said.
“You say there’s a reward for killing this witch?” Rose said.
Tom narrowed his eyes, worried he had given away too much information and the woman might try to horn in on his bounty. “It’s not much,” he said. “Hardly worth the trouble.”
“You say she killed some farmers?”
“She done all manner of wickedness,” Tom said. “Killed horses and cattle, too, and she dried up crops. She ate babies and smeared herself with the blood and offal of children, and—”
“Hush now,” Rose said, with a sidelong glance at the child sitting by the fire. “There’s no need for that kind of language.”
Tom clamped his lips shut and appeared mollified.
“Anyway, your doll won’t work,” Rose said.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Tom said. “The trick’s in using a nail that’s pure iron. Most people don’t know that.”
“Maybe if you had pounded it directly into her,” Rose said. “That doll I saw on my tree was just a mangled handful of straw and dirt. You’d need something of the witch’s essence to weave into the doll, or you’d at least need to know what she looked like in order to make something that truly resembled her. That wouldn’t work as well as a strand of her hair or some of her scat, but it might at least give her the vapors or an upset stomach.”
“And what do you know about it?”
“Mostly what I’ve picked up from townsfolk and vagrants since I came to live here, some from the Pawnee and Sioux who’ve come to the house for shelter and to barter with my husband. But I’ve always been curious and I read a bit about this subject in my previous life.”
“Your previous life?” Moses said. He sat forward. “What do you mean by that?”
“I was a schoolteacher. I had a great many books in my house. In my mother’s house, I should say. And I had access to a library four streets over from my house. I have always loved to read.”
“And you read about witches?”
“Some. What do you know about them, Mr Burke?”
Moses shook his head and looked away at the fire. “Nothing,” he said. “And I don’t want to know anything about them either.”
“No, sir, you don’t,” Tom said. “What this woman says is fine for book learning, but I have many years of experience dealing with witches, haints, demons, and ghouls. Mrs Nettles, I thank you for the bacon and beer, and for your hospitality, but I must head out first thing in the morning. I’d like to be there before them farmers get a chance to bury her wrong. If that witch is facing the wrong direction in the ground she might come back and cause worse trouble.”
Rose studied his face in the firelight, then looked around at Moses, who was watching the crackling fire, and Ned who had begun to lightly snore with his hands clasped across his chest, and finally at Rabbit, who was curled up on her side with her back to the fire, watching them without expression. Rose sniffed and stood up, tapping her pipe against the mantel. Ned started at the sound.
“There’s extra bedding in the closet,” Rose said. “Mr Goggins is correct. We should all get a good night’s sleep and an early start in the morning.”
“We?” Ned said.
“Yes,” Rose said. “I’ve decided to accompany you.”
* * *
That night, little Rabbit slept in the bed with Rose, while Tom Goggins laid claim to the rocking chair because he said his bones were too brittle for a night on the hard floor. Ned and Moses got their gear, and after they shoved the table to one side there was room for both of them to lay alongside the fire.
Moses began to snore almost as soon as he settled down, but Ned laid awake for a while, thinking. He had not intended to travel with Tom Goggins, and he didn’t think Moses had either. They had only gone to the sycamore tree to see the hex Old Tom had put there. But allowing Rose Nettles and the girl to ride off with Tom seemed like a bad idea. He did not trust the self-proclaimed witch-master.
Ned had never seen a witch, but it seemed strange to him that he had never heard of a ghost-master or a devil-master or a ghoul-master. There were all manner of creatures that ought to be more dangerous than a witch, and if witches were so deadly as to require mastering, Tom Goggins didn’t fit the bill, as far as Ned was concerned.
He knew Moses had seen things in the war, things beyond death and injury, things he couldn’t explain and didn’t like to talk about, but the worst Ned had encountered were bad men and rough weather. In his experience there was little mystery in the world. His mother had taught him a handful of basic wards to protect him from spirits and tricksters, but he had never used them, and when he tried to remember his childhood lessons the specifics escaped him.
He finally nodded off while trying to calculate the distance to Burden County, and wondering whether there might be a good card game to be had on the way. When he woke up the fire had gone out, and moonlight through the window lent the room a silvery sheen. A small man with a droopy mustache leaned against the mantel, smoking a pipe. His expression was curious, as if he, too, had just woken up and was surprised to see Ned.
Ned glanced at his gun belt, hung over the arm of a nearby chair, and when he looked back the man with the droopy mustache was gone. Ned watched the room for a long while after that until sleep eventually caught back up to him.
When he woke again, it was morning, and Rose had already put the rest of the ham out on the table, along with a pail of cool clear water. Ned decided he had dreamed about the man with the droopy mustache and he didn’t mention him to the others; not even Moses.
But when they had finished their breakfast and were leaving the house, he waited until the others were gone and tipped his hat toward the spot where he had seen the man.
“I thank you for your hospitality, Joe Mullins,” he said.
Tom Goggins was not pleased with the recent turn of events. His plan had been simple: curse the witch from afar, then travel up to Burden County and collect the bounty on Sadie Grace. It had seemed foolproof to him. He knew the farmers might balk when it came time to pay up, but Tom’s knowledge of curses wasn’t limited to witches.
Finding poor little Rabbit had changed things, but not by a lot. With a child in tow, he had to travel more slowly than he’d have liked, but he appreciated the company. Rabbit was a very good listener. In fact, Tom couldn’t be sure he hadn’t told some of the same stories more than once.
Then Ned Hemingway and Moses Burke had latched on to them, coming out to the tree to see the thing nailed over Joe Mullins’s grave. That was fine, Tom thought, and if they wanted to ride along with him to Riddle, he might find a use for them. He didn’t understand why Ned treated the negro like his equal, but they looked like capable gunmen and they could help ensure the bounty was paid as promised. As soon as the money was in hand, Tom and Rabbit would give them the slip. It was only fair; Tom had done the actual work of killing the witch. It wasn’t his fault if other people wanted to horn in on his success.
But now the woman had fastened onto him, too, and he felt like circumstances were spinning out of his control. There were suddenly five of them headed north across the state, and Tom couldn’t quite get a handle on Rose Nettles. He didn’t understand why she wanted to come along or what use he could put her to, and he had a vague feeling he might not be able to outsmart her, though he hadn’t fully shaped that feeling into a solid thought.
He had immediately objected to the idea of her coming along, but was overruled by Ned and Moses. For the moment, it seemed he was stuck with the widow Mullins, and Tom was beginning to wonder if he was the leader of their expedition, after all.
It bothered Tom that he couldn’t recall where he had learned the particular hex he had fixed above Joe Mullins’s grave. He couldn’t remember whether Rose was right about the doll needing specific ingredients to work. The truth about a thing sometimes got muddied over time by storytelling and embroidery. Still, he was certain he knew more about witchery than Rose Nettles could ever hope to learn.
On their way out, they stopped by the sycamore at the crossroads, and Ned used his pocketknife to pry out the iron nail. He tossed it away into the long grass and handed the crude straw-filled doll to Rose. She produced a box of matches from somewhere in her skirts and got her pipe going. With the last flicker at the end of the match, she lit a stray piece of straw under the bits of leather Tom had wrapped around the doll. She set it on a flat rock a few feet away, and they all stood silently, watching the doll burn. When it was gone, Rose crossed herself, took a puff from the pipe, and climbed up onto the buckboard next to the little girl.
“Let’s get a move on,” she said.
“What’ll happen to your house?” Moses said.
“Perhaps the Pawnee will use it, if they decide they want it. Otherwise, I suppose the grass will claim it.”
They turned their mounts and filed away down the trail, first Ned, then Tom, and Rose with Rabbit beside her on the high seat of the buckboard. Moses brought up the rear.
