Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney
Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney

Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney

Buy Bell Weather. A novel by Dennis Mahoney

An Excerpt from Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney

Chapter One

Town of Root, Continent of Floria, 1763

Lush spring made amends for Root’s monstrous winters and remoteness in the forest, but the snowmelt, mud, and early-season flux left the town unstable, prone to floods and violent storms.

It was daybreak. The heavy fog had just begun to brighten, and the blurry trees and hills cupped the narrow valley like a pair of giant hands enclosing something fragile. Tom Orange stood with his horse, two miles north of town, and saw a woman in the middle of the riotous Antler River. He was tired and he hadn’t drunk his morning cup of smoak, so when the dull floral pattern of her gown caught his eye he disregarded it at first, assuming it was blossoms. Only blossoms on a huge, twisted branch—not a body. Not a thing worth saving in the wreckage of the flood.

Tom removed his tricorne, tightened up the ribbon in his ponytailed hair, and put his hat back on before the mist wet his scalp. Every spring the river surged with swirling flowers. White petals, black centers—they were minuscule and stemless and appeared in quick profusion, well before any known plants began to bloom. The river undulated white like a meadow made of foam. Some of the townspeople said they floated from the Wolf Mountains in the north. Others thought they blossomed at the bottom of the river and emerged when the potent spring current stirred them up.

Tom viewed the flowers as just another element of home, and yet this morning he had ridden down the length of Root’s border, following the river and surveying its engorgement. Only once in old Nabby’s antediluvian memory had the water risen high enough to overwhelm the town, but there was always that threat and nobody in Root, least of all Tom, dropped their vigilance with so much danger roaring past. Not to mention all the people who would question him in the tavern: Had the river drowned the wharf? Had it swamped Murk’s Farm? It was easier to know when he was serving them a cider, easier to ride out and see it for himself.

Bones shifted hooves and snorted in the mist. He was a gangly, crooked horse who appeared malnourished, though he moved with graceful confidence and ate without reserve. Tom had found him last summer in the graveyard, standing with a crestfallen slouch beneath a tree, as if his owner had abandoned him but might reappear. It was said that people who perished in the wilderness, alone and far from home, walked as spirits to the town in search of others like themselves. There were numerous haunts in Root—the tavern had a child ghost, according to the cook—and Tom suspected Bones’s owner had died in the forest, led the horse to the graveyard, and silently departed. That or providence, he thought. Either way, they’d quickly bonded.

Moments earlier, the two had shared a ripple of the flesh—a question in the fog, an instinctual anxiety—and Tom had dismounted Bones to see what he could find.

Dawn spread vermilion in the low-slung clouds. Looking harder at the branch he had earlier dismissed, he was puzzled by the different sort of flowers in the tangle. They were larger than the others, dark blue and dirty rose. Tom’s boot began to slide very slowly in the mud. Not blossoms, he decided. They were flowers on a gown. Then he saw her all at once: a woman, maybe dead, her upper half held above the water by the branch.

He slipped and spun around, clutching at the grass and muddying his coat. The river nearly got him but he bellied up the bank. He mounted Bones, who cantered away before Tom was fully balanced on the saddle, and they raced along the riverside in something near to silence—just the hooves’ boggy suction and the rumble of the flood. They hurried south toward the town two miles off, where the ferry rope stretched bank to bank above the river. It was his only chance of catching her and holding her in place before the water swept her off to Dunderakwa Falls.

Every breath seemed to blow directly into his heart, billowing his chest and flushing through his veins. They were riding so fast, his hat blew away. The old bullet in his shoulder ground against bone. He squinted left and saw the branch still carrying the body. Then he lost it in the mist. They were barely keeping up.

