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Authors: John Claude Bemis

The Wolf Tree (25 page)

BOOK: The Wolf Tree
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Heads turned as Ray dashed past the woman. Two men in leather aprons left their wheelbarrow and rushed toward Ray. Ray snatched a set of metal rods from a passing worker and threw them. The approaching men tripped as the rods clattered and rolled under their feet. Pushing through the workers around him, Ray raced for the corner of the warehouse.

Which way to go—right or left?

To the left, a swell of workers was waiting as another cart-train moved along the tracks between two of the brick factories. To the right was the loading platform for the trains, including a strange locomotive, something like a stagecoach but with the engine parts of a small train. Ray had no time to wonder about it. He needed a way to escape. There were fewer people to the right, but he knew it was no good. He’d get trapped by the fence.

Angry voices rose behind him. Ray ran to the left.

He tumbled into a man, knocking the crate of parts he was carrying. Ray scrambled back to his feet with the mob
close behind shouting “Stop him!” and “He’s one of the witches!” Ray dove into the crowd that was waiting for the cart-train.

“Where you going?” a young man snarled as he grabbed Ray’s arm.

Ray shoved the man hard in the chest and he toppled into others behind him.

“Hey!” A beefy man growled and grabbed the young man by the collar. The young man knocked his hands away, and the beefy man slugged him in the chin.

Pushing and wedging his way to the cart-train, Ray could hear the cries as the chasing mob crushed into the back of the waiting crowd, where more fights soon broke out.

Ray leaped onto the metal coupling between two of the carts and slipped into the crowd on the far side. The tent encampment was ahead, and beyond that was the gate. Faces around him turned from the angry shouts by the cart-train to look curiously at the running boy. Could he reach the gate before the mob’s call to arms spread through the camp?

B’hoy!

The crow was already gliding over the tents, joining Ray. B’hoy could not defend him against so many, but the crow seemed to have another plan in mind. Swooping ahead of Ray, he croaked loudly, parting the crowd as they startled away from the flapping bird.

Ray followed B’hoy, past the tents, down the lane. The mob was not far behind. The Bowlers guarding the gate turned toward the commotion. Other Bowlers, rifles at their
sides, were charging from their positions toward the gate. He was going to be cut off!

A Bowler raised a hand to halt Ray, a tin whistle shrieking from his lips. Ray ducked beneath the agent’s outstretched hands and rolled into a tumble. He caught the Bowler in his legs, knocking him forward. Ray’s elbows and knees stung, but he continued his roll until he got back to his feet.

Another Bowler rushed toward him, but Ray was already out the gate and into the street.

The group of Bowlers descended on the mob. “Back to work! That’s enough!” Whistles blew. Some Bowlers brought the stocks of their rifles down to beat back the rushing workers. Arms outstretched, the Bowlers formed a line and pushed back the mob, stopping their pursuit.

Jumping and pointing and crushing against the Bowlers, the mob cried: “He’s the one!” “We’ve got to get him!” “Witches brought on this dark!” “You out there, stop that boy!”

But if anyone in the street understood, they were too surprised to react. Ray launched past the perplexed faces and followed B’hoy far enough away to slip between the buildings and escape into the dark.

Redfeather was waiting for him in the soddy’s doorway. “Are you okay? We saw you being chased. What happened?”

“They recognized me.”

Redfeather frowned. “Not much of a charm.”

Ray pulled the smock over his head and followed him inside. “Gigi,” Ray said. “What are you doing here? I thought you had a message to deliver.”

The boy held up a folded piece of paper. “I’m to take this to the telegraph office for Mister Muggeridge.” He extended it slowly toward Ray.

Ray reached for the letter, but then stopped. “Are you sure?”

“You can read it,” Gigi said, a hint of anxiety in his eyes. Then he added, “I want to go with you. When you leave, will you take me with you?”

Ray looked at Redfeather and Marisol. They all pitied the lonely boy—alienated from his family, caught in this terrible place.

“Of course, we’ll take you.”

Ray opened the letter. Marisol and Redfeather leaned over his shoulder to read it.

ON THE SCENT STOP SETTING OUT TOMORROW MORNING STOP LOADING THE STEAMCOACH FOR PURSUIT STOP WILL LOCATE ON THE PLAINS STOP

They looked at one another. “What’s that mean?” Marisol asked.

Redfeather added, “And what’s a steamcoach?”

Ray read it several more times to commit it to memory
and then folded the letter, handing it back to Gigi. “You should hurry to deliver this. Thank you.”

“You won’t leave without me?” Gigi asked from the doorway.

“No. Be ready tomorrow morning,” Ray answered, and then wrinkled his brow. “I’m so confused by the Darkness. What time is it anyway?”

Gigi took his watch from his pocket. “Nearly midnight.”

“Thanks,” Ray said. “We’ll see you in a few hours then.”

Gigi nodded and ran off.

Ray settled into a chair as Redfeather took food from the bag Little Grass sent with them.

“Did you find anything out?” Marisol asked.

“Chicago,” Ray said. “They’re taking the Machine to Chicago. I heard these Bowlers talking. And there was this tunnel. It was enormous! The Machine’s being built here. It’s working.”

Redfeather frowned. “Isn’t the Machine in the Gloaming?”

Marisol puzzled up her brow. “Ray, you said wherever you cross in our world brings you to a specific place in the Gloaming. Why would they take it from the Gloaming and move it?”

“I suppose,” Ray said, “because the Machine in the Gloaming only makes the Darkness where it’s been placed in our world.”

“But why Chicago?” Redfeather asked.

“The Expo,” Marisol answered. “Gigi said there are
thousands and thousands of people going there. If the Gog wanted to draw people to his Machine, that would be the best place.”

“But the Gog’s dead!” Redfeather said.

Ray exchanged looks with Redfeather and then Marisol.

“What are we going to do?” Marisol asked.

“Look, who’s in charge of this mill?” Ray asked.

“Muggeridge,” Redfeather said.

Ray nodded. “Well, one of those Bowlers I overheard said he was going with Muggeridge somewhere. I bet it’s on that steamcoach. And if Muggeridge is pursuing something on the plains, then it must be important, right?”

“We need to go to Chicago,” Marisol said. “We need to stop the Machine!”

“What happened to going back to Nel?” Redfeather asked with a sneer.

Marisol frowned at him. “This is too important.”

“It’ll take a while for them to get the Machine loaded and hauled to Chicago,” Ray said. “We follow Muggeridge for now. He’s going back to Chicago anyway after they find whatever it is they’re after on the plains.”

“So what do you think they’re after?” Redfeather asked.

“I don’t know,” Ray said. “But we’re going to find out.”

They each took turns sleeping in the two beds while one kept watch—afraid that the mob would locate them in the soddy. After a few hours, they began gathering their belongings. Ray noticed a glum mood had overtaken Redfeather.

“You all right?” Ray asked.

Redfeather looked up from where he sat at the table. “I’m fine.” His fingers twisted at the necklace of Nel’s charms hanging at his chest.

Ray and Marisol exchanged a glance, then Marisol said, “You’ve hardly said a word all night.”

Redfeather lowered his hand. “It’s this place.”

“Omphalosa?” Ray asked.

“Yeah.” Redfeather shook his head slightly, almost as if shivering. “The Darkness here. The mill. These people. It’s like being a seer and having a premonition of the future. We’re seeing the future. It’s Omphalosa.”

Ray stood up from where he’d been going through his haversack. “No, it’s not. We’re going to stop the Machine. We’re going to—”

“Don’t you see, Ray,” Redfeather said. “Even if we do, the world is changing. The old ways are gone. Not just for the tribes of the Indian Territory, but the ways of the Ramblers and Mother Salagi’s kind. They’re dying. They’ll be lost.” He waved a hand out at the dark doorway. “The world is moving on, and they … we have no place in it.”

“What about what Water Spider said?” Marisol asked. “The Wolf Tree connects us—”

“The Wolf Tree!” Redfeather choked and squeezed his eyes tight. “Don’t you see, the Wolf Tree is gone.”

Marisol drew in a sharp breath, and Ray watched Redfeather as he struggled to continue.

“I realize that now,” Redfeather whispered. “After seeing Omphalosa I understand that the Wolf Tree will never return. Water Spider … he was wrong. We’ll never find it.”

Ray scowled and moved closer to Redfeather. “Listen, we don’t know what lies ahead. But we’re going to do whatever we can to destroy the Machine.”

“We don’t have the means to destroy the Machine,” Redfeather said.

“But we can stop them,” Marisol said. “Whatever that steamcoach is after, we’ve got to get to it first. It might be the key to stopping the Darkness.”

B’hoy cawed from the windmill and they turned to look out the door. Gigi was panting up the hill, carrying a small suitcase.

Ray held out a hand and helped Redfeather to his feet. “Come on. Let’s go.”

They untied the horses and led them out around Omphalosa until they reached the hills on the far side of the mill.

“Where’s this steamcoach?” Redfeather asked, peering down at the backside of the warehouse. Workers were busy on the other end of the mill’s grounds, but otherwise only a few agents stood guard at the back gate.

“I don’t know,” Ray said. “Think we’re too late?”

Gigi snapped open the watch. “It’s only a little after five.”

“Let’s keep waiting,” Redfeather said, crouching on the ground to watch. Gigi sat in the dry grass, double-checking his bag.

Marisol came over between Ray and Redfeather. She gave Gigi a glance and then whispered, “I’ve just thought of something.”

“What’s that?” Ray asked.

“Remember in Missouri? We saw all those roadside graves.”

“People dying from the Darkness, like Mister Bradshaw.” Ray nodded.

“Right, but have you seen any graves here?”

“We saw those coffins in town,” Redfeather said.

“Coffins, sure. But if the Darkness kills people here, then wouldn’t there be lots of sick and dying people in Omphalosa? I haven’t seen a single person even coughing.”

Ray scowled hard. Marisol was right. Why wasn’t anybody sick here? “It doesn’t make sense,” Ray said. “We know the Darkness kills people. But why not the ones here?”

Marisol’s brow wrinkled as she thought. “What if these people only get sick and die from the Darkness once they leave? Bradshaw said he didn’t get sick until after he left.”

“Then what will happen to Gigi if he comes with us?” Redfeather asked.

They looked fearfully over at the boy as he clasped his suitcase and smiled up at them.

“He’s got that buffalo pod,” Ray said.

Marisol shook her head. “You said yourself that you weren’t sure if it would save him. His skin, it’s gray. Not like the others’, but still the charm doesn’t seem to protect him fully. Are we willing to take that risk?”

“You’re right.” Ray looked down at the ground, resting his elbows on his knees as he squatted.

“What about us?” Redfeather asked, his voice pitched with concern. “Will we be okay?”

“Of course,” Ray said. “We’ve got Nel’s charms.”

Marisol exhaled deeply. “Oh, poor Gigi. We promised we’d help him—”

“Look!” Gigi called, pointing to the mill.

Ray turned. A group of Bowlers were opening a large door at the back of the warehouse. Swinging the massive frames wide, they stepped back as clouds of smoke billowed from within. Pistons chugged and a vehicle pushed through the smoke to stop in the yard.

The steamcoach looked like an oversized stagecoach, boxy and unadorned. Instead of horses, extending from the front was a barrel-nosed engine topped with a smokestack. On either side, a pair of large, diagonal cylinders were mounted to the frame. In between sat the driver’s bench with its steering handle and levers. The front wheels were large with grooved metal tires. Behind a water tank, the steamcoach pulled a car, as boxy and large as the coach but with no windows.

Several Bowlers talked together as others, armed with Winchester rifles, boarded the steamcoach. Two Bowlers sat at the driving bench. Six got inside, and two more sat on the top of the car at the back. Four agents mounted horses.

“Whatever they’re carrying,” Redfeather said, “needs a lot of protection.”

Gigi came over between them and looked up at Ray. “Are we going? Are we following that car?”

Ray dipped his eyes before speaking. “Gigi, I’m sorry, but you can’t come with us.”

“But you promised!”

“I know, but we have something very dangerous to do.
Also, we’ve met people who have lived in the Darkness and then left. They get a sickness. That pod your friend Hethy gave you, we’re hoping it’ll protect you, but we don’t want to be wrong. If you get sick from leaving the Darkness, there’s nothing we could do to save you.”

Gigi looked tearful, but he firmed up his lip. “I don’t care. I’ve got to get away from this town.”

Marisol put a hand to his shoulder. “Do you want to help us?”

“Yes!” he said. “Anything.”

“We’ve got something different we need you to do,” Marisol said. “We’re going out after that steamcoach onto the plains, but we’ll end up in Chicago at the Expo. That’s where you’re going with your family. We need you to watch things for us. Keep an eye on what happens with this machinery they’re taking to the Expo. When we get to Chicago, you can fill us in. Okay?”

Gigi looked reluctant. “I want to go with you.”

“They’re leaving,” Redfeather said urgently. The steamcoach was moving through the gates, crossing over the train tracks, its headlamp blazing out at a swatch of frozen earth. The horsemen followed behind.

BOOK: The Wolf Tree
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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