Old Tom turned in his saddle and saw Rose pass by her husband’s grave without a single glance. She was a cold woman, he thought, and rough in ways he found displeasing. He didn’t understand why Ned seemed to respect her right away, and he didn’t like the way Rabbit had taken to the woman.
She was a guest, after all, on Tom’s journey. They all were. He began to think about the various curses, spells, and hexes he knew. He thought he might need them sooner than anticipated.
I am, as always, indebted to my literary agent, Seth Fishman, and to everyone at The Gernert Company. And I am grateful to my editor, Kelly Lonesome, for her insightful suggestions and boundless enthusiasm, to Kristin Temple, to Michael Dudding and Valeria Castorena, to Alexis Saarela and Sarah Weeks, to Sarah Walker for her meticulous copyedits (if there’s still a typo in this, it’s because I accidentally added one at the last minute), and to everyone at Tor/Nightfire. To my early readers: Philip Grecian, Roxane White, Alison Clayton, Kacy Meinecke, Laura Lorson, Paul Fricke, Jeremy Lott, Lori Haun, and Dan and Kate Malmon.
And, of course, I am grateful to Christy and Graham for all the magic they bring to my life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALEX GRECIAN is the national bestselling author of The Yard, The Black Country, The Devil’s Workshop, The Harvest Man, Lost and Gone Forever, and The Saint of Wolves and Butchers, as well as the critically acclaimed graphic novels Proof and Rasputin, and the novellas The Blue Girl and One Eye Open. He lives in the Midwest with his wife, his son, their dog, and a tarantula named Rosie.
Visit her online at alexgrecian.com and signup for email update here.
Facebook: alexgrecian / alexgrecianbooks
Joe Mullins’s body was wrapped in a yellow curtain under the roots of a sycamore tree down near the Oklahoma border, and it called to him. He could feel it in his nose, like a sneeze building. He walked away from the train station and headed south.
He met Willie Cookson sitting on a stone by the cemetery gate.
“You’re a young’un,” Joe said. “That’s a shame.”
“They told me to go home,” Willie said. “The witch and the girl.”
“They told me the same. I’m going home now.”
There were many spirits milling about in the cemetery. They didn’t look like fit company for a young boy, and Joe guessed the stone Willie sat on was as far from his body as he could get.
“I have a farmhouse down south,” he said. “It’s not much, but I like it pretty well.”
Willie grinned at him and hopped up. Joe found the essence of dittany in his pocket and said the words Sadie Grace had taught him, then Willie left his body behind and they walked away together. The road was repaired, the fires extinguished, the blackened sod replaced with fresh green grass. The sky turned gray and snow fell, then the sun came up and butterflies fluttered by them.
They passed through Buckridge, and Joe said hello to Earl Hickman.
“I thought I might find Benito Cortez or Ned Hemingway here,” Joe said.
“Oh, Ned was around for a while, but his friend come and took his body away. Ned went along with it.”
Benito had not been seen since his burial.
“I guess he must’ve went on,” Joe said. “You going to go on?”
“So far as I know, I got nobody waiting for me,” Earl said. “Now that Roy’s sheriff, I don’t have a whole lot to do in a day except sit on the porch and watch people go by. I always have enjoyed that, and I believe I’ll stick here awhile and enjoy it some more.”
Joe and Willie left him there, and continued south. Day turned to night, and then to day again. Winter followed spring, and autumn led directly to summer, but Joe had grown used to the strange passage of time. He didn’t feel the heat of summer or the cold of winter. He didn’t get hungry or tired, or even bored. He just walked, and Willie was content to walk with him.
After some time, they came across Tom Goggins sitting on the stump of a dead tree.
“Well, hello,” Tom said. “I swear you just left me here.”
“It’s been a little while,” Joe said. He put his hand in his pocket and pressed the dead stems of dittany between his fingers, but he didn’t say the words Sadie had taught him. After a moment he withdrew his hand from his pocket.
“Willie and me have got a long walk ahead of us,” he said. “I hope you’ll excuse us, Tom.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Tom said. “I’ve got plenty to do here. It’s a big land, and someone’s got to watch out for toads.”
