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"That don't half stink," grumbled the mule as Old Nathan came out of the shed with the saddle over his left arm and a bucket of bait in his right hand.
"Nobody asked you t' like it," the cunning man replied sharply. "Nor me neither, ifen it comes t' thet. It brings catfish like it's manna from hivven, and I do like a bit of smoked catfish fer supper."
"Waal, then," said the mule, "you go off t' yer fish and I'll mommick up some more oats while yer gone. Then we're both hap"
The beast's big head turned toward the cabin and its ears cocked forward. "Whut's thet coming?" it demanded.
Old Nathan set the bucket down and hung the saddle over a fence rail. He'd been raised in a time when the Tennessee Territory was wilderness and the few folk you met liable to be wilder yetthe Whites worse than the Indians.
But that was long decades ago. He'd gotten out of the habit of always keeping his rifle close by and loaded. But a time like this, when somebody crept up so you didn't hear his horse on the trail
Then you remembered that your rifle was in the cabin, fifty feet away, and that a man of seventy didn't move so quick as the boy of eighteen who'd aimed that same rifle at King's Mountain.
"Halloo the house?" called the visitor, and Old Nathan's world slipped back to this time of settlement and civilization. The voice was a woman's, not that of an ambusher who'd hitched his horse to a sapling back along the trail so as to shoot the cunning man unawares.
"We're out the back!" Old Nathan called. "Come through the cabin, or I'll come in t' ye."
It wasn't that he had enemies, exactly; but there were plenty folks around afraid of what the cunning man didor what they thought he did. Fear had pulled as many triggers as hatred over the years, he guessed.
"T'morry's a good time t' traipse down t' the river," the mule said complacently as it thrust its head over the snake-rail fence to chop a tuft of grass just within its stretch. "Or never a'tall, that's better yet."
"We're goin' t' check my trot line t'day, sooner er later!" Old Nathan said over his shoulder. "Depend on it!"
Both doors of the one-room cabin were open. Old Nathan liked the ventilation, though the morning was cool. His visitor came out onto the back porch where the water barrel stood and said, "Oh, I didn't mean t' take ye away from business. You jest go ahead 'n I'll be on my way."
Her name was Ellie. Ellie Ransden, he reckoned, since she'd been living these three years past with Bully Ransden, though it wasn't certain they'd had a preacher marry them. Lot of folks figured these old half-lettered stump-hole preachers hereabouts, they weren't much call to come between a couple of young people and God no-ways.
Though she still must lack a year of twenty, Ellie Ransden had a woman's full breasts and hips. Her hair, black as thunder, was her glory. It was piled now on top of her head with pins and combs, but if she shook it out, it would be long enough to fall to the ground.
The combs were the only bit of fancy about the woman. She wore a gingham dress and went barefoot, with calluses to show that was usual for her till the snow fell. Bully Ransden wasn't a lazy man, but he had a hard way about him that put folk off, and he'd started from less than nothing. . . .
If there was a prettier woman in the county than Ellie Ransden, Old Nathan hadn't met her.
"Set yerse'f," Old Nathan grunted, nodding her back into the cabin. "I'll warm some grounds."
"Hit don't signify," Ellie said. She looked up toward a corner of the porch overhang where two sparrows argued about which had stolen the thistle seed from the other. "I jest figgered I'd drop by t' be neighborly, but if you've got affairs . . . ?"
"The fish'll wait," said the cunning man, dipping a gourd of water from the barrel. He'd drunk the coffee in the pot nigh down to the grounds already. "I was jest talkin' t' my mule."
Ellie's explanation of what she was doing here was a lie for at least several reasons. First, Bully Ransden was no friend to the cunning man. Second, the two cabins, Old Nathan's and Ransden's back some miles on the main road, were close enough to be neighbors in parts as ill-settled as thesebut in the three years past, Ellie hadn't felt the need to come down this way.
The last reason was the swollen redness at the corners of the young woman's eyes. Mis'ry was what brought folks most times t' see the cunning man, t' see Old Nathan the Witch. Mis'ry and anger. . . .
