Episode 14: The Lost Doll
As we approached the welcoming glow of the main house, commotion spilled into the front yard. The farmhands carried guns and the hunting dogs had been released. The men surveyed the grounds, their lanterns like lightning bugs spreading across the fields. My thoughts jumped to the the missing bodies from the barn: Pa, Junior, Red, and the others that disappeared the night we returned to Albright Acres.
“What is going on?” I asked as I dismounted quickly.
Mae burst from the house and collapsed in my arms, sobbing. “She’s gone, Pike. She’s gone, and it’s all my fault.”
“Who’s gone?” I looked at Ellie, who stood at the top of the steps.
Her delicate eyebrows furled in a pained expression. “Maddie. She’s run off to find that doll.”
I gritted my teeth, swearing on the inside, partly because she hadn’t waited and partly because I hadn’t taken the time to help her. I shifted Mae so she sat on the steps, leaving her in Al’s care, and ran into the house.
My head spun with the conversation I’d had with Maddie just the day before. I told her we’d look for the doll. Why hadn’t she waited? I ran from room to room on the main floor, looking for some unturned nook the others might have missed. I wanted to hear her giggle and for this to be all some awful prank, a playful ploy to punish me. What was I thinking? I should have taken the time to find her doll.
When she didn’t turn up on the first floor, I bounded up the stairs. Maddie’s room was dark, but I didn’t take time to light a lamp or fiddle with Pa’s illumination devices. The moon shone through the curtains, diffusing its light and transforming the swaths of fabric into ghostly sentries that stood watch over Maggie’s toys, dressings, and sundries. I checked behind the door, next to the dollhouse, inside the wardrobe, under the bed.
“You’re not going to find her. We checked. She’s not in any of her usual hiding places.” Ellie leaned on the door frame, just outside the threshold of the room. Her hand caressed the woodwork as if the motion helped hold back tears.
Ellie’s soft, matter-of-fact tone calmed me and gave me new focus. My mind slid away from the frenzy of finding my sister safe and sound in her bedroom to locating a clue to where she might have gone to look for her dearest Priscilla.
As I walked toward the window, I bumped Maddie’s art table with my knee. The round stones she collected from the creek bed rumbled and rolled. Without thinking, I reached out to steady them, and as I did the drawing on the top of the stack caught my eye. “It can’t be.”
“What? What did you find?” Ellie hurried to my side.
Without a word, I grabbed the paper, shot past Ellie, and flew down the stairs. I burst through the door with Ellie hot on my heels and descended the porch stairs. “I know where she’s gone,” I said, holding Maddie’s drawing in front of Al and Mae.
The image captured a forest of jagged trees. In the center sat one that was larger than all the rest, one with blotchy blue bottles hanging from its branches. In front of it, a smiling girl in a white dress stood next to a soldier with a fiery red beard. The soldier held a crudely drawn doll dressed in a crimson gown.
At the site of the picture, Mae’s eyes grew wide and fluttered as if she might faint. Instead, she mumbled words I couldn’t understand, words of foreign origin mixed with hissing and tongue clicks. Ellie threw her arms around Mae as she balled her apron in her fists and rocked back and forth.
“Is that what I think it is?” Al asked. “Is that who I think it is?”
“I think so,” I said. “And it looks like Maddie might have gone into the woods to find him.”
As if Al had read my mind, he handed me my shotgun and gathered our horses.
“I’ll come with you,” Ellie said, looking up from Mae.
“No, take care of Mae.” I secured my gun in the holster on my horse’s saddle. “And someone needs to be here if Maddie returns. Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
Ellie locked her jaw in a determined grin and nodded, a motion that said she believed in us. Al and I mounted our horses and raced off to find our baby sister.
We edged into the darkened woods, careful to avoid the craggy stumps and thorny thickets that lined the trail. The forest seemed to close around us, as not even a sliver of moonlight penetrated the thick foliage overhead. Only the faint glow of Al’s lantern kept us from wandering off the well-worn path.