Where the river met the mouth of Dampmill Creek, the flood spilled wide across an acre’s worth of grassland. Tom, so preoccupied with following the woman, spurred Bones onward into the new-made marsh as if expecting that the flowers were indeed solid ground. Bones splashed in and waded to his chest. They struggled through the mire to the high, firmer ground, up a slope lined with birches to a thin, bare ridge. There the ground turned hard but they were suddenly befogged, suicidal as they galloped in their blindness on the path.

Now the river was invisible below them to the left. They would storm downhill and locate the wharf, where the fishing road began and they could ride along the bank again. Tom yanked the reins and Bones made his turn. Then the horse stopped short and Tom left the saddle. He was thrown along the horse’s neck and landed on the ground near a tight stand of pines Bones had halted to avoid. His wrist folded back and streaked fire up his arm. He saw his own broken nose, weirdly crooked through his tears, and sniffed until the blood dribbled down his throat.

“Ruddy fucking trees!” he said, wiping off his eyes.

He was lacquered head to boot with slick black mud, but then he was up and riding Bones again, weaving downhill until the pines thinned away and he could finally see the wharf. They continued at a breakneck pitch, Bones rearing back to keep from tumbling over, Tom’s straight legs rigid in the stirrups. The wharf was underwater but beside it, in the current, was a small rocky mound like a miniature island.

Silas Booker stood upon it, fishing with a gaff. He wore a smock and heavy boots and had a long, sturdy basket full of murkfins behind him. The river roared along, spewing up oceanlike and menacing around him. Petals from the spray were clinging to his hair, and he was so intent on balancing and managing his gaff that he didn’t hear Bones approaching from behind.

Tom dismounted, jumping over the bank-side water to the mound. Rain came upon them. Giant drops began to fall and it was dismal, like a sinister undoing of the dawn. When Silas hooked a murkfin and turned to put it down, he yelped at the sight of Tom’s figure in the gloom, still dirty from the fall, like a man made of mud. Silas backed away, slipping on the flowers till he very nearly fell and tumbled off the mound. Tom caught his belt.

“Silas, look at me. It’s Tom!”

Just beyond them in the river went the woman on the branch. Silas took a breath and laughed through his beard.

“Hell’s britches! I thought you was the Colorless Man—”

“I need your gaff,” Tom said, snatching it away. He shook the murkfin loose but missed the open basket. It was a fish with poison hairs and short slimy legs, serpentine and bleeding and contorting round his heel. Tom kicked it into the water, where it vanished with a slap and left a clump of flower heads bloody in the foam.

“Damnation!” Silas said, more dismayed than angry, grabbing back the pole and holding on tight.

“Give me the gaff,” Tom said, pulling it toward him.

Silas, though a coward, was prodigiously endowed. He was ripe and wetly grizzled, his hard-worked knuckles whitening and split, and he would sooner fight a friend than lose his precious gaff. He said, “You know they only surface half a week every spring—”

“There’s a woman—” Tom began.

“—and that’s a two-shilling fish you cost me,” Silas said, too focused on his loss to heed Tom’s words.

They wobbled back and forth with the pole between their chests. Murkfin blood dribbled to their hands. For a second through the rain, Tom could see the woman clearly—long black hair, raggedy and wet, contrasted with the spring-cold pallor of her skin. She was young, not a girl but scarcely into womanhood. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth hung ajar. She was beautiful and deathlike, elegant as silk, yet her grip upon the branch looked desperately alive.

Tom had never wanted to hold a woman more in all his life, and he considered diving in and swimming to her side. But he wouldn’t get her out unless he had the hook, and she was vanishing again, speeding out of reach.

Tom released the pole and Silas staggered back, smiling with the prize until the rain made him blink. In the moment of distraction, Tom socked him in the gut. The pole clattered down and Tom picked it up, squinting from the pain—he had punched, like a dolt, with his newly sprained hand—and then he leapt off the mound and ran back to Bones, listening to Silas swearing in the spume.

“I owe you two shillings!” Tom yelled, racing off.

