Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 28

The letter identified Thomas Penn as the man who had ordered the murder.

Cal disembarked by jumping into the river in shallow water and splashing ashore. He did it under cover of night and on land he knew belonged to the Clays. This was deliberate; he had personally lost cattle to Clay rustlers, taken from spring pasture and then Cal had seen beasts he knew as well as he knew his own cousins, for sale in Knoxville in the autumn. The Clays were rustlers as much as the Calhouns, as much as Cal himself.

Not these particular Clays, of course, but the family.

That meant he didn’t feel the slightest bit bad about stealing two of their horses.

They’d shoot him if they caught him, that was the game. But Cal was good at what he did. He had the patience to sit quietly for a long time, watching the movements of the farmhouse occupants, the beasts, and the moon. He had the self-discipline to count how many slugs that single guard had taken from his bottle, and wait until the man nodded off against the wall. He had half a catfish wrapped in a bit of wool to break into three pieces and throw to the rangy dogs when they raised curious muzzles at his appearance. He had the silent step to creep without being caught to the stable, the muscle control to freeze and escape notice when a late-night visitor to the jakes wandered by, and the wisdom to avoid opening hinged doors that might not be well-oiled and could creak.

Jerusalem, if the Clays were half as cunning as Calvin or Iron Andy, they’d deliberately not oil the hinges, precisely to catch rustlers and horse thieves.

So Calvin climbed over the door, a few feet from the sleeping guard, and let himself in. He picked two beasts that looked like fast runners and helped himself to a rope hanging on the stable wall. He cut off a length, tied it with a slipknot, and dropped the loop gently around the drunk and snoring guard.

Mounting up and leading the second animal, he opened the stable door.

With the loud creak, the Clay snoozing under his slouch hat stopped snoring and looked up.

Cal kicked the horses into a gallop. He yanked the rope with him and the Clay guard hit the ground and bounced, dragged in Cal’s wake. He dropped the bottle and, more to the point, his rifle.

The man was too drunk, surprised, and knocked breathless to yell, at least for a few minutes. That was as Cal planned. He dragged the fellow eastward into the forest along a wide path for a mile. At that point, the fellow began to catch his breath and yell, “horse thief, dammit! Horse thief!”

Cal cut him loose and rode faster.

A mile farther along, where the rode plunged through deep shadow on a straightaway, Cal tied half his stolen rope across the path at chest level. He was just beginning to hear the sounds of pursuit behind him.

He tied the second half a mile later, in a bend in the road.

That would make the Clay boys peer really carefully into every patch of darkness before riding through, and take it slow.

Then Cal rode like hell.

He rode to the Memphis Pike. There was the risk he might attract Imperial Foresters, watchful to impose their tariffs and tolls on illicit commercial traffic, but even if he did, he didn’t think they’d try to stop him. He wasn’t carrying anything for sale, and if they asked why he was riding so hard, he’d tell them he’d tried and failed to kidnap a bride, and now he had to worry about the girl’s brothers.

He only stuck to the paved pike for a couple of miles, and then plunged off into the forest again on a narrow trail he thought he recognized.

No pursuit short of the supernatural would follow his trail over those changes, and if the Clays were willing to use magic to track him, he wasn’t going to get away. Another mile farther on and over the crest of a rocky ridge, Cal let himself slow down.

He rode up the approach to Calhoun Mountain two days and four trades later, riding only a single horse, and that one exhausted. At the foot of the defile leading up to the mountaintop, his fatigue was cracked wide open by familiar shouting.

“Calvin! Calvin Calhoun, hot damn iffen you ain’t come back!”

Red Charlie took Cal’s horse and Caleb gave Cal a shoulder to lean on as he hitched himself up the slope, one ragged step at a time. Caleb was full of questions, as were the young’uns who bounced into view at the top, Young Andy at their head.

“You ain’t brought back Aunt Sarah!” Young Andy hollered, announcing the obvious conclusion before anyone could beat him to it. “That mean she’s empress now?”

Cal grabbed his cousin by the ears and roughed up his hair. “Iffen you don’t know too much, you know too little. I can’t rightly say which it is. No, I don’t expect Sarah is empress.”

“Queen of the Ohio, at least?” Andy insisted.

“Mebbe that,” Cal conceded.

He crossed the meadows as briskly as he could manage, shooting a loving wave and a grin at every friendly face he saw on the way. When he reached the Elector’s Thinkin’ Shed, he was surprised to see two men standing on the covered dogtrot.

“Grandpa.” Cal nodded to show his respect. “Mr. Donelsen.”

Charlie Donelsen showed his missing teeth in a broad grin. “I heard of you afore, Calvin. I have boys as say you’re a pretty impressive hand with a lariat.”

“Lord hates a man as can’t work for a livin’.” Cal shrugged. “I’m right glad that horse I rode up on ain’t wearin’ a Donelsen brand, though.”

“What brand was it, then?” Donelsen asked.

“I come up from near Memphis at a dead gallop, Mr. Donelsen,” Cal said. “Wearin’ out horses and tradin’ down all the way. I set out with a pair of fine, fresh beasts. I didn’t look too close, but I expect they might a had Clay brands on their hides. The one I jest turned over to Red Charlie, and I reckon it’s a miracle if she don’t end up in the cookin’ pot, looks like her brand’s been stamped over three or four times.”

“That won’t be a Donelsen animal, then.”

Cal shook his head. “I believe it’s one of Emperor Thomas’s. Used to pull a cook wagon for some Foresters as are camped out about thirty miles west of here, and are happy to git a younger beast.”

Charlie Donelsen laughed. “Iffen it had been one of ours, hell, son, we got bigger fish to fry.”

Iron Andy threw his one arm around Calvin in a tight embrace, dragging the younger, taller man up onto the wooden porch. “Sarah?” The lines in his face looked as deep as rivers.

“Alive,” Cal said. “In Cahokia. Mebbe . . . mebbe queen, I can’t say for sure. Jest as things was startin’ to git interestin’, I had to leave. Iffen she is, I reckon we’ll hear soon enough. But she’s with good people. William Lee, mebbe you heard of him. Dragoon captain. And the regent of Cahokia, he took her in. And one of the high-rankin’ priestesses.”

Cal felt worse than ever for leaving.

Iron Andy nodded. “And Thalanes? I ain’t heard you mention my old friend.”

Calvin felt a ball of lead in his belly. “He died, grandpa. Savin’ Sarah from a sorcerer as tried to take her soul.”

Iron Andy set his jaw in a straight line. “Full of fire to the end, I expect.”

“Yessir,” Cal agreed. “Brave as e’er a feller could be, too.”

Iron Andy Calhoun sighed. “Well, come on in, Cal. We got some thinkin’ to do–little Tommy Penn wants a great big war.”

Calvin pressed his hand to the Frenchman’s letter to reassure himself it was still there. “In that case, Grandpa . . . I might have brought a solid cannonball to heave at the bastard.”

“I like this one!” Charlie Donelsen laughed. “Tell me your name again, son.”