Chapter Twenty-seven

“What’s wrong, Mom?” Jett asked

“I fell.” Katy stood at the sink, rinsing her hands. She had a cut on her chin and one eye was bruised and puffy.

“Good Lord, Katy, how could you get hurt cleaning house?” Gordon said.

“I was in the attic.”

Gordon glared at her, almost owlish with his beard and glasses, with sinister, prey-hunting eyes. “I didn’t give you permission. We have valuable antiques and family heirlooms up there.”

“I’m part of the family now.”

“You’re not a Smith yet. You’re a Logan.”

“Where’s Mark?” Katy asked Jett. Her head throbbed. The image of the headless Rebecca at the mirror still haunted her, as if the image had seared itself against the plate of her forehead.

“Gone back to minding his own business,” Gordon said. “We don’t need any outsiders. We can solve our problems by ourselves.”

“I saw the clothes. And the sickle.”

“What are you talking about?”

“From the scarecrow in the barn.”

“The scarecrow is out there hanging on the wall. Where it always is.”

“No, it’s not,” Jett said. “I told Dad about it. You guys don’t believe me, but he does.”

“That’s enough of this foolishness,” Gordon said. He grabbed Jett’s wrist and pulled her toward the front door. “Come on, you two. I’ll show you the scarecrow is just a sack of rags and straw, not some evil creature.”

“Let her go, Gordon,” Katy said.

Jett tried to struggle free, but Gordon was too strong and heavy. He tugged her outside, Katy right behind them. The fence gate was open. Katy wondered where the goats were. The barn door was open, too, afternoon sunlight boring through the gap and painting the dirt floor in patches of amber. The rich smell of manure and hay filled the air. The chickens clucked uneasily in their nests.

Jett gave up resisting and allowed herself to be guided into the barn. Katy wondered what she had told Mark. She couldn’t believe Mark would just drive away after hearing such strange tales. But he’d always believed what he wanted to believe, despite pleas or evidence.

“The scarecrow’s right there,” Gordon said, pointing to the spot on me wall above the loft stairs. The figure wasn’t dressed in the bib overalls and flannel shirt that Katy had seen in the attic, inside the locked bureau. This figure wore a dark suit of a heavy material like wool. Straw spilled from the sleeves and ankles of the suit, and the yellowed collar of the white shirt stuck up around the collar. The scarecrow had no head.

“That’s not me one,” Katy said.

“Yes, it is,” Jett said excited. “That’s the man I saw. The one in the black hat.”

“I don’t see a hat,” Gordon said. “Odus must have taken me other scarecrow for some reason. Those clothes look old-fashioned, maybe even antique.”

“What’s going on, Gordon?” Katy asked.

“The scarecrow hungers,” Gordon said.

“Where are the goats?” Jett asked.

Gordon looked around as if noticing their absence for the first time. “He’s taken them.”

“Who?” Katy touched the welt over her eye. The upper and lower eyelids were swelling together and she could barely see. The side of her face felt as if a pint of hot water had been pumped under her skin.

Katy squinted at the shape on the wall. Hadn’t the original scarecrow been shorter? No. That was the kind of thing that crazy people thought. Crazy people who believed they were being haunted by their husband’s dead ex-wife.

The sickle was absent from its wooden peg.

“It moved” Jett said grabbing Katy’s arm. Katy looked at the gangly, splayed form. A few pieces of straw fell from its cuffs as if an animal were moving inside it. Katy recalled the toenails skittering on the attic floor.

“It’s the wind,” Gordon said. “Odus left the barn door open.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Jett said.

“Go on back to the house,” Gordon said. “I’ll close up the barn.”

Katy nodded and put an arm around Jett’s shoulder. The two of them went into the barnyard. Katy stopped by the chicken roost. “What did your dad say when you told him about this place?”

Jett shrugged and stared at the ground. “Nothing much. He thought I was weird. But he didn’t laugh at me.” She looked up, her blue eyes vibrant and imploring. “I wish-“

Katy reached out and hugged her daughter, pulling her close. The girl was getting tall. The hair on the top of her head brushed Katy’s wounded chin. “Shh. Wishing for lost things isn’t a good idea. We have to work with what we’ve got.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. ‘We’ll get through it together,’ right?”