He galloped with the pole before him like a lance, trusting Bones to lead the way while he scanned the widening river, having lost her once again. He felt a tug upon his chest as if a rope, pulled taut, were knotted to his breastbone. His nose had swollen badly. It was difficult to breathe. Fog massed heavy just above the water but the sun had started burning off the layers in the east, leaving thin misty tendrils in the bright gold bloom.

Ahead stood the Orange, Tom’s weatherworn tavern, cozy and reliable and glowing in the light. It was stout and double-chimneyed, on a hill near the river, safely distanced from the flood and higher than the ferry. To the right lay the town, a quarter-mile square of small, huddled houses that were bounded by the farms, and the forest, and the river. The meetinghouse steeple poked above the fog. There were lights in many dwellings—it was a town of early risers—but he couldn’t see a single man or woman on the streets.

Tom halted Bones and ran toward the water, carrying the gaff and hollering for Ichabod, the ferryman and servingman who boarded at the tavern. He tugged off his boots and felt the chill through his stockings, but it was nothing to the shock of frigid water when he dove.

He broke through the flowers with a splash. Cold struck him like a great set of hammers tipped with needles, thudding but precise, bewildering his mind. The current was astonishingly strong below the surface and it tried to pull him under more than carry him along. He struggled with the gaff, swimming mostly with his legs, and fought to reach the middle of the river at an angle, gasping hard and stiffening up and looking for the woman.

From the shore, the flowers had seemed to form a smooth, gentle surface, but in fact they clumped and bobbed, often rising over his head. They made it hard to recognize the whirlpools and waves. He was battered more than once by unseen debris, and even floating backward with an unobstructed view, he couldn’t spot the branch and worried it had passed.

He drifted to the ferry line: a thick twist of rope, suspended over the water, that extended bank to bank from columns on the docks. He floated underneath it, raised the gaff, and hooked the rope. The jerk was so strong, he almost lost his grip. The current forced him several extra feet beyond the line and there he dangled as the floodwaters surged up against him.

His breaths came in quick, light snatches at the air. His legs were numb, his wrist sprain a growing streak of flame. There were flowers in his eyes and petals in his mouth, sickly sweet and slippery when he tried to spit them out. Seven miles downriver lay the Dunderakwa Falls, and if he missed her—curse Silas and his God-rotting murkfins!—nothing but a miracle would pull her from her doom.

He finally saw the branch upriver, dead ahead. It was bigger than he’d realized, dangerously splayed like a wide black claw and coming fast, very fast. He hopped the hook along the line, half paralyzed with cold and moving to the side so as not to be impaled. There’d be one brief chance to get her off the branch. Here it came—he could see the little flowers on her gown, the whiteness of her scalp along the parting of her hair.

A limb beneath the surface cracked him in the ribs. The blow knocked him sideways, fully out of reach, and only fury at the pain allowed him to recover. With a wild bolt of energy, he grabbed her by the armpit, holding one-fisted to the handle of the gaff. The branch continued on, tearing at her gown. She was limp and almost naked when he pulled her free and clear.

The flowers swarmed around them, covering their heads, until his panic spiraled up to something like euphoria. Her body pressed against him, cold as any corpse. She was facing him and buoyant with her head lolling back, hair floating to his chin, breasts rising from her gown. Her slightly open mouth was her captivating feature—what a thing it would have been to see her take a breath.

The woman belched a lungful of water in his face.

She coughed herself awake and looked at him, amazed, as if confused to find the branch was suddenly a man. She squeezed him around the middle, murdering his ribs.

“Don’t let go,” he said.

She clutched him even harder in surprise, legs around his hips, hands fastened to his back. Her irises were dark—he couldn’t see her pupils—and she seemed about to talk but coughed herself delirious. He realized only now, having caught her in his arms, that he didn’t have the strength to get her to the bank. He would barely save himself if he tried swimming back and so they held each other close, stranded in the flood.

