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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Key of Skeleton Peak: Legends of the Lost Causes

Legends of the Lost Causes (Volume 3)

Brad McLelland & Louis Sylvester

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

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CHAPTER 1

THE SCARECROW


Keech Blackwood lay flat in the deep snow, watching the hunched figure down in the pasture wobble in the blizzard wind. His trailmates, Duck Embry and Quinn Revels, waited to his left and right, unmoving, buttoned up against the cold. Over the shriek of the winter squall, Quinn steadily sang his peculiar Odyssey tune—the melody his aunt Ruth had taught him long ago while fleeing Tennessee. The song worked as an incantation that concealed the group, placing them inside a mystical bubble of sorts that obscured all signs of the young riders, even their horses’ hoofprints. It was a trick Quinn had picked up from the man who’d betrayed them, a fellow who went by two names: Edgar Doyle and Red Jeffreys.

“The wind’s gonna knock it over,” said Duck, her words muffled behind her scarf.

“No, it’ll hold.” The February freeze pummeled the otter-fur coverings over Keech’s ears, so he couldn’t hear much except for the wheeze of the Kansas plain. But Quinn’s hum still drifted through the blurry noise, filling Keech’s bones with comfort.

“I hope you’re right,” Duck muttered. “I don’t want to go down there again.”

“It’ll hold. Trust me.”

“What if they don’t show?”

“They’re getting antsy.” Keech glanced up at the sky. “They’ll show.”

The trio’s position atop the bluff offered the best view of the pasture and the shuddering scarecrow. But what Keech had in mind was not to scare crows. Far from it. The makeshift figure perched in the field was intended to lure them out of the sky.

“Something feels wrong,” Duck said.

The girl’s concerns held plenty of merit, but since losing her brother, Nat, to the explosion in Wisdom, when Big Ben Loving had come to wreak havoc, she’d been second-guessing her own grit. Sometimes loss did that to a person. Keech had struggled with his own doubts after losing his entire family, including his beloved pony, Felix. He wanted to find the right words to reassure her, but all he managed was a cursory nod.

“We’re wasting our time up here,” she continued. “If this plan don’t work, we may never get to save Cutter.”

“Or Auntie Ruth,” interjected Quinn, interrupting his Odyssey tune long enough to speak. Quinn’s aunt had been hauled out of Wisdom in November, after the Reverend Rose’s devilish brood, the Big Snake, had seized control of the town. All they knew about Ruth’s predicament was that she’d been taken somewhere west in a wagon train, along with any other surviving townsfolk.

And based on the original trail Keech had found, Cutter and his captor, Coward, were headed in the same direction, likely planning to marshal with Rose’s crew.

“Everything’s gonna work.” Keech gestured to the clouds. “The crows will come.”

They had noticed the Reverend’s dark birds on their trail the morning of Christmas Eve, the same day Keech turned fourteen. Duck had spotted a large flock circling the prairie north of the Moonlight River; the creatures were searching, on the hunt. Instead of celebrating Keech’s birthday, the Lost Causes spent the day hidden away in a snow trench, watching the turbulent skies.

Though Quinn had continued to conceal their movements with his magical song ever since, it seemed it would be only a matter of time before they made a mistake. If Rose caught a glimpse of their horses or a telltale boot track in the snow, he would send his gruesome birds to tear them limb from limb.

Thanks to Edgar Doyle’s betrayal after Bonfire Crossing, they had no silver amulet shards to defeat monsters, or mystical Fang of Barachiel to heal wounds. All they were carrying on their long ride to Hook’s Fort, the place they were headed in search of a trapper named McCarty, were bucketfuls of dumb luck.

Sometimes that luck paid off when they crossed friendly paths on the trail. One day, for example, they met a group of Pawnee travelers headed south, their horses pulling flat carts full of pelts. The party had spotted the Lost Causes hunkered down in the drifts while Quinn was resting his throat. The horsemen had sent over a pair of scouts to make sure the trio was okay, and the encounter resulted in a pleasant meal of pemmican and dried squash.

But Keech knew such luck couldn’t last forever. As Pa Abner used to tell him and Sam, You can ride a streak of fortune for days, maybe months, but it will eventually peter out.

The afternoon’s merciless gale picked up, scattering hard snow over the plain and battering the beleaguered scarecrow. “I’m telling you, the wind’s gonna blow it over,” Duck said.

“It won’t. I drove that pole down myself,” Keech said, a speck of doubt lodged in his throat.