“Mind yourself. The traps that wait in the night wood will not be as merciful as Miss Ana’s.” My horse slid over loose ground and she whinnied as she steadied her footing.
“We’ve gotta move faster. She’s out here somewhere with God-only-knows what else.” Al shot forward, ignoring my warning.
A low, gravelly growl escalated to a shrill scream, a sound that startled by mare and forced Al’s horse to rear on its haunches. He held fast to the reins and spun around to look at me, the fear of recognizing the sound heavy on his brows.
My blood ran cold, sending prickles up and down my spine. I almost choked on my words. “Is that what I think it is?”
Al nodded. “Mountain lion.” He didn’t wait for my response, he jerked the reins and urged his frightened horse forward.
I pulled the shotgun from the saddle holster and balanced it on the mane of my steed. I dug my heels into the horse’s flanks and she reluctantly moved on. We pushed through a wall of prickly bushes and followed the bobbing glow of Al’s lantern. I kept my finger wrapped around my gun’s trigger guard, a safety to prevent stray shots while allowing a ready position in case the cat attacked.
A girl shrieked.
The crack of gunfire echoed through the forest canopy. Sick dread twisted my insides. If something happened to Maddie, I’d never forgive myself. Al and I burst through the trees and immediately halted our horses.
In the clearing, Maddie slowly crept backwards, clutching her doll and a kerosene lantern. “Al!”
At Maddie’s outburst, the great cat screamed again, but made no advance. A figure stood between the frightened girl and the massive she-lion. The stranger’s duster flowed with each movement as he thrust a flaming torch at the wildcat. “Hiya!”
The mountain lion screamed and clawed at the whirling flames, then looked at us before hissing at the threatening fire. I balanced my shotgun and dismounted slowly, making sure I didn’t startle the dangerous animal. Al did the same.
“Little girl, can you slowly walk to those men?” The man spoke over his shoulder to Maddie and he cocked the pistol he held in his other hand. “Don’t make any sudden movements.”
The mountain lion edged in the direction of the girl in a fluid motion, but the stranger mirrored its every move, keeping his body between her and Maddie.
“Listen to Baku, honey.” Al took a step toward Maddie and held out his hand, coaxing her to him. “Take your time. It’s going to be all right.” In a few nervous steps, she was safe in Al’s arms and they retreated to the horses.
I aimed my gun at the mountain lion and eased my way next to the man, creating another body the cat would have to go through to get to Maddie. I moved in unison with the stranger as we worked to guide the cat away from the girl.
“She’s the biggest cat I’ve ever seen,” I said.
“A beautiful creature, but she got me good.” Baku’s eyes never left the huntress as he opened the front of his jacket. The shirt under his duster was torn and glistened from fresh blood. He winced, letting the pain best him for just a second, then straightened his body and resumed his fighting stance. His eyes narrowed, focused on the predator, a look that meant business. “Get the girl and get outta here.”
“I’m not going to leave you alone with this beast—and we can’t let it prowl our land.” I steadied my rifle and readied a shot.
As if the animal sensed its time coming to an end, it pounced. In a single lunge, Baku dropped the torch and his gun, withdrew a knife from his boot, and tackled the beast to the ground. The pair rolled in the shadows for what seemed like an eternity, before a final grunt sounded and both bodies stilled.
Finally, Baku crawled from under the beast and stood, wiping blood from the side of his face with his hand. “Thanks for the distraction. We could of danced like that all night, if you hadn’t come along.” Baku leaned over and grabbed his pistol, wincing again as he held his side.
“You’re hurt pretty bad,” I said.
“I’m fine.” He took a step forward, but faltered in the next one.
I offered my hand to steady him, but he waved me off. “Baku? Was that your name?”
Al was immediately at my side. “One unpredictable beast down, one to go.”
“Yes, that’s right.” Baku laughed, a labored effort causing him to double over in pain. When he stood, he coughed and blood streaked across his teeth.
Al held the lantern higher, so we could better survey the damage. “Reckon we ought to get him to the house.”