“Exactly.” Katy brushed away Jett’s bangs and planted a kiss on her forehead.

“I just wish Daddy were here.”

Katy had no response for that. She had failed her daughter and her marriage. Maybe if she had tried harder, been less self-absorbed…

No. Gordon was her husband now and she was determined to make it work this time. All it took was sacrifice.

“Let’s go in the house,” Katy said. “I’ll make us some cinnamon rolls. I found a great recipe.”

“What about the scarecrow and the man in the black hat?”

“Gordon will take care of it.”

“Do you love him?”

Katy pulled away from the hug. “What kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know. I saw the way you were looking at Dad, and you’ve never looked at Gordon like that.”

“Gordon is a good man and he’ll make a good father if you give him a chance.”

“I don’t want another father. I want mine.”

“I’m sorry, honey. We’ve turned that page. This is our new life.”

Jett pushed away. The hens squawked at the disturbance, flapping their wings, tossing soft feathers in the air. Inside the barn came the slam of a large wooden door.

“I don’t want a new life. Especially if it’s this one.” Jett went through the gate and into the house.

Sister Mary proved to be a rugged animal, despite a lifetime spent in the companionship of cows. Odus had guided her up the mountains and traversed the roughest trails he could find, twisted paths that were scarcely wide enough for deer. He half expected the horse would put her nose to the ground like a bloodhound and instinctively know they were on the scent of something bad. Odus figured that two hours had passed, and maybe Old Man McHenry had already noticed somebody had stolen his pinto mare.

At one point, the forest gave way to a granite shelf, with rocks settled into the Appalachian soil like droppings from some ancient giant bird. Odus tied Sister Mary to a stunted balsam and gave her some of the bread from his sandwich. As she smacked her lips around it, Odus eased to the edge and looked down in the valley below. Solom was sprawled like a faded patchwork quilt of yellow meadows, brown forests, and the small gray squares of houses and barns. The river wound like a loose length of spilled yarn through the bottomland, the water white where it tumbled over rocks. The two-lane road followed the river, except for an intersection near the general store where the covered bridge, post office, and Sue Norwood’s shop cluttered up the geometry.

This stony point looked like the kind of place where the Circuit Rider would step out and survey the community. Maybe this had been part of his original route, back when he was a Methodist preacher sent down from Virginia. If so, he might have passed his eyes over the green valley and decided it was just the kind of place to set up shop. A Holy Land, of a sort, one maybe just a little bit remote from the eyes of God where a fellow could practice the kind of rituals he wanted.

Sister Mary let loose with a wet snort.

“All right, don’t get your neck hairs in a tangle,” Odus said. He went back to the horse, unhitched her, and mounted. His rump was a little sore from the jostling ride, but it wasn’t sore enough to complain. He pulled the Old Crow from the knapsack and gargled on a two-finger slug. He was slipping the bottle back into the pack when a twig snapped in the thicket behind him.

“Who’s mere?” Odus said, and despite all his high-spirited notions about not needing a weapon, he wouldn’t have minded a rifle right about then. Not that there were any wild animals left in the mountains big enough to threaten a man or a horse. The occasional bobcat was about as predatory as it got these days.

Whatever was thrashing around in the brush didn’t answer. Not that Odus expected a reply. He eased Sister Mary down the path a little, wanting to put some distance between them and the cliff edge. Sister Mary seemed to notice her passenger’s unease, because her ears pricked up. Odus gave her a pat on the side of the neck to calm her.

He was twenty feet down the path when the goat emerged from the stand of laurels. Odus almost laughed in relief. Except the goat’s head was tilted sideways, the way a man might look at a car he was thinking of buying. Or maybe which steak from the butcher’s counter he craved for that night’s supper. Sister Mary drew up short without Odus having to pull back on the reins.

“Get on,” Odus said to the goat. The goat was nearly a quarter the size of the horse, fat and white, a string of dirty fur trailing from its belly to the ground. Its eyes were rheumy, the corners full of yellow pus. It stank of piss and the musk of its rutting scent. The horns spread wide, with just the slightest bend to them. Its lower jaw dropped the worn and stained teeth showing in a corrupt grin. Odus recognized the animal now, from Gordon Smith’s flock.

What was it doing loose up here? Gordon had walked the Smith fence lines in early August, just before the second cutting of the hay. The wire was in good shape, and locust posts took decades to rot. Goats had a reputation for breaking boundaries and getting into where they weren’t wanted, but it didn’t make sense for the goat to climb up into the laurel thicket. Laurel leaves were poisonous, and not much else was green this time of year except balsam and jack pine.

The goat didn’t look like it cared for green. The strange, glittering pupils fixed on Odus as if the two were gunfighters squaring off in the Old West.

The goat lowered its head, the scruff of beard pressed against the shaggy chest, showing the serrated grooves of the two brown horns. The animal pawed at the ground with one hoof, like a Spanish bull preparing to charge a red cape. A goat was far more dangerous than most people thought, because its neck was strong and horns hard and sharp. If the horns tore into the horse’s abdominal cavity, the goat would likely pull away with intestines entwined like spaghetti around a twirled fork. The laurels on each side were too thick and tangled to allow escape.

Odus peeked over his shoulder to see if a path led down the side of the cliff, and that’s when the goat charged. It came in low, at Sister Mary’s knees. The horse shrieked and bucked, flailing its front legs in the air. Odus clung to the reins and hunched over the horse’s neck, one boot flying out of its stirrup. For a moment he was weightless, and then he crashed back down into the saddle, slamming his testicles against the hard leather. Sister Mary reared again, this time catching the goat in the forehead with one steel-shod hoof. The goat let out a gurgling bleat and drew back, a gash opening just above its eerie eyes, blood flowing down the snout. The goat retreated a few unsteady steps and wobbled a moment as Sister Mary hopped forward, not giving Odus a chance to regain control.

The goat fell to its knees, lapping at its blood with a grayish pink tongue. Sister Mary took a long couple of strides and leaped over the goat, once again lifting Odus out of the saddle, with gravity doing its work and plunging him right back down.

Sister Mary galloped along the path, branches slapping at Odus’s hands and face. He glanced back and saw the goat was still lapping at its own leaking fluids. They had gone perhaps a hundred yards when Odus pressed his knees against the mare’s flanks and urged her to slow down. At last she came to a stop, panting from the effort. Odus reached into the knapsack and treated himself to a shot of bourbon, his hands shaking. Somehow the encounter with the goat was creepier than the Circuit Rider’s uninvited stop at the general store the night before.

One thing was for sure, the Circuit Rider appeared to have a few friends on his side. All Odus had was a pinto horse, a half pint of eighty-proof, and a stubborn streak. He guided Sister Mary higher into the forest, where the tributary springs that fed Rush Branch squeezed from cracks in the gray, worn granite. In the world’s oldest mountains, where the headwaters of one of the oldest rivers leaked like the tears of a tired widow, Odus figured this was as good a place as any to serve as a cradle of evil.

And Odus planned on rocking that cradle.

Mark Draper checked into the cabin at four in the afternoon. He’d driven around Solom to get a feel for his daughter’s new home. She hadn’t exaggerated when she’d called it a “one-horse shit bag of a town,” and though he’d chastened her on the use of the expletive, he’d had to grin around the straw of his 7-Up. He hadn’t grinned as much as he’d wanted because Jett’s story was way too disturbing. As fantasy, it suggested dementia. As truth, it suggested the need for escape.

He couldn’t just drive down to Charlotte and hope everything would work out for the best. Mark wasn’t an optimist by nature, and that was probably wise, given his penchant for fucking up his life.

He wouldn’t fuck this up, wouldn’t let Jett down. He paid for the room with a credit card, shocked at the $150 fee for one night. Reading his expression, the Happy Hollow clerk explained that it was the fall tourist season, and with the leaf-lookers who would soon be swarming the highways, he was lucky to find a room at all. Mark thought of driving back to Titusville where a Holiday Inn, Comfort Suites, and other chain hotels feasted on the college. But he felt a need to be near Jett. And Katy, too, as much as he tried not to let his mind wander down that road.