The scruffy scarecrow wore a brown buffalo pelt hung over a T-shaped post, and the ragged bowler hat on top was almost identical to Keech’s. They had discovered the robe and hat, along with a few other useful items, inside a broken-down wagon some unfortunate traveler had abandoned on the trail. The idea of taking things that didn’t belong to them hadn’t sat well at first, but after watching the deserted wagon for a few hours and seeing no one return, the young riders decided to gather up the provisions and chalk up the occasion to more good luck.

As the scarecrow took a beating from the hateful flurry, Keech prayed the Reverend’s birds would arrive. He studied the landscape and felt energy gathering in his mind, a buzz tingling his fingertips. He was ready. The plan would work.

“My lips are about to fall off,” said Quinn, pausing his incantation again. “Let’s find a ditch somewhere and hole up. The animals are tired.” The horses waited below the bluff—Duck’s pony, Irving; John Wesley’s old nag, Lightnin’; and Hector, the cremello stallion. Keech’s steed had once belonged to Milos Horner, the Enforcer who died in Wisdom. If Quinn stopped humming for more than a minute, the horses would lose their enchanted shroud and reappear, along with their prints, as if emerging from a dense fog.

“Hold your position,” Keech said, scanning the white skies.

Rubbing the cold off his lips, Quinn resumed his tune, this time adding a few words: “Ol’ Ulysses saw the cities of men, and he knew their thoughts … On the ocean he suffered many pains within his heart…”

The heavy curtain of snow grew thicker, obscuring the scarecrow. “Duck, fetch the spyglass, would ya? I can’t see anything down there,” Keech said.

Duck’s gloved hand fumbled toward the pocket of her coat. She withdrew a small brass telescope, one of the items they had collected from the forsaken wagon. Duck rubbed a smudge off the telescope’s lens, then peeked at the pasture below the bluff. “Dang it all, Keech, the scarecrow fell down,” she grumbled.

“Lemme see.” Keech took the scope. Sure enough, the winter wind had blown the scarecrow onto its side. The buffalo pelt flapped against the gusts, and there was no sign of the bowler hat. A hot flush of embarrassment burned Keech’s cheeks. “I thought it would stand, but this wind’s furious. I’ll head down and fix it.”

Quinn stopped humming. “I’ll go down, too. I can hide us.” He moved to grab the object lying beside him, a sturdy war ax he’d fashioned from maple wood and stone flint. Being handy at toolmaking, Quinn had designed the weapon to match the formidable war club that Strong Heart, the young Osage Protector, had used at Bonfire Crossing to battle the Chamelia.

“Hang on; I just thought of something,” Keech said. The scarecrow must not have fooled the crows, but if he went down to the pasture unconcealed, they would spot their prey and hopefully emerge. Handing the spyglass back to Duck, he raised up to his knees. “That scarecrow was a test of their smarts more than anything.”

“What do you mean?” asked Quinn.

“We wanted to see if the crows would take the bait, right? But I reckon the Reverend Rose can see right through a dumb scarecrow. I’m sick of waiting. I’m going down there. No more hiding. Not this time.”

Quinn looked surprised. “You’re gonna let them spot you?”

“Keech, don’t you even think about it,” Duck said.

But Keech was already tromping down the bluff to reach the pasture. These past few months, Keech had been doing more than simply hunkering down. He’d been working to collect the energies Doyle had taught him to harness, what he called his focus. He had used his focus to destroy one of the Reverend’s crows at Bonfire Crossing. Now was his chance to prove his practice was enough to finish off the remaining devils. “Y’all stay right there,” Keech called, his long deerskin pelt fluttering around him. “I’m gonna go kill me some crows.”

As soon as Keech reached the pasture, the barbaric wind stripped the hat off his head and sent it tumbling across the untouched snow. He cursed his luck and kicked after it, but the constant gusts pushed the bowler beyond his reach. Pouncing, he trapped the hat’s brim under his boot. Dusting the snow off, he pushed the bowler back onto his brow.

Something dark and furry appeared at the corner of his vision. Keech spun to find he was standing near the fallen scarecrow. The buffalo hide flapped against the post, which had cracked from rot. The bowler he’d nailed to the top was missing, lost in the whiteout.

With a resigned sigh, Keech looked toward the sky.

Three massive crows flew above, not fifty feet from Keech’s head. One of the creatures squawked a furious Ack!

They dived for him.


Copyright © 2020 by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester