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"Chance had a thing like thet," Sarah said. "Hit opens up, though I niver knew how."
Old Nathan's paired thumbs slid the base of the box rearward. His eyes were on Sarah. In his mind trembled like a tent of shadows the joints and planes of the object with which he had almost merged.
"Like thet, I reckon," the older woman continued. She licked her dry lips. "The one time I asked, he told me his Pappy hed give it to him whin he come of age . . . en he hit me, which warn't new by thin."
Ellie put her arm around Sarah's shoulders.
"I burnt it," Sarah said softly. "I burnt hit whin Cullen run him off, but I swear t' G.o.d thet hit war the same box ez ye've got in yer hands."
Old Nathan uncovered the keyhole. As the women silently watched him, he inserted the key and opened the box.
The box was empty. He upended it. Ellie and Sarah relaxed palpably.
"We ain't out uv the woods," the cunning man murmured. "Not jest yet. . . ."
He set the box on the table and reached into the air above him. It was like fumbling on a shelf in the dark. If he looked up there would be nothing to see, only his k.n.o.bby old fingers closing on- The familiar, solid angles of a jackknife. The German silver bolsters were cool to his touch, and the shield of true silver set into one jigged-bone scale was cold.
He lifted the knife down without meeting the eyes of the women. There were things the cunning man did for show, when impulse or perceived need drove him, but he felt uncomfortable at the notion of showing off before this particular pair. The only reasons he could imagine for doing that were so childish-and so foolish in a not-man like him-that his mind danced around their edges like a pit.
Old Nathan held the knife between his thumb and forefinger so that the polished silver plate reflected down into the box. It showed- Nothing. No hidden object, but not the coa.r.s.e grain of the wood, either. It was as if the silver were mirroring a gray void . . . except that when the cunning man stared at the plate without blinking, he seemed to see flames flicker at the corners of his eyes.
He stepped away from the table and drew in a deep breath.
"No," he repeated, "we hain't out uv the woods. . . ."
Sarah slid a chair beneath the cunning man. He settled into it heavily, straining Ellie's jury-rigged repairs.
What was there hed teeth, en it hed took a bite whilst he scouted hit out.
"What is it?" Ellie asked, looking from the box to the door as if undecided as to whence the danger could be expected. "What is it thet you see?"
Old Nathan rubbed his right biceps with his left hand, then raised his arm to put the jackknife away.
There wasn't any wonder about the knife. Its blades were good steel, with a working edge on the larger one and on the smaller a wire edge that could serve as a razor at need.
The wonder of the place where Old Nathan kept the knife was another question, but it was a question to which the cunning man himself had no answer. It was like all the rest of his art, a pattern of things known but not studied; the way a clockwork toy moves without understanding in its spring.
And if the toy should cease to move, the spring would be none the wiser for that result either. . . .
Old Nathan sighed and ran a fingertip across the interior of the box. The wood felt as it should: vaguely warm because the cunning man's flesh was cold, and slightly rough because the board had been planed smooth but not polished.
"He found hit et the shurrif's sale," Ellie murmured, not so much to inform as to fill the silence in which she and Sarah Ransden stood with Old Nathan stepped along the pathways of his mind, open-eyed but unseeing. "I was a fool t' take him thar. The Neills was evil on the best day uv thar lives."
"They was evil," Sarah said grimly. "But Chance Ransden had Satan hisse'f livin' in his skull, en I know thet t' my cost."
"Earth 'n air . . ." the cunning man murmured.
He blinked, then shook himself fully alert. His eyeb.a.l.l.s felt as though someone had ground sand into them. He rubbed them cautiously. There were risks going into a waking trance with his eyes open. One day the lids would stick that way and he would be blind as a mole; but it hadn't happened yet. . . .
The cabin door opened and closed; Sarah had gone out. Old Nathan looked at the panel, confused and still uncertain. He had dropped back into reality as though it were an icy pond.
Ellie threw another stick of wood onto the hearth. The billet looked chewed off rather than chopped.
The axe had gone the way of the Ransden's cattle and seedcorn. The girl was reduced to cutting logs with the handaxe she had concealed in her mulch pile to keep it from being traded for liquor as well.
"Fire and water?" she offered to prompt the cunning man to say more.
"Did I speak?" Old Nathan asked in surprise. "Reckon I did. . . ."
Sarah came back inside. She carried the kitchen knife she had used as a trowel and a cupful of dirt gathered into her lifted dress. She spilled the soil onto the table near the little box. "There's snow mixed in along with this," she said. "Or I reckon there's water in the jug by the fire."
Old Nathan looked from the older woman to the young one. Most folk he worked magic for, they were afraid of what he did and the fellow who did it besides. This pair was rock steady. Their minds moved faster than the cunning man was consciously able to go; and if they were afraid, it was nowhere he could see by looking deep into their eyes.
On the cabin eaves, chickadees cracked seeds and remarked cheerfully about the sunlight.
Mebbe the wimmen 'ud be afeerd if they knew more; but mebbe livin' with the Ransden men hed burnt all the fear outen thim already.
Ellie rose from the hearth with a long feather of hickory, lighted at one end. It burned back along the grain of the wood with a coiled pigtail of black waste above the flame. "This do ye fer fire?" she said as she offered the miniature torch.
"Aye," agreed the cunning man. "Hit'll do fine."
His right index finger traced characters on the table. They were visible only where they disturbed the pile of sodden earth or the wisps of ash which dropped from the hickory. The room began to rotate around the focus of Old Nathan's vision, but the walls and all the objects within them remained clear.
A driblet of mud and melt water curled from the table like a thread being drawn from a bobbin. The ribbon of flame from the hickory attenuated and slanted sideways, as though the strip were burning in a place where "up" was not the same direction as it was in central Tennessee.
There was a keening sound like that which the wind makes when it drives through a tiny c.h.i.n.k in a wall.
Old Nathan spoke in a soft, monotonous voice, mouthing syllables that were not words in a language familiar to his listeners. His eyes became glazed and sightless. His tongue stumbled. It was shaping itself to the sounds not by foreknowledge but the way a hiker crosses a shallow stream: hopping from one high rock to the next, then searching for a further steppingstone.
The elemental strands-earth and air, fire and water-wove together as do fibers in a ropewalk, coiling and interweaving into a single tube. It curved into the box, probing the wooden bottom- And slid away, broken into its const.i.tuent parts, its virtue dissipated.
Old Nathan awoke with a start, jolting backward in his chair. His arms spread with the fingers clawed in readiness to meet a foe. His spasm flung the feather of wood toward the pile of bedding.
Sarah s.n.a.t.c.hed up the burning splinter. In her haste she gripped it too close to the flame, but she carried it without flinching back to the hearth.
Ellie Ransden cried, "Sir!" and grasped Old Nathan's right arm, both to control it and to prevent the cunning man from tipping over with the violence of his reaction.
He glared at her. His face for a moment was a mask of fury; then he calmed and softened as though all the bones had been drawn from his flesh.
"Tarnation, gal," the old man gasped, pillowing his head against his left arm on the table. He seemed oblivious to the slime of ash and damp earth left on the surface by his attempt.
Old Nathan lifted himself again. He gave Ellie a squeeze with his left hand before he drew his right from her support. "I figgered with all creation t' push, I'd hev thet gate open lickity-split . . . but hit warn't ready t' open."
The cunning man smiled wryly at the miscalculation he had barely survived. "I was betwixt the gate en'
the push thet I'd drawed up myse'f."
"The bottom's false, thin?" Ellie asked, glancing toward the little box beside Old Nathan's hand. Her lips curled. "Cain't we chop hit open?"
"Hain't like thet, child," the cunning man said. Sarah Ransden eyed them without expression from beside the fireplace. "Thar's a gate, so t' speak, but not . . ."
He gestured, rubbing his fingertips together as if attempting to seize the air. "Not on this world. Not all this world-" his index finger drew a line across the dirt on the tabletop "-has airy bit t' do with what's on t' other side uv thet gate, so I couldn't force hit."
Without speaking, Sarah reached into the bosom of her dress. She drew a locket up and over her head.
The ornament was suspended on a piece of silk ribbon so faded that its original color was only a pink memory.
Sarah opened the spring catch and held the locket out to Old Nathan. Inside was the miniature portrait of a man, painted on ivory. "Thet's Chance Ransden," she said in a distant voice. "Thet was my husband whin I married him."
Old Nathan set the locket down on the table and examined it. The artist had been skillful, not so much in the depiction of physical features-the face on the miniature was thinner than that of the Chance Ransden the cunning man remembered from ten years past-but rather in the sheen of the spirit glinting through the skin. No single detail in the painting was objectively right, but the result had the feel of Chance Ransden.
And the feel of hot, soulless evil.
Old Nathan stood up, moving with an exaggerated care. I'm too durn old fer sech goins-on. . . . "Blame lucky thing I hain't bruck yer table down, me threshin' about thet way," he grumbled aloud.
He stretched, feeling the tenderness of his muscles. They had locked rigidly against one another while the vortex of power the cunning man summoned tried to crush his mind against immovable blackness.
Mebbe there was a better feller somewhars t' do this thing; but less'n he showed hisse'f right pert, Nathan Ridgeway meant t' do whativer an old man could.
"Thankee, Sarah," Old Nathan said. "I reckon it might serve."
He touched the painted face softly, then raised the locket by its loop of ribbon. This time he would stand.
The locket twisted over the interior of the box while the cunning man mumbled not-words. The face glinted-spun behind the unpainted back-spun again. . . .
To the women facing one another across the table, it seemed as though the corners of the portrait's mouth were rising into a sneer.
Old Nathan saw nothing. Streaks like the beams of sunlight drawing water through the clouds slid blindingly across the surface of his mind.
The latch rattled an instant before the cabin door burst open. The women looked up. Ellie's hand thrust out, then froze. The long rifle leaned against the far wall.
Bully Ransden stood in the doorway, wild and disheveled. There was a glitter of madness in his eyes, and his powerful arms hung down like the forelegs of a beast.
