There are plenty of good ways to die. Cedar Hunt wiped ice off his face and pushed through the knee-deep snow, leaning against the wind. Some people said drowning wasn’t bad, others said hanging was a peaceful way to go. But he had decided real quick, that dying in the teeth of a blizzard wasn’t any way to lay a soul to rest.
Cold just made him angry and anger fueled his determination to keep right on living.
“Mr. Hunt,” Miss Dupuis called over the howl of the wind. “A river, I believe.”
He looked back at the people following him as he broke trail through the drifts. Miss Sophia Dupuis was an acquaintance of the Madder brothers.
She looked like a French diplomat, but was part of a secretive group of people who, as far as he could reckon, spent most their time taking the law into their own hands to try and rid the land of the Strange those unholy creatures from myth and legends intent on killing good folk.
But now there was an even greater threat than the Strange. The Holder–a strange-worked weapon made of seven ancient metals–was scattered across this land.
Cedar had seen the destruction even just one piece of it had caused. It wiped out a town of people, left their bodies as playthings for the Strange, and nearly killed his friend Rose Small.
The remaining pieces of the device would do the same or worse. And if they fell into the wrong hands, they could bring the United States and all within it, to their knees.
His instinct for the Holder’s whereabouts had sent them north out of Kansas, heading up to Des Moines. But this snow storm had fouled his senses.
“Which way?” he called out to Miss Dupuis.
She adjusted the compass in her hand and pointed west. They’d been hoping to catch a direction toward civilization for hours now, and following a river was their best hope of doing so. Behind her loomed the Madder brother’s wagon pulled by a team of mules. Alun Madder sat the driver’s seat. A miner and deviser by trade, he was a bear of a man, heavy coat, wide brimmed hat, the messy curls of hair and beard adding to the wild look of him. Even in the pounding snow, he kept his pipe hot, pulling cherry red coals from the bowl.
His two brothers, Bryn and Cadoc were at the back of the wagon, pushing when the mules weren’t enough to pull the sleds they had rigged up beneath the wagon’s wheels. In the back of the wagon, out of his sight was the woman Cedar loved, the witch Mae Lindson, and his brother Wil, who carried the same Pawnee curse as Cedar, and currently wore a wolf’s shape because of it.
The wind thrashed harder, picking up snow and ice. Cedar shivered under the onslaught.
If Mae Lindson hadn’t cast a spell of warmth on his hands and feet every few hours, he knew he’d have lost his fingers and toes yesterday.
It had taken Mae several attempts to find a way to bind warmth to skin without scorching flesh. He figured he’d carry the scars on the back of his wrists for years to come, but didn’t regret a moment of the pain.
Because of her, they might make it to shelter. If shelter could be found.
One thing was certain. There was no turning around now. It was well past mid-day, and the path behind was blocked by fallen trees and piles of snow. The mules and horses struggled with every passing hour.
They were running out of daylight and running out of time.
Cedar tipped his head so he could see up from beneath the brim of his hat to where Miss Dupuis pointed. Nothing but snow and hills ahead, though he thought he could make out a downward slope.
“Are you sure?” he called back over the wind’s howl.
“Yes. If the maps are correct, there should be a river there.” Miss Dupuis’s voice quavered. She was shaking even though she wore a long wool coat over her several layers of skirts, kid skin gloves, a rabbit-skin muff, and a rabbit-skin shawl across her shoulders. Her hair was tucked up beneath a woolen caplet, covered in a heavy dusting of white that would not melt.
The compass in her hand burned a bloody red and let off enough heat to stay the snow from its surface. She’d shown him the contraption the Madders had devised–a combination of sextant and compass housed in an enameled case filled with sand that could be heated to keep the user’s hands warm.
Now she tucked in her palms inside the furred hand warmer to keep her gloved fingers from freezing.
Miss Dupuis had refused the warming spell from Mae, knowing that every time Mae cast the spell, it drained strength from her.
“You should return to the wagon,” Cedar said.
“Not yet. I’ll watch for lights, town, rail. If we come on the river and follow the banks, we should see a town.”
Cedar didn’t waste breath arguing. Truth was, he could use a second set of eyes in all this white. “Shout if you see the river. I’d rather not find it by falling through the ice.”
He adjusted his course west, every step sinking into snow up to his knees, despite the snow shoes he’d strung together out of strips of leather and willow. He’d fashioned the shoes a week ago when he and Wil, had first felt the weather taking a shift toward the worse.
Neither of them had expected this storm.
“Where you think you’re going now, Mr. Hunt?” Alun Madder hollered from the seat of the wagon.
“Des Moines!” Cedar had been telling him that the city should be the nearest shelter for two days, but the Madders refused to believe him. Refused almost, to admit Des Moines was a city that existed in the world at all.
He didn’t know what nonsense they had in those stubborn heads of theirs, but ignoring a town didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Alun let out a hard whistle and pulled the mules up short. Even Miss Dupuis’ horse jerked at the sound and stopped, head drooping, grateful for the rest.
Alun lifted a lantern to better see through the snow, and sunset light slapped across his round weathered face revealing a beard white from snow, bulbous nose stuck the center of his close-set features, and glass-sharp eyes looking out from beneath bushy brows.
Quick tempered, quirky-natured, Alun Madder was the eldest of the brothers. The blowing snow turned him into a ghoulish figure, as if the face of death itself was peering out at Cedar through a casing of ice.
“We will not stop in Des Moines,” Alun said flatly.
Cedar was pretty sure that was the first time the miner had actually spoken the name of the town. But he didn’t care to point it out. He didn’t care in the least if the Madders acknowledged that the town existed.
“We will or we won’t last the night.” Cedar spaced his words like hammer strikes. “The mules are near dead. The horse too. We won’t last long enough to dig our own graves. We stop in Des Moines.”
“I say otherwise,” Alun yelled. “And so do my brothers.”
As if called to battle, the other two Madder brothers strode through the snow along side the stopped wagon, both carrying geared-up shot guns against palms and shoulders.
Near freezing to death did a lot of odd things to a man’s sense of reason. It was said some went raving mad, tore their clothes off and ran through the snow naked while their blood turned to ice.
Maybe the cold had frozen up the Madder brothers’ brains.
Maybe Cedar didn’t give a damn about that.
“Do not stand against me, Alun Madder and think you will win,” Cedar said. “And do not think I will stand here and waste time fighting you instead of finding our path to salvation. If you have some device or matic you’ve bolted together that can change the weather or give us speed, I’ll wait for you to bring it out here, otherwise I am going to find that city.”
“A city of devils,” Alun said.
“Good. I expect them to keep the fires warm.”
Alun scowled and returned to puffing smoke out of his pipe.
That was answer enough.
Cedar turned his back on the brothers and their guns and pushed through the snow down the next slope.
They could shoot him in the back for all he cared. He wasn’t going to stand still in the middle of a blizzard and argue his heartbeats away.
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