Bell Weather - Dennis Mahoney

Chapter One


Lush spring made amends for Root’s monstrous winters and remoteness in the forest, but the snowmelt, mud, and early-season flux left the town unstable, prone to floods and violent storms.

It was daybreak. The heavy fog had just begun to brighten, and the blurry trees and hills cupped the narrow valley like a pair of giant hands enclosing something fragile. Tom Orange stood with his horse, two miles north of town, and saw a woman in the middle of the riotous Antler River. He was tired and he hadn’t drunk his morning cup of smoak, so when the dull floral pattern of her gown caught his eye he disregarded it at first, assuming it was blossoms. Only blossoms on a huge, twisted branch—not a body. Not a thing worth saving in the wreckage of the flood.

Tom removed his tricorne, tightened up the ribbon in his ponytailed hair, and put his hat back on before the mist wet his scalp. Every spring the river surged with swirling flowers. White petals, black centers—they were minuscule and stemless and appeared in quick profusion, well before any known plants began to bloom. The river undulated white like a meadow made of foam. Some of the townspeople said they floated from the Wolf Mountains in the north. Others thought they blossomed at the bottom of the river and emerged when the potent spring current stirred them up.

Tom viewed the flowers as just another element of home, and yet this morning he had ridden down the length of Root’s border, following the river and surveying its engorgement. Only once in old Nabby’s antediluvian memory had the water risen high enough to overwhelm the town, but there was always that threat and nobody in Root, least of all Tom, dropped their vigilance with so much danger roaring past. Not to mention all the people who would question him in the tavern: Had the river drowned the wharf? Had it swamped Murk’s Farm? It was easier to know when he was serving them a cider, easier to ride out and see it for himself.

Bones shifted hooves and snorted in the mist. He was a gangly, crooked horse who appeared malnourished, though he moved with graceful confidence and ate without reserve. Tom had found him last summer in the graveyard, standing with a crestfallen slouch beneath a tree, as if his owner had abandoned him but might reappear. It was said that people who perished in the wilderness, alone and far from home, walked as spirits to the town in search of others like themselves. There were numerous haunts in Root—the tavern had a child ghost, according to the cook—and Tom suspected Bones’s owner had died in the forest, led the horse to the graveyard, and silently departed. That or providence, he thought. Either way, they’d quickly bonded.

Moments earlier, the two had shared a ripple of the flesh—a question in the fog, an instinctual anxiety—and Tom had dismounted Bones to see what he could find.

Dawn spread vermilion in the low-slung clouds. Looking harder at the branch he had earlier dismissed, he was puzzled by the different sort of flowers in the tangle. They were larger than the others, dark blue and dirty rose. Tom’s boot began to slide very slowly in the mud. Not blossoms, he decided. They were flowers on a gown. Then he saw her all at once: a woman, maybe dead, her upper half held above the water by the branch.

He slipped and spun around, clutching at the grass and muddying his coat. The river nearly got him but he bellied up the bank. He mounted Bones, who cantered away before Tom was fully balanced on the saddle, and they raced along the riverside in something near to silence—just the hooves’ boggy suction and the rumble of the flood. They hurried south toward the town two miles off, where the ferry rope stretched bank to bank above the river. It was his only chance of catching her and holding her in place before the water swept her off to Dunderakwa Falls.

Every breath seemed to blow directly into his heart, billowing his chest and flushing through his veins. They were riding so fast, his hat blew away. The old bullet in his shoulder ground against bone. He squinted left and saw the branch still carrying the body. Then he lost it in the mist. They were barely keeping up.

Where the river met the mouth of Dampmill Creek, the flood spilled wide across