[Here’s a little treat for Halloween. I hope you enjoy it.]
Danny stopped cold as the end of the woman’s walking stick poked him in the chest.
“We don’t want any trouble,” she whispered. “You can just move along.”
He should have heard them coming—five of them all told, but he hadn’t been paying attention. Too much on his mind. He just charged across the cow path on his way back to the creek, and there they were.
As it was, he barely had time to throw on a decent husk. He was pretty sure they didn’t notice, though, when his ears and nose shortened to more human proportions and the glow faded from his amber eyes.
Whoever these people were, their leader meant business. One of the others sucked in a labored breath. Two more, children, whimpered in the dark.
“M-miss Claudia?” a different woman whispered, “Lige…he ain’t looking so good.” This woman was helping the only man in the group to stand. Danny sniffed the air. Amid the soil and grass and growing things was the unmistakable iron scent of blood. He spied a ripped and bloody trouser leg.
The first woman’s eyes blazed. She and her friends were dressed in dingy, patched clothes barely fit for a brownie. That and their dark skin was all he could make out.
He raised his hands. “Whatever you say, ma’am.” He wasn’t in a mood for any mischief. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He still had three more farms to case before daybreak. But he didn’t have time for anybody else’s mischief. Not tonight. Not with him liable to show up at any minute.
“And not one word, you hear?” The rumble in her voice demanded Danny’s full cooperation.
He was about to say something when he caught the sound of dogs barking.
“Sweet Jesus!” the other woman gasped. The younger child, no more than four years old, started to cry, but big sister slapped a hand across his mouth.
The first woman spun and raised her stick horizontal to the ground.
“Head for the woods,” she ordered. “Go!”
Four shadows stumbled past.
“Those are my woods!” Danny’s throat went dry. Something settled in the pit of his stomach. He was fairly sure he shut the door…
“You want to make something of it, mister?”
“You don’t understand. You ain’t got no business poking around over there. It could be…dangerous.”
“It’s about to be dangerous right here, now that those slave catchers have caught up with us.”
Slave catchers! It suddenly made sense. He’d stumbled upon a group of runaways. Seems he’d overheard something about a new law the deathlings had passed. Folks at the Crawford farm were talking about it. Even in a free state like Indiana, runaway slaves could be rounded up and sent back down south.
There was no way they were going to back down from a fight.
Two hound dogs burst into view. The woman, Claudia, held out her walking stick with her right hand and angled her body away from them. She let a worn leather satchel slip off her shoulder to the ground. Danny dropped to a crouch.
“If you know what’s good for you, mister, you’ll stay nice and still till I say differently.”
The dogs bounded forward.
The woman uttered a word. The nearest dog flew backward with a yelp.
Magic! Danny stood mystified as the woman trained her walking stick on the second dog. She blasted it just as she had the first one.
“You’re a witch?”
“Later,” she said. She held her walking stick upright. “They’re coming.”
Claudia was right: Danny heard the sound of approaching footsteps.
She began to chant a singsong tune.
“You find ‘em, boys?” a man said. He lumbered into view on the edge of the corn field—big and swaggering, with a shotgun in one hand and a lantern in the other. “Chief? Banjo? Here, boys!”
Something told Danny Chief and Banjo were taking the rest of the night off.
Two more shadows joined the first. The woman kept chanting. Her voice was barely audible beneath the cold autumn breeze.
The three men trudged forward a few more steps, but slowly. The closer they came, the slower they got.
The first man toppled to his knees by the time he came even with the first of the unconscious dogs. The second brought his shotgun to his shoulder…but wobbled backward with the effort. A minute later, all three lay on the grass, mumbling and snoring.
“That was some mighty slick conjuring,” Danny said.
“Not now,” the woman said. She had spun around to see where her friends had gone. She gave an exasperated sigh. “They were right there!” she said.
“Uh oh!” Danny said. The others were nowhere to be seen—and Danny had a sinking feeling he knew where they had gone.
“Now, you gotta admit this ain’t my fault!” he said. He looked about frantically. Surely they didn’t…
“I warned you those was my woods.” He started toward the tree line at an easy lope. The woman reclaimed her satchel, hitched her skirts, and followed.
“I would think you’d understand why my passengers needed a place to hide!”
“Yeah, it’s just… Well, maybe you’d better see for yourself.” Danny came to a stop. He wiped his sweaty hands on his trousers.
“Um…” Danny held up his right hand. With an effort of will, he produced an orb of golden flame and held it like a ball.