“I said, I’m fine.” With the speed of hummingbird wings, Baku pointed his pistol at Al. “Don’t move.”
I put my hands out in front of me and stole a sideways glance at my brother, hoping he’d be ready to help me disarm our short-lived ally. He might be fast, but I’d make sure he wouldn’t get a shot off. I took a step back. “Look now, we don’t want any trouble.”
“I said, don’t move.” Baku steadied the gun and cocked the hammer.
Al swallowed hard. “Look, you saved our little sister, and we’re mighty grateful. Let us help you with those wounds.”
Baku narrowed one eye, and I lunged for him. In one long second, the hammer snapped forward, sending a spark through the cylinder, forcing a bullet through the barrel. In the echo of gunfire, Maddie’s screams pierced the night. Baku and I fell to the ground, but I didn’t stay put. I leapt from on top of him and rushed to Al. He stood paralyzed, whether in shock from a direct hit or a complete miss, I couldn’t tell.
“Al. Al!” I shook him.
He blinked once. Twice. “Did he miss me?”
My reply was a heavy breath of relief. Over Al’s shoulder, I surveyed Maddie, but she wasn’t looking at us. Her eyes, forced wide, locked on an object behind us. I followed her gaze with my own until it fell on a body crumpled on the ground.
I left a dazed Al to recover his wits and walked over to the victim. Using my boot, I nudged a gray uniformed arm off a pale, withered face. “I don’t believe it. It’s one of the dead soldiers that went missing from the barn.”
Al snapped around, took one look at the body, then rushed to Maddie’s to hide the awful sight from her view. Baku staggered beside me, his pistol hanging limp in one hand, his other pressed to the wound on his side.
“You saved us—again,” I said.
He nodded once and holstered his gun. “Didn’t mean to scare the girl.”
I looked at Maddie, and Al had lifted her onto his horse. He returned with a lantern and a blanket, ready to cover the dead man. But before he could, Baku leaned over and pulled at the back collar of the corpse’s coat. We gathered round the body, and Al raised the lantern so we could get a better look.
An angry wound marked the back of the soldier’s neck. Cased in a thick, bloody scab, something protruded from the ash-gray skin. A delicate lattice of dark-green veins radiated from the puncture like an infection in the skin, putrid tree branches stretching from his spine in all directions.
Baku pulled the spike-like shaft from the soldier’s neck. “Damn things don’t stop until you sever their connection. He won’t bother you again.” He held the bolt under the lantern’s light.
“Hey, that’s like the spike I found at the crash site,” Al said. “Is that what’s keeping it… alive?”
“Yes, and there are more. These woods are already full of them.” Baku pocketed the spike.
“Them?” I repeated.
From under the brim of his hat, his eyes pierced mine, dark as coals, cold and resolved. “The Splintered.” He pulled the blanket over the soldier’s face and turned toward the horses, a motion that fell short as he dropped to the ground.
Al knelt by Baku’s side and rolled him onto his back. In the light of the lantern, blood continued to spread across the threads of a once-white shirt. “We have to get him to Mae.”
I nodded. “We’ll come back for the soldier later.” I lifted Baku’s arm over my shoulder and dragged him to my horse. Once I hoisted him over the saddle, I took the lantern from Al. He mounted his horse, settling behind Maddie, and for the first time I realized she was holding her missing doll.
I reached out and held Maddie’s hand. “Hey sweetheart, I see you found Priscilla.”
She smiled and nodded.
“I’m sorry I didn’t help you find it sooner.” I raised my eyes to meet Al’s, and an unspoken promise passed between us. We’d never let this happen again. “That was nice of Baku help you find your doll. We’re going to take really good care of him to show him our thanks.”
“It’s wasn’t Baku,” she said as she caressed Priscilla’s blonde hair with her fingers and smoothed the doll’s red dress with her hand. “The funny man with the red beard had her.”
Al shot me a sharp look, his eyes as wide as the full moon. “Red.”
Stay tuned! The next episode will post April 24th (a week later than planned, due to scheduling conflicts). Thank you for reading!