Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Wizard of Wisecombe, Part II

This is the second part of a short story draft. Part I

Nobody knows why Richard Shay was so vehemently against the Casters. I have heard perhaps a dozen different stories, all probably wrong. Some say that he and Simon Caster's father had a falling out over a woman. A common story is that it all began a generation back, when Simon Caster's great-uncle, Saul Caster, kept letting his pigs roam onto Shay's property, and they broke in one day and began to destroy everything in the house, thus starting a family feud that compounded over time. My grandfather swore up and down that it was due to the time when it rained frogs for an entire day on the Shay farm, shortly after an altercation with some Caster boys, and everyone superstitiously assumed that the Casters had hired a witch. Whatever the cause, the hatred was a fact. And it was inevitable that rumors would spread about Jenny and Simon being sweet on each other, and just as inevitable that it would eventually come to Richard Shay's ears.

He stormed around the house and forbade Jenny to have anything to do with the boy. Do I need to say how ineffectual this was? The two would sneak off together every moment they thought they could do so without Richard knowing it. In most cases, perhaps, this would have been easily discovered, since young people in love are rarely intelligent in their actions, but in this case, both were careful, and luck was mostly on their side. This went on for some months without any serious explosion. But perfection is not to be expected in human affairs, and there came a day when the luck was just a little less good, and word of it came again to Richard Shay.

They say he raged for half a day without stopping. Richard could be guaranteed never to harm a woman physically, but his rages were always impressive displays of fury. He threatened to lock Jenny in the house and never let her leave. It was certainly an idle threat, of the kind people make without thinking in towering rages, but fury lends a sort of credibility to any kind of threat at the time. More seriously, he threatened to shoot Simon Caster, and I cannot say for certain that he would not have done so. And then and there, in the face of her father's storm, Jenny decided that she and Simon should run away together.

Jenny went out her bedroom window one dark night and went to the Mablethrop orchard to meet Simon, who brought his horse, and together they headed out Wisecombe way. As they got to the big hill near the Shay farm, Jenny looked back and saw in the distance lanterns, and what, despite the dark night, could not possibly be anything other than Richard Shay on his prize bay. Simon spurred the horse and soon they came to the house of the Wizard of Wisecombe, and banged frantically on the door.

The old charlatan listened a moment as they explained, confusedly as people in a hurry always do, what was happening, and then held up a hand imperiously to silence them. He disappeared in a moment in the back and soon returned, gingerly holding a squarish black bottle with the word LINIMENT on the side.

"You must follow these instructions very carefully," he said. "You'll want to do this at Wisecombe Hill near the old village. That's the big hill right before it forks off, with one path to the village and the other to the highway; you'll be heading that direction anyway. When you get to the hill, pour out this bottle at the bottom, then ride like mad over the hill and do not stop or slow down until you get to the highway, and not even then if you can avoid it. Keep the bottle corked tight until you get there, and don't get any on yourself when pouring, and throw the bottle back down the road when you are done. Now go before they catch up to you."

They thanked him hurriedly, and sped off on Simon's horse. Now, the Casters have some good horses, but Simon's was more reliable than swift, and there is not a horse in the entire area that has ever been as fast as that sleek bay horse that Richard Shay was riding. So by the time the two lovebirds got to Wisecombe Hill, Richard Shay was nearly caught up to them. As Jenny carefully poured the bottle out, they could see him in the distance, riding like a madman, well ahead of the rest of the other horses. Jenny threw the bottle in his direction and Simon spurred his horse again.

They had just taken two steps up the hill when a flash of lightning crossed the whole sky like a sheet and thunder roared out so loudly the earth shook beneath them. Halfway up the hill the stormwind began to blow, first in puffing gusts, then steadily, and with ever-increasing force, bending the boughs of the trees. At the top of the hill, it began to rain, and by the time they went down the other side and were heading down the fork to the highway, the rain was coming down in sheets, as if some angel way up high was pouring out a bottomless bucket.

The brunt of the storm, however, was on the other side of the hill. The entire side of Wisecombe hill became like a liquid and started sliding down the road toward the pursuers, a sudden river of mud. The wind picked up harder and harder, more and more violent, until trees were uprooted and flying through the air.

The old con man had brewed the storm too strong. It was made even worse by the fact that the bottle-storm just happened to interact with some light rain clouds blowing in from the West and magnified them a thousandfold.

Fortunately, there is only so much storm you can fit into a bottle, and the worst storm in our history lasted less than half an hour before it gave way to clear sky. It was also fantastically lucky that nobody died. Jenny and Simon made it to the highway and eventually opened a shop in the city; I still get Christmas cards from her. When the pursuers managed to extricate themselves from the mud-river, they were all alive. A horse was missing, but it was rediscovered within the day. Old Joe Crabbe, who had slept like a stone through the entire night, woke up that morning and wondered why he kept hearing a horse neighing. He was somewhat surprised when he went out and saw that the reason was that there was a horse perched precariously on the slanted roof of his guest house. Getting the horse down was something of an operation, but nobody was hurt, even the horse.

Richard Shay was nowhere to be seen. Nobody knew what to make of that, and some people thought he was dead, but, despite a long search, no body could be found. The mystery was solved when he showed up two years later; the wind had picked him up off his course and launched him high up in the air in a southward direction, where he came down, half frozen, into a big, bushy tree six counties away. He must have hit his head coming down, or else his flight through the air was a tad traumatic, because he had amnesia. Except for that and a few scratches, he was none the worse for the incident, and he was taken in by a local pigherder who had been somewhat surprised to see a man falling from the sky. When he came back, he was by all accounts a nicer man.

All the good results, of course, were attributed to the Wizard of Wisecombe, but that is nothing but superstitious nonsense. It was all just incompetence and coincidence. There wasn't any magic involved at all.

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