MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Keech Blackwood knelt beside a plump cottonwood tree, inspecting two small dips in the frozen soil. They were shaped like bowls and sat a few inches apart, each covered in leaves and brittle twigs. One hollow was larger than the other, and when Keech ran his palm over the dirt cavities, he realized a short tunnel connected the two dips below the ground.
He grinned in admiration.
The November day was standoffish with cold. Pockets of light snow and ice dappled the Kansas forest—a decline in the weather that felt too early for these parts. A heavy mist clung to the hills, turning the region ghost-pale.
Tethered to the cottonwood, Keech’s pony, Felix, blustered at the cold. Keech pointed to the ground with a smile. “Felix, do you know what these holes make? A Dakota pit.”
The pony gazed off into the woods, unimpressed.
“I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.”
Keech poked his finger down into the dirt and felt the void of the little tunnel. Read the earth, his foster father, Pa Abner, used to say. Let it tell you its story. The history here was blurry, but one telltale sign was clear: Whoever had filled these holes had done it willy-nilly, sliding the dirt back in with the side of one foot.
“Something interrupted you,” Keech murmured, envisioning the traveler standing here. “You didn’t want to leave your camp, but you had no choice.”
He peered around the campsite for signs of quick passage. There were none, not even horse tracks. Disappointed, he returned his scrutiny to the indentations.
“You were sloppy to fill the holes too quick, but smart enough to erase your prints. And crafty enough to build a Dakota pit in the first place.”
Those who knew of Dakota fire pits understood they had two purposes. They concealed the traveler’s firelight below the ground, and their tunnel-and-vent design left no rising smoke for enemies to see. Keech had learned to build one five years ago, when he was only eight. His orphan brother Sam had been seven. Pa Abner had taken them on a two-week hunting trip up to Nodaway country. The first week, Pa had taught them how to build the fire pit and how to cook small game. The following Sunday, he instructed them to leave no sign of their camps, then left them alone for five days in the wilderness to practice. The excursion had pushed Keech and Sam to their limits, but after the week was done, Pa rewarded them with a sackful of Granny’s homemade peanut brittle and a special campfire recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” one of Sam’s favorite poems.
The memory warmed Keech’s heart. It was nice to see Sam’s face in his mind again. The past few days he’d been trying to remember every little tidbit about Sam—as well as Granny Nell and the others, Robby, Little Eugena, Patrick. He’d also been trying to cherish all the memories he could of Pa Abner, whose real name, whose Enforcer name, had been Isaiah Raines. Forgetting the family that Bad Whiskey Nelson had murdered would be easier than suffering alone in their haunting memories, but Keech knew he could no more forget their faces than stop breathing.
A fierce breeze rustled around the cottonwood, fluttering Keech’s dark bangs. He tucked the hair back into his bowler hat and returned his focus to the buried camp.
“Could be the Kickapoo,” he said to Felix. The Kickapoo tribe resided on lands not far from here, and they would be careful not to build fires that the harsh Kansas winds could sweep across the hills and plains.
Widening his sweep of the ground, Keech realized it wasn’t the Kickapoo. Whoever had built this fire pit had slipped up, leaving a clue: a heel print at the base of the cottonwood. The heel was from a large boot, not a moccasin.
“Maybe this print belongs to Red Jeffreys,” Keech said.
Red Jeffreys was the Enforcer who had apparently stolen the Char Stone from the grave of his mother, Erin Blackwood, in Bone Ridge Cemetery. In the Stone’s place, the thief had left a peculiar trinket in Keech’s mother’s hands—a child’s figurine with a carved wooden head, a doll Keech now carried in his coat pocket.
Before dying, Pa Abner had told Keech that a devilish fiend known as the Reverend Rose had now set his dark sights on this Jeffreys and that Rose wouldn’t stop hunting till his gang of killers found the man and retrieved the Stone.
What Rose wanted with the Char Stone was still a mystery, but Bad Whiskey had claimed it would thwart damnation itself. The Reverend took my soul, the one-eyed scoundrel had said. He brought me back, but left me empty. The Char Stone’s the only thing that can save me. All Keech knew was that the Stone was cursed and should never be touched. Pa Abner had been clear about that.
“Blackwood, get over here! You need to see this!”
Keech peered through the woods to where his new friend Cutter was crouching beside a maple tree. John Wesley hunkered behind him. Both boys were intently studying the ground.
