Hours later the boys sat defeated in Boone's room. Their back against the wall. A silence in the air. Boone hated the cramped space: only able to fit his oak bed, a short desk holding a candle and books, his mahogany-top guitar that sat collecting dust in the corner, and a dresser filled with a few sets of clothes. The room smelt of sweat; a youthful sweat drawn in by the boys garbs. Even after the morning wash the moist heat had the boys perspiring from every orifice; a stink they'd grown accustomed to and hardly noticed.
Rynan pouted, "my apologies. I wasn't much use. "
"It wasn't your fault." Boone stared out the window that brought the heat, and dreamt of the day he'd wander alone. Be free like the outlaws who drank to Lawless Pete and the Yurk tribes who rode high through the prairie hum, hunting wild bison on their great golden mounts. "Grandpappy is as mean as an old badger."
"If you're not coming, I'm not going."
"No need to act humble...You'd be a fool to waste two tickets."
"Two?" Rynan slipped three from his pocket. "I brought four."
"Four?" Boone raised an eyebrow and the giant boy noticed his tickled tone. "You never told me there were four."
"One for each of us..."
"Well why didn't you say so? I thought Pappy snagged them all." Boone leaped to his feet and his hat draped across his eyes. He set it upright then grabbed Rynan's collar and leaned close, aware of his soggy-egged breath. "We'll go without their consent," he whispered.
"But your Pappy said—"
"Forget what Pappy said. We're grown boys after all. Think about it. You and I, together, on another Wildgun and Mammoth the Kidd adventure."
Rynan's oversized ears wiggled at the familiar names. It'd been years since he'd heard them; handles given to one another at the dawn of their camaraderie. He gave a gapped smile. "How? It's tomorrah and they'd find it queer if we'd gone missin."
Boone rubbed his chin, "we need a plan."
Rynan nodded, "and a good one." He looked to the bed. "Why don't we stuff the furs with hay? They'd think we was sleepin."
"All day?" Boone chuckled.
"Good point." The giant boy wasn't much a thinker, and Boone forgave him for that cause he was strong as an ox. Able to lift two men if he had to. He scratched his head, "I've got nothin else."
"I reckon," Boone said. There was a brief silence before he felt a shock to his head, like he'd been hit by a prod iron. "That's it!" he said, staring at a picture on the wall, "the answers right in front of us."
Rynan followed his gaze. There were two men and a woman posing on horses, as old as Leslie, all wearing stern faces. He recognized Ma Jean in her rosy dress and pappy Jerocobish with his pipe and robe, but the third was a mystery. A native man, though not a Yurk, dressed in deer hides, beaded necklaces, and a round black cap. He converted to the way of the Pioneers, carrying a rifle instead of a bow, and sitting well-mannered instead of feral. The giant boys nose wrinkled.
"I don't see nothing but yer kin and a featherhead."
"That featherhead is a Shaman."
"What's his handle?"
Boone forced his mind to work. "Aerowee, if I recall...means sleeps with black heart."
"Sleeps with black heart?" Rynan half expected something more. He'd heard dozens of great savage handles in all his years: Niontas, feeder of wolves; Wathayo, steady as a river; Kiruki, one with the night. This was one of the lousiest. "His folks must be proud," he chuckled, "what's this plan of your?"
Boone looked into his large, round eyes. "Real simple...Tomorrah Pappy will head to the shaman for tobacci. He does it every week." Boone sounded clever as a fox. "They smoke and shoot from dawn till dusk. And won't be returnin till early next mornin."
"And Ma Jean?"
"She's feeling sickly, though that won't slow her down...the lord has trouble keeping her off her feet. We'll tell her we're riding the horses south down to the creek. She knows that'll be an all day affair."
Rynan nodded, "I'm convinced."
"Then we'll go with that."
The boys excitement rode late into the hours, drifting off only half past midnight. They slept loudly until just before dawn when a wrestle started Boone awake.
"Son, get up." He imagined his father; a voice he'd never known from a man he'd never seen, but when his eyelids lifted it was an older man staring down, with gray shaggy hair and a thick mane that hung to his chest. He looked confused or scared. His gray eyes sunken and black, and his skin wrinkled with worry. "Ma Jean has taken a turn for the worse."
Boone scrambled out of bed knocking into Rynan. He snorted but lay unchanged, sprawled out and lost in his dreams. They allowed him to rest. Best not to worry the boy who was easily bothered.
Boone followed him to the room at the end, swallowed in darkness, lit by lucid candlelight, and smelt of herbs found by the creek and off the mountains bluff.
He stepped to the bed where Ma Jean laid pale as a ghost. Her cheeks black as ash from a puddled-shaped pattern that spread to her neck. There was a yellow tint to her eyes where the white drained. And she reeked of smoke.
"What's wrong with her?"
"God only knows..."
Boone grabbed her hand; it felt warm and moist, and oddly slippery. "Ride to the doctor...I'll watch over her." This he demanded. Jerocobish hadn't questioned the boy. He set out as the sun split on the horizon, coloring the sky a fire red that bled into the black of night.
"My dear child," Ma Jean said, "my how you've captured your mother's eyes and your father's smile." She grabbed her chest and let out a wet, harsh hack, then winced and wiped her lips. "Where is your Pappy?"
Boone felt uneasy, "He's gone to fetch the doctor."
"Nonsense," she shook smugly, "this spell will wear off soon." Boone had always admired her spirit though there was no ignoring her state.
He sat in silence remembering their fortunate times. How she taught him the difference between alchemy and cooking. One's the wisdom of spice while the others the wisdom of spells, she'd say. Or how they'd watch birds over the creek like she'd done with his father. And the tales she told: the Great Nation War between the Pioneers and the Native Tribes; the Showdown between the McCreeds and the Rodarails that ended their bloody feud; And the Prod Trials that scared him as a boy; a tale of marauders who snatched children at night and used them as alchemic puppets.
He thought long, nearly falling back to sleep when his Grandpappy burst through the door, though not accompanied by the doctor, but by a man hardly taller than Boone. He wore thick black furs, thick as his braided beard and wild hair. And wore a pair of boar's tusks that sat against his chest, crossed together, and tied by a lace around his neck. He waved a hand to a young almond skinned boy to leave the room; a once native peddler turned escort. The boy nodded and removed himself without question.
The man faced Boone."Morning, Lad...Grim day to sees ya."
"Uncle Grotknot!" He leaped up and gave him a hug. Boone saw him as blood though they were kin by camaraderie. The man born a Borkman, one of the mountain men of the north who'd befriend his pappy during the War of Nations. "What're you doing in town?"
"Came soon as I heard you was injured." He lifted the boys arm and gave it a feral eye. "You're lucky to be alive."
Boone's smile faded. "Where's the doctor?"
"He's gone missing," Jerocobish pushed passed him, "all of town is headed up that damn mountain to witness the duel." He looked down at Ma Jean.
"She's asleep. We need to track the doctor, Pappy...Ma Jean's losing color."
Grotknot walked to the bed and gave her a gander; eyeballing her pale blotchy skin, yellow eyes, and slippery hands. "Hogs mud," he said, tapping his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He tilted her chin, exposing a grim-colored tongue and black teeth. "Just as I've feared."
"Blackstraw?" Jerocobish asked, his tone broken.
"No, thank the Four Boars of Onyx...You'd of all come under the itch." He clutched the tusks and spoke hushly, "this is something else..." They watched him closely, "a hex!"
Hex? Boone felt like he was hit in the gut. This was a new kind of fear. An invisible threat that lurked in their midst. "Are you certain?"
Grotknot nodded, tugging on his beard. "The poison was ingested...Have you purchased any curious goods as of late?"
"The usual bait," Jerocobish said. He slipped his pipe from his sleeve and puffed. "We shop the marketplace for provisions and the shaman for alchemic supplies."
"Well, this was no accident," Grotknot told his Pappy. "I will admit, at first glance I dismissed your letter...Thought you'd lost your mind, truthfully." He shook his head and his beard danced. "But now that the muck's been cleared I can see the truth in your words."
Boone looked to both men, speechless...then found his voice. "Is there something I should know about?"
The room went silent.
Jerocobish gave the boy a long, draining look. "Wake Rynan and you boys pack fer a fortnight..."
"Why? Where are we headed?" Boone stood pale.
Jerocobish exhaled, "To the colosseum..."