The adventures of an Appalachian backwoodsman with skills and powers that go far beyond what you might expect from such a rustic old fellow.
Monsters, ghosts, witches—he can deal with them all.
Old Nathan is a backwoodsman in the Appalachia of an older era saturated with mysterious powers—of which he has quite a few himself.
He and his bull Spanish King put to rest a monster’s ghost for the sake of a youngster in love. That ghost is not the only one he has to deal with, for many ghosts are filled with greed.
Old Nathan has to deal with thieves and bullies and witches, too, as well as the enmity of a powerful clan. He’s not the only one with powers in the region, although he may be the most cunning.
He’ll give it all up, though, for a new chance at life—which may be coming his way.
The cat slunk in the door with angry grace and snarled to Old Nathan, “Somebody’s coming, and he’s bringing a great blond bitch-dog with ’im.” Then he sprang up the wall, using a chink in the logs at the height of a man’s head to boost himself the last of the way to the roof trestle.
“She comes close t’ me, I’ll claw ’er eyes out,” muttered the hunching cat. “See if I don’t.”
“Just keep your britches on,” snapped Old Nathan as he rose from the table at which he breakfasted on milk and mush.
Despite the chill of the morning, he wore only trousers tucked into his boot-tops and held up by galluses. The hair of his head and bare chest was white with a yellow tinge, but his raggedly cropped beard was so black that he could pass for a man of thirty when he wore a slouch hat against the sun.
There was nothing greatly unusual about an old man’s beard growing in dark; but because he was Old Nathan the Cunning Man—the man who claimed the Devil was loose in the world but that he was the Devil’s master—that, too, was a matter for fear and whispering.
Even as Nathan stepped to the door, he heard the clop of shod hooves carefully negotiating his trail. The cat hadn’t mentioned the visitor was mounted; but the cat made nothing of the difference between someone on foot who hoped to barter for knowledge, and a horseman in whose purse might jingle silver.
Spanish King smelled the visitors and snorted in the pasture behind Old Nathan’s cabin. A man or a dog was beneath the notice of the huge bull, save on those days when the motion of even a sparrow was sufficient to draw his fury. A horse, though, was of a size to be considered a potential challenger. King wasn’t afraid of challenge, or of anything walking the earth. The blat of sound from his nostrils simply staked his claim to lordship over all who heard him.
The horse, a well-groomed bay gelding, stutter-stepped sideways, almost unseating his rider, and whickered, “No, I’m not goin’ close to that. D’ye hear how mean he is?”
“Damn ye, Virgil!” shouted the rider as he hauled on the reins. The gelding’s head came around, but his body continued to slide away from the cabin.
“Now jist calm down!” Nathan snapped as he stepped onto the porch. “That bull, he’s fenced, and he wouldn’t trifle with you noways if he got a look. Set quiet and I might could find a handful uv oats t’ feed you.”
“Hmph!” snorted the horse. “And what’d you know?” But he settled enough to let his rider dismount and loop the reins around the hitching rail pegged to the porch supports.
“I find speakin’ with ’em helps the beasts behave, sometimes,” said Old Nathan, truthfully enough, to the man who watched him in some puzzlement and more pure fear. He didn’t know the fellow, not truly, but from his store-bought clothes and the lines of his smooth-shaven face he had to be kin to Newt Boardman. “Reckon you’re a Boardman?” the cunning man prompted.
“There’s a cat here, too,” said the shaggy, blond-haired dog who had ambled out of the woods to intersect with the more deliberate horse at the porch rail. The dog sniffed the edge of the puncheon step to the porch and wagged her tail.
“I’m John Boardman, that’s a fact,” said the visitor with a hardening of his face muscles that made him look even younger. “But I’m here on my own account, not my daddy’s.”
Old Nathan knelt and held out the clenched knuckles of his right hand for the dog to sniff. “You leave the cat alone and we’ll be fine, hear me?” he said to the bitch firmly.
“Sure, they’re not the fun uv squirrels t’ chase nohow,” the dog agreed.
The old man stared at the visitor. Boardman’s ramrod stiffness gilded the fear it tried to conceal.
“Scared to death, that one,” said the dog and licked the offered knuckles.
“Come in and set, then, John Boardman,” Old Nathan said with enough of a pause that his visitor could see there had been one. “I got coffee.”
The coffee boiled on the coals in an enameled iron pot. Old Nathan had roasted the green beans in his frying pan the night before and had ground them at dawn when he rose. He lifted the pot’s wire handle with a billet of lightwood while the dog padded in quickly to snuffle the interior of the cabin and the Boardman boy followed more gingerly.
“I will claw yer eyes out!” shrieked the cat from the roofbeam, reaching down with one hooked paw in a pantomime of intention.
“Bag it, now, damn ye!” snarled Old Nathan from the chimney alcove, twisting to face the cat and add the weight of his glare to his tone, as savage as that of the animal itself.
The cat subsided, muttering. Boardman’s bitch slurped water from the tub in the corner of the single room and curled herself beside the rocking chair.
Five china cups with a blue pattern about the rim rested upside down on the mantlepiece. Boardman got a hold of himself enough to fetch two of the cups down so that the older man did not have to straighten to get them. They were neither chipped nor cracked, and the visitor said approvingly, “Fine as we have at home,” as he watched Old Nathan pour.
“Fine as your daddy has,” Old Nathan corrected. He gestured Boardman toward the straight chair, near the table which still held the remains of breakfast. He himself took the rocker and reached down absently to stroke the dog’s fur with his long knobby fingers.
Boardman seated himself on the front of the chair like a child preparing for an interrogation with a whipping at the end of it. “I thought you didn’t like dogs,” he ventured with a doubtful glance at his bitch, lifting to nuzzle the hand that rumpled her fur. “I’d heard that.”
“Don’t doubt ye heard worse damned nonsense ’n that about me,” Old Nathan replied, his green eyes slitting and the coffee cup frozen an inch short of his lips. “I don’t choose t’ eat red meat nor keep it in the house. That ’un”—he lifted his black beard to the cat, now licking his belly fur on the beam with all his foreclaws extended—“fetches his own, as a dog would not . . . so I don’t keep a dog.”
All that was the truth, and it concealed the greater truth that Old Nathan would no more have hunted down the animals he talked with than he would have waylaid human travellers and butchered them for his larder. There were fish in good plenty, with milk, grains, and his garden. Enough for him, enough for any man, though others could go their own way and the cat—the cat would go the way of his kind, in grinning slaughter as natural as the fall of rain from heaven.
“Hit may be,” the old man continued as he sipped his coffee, hot and bitter and textured with floating grounds, “thet ye’ve come fer yer curiosity and no business uv mine. In sich case, boy, you’ll take yerself off now before the toe t’ my boot helps ye.”
“I have business with ye,” Boardman said, setting his cup on the table so sharply that the fluid sloshed over the rim. “You may hev heard I’m fixin’ to be married?”
“I may and I may not,” said Old Nathan, rocking slowly. He wasn’t as much a part of the casual gossip of the community as most of those settled hereabouts, but when folk came to consult him he heard things from their hearts which a spouse of forty years would never learn. He recalled being told that Sally Ann Hewitt, the storekeeper’s daughter from Advance, was being courted by rich Newt Boardman’s boy among others. “Say on, say on.”
“Sally Ann wouldn’t have a piece from my daddy’s cleared land,” said the boy, confirming the name of the girl—and also confirming the intelligence and strength of character Old Nathan had heard ascribed to Hewitt’s daughter. “So I set out to clear newground, the forty acres in Big Bone Valley, and I did that.”
“Hired that done,” said Old Nathan, rocking and sipping and scratching the dog.
“Hired Bully Ransden and his yoke uv oxen to help me,” retorted Boardman, “fer ten good silver dollars—and where’s the sin uv thet?”
“Honest pay fer honest work,” agreed Old Nathan, turning his hand to knuckle the dog’s fur. Ridges of callus bulged at the base of each finger and in the web of his palm. “No sin at all.”
“So I fixed to plant a crop afore raisin’ the cabin, and in the Fall we’d be wed,” the boy continued. “Only my horses, they wouldn’t plow. Stood in the traces and shivered, thin they’d bolt.”
Boardman tried a sip of his coffee and grimaced unconsciously.
“There’s milk,” his host offered with a nod toward the pitcher on the table beside the bowl of mush. “If ye need sweetnin’, I might could find a comb uv honey.”
“This here’s fine,” the boy lied and swallowed a mouthful of the coffee. He blinked. “Well,” he continued, “I hired Bully Ransden t’ break the ground, seein’s he’d cleared it off. But his oxen, they didn’t plow but half a furrow without they wouldn’t move neither, lash ’em though he did. So he told me he wouldn’t draw the plow himself, and best I get another plot uv ground, for what his team wouldn’t do there was no other on this earth thet could.”
“Did he say thet, now?” said the cunning man softly. “Well, go on, boy. Hev you done thet? Bought another track uv land?”
“Sally Ann told me,” said Boardman miserably to his coffee cup, “thet if I wasn’t man enough to plow thet forty acres, I wasn’t man enough t’ marry her. And so I thought I’d come see you, old man, that mayhap there was a curse on the track as you could lift.”
Old Nathan said nothing for so long that his visitor finally raised his eyes to see if the cunning man were even listening. Old Nathan wore neither a smile nor a frown, but there was nothing in his sharp green eyes to suggest that he was less than fully alert.
“Well?” Boardman said, flexing back his shoulders.
“There’s a dippin’ gourd there by the tub,” said Old Nathan, nodding toward that corner. “Fetch it back to me full from the stream and I’ll see what I kin do.”
“There’s water in the tub already,” said Boardman, glancing from the container to his host.
“Fetch me living water from the stream, boy,” the older man snapped, “or find yer own way out uv yer troubles.”
“Yessir,” said Boardman—Boardman’s son—as he came bolt upright off the chair and scurried to the dipper. It was thonged to a peg on the wall. When the boy snatched hastily, the leather caught and jerked the gourd back out of his hand the first time.
The cunning man said nothing further until his visitor had disappeared through the back door of the cabin. The cat gave a long glower at the bitch, absorbed in licking her own paws, before leaping to the floor and out the swinging door himself.
“Hope the boy’s got better sense’n to cut through Spanish King’s pasture,” Old Nathan muttered.
“Oh, he’s not so bad for feeding,” said the dog, giving a self-satisfied lick at her own plump side.
“You were there at the newground, weren’t ye, when the plow team balked?” asked the old man. He twisted to look down at the bitch and meet her heavy-browed eyes directly.
“Where the bull is, you mean?” the dog queried in turn.
“Bull? There’s a bull in thet valley?”
“Oh, you won’t catch me coming in hornsweep uv that ’un,” said the dog as she got up and ambled to the water tub again. “Mean hain’t in it, and fast. . . .” Anything further the dog might have said was interrupted by the sloppy enthusiasm with which she drank.
“Well, thet might be,” thought the cunning man aloud as he stood, feeling the ache in the small of his back and in every joint that he moved. Wet mornings. . . . “Thet might well be.”
Old Nathan set his coffee cup, empty save for the grounds, on the table for later cleaning. He frowned for a moment at the mush and milk remaining in his bowl, then set it down on the floor. “Here,” he said to the bitch. “It’s for you.”
“Well, don’t mind if I do,” the animal replied, padding over to the food as Old Nathan himself walked to the fireboard.
The soup plate there had the same pattern as the five cups. The cunning man took it down and carried it with him out the back door.
Boardman was trudging up the slope from the creek, a hundred yards from the cabin. His boots were slipping, and he held the dipper out at arm’s length to keep from sloshing his coat and trousers further. Old Nathan’s plowland was across the creek; on the cabin side he pastured his two cows and Spanish King, the three of them now watching their master over the rail fence as their jaws ratcheted sideways and back to grind their food.
“Not so bad a day, King,” said Old Nathan to his bull while his eyes followed the approach of his stumbling, swearing visitor.
“No rain in it, at least,” the bull replied. He watched both Boardman and the cunning man, his jaws working and his hump giving him the look of being ready to crash through the hickory rails. The fence wouldn’t hold King in a real rage. Most likely the log walls of the cabin would stop him, but even that was a matter of likelihood rather than certainty.
“Any chance we might be goin’ out, thin?” Spanish King added in a rumble.
“Maybe some, maybe,” Old Nathan admitted.
“Good,” said the bull.
He wheeled away from the fence, appearing to move lightly until his splayed forehooves struck the ground again and the soil shook with the impact. King stretched his legs out until his deep chest rubbed the meadow while his tail waved like a flagstaff above his raised haunches. His bellow drove the cows together in skittish concern and made Boardman glance up in terror that almost dumped the gourdful of water a few steps from delivering it.
“You hevn’t a ring in thet bull’s nose,” said the visitor when he had recovered himself and handed the gourd—still half full—over to Old Nathan. “D’ye trust him so far?”
“I trust him t’ go on with what he’s about,” said the cunning man, “though I twisted the bridge out’n his nose t’ stop it. Some folk er ruled more by pain thin others are.”
“Some bulls, you mean,” said Boardman.
“Thet too,” Old Nathan agreed as he emptied the gourd into the soup plate and handed the dipper back to his visitor. “Now, John Boardman, you carry this back to its peg, and then go set on the porch fer a time. I reckon yer horse is latherin’ hisself fer nervousness with the noise.” A quick nod indicated Spanish King. The bull had begun rubbing the sides of his horns, one and then the other, on the ground while he snorted.
“Well, but what’s yer answer?” Boardman pressed.
“Ye’ll git my answer when I come out and give it to you, boy,” said the cunning man, peevish at being questioned. Some folk ’ud grouse if they wuz hanged with a golden rope. “Now, go mind yer affairs whilst I mind mine.”
* * *
Nathan’s cat reappeared from the brushplot to the west of the cabin, grinning and licking his lips. The old man walked over to the pasture fence, spinning the water gently to the rim of the shallow bowl to keep it from spilling, and the cat leaped to a post. “He thinks he’s tough,” said the cat, ears back as he watched King’s antics.
“Now, don’t come on all high ’n mighty and git yerself hurt,” the cunning man said. “Never did know a tomcat with the sense t’ know when to stop provoking things as could swaller ’em down in a gulp.”