“There’s no better man for the job,” Joe said.
He tipped his hat and walked on. Willie followed. Soon it was night again, and almost instantly it was the following day, and they came across the remains of a child in the tall grass. A small pair of red shoes had been set neatly beside what was left of the body. Joe shuddered and took Willie’s hand, and they moved on.
They encountered Madelyne Russell a mile on, standing beside the train tracks north of Quivira Falls. Joe counted four children standing with her. Winter had come again and the sky was gray.
“Hello, Miss Russell,” he hollered when he was close enough to be heard.
“It’s good to see you, Mr Mullins,” she said.
“Have you lost some children?”
Madelyne pursed her lips and looked down at the boy next to her. He tucked his bible under his arm and took her hand. He stared at Willie, and Willie stared back at him.
“When they heard the train wasn’t coming for them, they began to fade away, one at a time,” Madelyne said. “These four are all that’s left.”
“But you didn’t fade away with ’em,” Joe said.
“As long as some of the children remain, I feel I must stay. I’m responsible for them, after all.”
Joe nodded and sucked on his pipe. “I don’t mean to be forward, Miss Russell, but I have a hundred-sixty acres down south from here. There’s grass and trees, and bugs and critters. There’s a nice little house I built myself. It seems to me it might be a better place for children than these rusty old train tracks.”
Madelyne smiled, her neckline turning vivid pink in the sudden afternoon sunlight.
“That sounds very pleasant, Mr Mullins.”
“You’re welcome to come along with me and Willie. We’re headed there now.”
“I don’t think we can.”
“I might know a way.”
“Would you like that, children?” Madelyne said.
Four heads bobbed, and four voices shouted, “Yes!”
“Then thank you very much, Mr Mullins,” Madelyne said. “We would be glad to take you up on your kind offer.”
“Please call me Joe,” he said. He crushed a little of the dead dittany in his fingers and said the words he now knew by heart.
He offered his arm and she put her hand in the crook of his elbow, and they walked south, away from the train tracks. Willie fell in with the boy who still clutched his bible under his arm. The afternoon sunshine held.
They had been walking for some time, the children breaking away to chase one another, or to look at dead things by the side of the road, when Madelyne cleared her throat.
“I don’t mean to be forward, Mr Mullins,” she said, “but I wondered what became of your wife.”
“She’s gone ahead with her own life,” he said, after a moment.
“No need,” Joe said. “I never did make her happy. I wanted a family, and I guess she didn’t want my children, or to be with me. One night when she thought I was asleep I saw her put poison in her tea. I thought she was so unhappy that she was…”
“Oh, Mr Mullins. How awful.”
“Well, that made me feel pretty sad, so the next morning I put some of that poison in a glass of milk and drank it down. I put a lot of that poison in there, to tell the truth. Later on, when I was under the sycamore tree, I got to figuring I made a mistake. I was so mixed up about losing her that I went and left her with nobody. I was glad when I got to follow her up north. Anyway, she seems happier now, and I don’t guess she’ll miss me now, if she ever did.”
Madelyne reached out and touched his arm.
“None of that matters anymore,” she said. “It’s all in the past.”
They soon came to the ranch, where dead men stood outside the bunkhouse, watching as living men tore the building down. More men rode through the pasture, rounding up cattle and wild horses. Isaiah Foster sat watching the men at work. When he saw Joe coming, he waved.
“Hello, Joe,” he said. “How long has it been?”
“I got no idea,” Joe said. “Isaiah, this is Miss Madelyne Russell, and these are some children. I don’t know all their names yet.”
Isaiah introduced himself, and Joe listened carefully to the children’s names as Madelyne called them, one by one, to shake the man’s hand.
“Some men showed up this morning,” Isaiah said, when he had greeted the children. “Might have been yesterday or last year. They’re tearing down the bunkhouse, and airing out the main house, getting the horses all rounded up in the barn. They fixed the fence down yonder, and I expect they’ll build another bunkhouse soon enough. Turn this into a working ranch again. Pretty soon it’ll be like nothing bad ever happened here.”