Beams of light rotated and rotated back. The cunning man raced past them like a fish rushing along the in-slanting walls of a weir.
None of the four figures in the cabin moved. The locket ticked against the bottom of the puzzle box.
Old Nathan was naked. The damage wreaked on his privates at King's Mountain by a Tory musketball was starkly evident.
He stood at a portal whose upper angles stretched beyond conception. The surface beneath his feet was wood, coa.r.s.ely finished but seamless. The gigantic door that stood ajar before him was patterned with the same grain as that of the lid of the puzzle box in another place and time.
When the cunning man glanced back over his shoulder, he saw a forest like that on the site where his cabin now stood-but from the time before young Nathan Ridgeway began girdling trees and clearing undergrowth with a brushhook.
"Come t' be comp'ny t' me, Nathan?" called Chance Ransden from across the threshold. He giggled in a fashion that Old Nathan remembered from life- For wherever this was, it was not life.
Chance was naked also. His appearance was that of a powerfully built man in the prime of life, the way he had looked the night he disappeared. Allus hed the luck uv the devil, Chance did. Nairy a one uv the scars, not even the load of small shot Jose Miller put into what he thought war a skunk in his smoke shed, showed whin Ransden hed clothing on. . . .
"I hadn't airy sc.r.a.p uv use fer ye whin ye were alive, Ransden," Old Nathan said coldly. He stood straight, facing forward. He could not conceal the ancient injury to his manhood, and to attempt the impossible would be a sign of weakness. "I'll be no comp'ny t' ye now, 'cept t' tell ye t' be off whar ye belong. Leave yer son be!"
Chance giggled again. "D'ye want to see my boy Cull naow, Nathan?" he asked.
The portal opened slightly. Hunched behind the elder Ransden was the naked, cringing figure of his son.
The image of Bully Ransden was bruised and b.l.o.o.d.y, as though he had tried to fight a bear with empty hands. He threw Old Nathan a furtive, sidelong glance past the legs of his father.
"Ain't he the dutiful lad?" Chance cackled. "He warn't whin I last wore my body, but he's larned better naow."
"Git up an' fight him, boy!" the cunning man snarled. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach to see a proud man like Bully reduced to this. "He don't belong here. Drive him out!"
Instead of fighting, Bully Ransden launched himself at the crack between the doorpanel and the jamb, trying to reach Old Nathan's side of the portal. His father kicked him aside with contemptuous ease.
The landscape across the threshold was a lifeless gray. The occasional quiver of movement was only heat-sp.a.w.ned distortion.
"Cull, he war a very divil fer strength, warn't he, Ridgeway?" Chance Ransden said. His lips were fixed in a cruel sneer. "Whin strength warn't enough, he bruk like a China cup. He hain't airy more s.p.u.n.k thin a dog since I bruk him."
He dug his toes into the ribs of his son. The younger man whimpered and cringed away.
Old Nathan licked his lips. "Aye, you're jest the bold feller I recollect, Ransden. Come acrost here en do thet, why don't ye?"
"No, old man," Chance said, "you ain't gitting me over whur you stand."
He opened the portal a hand's breadth wider. "But you kin come t' me-ifen ye dare. And I'll let my Cull here go across t' thet side. A soul fer a soul. Thet's fair, ain't hit jest?"
He began to laugh. Behind him, Bully Ransden huddled with his arms about his knees. He eyed Old Nathan through the opening with a look of desperate appeal.
"Cullen Ransden," the cunning man said. "Listen t' me, boy! What is it thet ye want t' do?"
"I want t' get shet uv this place," the Bully whispered. "Please G.o.d, git me shet uv here."
He was afraid to look up as he spoke. As his father had said, Cullen Ransden had broken. There was no sign of the former man who crushed every opponent with his fists and masterful will.
"Git me out, sir," Bully begged. "I swear, there hain't nuthin' I won't do fer ye ifen ye only git me free."
"A soul fer a soul," Chance repeated. "I'll let him go across, s' long ez you pay him clear. Are ye thet much uv a man, Nathan Ridgeway?"
The cunning man shuddered with desire for what he knew he had no right to hope. The boy couldn't know the price. Only the old man who had lived that price for so many decades could understand it- But Cullen Ransden knew what he was paying now; and it was too much for him.
"Listen, boy," Old Nathan said. He tried to speak gently, but his voice was full of too many emotions-hope, fear, and the anger of years. Fate had played a cruel trick on him when he was a youth younger still than Bully Ransden. "Listen. If you come through that door, you'll live out the rist uv yer life ez an old man. As no man a'tall, by some ways uv lookin' et it. D'ye hear me?"
Bully Ransden did not speak. His body trembled as he readied himself for another dash toward the opening-which Chance would stop as surely as his weasellike smile was cruel.
"Boy, ye won't niver git back," Old Nathan said with desperate emphasis. "You cain't know what a weak, pulin' thing ye'll-"
Bully sprang for the portal. His father's foot thrust him back. Chance's long toenails gouged like a beast's talons.