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Authors: John Claude Bemis

The Wolf Tree

BOOK: The Wolf Tree
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The Clockwork Dark

The Nine Pound Hammer

The Wolf Tree

To
Claud T. Smith
Thelma M. Smith
William Y. Bemis
Elsie F. Bemis

CONTENTS

  
Cover

  
Other Books by This Author

  
Title Page

  
Dedication

  
Prologue

  1.
Shuckstack

  2.
An Unexpected Guest

  3.
Wintergreen

  4.
The Sleeping Giant

  5.
Élodie

  6.
The Elemental Rose

  7.
The Return

  8.
Stones in the Passway

  9.
The Council of Three

10.
Pistols of Silver

11.
Jayhawkers

12.
Gunmen

13.
Water Spider

14.
Omphalosa

15.
The Mill

16.
Coyotes

17.
Lone Wolf

18.
The Rougarou

19.
The Steamcoach

20.
Familiar Strangers

21.
Ascending the Wolf Tree

22.
Gunshots

23.
Hostages

24.
The Battle on the Plains

25.
East and West

About the Author

Copyright

PROLOGUE

C
ONKER BROUGHT THE
N
INE
P
OUND
H
AMMER DOWN ON
The Pitch Dark Train’s
boiler. The train erupted into flame and rocketing debris
.

Jolie fell
.

Just before she hit the water, she lost hold of Ray. She plunged into the river, and with the splash came a powerful surge of relief. She had returned to the water where she belonged
.

For so long she had been hidden aboard the
Ballyhoo,
the medicine show’s train. For so long she had been prisoner to the fear that the Gog would capture her, to have her siren voice, and use the enchantment as a means of controlling people, of drawing servants to his monstrous Machine
.

She had at last reached the blessed, true waters of the
Mississippi River. Now she was free to return to her swamp far to the south
.

Then she remembered Ray
.

The swift current whipped past Jolie, scattering her tangled hair and gown. She arched in the water, kicking fiercely as she swam back for him. Heavy chunks of metal ripped from
The Pitch Dark Train
plummeted around her in the murky water. She looked all around through the gloom until she spied a shadow below her. It wasn’t sinking like the train’s debris, but drifting with the current
.

Ray!

Kicking her way closer, she saw a hand, the skin a deep brown. Her chest constricted painfully
.

It was not Ray; it was Conker
.

She could not believe what she saw. The train had erupted volcanically. He should have been blown apart by the blast. As she turned his enormous body over in the swift currents, she saw he had not even been burned
.

How was this possible?

She listened to his chest, but no heartbeat could be found. “Conker, dear Conker,” she whispered as she clung to her friend’s broken body
.

Something tickled her neck. Jolie pulled back and saw a charm hanging on the end of a necklace: a rectangle of beaten copper
.

She had seen the necklace before, but where? She had never known Conker to wear any jewelry, not like Redfeather
.

Redfeather! This had been his necklace. When she had
been rescued from the Gog’s train, Ray and Si had been able to walk through a burning field to reach her by holding Redfeather’s necklace
.

The copper had protected Conker from the immense heat of the exploding train. The fire had not burned him to death, but the impact of the explosion was more than any man could survive. Any normal man …

But Conker was not any normal man. He was John Henry’s son
.

Holding on to Conker as the swirling current carried them through the river, Jolie put her hands to his face
.

She had never encountered a shipwrecked sailor, as many of her siren sisters had, but Jolie had been told how to preserve the life of a human. She called out to the river, to the ancient grandmother of the waters, asking for this life not to be taken
.

Covering his nose, she placed her mouth to his and blew, filling his lungs with her air
.

A tremor came over Conker’s body. Jolie put her ear to his chest and listened. It was hard to discern but she heard it: a heartbeat
.

He was alive, although just barely. He had sustained injuries to his body from which no man should be able to recover. Her sisters had told her of a place, a spring that might save him if she could ever find it
.

But where was Ray?

Jolie looked back into the murk of the river. The swift and scattering currents of the water had pulled her and Conker far from where they had landed
.

“Ray.” She spoke to the waters. “I know that you will not understand where I have gone, but trust that one day, I will find you.”

Jolie wrapped one arm around Conker’s waist. She let the rush of the river speed their journey. Following the waters that came together from across the vast continent, Jolie ushered Conker’s broken body away
.

1
SHUCKSTACK

F
LICKERS OF EMERALD BUDS WERE EMERGING ON THE
mountainside. Marbled swirls of receding snow and wet black earth still lingered in the shadows of the forest. The sun shone with a clear, white brilliance as Ray Cobb crested the range.

Cool air blew up from the coves, and Ray pulled the doeskin robe tighter around his neck as he climbed. He had grown taller and leaner over the past year. His face was sun-speckled, and his curly mass of brown hair was jagged and uneven from the haphazard trimmings of a knife. Although his linen shirt and wool britches showed considerable wear, Ray had kept them patched and travel-worthy.

He saw no others as he traversed the Great Smoky Mountains; in fact, the wilderness was so remote that he had seen
no living person in more than a month. Aside from winter birds, foraging deer, and reclusive creatures venturing from their dens, Ray’s shelter—deep in the maze of evergreen-crowned ridges and cascading waterfalls—had been a place of quiet isolation.

Ray crossed an icy black creek. He was nearly there.

The sunlight dimmed as ghostly fingers of clouds moved across the mountain. The chestnuts and hemlocks moaned around him. Ray followed no path or track, nor did he need one. Stopping in the shelter of dark trees, he dug the waterskin from beneath his shirt where the heat of his stomach kept the water from freezing.

As he took a long drink, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and whatever it was disappeared into a thicket of rhododendron. Ray’s hand slipped to the knife on his belt. “Hello?”

He inhaled, trying to catch a defining scent. But the air was too cold and the wind in the stand of trees too turbulent.

Ray continued walking, scanning for movement. Leaves rustled and then a snort came from the deepest nest of rhododendron. His hand at his knife, Ray crept forward. As he reached the dark green shrubs, a squeal rang out and low black forms rushed out at him. A heavy beast swiped his knee, knocking Ray to the ground. He rolled over and watched several stout feral hogs flee into the forest.

Ray laughed and chased after them. “Hey,” he called. “Not so fast.”

The hogs swirled about the trees, their white eyes rolling around in their sockets.

“Hey! Come on now. You know me. Come on back,” he called, but the hogs disappeared through the bracken and wilting ferns.

When Ray reached the muddy trail coming up the mountain, he spied one of the hogs sitting in the bottom of one of the deep wagon-wheel ruts.

Ray cocked an eyebrow at the hog. “Hungry?” He reached in his pocket and took out a piece of dried venison pounded with checkerberries and wild ginger. He held the pemmican out, waving the stiff strip before its nose. The hog rose from the rut and took the jerky, grunting as it ate with noisy relish.

“There you go,” he said. “That a boy.” Ray squatted at the beast’s enormous face. Motioning with his hands and touching the hog at its ear and at the edges of its mouth, he instructed the hog in what simple vocabulary Ray had learned. Foxes and raccoons and their kin were easier than hogs, but he was best at speaking to birds, especially crows. Fortunately this hog seemed smart, and Ray felt it was following his crude instructions.

Ray untied his sun-faded bandanna from around his neck and knotted it around the hog’s fat throat. The hog blinked several times at him and turned.

“That’s right,” he added as the hog trotted away. “Get on to Shuckstack. Let them know I’m back.”

A year ago, they had followed Nel up into the Smoky Mountains and built a home at Shuckstack Mountain. Ray and Sally, Redfeather and Marisol, Buck and Si, Nel and the
twelve orphans. The wilderness was everything Nel had promised: a place where the children rescued from Mister Grevol’s
Pitch Dark Train
could grow up in peace.

Nel had taught them how to live in the wild. Not just survive, but live fully and happily. But Ray wanted something more. He wanted to be a Rambler. There were skills the old pitchman could offer, but Nel had forgotten his deeper Rambler powers. Ray needed to learn from others.

Mother Salagi’s cabin on the Clingman’s Dome was nearly two days’ journey from Shuckstack Mountain. During Ray’s first winter wandering alone in the mountains, he found the ancient seer. Mother Salagi taught Ray some animal speech and a smattering of hoodoo charms.

But neither she nor Nel could teach Ray how to become a Rambler. In order for Ray to really learn, he needed to be alone. He needed the solitude of the wilderness. Ray would wander from his friends and family at Shuckstack into the craggy cliffs and deep coves off and on throughout the year—each season offering its own lessons. He traveled far, seeking out medicine men and root workers who could pass on some nearly lost knowledge or skill.

BOOK: The Wolf Tree
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