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by Ardath Mayhar
Category: Horror/Dark Fantasy
Description: Horror's Unleashed When a Witch Woman's Kin Die! In this brand new chiller from Balrog Award winner Ardath Mayhar, when a drug cartel starts using the swamp country of East Texas as a key transfer point for their illicit cargo, its only a matter of time before one of the locals stumbles on the scene and has to be silenced. What they don't count on is what happens when Lena McCarver, the local witch-woman learns about the murder. Slowly she begins to conjure a spell that will bring the kingpin of the cartel back to the swamp--where his worst nightmares are about to be brought to very vivid life! As for the rest of his gang, she intends they also get exactly what they deserve. Ardath Mayhar writes "a riveting tale. Gritty realism, excellent characterization, and a strong sense of place..." raves Book News. Ardath Mayhar's books contain "almost tangible atmosphere--summer heat, wildlife, details of farm life--emanating from every page. [They are] "full of vitality and spirit, vivid in setting, and have the ring of truth," says Kirkus Reviews.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: April 2005
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [260 KB]
Reading time: 179-251 min.
CHAPTER I. Washington Shipp
Singing enthusiastically, Washington Shipp was hosing off the driveway when Jewel, his wife, called him to the telephone. It had been years since Wash heard from his Auntie Libby, who lived way down in the swamp country beside the river, and he was surprised to hear her quavery voice.
"You in town, Auntie?" he asked, wondering what could have brought one so old and feeble out of the river bottoms. She almost never ventured out of her cypress house on stilts, down near Sundown Swamp. He felt anxious as she fumbled for words. Her mind, always so sharp, seemed to be failing, now that she was ninety-three.
At last she said, "Wash, they's talk, down here. Yo' cousin Jimmie done told us somethin' big in the drug line is comin' in. He heard it from that Dooley boy, young Wim. That boy, he knows just about everythin' goes on down here, and Jim told me he trusts his word."
Wash could visualize his aunt's prune-wrinkled face, now ashy in color rather than the rich mahogany he remembered it being when she was younger. She would be frowning, trying to get every word just right. She hated what drugs had done to some of her great-grandchildren, and if she passed word, he knew it was probably true.
"Who's involved, Auntie?" Wash asked. "And where are they heading?"
"Boy said they's comin' up the river to Boggy Slough. S'posed to meet somebody there to sell their shipment. Word was, Wim told Jim, there's somethin' really important, too, but he couldn't find out what it was.
"You pass the word, Wash. We needs to catch all them drug pushers and put 'em under the jailhouse." Her voice was almost gone, now.
"You bet, Auntie. I'll pass the word to the DEA folks. It's not in my jurisdiction, being as I'm just police chief in Templeton, but they'll do the job. You rest easy. And thank you. Mama would be proud."
He heard a sniff and knew she was remembering the niece she had reared from infancy. Good old Libby! Her heart was in the right place, every time.
The phone clicked in his ear, and Wash dialed the number he knew too well. "Drug Enforcement Agency," came the clipped response.
Sighing, Wash passed on the information, knowing that the federal people really hadn't much use for local police. Sure enough, the girl on the phone was just short of rude, but she took down what he said. What happened now, Wash knew, was up to the agency.
If he had his way, he'd be waiting by the river a long way downstream from Boggy Slough, for the information network on the river and in the swamp country was formidable. If Wim Dooley could overhear something this important, somebody else could overhear the DEA's plans to catch the drug runners.
You couldn't persuade the narcs of that, though. They seemed to think country people were stupid, which could be, in the wrong circumstances, a dangerous thing to do.
He hung up the phone and turned to Jewel. "Let's hope those arrogant bastards do their job right," he said. Then he went back out to finish hosing off the driveway.
Fifteen years ago, when he had just finished college and got a job on the Templeton police force, there hadn't been a black family in this neighborhood. Now there were three, his own, Dr. Ross's, and that of Samuel Trenton, who taught at the local university.
Wash didn't intend for anybody to point to his place and say, "See? I told you black folks would mess up property, ruin the neighborhood and lower real estate values." * * * * CHAPTER II. Concert on a Hot Evening
The sun was down, but the sky that blazed with rose and gold above the overhanging branches. of cypress, oak, and sweetgum still sizzled. It had been ONE OF THOSE DAYS in East Texas, the temperature hot enough to wilt goatweeds and the humidity just about as high. Sitting on his rickety porch, Possum Choa sighed and smiled.
Folks in town were all sealed up in their houses with their air conditioners running like race horses, watching the peediddle that came over their television sets. Getting used to such sissified things was the ruination of people, Choa had decided back when he was younger and lived, for a while, in the same fashion.
He and his ancestors had lived comfortably in the swamp for centuries, accustomed to heat, mosquitos, and the lack of what others thought of as civilized entertainment. Even the water moccasins and alligators were interesting, though he avoided them where possible.
Of course, he thought, every evening he had a concert all to himself. Just about time the sun began to set, sending slanting rays of fire down through rifts in the leaf-cover, the little frogs began to sing.
His Daddy used to tell him they said, "Ankle-deep! Ankle-deep!" Then katydids took up the melody, zeee-zawing in the trees. Bigger frogs tuned up with "Knee-deep! Knee-deep!" and finally the big old bully frogs began roaring "Belly-deep! Belly-deep!" and things warmed up fast.
Now the crickets and locusts were chirking and shirring and ticking all around him, over in the button-willows, overhead in the big red oaks that shaded his cabin, and out in his summer-cooked garden. Trying to pick out one song from the orchestra was beyond him; he listened to the total effect with contentment. He'd spent almost his entire life learning to appreciate such things.
An alien note crept into the chorus, and he cocked his grizzled head to listen. Far away, the sound muffled by intervening brush and trees, there was the throb of a motor. No road lay in that direction for twenty miles; it had to be a boat moving along the spring-fed creek that led from the swamp into the river.
Now what in tunket was a boat doing on the creek at this time of year? In winter hunters sometimes came to jack-light deer that ranged along the low ridges and game wardens came to catch them at it. In early summer fishermen set lines (or nets, which were illegal) along the channel and those same wardens eeled along after them.
In late summer, when it was this hot, there was nothing worth hunting or fishing for or trapping that wasn't buried deep in the coolest parts of the woods or far down in the deeper water of the river. There was no good reason for anyone to be there, that was certain. Even the unusually big rains that had fallen earlier in the month couldn't explain that sound, for fishermen knew that when it was this hot the big fish were downriver in the deep eddies, cooling off.
A Grandpaw bullfrog roared in the cattails at the end of the path, where Choa's boat landing staggered out over the murky water. That turned, within a few yards, into swamp, and the multitude of croaks and creaks there drowned out the sound of the engine.
Far overhead a thin whine became a ripping sound as a jet shrieked overhead in less time than it took to think about it. For an instant there was silence as the choristers were stilled by the shock.
Into that quiet came the unmistakable sound of a yell, choked off almost instantly. Choa rose on tough bare feet and reached inside his front door for his shotgun. He took a box of shells from the ledge above his front steps, shuffled his dark-skinned feet into his tattered boots, and set off along the path leading toward the creek.
Hanging on the trigger guard of his shotgun was a thong securing a battered flashlight, whose output just about rivaled that of two exhausted fireflies in a jar. He didn't use it, however. That was for examining anything he found. For travel in the swamp country, Possum Choa needed no more light than the occasional glint of a star through tree-crowns or the vague phosphorescence of rotting stumps and logs.
His few acquaintances swore the old fellow could see in the dark, and they weren't far wrong. His nose and the air against his skin told him where he was and what areas to avoid, as much as his eyes did. His wide feet, booted or not, knew the trails through the maze of pools and runnels and sinky spots.
A screech owl shrilled overhead as he went, and there were occasional rustles as snakes or small hunters scurried out of his way. Quiet as he was, the swamp at night was too crowded with life to allow him to pass without being noticed.
The smell of the bog warned him to swing wide, following a deer trail up an almost imperceptible ridge and around a sinkhole's unplumbed depths. Moving swiftly, Choa came to the edge of the creek and saw the line of reflected stars flickering along its middle. In moments, the moon rose, red and warped as it waned.
There were shadows on the creek, and voices muttered and cursed there. Sinking to his haunches, the half-breed strained to see and hear, knowing that his senses, trained acutely for sixty years, were sharper than those of people half his age.
The men in the boat were quarrelling softly, splashing unnecessarily with their paddles, and thumping their feet into the metal bottom of the craft to send hollow blumps through the water. Noisy and stupid, Choa thought with disgust.
What in hell were they doing out there?
Tucked behind a huckleberry bush, a shadow among shadows, Choa gazed intently at the silhouetted shapes on the creek. The boat was an old aluminum one; he could see reflections off the water rippling along its battered sides. There were three men in it, one in the stern holding a paddle as if to use it as a weapon, the other two strung along its length.
The one in the bow was balancing a bundle on the edge. "Here?" he asked, his voice sharp. "Is this that special place you come so fer to find, Oscar?"
"Keep your damn voice down. That yell you gave a while ago scared the crap out of me. And don't call out any names. You don't never know who's around, even out here in the middle of noplace," came the reply.
"Yes, there, you dumbass. Right under the bank--see the darker shadow there? There's a snag across the front, so if it comes a flood our stuff won't wash away."
"I don't like this one little bit, Oscar ... I don't like it at all," said the small man in the middle of the boat. "This stuff is pure gold, if we kin get it to our buyers. And the Big Feller said there's a bonus on this shipment, too. Somethin' extra hid down in the batch.
"Leavin' it out here is a bad idea. Anybody could come along and take off with it."
There came an impatient snort from the huge man with the paddle. "You think we're goin' to get any good out of it if we take it back and the narcs ketch us red-handed with it?" he asked. "It's only luck that Maxie got word to us before we come in to the meetin' place at Boggy Slough.
"Think of them narcs roostin' all around the slough, mosquitos eatin' 'em alive, waitin' for us to show up and get caught. Makes me laugh to think about it." But he didn't sound as if he were laughing.
Choa nodded silently, understanding all too well who was invading his swamp. He had no use for drug dealers--or for narcs, if it came to the pure truth. No, he'd put a spoke in all their wheels, if he could find a way to do it.
While he watched, and the moon tinged the treetops with reddish light, the boat crept close to the high bank and nudged its bow right up under it. "You stick it up under the overhang," Oscar said. "Make sure the snag blocks it from floatin' out, no matter how high the water gets if it comes a flood. And be careful where you put your hands. There's always moccasins in places like that."
There came sucking sounds and rustling sounds and a sharp exclamation that told Choa the man had found a snake lurking in the water beneath the bank. After a bit the boat backed away into the stream. Then things got interesting.
Oscar raised the dripping paddle and brought it down on the middle man's skull with the sound of a hatchet hitting a ripe melon. The one in the bow looked back; before he could dodge, the over-long arms, extended by the length of the heavy paddle, had split his own head wide open.
While Choa watched, Oscar carefully placed the two bodies in the same undercut hollow where the drugs had been hidden. It took him some time; maneuvering dead bodies in a small boat, no matter how big you might be, is usually a mighty awkward business, apt to get everything dumped overboard or the boat overturned, but he got it done at last.
Then he turned the prow downstream toward the river and began paddling silently, sliding through moonlight and shadow like an over-solid ghost. Choa, knowing where he had to go, rose and ran along familiar paths that cut across the creek's meanderings to a point three miles down the creek where another overhanging bank would give him a good place to wait.
A creek bank at night is not a quiet spot. He could hear a gator bellow, the shriek of some small animal falling prey to a bigger one. A whippoorwill mourned among the trees, and a screech owl whimpered fretfully.
There was a flop in the water where some late-feeding fish struck at a belated insect. Frogs croaked and crickets sang, different songs from those beside the cabin but familiar for all that.
A hoot-owl called and another answered in the depths of the woods behind him, while a mockingbird struck up his middle-of-the-night solo. The racket was so noisy that Choa almost missed the clunk of a paddle striking the side of the boat, just beyond the bend.
Below and to his left, the craft slid into a puddle of moonlight, now riding high in the shallow water. Choa raised his shotgun with great care, taking aim at the waterline. The blast of the shot sent birds squawking from the trees around him, silenced the crickets, and sank Oscar and the boat quickly into the shoulder-deep creek.
The night filled with lurid language, but Choa was already moving away, running as lightly as a boy along the hidden trails toward his cabin. Nobody knew where he lived. Few even knew of his existence. So far from the site of Oscar's murders, the big man would have no idea who had sunk his boat, or why.
He certainly wouldn't return tonight to check on his stash or his victims. Not on foot in swampy country that could swallow a man, even one of his size, without a burp. Tomorrow, Possum Choa thought, he would attend to things himself. He didn't like having his swamp dirtied up with drugs and runners. * * * *
Morning found Choa in his own boat, made of a single cypress log by his father, pushing through cattails, waterweed, and muck on his way back to the creek to tidy up. He tied his craft to a willow some quarter-mile from the spot he wanted and moved along the bank, listening and watching.
Ironweed raised purple clusters in the few sunny spots, and brown and yellow butterflies rose from mud patches as he went down to the water beside the hole in the bank. He waded out into the tepid water, hip deep, shoulder deep, making for the dark patch that hid two bodies and a big cooler full of dope and something that might be even more valuable to townsmen.
He tapped against one of the oak roots that curved like teeth down over the washed out niche, and two moccasins slid away, giving him dirty looks as they swam past. Nasty brutes! They were the meanest tempered snakes he knew.
Cautiously, he peered into the darkness. Sure enough, a pale blob dipped as the water stirred. Behind it another--the faces of Oscar's victims stared blindly at him as he examined them. They were familiar faces, too.
Choa watched those who messed around in his territory. He'd seen these two more than once, setting illegal nets, or fishing up mysterious parcels out of the big lake on the Nichayac River in the middle of the night.
Bad ones, those two. His friend King Deport called them Ben and Yancy. Better off dead, he suspected, as he climbed out of the water and set off in search of a likely log.
A big old sweetgum had fallen in a storm two years past. By now its great branches were pulpy, easy to break off, big enough to carry a passenger, and not likely to sink too soon. He dragged two pieces as thick through as his body to the edge of the creek, where he supplied each with a passenger, laid endwise along the log, arms and legs trailing off on either side to stabilize the load.
Those he set bobbing along the current toward the river, knowing that if they hung up on a bend down the way he could follow along and push them loose. While they made the first leg of their journey, he moved back into the woods and straightened up all sign of his passing.
The sweetgum log fell apart under his efforts, and there was no sign left that any branches were missing. Not that any agent of the law had bat sense when it came to reading sign in the woods, but Choa never left anything to chance. When he was done, nobody but his Pa or his Grampa, both long dead, could have told anyone what went on there.
It took only a couple of pushes to get the bodies past the sharp bends and almost to the river. When he had that done, he went back to the hole and fished out the cooler, a big one, water-tight, lashed with metal strapping and sealed with some kind of gunk.
He put that into his own boat, once he brought it into position, and headed upstream into the swamp. There was an alligator hole there on another of the complex of creek branches that would just suit this cargo.
The gators were out in the water, keeping cool and watching for snacks of fish or water moccasins. The mud bank on which they rested stunk of them, and the hole of water there was deep. He heaved the heavy box over the side of the boat, knowing that the weight Oscar had put into it to hold it in place in the creek-bank would sink it here.
Sure enough, it went down, slowly but without hesitation, until it was just another lump in the mud ten feet below him. No bubbles marked its passing, which told him the thing was sealed even better than he thought. Even if Oscar figured out where it was, which he'd never do in a million years, the idea of his trying to retrieve his stash under the eyes of a dozen eight to ten-foot alligators was enough to send Choa home laughing fit to kill.
No, take it how you might, old Oscar was going to be in hot water when the bodies of his victims came rolling down the river on their logs. And when his big boss, whoever that might be, wanted the money for the drugs the three were supposed to deliver, not to mention whatever else the shipment held, that was going to make life interesting for him, too.
All in all, Possum Choa was well satisfied with his work. He'd know if anyone came looking through his swamp; he'd take a hand again, if there seemed any need for that. And if Oscar's body turned up someplace strange and hidden--well, that was all right, too. * * * * CHAPTER III. Witch Stuff
Two days went by slowly, for it set in to rain again. It had been a mighty wet year, already, and this downpour meant floods. Choa knew nobody would venture up the creek amid all the debris that was washing down the current, carried out of the swamp by the flood waters.
It rained buckets for days. The goatweeds chirked up, and the frogs were delirious with joy. Only the water moccasins, taking refuge in button willows and his cape jasmine bush, seemed out of sorts, but they were always bad tempered.
There was so much fresh food in the water that the fish weren't biting, but Choa managed to snare rabbits and raccoons that used his secret paths to avoid the high water. When a pineywoods rooter came snuffling around his porch in the middle of the night, he welcomed the addition of pork to his diet.
Nobody ever went hungry in the swamp. His Indian ancestors would have starved when their tribe was driven out of the upland woods by Spaniards and Anglos, if they hadn't known how to survive there. As it was, they retreated into the swamps, where no white man came, and managed very well.
From time to time a black slave had escaped from his or her masters and joined the growing clan amid the great gums and oaks and cypresses and protected by the treacherous sinky-holes, enriching the tribe with new blood and different skills and stories. All had settled in together, forming a tough amalgam of heritages.
It made Choa a bit lonely, thinking about those lost times when there were many of his kind. His grandfather had told him tales about it, though by the time Choa was a boy the group had dwindled to his immediate family.
When his brothers decided to go out into the world, it had saddened their parents, who were old by then. Only Choa had remained to care for them until they died.
He had gone out then, himself, to work on the Coast for a time, but he'd returned with his wife to their home country. It was just too crazy out in the white man's world.
He felt no sorrow for what was lost. It lived, still, in his memory and his store of his grandfather's stories. His only regret was that Lia, his cousin and wife, had not lived past middle age.
A fever had taken her, and all his willow bark and bitter clover teas and snakeroot preparations did her no good. She raved and she died, and he buried her on a ridge in the pine forest north of the swamp. He still missed her, but he was used to that, now.
Sitting on his stoop, barely sheltered from the persistent drizzle by the brush roof, he found himself unusually gloomy. That would never do. When such moods came over him he found something useful to do.
The wild pig he had shot in the night would spoil if he didn't share the meat. It was impossible to smoke pork in such hot, damp weather, for it always spoiled. He had cleaned it early, and now the bloody chunks hung in his kitchen shed.
He would go to visit Miz Lena, in her ancient house in the McCarver woods, taking her a shoulder and some ribs. If she happened to mention wanting to do something in return--not otherwise--Choa would ask her to use her Old World skills to detect anyone moving through the swamp who had no business there.
Lena McCarver was a bit frightening, even to one as old and tough and knowing as Possum Choa, but there was no meanness in her. At least, not toward those who meant her no harm. They'd been friends, of a sort, for his whole life.
Besides, he was fascinated by her ancient house, the huge brass-bound book that lived on her table, and the two dolls sitting on a shelf in her kitchen. The story she told about those dolls was a strange one, but somehow he believed it. According to her, she'd transferred the spirits of two bank robbers who thought they'd hide out in her house, putting them into those dolls while she had used the men's bodies to cut her winter wood. After that she turned the pair over to the law and got a hefty reward, but those dolls were still spooky.
There was still a strange tingle left in them that he got when he looked into their black button eyes. Somehow, they seemed to be alive--or at least to remember having been alive.
Choa packed up the pork in a wet burlap bag and wrapped that in a dry one. Then he set out along the path northward, shotgun in his left hand, bag over his shoulder, snake stick in his right hand.
The paths ran with water, but this time he was moving gently upward, and there were no sinky holes in this direction. He made good time, despite the mud, and in time he came out of the edge of the swamp onto the damp leaves beneath tall oak and ash and hickory trees.
The walking was easier, now, and he sped on, coming into the stand of immense pines that rose like columns, their toes rooted in soil so shaded that there was no undergrowth, only matted needles accumulated over decades. This was McCarver land, the timber standing as it had stood since old Lena's great-great-grandfather claimed it.
The McCarvers didn't sell land or timber. Even now that Lena was the last one left, she had no use for anything offered by the world beyond her woods and pastures. Choa, feeling just the same, was not puzzled by that, but he knew that others were.
When he came over the last tall ridge, now timbered with fat sweetgums, pines, and oaks, he could see the roof of her old gray house rising, sharp-angled, from the tangle of crepe myrtles, privet, yaupon, and vines that all but swallowed the structure. It was amazing to Choa that the place hadn't fallen down around the old lady's ears long ago, but something--maybe her iron determination--kept most of it upright and fairly dry. Of course, once she got that reward for the bank robbers she had fixed it up a bit, shoring up the floor and the roof in the part she inhabited.
Maybe ... he shook his head and sighed. Maybe there was more to her claim to be a witch than anyone credited, too. She had, you had to admit, caught those two bank robbers. For a little old woman no bigger than a washing of soap to capture two big, mean ex-convicts took more than normal abilities.
He'd been watching from the ridge, of course, when the sheriff's people came to pick them up. Those two bruisers had been cowed. They'd kept themselves on the far sides of the deputies, trying to stay a maximum distance from Lena, as they were taken up her weedy path to the gate and the waiting cars.
He moved down the slope toward the hollow where the house waited, whistling to give her warning that company was coming. Like most solitary people in the big woods, she didn't like surprises. She did, however, appreciate company, if it didn't mean any upset to her habits.
He could see her white head bob into view at the end of the porch, just topping the overgrown nandina bush. She waved something blue--probably her apron--to encourage him to come on down.
Lena was a tiny old woman, skinny as a stick, with a knob of hair screwed so tight at the back of her head that it made the end of her pointed nose seem likely to punch through the skin. Her bright black eyes were sharp enough to see through walls, which he sometimes thought they might well do. Now they were beaming with pleasure.
"Possum, how you doing?" she asked in her cracked treble. "Haven't seen you since spring when you brought me that monster catfish. I et on him for a week, and the tomcat finished up the bones and the scraps."
"Brought you some pork, Miz Lena. Killed a wild pig last night and thought you might like a bit. Course you'll have to eat it pretty fast. It'll spoil mighty soon, this kind of weather." He offered her the bag, and she clasped it to her bosom.
"Possum, I got ways," she said. "I keep most any kind of meat, alive or dead, for as long as it suits me. You come on in the house and I'll cut the peach pie from yesterday and hot up some sassafrass tea."
They went into the kitchen, the ancient boards of the floor creaking painfully beneath Choa's heavier tread, though they only squeaked like mice under the feather weight of the woman. Those two dolls still sat on a shelf, staring out the tall window with shiny black button eyes.
Choa shivered. Had she really witched those bank robbers' spirits into them? There seemed to be something left, some residue that made the rag faces seem alive.
But Lena paid no attention to the dolls. She poked the coals in the wood stove, adding another layer to the heat of the day, and set her iron kettle on a back burner.
"It's warm already," she said. "Now set down and tell me what goes on down in the swampy country."
Possum Choa sat warily in the splint chair, which made alarming sounds as it took his weight. Setting his chipped teacup on the rickety table beside him, he took a bite of pie and savored it before beginning his tale. Miz Lena's peach pie would make a rabbit whip his grandpa, he'd always sworn.
When the last crumb was gone, he set the cracked saucer beside the cup and began, "A couple of nights ago I heard somethin' along the creek. Motor noise, a boat, a yell, an' I went to see.
"A man killed two others and put 'em in a hole with a big old cooler full of what I'm certain sure is dope. I sunk his boat, so he had to hoof it back down to the river, and then I taken the bodies an' sent 'em after him, the next morning."
The black eyes squinted at him over the rim of her cup. "And what did you do with that cooler? And what might I do to help out?"
Choa grinned. "Sunk it deep in an alligator hole. Figure they'll be lookin' for it, come a break in the weather. That's why I come to see you, Miz Lena. Think you can keep your feelers out for me? I know you got ways..."
The old woman sipped her tea daintily and set her cup aside. "There be ways," she said. "I'll keep my ear cocked, you be certain of that. And if I find something, I'll shoot off Grampa's ten gauge and hoist the flag on the big tree."
Choa nodded. That old cannon could be heard for five miles in all directions, even through the intervening forest. And her yellow banner could be seen all the way down to King Deport's place near the river.
Knowing that Lena was watching comforted him, for though he understood the swamp country better than anyone living, she understood other things from the Old World. Though his own kind had myths and traditions of magic, hers seemed to include powers he hardly could believe to exist.
They visited for a bit, exchanging weather signs and conjectures about what winter might bring. Talk about the weather, in the big woods country, was not idle chatter but a matter of major concern to the few human beings living there. All of them were at the mercy of floods or tornadoes or forest fires in a way townsfolk were seldom aware of.
A big flood could send everyone fleeing to high ground, a drought could deplete the supply of fish and game that kept most of them eating, or a drastic freeze in winter might well pinch the life out of some of the oldsters there. Big Thicket houses were not built for warmth but for coolness. A wood fire in a rock fireplace or an iron stove was sometimes just not enough to keep the blood circulating.
"I see a bad winter," Lena said, as they rose to put away their cups, preparatory to saying goodbye. "It's been a harsh summer, and it's still hot as hell's outhouse, but the birds are beginning to go already, even before fall starts. The orchard orioles took off three days ago.
"The moss is thick on the trees, and I can feel big storms just pullin' themselves together in the north, ready to blast down on us." She drew her shoulders inward as if warding off the chill to come.
Choa shivered, thinking about it. His people had lived with searing heat for generations, but unusual cold struck clean to the bone, seemed as if. When the swamp froze, his tall-stilted cabin, whose walls were one pine pole thick with finger-wide gaps between the logs, could work fine as an ice-box.
He was getting too old to sit practically on his stone hearth, with his knees in the fire and his backside freezing off. He said as much, too.
Lena cackled, bending double. "Think I don't feel just the same?" she wheezed. "My old bones ache fit to break in two, and my hands get so stiff I can hardly build my fire or cook on it when I get it going.
"No, Choa, bad winters ain't for old folks, but we have to survive 'em or go under. One of these days you'll come over that rise and find me, stiff and stark in my rocker, dead as a pine knot."
The half-breed grinned. "If I don't go first, Miz Lena. It's got so I hate to see the leaves begin to turn or wake to hear the geese goin' over, headed south. But you gets what you gets, my Daddy used to say, and I suppose we'll make do till our times come."
She nodded and handed him a bag with interesting lumps and angles making its sides bulge. "Here's some sweet stuff. Got a notion to bake, when the weather cooled off with the rain. Got so many cookies and tarts and cakes I'm sick of the whole idea. Figured you might make room for my extra."
He took the bag and nodded. This ritual was dear to both, for the exchange of gifts took place every time Choa came to visit. That only occurred perhaps twice in a year, but somehow Lena always knew and had a sack of goodies ready for him. Baked sweets delighted him, for he couldn't manage them on his fireplace, and he was no hand to bake, anyway.
As he trudged away, he felt those sharp black eyes stuck like thumbtacks on his back until he topped the rise and started down toward the swamp. He liked Lena McCarver, valued her as a friend and a practitioner of useful arts, but she scared the shit out of him, nevertheless.