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Come and sit close by, while I tell you the tale of Dr. Hugo Dredd and of the awful fate that came near to destroying Coven Tree.
Our little village, tucked away up here in this remote corner of New England, takes its name from the huge oak tree the Coven Tree where witches used to gather to perform their mystic rites. From time to time Old Satan himself has been known to walk the forests and mountains around here. We seem to dwell nearthe great barrier separating our commonplace world from that other realm, where fairies and demons hold sway.
Is it any wonder then, that now and again one of those ... those things ... finds a way to cross that barrier, if only for a short time? Or that it walks among us, almost unrecognized in its human form, to bring wonder and chaos into our lives?
Such a creature, though no one knew it at the beginning, was Dr. Dredd.
Understand, such beings don't appear often. For the most part the good people of Coven Tree are just country folk farmers, mainly, with a smattering of traders and craftsmen. We govern our lives by the rising and setting of the sun, the planting and harvesting of crops and the changing of seasons. Babies get born, and old, people die. We celebrate the one and mourn the other, just like people everywhere.
By the by, my name's Stewart Meade, but most folks call me Stew Meat, and you can, too. I've owned the Coven Tree General Store for more years than I care to remember. Because I've learned to keep my ears open and my mouth shut, Ihear a lot of what goes on in our village. And that's about all the introduction you're going to get, so let's go on with the story.
It was April the spring of the great drought in Coven Tree. To this day, folks speak about that spring like it was a curse laid on the village. There'd been no snow to speak of the winter past, and that meant no water gushing down from off the mountains to fill our creeks and ponds. Rain? None. Each day was like the rest, with the sun hanging in the sky like a disc of polished brass and an arid wind blowing across dusty earth.
Spider Crick, usually full to overflowing, was just a muddy trickle. Wells all over town were running dry, and the water that came up in the buckets was a slimy green. The farmers' fields were baked hard and crisscrossed with a million great cracks, each one like a gaping mouth, crying out with thirst.
It was a bleak time for us all. Farmers couldn't plant their crops, and their livestock were faring poorly in the heat and desert dryness. And in Coven Tree, when the farmers don't prosper, it means hard times for us merchants as well. It was getting to the point where rain a good, drenching rain of several days'duration would be more valuable than gold.
I was at my desk in the store one Friday afternoon, balancing my ledgers. The job was too easy for my liking, as customers had been scarce of late. Still, adding those columns of figures made my eyes tired, so I leaned back in my chair and stared out through the window to rest them.
That's when I saw the odd-looking stranger who stood on the dirt road outside.
He was bare to the waist and wore only curious trousers that seemed to be made of a single piece of cloth, wrapped about his waist and held in place by a wide belt. He had not a single hair anywhere on his head or body. At first glance he appeared heavily muscled, with ponderous arms and legs, and a chest the size of a bass drum.
But as he climbed the steps to the store and crossed the porch, he seemed to shrink in upon himself. The arms became thinner, as did the legs. The mighty chest got smaller, and one or two ribs showed beneath the skin.
My thought at the time was that my eyes were playing me false. What walked through my open door was just an average-sized man, though he still wore those funny pants and was as bald as a plucked chicken.
In one hand the man clutched perhaps a dozen placards printed in bold black letters. He lurched across the floor to my desk and extended one of them for my inspection. The placard's lettering was so big I didn't need my glasses to read it:
Wagon Of Wonders
The Stuff of Fantasy and Myth
Displayed before Your Eyes!
The Mystic Powers of:
Antaeus World's Greatest Wrestler!!
Bufu Miracle Boy of the East!!
Come ... and be Amazed.
Amusing! Educational!! Provocative!!!
Down at the bottom of the poster, a few more words had been added in pencil:
The Clearing, West of Town
Saturday morning, 10 o'clock
"You ... put ... poster ... in ... store," growled the man like he didn't speak English any too well. "Where ... everybody ... see ... it. "
"I'll be glad to," I said, taking the poster. "What with our dry spell, folks need something to take their minds off their troubles. Are you this Dr. Dredd fellow or d'you just work for him?"
He banged a fist against his chest. "I ... am ... Antaeus!"
Before I could reply, he was out the door and down the steps. Oddly enough, as soon as his feet hit the ground, he seemed to grow taller and fill out again, with muscles bulging and rippling throughout his body. Perhaps, I thought, my eyes needed looking at.
Antaeus headed for Sven Hensen's blacksmith shop, waving one of the posters like a battle flag.