The woman’s eyes flashed as she jabbed her walking stick once more into Danny’s chest.
“You’re a witch, too?” she said, astonished.
“Not exactly.” Danny looked down. The woman followed his gaze to the ring of mushrooms spread out in a circle eight feet across. A subtle wisp of sparkling dust rose from it like gold and silver fireflies.
When the woman raised her eyes to Danny once more, he had dropped the illusion of a human appearance. He stood before her with his eyes glowing yellow and the points of his ears peaking over the brim of his flat woolen cap.
“You’re one of the Fair Folk.” She said it without fear or amazement.
“A pooka,” he said. “Danny’s the name.”
“And you just…left this portal open? What were you thinking?”
“It’s Hallowe’en!” he protested. “You know how hard it is to shut a portal down proper on Hallowe’en? Plus, I was in a hurry! I still got three farms to visit! But if your friends stepped into the ring, we’d better—”
The witch didn’t let him finish. She just barged into the mushroom ring and vanished.
Danny followed. With his first step, there was a brief shimmer of light and the feel of a gentle breeze on his face. Then everything was back to normal. He had crossed into the Wonder.
The witch was already ten yards ahead of him. She had cast some kind of light spell on the tip of her walking stick—not faery fire, but close enough—and was holding it over her head as she inched along the forest path.
“Susanna!” she called. “Elijah!”
No one answered.
Danny caught up with her. “Miss Claudia, is it?” he whispered. “My cabin is up ahead. Maybe they headed that way.”
Her icy silence was all the answer Danny got.
“And keep it down, if you don’t mind. See, I’m kind of expecting somebody…and…”
She walked away. Danny followed. A minute later, she offered, “Elijah’s injured. He had a run-in with one of those catchers’ dogs. And now this!”
“Look, I tried to tell you to stay out of the woods…”
“Now you listen here,” the witch said, spinning back and drilling a finger into Danny’s chest. Her voice was low, but seething with anger. “Those people are my passengers. They’re my responsibility, understand? If anything has happened to them… Well, sir, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.” Once again, the rumble in her voice got Danny’s full attention.
She continued down the path.
They inched forward. “Elijah!” Claudia softly called, looking this way and that. “Betsy! Timothy!”
“Turn left here, Miss Claudia. That’ll take you to my place.”
“Susanna! Can you hear me?”
There was a rustle in the trees. Claudia aimed her stick at something she thought she saw.
“Probably just little folk,” Danny whispered. “They come around sometimes to bum tobacco or some such. They ain’t gonna hurt nobody.”
Claudia merely grumbled.
Just then a tiny man appeared out of nowhere on the path in front of them. He was barely two feet tall, dressed in buckskins, with his hair held back in a beaded headband. Claudia trained the glowing tip of her walking stick at him, and he let out a stifled peep of fright.
“Shh!” the little man hissed—even though he was the only one to make a sound. Danny reached for Claudia’s hand. She yanked herself free and backed away from both men.
“We got trouble, Danny,” the little man whispered.
Danny gestured for Claudia to hold her fire as he dropped to one knee.
“What’s up, Littleberry?”
“Somebody’s at your cabin.”
“Well, good,” Danny said. “We was looking for ‘em. Four big folks?”
“Not good!” Littleberry said. “Those big folks showed up maybe five, ten minutes ago. But that’s not what I’m talking about.” He leaned in closer. “Greycoat’s here.”
Littleberry shuddered, and his whole body shook. If Greycoat gave Danny the willies, there was no telling what he did to Littleberry.
Danny swallowed. “About time.”
“He just now showed up. I got out the back way and came to find you.”
“Who?” Claudia said.
“By oak, ash, and thorn, don’t he know I can’t pay him tonight?”
“We had a deal. I can’t do him no favors this close to November first! It’s my busiest time of year!”
Danny cursed under his breath.
“Where are the four big folks now?”
“Me and the boys got ‘em inside at your place. We just come by looking for you. We wanted to give you a present, tomorrow being your birthday and all. One of them’s hurt. One of the big folks, I mean.”
“We glamoured ‘em all up as best we could. I don’t think Greycoat saw them.”
“Well, at least that’s something.”
“Hey.” Claudia snapped her fingers in front of Danny’s face. “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Let’s just say I got some trouble with the landlord,” Danny said. “And I’m sorry to say it, Miss Claudia, but it looks like your passengers are stuck in the middle of it.”