He was being hunted.
The man sank to his knees in black water. The night air pulsed with the reverberations of a multitude of insects, punctuated by bullfrog croaks and the occasional splash of something leaving the muddy banks for the safety of the swamp water.
Before him, two others struggled through the marsh.
“Go!” he cried. Dragging his legs through the muck, he pulled himself up on cypress knees to the slippery embankment. Free of the mire, he ran. The palmettos and spiny bracken tore his trousers as he ripped away low-hanging limbs and spirals of Spanish moss.
Some distance behind, a hound bayed.
The other two stopped before a large pond. One was a girl with wide eyes, as fierce as lightning flashes. Scratches crisscrossed her pale arms, and a gash on her cheek bled freely. Her lips trembled. By her side stood a man with long dark hair streaked with silver; it fell about his face and covered his eyes. He held the girl’s arm with one hand.
In the other he held a sparkling silver pistol.
The girl pulled toward the pond.
“No,” the gunman said. “We need another way.”
“But . . . the hound!” she cried.
As if in answer, a roar erupted from the dark, shaking the trees around them and silencing the buzzing chorus of insects and frogs. An icy breeze pushed back their hair as their damp clothes grew crisp.
“Go around,” the man said. “Follow the pond’s edge to the north and there’s a crossing.”
The gunman nodded and urged the girl forward. As the two disappeared into the brush, another roar tore through the trees, felling limbs and flattening shrubs. The moisture in the marshy earth froze, pushing to the surface in splinters of ice. At his back, the man heard the cracking of ice forming at the edge of the pond. He removed his straw hat and dropped it to the ground.
With a snort of cold air, an enormous muzzle broke through the trees. Slowly the hound stepped out. More massive than a bull, it was seven feet at the shoulder. Its jaws were huge. Each tooth was as long as a hunting knife. Its dark metallic eyes were set deep into bone-white fur, tufted and spiked with frost. The groaning and whining of gears churned from beneath its flesh.
The man faced the monstrous hound as it snarled and leaped forward.
Ray jerked awake. The voices of the other orphans chirped over the rattle of the train. He was in the passenger car, Mister Grevol’s exquisite passenger car, with his sister, Sally, napping at his side.
Ray settled back onto the soft velvet bench and opened his hand. On his sweaty palm lay the lodestone. He hadn’t meant to nod off with it in his hand. He knew better.
Pushing the lodestone into his pocket, Ray craned his neck to scan the passenger car for Miss Corey. She was still not back.
Miss Corey had given the orphans an extensive list of rules, instructions, and threats the morning before Ray and Sally and the other seventeen children boarded the beautiful, dark train with its powerful ten-wheeler locomotive:
“Mister G. Octavius Grevol is a highly respected industrialist,” Miss Corey had warbled. “He has generously allowed us passage on his personal train. I expect you”—she had looked directly at Ray, who at twelve was the oldest of the orphans—“to be well-behaved, well-mannered, and to remain at all times in the passenger car designated for our use.”
But Ray had never been very good at listening to rules, instructions, or threats. He had decisions to make and needed someplace quiet to think. As he stood, he glanced down at Sally. With her hands pillowing her dirty cheek on the upholstered bench and her tattered boots kicked up against the lacquered black paneling, Sally—all the orphans, really—looked out of place in Mister Grevol’s princely train.
Ray started down the aisle toward the back of the passenger car. He stumbled a moment with the sway of the train, but steadied himself against the back of the next bench before continuing. Some of the orphans were taking naps, but most were talking boisterously or playing with jackstraws or cornhusk dolls on the ornately quilted seats. They were excited, and they had good reason. They were traveling on a marvelous train away from the horrible city. Soon they would reach the South, where Miss Corey had arranged for them to be adopted. Wishing he could share their enthusiasm, Ray reached for the vestibule door’s polished brass handle.
As he stepped out onto the vestibule, a coal-smoke wind met him, accompanied by the noisy clatter of the train’s wheels. He quickly shut the door. Finally, he was alone.
The vestibule was a short, open-air passage between the train cars. Ray settled his elbows on the railing and looked out at the green and gold fields, speckled with clusters of trees and white clapboard farmhouses. The wind batted his brown curls across his brow. Ray pushed them back as he took the lodestone from his pocket.
The lodestone began moving at once, tugging against his grip. Ray clutched it tighter and wondered, as he had again and again over the last month: What was it pulling toward and why did it keep showing him the monstrous hound?
His father had given him the dark stone eight years ago—before Sally was born, before his father had left. Ray had only been four at the time, but he still remembered it vividly.
“I’m heading down South for a job of work, Ray,” his father had said that morning on the banks of Lake Wesserunsett in rural Maine. His father had grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee, and his words sometimes sounded funny compared to the way New Englanders spoke. “Might be a spell before I’m back.”
Then his father had taken out the flannel pouch he always carried in his pocket. He opened the drawstring and slowly removed a rock.
“What is it?” Ray asked.
“That’s a lodestone,” his father said, placing the stone in Ray’s hand. “They’re magnetic. Folks use them to make compasses. But this ain’t no ordinary lodestone. I want you to keep it safe while I’m gone. It’ll guide you when you have a need.” Then he had added with his lopsided smile, “It’ll help me get back home, too.”
But it hadn’t. Ray’s father had never returned. Eight years had passed. Eight terrible years.
Ray looked down at his hand, feeling the lodestone pressing against his fingers as if the little stone was struggling to escape.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Nine Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis. Copyright © 2009 by John Claude Bemis. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.