Owlflight 5


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Owlflight 5


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rather than see." He continued his high, thin-shanked lope, every step treatening to upend but never quite doing so. His gait had the nerve-wracking characteristic of a teeter-totter toy. It got to the point where I felt like pushing him over myself.

As they neared the oak, Colonel Tombcraft stepped out of the darkness. ''If I might have a moment of your time," he called to her holding up his hand. Eugenia reined Dan to a reluctant halt.

The Colonel was studying his stopwatch. ''That's very good," he complimented them. “I think you have it wrapped up." Timmie was a shadowy suggestion under the branches, a square outline indicated the eternal case. ''It simply won't do," he continued. ''My 'employ­er' has specifically mentioned his preference for Mr. McGrew's soul. He was so refreshingly evil till that sickening attack of conscience. Also, I've placed a small wager against him. You'll simply have to throw this race." Night breezes rustled the dying leaves over their heads.

Eugenia determined on the "stiff upper lip" response. "Never, Sir." She looked so infernally tiny and helpless against even Timmie, much less the colonel. "Justice will prevail."

"Timmie!" Colonel Tombcraft held out his hand. ''I have no doubt justice will eventually triumph, but by the time it does, it certainly will be too late to benefit you."

Timmie opened the case, revealing a long, ugly machete whose cutting edge threw off frozen sparklings of moonlight. Colonel Tombcraft hefted it as if ascer­taining its balance. ''If you win, Mr. McGrew will go to heaven. I'm greatly afraid you'll accompany him. But, you shouldn't have to... not yet, Eugenia. There are so many more productive years ahead of you. It would be a pity to deprive you of them."

Dan lowered his head abjectly. ''In life, I had three men's share of cowardice," he mumbled.

Mercifully, Eugenia was spared the decision between defiance and compliance. The colonel's normally ruddy complexion deepened into purple. His machete fell to the ground as both hands flew to his throat. A dark band appeared around his windpipe. It was the crook of Canon Thomas' cane.

Carefully, the canon disengaged it. "There are severe penalities for suborning a contestant," he reminded the colonel. ''Though I suppose you couldn't help your­ self."

Colonel Tombcraft's hands remained around his throat. He breathed hoarsely as his normal color slowly returned. "Yes, of course," he rasped. "Forgive me." He regarded Dan and Eugenia through frightened eyes. "Forget what I said. I was not myself." Timmie had unobtrusively vanished during the incident.

They watched the colonel stumble away. One hand still massaged his throat. ''I'm afraid he was himself and did mean what he threatened," warned the canon. "Be especially alert. I will always protect you but he is as devious as he is dangerous, and it won't do to under­ estimate him or be caught off guard."

Dan McGrew revealed his past of his own volition during a practice break: 'What did I do, Eugenia? I destroyed happiness, willfully and maliciously. I turned my mother and father gray before their time, and they died broken hearted. To the very end, they attempted to help me... but no...I was too intelligent; I knew it all. No old fools could tell me what direction my life should take or what to do with it. Never mind that they based their attempts on wisdom and experience.

'When I awakened, Jeannie, it was too late. Oh! what a nightmare my awakening was. My brain turned to ice from that deadly virus, realization. My entire past confronted me like an obscene canvas.

"Everything came into focus at once. Every dirty fact, every filty incident returned with such objective clarity I felt like a slug trapped in a sun-burst.

'What wouldn't I have done to undo my past… I would have sold my soul to the devil if it hadn't already belonged to him. Like Judas, I hanged myself, an act I should have performed many years before."

"Your parents would have died broken hearted that much earlier," Eugenia pointed out.

McGrew smiled sadly. "You are a very profound baby. You have more meaningful knowledge at your age than I acquired in an entire lifetime."

''We'll win through, Dan. You can still be reunited with your mom and dad in heaven."

A cold tear rolled down his cheek, for that is the only kind a cadaver can shed. He fell to his knees, and the tears continued to escape from behind his concealing hands. His anguish was all the more dreadful because of its silence. Occasionally, his sides heaved. ''If I could just look upon them once more, even from afar…" Dan continued to weep.

His self-reproach was interrupted by the appearance of Canon Thomas. "Come on, Dan, let's get a little more practice under your belt." The canon's voice was sympa­thetic.

"Of course, Sir, that is just what we were about to do." Eugenia scrambled up his back and onto his shoulders. She grasped his hair and hung on. Dan tumbled erect and they continued to speak as they paced back and forth the length of the cemetery. 'I think the canon is omniscient," he ventured.

Eugenia 's mind was elsewhere. "Suicides have no place in heaven," she reminded him.

'I know, Jeannie, I know. Even as an act of remorse my death was wasted. I should have used what was left of my miserable life to effect good."

Eventually, the night of the great expectations arrived. A chalk line had been drawn across the starting point, behind which stood the contestants. Canon Thomas had ordered a special moon for the occasion. It shone brilliantly enough to read fine print by.

Somewhere, he had obtained a surrey drawn by two magnificent animals. I assumed they were horses, as they looked like every picture I'd ever seen of horses.

Colonel Tombcraft and Timmie rode with him. A uniformed driver sat in the front doing things with what I suspected were reins. The starting point was located at the far end of the cemetery, and the finish line was a green ribbon in front of the Holy Tabernacle portico. The stairs and platform were crowded with shadowy figures who presumably were officials. Someone had decorated the area with gaily colored ribbons and banners. Naturally, it was roped off to exclude the vulgar crowd. June stood then nervously picking at the floral arrangement.

The colonel and Canon Thomas were to pace closely behind the runners to insure no hanky panky transpired during the race. Unexpectedly, I was invited along as an impartial observer. However, my impression was that the canon had had second thoughts about leaving me alone with the poor boxes.


The three contestants were mounted and ready. Jockey number one had a lighted candle pasted atop his skull and a long, silken scarf around its vertebrae which would stream gallantly behind once the race began . Number two had installed low voltage incandescent lamps in his vortices wired to batteries concealed in the cranial cavity. They lighted the roadway ahead of them like automobile headlights. These were pure crowd pleasing gadgetries designed to elicit cheers on behalf of their respective mounts. Eugenia was whispering final instruc­tions to Dan.

Annette had volunteered the office of "mechanical rabbit." The starter fiddled with a revolutionary war musket. After two false starts, the musket coughed up a large cloud of black smoke followed by a dull report. The race was on; the crowd cheered.

One and Two ran abreast as they always seemed to have done during practice, but this time there was no doubt that each was striving to outdo the other. Dan seemed to have difficulty getting started, but once he began, his long legs ate up the distance.

Annette was out of sight, for Weimaraners can travel like the wind when the mood behooves them. The surrey jogged a few yards behind the rear contestants. Eugenia's long blond hair billowed out in back like a cape.

''Dan!" she called out, "don't show off, keep your eyes ahead of you." He was looking up and back at her.

They had already passed their competition and were halfway to the finish line. '1 don't need to watch," he reminded her. "Besides, I've been doing a lot of think­ing...

"Please," she begged, "tell me about it later."

He ignored her request. “I think Canon Thomas is right. Colonel Tombcraft isn't going to forget it if we win."

"I'm not worried about the colonel. Canon Thomas promised to protect us."

''I'm not so sure. The canon is a very busy man with many responsibilities, and he can't be everywhere at once. If anything happened to you, Jeannie, I'd be in hell even if I were in heaven. I've got only a few moments to perform the one decent act of my entire existence. Once I cross the finish line, it’ll be too late."

His foot appeared to catch and he stumbled badly. ''Dan!" she screamed. His arms flew up and caught her before he toppled and crashed to the ground.

Physically she was only slightly jarred, but emo­tionally Eugenia was completely dazed. One and Two galloped past. Canon Thomas ordered the surrey stopped. "Get up, Dan, you still have a chance."

“I sprained my ankle, Sir."

''That's nonsense..." Understanding dawned.

Colonel Tombcraft smiled his satisfied smile. Until then, I hadn't realized a facial expression could be obscene.

Only yards separated One and Two from the ribbon. They burst through still abreast. Another roar from the crowd.

Eugenia was weeping hysterically. "You threw the race. You threw the race." She hurled the accusation at Dan from behind a tear-streaked face.

He rose awkwardly. Everything he would ever do would be done awkwardly, including his attempt to be convincing. ''No, Jeannie, just bad luck. That's been the story of my entire life."

Colonel Tombcraft produced a pair of handcuffs, which he snapped around Dan's wrists. "I guess you’ll be coming with me." Timmie obliged us his special rendition of the obscene smirk.

We completed the remainder of the distance to the finish line afoot. One and Two had really both come in first, not a particle of difference between them. There were to be two winners, a contingency no one had anticipated.

They stood close to each other with the floral arrangement stretched around both. Their jockeys knelt in front as if posing for photographers, and who knew, maybe they were. June looked at me with a stricken expression, and I responded with a resigned shrug.

Eugenia was hanging onto Dan Tightly as if to prevent his being taken away forceably. The colonel smiled indulgently to show everyone he was a good sport. He extended his hand to Canon Thomas. "You win two out of three anyway, congratulations."

"Thank you. '' The canon ignored the outstretched hand, and Colonel Tombcraft pretended not to notice the slight.

"Actually, this fellow," the colonel indicated Dan, "was the only one the chief is really interested in."

"Is he? " Canon Thomas questioned in a dryly humor­ous tone. "Then I'm afraid your boss is going to be disappointed. I've won all three."

Colonel Tombcraft's disbelief was reflected in his expression. The cane reached out and tapped Dan's manacles. Both cuffs sprang open and fell to the ground.

''Timmie!" he roared.

Timmie leaped forward, opening the case as he did so. The deadly machete seemed to jump into the colonel's hand. Canon Thomas motioned slightly with the cane.

Colonel Tombcraft remained frozen in mid-leap, a statue of diabolical ferocity. His eyes bulged and his teeth were bared.

"You really should learn to control your temper,"

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