“It could be a good place,” Joe said.
Isaiah sighed. “Maybe, but it’s not where I’d choose to be.”
Joe offered him the pipe. “Miss Russell and the kids and me are all headed down to my farm. We’d sure enjoy your company.”
“Come with us, Mr Foster,” Madelyne said.
Joe liked the way she said us.
Isaiah agreed, and so they all walked across the pasture together, Joe and Isaiah and Madelyne Russell, telling one another stories from their lives, and the children following at their own pace, taking time to spook the horses and hide behind cows.
An Indian stood at the tree line on the far side of the pasture, watching two red-winged blackbirds build a nest in a tall spruce. Joe recognized the man as a White Mountain Apache.
“Well, shoot,” he said. “I didn’t know Traveling Horse died.”
Traveling Horse seemed pleased to see them, and nodded politely as Joe introduced him to Madelyne and Isaiah. Joe handed his pipe to the Apache.
“How did you come to be here?” Joe said.
“It was very strange,” Traveling Horse said. “I crossed the great river into Texas and met two white men. I had ridden with one of them before, so I joined them for a time. But then they fell upon me and slaughtered me. They cooked and ate me as my spirit looked on. I could do nothing to stop them.”
“That’s horrifying,” Madelyne said. Joe knew she had met a similar fate in Quivira Falls.
“It sounds like a disagreeable end, that’s for sure,” Joe said.
“After it happened, I journeyed, from here to there, and back, but I am unable to go farther north and I don’t understand why.”
Remembering that McDaniel had died at the ranch, and that Rigby’s body had been destroyed there, Joe had a notion about why Traveling Horse was able to travel up through Texas and Oklahoma, but only halfway through Kansas, the route taken by the two villains. His idea was of an indelicate nature, though, and he decided not to share it. He had a great deal of respect for Traveling Horse and didn’t care to insult him.
“We’re all headed down to my farm,” Joe said.
“I remember where it is,” Traveling Horse said. He blew a plume of smoke and took another puff from Joe’s pipe.
“Would you care to come along?”
“Thank you. I believe I will watch these birds finish their nest and lay their eggs. Then I will watch the white men catch their horses. Perhaps after that I will visit your farm.”
“You’re welcome anytime,” Joe said.
They said goodbye, and Traveling Horse returned Joe’s pipe. They left him there, watching the blackbirds flutter back and forth with twigs and bits of straw. Joe hoped he would see the Apache again. Traveling Horse had met a great number of famous people and was an excellent storyteller.
Across a field of blue and yellow flowers they encountered a fence that stretched high overhead, and far in both directions. A jagged hole had been chopped through the center of the fence, and Isaiah stopped there.
“Maybe we should go around,” he said. “This ain’t a good place for children.”
“This ain’t a good place for nobody,” Joe said. “But I can’t think how it could hurt them now. They’re already passed on.”
“Most of these children have seen the worst the world has to offer,” Madelyne said.
That settled the matter, and they walked on through the hole in the fence. The air was gray, and trees that had once stood tall were now blunt black poles jutting from the ashy soil. Men, women, and children wandered about, shrieking and moaning.
“Their bodies came down from the branches,” a voice said.
Joe turned and saw the little girl he had met in the woods on his journey north.
“Hannah,” he said. “What happened here?”
“Hello, Mr Mullins,” the girl said. “The bodies that were on the ground burnt up, and some of the spirits faded away. Now everyone’s confused and scared.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Madelyne said.
“Thank you, ma’am, but I don’t think so. Oh, Isaiah, you’ve come back!”
“Hi there, Miss Hannah. I believe I’m just passing through. My body ain’t here no more.”
“But how did it happen?” Joe said.
Mr James peeked around the scorched trunk of a pine and removed his hat.
“It was the Huntsman, Mr Mullins,” he said.
“Hello, Mr James. I’m surprised the Huntsman would do this. He seems very particular in his actions.”
“You know him then?” Mr James straightened up a bit, impressed, and fastened the top button of his shiny suit coat. “He’s a frightening creature.”
“He set us on fire for no reason,” Hannah said. “I think he’s a bad man.”
“Well,” Joe said, unwilling to commit one way or the other about the Huntsman’s virtue. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“Oh, yes,” said one of the orphan girls, whose name Joe had been trying to remember since Madelyne mentioned it. “Do come with us.”
“The more, the merrier,” said a boy. He thumped the cover of his bible like a drum.
“I wish I could,” Hannah said. “But I’m stuck in this old place.”
“I don’t think you are,” Joe said. “I know a spell that frees spirits.”
“Do you mean it?” Hannah said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could leave, Mr James? How I hate these nasty old woods.”
Mr James shook his head. “I believe I should stay. What I done to end up here was dreadful, and this is my penance. But what you did was noble in its way, Hannah, and well-intentioned, though not to be encouraged. You go on with these nice people.”
They spent some time trying to persuade Mr James to leave the evil woods and travel south with them, but in the end he sat down on a smoking log and refused to listen to them anymore.
The little party moved reluctantly on, leaving the woods and passing through the second fence to another sunny field of flowers. Hannah’s eyes were wide with wonder, staring around her at every butterfly, bee, and blooming dandelion she saw.
“I thought I would never leave there,” she said.
Eventually—though it was hard to tell quite how long it took, since they passed through three winters, but only a single summer—they reached the crossroads outside Monmouth where the sycamore grew. Beyond it was the little farmhouse, just as Joe had left it.
A living family had moved into the house during his absence. Joe thought he recognized the man as Friendly Turtle, an Osage Indian from the Big Hill band. Friendly Turtle had found the old plow and was working to straighten out the rows in the field. He stopped working when his wife brought him food. She was carrying a baby in a sling, and Friendly Turtle kissed it on the forehead.
Joe was happy the house had found new people to live in it, and he discovered that if he didn’t want to see the Indian family they simply weren’t there for him, in the same way spirits were generally invisible to the living.
The two families lived side by side for more than a year, and neither paid much attention to the other until Friendly Turtle’s youngest boy, who had just begun to walk, left the house one autumn afternoon and wandered out to the road. A hungry coyote had been circling the farmhouse for several days and nights, emboldened after stealing a chicken from Friendly Turtle’s coop. Isaiah found the child’s spirit at dusk. He gathered the boy up and whispered to him in a calming tone, though he knew the boy didn’t understand his words.
Isaiah brought him to Joe and Madelyne. Joe sighed heavily and turned away to light his pipe, while Madelyne stroked the boy’s soft hair.
“Poor Mr Turtle,” Joe said. “And his wife, too.”
They introduced the boy to the other children, who were delighted to have a new playmate, particularly someone so small they could hide him from one another in the roots of trees and beneath the chicken coop.
Friendly Turtle buried his son near the sycamore tree, unaware that Joe’s body lay only a few feet away.
“It’s a good spot for it,” Joe said, watching as Friendly Turtle scooped dirt into the small grave.
Joe and Madelyne and Isaiah stayed for the short ceremony Friendly Turtle and his wife performed, then they walked up the hill and watched the children play.
“It’s getting crowded here,” Isaiah said.
“Seven kids to look after now,” Joe said.
“There’s plenty of room,” Madelyne said. “And they aren’t hard to look after.”
“I always did want a big family.”
Candlelight flickered in the windows of the farmhouse as the living went about their business. The ghostly laughter of children rolled across the gentle hills. Joe puffed on his pipe and blew a smoke ring. He watched it waft away, glowing orange in the light of the setting sun.
“I heard seven’s a pretty lucky number,” he said.
“It’ll do for now,” Madelyne said.
Copyright © 2023 by Alex Grecian
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