He paused at the fence and closed his eyes with his right hand open in front of him. For a moment he merely stood there, visualizing a pocketknife. It was a moderate-sized one with two blades, light-colored scales of jigged bone, and bolsters of German silver. Old Nathan had bought it from a peddler and the knife, unlike the clock purchased at the same time, had proven to be as fine a tool as a man could wish.
As the cunning man pictured the knife in his mind, his empty hand curled and he reached forward. He saw his fingers closing over the warm bone and cooler metal mountings . . . and when after a moment he felt the knife in his hand also, he withdrew it and opened his eyes. There the knife was, just as it should be.
Old Nathan let out the breath he had been holding unconsciously and set down the soup plate so that he could open the smaller blade. There was a spot of rust on it, which he polished off on his trousers. No help for that: good steel rusted, there were no two ways about it.
“King!” the old man called. “Come over here!”
The bull twisted his forequarters with the speed and grace of a cat taking a mockingbird from the air. “Says who?” he snorted.
“Mind this, damn ye, or we’ll go nowhere!” the man retorted in exasperation. As bad as the Boardman boy. Nobody’d let Old Nathan get along with his business without an argument.
Grumbling threats that were directed as much against the world as they were the cunning man specifically, King strode deliberately to the fence and his master. Flies glittered against his hide, many of them clumped in chitinous rosettes instead of scattering evenly over the whole expanse. There was a matting of sweat on the bull’s withers from anticipation rather than present exercise, and his tail lashed to emphasize the swagger of his hindquarters.
“Three hairs from your poll,” said Old Nathan, reaching deliberately between the horns of the big animal whose muzzle bathed him in a hot sweet breath of clover. He kept a wire edge on the knife’s shorter blade, and it severed three of the coarse hairs of King’s with no more drag than a razor would have made on so many whiskers.
“And a drop of blood from me,” the cunning man continued, stepping back and grimacing at the three long hairs before he chose his location—the back of his left index finger, not the calloused pad—and pricked himself with the point of the blade.
While the blood welled slowly, Old Nathan wiped the steel clean on his trousers and closed the knife. Closing his eyes again, he mimed putting the knife away on an invisible shelf. He saw it there, saw his fingers releasing it—and they did release it, so that when he withdrew his hand and opened his eyes, the well-kept tool was nowhere to be seen.
There was enough blood now on the back of the finger which pressed the bull hairs against his thumb. Sighing, Old Nathan settled himself on his haunches in front of the bowl he had placed on the ground. One of his splayed knees touched the lowest rail of the fence, giving him a little help in balancing when his mind had to be elsewhere.
Spanish King made a gurgling sound in his throat as he watched over the fence, and his breath ruffled the surface of the water. That would be beneficial to the process, if it made any difference at all. Old Nathan was never sure how the things he did came about. Some things—techniques—felt right at a given time but the results did not always seem to require the same words and movements.
The cunning man dipped the tips of his left index finger and thumb in the shallow basin and whisked the bull hairs through the water. The blood on the back of his finger trailed off in a curve like a sickle blade, dispersing into a mist too thin to have color.
Old Nathan closed his eyes, visualizing the soup plate in which now drifted the blood and the hairs he had released. The water in his mind clouded abruptly—first red as blood, then red as fire, and finally as white as the sun frozen in a desert sky.
The white flare did not clear but rather coalesced like curds forming in cultured milk. The color shrank and gained density, becoming a great piebald bull that romped in a valley cleared so recently that smoke still curled from heaped brush. Tree stumps stood like grave markers for the forest which had covered the ground for millennia.
The bull’s hide was white with a freckling, especially on the face and forequarters, of black and russet spots. Its horns curved sharply forward from above the beast’s eyes, long and sharp and as black as the Devil’s heart. The bull raised its short, powerful neck and bellowed to the sky while its hooves spaded clods from the loam.
The vision shattered. Spanish King was bellowing in fury, rattling the shakes with which the cabin was roofed. Old Nathan shivered back to present awareness, flinging out his arms to save him from toppling backward.
For an instant, the real soup plate trembling on the ground seemed as full of blood as the one which the cunning man had imagined.
King stamped through a narrow circle, feinting toward invisible foes. His own horns flared more broadly from his head than did those of the piebald giant in the vision, but Old Nathan would not have sworn that King’s weapons were really longer from base to point.
The bull calmed, though with the restive calm of a high-mettled horse prepared to race. He paced back to the fence, raising his hooves high at each step, and demanded, “Where is he? Where is that one?”
Old Nathan stood, aiding himself with one hand on the nearest fencepost. Before answering, he stooped to pick up the soup plate and sluice the hairs and water from it. There was no trace of blood, only one drop spread through a pint. The cat had vanished again also, whether through whim, King’s antics, or what he had seen Old Nathan conjure in the water.
“What in damnation!” shouted John Boardman as he burst through the back doorway of the cabin. His dog loped ahead of him and yapped, “A fight, is there a fight?”
“I don’t know we want any truck with this, big feller,” said the cunning man to his bull. Memory of the beast glimpsed on the newground was blurring already, but though the details faded, they left a core of brutal power that could not be forgotten.
“What in damn-nation are ye about?” the visitor repeated as he paused just outside the cabin. “I never in all my born days heard a bellerin’ like thet!”
“Why, old man, I’ll knock this poor farm t’ flinders iffen you cross me!” roared Spanish King, and suited action to his words with a sweep of his head. Old Nathan jerked his hand away just in time. A horn struck the stout cedar fencepost and skewed it so badly from its socket in the soil that the top rails fell to the ground.
“God’n blazes!” cried the Boardman boy as he hopped back within the sturdy cabin.
“King, damn ye!” Old Nathan shouted as he slapped the bull hard on his flaring nostrils. “Did I say we’d not go? D’ye think I care iffen yer neck’s broke fer yer foolishness?”
“Hmph!” snorted the bull as he calmed again. “See thet you’re straight with me, old man.” He walked away from the bedraggled fence, throwing his head back once over his powerful shoulder to repeat, “See thet you are.”
No lack of damn fools in the world, thought the cunning man as he trudged back to the house and his visitor. Human damn fools and otherwise.
“Oh, there’ll be a fight!” yelped the bitch in cheerful anticipation of carnage. She jumped up against Old Nathan from behind, the mud on her paws icy against the bare skin above his waistband. He swatted her away awkwardly, because the dog was to his left and he did not want to break the plate he carried in that hand. The bitch ran back to her master and smudged his fawn-colored waistcoat as he too tried to thrust her off.
“Here, damn ye, here,” said Old Nathan to the dog in a coaxing voice as he knelt, embarrassed to have lost his temper with the animal. She sprang back to him, calming somewhat as he kneaded the fur over her shoulders and prevented her from jumping further.
Boardman walked forward again. “Well?” he said, fluffing back the tails of his coat with his hands behind him. The gold chain of his watch stood out in the sunlight, as did the muddy pawprints on his vest. “Well, what am I t’ do?”
“Now hush,” Old Nathan said firmly to the bitch. He rose to his full height, topping his visitor’s average frame by a full hand’s breadth.
“I kin make it so’s ye kin plow yer newground,” the cunning man went on. “If thet’s what ye want. And the cost of it to you is a hundred minted dollars.”
“What?” the younger man blurted, stepping back as if his bitch had leaped up in his face. “Why, I paid Bully Ransden only ten to clear it, and he thought himself paid well.”
“I ain’t sellin’ ye forty acres, John Boardman,” the cunning man replied with his jaw and black beard thrust out. “What I hev to offer is Sally Ann Hewitt, and whether er no she’s a hundred dollars value is a question ye’ll answer yerself.”
“You think I cain’t pay thet,” the younger man said in flat anger, meeting Old Nathan’s eyes.
“I think yer daddy kin,” said the cunning man. “But it makes no matter to me, yea ’r nay.”
“Then ye’ll hev yer silver money,” said his visitor. “Though I reckon you’re humbug, and we’ll hev that money back outen yer hide if ye fail us.”
“ ‘Us,’ ” Old Nathan repeated with a sneer. “Oh, aye, you’d do wonders, boy. But I’ll not fail.”
In the pasture behind him, Spanish King bawled a challenge to the world.
* * *
When Old Nathan saw him, Bully Ransden was plowing on a hilltop a furlong from the road. Unlike horses, bulls have no certain gait between ambling and a panic rush, so the younger man easily had time to outspan his plow oxen and trot down the hill. He met Old Nathan and King in front of the cabin Ransden shared with a black-haired woman. The homeplace, where Ransden’s mother still lived, was a quarter mile away on the far side of the acreage.
“So-o-o . . .” said Bully Ransden, arms akimbo and his legs spread to put one boot just within each of the road’s single pair of wagon ruts. “Where d’ye think you wuz goin’, old man?”
“You know me, Cullen Ransden,” Old Nathan replied. He laid an arm over the neck of Spanish King and murmured, “Whoa, now, old friend, we’ll have us t’ drink and a bit uv rest here.”
He was a fine figure to look at, was Bully Ransden. He stood as tall as Old Nathan and supported with his broad shoulders a bulk of muscle that the older man could never have matched at the height of his physical powers long decades before.
Ransden’s long hair was bright blond, the sole legacy he had received from the father who had beaten the boy and the boy’s mother indiscriminately . . . until the night the eleven-year-old Cullen proved that fury and an axe handle made him a better man than his father. The elder Ransden had bolted into the night, streaming blood and supplications, never to be seen since in the county.
Cullen Ransden had now spent a decade reinforcing the lesson he had taught himself that night: that his will and his strength would gain him aught in the world that he wanted. All the county knew him as Bully, but no one as yet had shown that wisdom of his to be false.
“Oh, I know the humbug what skins fools worse’n a Yankee peddler,” Ransden said in mock agreement.
He took a step forward and Old Nathan stepped also, halving the distance between them to little more than the reach of a fist. It was a dangerous choice, putting his back to the horns of Spanish King. If he did not step forward, however, it would look as though he were trying to shelter in the bull’s strength—a challenge that Ransden would likely meet with a blow of his ox-driving whip to King’s nose.
Besides, Old Nathan was as little willing to crouch away from trouble as the bull was, or Bully Ransden.
“Well, where’s the water, then?” King grumbled as he sidled to the hitching post before Ransden’s door and began rubbing his black hide on it.
“I’d thank’ee fer a bucket uv water, as the day’s a hot’un,” said the cunning man. His shirt of homespun wool, gray where it was dry, was black with sweat in the middle of the back and beneath his armpits. As he stood, he lifted his hat and fanned himself with it, smelling nervousness and anger in his own perspiration.
“Cull, what—” called a clear voice.
As both men turned to look over the back of Spanish King, a woman appeared at the open door of the cabin. She wore a gingham dress over a shift, and the body beneath was so youthfully taut that it had shape despite the loose garments. Her hair was black and might have fallen to her ankles had it not been caught up with pins and combs. Amazingly, it was clean and shone like strands of burnished metal when the sunlight past the edge of the porch touched it.
“Well,” she continued, “what do we hev?”
“We got the liar as says he’ll plow Boardman’s newground when I couldn’t,” said Bully Ransden. He glanced back at the cunning man with the eye of a butcher for a hog squealing in the chute. “It’s what he does, milk old women and boys with no more balls ’n old women.”
“Ransden, leave this be afore—” Old Nathan began, his mind white with the fear of the thing Bully was about to say and what would come when he replied.
“Ye know, Ellie,” Bully Ransden continued, still astraddle the center of the path, “his own balls, they wuz shot off by the Redcoats at New Or-leens.”
“Did your mother tell you that, Cullen Ransden?” Old Nathan said softly. His skin formed layers, hot and prickly on the outside while the inner surface froze against his flesh as hard as the ice on which Satan shivered in Hell. “And did she tell ye besides how thet came t’ be her business?”
The younger man could have been blasted by a thunderbolt without the hair prickling up more sharply on his head and arms. He struck with the suddenness of reflex and the skill of long years’ practice with the blacksnake whip in his hand.
It was a measure of what lay at Ransden’s core that the target his instinct chose was the ton of muscle that was Spanish King rather than the sparse old man who looked unable to stand the very wind of a blow.
The whip, long enough to drive a team of four span, curled out and around Old Nathan as if it were really the snake its braided leather mimicked. Ransden could flick a fly from an oxen’s ear without touching the beast itself, but this time he aimed to cut. The crackling end of the whip touched Spanish King at the base of the tail, where the hair gave way to the bare skin of the bull’s anus.
Rather than bolting like a startled cow or an ox broken to the whip and yoke, Spanish King reacted as a predator might have. The bull spun, questing for the presumed horsefly with a clop of his square incisors. Old Nathan ducked and lurched sideways to avoid the bull’s sweeping horns. The four-inch hickory hitching post that Spanish King swatted in the other direction with his haunches broke off even with the ground and clubbed Ellie on its way to thudding against the cabin’s log forewall.
King danced back, hooves splaying, as his eyes searched for the horsefly which had escaped him at the first attempt. “When I find her!” the bull bellowed, referring to the horsefly. “When I find her!” His tail lashed. Blood welling from the whip-cut began to dribble along the appendage in dark red streaks.
As the old man and the woman sprawled, Bully Ransden dropped his whip. He lunged for the porch but had to back hastily away as Spanish King stepped between, tossing his head over either of his shoulders in turn.
The cunning man took a pinch of dust between his right thumb and forefinger as he lay on his opposite hand and hip. “Ransden!” he called.
* * *
The younger man glanced instinctively toward his name. Old Nathan blew the dust at his face, though at four yards distance none could actually have reached the Bully. He sprang back anyway and fell, clutching his eyes and shouting, “I’m blind, damn ye!”
The cunning man scrambled to his feet, sweeping up the hat he had dropped in dodging. His bull was pacing smartly down the road, striding at a rate half again that of his normal walk. He kept switching his tail and looking behind him, searching for the horsefly he was still convinced had stabbed him.
Old Nathan followed the bull at a rate just enough short of a trot to save his dignity. Ransden was up on his feet, thrusting his arms out before him as he stumbled in the direction of his cabin.
“Ellie?” he called, his voice rising in fear on the second syllable. He would regain his sight within minutes, perhaps less, but all he could know for the moment was that his eyes felt as if they had been plucked out and their sockets filled with sand.
Ransden’s black-haired woman was gripping the doorjamb with one hand to help pull herself upright, while the other hand clamped against her side where the hickory post had struck. Under other circumstances, Old Nathan might have helped her—but under other circumstances, King wouldn’t have bolted, and the cunning man had no wish to be present when Bully Ransden found he could see again.