He couldn’t hear a thing except the noise of rushing water, and he couldn’t feel his hands or verify his grip. Any moment they’d be loose and headed for the falls. He looked at her with false reassurance to console her. Once he did—once she stared at him and seemed to understand—he knew for certain, falls be damned, he would hold her to the end.

A long wooden pole cracked him on the noggin. When he turned to see its source, it struck him on the nose. He bled again and blinked, smarting from the blows, and there was Ichabod the ferryman at last, right beside them.

He was balanced on the tethered raft, lanky and disheveled, reaching with his driving pole and almost falling in. The raft was broad and strong, railed on either side and stable enough for horses, made of planks atop a sturdy pair of dugout canoes. Ichabod was sweating from his fight against the current. He was a lifelong mute and now he spoke with his expressions, subtle changes in his close-set eyes and bony jaw that Tom interpreted to mean, “Grab the pole. Only choice. Any closer and I’ll knock you underwater with the raft.”

He was right. The raft was bobbing too erratically to trust. Tom dropped the gaff and lunged to get the ferry pole. He caught it but the woman’s limp weight pulled him down. She was fading out of consciousness and dragging on his neck and Ichabod, though wiry strong, could barely keep his footing. Tom inched along, hand over hand. The woman started slipping underwater through his arms.

“Grab her hair,” Tom yelled, finally at the raft.

Ichabod wove his bony fingers to her roots and kept her head above water, high enough to breathe. Tom hauled himself up and didn’t let her go, aching from his injuries and growling like a winterbear. They pulled her up together to the safety of the deck. Ichabod removed his shirt and handed it to Tom, who wrapped her up and held her, cradling her head. They shuddered close together in the cold, misty breeze. She had flowers on her throat and petals in her ears.

He wrung the water from her hair and rubbed her shivery skin, summoning whatever faint warmth she had left, his swollen nose and broken ribs and reasonable questions overpowered by the wonder of beholding her alive.

Chapter Two

Hours in the dark catching murkfins and you come along, steal my gaff, and catch a woman.”

Silas Booker, smiling broadly at the curious passersby, stood in the mud of Center Street and blocked Tom’s way. He wore the same fishy breeches he’d been wearing at the river—possibly the only pair of breeches Silas owned. The season’s first horseflies twirled around his legs. Townspeople noticed Tom and Silas in the road; they were active with the business of a fair-weather morning—airing houses, running errands, trading for supplies—but they had all heard the story of the rescue in the flood.

“I’d gripe again about that bellywallop,” Silas said loudly, “but there isn’t any question that you went and took the brunt.”

No, there wasn’t, Tom agreed. He had a bandage on his wrist, a wrap around his rib cage, and grape-and-ash bruises underneath his eyes. The river chill had left him feeling feverish and brittle. His fatigue had only deepened from the necessary tavern work, especially now in spring when travelers braved the road again, no longer hindered by the valley’s great snows.

They would soon arrive from Grayport, seventy miles southwest, or from Liberty, a hundred-odd miles northeast. Root was in the middle of the wilderness between—four hundred people in profound isolation with the river up the side and the forest all around them: a miniature town with a small, common green and farmland radiating outward from the center. If not for the road that linked the cities, they would likely be forgotten. As it was, they almost were. There were safer routes between Grayport and Liberty but none were so direct in the drier, warmer seasons. Swamps and gorges riddled the south; the northern passages were safer but a good deal longer. Several days could be recovered by the wilder way through Root, which made it a popular road for mail and urgent trips between the colony’s two major settlements.

Soon the year’s first travelers would emerge from the forest, and the Orange would be busy straight through to the frigid season of deadfall. With beer to brew, stores to fill, and countless daily chores, nothing would have prompted Tom to venture from the tavern but a summons to meet the woman he had rescued from the flood.

