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The Forgotten Door
By Alexander Key
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Alexander Key
All rights reserved.
He Is Lost and Found
It happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, that Little Jon's cry was almost instantly cut short as the blackness closed over him. No one knew the hole was there. It hadn't been there the day before, and in the twilight no one had noticed it.
At the moment it happened, the first shooting stars were crossing the sky — they were beginning to stream across like strings of jewels flung from another planet — and everyone was watching them. The smaller children were exclaiming in delight, while the older ones stood silent and enthralled. Here on the hill, where the valley people often came to watch the glittering night unfold, you could see the whole magic sweep around you, and you felt close to everything in the heavens. Other people, you knew, were standing on other hills on other worlds, watching even as you watched.
Little Jon, whose eyes were quicker than most, should have seen the hole, but all his attention was on the stars. Small for his age, he had moved away from the rest for a better view, and as he stepped backward, there was suddenly nothing under his feet.
It was astonishing at that moment to find himself falling swiftly into the hill at a spot where he had walked safely all his life. But in the brief seconds before the blackness swallowed him, he realized what must have happened: there had been a cave-in over the old Door — the Door that led to another place, the one that had been closed so long.
He cried out and tried to break his fall in the way he had been taught, but the effort came an instant too late. His head struck something, and darkness swirled over him.
Long later, when Little Jon was able to sit up, he had no idea where he was or what had happened. Memory had fled, and he ached all over. He would have been shivering with cold, but his thick jacket and trousers and heavy, woven boots kept him warm.
He seemed to be in a narrow cleft of broken rock. There were mossy stones around him, and just ahead he could make out a bed of ferns where water trickled from a spring. He was still too dazed to be frightened, but now he realized he was thirsty, terribly so. He crawled painfully forward and lay with his face in the water while he drank.
The coldness of the water startled him at first, but it was wonderfully sweet and satisfying. He bathed his face and hands in it, then sat up at last and looked around again.
Where was he? How did he get here? He pondered these questions, but no answers came. He felt as if he had fallen. Only — where could he have fallen from? The rocky walls met overhead, sloping outward into a tangle of leafy branches.
There was another question his mind carefully tiptoed around, because it was more upsetting than the others. Whenever he approached it, it caused a dull aching in his forehead. Finally, however, he gave his head a small shake and faced it squarely.
Who am I?
He didn't know. He simply didn't know, and it made everything terribly wrong.
All at once, trembling, he got to his feet and fled limping toward a shaft of sunlight ahead. Thick shrubs barred his way. He fought blindly through them, tripped, and fell sprawling. Fortunately he missed the boulders on either side, and landed in a soft bed of old leaves under a tree. He scrambled up in panic, started to run again, then stopped himself just in time.
This wasn't the sort of country where you could run. There were steep ledges here, and below them the ground sloped sharply downward for a great distance. All of it was covered with a wild tangle of forest. Little Jon rubbed his eyes and looked around him with growing wonder and fright.
Nothing here was familiar. He was sure of that. He had never seen trees quite like the ones around him. Many of the smaller trees were in bloom, covered with showers of white blossoms — these were almost familiar, as were the ferns and lichens on the rocks. But there was a difference. But what the difference was, he was unable to tell.
Carefully he worked down to an open area below the ledge, and stood listening. The sounds were familiar, and hearing them made him feel a bit better. Birdsong, the gurgling of hidden springs, the faint clatter and fuss of a rushing stream somewhere. And there were the hesitant steps of wild creatures that came pleasantly to his sharp ears. Without quite realizing his ability, which was as natural as breathing, his mind reached toward them and found nothing strange in them — except that they were afraid. Afraid of him!
"Don't be afraid," he told them, so softly that his lips barely moved. "I'd never hurt you."
After a minute, two of the creatures — they were a doe and her fawn — moved hesitantly down the slope and stood looking at him curiously. Little Jon held out his hands, and presently the doe came close and nuzzled his cheek with her cold nose.
"Where am I?" he asked her plaintively. "Can you tell me?"
The doe couldn't answer, and all he could gather was that she was hungry, and that food could be found in the valley below.
"Lead the way," he told her. "I'll follow."
The doe and the fawn started down through the tangle. Little Jon went scrambling and limping behind them. Walking was difficult, for both his knees were badly bruised and one ankle pained with every step. Soon, however, they reached a winding game trail and the going was much easier. Even so, it was hard to keep up with the doe, and several times in the next hour he had to beg her to stop and wait for him.
It did not seem at all strange to be following her. Her presence was very comforting and kept the unanswered questions from troubling him.
As they wound down near the bottom of the slope, the trees thinned and they passed through an open gate. Ahead he could see bright sunlight on a small greening field. Around a corner of the field ran a clattering stream — a stream different from the one he had heard earlier.
At the sight of the field Little Jon caught his breath. Fields and cultivated things were familiar. There would be people near. Soon he would meet them and find out about himself.
The doe paused at the edge of the field, sniffing the air currents. Little Jon could feel her uneasiness, though he could not understand it. He sniffed too, but all he could smell were the pleasant scents of fresh earth and blossoms, and the richness of the forest behind them. He was disappointed that he couldn't make out the scent of humans near, but maybe this was because the air was flowing down from the mountain, away from him.
As the doe stepped daintily into the field and began to nibble the young plants, Little Jon unconsciously did what he should have done earlier. His mind reached out, searching hopefully. He had no thought of danger. The sudden discovery that there was danger was so shocking that he could only spring forward with a strangled cry as he tried to tell the doe to run.
The doe whirled instantly and leaped, just as the sharp report of a rifle shattered the peace of the morning.
Little Jon had never heard a rifle shot before, but he was aware of the hot slash of pain across the doe's flank, and he could see the weapon in the hands of the man who rose from his hiding place at the edge of the stream. He was a lean man in overalls, with one shoulder higher than the other. The harsh features under the cap showed surprise and disbelief as he stared at Little Jon. Then the thin mouth twisted in fury.
"Devil take you!" the man roared, striding forward. "You ruint my aim! What you doin' in my field?"
Little Jon could make nothing of the words. The language was strange, but the hate-driven thoughts behind it were clear enough. For a moment he stood incredulous, his mind trying to fight through the shock of what had happened. Surely the man approaching was a being like himself. But why the intent to kill another creature? Why the sudden hate? How could anyone ever, ever ...
The anger that rose in him was a new thing. It was something he had never experienced before, at least in this measure. His small hands balled into fists and he trembled. But just as quickly, he realized that he couldn't quench hate with hate, and that now there was danger to himself. He turned abruptly and fled.
"Stop!" the man bellowed, close behind him. "I know you — you're one o' them Cherokees from over the ridge! I'll teach you to come meddlin' on my land!"
Little Jon tried to lighten his feet and put distance between himself and his pursuer. Ordinarily he might have managed it in spite of his pains, but he knew nothing of barbed-wire fences. The rusty wires were hidden by the shrubbery until he was almost on them. When he attempted to slide through them, the barbs caught his jacket. The tough material refused to tear. In another second he was squirming in the man's firm grasp.
The man dragged him roughly back to the field, then turned at the sound of an approaching motor. Presently a small farm truck whirled around the bend of the creek and stopped close by. A large woman, wearing faded overalls, got out and waddled over to them. She had a fleshy face, with small, shrewd eyes as hard and round as creek pebbles.
Little Jon had never seen a woman like her. Though he was repelled by her, she drew his attention far more than the truck, which was equally strange.
"I declare!" she muttered, staring. "What you got there, Gilby?"
"Not what I was aimin' at," the man growled. "The thievin' varmint spoiled my shot."
"Just as well, I reckon, or he'd tell. Whose kid is he?"
"Dunno, Emma. Figured 'im for a Cherokee, but —"
"Pshaw, he ain't no Indian," she interrupted, peering closer.
"Got black hair like one, near long as a girl's. Could be half an' half."
"H'mp! Look at them clothes! Seems more foreignlike. Gypsy, maybe. Where you from, boy?"
Little Jon clenched his teeth and looked stonily back at her. Though her speech was strange, the rising questions and ugly thoughts in her mind were easily understood. She was a person to be avoided, and he wouldn't have answered her even if he had known how.
"Cat got your tongue?" she snapped. "Well, I reckon I can loosen it." Abruptly she slapped him, hard.
He knew the slap was coming, and he managed in time to go limp and roll his head. As he did so, the man unclenched his hand to get a better grip on him. Immediately Little Jon twisted free and ran.
This time he was able to lighten his feet, and went over the fence in a bound. He heard gasps of astonishment behind him, then shouts, and the man's pursuing footsteps. Presently these sounds faded, and the forest was quiet.
Little Jon ran on until he was nearly exhausted. He would have followed the doe and the fawn, but they had gone over a ridge where the way was too steep for his throbbing ankle.
Finally he huddled by a fallen log, removed one boot, and rubbed his swollen ankle while he gained his breath. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He missed the doe terribly. She was his only friend in all this strangeness.
Suddenly he dug his knuckles into his eyes, drew on his boot, and struggled to his feet. He couldn't stay here all day. It solved nothing. He had to keep moving, searching ...
Resolutely he began limping around the curve of the slope, taking the easiest course. Somewhere there must be other people — people unlike those behind him. But when he found them he would have to be careful. Very careful.
He heard the soft slither of the snake ahead before he saw it, even before it rattled its deadly warning. Its sudden rattle astonished him. He stared at it with more curiosity than fear. What a strange creature, legless and covered with scales, and with a rattle on the end of its tail! It seemed he had heard of such things, vaguely, just as he had heard of the odd kind of vehicle the woman had driven. But where?
Troubled, he limped carefully around the snake. With the thought that there might be other dangers here, dangers he knew nothing about, he drew a small knife from his belt and cut a staff from the shrubbery. The knife felt so much a part of him that he hardly questioned it till he had finished using it. It was only a tool — it seemed that someone had given it to him long ago — but he couldn't remember any more about it.
The staff made walking easier for a while, and he trudged painfully on, stopping at times to rest or to drink from one of the many springs. The sun, which he could glimpse only at intervals through the trees, began to sink behind him. He was very hungry, and his eyes searched continually for food. There ought to be berries. He had noticed some earlier, growing near the barbed-wire fence where the man had caught him.
Edible things, he decided finally, must grow in the open places, lower down.
Warily, slowly, he began to angle toward the valley. He reached the bottom of the slope much sooner than he had expected, only to discover that the valley had vanished. Another slope rose immediately ahead. In sudden alarm he realized he could no longer see the sun. With every step the gloom was deepening. The forest had chilled, and for the first time he saw the gray mist creeping down from above.
The gloom, the chill, and the creeping mist in this strange and bewildering land, together with his growing hunger and lameness, were almost too much. A sob broke from his lips, and he began to tremble with a black dread. He couldn't go much farther. What would he do when darkness came?
Then, like a glow of warmth in the chill, he felt the comforting knowledge of wild creatures near. They were friendly, but timid. He was on the point of calling to them when he heard the distant sound of a motor. He stiffened, his hands clenched tightly on his staff. Memory of the angry man and the ugly woman rose like a warning. He shook off the thought of them. He had to go on. It was the only way ...
Abruptly he began plunging toward the sound, following the narrow gully that curved away on his right.
A half hour later he broke through a tangle of evergreens and stared in amazement at the scene ahead.
He was on the edge of a steep bank that dropped down to a winding gravel road. Beyond the road a broad valley opened. The valley was ringed by wave on wave of blue and purple mountains that rose to the clouds. The valley was in shadow, but he could make out the farms with their little white houses, and see animals grazing in the pastures.
The motor he had heard earlier had passed, but a second one was approaching. Instantly his mind went out to it, exploring. There were several people in the vehicle, and they were very different from the ones he had met — but not different in a way that mattered. As the machine swung into sight, he allowed himself only a curious glimpse of its bright newness, before he cowered back into the tangle.
The shadows deepened in the valley, and began to creep over the distant mountains. Three more vehicles passed, and once a man on a horse went by. The horse sensed his presence and whinnied. Little Jon liked the horse, but he fought down the urge to call to it, for the man filled him with uneasiness.
It was nearly dark when he heard the final motor. This time, aware of the friendliness of its occupants — and something beyond friendliness — he did not hesitate. It was a small truck, and as it swung around the bend in the road, he slipped quickly down the bank to meet it.CHAPTER 2
He Gains a Home
As his boots struck the edge of the road, his bad ankle gave way under him, and Little Jon fell in a heap. For a moment he was afraid the truck would go past without anyone noticing him. Its headlights were on, but the beams were sweeping beyond him around the curve.
He managed to struggle upright for a moment, then sank weakly to his knees. He had dropped his staff, and found that he could hardly stand without it.
The truck braked suddenly, and stopped. A man leaned out and said in quick concern, "Hey there, young fellow! What seems to be wrong?"
Little Jon opened his mouth soundlessly, and raised one hand. He heard a woman's voice say, "For heaven's sake, children, let me out — I think the boy's hurt!"
Both doors of the truck flew open. The man stepped from the driver's side, and a boy and a girl tumbled from the other, followed by the woman. Little Jon saw that the girl was about his own size. The boy was much larger, but he seemed no older than himself. Both wore jackets and blue jeans, like the woman.
Though the man was nearer, he moved with a slight limp, and the woman reached him first. "My goodness, honey," she said, stooping and raising him gently, "your face and hands are all scraped. Did you have a fall?"
Excerpted from The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key. Copyright © 1965 Alexander Key. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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