He hadn’t packed any clothes, but he always carried a shaving kit in his trunk. He sometimes traveled in his job, and more than once had been caught out of town and having to make a trip to the drugstore for shampoo and toothpaste. The cabin was dark and cramped, the sort of place that was just uncomfortable enough to let flatlanders feel they were “roughing it.” However, an eighteen-inch television stood on the kitchenette counter, and the bed’s mattress was thick and soft.

Mark pulled out his cell phone and sat on the bed. Should he call Jett and tell her he was hanging around? Probably. Katy or Gordon might answer the phone, but he could bluff them, pretend he was calling on his way down the mountain. He thumbed the button. No bars. The valley must be dead. He hadn’t noticed any towers on the ridgetops. Perhaps the telecommunications and cell phone companies had yet to mark this end of nowhere.

The cabin didn’t have a phone. He’d have to walk down to the check-in desk and borrow one. He’d also noticed a pay phone down at the general store, the old-fashioned kind that still took coins. The store was only about three hundred yards down the road, a nice hike that would let him get a feel for the little community.

First things first. He pulled the slender glass vial from his shaving kit and shook it. A fine, white powder lay in the bottom. Fine Peruvian flake, at least 30 percent pure. The kind that would blow most street crud away, devoid of the milk sugar and strychnine that polluted most cocaine. Mark had his connections. After all, he’d spent a great deal of energy making them, at the same time he was losing touch with his wife and daughter.

Fuck it.

He took the lid off the vial and carefully dumped a little mound on the coffee table. Two hundred bucks’ worth. He flipped open his wallet and took out a credit card. Using the card, he pushed the coke into two neat lines. Next, he rolled up a five-dollar bill into a tight straw. The big shots used hundreds, but Mark’s habit kept him broke. He bent over and snorted the right line into one nostril, tilted his head back, and sniffed. The coke draped a frozen sheet over the base of his skull and his heartbeat accelerated. He bent and tooted the left line into his other nostril, his nose and cheeks going numb. He wiped up the stray dust with one pinky and rubbed the dregs of the coke around his lips, then sucked his pinky clean.

Yeah. Walkin’ time. Let’s see what the fuck Solom’s got to offer a man who’s as high as a god and as lowdown as the devil.

He was at the door before he’d even thought about standing, his thoughts racing, trying to stack the images of Jett’s story: goats, ghosts, some guy in a black hat, a scarecrow. Now that he was jumped up, the whole thing seemed ridiculous, yet appealing in a strange way. Like some kind of cryptic mystery. He didn’t believe in the supernatural. Even though he’d read Stephen King like everybody else on the planet, he couldn’t quite get his head around Katy’s haunting. More likely his ex-wife was being dramatic in an effort to win sympathy from Gordon. That was just like her, making a play for attention. Maybe to divert Gordon away from Jett’s problems, or to pull that selfish “me first” business that had put paid to their marriage.

Mark walked fast, down the hard-packed road and past the Happy Hollow office. A number of other cabins were tucked away in the woods, all offering the occupants privacy without ever letting them lose sight of the Pepsi machine in front of the office. Mark came to the entrance at the highway, then decided to cut across the road instead of making straight for the general store. The river beckoned, a jeweled, frothy dragon, chuckling as it slithered around rocks. The air was wet with the smell of mud and decaying vegetation, and goldenrod shimmered along the banks. The back of Mark’s throat tingled, and his feet seemed to be hovering two inches above the ground with each step.

A little trail among waist-high weeds marked what was probably someone’s favorite fishing hole. Mark looked up the road and saw a couple of pickup trucks parked in front of the general store’s deck. A man in a denim jacket was using the pay phone. Mark headed down the trail, beggar’s lice sticking to his trousers, a stray blackberry vine grabbing his sleeve. He scarcely felt the briars that stitched his forearm.

At the river’s edge, the mud gave way to smooth pebbles. The water was clear as glass, though its motion distorted the colorful stones along the bottom. A fish raced by, sparkling in the diffracted sunlight before disappearing in a deep, shadowed pool beneath the branches of a drooping sycamore. Nature was a trip. He’d have to get out more.