Keech moseyed over to his trailmates. As he moved toward John Wesley’s chubby gelding, Lightnin’, the horse pinned his ears back and released an angry snort. “Hey now, take it easy,” Keech said under his breath. “Be a good boy.” They were not on the best of terms, he and Lightnin’. Whenever Keech approached the horse, the ornery beast would spin his behind toward him, as though aiming to kick his head off. This time, Keech made sure to walk an extra foot away.
Neither boy looked up when he approached. Cutter had scored a large circle in the frozen mud with his bone-handled knife, the blade he liked to claim was magic. His palomino mare, Chantico, waited nearby, watching her master work while she chomped on stiff grass.
“About time, Lost Cause.” The dusty clothes Cutter wore made him look bronze, almost statuesque, in the midday light. He would have blended almost perfectly with the Kansas forest if it weren’t for his light blue neck bandana and the red silk sash tied around his waist. Though his real name was Miguel Herrera, he preferred to be called Cutter on account of his wicked blade.
“I was occupied. I found a strange campsite.”
“Hang your campsite.” John Wesley jabbed his finger at the knife circle in the mud. He was a heavyset boy, nearly six feet tall, and one of the unluckiest people Keech had ever met. If a piece of a plan went off-kilter, John Wesley usually bore the brunt of the mishap, such as the time in Missouri when he almost drowned in the Little Wild Boy River. “Tell us what you make of that.”
Inside Cutter’s knife circle lay a large paw print, strange and deformed. There was only one print where Cutter had drawn his boundary, but when Keech glanced ahead, he spotted a second marking, emblazoned in a thin patch of snow. “There’s another.”
“We saw it,” Cutter said.
Keech knelt beside his companions to get a closer look. “This track isn’t natural.”
A less experienced tracker might have assumed the print belonged to a coyote, or perhaps a large red fox. In a sprint, both animals left a four-print pattern, with visible claw marks on the front two toes. This was no fox or coyote paw print. It was far too large.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Keech said. “The footpads have the markings of a canine, but the toes split up the middle, like a deer’s hoof.”
Cutter and John Wesley scowled at the print. Both were superstitious boys, prone to anxiety about midnight ghosts and boogermen. After all the young riders had witnessed in Missouri—dead men rising from their graves, Bad Whiskey speaking through the mouths of his thralls—Keech reckoned they were entitled to their fears.
Cutter frowned. “Maybe an oversized wolf got caught in a trap.” But he didn’t sound convinced.
“A mangled paw would leave traces of blood and fur.” Keech glanced around the forest floor, hoping for more tracks. Sure enough, a little beyond the second track lay another run of prints where the animal had apparently dropped to lope on all four limbs.
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing’s made sense since we met you,” John Wesley said.
Keech straightened and balanced on his left foot. “It’s like the animal stopped here and rose to one paw,” he said, reenacting the image he saw in his mind. “Then leaped to the other paw, like this”—he hopped toward the second track and landed on his right foot—“then dropped to all fours. But where did it go afterward?”
“I think I know,” Cutter said, and pointed up at the forest canopy.
“The trees,” Keech said. “It jumped into the trees.” The cottonwoods and maples were dense in this area, forming white spiderwebs of icy boughs and branches.
Cutter and John Wesley backed away from the track. “Shifter,” Cutter whispered, and crossed himself with his blade. Keech shivered deeply at the sound of the word. He hadn’t heard mention of Shifters in a long time, not since Pa Abner’s campfire tales from years back. Whenever Pa spoke about them, he would do so with a hushed tone of respect. There are things in this world we sometimes won’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate them, Pa said. Revere all creatures, because each holds a vital place in the world.
Cutter heaved a nervous sigh. “When I was a kid, mi mamá used to tell me stories at bedtime. The tales that scared me the most were about the Shifters from another world, the monsters that could turn into dogs and wolves and roam about in the moonlight.”
“That don’t sound like a bad life,” said John Wesley. “Think of all the chickens you could eat!” He bumped Keech on the arm and chuckled.
Cutter’s face remained deadly serious as he stared at the mangled print. “The thing is, I don’t think they were just stories. I saw something like this before, when I was a boy.”
“Tracks like this?” Keech asked.
Cutter nodded uncertainly.
“What did you mean ‘from another world’?” John Wesley asked.
Keech had never heard tales of Shifters from other worlds; the notion was disquieting, yet intriguing.
Cutter glanced around the forest, then shook his head. “I don’t want to speak of Shifters in the woods. Let’s get back to camp. We shouldn’t be in this forest when night falls.”
“I agree. Nothing good comes from the dark these days,” said Keech, and he headed back to Felix with extra speed in his step.
Copyright © 2019 by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester