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Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952 (9 page)

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952
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that tree showed a big raw axe-notch. He remembered Sam’s mention of blazes
showing the property line. It could not be far from here, Randy judged, though
from Tasman’s the distance would be a mile—almost the same distance as from
here, close to Chimney Pot, to Tasman’s.

Randy’s head came recollection of a formula learned in high school mathematics

was a mile from here to Tasman’s, and a mile from Tasman’s to the property line
at approximately a right angle, then those two mile-long distances would make
the short sides of a right-angled triangle. The length of the property line
between the
where this trail was joined to it
and the point back of Tasman’s would be what geometry books called the
hypotenuse. Of course, none of these three sides of the triangle would be
straight, but he could consider them straight enough for the sake of working
his problem. And you measured the length of a rightangled triangle’s hypotenuse
by remembering that the sum of the squares of the two smaller sides equalled
the square of the hypotenuse.

would be something to do, for a morning’s adventure, was Randy’s decision. If
he could come to the point on the property line back of Tasman’s, he ought to
be able to see the signs of former habitation on the adjoining property.

wedged the book he carried into a low forking branch of the blazed tree, and
started away.

he walked, he worked the problem in his mind.

could divide each of those mile-long smaller sides into units of a thousand
feet each. Five units to each side—the square of five was twenty-five.
Twenty-five plus twenty-five was fifty, the square of the hypotenuse. Now then,
the square root of fifty would be seven and a trifle over; he wouldn’t be far
off if he figured that, when he had traversed the property line for nearly a
mile and a half, he would be more or less directly back of Hobert Tasman’s

was not far
where the string of blazed trees he
followed joined another, running both ways. Taking the trail of the boundary,
he used his wrist watch and counted paces to help himself figure the distance.
Half an hour’s walking brought him to where, as he estimated, he was nearly
opposite the blind man’s shanty.

he chose a tall oak tree, as big around at the roots as the arms of three men
could span, and towering up in a great profusion of stout branches and waving
foliage. The first fork was within reach. He scrambled into it,
mounted higher and higher. A squirrel went dancing
away, loudly complaining of this invasion of its domain. Randy climbed actively
to the upper branches, gaining a point from which he could look out over
treetops as over a great field of leafy bushes.

he could see nothing of New Chimney Pot House on his back track, or of the
little retreat of Hobert Tasman. Both were lost in the woods. From where he sat
in the high branches of the great oak, he might be looking over an endless
world of forest. No sign of houses or roads—


had turned to look toward the woods beyond the blazed line of the Chimney Pot
property. Up ahead, and not far, was a sort of dimpled depression among the
foliage, as though the trees sank away there to a stretch of smaller, younger
growth. Randy’s curiosity impelled him to find out what that was, and why it
was there.

he lowered himself from branch to branch, picked up his stick from between two
roots of the oak, and continued his way along the blazed trail. His eyes he
kept fixed in the direction of that curious depression. Finally he stopped,
took a pace or two away from the property line, and peered fixedly beyond.

wasn’t a clearing, but it wasn’t full of big trees, either. Randy walked toward
it, careful to remember the way back to the blazed line of trunks that would
lead him again to New Chimney Pot House.

clearing held an orchard, of trees in straight rows, marshalled like ranks of
soldiers on parade. Randy moved more swiftly. He reached the nearest tree. What
fruit was grown here?
Peaches, plums, apples?

was an orchard, but not of fruit trees.






frown, the crinkle that always marked his brown forehead when he was perplexed
or intent, grew deep and tight. He looked at the lines of trees, as regular and
straight as though laid out with a huge ruler. They were an orchard, all right.
But who— what—wanted such an orchard? What could be gathered here?

examined the tree on which he had laid his hand. It was no larger than many fruit
trees, and its age was hard to decide. The bark of its stem was thick, dark,
reddish-brown and deeply furrowed, as though it were many years old; yet the
twigs that sprouted from the branches looked as bright, fresh green as
water-grass, and their leaves were big and plentiful. He transferred his hand
from the trunk to a twig, pulling it down to examine.

big leaves grew on that twig, no two of them alike.

leaf, about four inches long, made a smooth oval shape, its outer edges curving
into two arcs to the point at the free end. But directly beside that oval leaf
grew another, from one edge of which jutted out a smaller lobe. It looked like
a green mitten with a separate thumb. And the third leaf was divided into three
points, like a vegetable paw. The mitten-leaf and the paw-leaf looked almost
alive, almost ready to clutch and squeeze. Randy let go of the twig, and it
snapped upward from his fingers.

he said aloud. “What’s the use of an orchard of sassafras?”

stood there and remembered all that he had ever heard about sassafras. There
seemed to be plenty to remember, for sassafras had always stuck in his mind as
a plant with strange characteristics and equally strange folklore.

other growth had leaves of different shapes on the same branch, sometimes in
the same cluster. To even an expert botanist, if he had never seen or heard about
sassafras, those three different shapes of leaves would signify different kinds
of tree or bush. No wonder both the Indians and the white settlers had thought
of it as a magic plant, had believed that it could be brewed for a curse or a
spell . . .

here was a carefully planted orchard of it. Randy started to walk between the
rows of sassafras trees,
drew back. He argued
with himself that he wasn’t superstitious. Maybe he’d just heard too many
strange stories from Willie Dubbin and Hobert Tasman. It must be that fact that
made the strange orchard seem somehow menacing. He decided to skirt it on his
way to find out whatever might be beyond.

along the orchard’s edge, he held his stick poised in his hand, like a club or
saber. Things were balefully still. He was aware of the swish of his feet among
leafy weeds, the faint stir of wind in the branches of the sassafras trees, a
sudden twittery exchange between birds. Randy wished that Jebs were with him,
solid and bright-humored, to dispel the creepy sensations that seemed to trudge
along beside him. He wished, too, that he had told Sam where he was going,
after finding the way to Tasman’s blocked by puddles.

“I’m acting like a little kid in a
haunted house,” he scolded himself. “And I’m not a little kid, and there isn’t
any house, haunted or otherwise—”

just then, moving clear of the orchard, he saw a house, and the house looked

that it was a huge, tumbledown old ruin, such as Chimney Pot House had been
when Randy first saw it, the September before. As a matter of fact, this house
was small and seemed to be in fairly good repair. It was built of logs, squared
into timbers and notched so that they fitted at the corners. Between the logs,
rough plaster filled the spaces. The foundation was of rocks, holding the
wooden walls well above the earth from which termites might otherwise have swarmed.
Its pitched roof was covered with shingles, thinner-cut and far older than
those Randy had helped to nail on New Chimney Pot House.

in all, it was not a new house, but not a ruined one, either. Perhaps, had it
stood in open country, with sunlight upon it, a well-cultivated yard and garden
stretching along its sides and in front, and a bustle of activity inside and
out, it would have looked even cheerful. Seeing it under such conditions, Randy
might have thought it old-fashioned and a trifle roughly built, yet comfortable
and kindly.

But, tucked as it was among towering
trees, with a closer packing of thickets where once the nearer land had been
cleared, and no sound of movement detectable in or near it, that log house
seemed cloaked in mystery. Randy remembered an old
North Carolina
legend, about the monster called a
gardinel. A gardinel, according to the tale-tellers, looked like a house but
wasn’t a house. It stood silently in some out-of-the-way place, hoping to tempt
a careless stranger to walk in at its mouth that was shaped like a door. And,
once inside that doorlike mouth, the visitor never came out again.

called Randy, and waited.

answer. Even the slight breeze seemed to have died away. The leaves and
branches of the sassafras trees had fallen silent, motionless, as though they
wanted to help Randy listen.

anybody home?” tried Randy again.

Still no answer.
No answer in the house, or the woods, or
anywhere except inside Randy himself. His heart had begun to beat louder and
faster than usual. That heart of his seemed to be trying to act as if he was
frightened. Randy snorted in disdain of any such notion.

going to see what this is all about,” he told himself, and walked closer to the
house, his stick still held clubwise in his ready right hand.

rough door of cleated planks, he saw, opened inward, and was pushed almost
shut. A window on either side of the door had panes of glass, all but one of
them unbroken. That was because this house was so far from any path along which
strollers were likely to approach, decided Randy. A deserted house—and this one
deserted—was always a fair mark for the
thrown stones and clods of any passing idler. Randy looked at the weed-grown
soil in front of the door. It looked as though the weeds were worn away in a
sort of path, but he could make out no tracks. Last night’s heavy rain would
have wiped away any tracks, when it came to that.

Randy peered to right and left, where
clumps of brush lay close against the house. He turned and looked back toward
the riddlesome orchard of sassafras trees. Nothing made a sound or motion, but
Randy did not feel comforted by this silence. He nerved himself once again,
walked up to the big flat rock that made an uneven front step, and knocked on
the planks of the door with the stick in his hand.

blows rang in Randy’s nervous ears like so many pistol shots, and boomed and
echoed inside the house. He waited. Still no sound, no hint of a sound, except
for what he was making
. He pushed the end of
the stick against the door. It gave back on its hinges with a rasping slowness,
as though it objected to Randy’s invasion. He peered into the house, then put
his foot on the doorstep and hoisted himself inside.

house seemed to contain only one room, and that room was quite empty. Stout
boards were fastened to each wall by rusty old iron brackets, as though to
serve for shelves. There was a stovepipe hole, with traces of ancient soot
around it, but the stove had been taken away long ago. Randy poked into a
corner where lay an old tin plate and a coffee pot with its rusty bottom
punched in. Then he walked to where a door was set at the rear, a big hook
holding it shut. He looked up at the roof. It had horizontal rafters at about
seven feet from the rough but solid floor, rafters made of lengths of pine
trunk with the bark still on them. Above these rose the shadowy triangular
vault of the roof’s inside. He could see only one or two chinks in the old
shingles. Plainly this house had been well built, and plainly it had resisted
wind and rain for a number of years, all by itself.

Randy lounged with an arm flung upon
one of the shelves.

have to bring the rest of the bunch here to have a look,” he thought to himself.
“Sam and Jebs and Driscoll—

he suddenly yelped aloud, and jumped from near the wall to the center of the

his hand, idly drumming on the surface of the shelf, had brushed against

Something shaggy.

had made half a dozen swift steps toward the door before
regained control of himself. He turned to stare back at the shelf, his heart
racing, his teeth clenched and bared. He lifted the stout stick, ready to
attack or to defend himself.

shelf was half in shadow from another shelf above it. He could see that
something lay upon it, flat and long, like a crouching weasel or cat. The thing
did not move, but there was a stealthy, drawn- in look about it. Narrowing his
eyes to see better, Randy made out that it was pale in color, with dark
blotches. He took a plucky step toward it again, the stick lifted.

you!” he addressed it. It did not stir.

took two more steps, extended the end of his staff, and prodded. The hairiness
yielded softly, the thing seemed to draw away. Randy poked again, more strongly
this time, with a stirring pressure. Then he jumped back, for the spotted mass
suddenly poured itself over the edge of the shelf and tumbled with a strange
clink of sound upon the floor.

stood his ground, studied the mystery,
grinned in
relief that had something of shame in it.

an empty skin,” he announced, to comfort himself with the sound of his own
voice. He walked toward it, turned it over with the stick, and finally stooped
and took it in his hand.

was a coat or jacket that had been flung on the shelf. Randy examined the
material—cowskin, tanned with the shaggy hair on. It was white, with mottlings
of dark brown. He turned the jacket this way and that. It was an old one, but
well repaired. A rip in one sleeve had been sewn up with stout thread—a recent
mending, Randy judged. And the leather of the jacket was supple and pliable.
That meant it was no discarded garment; had it lain long on the shelf, it would
be stiff and dry. No, it must have been worn recently, and frequently.

he studied the thing more closely, he discovered the reason for the clink on
the floor. At one side in front was sewn a pocket, like a patch of the mottled
cowskin. Into this was thrust a rod of bright silvery metal. Randy drew it
forth to examine.

object was cylindrical, perhaps six inches long and half an inch in diameter.
One end of the cylinder was closed, the other open, and an inch or so from the
open end a notch appeared in the side. Randy fingered the open end and the

looks like a whistle,” he decided in his mind, and put it to his lips.

blew hard, but no sound came. He studied it again,
he blew a second time, once more without success. Apparently it wasn’t a
whistle, after all.

what was it?
A fountain pen?
If so, he could not see
how it worked. Might it be a telescope? He put the open end to his eye, but he
was unable to see anything but darkness. Giving up, he thrust the object back
into the pocket of the cowskin coat. He returned the thing to the shelf where
he had found it, trying to arrange it in the same position as before. Then he
made a final pacing tour of the house’s interior, making what observations he
could. His mind assessed tags of evidence.

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952
13.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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