He was about to walk back to the road and see if the phone was free when something splashed upstream. An old concrete dam spanned the river fifty yards away, though it was more holes than anything. A decrepit mill sagged at one end of the dam, a wooden waterwheel dipping into a gray concrete channel. Most of the wheel’s paddles were missing, so it didn’t turn steadily. Instead, it juddered and spun a few feet at a time, wobbling like a giant tire with loose lug nuts.

“Help!” someone shouted.

The sound had come from the same general direction as the splash. The white noise of the rushing water confused Mark, or maybe it was the Peruvian flake banging pipes in his brain. He started up the bank toward the sound. That was when he saw the boy attached to the paddle wheel. It looked like his clothes had snagged and he was pushed under the water. Mark waded into the river and fought against the current.

The wheel turned, lifting the boy, who looked to be no more than ten. He was dressed in ragged overalls and a flannel underwear shirt, and as the wheel brought the boy higher into the sky, water poured from his bare feet. The boy was silent, but had seen Mark and raised a weak, desperate hand toward him. Mark plowed through the knee-deep water. The coke had kicked in enough that the river seemed no more powerful than the spit of a garden hose, but time had stretched out so that Mark didn’t seem to be making any progress. The wheel took another hesitant roll and the boy was now at the top, his back arched against the metal framework.

As Mark watched, realizing he should have run up the road and then down to the dam, the wheel moved again, and the boy descended headfirst toward the water. His dark hair hung like a dirty mop as he struggled to free himself. He grabbed one of his overall buckles as if to unfasten it, but bis fingers weren’t strong enough to fight his weight against the strap. Mark was twenty yards from the boy now, sticking to the shallows near the overgrown banks, kicking water into his face as he ran, knees high like an old-fashioned fallback’s. The boy’s head went under, and the wheel seemed to hesitate, as if chocked by the boy’s head pressed against the bottom of the channel. The wire-and-wood frame shook as the boy’s legs flailed in the air. Then the wheel turned again, dragging the boy fully under and pinning him on his belly.

The water was deep near the base of the dam, the edges rimmed with stonework. Mark had to swim the last ten yards, though the current was much weaker where the force of the water spent itself straight downward. He reached the dam and grabbed a chunk of shattered concrete, pulling himself out of the water. He couldn’t tell if it was an effect of the cocaine or the angle of the sun off the water, but the drops that poured around him each seemed to contain a tiny rainbow.

The wheel still juddered in place, hung up because of the boy lodged at its lowest point. Mark pulled himself over to the channel, scrabbling for purchase on the slick and jagged concrete. He reached the wheel, wondering if the boy had already drowned, wondering how he could fight thousands of gallons of water, wondering if he’d failed somebody again. Just as he reached the wheel, it issued a moist, rusty groan and turned. Mark braced himself, expecting to see the boy’s slack face, eyes shocked wide in death.

Instead, the wheel was bare, save for a few wooden blades dangling from the metal frame.

Mark looked into the river below. The boy couldn’t have plunged past without Mark’s seeing. He eased along the top of the dam and examined the upstream edge of the wheel. No body.

Shit. Cocaine didn’t give you hallucinations. Not unless you were in the screaming pink pain of serious withdrawal.

Mark scanned the road that ran parallel to the river. Through the trees, the general store stood with its green metal roof, white siding boards, and black shutters. Farther upstream was the wooden covered bridge marking the highway that led to Titusville. An old house, its windows broken, huddled at a high bank of the river, boards warped where past floods had touched it. Solom seemed abandoned, as if everyone had driven away for the season and locked up their buildings.

Mark pushed his hair out of his eyes. The water upstream looked too deep to wade, and he was too weary to try it with his sodden clothes. He’d have to navigate the top of the dam, walk to the other side of the river, and push through the weeds to the covered bridge. The wheel clicked forward a few feet, like a roulette given a halfhearted nudge.

That’s when Mark looked at the window of the mill house. In the shadows stood a man in a hat, which might have been black like the one Jett had described. Mark couldn’t discern any features, but he was struck with the notion of being watched. The man was motionless for a moment before slipping into the deeper darkness of the ruins.

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