For that matter, there were men not so touchy as the Bully who would sooner see their woman die than watch another man lay hands on her. The couple would do well enough without the cunning man’s ministrations, and Old Nathan himself would do far better by getting out of the way.
The road curved, skirting the base of the hill which Ransden had been plowing, so by the time Old Nathan caught up with his bull they were out of sight of the cabin. A creek, nameless and at present shallow, notched the road and Spanish King stood there fetlock-deep in the water, drinking. He ignored the cunning man’s approach.
There was no ford proper, since the stream could be stepped across at any point save when it was in spate—and then it became uncrossable for its full length. The steep banks were a barrier to most beasts and all vehicles, so here, where the road crossed, they had been trampled down by use with little intention toward the road’s long-term improvement.
Rather than squelch through the mud into which the main path had been churned, Old Nathan gripped the stem of one of the mimosas which grew as thick as a man’s arm. He lowered himself cautiously down the bank to the smooth-washed stones of the streambed. Only then did King look up at him and grunt, “Well?” from lips that still slobbered the water he had been drinking.
There was neither anger nor skittishness in the bull’s tone. He had forgotten the whip-cut or filed it at the almost instinctual level which warned that horseflies bit like coals from the floor of Hell.
Bully Ransden would likely be less forgetful about the incident, but not even hindsight offered the cunning man a view of a more desirable resolution. Ransden could be a bad enemy, if he chose; but so could Old Nathan, the Devil’s Master. Perhaps the boy would let bygones be bygones.
“Come on, thin, big feller,” said the cunning man, embracing the bull’s humped shoulders before readjusting the slung panniers holding a day’s food for both of them. “Savin’ ye’d rather go back home thin go on with all this?”
“Humph!” Spanish King snorted. He gathered himself and sprang lightfootedly out of the stream, his forehooves planted solidly on the bank top and his hind legs crossing them neatly in the same motion, like the feet of a horse at a gallop. “I’ll fight that one. Sure as the sun rises.”
And he bellowed a challenge that silenced for a fearful moment the birds whose chattering made the woods a living place.
“I misdoubted you,” said John Boardman. His saddle blanket was folded as a pad at the base of an oak tree, but he had been pacing restively for some time before King and Old Nathan appeared around the bend in the road. “It’s late in the day, and I thought ye might not come.”
“Said I would,” Old Nathan replied, wrinkling his nose in disgust at a man who was surprised when another man kept his word. “Long about evenin’, I said.” He waggled his beard toward the west, where the sun would have been visible near the horizon were it not for the forest that stretched in all directions from the winding road.
“Well, I thought—” temporized Boardman as he tried to find some useful way to continue the sentence. One of his hands held the heavy saddlebag he had carried even as he paced alone on the road. His free hand played with the butt of the six-barreled pistol thrust between his belt and waistband instead of loose in his pocket. His gelding tugged its reins to browse more leaves from the sapling to which it was tethered.
“Well, I brought the money,” Boardman began again, hefting the leather bag, “but you’ll not have it till ye’ve done as ye claim. Laid the curse.”
Old Nathan snorted. He and Spanish King had continued to saunter forward as the men talked. The bull’s cleft hooves spread under his weight at every step, and he placed them with greater care than would a horse shod against the stones which rain and traffic had brought to the surface of the narrow road. Despite his size, King’s step was so quiet that his approach had gone unremarked by Boardman who had been awaiting it desperately.
“Oh, I guess ye’ll pay for the work I do ye,” the cunning man said. He paused, his arm across the back of Spanish King whose tail-tip flicked like a pendulum. “I don’t guess yer sech a fool as ye’d face the powers I’d bring onto yer head iffen ye played me false.”
That was more bluster than not. Mere money was unlikely to be worth the trouble it would take to bring a major sending onto a man as well protected as the wealth and servants of Boardman’s father made the boy. Nonetheless, the threat was useful . . . and not wholly empty. Old Nathan flew hot frequently, and the anger puffed away like flame from thistledown. But he was capable of cold rages also; and they, like glaciers, ground inexorably to a conclusion.
“Well,” said Boardman, “I’ll take ye into the valley.”
He began to resaddle the gelding. It was a comment on his focus and nervousness that he tried to spread the saddle blanket with one hand for some moments before he thought to set down the satchel with the money. Old Nathan waited, his strong, knobby fingers massaging the bull’s hide while Spanish King rumbled in pleasure and anticipation.
The track to Big Bone Valley meandered a quarter mile from the public road, through forest which had remained unaffected by white settlement of the region. Custom and Boardman’s deed both gave him the right to lay out a fifteen-foot cartway through the intervening land, the waterless side of a tilted rockshelf. Instead, someone—perhaps Bully Ransden—had hacked down so straight a path through the sparse undergrowth that Old Nathan only with difficulty could walk abreast of his bull.
The work of clearing the newground had not been skimped, however.
The track debouched on the valley head and a scene of devastation which suggested natural disaster rather than human agency. There was still a tang of smoke in the air, though the fires that devoured the piled cuttings had been cold a month. Rain had beaten down the ashes and carved long gouges through the red clay beneath. Though the spring-fed stream in the valley’s heart had cleared, the moss and crevices of its bed were stained by heavier particles of clay that would not wash away until another storm renewed them.
Ransden and his oxen had dragged the tree boles together at the far end of the valley, but the stumps would remain until rot and termites dissolved their roots enough that a team could tug them free. There was no evident reason the shallow valley should not have been plowed despite the stumps, but the one straggling attempt at a furrow was shorter than the rain-cut gulleys it intersected.
The sun was by now beneath the horizon and the sky, though bright, cast a diffuse illumination which softened the scene. Nonetheless, the valley’s starkness was so evident that John Boardman muttered, “Sally Ann would have this and not forty acres uv bottom as good as any land in the county. And we’d hev lived at the homeplace till our first crop was in the store, besides.”
The cunning man looked at the boy who had hired him and said, “Sally Ann Hewitt may be able t’ carve ye into a man yit, but I don’t know I think much of what yer daddy’s left her t’ work with.”
“He ain’t here, now,” said Spanish King, striding deliberately down the slope with his nose high and his tail vertical. “But he’s been here, yes, he’s been here.”
“I said I didn’t like this place!” interjected the gelding on a note that rose close to panic. The horse curvetted with a violence which took his rider unaware.
“Virgil!” cried Boardman, glad enough for an excuse to ignore the insult he had just received. He sawed the gelding’s reins and pounded his boot heel into the outer flank of the rotating horse. “Virgil, I’ll flay the hide offen ye!”
“Steady, ye fool horse,” Old Nathan put in, understood but just as likely as Boardman to be ignored. With animals as with humans, being heard was a far cry from being listened to. “Settle yerself and ye’ll be out uv here in no time, seein’s it flusters ye so much.”
For whatever reason, the gelding calmed enough for Boardman to dismount and lash his reins to a deadfall too heavy for the horse to drag. Panting with exertion, the young man followed Old Nathan on foot as the cunning man walked slowly into the newground. The shadows thrown eastward by the taller stumps were beginning to merge and drain the color from the soil.
Old Nathan tapped a stump with his toe-tip when Boardman had caught up with him. “Eight inches,” he said. “Not so very big fer a pine. This track’s been cut over before, thin?”
“Vance Satterfield held it all on a Spanish patent,” the younger man said, holding his arms tight and crossed on his chest as if he feared something would poke him in the ribs. Down near the creek, Spanish King’s black hide was almost lost in the gathering darkness. The bull’s white horns danced like fairy wands, tossing and sweeping through the empty air while the beast explored the newground.
“Could be,” the younger man continued with a shudder at something in his imagination, “that Satterfield er kin t’ him cleared the valley forty years back er so. Reckon somebody found bones, thet they give it the name they did.”
“Reckon they didn’t settle long neither, thin,” said the cunning man grimly.
Though to look at, it was a tolerable tract or even better. Well watered, and though the valley was aligned east and west, it was shallow enough that the north slope would get enough sun to bring corn to fruition.
“Hit’s good land,” Boardman said with a frustrated whine in his voice. “It must be there’s an Injun curse on it.” His tone became one of potentous certainty. “I reckon that’s hit, all right. Injuns.”
Spanish King was trotting up toward the two men. His hooves clopped like splitting mauls when they struck on stumps or unburnt timber.
“Stick to yer own affairs, boy,” Old Nathan gibed. “That is, effen ye hev sich. There’s no curse onto this valley, not Injun nor white neither.”
“You say that now thet the sun’s down,” responded Boardman without, for a wonder, either bluster or whimpering. “Come back by daylight’n tell me then there’s no curse on my newground.”
“I’ll tear ’im up!” bellowed Spanish King, making the younger man jump. “I’ll gore and I’ll stomp ’im!”
“Tain’t a curse, fer all thet,” the cunning man explained. “This track, this’s been forest fer a long time. Onct, though, it wuz in grass. When ye cut the timber off ’n sun got t’ the ground agin, ye brought back somethin’ as wuz here aforetimes.”
Old Nathan hacked and spat into the darkness before he concluded, “Hain’t a curse yer lookin at, John Boardman. Hit’s a ghost. And we figger t’ stay here till we lays it, King ’n me.”
“Tear ’im and toss ’im and gouge ’im t’ tatters!” rumbled the black bull, and the night trembled.
The shadows thrown down the valley by the morning sun were sharper than those of evening, and the unshadowed clay was red as blood.
Old Nathan stood slowly and faced the sun. His shirt bosom and his hat were wet with dew, but the night had not chilled him because he had slept against the flank of Spanish King. His joints ached, but that was as much a fact of life in his own cabin as here on Boardman’s newground.
King snorted to his feet, hunching his downside—right-side—legs before he rolled left and stood. The whole maneuver was as smooth and as complex as the workings of a fine clock. He looked toward the dawn sky and said, flicking his ears, “Well, shan’t be long.”
Turning, the black bull stepped toward the nearby creek, carrying his head high. He seemed disinterested in the sparse browse, even though he had finished the grain from his panniers.
A mockingbird flew past on the left. Spanish King drowned its cries with a challenge to the world.
“Hit ain’t here,” said Old Nathan, placing a hand on the bull’s rib cage so that the distracted animal did not turn suddenly and crush him by accident.
“He’ll come to me,” rumbled Spanish King. “Er I’ll go t’ him. Hit makes no nevermind.” He stepped deliberately into the creek and lowered his head to drink.
“There’s blood in the water,” said the cunning man, feeling his soul freeze within him.
“No, hit’s the red sun,” replied Spanish King, but his muzzle paused a hand’s breadth from the surface. His tongue sucked back within his lips without touching the water.
“Runnin’ with blood,” said the cunning man, aware of his words as he would have been aware of words spoken by another whom he could not control. “Heart’s-blood pourin’ out like spring water.”
“There’s blood red clay in this stream,” said the bull. “That’s what you’re seein’.” But he backed out of the creek, two short steps and a hop that brought his shoulder even with Old Nathan as the man stood transfixed beside him.
Another bull bellowed from the foot of the valley, where the sun would just be touching the spring that fed the creek through a fissure in the limestone.
“Well,” said Spanish King quietly, and then he bawled back, “There’s none my like on this earth!”
The black bull began to stride along the stream, his broadly spreading horns winking with the ruddy light of dawn.
The waste that was Boardman’s newground was three furlongs in length, valley head to valley foot. Old Nathan, tramping beside King, could see the other bull before they had covered a quarter of that distance. It was the piebald brute he had scryed in the plate of water, pacing toward them as they approached him.
“Big ’un,” muttered Spanish King. “Well, we’ll show ’im.”
“Run, little one!” roared the strange bull. “I’ve crushed your like into the stone beneath this clay!”
The piebald bull was a match in size for King, but they were not twins. The stranger was higher at the shoulder than the black bull, and the difference was in the length of his legs as well as his pronounced hump. His horns thrust forward where King’s spread widely, and they were as black and wicked as the creature’s eyes.
“Well, reckon I kin take ’im,” Spanish King murmured.
He paused a hundred feet short of the piebald stranger and lashed his tail vertical, then down again as sharply as a railroad semaphore. “You walk on my earth!” bellowed Spanish King, and he launched himself toward his rival at a trot that snatched him away from the supportive touch of Old Nathan.
The stranger’s roar and the hammer of his hooves shook the sunstruck clay. The bulls met head to head, with no more finesse than icebergs grinding together in the swell of Ocean. Both of them recoiled onto their haunches, the thud of their foreheads overlaid by the sharper clack of the horns striking against one another.
The piebald bull, the aurochs, bellowed with the wild fury of which the Biblical prophets had spoken. He shook himself and got his hindquarters solidly beneath him again by pivoting to his left around his firmly planted forelegs. He snorted angrily, tossed his head, and lunged again at his rival.
Spanish King’s hooves shoveled deep into the clay with his effort, but nonetheless he was marginally slower than the piebald beast—and a battle of this sort had narrow margins. King twisted to face the aurochs, but he did not have his hind legs anchored when their horns clashed again. He went down, his left flank skidding on the ground.
The piebald bull trumpeted victory and surged forward, very nearly losing the battle in that moment.
When Spanish King went down, he and the aurochs pivoted around their locked horns. King’s left horn was so long that it touched the piebald bull between his shoulder and the base of his neck. When the stranger advanced, it was by impaling himself on the cruel point.
Blatting in shock and pain, the aurochs stumbled backward. The black bull scrambled up and followed, snorting deep breaths through nostrils which were already flared to their widest extent. Six inches of the left horn were blood-smeared, and the blood dripping down the aurochs’ right shoulder was richer and brighter than the orange clay on King’s black flank.
“Mine!” snorted Spanish King, and he strode toward his rival with a deliberation that seemed gentle until the two of them again crashed head to head.
Both bulls had learned caution and a respect for the present rival as for no other in their experience. They locked horns, and all obvious motion stopped.
Old Nathan found the stump of a beech forty inches in diameter, a survivor of the valley’s first clearing, and settled himself on it regardless of the layer of soot from brush burned nearby. He was not a participant in this battle, though he had made it possible. The aurochs would not have had sufficient material form in this world—and Spanish King would not have had form in the valley the aurochs trod in life—save for the rent between their existences which the cunning man had opened with his scrying glass.
Even without Old Nathan’s intervention, animals would have known of the presence of the great piebald bull. Smaller ones, like Boardman’s bitch and the rabbits who would come to crop flowers springing from the newground, would skulk and remain beneath notice—even as their kin had done during the aurochs’ proper life. Perhaps even deer would browse in the waste which would become meadow and then forest again, as it had done in the past.
But no animal large enough to drag a plow through roots and half-burnt saplings could coexist with the aurochs’ fury. Horses and oxen would panic at the challenge and the glowering phantom of the piebald bull, even if it were no more than a memory in the soil itself. . . .
The aurochs was no phantasm now. He and Spanish King both pawed forward without moving, as if they were trying to pull stoneboats too heavy for even their huge muscles. Clay heaped behind each of the bulls’ forehooves as the thrust which could not drive the beasts forward began to force the ground back.
King’s tail lashed in a circular motion, rising to the top slowly and then cutting through the remainder of the arc with a snap like that of the whip which had cut him the day before. The aurochs’ brushier tail was almost still, but his ears popped repeatedly against the base of his horns as if to add even their weight to the force mustered against Spanish King.
The bulls’ first contact had been like the lightning, a cataract of sudden power that would slay or fail but could not last. This second struggle mimicked the thunder in its rumbling omnipresence, shaking the world without changing it; but not even thunder rolls forever.
The rivals sprang apart as if by concert, each of them pivoting their hindquarters left and keeping their heads low to face a renewed attack by the other. When they had backed till twenty yards separated them, each began to sidle toward the creek. The blood which would otherwise have matted the fur of the aurochs’ right shoulder had been washed away by sweat.
Old Nathan got up and followed his bull to the nearby stream. He kept a wary eye on the aurochs, splay-legged and already slurping water. Though the cunning man knew that he could neither affect nor be affected by the phantom, the piebald bull had a savage reality which penetrated to grosser planes of existence. Big Bone Valley would not become plowland so long as the aurochs’ ghost walked it.
And that mattered not a whit to Old Nathan now.
The cunning man stepped down into the shallow creek and laid a hand on the shoulder of Spanish King. The black bull was shuddering as his muscles strove to throw off fatigue poisons accumulated in the nearly motionless struggle, and the air reeked with hormones saturating the sweat which foamed across his torso as far back as the last ribs. King’s deep exhalations roiled the surface of the creek in counterpoint with his slobbering gulps of water.
“Ye’ve whipped ’im, boy,” said Old Nathan earnestly, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. “Hain’t another bull on this earth could’ve done what you did. Now, let’s ussens go off and leave him t’ his business. Hit ain’t no affair of ours if some triflin’ daddy’s boy lays in a stand uv corn here er no.”
“Ain’t finished, old man,” said the bull as he paused in drinking and got his breath enough under control that he could rumble out the words. “You know thet.” The creek curled around his fetlocks, and his black hide steamed with sweat.
“What call do we hev t’ stay here, damn ye?” the cunning man demanded.
The piebald bull pranced out of the stream, his tail lifted so that the center of it curved higher than his rump though the brush of long black hairs still hung down. Mud his hooves had stirred upstream began to drift past Old Nathan’s boots.
“Come away,” the man cried.
“And give him best?” murmured Spanish King. “Don’t reckon so.” He poised himself. “Watch yerself, old man,” he warned, and he launched himself from the creek to charge his rival.
“Blood and dust!” thundered the aurochs as he pounded with his head high toward the black bull.
“King, he’s hook—” cried Old Nathan, but the warning would have been too late even if it could have been heard over the competing bellows of the bulls.
The aurochs ducked so low that he seemed almost to have stumbled, his lower jaw sweeping dust from the clay. Neither the feint nor the piebald bull’s attempt to hook him low took Spanish King by surprise, but his reflexes played him false for all that.
King twisted to block the thrust of a long-horned bull like himself, and the aurochs’ right horn stabbed over King’s guard and deep into his throat.
The black bull grunted in shock, and his legs stiffened as if the blow had been to the cortex of his brain. The aurochs rumbled in triumph and backed a step to give his rival time to die. Beads of arterial blood stained the right horn like rubies in black onyx.
Spanish King strode forward as the piebald bull stepped away. Their horns met and locked again with the sound of lightning striking a tall tree, and the aurochs gave back a further pace with surprise that the struggle had not ended. Blood rolled down King’s black chest, and the stream lifted from the fur around the wound every time his heart beat.
Old Nathan fell to his knees in the dirt beside the trampling bulls, his hands clasped as if for prayer . . . but it was too late to pray, even if he had not forsworn the god, the God, of his father long years before. The blood that trailed from King’s deep chest splashed on the clay like molten metal.
The aurochs kicked out against his black rival. When he kicked again with the other foreleg, Old Nathan realized that the piebald bull was lifting his forequarters from the ground in order to avoid being thrown down by the turning force King was applying through their locked horns.
“No!” the aurochs said. “No, you can’t—” he thundered, and his forehooves lashed out together. They waggled short of Spanish King, though they splashed in the bloodstream as the piebald bull twisted to the right despite himself.
The crack of the aurochs’ spine was as sharp as a pistol shot, but it was far too loud for that.
The piebald bull did not sprawl limp with his tongue thrusting in a vain effort to drive out sounds that his lungs no longer knew to power. Instead he vanished, uncanny only in the moment of his end.
Spanish King stumbled to the ground when the aurochs disappeared. His forelegs folded under him, and the gouting neck wound rubbed the furrow his lower jaw gouged in the dirt.
Old Nathan thought the black bull had died in the moment of victory, but when he ran to the beast, cursing the Devil in whom he believed as he could not God, King wallowed up from the side on which he had fallen. The bull got his forelegs beneath him, but instead of trying to rise he let his haunches down as well so that he lay on the ground in a parody of relaxation.
The cunning man knelt beside the black bull and pressed his right hand to the wound, muttering the words by which he marshalled the forces within himself to staunch the blood. It wasn’t any good. On the lids of his closed eyes he could see the form of Spanish King wasting away like a salt carving in water, and his palm burned as if he held it in a stream of liquid rock.
“No, let it go, old man,” the bull said in a voice gentler than any his master had ever heard come from his throat.
“Damn ye!” Old Nathan snarled, his eyes pressed closed because the tears would wash down even harder if he opened the lids. “You hold hard er I’ll crack yer neck fer ye!”
“A big ’un,” said Spanish King slowly. “But we showed ’im, old man. We showed that ’un who rules here.”
“There was never yer like, big feller,” murmured Old Nathan with his face pressed against the steaming neck of the bull. “There’ll never be yer like, not till the sun goes cold.”
The great black head lowered to the ground. “. . . showed ’im,” whispered Spanish King as he died.
John Boardman rode his bay gelding slowly through the newground, coming from the west end as the piebald bull had done earlier that morning. His bitch gamboled about the man and horse, rushing from stump to charred brush pile, yapping enthusiastically at the small birds he put up. When the blond dog noticed Old Nathan, she trotted over to him a hundred yards in advance of her master. Her head was thrown back and her tail held high, giving the impression that she was already in flight after a rebuff.
“G’day t’ ye,” said the bitch, well back from the arc Old Nathan could sweep with the knife he wielded. She could smell his mood, and she had no way of telling that it was not directed at her or the world of which she was one of the nearer parts.
“I’ve knowed better,” said the cunning man. He wiped the knife’s longer blade on the bull’s hide to clean the steel, then cocked up the sole of his left boot and stropped the edge on it, two strokes to a side with a metronome’s precision. He paused and added with the same lack of anything but a desire to be precise, “And worse, I reckon. Maybe worse.”
“Chased off t’other bull, did he?” the bitch remarked, stretching her muzzle out to snuffle Spanish King. Her right forepaw began a cautious step forward as she continued, “Wouldn’t hev believed it, but he’s gone sure ’nuff. Mean ’un, thet. Too mean t’ live nor die, seemed t’ me.”
“Whoa, Virgil!” John Boardman called to his gelding, who had stopped twenty feet from the carcase anyway. The odors of blood and death threw the horse into a shivering panic not far short of driving him off in a mad stampede back up the way he had come. The gelding calmed somewhat when his rider dismounted, knotted the reins on an upturned tree root, and stepped between him and the scene of slaughter.
“Well, I reckon ye did it,” said Boardman as he approached Old Nathan as cautiously as his dog had done a moment before. The landowner could not scent fiery rage in the cunning man’s sweat, but he could watch and wonder at the knife and the sinewed, capable hands flaying a strip of hide from the bull’s back.
“I rode all the way from the west boundary cut t’ here,” the younger man continued—standing out of knife range. “And Virgil shied nary onct but when a pigeon flapped up in ’is face. Couldn’t hev rid ’im here this time yestiddy.”
“Said I’d do it,” Old Nathan muttered, then wrinkled his face in embarrassment. This boy couldn’t know it, but success had never been more doubtful than in the moment it came . . . and the cunning man had no heart now for bluster, when his hands were red to the elbows with the blood of Spanish King.
Old Nathan did not stand up or even uncross his legs, but he paused in what he was doing to give Boardman his attention and a full answer. “What wuz here,” he said, “hit’s gone and won’t be back. Ye kin plow here er pasture, whatever you please.”
The cunning man resumed his work. He had already removed a hand’s breadth of hide from Spanish King’s nose to his croup. The horns were included by a strip of the poll.
“There’s a thing I wonder, though,” said Boardman, squatting down on his haunches with care not to let the tails of his frock coat brush the bloody soil. “The spring, ye see, it’s closed up. The rock’s cracked down all around it, and hain’t no water come out at all.”
He pointed toward the creek, as if Old Nathan would not already have noticed. The slime of finely divided clay particles gleamed between stones where it was still damp. Higher up on the rocks, the mud was cracking and lifting its edges toward the naked sun.
The cunning man ignored him, making the final cuts at the base of the dead bull’s tail.
“Well,” continued Boardman, disconcerted both by the older man’s activity and his lack of response to the implied question, “I reckon thet’s no affair of yourn. I’ll hire Bully Ransden en his team t’ grub out the landslip and get the spring t’ flowing agin.”
Old Nathan stood up slowly, lifting with his left hand the strop he had just cut and still holding in his right the knife which the coating of blood joined to his flesh. “He kin grub t’ Hell, I reckon,” the cunning man said, “and he’ll not strike water there. What lived through the flow uv that spring, it’s gone now and the water besides.”
Boardman overbalanced as he tried to stand up and had to brace his right fingertips on the ground. His face had a queasy expression as he straightened, and he neither looked at that hand nor allowed the splayed fingers to touch one another for some moments.
“I see,” he said in a voice that made it clear he understood nothing of what he had just been told. “Well, I reckon the Bully’ll grub till he fetches water somehow.”
The cunning man began to coil the bloody strap he held, starting from the back but letting the tail stick out to one side because it was too stiff to roll. The fresh hide made a fat bundle as well as a heavy one.
The younger man waited for Old Nathan to add something further, until it became evident that he had said all he cared to say. “Well,” began Boardman. He paused to clear his throat, starting to shield the cough with his right hand. Then he thrust the member with its charnel slime back down at his side, a safe distance from his pants leg.
“Rub it in clean earth,” said Old Nathan unexpectedly. His hands were occupied, but he twisted his neck so that his beard gestured up the slope where the ground was loose and dry. “Better’n water t’ clean thet, evens if there wuz water.”
“Well,” said Boardman. “Well, thank . . .” He trudged a few steps away, scuffing his boots to find suitable soil and clear it of ash and soot. “Oh,” he added as if by afterthought as he turned. “Reckon we might pay you yer price . . . though I don’t know we ought to”—his gaze glinted away from Old Nathan’s hard green eyes like lamp oil dripping from ice—“seeins as we don’t want it put about that we wuz sacrificin’ bulls ’r any sich heathen thing.”
He did not realize that Old Nathan still held the open jackknife until the cunning man carefully set the roll of hide back on the ground. The horns, connected by a strip of skin but removed from their bony cores, flopped loose.
“Don’t you dare t’ threaten me!” the younger man bleated. He scuttled backward two steps with his hands out in prohibition toward Old Nathan, then tumbled over a stump in mewling panic.
“What’s that?” his dog barked, leaping to her feet and baring her teeth. “Don’t touch him now, don’t touch him!”
Old Nathan raised the knife beside his ear and flicked the blade closed with his thumb. The blood on it and his forearm were already black. He made a motion that young Boardman’s eyes could not follow, and the weapon vanished somewhere.
“Boy,” the cunning man whispered, “we hev a bargain you and me, and ye’ll keep yer part of it as I did mine.”
He paused. Though Old Nathan’s face was shaded by the brim of his hat, it seemed to Boardman, looking up from his sprawl, that the old man’s eyes spit green sparks like pinches of copper salts thrown in a lamp flame.
“But . . .” continued the cunning man in the same whisper which carried as if his lips were an inch from the hearer’s ear, “if I ever hear you’ve told anyone thet I killed a friend fer you, who hain’t enough man t’ hev rubbed the scale from ’is hoofs. . . . Iffen I ever hear thet, John Boardman, I’ll cut a strop offen you as I done with him, and ye’ll scream while I do it.”
Old Nathan snapped his fingers above his head . . . but the sound was loud as a thunderclap, and Boardman thought he saw looming behind the cunning man the shape of a great black bull.
“Might save a few fer the rest of us,” squawked the mockingbird as Old Nathan dropped another blackberry into his poplar-bark basket.
Old Nathan looked up from what he was doing and snagged his hand in the thorns. “Go ’way, bird,” the cunning man grumbled as he detached himself from the brambles. “Ye don’t look ill-fed—and if ye did starve, the world ’d be a better place without your screechin’.”
He eased a half step farther. The blackberry vines grew out from the margin of the woods into his oats. They’d need to be cut back before Old Nathan cradled the grain—but first he’d have berries.
“Tsk!” said the bird. “Now thet’s a lie if ever I heard one! Why”—he half-spread his black-and-white barred wings to examine the interlocking edges of the flight feathers—“ifen I wish to, there’s no prettier tune in all the world ’n mine.”
Old Nathan grunted and collected three more of the ripe black fruit. The fingertips of his right hand were stained purple.
The strap supporting the basket over Old Nathan’s left shoulder was cloth, gray linsey-woosey worn soft as soft from the days it was a shirt. Though the fabric didn’t bite flesh the way a bail of split white oak would have done, there was nigh a gallon of blackberries in the bucket already. That, plus the weight of the long rifle in the cunning man’s left hand, had about convinced him that it was time to traipse back to the cabin.
He reached out once more. The mockingbird got to the berry first and twisted his neck quickly to pluck it.
“Git on with you!” the cunning man said in irritation. He prodded with his rifle muzzle. The bird flew to the top branches of a dogwood growing up beside the cleared field.
Old Nathan scowled, mostly at himself. He hadn’t needed the berry . . . and the bird was right, his best call was as pretty as anything on earth. Finer ’n a nightingale, said the English beau who’d heard both.
Purple juice squirted from both sides of the mockingbird’s beak. It lifted its throat and swallowed, keeping one sharp black eye on Old Nathan.
“Tsk!” the bird repeated. “Don’t know why you carry thet old smoke-pole anyhow. You don’t hunt.”
Old Nathan found a ripe berry and twisted it off the vine. He popped it into his mouth instead of the bucket. Sweet and tart together, and gritty from the tiny seeds. Better ’n the all-sweet of honey, lessen you had a perticular notion for sweet.
“Don’t eat meat,” the cunning man corrected. “Thet don’t mean I choose t’ find a bear in my own patch and hev nothin’ to go on but a bear’s good natur.”
The mockingbird trilled merrily at the ridiculous notion of a bear having a good nature. “Tain’t no bears hereabouts,” the bird sang. “There’s a couple folk up t’ your cabin though, waitin’ you. People’s worse nor bears, most times.”
Old Nathan glanced north reflexively, in the direction of his cabin. There was nothing to be seen through the heads of his grain and the swell of the ground. Even if he’d been in a treetop like the bird, he didn’t guess he’d have been able to tell much. His old eyes were sharp enough still, at a distance; but he wasn’t a mockingbird for vision, no more than he was a bull for strength.
“Reckon I better go see ’em, thin,” the cunning man muttered. “Reckon they’ve come t’ consult me, not t’ raise trouble.”
But he checked the priming of his long rifle first; because what the mockingbird had said about humans and bears was pretty much Old Nathan’s opinion too.
When the cunning man came up to the back door of his cabin, past the greetings of his two cows and the mule, the visitors were standing, but they hadn’t been on their feet long. The cane-bottom rocker still tapped back and forth, and the straight chair had been moved to a corner where a man sitting in it could face out with solid logs behind him.
The man who’d gotten up from the rocker was Bascom Hardy. Hardy might not be the richest man in the county as he claimed, but he was right enough the richest man who’d made his money here.
“Earned his money” was another matter. Hardy dealt in loans and land—and in the law, to enforce those dealings.
Old Nathan couldn’t put a name to the other man, but the type was frequent enough. The fellow had smallpox scars on the left side of his face and a knife-track trailing from below his right ear across his nose. From his hair and features, he was a half-breed.
No sin in that. White women had been mighty thin on the ground when Europeans settled the Tennessee Territory. Old Nathan himself had Cherokee blood. There was good and bad in any race, though, and the scarred man standing in the corner didn’t appear to have been fortunate in the mixture he’d gotten from his parents.
The half-breed wouldn’t meet Old Nathan’s eyes, but his fingers played with the stock of his short-barreled caplock musket while he looked sidelong at the cunning man. Old Nathan figured the weapon was loaded with buck and ball, several heavy shot wadded down on top of a ball the size of the barrel’s diameter. A wasteful load for hunting.
Unless you were hunting men.
Another time, the cunning man would have pulled the charge from his flintlock as soon as he came in the door. This time he did not, and he leaned the long rifle against the wall instead of hanging it over the chimney board where it would be closer to the half-breed than to its owner across the room.
Not that he figured there’d be that sort of trouble.
“Hope you don’t mind me waiting for you here,” said Bascom Hardy, saying and not asking, and talking as if the half-breed didn’t exist at all. “I reckon you know who I am.”
Old Nathan dipped a gourd of water from the barrel on the back porch. He drank some and splashed the rest over his face and neck. The cool liquid soaked the front of his shirt and dripped onto the puncheon floor with the irritated sound of frying grease.
“You’re a man needs my he’p,” the cunning man said. “Thet’s why you’re here.”
He kneaded his face with strong, sinewy fingers. Another time he’d have gotten a dipper of buttermilk from the jug cooling in the creek; but that would mean offering some to his visitors, and just now he didn’t care t’ do so.
Bascom Hardy’s face stiffened. “I don’t need no man,” he said sharply. “You’d best remember thet.”
Hardy was a tall, hollow-cheeked man, near as tall as Old Nathan himself. He wore good store-bought clothes, but he seemed to have wizened up after the garments were fitted; now they hung loose. A gold chain with several gold seals swung across Hardy’s narrow chest to a pocket of his waistcoat.
Old Nathan looked his visitor up and down. There were those who accused the cunning man of hating all mankind; but there were sure-God some folk easier t’ hate than others.
“Thin I guess,” Old Nathan said, “thet you kin leave, for I druther have your space thin your presence.”
The cat sauntered in, licking cobwebs from his fur. He’d hidden under the cabin when the strangers arrived, showing that he didn’t care any more for the folk than his master did.
“Wouldn’t mind a bowl of milk,” the cat yowled. “Seein’s as you won’t fetch me a dollop of good bloody meat.”
Old Nathan bent sideways to scratch the ears of the big yellow tom. He kept his eyes on the human visitors and didn’t answer the animal.
For a moment, the two men were all stillness and silence. Then Bascom Hardy shook the tension loose with a laugh and said, “Didn’t mean to start off on the wrong foot. My name’s Bascom Hardy, and I’ve come t’ make a business offer t’ you. Ned”—he didn’t look around at the half-breed—“whyn’t you set on the porch while me ’n Mister Nathan, here, we talk business.”
“No more juice to either of ’em thin woods rats,” the cat remarked scornfully. “Though they might be fun t’ kill, specially”—he eyed the half-breed slouching onto the porch as ordered—“the squatty one.”
“Set, then,” the cunning man said grudgingly. He gestured his visitor to the straight-backed chair and sat in the rocker himself. “What is it you come t’ see me for?”
Hardy lifted the offered chair closer to the table in the center of the single room. He glanced around with a false smile as he seated himself.
The cabin had few amenities, though they were all the owner required. Two chairs—the rocker to set in, and the straight chair by the table for when he ate, wrote, or did figures. Chests along one sidewall with stored clothing and a handful of personal items—nothing that would tempt a thief. On the table, an alcohol lamp; and on the chimney board above the walk-in fireplace, five fine porcelain cups, a plate, and a few knickknacks of less obvious purpose.
Hardy focused again on the cunning man’s hot green eyes. “Waal,” he said, “I guess you’re a man wouldn’t be feared of a spook, now, would ye?”
He thought nothing of the sort. His voice cajoled, encouraging Old Nathan to create a fearless self-image which would agree to do whatever the rich man wanted done—but feared to do himself.
“Say yer piece,” Old Nathan said flatly. The chair rocked minutely beneath him, scritch-scritch; the high pine back moving no more than an inch at a stroke.
A pair of titmice, blue-gray with a black tip to their crests, flew in the cabin’s open front door and perched for a moment—one on the underside of a roof pole and the other on the muzzle of the cunning man’s rifle.
“My brother Bynum died over t’ Maury County nigh three months ago,” Bascom Hardy said. “A day past the new moon. He was a rich man, rich as rich.”
“Tsk! There’s a cat here,” chirped one of the titmice as it fluttered from the gun to the roof, then out the back door in concert with its companion. “Tsk! But he can’t ketch us!”
“Like you are yerse’f,” Old Nathan stated flatly. He knuckled his beard, black despite his age, with his knobby right hand.
The cat’s head turned to watch the birds. His tail beat twice. The second time it made a soft thump against the puncheon floor. The big tom got up from beside the rocker and walked toward the visitor’s chair with an evil look in his eyes.
“That’s true, I am,” Bascom Hardy said. His tone was half between irritation at being interrupted and pride at what he took for flattery. “But that’s not a speck t’ do with my brother, and my brother Bynum’s the reason I’m here.”
He glanced around again, unable or unwilling to keep his lip from lifting in a sneer.
The cat rubbed firmly against the visitor’s ankles, leaving a track of hair against the fabric of the black trousers. Hardy squawked, jerking his legs aside as though his boots had slid him into a cesspool.
“Cat!” Old Nathan snapped, coming up off the rocker. “You git back from there!”
The cat lifted his nose. “Hmpf,” he said. “That un don’t half hate cats, don’t he?”
The cunning man’s left index finger pointed. A spark of static popped in the air between Old Nathan and the animal.
“All right, all right,” the cat grumped. “Keep yer britches on.” He padded across the floor, then disappeared out the back door in a single fluid bound.
Bascom Hardy settled himself again in his chair. “That’s better,” he growled. He indicated the roof poles with a lift of his clean-shaven chin. “If thet dirty beast comes up t’ me again, I’ll kick him right through yer shakes.”
Old Nathan remained standing. “Did you hear thet I don’t eat meat, Bascom Hardy?” he asked.
Hardy raised an eyebrow. “I heard thet,” he said. “I don’t see how it signifies.”
“But,” the cunning man rasped, “ye never heerd I was a Quaker as wouldn’t larrup a man to an inch of his life ifen he kicked my cat in my home. Did ye now?”
He grinned at his visitor. His eyes flashed like sparks of burning copper.
“I beg your pardon,” said Bascom Hardy. His voice was sincere, at least in its undertone of fear.
Old Nathan relaxed and walked again to the water barrel. “Tell yer tale, Mister Hardy,” he said. “Tell yer tale.”
“I reckon Bynum knew his time or purty close to it,” Bascom Hardy resumed. “For nigh a month, he’d been sellin’ his notes and his land holdins—at a discount to shift ’em fast, like he’d gone out of his head!”
Hardy’s voice lowered from its tone of shrill disbelief. He bent forward and added, “But he turned it into gold, all his paper and land into gold; and there must ’ve been a mort of it, rich as Bynum was!”
Old Nathan felt his skin tingling. There was nothing he could put a name to, no image or echo from the words his visitor had spoken; but there was something here waiting, and mayhap waiting for the cunning man himself. . . .
Old Nathan saw the image of gold coins tumbling across the surface of the rich man’s mind, as though the brown eyes were windows to Hardy’s thoughts. “Go on,” he said. “Tell yer tale, Bascom Hardy.”
The rocker still nodded from the vehemence with which the old man had risen from it; back and forth, a skritch and a squeal against the wear-polished pine floor.
Hardy blinked and returned to the present moment, but his voice was husky with memory as he said, “Bynum ’n me, we didn’t git on, never had from childhood. We split Pappy’s holdings when he died, and I don’t mind tellin’ ye that Bynum would hev cheated me on the settlement—but I was too sharp fer him!”
“You were full blood kin, you and your brother?” Old Nathan asked suddenly.
Bascom Hardy blinked again. “Eh?” he said. “The same mother, you mean? Thet’s so, but I don’t see how it sig . . .”
His voice trailed off as he heard it echoing previous words.
Old Nathan reached into the air above and behind his head. His eyes were open but fixed somewhere far beyond the solid log walls of his cabin. He felt . . . and it was there, his fingers closing on the bone-scaled jackknife as they always did when he twisted them just right.
He wasn’t sure where the knife was or how he found it; but he did find it, this time and each time before, and perhaps the next time as well.
His visitor’s eyes narrowed. Hardy was sure that the knife had come from Old Nathan’s sleeve, or perhaps had been hidden all the time by the cunning man’s long knobby fingers . . . but it looked as though—
Old Nathan handed the knife to Hardy and said, “Take it, take it. There’s no magic t’ this.”
No more was there; but wherever the knife had been was cooler than the late-August air of the cabin.
Bascom Hardy frowned as he took the knife. It was an ordinary two-blade jackknife, with German-silver bolsters and scales of jigged bone. The shield in the center of one yellow scale was the only thing to differentiate it from thousands of other knives brought into the territory in peddlers’ packs. The inset was true silver, which Old Nathan himself had hammered from a section of ten-cent piece and fixed to the knife by a silver rivet.
“Rub the silver plate with yer thumb ’n hand it back to me,” the cunning man directed. Hardy obeyed, but he frowned both at the brusque tone of the command and his inability to tell what the older man had in mind.
“Tell your tale, Bascom Hardy,” Old Nathan repeated quietly. He held the knife with the shield facing him. When he whispered a few words under his breath, the silver became a clouded gray.
“When I heard the discounts Bynum was takin’, I rid right over to him,” Hardy said. “Fust time I’d seen him since we settled Pappy’s estate, but blood’s thicker ’n water.”
“And gold’s thicker nor both,” the cunning man muttered, his eyes on the shield.
“Lived in a little scrape-hole cabin not so big as this,” Bascom Hardy said scornfully. “Bynum never knew thet if money was power, then power was money too. You got to put out to bring in, the way I do. He was the elder by a year, but I’m the one who got the sense.”
“Some families,” said Old Nathan, “the one child’s as big a durned fool as the next.” If he had glanced up as he spoke, the comment would have been pointed, but the cunning man continued staring at the knife in his hand.
“He’d took to his bed,” Hardy continued. “He knowed he was failin’, thet was sure. Didn’t own a thing no more but the cabin and a few sticks o’ furniture—” The visitor’s eyes danced around the room in which he sat. “And gold. He’d sold all thet land and all them notes-of-hand for gold. And he wouldn’t tell me where it was he kept the gold.”
A figure formed, on the silver shield or in Old Nathan’s mind; he couldn’t be sure, nor did it matter. A crab-faced man, his skin stained yellow by the lingering death of his liver, lying on a corn-shuck mattress with a threadbare blanket pulled up to his throat. The man was bald and aged by sickness, so that he might as easily have been Bascom Hardy’s father as brother.
“He warn’t able t’ care for that gold!” Bascom Hardy added bitterly. “He warn’t able t’ care fer nothin, him a-layin’ there on the bed and not a servant in the house. Couldn’t get up to fetch a dipper of water, Bynum couldn’t!”
“Hadn’t any neighbors in t’ he’p him, then?” Old Nathan asked.
Bascom’s voice had caught when he mentioned the dipper of water. The cunning man did not need his arts to imagine the hale brother at the bedside, tempting the sick man with sight of a cool drink that could be his if only he spoke where his wealth was hidden. . . .