Her identity was fodder for a host of shifting rumors. She had been called a woman and a child, golden-haired and dark, destitute and wealthy. She was said to have floated from the distant northern mountains or emerged like the murkfins from underneath the river. There were rumors she might be a victim of the Kraw—a fierce tribe of women so bonded to the forest, they were said to be part of the flora, only semihuman—but the Kraw had not been seen around the valley since the war.

Her name was Mary, Martha, Dolly, Georgiana, or Elizabeth, and her death had been assumed with somber regularity as no additional news of her condition came to light. She had been kept in the care of Dr. Benjamin Knox and his wife, Abigail, since the hour of her rescue. After prohibiting visitors for the first two days, Benjamin had summoned his friend from the tavern that morning, and Tom had done his best to look respectable in polished buckle shoes, a fresh shirt and coat, and a tricorne as crisp as Silas’s was limp. Tom never wore a wig—few in Root saw the need—and he kept his shoulder-length hair tied behind him with a ribbon. It was a perfect white ribbon from his younger cousin Bess, who had embarrassed him with smiles over the effort he was making.

“Now you’re dandy as a jay,” Silas said, and grinned. “Off to see her, I expect, and claim her as a prize.”

“God damn it, no I ain’t. You’re as frivolous as Bess. I didn’t save her life to warm my ruddy bed.”

“She’s better than a murkfin,” Silas said sincerely. “People seem to think—”

His words were interrupted by a passing group of sawyers, one of whom complimented Tom’s shiny buckles.

As owner of the tavern, Tom was wed to the community, and everyone in Root presumed to know his business. He was popular and didn’t spurn the neighborly regard, but at the age of twenty-seven, he was tired of attention—for his valor in the war, for the scandal of his father—and now, in a year when public interest seemed finally on the wane, here was Silas spreading gossip that would set the town talking.

“He’s off to see her now!” Silas hollered out, turning heads and sending Tom, hot as smoakwood, on his way.

He walked toward the Knoxes’ house, avoiding people’s faces to discourage any questions but intuiting—he felt it in their overlong stares—that they suspected he was going forth to meet his future wife. The sun at his back lit the houses he approached, but the unlit sides were shadowy and grim, caked with old snow the morning couldn’t reach. Winter hung tough in spite of warmer air, yet the town’s growing bustle had the energy of spring and the walk began to soften Tom’s hard-packed spirit, which had seemed for many weeks impossible to thaw.

The Knoxes’ modest house stood at the corner of the green. He had begun to cross the road when a sunshower fell, altering the hues of everything in sight. There were marmalade sheep grazing in the common, indigo trees, houses rippling blue. The air looked alive with shimmering gold and green, touched with spectral colors difficult to name. The colorwash was another of the town’s native marvels. Tom felt as if a rainbow were pouring down around him, filling him with hopes he didn’t quite believe.

The shower had ended by the time he reached the Knoxes’ door, and it was only when he knocked and felt the water in his stockings that he realized just how bedraggled he’d become.

Abigail Knox opened up to let him in. She was a devout Lumenist whose faith coexisted with unembroidered fact, and she composed herself and dressed in rigorous accordance. Her frame was sharp and lean—the most Tom had ever seen her eat was half a dinner—and she covered herself completely in an ankle-length gown, bed jacket, ruffled cap, and, according to rumor, two layers of underclothes regardless of the season. Children ceased laughing in her presence, dogs cowered when they saw her in the street, and however much anyone disagreed with her in secret, no one saw the need to openly defy her.

“If you had come on time, you might have avoided the rain and kept yourself presentable.”

“I didn’t see a cloud.”

“Or a clock,” Abigail said. “At least you were invited. Do you know how many busybodies have come to the door in the last two days?”

“I’d imagine—”

“Twenty-nine, and those were only the ones who had the impudence to knock. Everywhere I go, they want to know the news, and everyone who comes receives the same answer: show me blood or broken bones or you have no Lumenous reason to be muddying the steps. My husband is a doctor, not a storyteller. There, they’re looking now. Come inside before they think it’s open house. And wipe your shoes. You should have worn boots.” She pulled him inside, closed the door, and said, “Sheriff Pitt is here.”

In any other household, Tom would have cursed.

“He thinks incessant questioning will finally win the day,” she said. “Never mind that our enigma has yet to speak a word in self-defense.”

“Defense of what?”

“Now you’re talking like Pitt,” Abigail replied, knowing the comparison would rankle Tom to silence.

She walked upstairs, expecting him to follow. Tom wiped his feet and wished he hadn’t come, but by the time they reached the top and turned the corner into the hall, his curiosity was greater than his private reservations. They entered a small, bright room crowded with a bed, a night table, a chest of drawers, and one spindly chair that nobody was using. The bed faced the hall, but with the sunlight glaring after the darkness of the staircase, Benjamin leaning over his patient, and Abigail pausing just inside the door, all Tom could see was Sheriff James Pitt. He stood in his scarlet coat and yak-hair wig, skinny-legged but mutton-faced, as if whatever he ate and drank congealed above his neck. His wee protruding eyes were ardently suspicious but betrayed a constant panic that they might, at any moment, spot an actual offense.

“Out!” Pitt said.

He was a baritone who often tried speaking as a bass. Tom grinned wide and stepped inside the room. Before he knew it, Pitt’s palm was firmly on his chest, pressing on his broken ribs and holding him at bay.

“Tom,” Benjamin said, turning from the bed and smiling at his friend.

Pitt dropped his hand but didn’t move aside.

Abigail inserted herself between them with a frown. She might have sighed if any part of her was ever less than rigid. “The two of you are worse than unbreeched children.”

The Knoxes were childless after fifteen years of marriage, had never been known to kiss or embrace, and were generally viewed as siblings: sharply unalike but unmistakably related. Crueler whispers in the town called their childlessness proof of God’s mercy, sparing unborn souls from such a bitter-apple mother. Benjamin, a popular man, was pitied for his lot, and yet he generally seemed content and wasn’t given to complaint.

“I’m sorry, Abigail,” Pitt said, “but I won’t be interrupted in the middle of my questions.”

“Saints support us, are you only at the middle?” she replied.

“Tom is always welcome,” Benjamin said to Pitt, sounding as if the tension were a slight misunderstanding. He was a short and slender man of thirty-nine years, gentle as a fawn, gray in every hair, delicate of movement and possessing a voice best suited to a bedside. A calm exterior disguised his boundless energy and thought.

“Furthermore,” Benjamin continued, “I invited Tom myself, and as the doctor of my patient and the head of the household”—Abigail raised her eyebrows—“I assure you that his presence is not primarily social, nor secondarily a matter of good form, given that he saved her, but rather tertiarily—or chiefly, I should say—a stroke of opportunity in both of our endeavors.”

Pitt stood inert.

“What?” Tom said.

“Meet Molly,” Benjamin told him, standing aside so Tom could see her.

She sat in bed with her legs beneath a quilt, supported by pillows, clean and alert and remarkably intact. Tom had a high opinion of his friend’s abilities—Benjamin had treated nearly everyone in town at one time or another, and commonly saved his patients’ lives in all but the most egregious cases—but Molly’s good condition bordered on miraculous.

She was pretty in a weird, rather homely sort of way. Her hair was long and black, partly matted, partly tousled. She had slightly gapped teeth. Her eyes were out of alignment, one noticeably higher, and rounder, and darker than the other, so she looked half grieved, half luminous with wonder. Her expression, most engagingly, was volatile and ripe, as if she wanted to embrace him, fall to tears, or both at once.

It was strange to meet her again surrounded by the others, to be watched so intently while they shared a private look, one as wordless and profound as when he had held her in the water.

“Thank you,” Molly said.

“It’s good to see you dry.”

She smiled with a twitch and rubbed her fingers on the quilt.

“You recognize Tom?” Abigail asked.

“Yes,” Molly said.

“Excellent!” Benjamin cried without actually raising his voice. He turned to Tom and said, “I hoped if she remembered you, we might construct a memory bridge and cross the floodwaters, so to speak, to other recollections of her history and identity.”

“You don’t remember what happened?” Tom asked.

“She doesn’t remember anything,” Abigail said curtly, “aside from you and her name.”

“Molly,” Tom said, just to try it out.

She stared at him and froze as if afraid he didn’t trust her.

“And what is your last name again?” Abigail asked. “It’s hard to keep it pinned.”

“Smith,” Molly mumbled.

“Yes, Smith. And yet I’m sure you gave a different name the first time we asked.”

“We’ve covered that,” Pitt said, clinging to the fact, regardless of its truth, and glowering at Tom as if his visit were undoing even this one precarious clue.

The room was close and humid after the quick dose of rain. There was moisture on the window glass and sweat in Tom’s clothes, and since it wasn’t truly warm, it lingered like a fever chill, shallowing his breath and clouding up his thoughts. Molly touched a locket on a ribbon around her neck. He thought to ask her what it was—it might remind her of her past—but she hid it, growing flushed, when she saw what he was thinking.

“You don’t remember anything at all?” Tom asked.

“Now and then,” Abigail said, “she can’t remember how to answer when she’s spoken to.”

“Enough, enough,” Benjamin said, reassuring Molly with a light, avuncular pat. “I have been explaining to Abigail and Sheriff Pitt,” he told Tom, “that certain traumas, such as drowning, knocks about the head, unconsciousness, exhaustion, and extremity of fear, to say nothing of certain phases of the moon, noxious plants, chronic malnutrition, and diseases of the brain—though I am confident in laying most of these aside—have been known to produce severe but often temporary amnesia. If we take into consideration—”

“Tom was knocked about the head,” Abigail noted. “I believe he still remembers his last name.”

Benjamin considered this but quickly disregarded it. “Now that Tom is here,” he said, looking down at Molly, “does seeing him ignite a spark of recollection of the hours or the minutes that preceded your arrival? Perhaps by training your memory directly on the branch—”

Molly fidgeted discreetly, meeting Benjamin’s look as if the memories might be there, written in the features of her doctor’s kindly face.

“Describe your house,” Pitt said, seeming to think authority was all they really needed. “Did you have your own room? A family or a husband?”

Molly sighed until she shrank and didn’t breathe back in, looking down so her hair fell loose around her cheeks.

“Why don’t you try something else?” Tom told Pitt.

“Like what?”

“Get on your horse and ask around. The Antler flows south, so chances are you ought to ride north. That’s your left-hand side if you look toward the sun, but here’s the complicated part: when the sun is going down—”

“I won’t put up with this.”

“You’ve already asked your questions,” Tom said. “What are you still doing here?”

“What about you?” Pitt said, stepping forward. “All fopped up like a proper macaroni. Are you trying to impress the young lady, or puff your reputation so you sell more cider?”

“Mind your tongues,” Abigail said, “or both of you can leave.”

Tom unclenched his fists, aware, on loosening up, of how much pain he’d caused his sprained wrist. Pitt stood his ground, breathing boldly through his nose, as if he might arrest Tom for contempt of civic office.

“I apologize, Abigail,” Tom said at last, feeling something like a rum burn rising in his chest. “But we ought to spread a net wider than the room.”

Pitt crossed his arms. “Now apologize to me.”

“I only want to help.”

“Like your father?” Pitt replied.

It was all Tom could do not to throw him out the window.

“Root’s hero has a deep black stain upon his name,” Pitt said, speaking to Molly without the courtesy of facing her. “You might consider the facts of his storied past—”

“I don’t care!” Molly said. “He saved my life. Let him be.”

Pitt was startled to have pricked Molly’s nerve instead of Tom’s. She shivered under the quilt and seemed about to swoon, lapsing forward on the bed and covering her face. She cried into her hands, surprising them anew.

Benjamin consoled her with a hand upon her back and looked to Abigail, speaking with the courteous authority of doctors. “Please show them out.”

Neither man objected. Pitt left first, neither frowning at nor bumping into Tom when he passed. After Pitt and Abigail were gone, Tom took a final look at Molly—the poor thing had crumpled into sobs—and Benjamin said, “Wait for me downstairs.”

Tom nodded and turned to go, relieved to hear the front door close behind Pitt but hollow, almost glum, to leave Molly there in tears. He met Abigail in the foyer. She gave him an unspoken censure for his part in the commotion and retired to the kitchen. Tom refused to pace but his thoughts roamed far, first to Pitt as a child, then to both their dead fathers, then to Molly’s rush of color when she spoke in Tom’s defense.

Benjamin joined him downstairs and led him outside. Abigail’s hearing was alarmingly acute, and even on the street they kept their voices lowered.

“What do you know?” Tom asked.

“The brain is a fabulous organ,” Benjamin said, “as capable of silence as of melody and storm. Oftentimes the lulls are more dramatic than the notes.”

Tom paused as if to demonstrate his own dramatic lull, and after waiting a respectable length of time he asked again, “What do you know?”

Benjamin blinked behind his glasses, returning from abstraction to the muddy terra firma. “More than Pitt,” he said. “Abigail is right: Molly remembers more than she admits, and I have gleaned several facts she believes are safely hidden. First and foremost—”

Benjamin’s eyes were drawn away with an illuminated thrill.

“An upfall!” he said.

Tom looked to see the tall, swirling columns in the east. They were droplets being drawn from the river to the sky—upside-down rain resulting in a cloud that would swell until it drifted off, pregnant as a storm.

“There was a colorwash right before I got here,” Tom said.

“I saw, I saw, but those are common. This is something else, something wonderful and rare. The flood,” Benjamin said, grasping Tom’s arm. “Is it rising or receding?”

“Going down,” Tom said. “It was minor this year, barely crested—”

“The last recorded upfall was 1756, when the Antler swamped the creek and took the millwheel away. And now the Planter’s Moon is Saturday night, and feel the eastern wind! Every weathercock turned! I dare say the river hasn’t finished with its swell.”

Benjamin checked his pocketwatch and memorized the time. Later he would note it in a thick black ledger, along with the temperature, barometric pressure, angle of the grass, and numerous other observations he was certain would lead to his ultimate deciphering of Root’s climatological marvels. Tom was skeptical but smiled at his friend’s high excitement. Before they could speak of it further, a red-haired boy sprinted up the road, splashing puddles on the way with devilish abandon.

It was Peter Ames, the youngest son of William the cabinetmaker, and he ran so fast toward Benjamin and Tom they had to catch him by the elbows before he skidded past.

“Easy,” Tom said.

Peter slipped and fell. He stood without embarrassment and said with gleeful fear, “The Maimers is back! Another victim’s just come; they took him to the Orange.”

Benjamin slumped but steeled himself, sad and resolute. Tom hardened with a scowl, putting a hand too firmly on Peter’s shoulder and frightening the boy with his expression.

“You’re sure it’s Maimers?”

Peter sniffed and nodded, scared of saying more.

Abigail appeared at the door with Benjamin’s medical bag, her preternatural hearing having caught the brief exchange. She gave it to her husband, cast a disapproving look at Peter’s clothes, and said to Tom, “You were right.”

He took no more pleasure from her words than Abigail took in speaking them, and said again to Peter, “Are you sure—”

“Robbed and naked as the rest,” the boy said. “He just come out of the woods and Fanny Buckman set to screaming. Mr. Ichabod and Bess took him inside, and Nabby said run to the doctor’s, find Tom, bring ’em back straightaway. He’s bleeding awful bad. The Maimers took his tongue!”

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Copyright © 2015 by Dennis Mahoney

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