“Bynum didn’t hold with neighbors pokin’ their noses in his business,” Bascom Hardy said sharply.
Old Nathan smiled at the silver. “No more do you,” he said.
“Thet’s as may be!” his visitor snapped. “I told you once, it’s not me thet’s your affair, d’ye hear?”
“Say on, Bascom Hardy,” the cunning man said.
Hardy settled back in his chair, though he couldn’t have been said to relax. “He said he’d come back and tell me of the gold whin the moon was new again,” Bascom said.
On or through the knife’s silver window, Bynum’s jaundiced image mimed the words Bascom spoke aloud.
“ ‘Come back here’, that was how he put it,” Bascom continued, “and then he died.” Hardy frowned at the memory. “Didn’t even ask fer a drink, though I had the dipper right there.”
He looked up, his brown eyes full of purpose and as hard as polished chert. “I want you t’ set up in Bynum’s old cabin when the moon goes in, three nights from now. You listen t’ what he says and you won’t be the loser fer it, you hear me?”
Old Nathan was in a dream state where all knowledge was bounded by the blurry walls of the tunnel which linked him to the shield on the knife scale. It was broad daylight in the world of the cabin, but formless gray in his mind.
Bascom Hardy’s voice penetrated with difficulty to the cunning man’s consciousness. The cries of birds and animals going about the business of their lives were lost in the shadows.
“Hit’s been nigh three months since your brother died,” Old Nathan said. The face on the silver was changing to that of a hard, square man of middle age. His front teeth were missing. “Who did ye put t’ setting up afore me?”
“I don’t see it signifies,” Bascom Hardy grumbled. His host’s blurred consciousness disturbed him, though he had no idea of what was going on behind Old Nathan’s hooded eyes.
After a moment, Hardy said, “Gray Jack it was. I have enemies, you kin see thet. He looked out fer me, the way Ned does now. I figgered when the new moon come again, Jack could spend a night in the cabin. If anybody come by t’ speak—waal, he was a brave man, so he told me.”
Old Nathan’s lips twisted into an expression that could have been a smile or a sneer, whichever way a man wanted to read it. “You didn’t say to him thet it was your dead brother would come t’ speak, did ye?” he said. His voice echoed from the gray tunnel of his mind.
“How did I know it was?” the rich man blazed in defensive anger. “Anyhow, Jack didn’t ask me, did he? And there’s an all-fired mess of gold thet my brother hid somewhur, a mess of gold, I tell ye!”
“There’s a well in front of yer brother’s cabin,” Old Nathan said as images streamed across the silver and through his mind.
“There’s nothin’ to the well but water ’n a rock floor,” Bascom Hardy said dismissively. “D’ye think I didn’t try thet the first thing out whin Bynum died?”
“Sompin come out of the well,” the cunning man said. “What I cain’t tell, because my mirror’s silver and there’s things silver won’t show . . . but I reckon it was yer brother.”
“Gray Jack said nobody come,” Bascom said harshly. “I knowed he was lying. Shook like an aspen, he did, whin he tole me in the morning. I figger he run away soon as he seen Bynum.”
“You figger wrong,” Old Nathan said, too flat to be an argument. “The cabin has one door only, and Bynum was to thet door afore yer man heard him. He’d hev run if he could, but he hid under the bed. And yer brother, he et the supper and went out t’ the well again.”
“There’s nothing in thet well, I tell you!” Bascom shouted. “Nor in the cabin neither! I warrant I searched it like no cabin been searched afore.”
He swallowed, then continued more calmly, “Bynum, he’s burried t’ the back of the plot, not the front. I’d hev put him in the churchyard down t’ Ridley, but the Baptists wouldn’t hev him. I reckon they figgered I oughta pay them—but how was I t’ do thet, I ask you, whin I haven’t found airy cent of Bynum’s money?”
Old Nathan smiled again. “Don’t guess money was the problem, them not wanting yer t’ bury yer brother,” he said. The distance from which he spoke took the edge off the words. “What happened t’ Jack, Bascom Hardy?”
The rich man looked up at the roof poles. A strip of bullhide dangled from them, the horns at the top and the coarse hairs of the bull’s tail-tip brushing the floor. “I reckon,” he lied, “Jack went off on his own.”
“He hung hisself,” said the cunning man.
“And what if he did?” Bascom Hardy shouted. “Hit was his own choice, warn’t it? Just like the poor folk, they don’t hoe their crop ’n thin they blame me when I buy their land at the sheriff’s sale!”
“Was a woman the next time,” said Old Nathan as the images in his silver-washed mind changed. “Old Mamie Fergusson from Battle Branch down Columbia way.”
Bascom Hardy had come to Old Nathan because of the cunning man’s reputation, but he squirmed nonetheless at proof of the reality behind that reputation. “Guess hit might hev been. She come t’ me. I reckon she thought she’d find the gold herse’f, but what she said was she’d sit up fer me.”
“Calls herse’f a witch,” Old Nathan said quietly. “There’s other folks as call her worse.”
“What’s thet to me?” his visitor demanded. “Anyhow, who’re you to speak?”
“The Devil’s loose in the world, Bascom Hardy,” Old Nathan said without emotion, staring into the silver pool. “But I’m the Devil’s master, depend on it.”
Hardy grimaced, upset by the thought and the turn of conversation. “Don’t signify,” he muttered. “Anyhow, she didn’t he’p neither. Guess she run off too.”
“Guess she would hev chose to,” said Old Nathan, “but she didn’t get thet pick. Hit was at the door, and she hid in an old chest while hit et her supper. Your brother Bynum did.”
“Warn’t nothing in thet chest worth hauling off,” Bascom Hardy said uncomfortably. “Nor the chest itself, neither.”
Forestalling the next question, he added, “The old woman, she went off with her daughter. I reckon they’ll put her in the State Farm if she don’t quit shoutin’ and carryin’ on, but thet’s not my business neither!”
Layers of thick gray felt peeled back one by one from around the cunning man. Sunlight streamed into his consciousness, but for a moment he could only shiver despite its warming impact. The knife trembled in his hand, but he didn’t trust his control to put it away just yet.
Birds chirped in fear and anger. One of Old Nathan’s heifers complained loudly at a rabbit which had hopped across the meadow and startled her.
“What’s the matter with you?” Hardy demanded. He was concerned not with his host’s condition, but that the condition might somehow threaten him.
Old Nathan shook himself. He gripped the back of the rocking chair. The solid contact was all that had kept him upright for a moment. “You mind yerself,” he muttered. “Nothin’s the matter with me.”
The yellow tomcat stepped into the cabin again with his head high. There was a titmouse in his jaws. It peeped and fluttered one wing minusculy.
“Whyn’t you set up fer your brother yerse’f, Bascom Hardy?” the cunning man asked.
His visitor looked away from the probing green eyes. “Bynum ’n me, we didn’t git along when he was alive,” Hardy said. “Don’t guess him bein’ dead ud change thet fer the better now—ifen it is him comin’ back, the way he said he would.”
Hardy lost the aura of discomfort which had momentarily softened his angular body. “Look here,” he said. “Thet gold’s mine now, not some dead man’s. Mine by law and mine by right. I mean t’ have it!”
He leaned forward again. “Now, you know about spooks, I reckon. Nothing there t’ skeer you. You set up in Bynum’s cabin when the moon’s dark these three nights from now, and I’ll see you right of it. D’ye hear me?”
I hear more ’n you think you’re saying’, Bascom Hardy, the cunning man thought as he looked down at the other man. Aloud he said, “Reckon I kin git a neighbor t’ milk the cows fer a few days.”
When he smiled, as now, Old Nathan’s mouth looked like an axe-cut in a block of walnut heartwood. “I don’t know thet I’d claim t’ hev friends hereabouts. But airy soul knows I pay my debts . . . and there’s none so sure of hisse’f thet he don’t think he might need what I could do fer him one day.”
Bascom Hardy stood up. “Waal,” he said, though the words were flummery, “I’m a businessman and I like t’ see another businessman. Will ye come with me now t’ Bynum’s cabin?”
“I reckon I kin find it myse’f,” Old Nathan said. “I’ll be there afore the new moon.”
“I’ll look for ye,” Hardy said in false joviality.
He opened the front door wider to leave. The motion pulled a breeze that scattered a slush of gray pinfeathers across the cabin floor. It was always amazing to see how many feathers a bird had, even a small bird.
“He had his say,” muttered the cat past a mouthful of titmouse, “ ’n I had mine.”
Old Nathan scowled—at the cat’s ruthlessness, and at the image of that same set of mind which he knew was within his own soul.
* * *
“Thur’s horses waitin’ up around the next bend,” said the mule as his shoes click-clicked down the loose stones of the sloping trail. “Thur’s men with ’em too, I reckon.”
“Thankee,” said Old Nathan.
He shifted his flintlock so that it lay crossways to the saddle horn, not slanting forward. The undergrowth springing from this rocky clay soil was open enough that the long barrel wouldn’t catch; and it was neither polite nor safe to offer a stranger his first view of you over a rifle’s muzzle.
“Thet mean we’re goin’ t’ set a piece, thin?” the mule asked.
“I reckon it does,” the cunning man agreed.
The mule blew its lips out. “ ’Bout damn time,” it muttered.
It was a good beast. Always grumbling, but no worse than any other mule; and always willing to do its job, though never happy about it.
Bascom Hardy scrambled to his feet when he saw Old Nathan mounted on the mule. His bodyguard Ned was a step slower, but that was because the half-breed’s first thought was to point the musket toward the sudden sound. Ned had a hard man’s instincts, but he warn’t sharp enough nor quick enough t’ be a problem if he decided to try conclusions at the small end of a rifle.
Folk hereabouts hed got soft. Back in the days when he followed Colonel Sevier to King’s Mountain, then men were men.
The hillside had never been cut for planting. Bynum Hardy’s cabin was just out of sight among pines and the dogwoods which had grown up where the narrow clearing let in the sun. Old Nathan knew the building was there, though, because he’d seen it in the silver shield of his knife. The well that he’d seen also, just downslope of the dwelling, set right there next the trail where Bascom Hardy and his man waited.
Hardy tugged out his watch, gold like the chain on which it hung, and flipped up the cover of its hunter case. “I figgered I’d come t’ make sure you kept your bargain,” he said irritably. “I’d come t’ misdoubt thet you would.”
“You keep yer britches on,” snapped the cunning man. A feller who used a watch t’ tell time in broad daylight spent too much of his life with money in tight-hedged rooms. . . . “I said I’d be here, ’n here I am—”
He looked pointedly up at the sky. The sun was below the pine-fringed rim of the notch, but the visible heavens were still bright blue “—well afore time.”
“Could use a drink,” the mule grumbled. It kept walking on, toward the well. There wasn’t a true spring house, but the well had a curb of mud-chinked fieldstones and a shelter roof from which half the shingles had blown or broken.
“Us too,” whickered Bascom Hardy’s walking horse, tied by his reins to a trailside alder. He jerked his head and made the alder sway. “Didn’t neither of ’em water us whin we got here, ’n thet was three hours past.”
“Lead yer horses t’ me,” Old Nathan grunted as he swung off the mule. “I’ll water the beasts like a decent man ought.”
The curb’s chinking was riddled with wasp burrows. The well rope had seen better days, but it was sound enough and the wooden bucket was near new. The old one must uv rotted clean away, for a man as tight as Bynum Hardy to replace it.
Old Nathan looked down into the well.
“There’s nothing there, I tell ye,” Hardy said. A tinge of color in his voice suggested the rich man wasn’t fully sure he spoke the truth—and that it might be more than callous disregard for his horse which kept him away from the well.
“There’s water,” said Old Nathan. He leaned his rifle carefully against the well curb and released the brake to lower the bucket.
The same two poles that held up the shelter roof supported a pivot log as thick as one of the cunning man’s shanks. The crank and take-up spool, also wooden, were clamped to the well curb. The pivot log squealed loudly as it turned, but it kept the rope from rubbing as badly as it would have done against a fixed bar.
“Ned, take our horses over,” Hardy ordered abruptly.
The well was square dug and faced with rock. When the bucket splashed against the water a dozen feet below ground level, the sky’s bright reflection through missing shingles shattered into a thousand jeweled fragments. The white-oak bucket bobbed for a moment before it tipped sideways and filled for Old Nathan to crank upward again.
He took a mouthful of water before tipping the rest of the bucket into the pine trough beside the well curb. It tasted clean, without a hint of death or brimstone . . . or of gold, which had as much of Satan in it as the other two together, thet was no more ’n the truth.
“You wait yer turn,” the mule demanded as Hardy’s horse tried to force its head into the trough first. “Lessen you want a couple prints the size uv my hind shoes on yer purty hide.”
“Well!” the horse said. “There’s room for all I’d say—ifen all were gentlemen.” But he backed off, and the mule made a point of letting the bodyguard’s nondescript mare drink before shifting himself out of the walking horse’s way at about the time Old Nathan spilled the third bucketful into the trough.
Old Nathan looked up to the cabin, dug into the backslope sixty feet up from the well. It squatted there, solid and ugly and grim. The door in the front was low, and the side windows were no bigger than a man’s arm could reach through.
The cabin’s roof was built bear-proof. Axe-squared logs were set edge to edge from the walls to the heavy ridgepole, with shingles laid down the seams t’ keep out the rain. The whole thing was more like a hog barn thin a cabin; but it warn’t hogs nor people neither that the sturdy walls pertected, hit was gold. . . .
“Well, ye coming in with me?” Old Nathan said in challenge.
“I bin there,” Bascom Hardy said without meeting the cunning man’s eyes. “Don’t guess there’s much call I should do thet again, what with it gettin’ so late.”
Hardy’s hand twitched toward his watch pocket again, but he caught himself before he dipped out the gold hunter. “I reckon I’ll be going,” he said, tugging the reins of his horse away from the water trough. “I’ll be by come sun-up t’ see thet you’ve kept yer bargain, though.”
The rich man and his bodyguard mounted together. If Ned had been the man he was hired t’ be, he’d hev waited so they weren’t the both of ’em hanging with their hands gripping saddles and each a leg dangling in the air.
Bascom Hardy settled himself. “I warn ye not t’ try foolin’ me,” he called. “I kin see as far into a millstone as the next man.”
“Hmpf,” grunted Old Nathan. He took his rifle in one hand and the mule’s reins in the other. “Come along, thin, mule,” he said as he started walking toward the cabin. No point in climbin’ into the saddle t’ ride sixty feet.
“Ye’d think,” he muttered, “thet if they trust me not t’ hie off in the night with the gold, they oughtn’t worry I’d come where I said I’d come.”
The mule clucked in amusement. “Whur ye goin’ t’ run?” it asked. “Past them, settlin’ a few furlongs up the road, er straight inter the trees like a squirrel? The trail don’t go no further thin we come.”
The cunning man looked over his shoulder in surprise. The two horsemen had disappeared for now; but, as the mule said, they wouldn’t go far. Just far enough to be safe from whatever came visiting the cabin.
And Bynum Hardy’s cabin really was the end of the trail that led to it. “Broad as the trail was beat, I reckoned there was more cabins ’n the one along hit,” Old Nathan muttered.
Gold had beaten the trail. Need for money had brought folk to Bynum Hardy’s door, even back here in a hollow too steep-sided to be cleared while there was better land still to be had. A cheap tract, where a cheap man could settle and sow the crop he knew, gold instead of corn.
And when the loans sprouted, they brought folk back a dozen times more. People bent with the effort of raising the payments until they broke—and Bynum Hardy took their land and changed it in good time to more gold.
“You’ll feed me now, I reckon,” the mule said at the door of the cabin.
Much of the clay chinking had dropped out from between the logs. It lay as a reddish smear at the base of the walls. The cabin was still solid, but it had deteriorated badly since the day it was built for want of care.
Old Nathan looked upward. The sky was visibly darker than it had been when he met Bascom Hardy. “I figger,” he said, “I’ll get a fire going whilst there’s daylight. Like as not I’ll need t’ cut wood, and I only packed a hand-axe along.”
“Reckon you’ll feed me now,” the mule repeated. “Thur’s no stable hereabouts, and I don’t guess yer fool enough to think the reins ’ll hold me ifen I’m hungry.”
The cunning man leaned his rifle against the wall, then turned to uncinch the saddle. Most of the load in the saddlebags was grain and fodder for the mule. He hadn’t expected to find pasture around the dead miser’s cabin. . . .
“You’re nigh as stubborn as a man, ye know thet?” he said to the mule.
The beast snorted with pleasure at the flattery. “What is it ye need t’ do here?” it asked.
Old Nathan lifted off the saddle with the bags still attached to it. “Set till somebody comes by,” he said. “Listen t’ what they say.”
The mule snorted again. “Easy ’nuff work,” it said. “Beats draggin’ a plow all holler.”
“Easy enough t’ say,” Old Nathan said grimly as he unbuckled one of the bags. “How easy hit is t’ do, thet we’ll know come morning.”
There were no clouds in the sky, but the blue had already richened to deep indigo.
* * *
The soil round about the cabin had been dug up like a potato field, and the fireplace within was in worse shape yet. All the stones of the hearth had been levered out of their mud grouting and cast into a corner.
Somebody since, Gray Jack or the witchwoman Mamie Fergusson, had set a fire on the torn clay beneath the flue. Recently cut wood lay near the fireplace where the bodyguard tumbled it the day he watched and waited—for Bynum Hardy, though he didn’t know that at the time.
Old Nathan got to work promptly, notching feathers from the edge of a split log with his hand-axe. He made a fireset of punk and dry leaves to catch the sparks he struck from a fire steel with a spare rifle flint, then fed the tiny flames with a blob of pine pitch before adding the wood. When that log had well and truly caught, he added others with care.
The process was barely complete before the hollow’s early dark covered the cabin. The cunning man stepped back, breathing through nostrils flared by the mental strain of his race with the light. There were other ways Old Nathan could have ignited a fire . . . but though some of those ways looked as easy as a snap of the fingers, they had hidden costs. It was better to struggle long in the dark with flint and steel than to use those other ways.
The orange flames illuminated but did not brighten the interior of the cabin. The single room was bleak and as dank as a cave. The furnishings were slight and broken down—but most likely as good as they had been while Bynum Hardy lived in this fortified hovel. There was a flimsy table and a sawn section of tree bole, a foot in diameter, to act as a stool.
The bed frame was covered with a corn-shuck mattress and a blanket so tattered that Bascom Hardy had abandoned it after his brother’s death. The cunning man remembered the image of Gray Jack cowering beneath the low bed, hopelessly slight cover but all there was . . . and sufficient, because the one/thing who entered the cabin the night of the new moon wasn’t interested in looking for whoever might be hiding.
The leather hinges had rotted off the chest by the sidewall. The lid hung askew to display a few scrappy bits of clothing. Gray Jack was too big to fit into the chest, but it had been just the right size for Mistress Fergusson.
Neither of Bascom Hardy’s two watchers had escaped, not in the end. One hanged and one raving; and a third, Old Nathan, waiting for his fire to burn down so that he could make ash cakes with the coals.
The cunning man sighed. He’d been afraid before, plenty of times; but he’d never been so fearful that he didn’t stand up to it. If there was a thing on earth he was sure of, it was that running didn’t make fear less, and standing couldn’t make it greater.
But that didn’t mean the thing you feared and faced wouldn’t eat you alive. There were false fears; but some were true enough, and there was nothing false about whatever came to this cabin for the bodyguard and the witch a month ago, and a month before that.
Old Nathan added more wood to the fire, then began a task to keep his hands full and his mind calm. As he worked, he clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and called softly, “Hey there! Anybody t’ home?”
“Who’s thet you’re speakin’ to, then?” the mule demanded from the other side of the closed door. Like everything else about the cabin, the door panel was crude but massively strong. It had wrought iron hinges and crossed straps of iron on the outer face.
“I reckon there might be somebody as could tell me about Bynum Hardy,” Old Nathan answered. “A squirrel, maybe, er a mouse.”
The mule snorted. “Naught here t’ bring airy soul,” the beast said. “ ’Cept a man, I reckon, ’n they ain’t got the sense God gave a rock.”
Old Nathan opened his mouth to snarl a reply; but when he thought through the mule’s comment, it was all true enough. No food, and shelter worse nor a log rotted holler. . . .
He went on with his task.
“Whut is hit you’re doin’ in thur, then?” the mule asked.
It occurred to the cunning man that his animal was uneasy, though there was little chance of a bear or a painter hereabouts. Bynum Hardy’s cabin was strengthened against human enemies, not beasts. . . .
“I’m pulling the charge from my rifle gun,” Old Nathan said. He tipped down the flintlock’s muzzle. The powder charge dribbled along the bore and out onto a square of hard-finished leather. From there he would transfer the powder back to the polished cowhorn whose wooden stopper measured the charge proper to this weapon.
“Whutever possessed ye t’ do sich a durn-fool thing as that?” the mule demanded in outrage. “Whut sort uv place d’ye think this is, anyhow?”
On the table before Old Nathan lay the ball and the patch lubricated with a mixture of butter and beeswax. He would not use tallow, any more than he would eat meat; from a bird, a beast, or a human, it was all the same in his mind.
“Ifen I leave the charge in the bore overnight,” he said softly, more to himself than the mule, “hit’ll draw water ’n rust. And besides . . .”
Firelight winked from fresh, unoxidized lead where the screw in the back of the cunning man’s ramrod had dug in to withdraw the ball. When he returned home, Old Nathan would recast the bullet; but—needs must and the Devil drove—he could use the ball as it was. Seated with the screw gouge down against the powder, it would fly true enough for the purpose.
“And besides,” the old man said, “I don’t reckon whativer comes ’ll be much fazed by a rifle ball, so mebbe hit’s best I don’t put temptation in my way.”
The mule grunted, but it said nothing more.
Old Nathan set the empty flintlock in a corner beside the door, away from the smoke and sparks of the fire. There weren’t any pegs to hang a rifle up properly, though he didn’t guess a man as rich and fearful as Bynum Hardy had done his business without a gun to hand.
He set the cloth-wrapped paste of corn meal on the hearth and raked coals over it to cook the batter into ash cakes. It wasn’t so very late, but it felt late.
The Devil himse’f knew it felt late.
The sauce pan was full of leather-britches beans boiled with hot peppers. Old Nathan set the container on the table, then stepped back to the fireplace to fetch the ash cakes.
“Hey!” the mule snorted. “Ye’ve comp’ny comin’, old man!”
Old Nathan poised for a moment, hunched over the hearth with his eyes closed. Well, he hadn’t come all this way not t’ meet Bynum Hardy. He straightened and walked to the door, opening it wide.
Something—somebody—was climbing out of the well. The figure was almost over the curb, but Old Nathan had time Gray Jack and the witchwoman didn’t have. Time to run . . . except there was never a good time to run.
The mule snorted restively. The beast was a warm presence, but Old Nathan could see nothing of it beyond the glint of starlight on one wide, staring eyeball.
Bynum Hardy wore a suit of rusty black with a collarless shirt. The soles of his ankle boots were patched with patterned cowhide. He and his garments were as clear as though a living man stood in broad daylight, but whatever illuminated the figure cast no glow on the solid objects around it.
“I’m not so durned a fool thet I’ll wait here!” the mule muttered as it moved off at a shambling trot. The animal’s course was marked by occasional sparks from its shoes on quartz and the crash of undergrowth at the edge of the clearing.
Bynum Hardy began walking up the short trail to the cabin.
Old Nathan went back inside. He left the door open. His fire had burned down, but its orange flames had a cheerful character that he hadn’t imagined in them until after he saw the cold gray light dripping onto the surface of the figure from the well.
He recollected how much afraid he’d been at King’s Mountain—after the bullet hit him. His buckskin breeches wet with hot blood, and him unwilling to look down to see what the bullet had done. Though he knew where the bullet passed—and what it passed through on its way.
Old Nathan spilled the layers of ash and burned-out coals from the cloth over his cakes. Before he placed the ash cakes on the table, however, he added a fresh log to the fire.
When he turned with the cakes, Bynum Hardy was at the door.
“Howdy do,” Old Nathan said in a voice as gruff and clear as that with which he’d greet any benighted traveller. He put the hot corn cakes down on a slab of bark and peeled the cloth off the top of them. “How ye gettin’ on?”
“All right, I guess,” said Bynum Hardy. He sounded as though he were still calling up out of the well, but it might be he always sounded that way—alive as well as now that he was dead.
He looked at the cunning man and added, “I hope you’re well?”
“About like common,” Old Nathan said. He flicked his bearded chin to indicate the food on the table. “Set ’n eat with me, won’t ye? Hain’t much, but it’s hot.”
“No thankee,” said the cabin’s dead owner. He walked around the table to the hearth. His feet did not sound on the puncheon floor. “Reckon I’ll jist warm myse’f at yer fire, ifen ye don’t mind.”
Old Nathan stared at the dead man’s back. “Suit yerse’f,” he said; and sat on the sawn round of treebole; and began to eat.
The food had no taste in his mouth, for all the pepper in the beans and a touch of onion in the ash-cake batter.
When the cunning man finished his meal, using his hands and the spoon from his budget, he looked at Bynum Hardy again. Mostly the fellow held his palms out to the fire, but occasionally he turned his hands to warm the backs. His body appeared solid as a living man’s, but the cold internal glow defined parts which should have been in shadow.
Old Nathan took another swig from his water bottle. The last bite of ash cake hed like t’ stuck in his throat. . . .
He got up and stepped to the hearth, carrying the slab of poplar bark he’d cut for a plate. Bynum Hardy moved aside in a mannerly fashion, making room for the living man. His figure had no temperature Old Nathan could feel, neither as warm as life, nor cold like a corpse buried three months in the wet clay.
The fire had sunk to a few sawteeth of flame and coals reflecting back from white ash. The cunning man tossed the bark in and watched it flare into bright popping yellow. Bynum Hardy folded his arms, but he did not back away.
“If ye like,” Old Nathan said, “I’d throw another stick er two on the fire fer ye.”
No response. “Er you kin fix it the way ye choose, I reckon.”
The bark burned away to a twisted black scrap. The room seemed darker than before the quick flames had lighted it.
Bynum Hardy turned and said, “Thankee, but I reckon this’ll do me. You jist go about yer business.”
Old Nathan met the dead man’s eyes. “Myse’f,” he said, “I figger I’ll turn in. Hit’s been a long day.”
He opened his blanket roll, took off his boots, and settled down against a sidewall, away from both the fire and the rotten scraps of Bynum Hardy’s bed.
He didn’t guess he’d be able to sleep. Bedding down was the best way to keep from showing the fear that would otherwise consume him.
But sleep the cunning man did, looking back toward the settling fire and the crisply illuminated figure standing in front of it.
Old Nathan awoke.
It was nigh about midnight from the fire’s state. The hearth cast a patch of warmth into the air, but only the faintest glow suggested coals were still alive.
Bynum Hardy was walking toward the door, and his boots made no sound.
“Howdy,” the cunning man said.
The ghost image turned and looked at him. “Reckon I’ll go off, now,” he said in hollow tones. “Thankee fer the fire. I been mighty cold the past while.”
Hardy took another step toward the open door.
“I thought there was maybe a message ye wanted t’ speak,” Old Nathan said, supporting his torso with one arm. “Fer yer brother, it might be.”
Bynum Hardy turned again. “Not here,” he said. “You foller me t’ home, then I’ll give you a word t’ take t’ Bascom.”
“I understood this t’ be yer cabin,” Old Nathan said. He fetched his left boot forward in the dark and began to draw it onto his foot.
“Hain’t mine now,” said Bynum Hardy. “You foller me, and ye’ll git the word ye come fer.”
He went out the door. The cunning man hopped after him, pulling on his right boot.
It wasn’t a surprise, not really, to see Bynum Hardy disappear back into the well.
Old Nathan paused at the curb. He gripped the well rope, wishing he were younger; wishing—
No. He was where he chose to be, and he was the man he chose to be. He wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Hand over hand, Old Nathan climbed down into darkness.
* * *
Old Nathan’s head dropped below the level of the well curb. The world above him became a handful of gray blotches cast on greater blackness: patches where shingles missing from the shelter roof showed the sky. Some hint of light must remain to the heavens, though there had been no sign of it when the cunning man looked up before grasping the well rope.
He waited for the splash that meant Bynum Hardy had reached the surface of the water. He heard nothing but his own breath wheezing in the square stone confines of the well shaft.
He waited for his boots to touch the water. Wondered what he would do then, go on like a blame fool till he was soaked and cold, or haul up again and tell Bascom Hardy that he’d failed. . . .
He didn’t come to a conclusion. The choices kept walking through his mind as his strong old hands lowered him further—until he realized that if this rope led anywhere, it was not to the water from which Old Nathan drank and drew for the horses.
The cunning man’s mouth worked, but he said nothing aloud. He’d not been able to pray since King’s Mountain; and this was no place for a man to curse.
His arms ached. He sweated with the effort of the descent, but the droplets runneling down the troughs beside his spine were cold by the time they soaked the waistband of his trousers.
Abruptly, Old Nathan began to laugh. He wheezed from exhaustion, but the humor was real enough. It wasn’t every durn fool who had time to see what an all-mighty durn fool he’d been for the last time in his life!
There was Zeb Frawley, who thought he could call down lightning, which was maybe right—and thought he could direct that lightning’s path, which was wrong as wrong, and his bloated body to prove it the next morning. There was John Wesley Ives who’d witched Leesha Tazewell into his bed—and forgot that while Rufe Tazewell didn’t know a lick of magic, he could shoot out a squirrel’s eye at thirty paces; or shoot through the bridge of John Wesley Ives’ nose at a hundred, as it turned out.
Then there was—
The weight came off the cunning man’s arms. The distant echo of his laughter rumbled back to him, as if from the walls of an immense cavern. He felt nothing under his feet to support him, but neither was he falling.
The air around the cunning man was not black but gray, a gray so dense that he could not see his own hands when he raised them to his face. His calloused palms felt rough and loose from the pull of the rope.
“Bynum Hardy!” he called. “I’ve come t’ ye. Now show yerself!”
He didn’t know what he expected; only that he was no longer afraid. He’d faced this one till he beat the part of it that was in him; and for the rest, well, every man had his time, and if this was his time—so be it.
The gray cleared like fog streaming in a windstorm. A long tunnel with a figure at the end of it, then up close enough to touch: Bynum Hardy, twisting like a pat of butter across a hot skillet, and nowhere to go however it turns.
“I played yer games,” Old Nathan said harshly. “Now I’ll hev my side of the bargain. Give me the word t’ take t’ your brother.”
“D’ye know where I am, wizard?” Bynum Hardy said. He spoke through tight-clenched lips, like a man tensing against the pain of a gunshot—knowing that his blood and life ran out regardless.
“Thet makes no matter t’ me,” Old Nathan replied harshly. “Hit’s between you ’n whoever it was put ye here. Just answer me where yer brother’s gold is at.”
“The gold’s in the pivot log of the well,” Hardy said. “But it hain’t Bascom’s gold.”
Vague figures reached up from behind the dead man, or they may have been wisps of fog. Something constrained and tortured Bynum Hardy, but there was no sign of it to the cunning man’s eyes.
“Tain’t your’n anyways,” Old Nathan snapped. His conscious mind had only loathing for the tortured figure, but the skin of the cunning man’s arms pricked up in goosebumps from the sight. It warn’t fright; only the way his body was contending.
But the righteous truth was, he wanted no more part of this wherever place.
“I’ve told you what Bascom wants t’ hear,” Bynum Hardy said, twitching and grimacing between the words. “Now I’ll tell ye what he must hear. He’s t’ take thet gold and give it t’ them poor folk I wronged when I was alive. Tell him!”
“If bein’ poor meant bein’ virtuous,” Old Nathan said in sudden anger, “thin there’d be a sight less wickedness in the world. D’ye think scatt’ring money on good folk ’n bad alike is going t’ buy you out uv this here place?”
“Don’t you be a greater fool ’n God made ye, Nathan Ridgeway,” said the dead man, speaking a name Old Nathan thought there wasn’t a soul in the county to remember or care.
Bynum Hardy leaned forward, against the pull of invisible, flamingly-cold bonds. He gasped with pain, then went on, “Hit don’t signify what they were, good men nor bad. Hit’s what I did thet put me here. I squeezed, ’n whin they cried out I squeezed the harder, fer thet meant they were weak. Bascom’s to give the gold t’ them as I took it from, their crops ’n their land . . . and if I could, the very clothes they wore.”
The skin of Bynum Hardy’s cheeks drew out to either side, as though men with tongs had gripped him. He sobbed wordlessly with his eyes closed for a moment. “All the gold, all the prayers on earth, wizard . . .” Hardy managed to whisper.
His eyes opened, filled with pain, as he continued, “None of it’s airy good t’ me now. Hit’s all too late. I never done a speck uv good t’ airy soul while I was alive—but I’ll do this now fer my brother Bascom, ifen he’ll only listen. Tell him t’ give my gold away, and maybe he’ll find a better place whin he follows me.”
A spasm of something unendurable dragged a scream from the dead man’s throat. “Tell him thet . . .” he rasped, and the smoke-gray emptiness swept over Old Nathan again.
The cunning man felt movement, but he could not tell how or whither. There were moans, but they might have been the blood soughing in his ears—
And the clammy fingers that twice plucked Old Nathan’s garments could have come from his imagination alone. . . .
“Thur’s a couple horses comin’ down the trail,” called the mule. “Reckon thur’s men with ’em too.”
It was dawn, thought barely. Old Nathan was wrapped in his blanket, but he felt as stiff and cold as if he’d spent the night in the rain on a barn roof.
He threw his cover back. His feet were bare, and his boots stood upright at the foot of the blanket.
The mule stuck its head in the cabin’s open door. “Wouldn’t turn down some breakfast,” it said. “Say, whur was it ye went last night?”
Old Nathan drew his boots on. “Don’t know thet I did,” he said as he stood up.
The mule snorted and backed away to allow the cunning man to pass him. “Don’t give me thet,” the beast said. “What d’ye take me fer, a horse? I watched fum the trees whilst you went down the well with thet feller. Didn’t see ye come back, though.”
Old Nathan kneaded the mane and neck muscles of his mule. The beast butted him and muttered contrarily, “Naow, thur’s no cause fer this.” It was happy for the attention nonetheless.
“If I was down thet place . . .” the cunning man said. He looked toward the well, but he thought about somewhere far more distant. “Thin I’m right glad I did come back, however thet was.”
He strode toward the well.
“Hoy!” called the mule. “Ye forgit my breakfast!”
“I forgit nothing!” Old Nathan growled without turning around. “Ifen you come down here, yer majesty, I’ll pull ye some water, though.”
He had the third bucketful in the trough and the mule was drinking, when Bascom Hardy and his half-breed companion came around the bend in the trail. The bodyguard led. When Hardy saw that the cunning man was up and about, he pushed his horse past his servant’s and trotted the short distance to the well.
“Waal, what did ye see, old man?” Bascom Hardy demanded.
He wore the same clothes he’d wore yesterday, and he’d slept in them. There was a wild look in his eyes that reminded Old Nathan of Hardy’s brother Bynum; and reminded him also that there was more than hot iron as could torture a man.
“I seen yer brother,” the cunning man said simply. “He’s in a right bad place—”
“Told ye he tried t’ cheat me of Pappy’s prope’ty, didn’t I?” the rich man crowed. He swung out of the saddle. “But where’s the gold, thin, tell me thet?”
Hardy’s horse, with a patch of mud on its side that hadn’t been curried off, would have bumped Old Nathan on the way to the water if the cunning man hadn’t stepped back. The mule raised its huge, bony head from the trough and said, “Tsk! Watch it, purty boy, er they’ll find yer ribs in the middle uv next week.”
“But I’m parched!” the horse whinnied.
“Let the poor feller drink, mule,” the cunning man said. “He’s jist the way he was born. Hain’t nothin’ he kin help.”
“What’s thet?” demanded Bascom Hardy. “What’s thet you say?”
“Hit don’t signify,” Old Nathan said tiredly.
He rubbed his eyes, then met the rich man’s nervous glare. Hardy shifted from one leg to the other, ready to bust with frustration.
“Bynum said where the gold was,” the cunning man continued, “and ye’ll hev thet in a moment, so don’t git yer bowels in an uproar. But he said you’re t’ pay the money out t’ all the folk he took it from. You would’ve took his papers off first thing whin he died, so I reckon you kin find a few of them folks, anyways.”
Bascom Hardy’s mouth gawped open and let out something between a snort and a hoot of laughter. “Bynum was a fool airy day he lived,” the rich man said. “But he warn’t no sich fool as thet!”
His face hardened into fury. “What I figger,” Hardy rasped, “is thet you reckon t’ keep the gold fer yerse’f, old man. Well—”
He lifted his left hand and snapped his fingers. The half-breed cocked the hammer of his musket, though he kept the muzzle pointed down on the far side of his mare. Hardy’s own walking horse skittered sideways in panic at the metallic warning.
“Oh, yer a fine brave crew,” Old Nathan whispered. His voice sounded like a file setting up sawteeth. “Ye want the gold, d’ye? Well, I reckon you kin hev it.”
Anger sluiced the stiffness out of the old man’s joints. He stepped onto the well curb, then gripped the pivot log with both hands as he shouldered the nearer of the support poles aside.
“What’s thet you’re doin’?” Hardy demanded.
The pole gave enough for Old Nathan to spring the turned-down end of the pivot from the auger hole in the support. He pulled the log free, letting the well rope tumble down the shaft.
The pivot log was red oak. A heavy wood in all truth, but this was far heavier than wood.
The cunning man turned. Ned swung his musket over the mare’s neck to half-point in the old man’s direction.
“You do thet, boy,” Old Nathan said. “And you better be quick with the way you use it.”
“Ned,” said Bascom Hardy. “There’s no call . . .”
But the bodyguard had already hidden the weapon again, behind his body and the horse’s.
Old Nathan reached over his head. His fingers touched, gripped . . . came out into open air with the bone-scaled case knife. He stood on the stone curb, smiling coldly and staring at Ned. The half-breed refused to meet his eyes.
The cunning man used the knife’s larger blade to pry at the faint seam in the end of the pivot log. The plug dropped. The cavity within was the diameter of a man’s fist. Bascom Hardy’s breath drew in.
Old Nathan tilted the log and slid out the long leather poke that filled the hollow. It was so heavy that it clanked with a sound more like a smithy than a banker’s till.
Hardy snatched the sack from the trampled dirt. “Ned,” he gabbled in a high-pitched voice as he trotted up to the cabin, “you watch the door, ye hear me?”
The cunning man tossed the empty oak cylinder away and stepped to the ground. He didn’t reckon Bascom Hardy meant him to follow to see what was in the poke; but—he smiled grimly at Ned, who twisted his face away to avoid the hard green eyes—he didn’t reckon there’d be anyone try to stop him, neither.
He folded the blade and put his knife away.
The rich man trotted up the trail, but the sack’s weight slowed him. Anyhow, Old Nathan’s long legs had covered more miles in their time than Bascom Hardy had rode over. The two men reached the cabin together.
Hardy reached to close the door. The cunning man held the panel open with an arm as thin and hard as a hickory pole.
“Reckon you’ll want light,” Old Nathan said. “Lessen ye brung a tallow dip?”
The fury left the rich man’s face. “No,” he said. “I reckon the door kin stay.”
The poke was folded three times at the neck, but it had no drawstring tie. Hardy opened the end and gently fed its contents onto the table like a farmer squeezing milk from a cow’s udder.
The contents were gold, all gold but for one thin Spanish dollar.
“Oh . . .” the rich man sighed as he laid a glittering worm of coins across the surface of the rickety table.
There were twenty-dollar double eagles and every manner of other gold coins of the United States, but that was no more than half the assemblage. British guineas gleamed beside broad coins bearing the image of Maria Theresa, and the gold of a score of other nations and dynasties spilled across the table with them.
The folk who settled central Tennessee came from every part of Europe and from the world beyond. Those who had wealth brought it with them; and a part of that wealth had stuck to the fingers of Bynum Hardy. . . .
Old Nathan looked at the gold and looked at the face of Bascom Hardy; and began to pack his traps.
The rich man’s fingers moved with the precision of a clock’s escapement as he ordered the mingled coins into stacks and rows. Old Nathan rolled and tied his blanket, then gathered loose items and packed them in his budget.
He saved the sauce pan out. He’d scour that with water and sandy clay when he reached the well.
Gold chinked and whispered across the tabletop. Bascom Hardy did not look up.
“There’s the matter uv my pay,” the cunning man said.
Hardy started upward. For the first instant, his face bore the snarl of a fox surprised in a henhouse; but that passed as quickly as a lightning flash, leaving behind the stony haughtiness of a banker in his lair.
“Your pay, old feller?” Hardy said. “Show me the writing! I s’pect you know there’s no contract between us, not so’s any court ’ud find.”
Old Nathan said nothing; only stared.
Bascom Hardy met the cunning man’s eyes, then looked away.
“I’m a generous man,” the rich man said. His fingers played across his stacks of gold, touching them as lightly as wisps of spidersilk trailing from the grass. “I wouldn’t hev it said I didn’t treat a man better thin the law requires.”
He glanced up, meeting Old Nathan’s eyes briefly, then looking down again. On the table before Hardy were eleven guineas in stacks of five and five and one. His sallow index finger touched the lone piece, then raised again to hover above the sheen of pale African gold.
With a convulsive movement, Bascom Hardy slid the Spanish dollar instead across the table toward the cunning man.
“There,” the rich man said. “Take it ’n thankee. I’ll tell all I come to thet you’re a clever man. Thet’ll be money in yer pocket so long as ye live.”
Old Nathan took the eight-real coin between two fingers and turned it over. He set the silver piece back on the table.
“I tell ye!” Hardy said, his voice rising. “There’s no contract! You cain’t force me t’ pay you airy a cent!”
Old Nathan picked up his saddlebags and pan in one hand, then paused in the doorway to take his rifle from where he’d leaned it.
“Hain’t loaded,” he said with a tiny smile. “Don’t guess there’s aught I’ll meet t’ worry me on the road back.”
He walked out of the cabin. Hardy’s bodyguard had dismounted by the cabin. He watched the cunning man sidelong, nervously lipping his moustache.
“Wait!” Bascom Hardy called from the doorway. “Take your pay. It’s good silver!”
Old Nathan turned and looked at the rich man. “I reckon,” the cunning man said, “hit may take a heap of money fer ye to get where ye desarve t’ be. I wouldn’t want ye to come up short.”
As Old Nathan walked toward his mule, he whistled the air of a grim old ballad between his smiling teeth.