Old Nathan poured water into the iron coffeepot on the table of his one-room cabin. Some of last night's coffee grounds, the beans bought green and roasted in the fireplace, floated on the inch of liquid remaining. They'd have enough strength left for another heating.
"Lots of folks, they talk t' their animals," he added defensively as he hung the refilled pot on the swinging bar and pivoted it back over the fire. Not so many thet hear what the beasts answer back, but thet was nobody's affair save his own.
"Cullen ain't a bad man, ye know," Ellie Ransden said in a falsely idle voice as she examined one of the cabin's pair of glazed sash-windows.
Old Nathan set a knot of pitchy lightwood in the coals to heat the fire up quickly. She was likely the only soul in the county called Bully Ransden by his baptized name. "Thet's for them t' say as knows him better 'n I do," he said aloud. "Or care t' know him."
"He was raised hard, thet's all," Ellie said to the rectangles of window glass. "I reckon"
She turned around and her voice rose in challenge, though she probably didn't realize what was happening. "thet you're afeerd t' cross him, same as airy soul hereabouts?"
Old Nathan snorted. "I cain't remember the time I met a man who skeerd me," he said. "Seeins as I've got this old, I don't figger I'll meet one hereafter neither."
He smiled, amused at the way he'd reacted to the girl'sthe woman'sobvious ploy. "Set," he offered, gesturing her to the rocking chair.
Ellie moved toward the chair, then angled off in a flutter of gingham like a butterfly unwilling to light for nervousness. She stood near the fireplace, staring in the direction of the five cups of blue-rimmed porcelain on the fireboard above the hearth. Her hands twisted together instinctively as if she were attempting to strangle a snake.
"Reckon you heerd about thet Modom Taliaferro down t' Oak Hill," she said.
Old Nathan seated himself in the rocker. There was the straight chair beside the table if Ellie wanted it. Now that he'd heard the problem, he didn't guess she was going to settle.
"Might uv heard the name," the cunning man agreed. "Lady from New Orleens, bought 'Siah Chesson's house from his brother back in March after thet dead limb hit 'Siah."
Oak Hill, the nearest settlement, wasn't much, but its dozen dwellings were mostly of saw-cut boards. There was a store, a tavern, and several artisans who supplemented their trade with farm plots behind the houses.
Not a place where a wealthy, pretty lady from New Orleans was likely to be found; but it might be that Madame Francine Taliaferro didn't choose to be found by some of those looking for her.
Ellie turned and glared at Old Nathan. "She's a whore!" she blazed, deliberately holding his eyes.
Pitch popped loudly in the hearth. Old Nathan rubbed his beard. "I ain't heard," he said mildly, "thet the lady's sellin' merchandise of any sort."
"Then she's a witch," Ellie said, as firm as a treetrunk bent the last finger's breadth before it snaps.
"Thet's a hard word," the cunning man replied. "Not one t' spread where it mayn't suit."
He had no desire to hurt his visitor, but he wasn't the man to tell a lie willingly; and he wasn't sure that right now, a comforting lie wouldn't be the worse hurt.
"Myse'f," the cunning man continued, "I don't reckon she's any such a thing. I reckon she's a purty woman with money and big-city ways, and thet's all."
Ellie threw her hands to her face. "She's old!" the girl blubbered as she turned her back. "She mus' be thutty!"
Old Nathan got up from the rocker with the caution of age. "Yes ma'm," he agreed dryly. "I reckon thet's rightly so."
He looked at the fire to avoid staring at the back of the woman, shaking with sobs. "I reckon the coffee's biled," he said. "I like a cup t' steady myse'f in the mornings."
Ellie tugged a kerchief from her sleeve. She wiped her eyes, then blew her nose violently before she turned again.
"Why look et the time!" she said brightly. "Why, I need t' be runnin' off right now. Hit's my day t' bake light-bread fer Cullen, ye know."
Ellie's false, fierce smile was so broad that it squeezed another tear from the corner of her eye. She brushed the drop away with a knuckle, as though it had been a gnat about to bite.
"He's powerful picky about his vittles, my Cull is," she went on. "He all'us praises my cookin', though."
Ellie might have intended to say more, but her eyes scrunched down and her upper lip began to quiver with the start of another sob. She turned and scampered out the front door in a flurry of check-patterned skirt. "Thankee fer yer time!" she called as she ran up the trail.
Old Nathan sighed. He swung the bar off the fire, but he didn't feel any need for coffee himself just now. He looked out the door toward the empty trail.
And after a time, he walked to the pasture to resume saddling the mule.
* * *
The catfish was so large that its tail and barbel-fringed head both poked over the top of the oak-split saddle basket. "It ain't so easy, y'know," the mule complained as it hunched up the slope where the track from the river joined the main road, "when the load's unbalanced like that."
Old Nathan sniffed. "Ifen ye like," he said, "I'll put a ten-pound rock in t'other side t' give ye balance."
The mule lurched up onto the road. "Hey, watch it, ye old fool!" shouted a horseman, reining up from a canter. Yellow grit sprayed from beneath the horse's hooves.
Old Nathan cursed beneath his breath and dragged the mule's head around. There was no call fer a body t' be ridin' so blame fast where a road was all twists 'n tree roots
But there was no call fer a blamed old fool t' drive his mule acrost thet road, without he looked first t' see what might be a'comin'.
"You damned old hazard!" the horseman shouted. His horse blew and stepped high in place, lifting its hooves as the dust settled. "I ought t' stand you on yer haid 'n drive you right straight int' the dirt like a tint-peg!"
"No, ye hadn't ought t' do thet, Bully Ransden," the cunning man replied. "And ye hadn't ought t' try, neither."
He muttered beneath his breath, then waved his left hand down through the air in an arc. A trail of colored light followed his fingertips, greens and blues and yellows, flickering and then gone. Only the gloom of late afternoon among the overhanging branches made such pale colors visible.
"But I'll tell ye I'm sorry I rid out in front of ye," Old Nathan added. "Thet ye do hev a right to."
He was breathing heavily with the effort of casting the lights. He could have fought Bully Ransden and not be any more exhaustedbut he would have lost the fight. The display, trivial though it was in fact, set the younger man back in his saddle.
"Howdy, mule," said Ransden's horse. "How're things goin' down yer ways?"
"I guess ye think I'm skeered of yer tricks!" Ransden said. He patted the neck of his horse with his right hand, though just now the animal was calmer than the rider.
" 'Bout like common, I reckon," the mule replied. "Work, work, work, an' fer whut?"
"If yer not," Old Nathan replied in a cold bluster, "thin yer a fool, Ransden. And thet's as may be."
He raised his left hand again, though he had no intention of doing anything with it.
Now that Old Nathan had time to look, his eyes narrowed at the younger man's appearance. Ransden carried a fishing pole in his left hand. The ten-foot length of cane was an awkward burden for a horseman hereaboutswhere even the main road was a pair of ruts, and branches met overhead most places.
Despite the pole, Bully Ransden wasn't dressed for fishing. He wore a green velvet frock coat some sizes too small for his broad shoulders, and black storebought trousers as well. His shirt alone was homespun, but clean and new. The garment was open well down the front so that the hair on Ransden's chest curled out in a vee against the gray-white fabric.
"Right now," the mule continued morosely, "we been off loadin' fish. Whutiver good was a fish t' airy soul, I ask ye?"
"Waal," Ransden said, "I take yer 'pology. See thet ye watch yerse'f the nixt time."
"I'm headed inter the sittlement," said the horse in satisfaction. "I allus git me a feed uv oats there, I do."
"Goin' into the settlement, thin?" Old Nathan asked, as if it were no more than idle talk between two men who'd met on the road.
The cunning man and Bully Ransden had too much history between them to be no more than that, though. Each man was unique in the countyknown by everyone and respected, but feared as well.
Old Nathan's art set him apart from others. Bully Ransden had beaten his brutal father out of the cabin when he was eleven. Since that time, fists and knotted muscles had been the Bully's instant reply to any slight or gibe directed at the poverty from which he had barely raised himselfor the fact he was the son of a man hated and despised by all in a land where few angels had settled.
Old Nathan's mouth quirked in a smile. He and Ransden were stiff-necked men, as well, who both claimed they didn't care what others thought so long as they weren't interfered with. There was some truth to the claim as well. . . .
"I reckon I might head down thet way," Ransden said, as though there was ought else in the direction he was heading. "Might git me some supper t' Shorty's er somewhere."
He took notice of the mule's saddle baskets and added, "Say, old manthet's a fine catfish ye hev there."
"Thet's right," Old Nathan agreed. "I figger t' fry me a steak t'night 'n smoke the rest."
"Hmph," the mule snorted, looking sidelong up at the cunning man. "Wish thut some of us iver got oats t' eat."
"I might buy thet fish offen ye," Ransden said. "I've got a notion t' take some fish back fer supper t'morry. How much 'ud ye take fer him?"
"Hain't intersted in sellin'," Old Nathan said, his eyes narrowing again. "Didn't figger airy soul as knew Shorty 'ud et his foodor drink the pizen he calls whiskey. I'd uv figgered ye'd stay t' home t'night. Hain't nothin' so good as slab uv hot bread slathered with butter."
Bully Ransden flushed, and the tendons of his bull neck stood out like cords. "You been messin' about my Ellie, old man?" he asked.
The words were almost unintelligible. Emotion choked Ransden's voice the way ice did streams during the spring freshets.
Old Nathan was careful not to raise his hand. A threat that might forestall violence at a lower emotional temperature would precipitate it with the younger man in his current state. Nothing would stop Bully Ransden now if he chose to attack; nothing but a bullet in the brain, and that might not stop him soon enough to save his would-be victim.
"I know," the cunning man said calmly, "what I know. D'ye doubt thet, Bully Ransden?"
The horse stretched out his neck to browse leaves from a sweet-gum sapling which had sprouted at the edge of the road. Ransden jerked his mount back reflexively, but the movement took the danger out of a situation cocked and primed to explode.
Ransden looked away. "Aw, hit's no use t' talk to an old fool like you," he muttered. "I'll pick up a mess uv bullheads down t' the sittlement. Gee-up, horse!"
He spurred his mount needlessly hard. As the horse sprang down the road with a startled complaint, Ransden shouted over his shoulder, "I'm a grown man! Hit's no affair of yourn where I spend my timenor Ellie's affair neither!"
Old Nathan watched the young man go. He was still staring down the road some moments after Ransden had disappeared. The mule said in a disgusted voice, "I wouldn't mind t' get back to a pail of oats, old man."
"Git along, thin," the cunning man said. "Fust time I ever knowed ye t' be willing t' do airy durn thing."
But his heart wasn't in the retort.
* * *
The cat came in, licking his muzzle both with relish and for the purpose of cleanliness. "Found the fish guts in the mulch pile," he said. "Found the head too. Thankee."
"Thought ye might like hit," said Old Nathan as he knelt, adding sticks of green hickory to his fire. "Ifen ye didn't, the corn will next Spring."
The big catfish, cleaned and split open, lay on the smokeshelf just below the throat of the fireplace. Most folk, they had separate smokehousesvented or chinked tight, that was a matter of taste. Even so, the fireplace smokeshelf was useful for bits of meat that weren't worth stoking up a smoker meant for whole hogs and deer carcases.
As for Old Nathanhe wasn't going to smoke and eat a hog any more than he was going to smoke and eat a human being . . . though there were plenty hogs he'd met whose personalities would improve once their throats were slit.
Same was true of the humans, often enough.
Smoke sprouted from the underside of the hickory billet and hissed up in a sheet. Trapped water cracked its way to the surface with a sound like that of a percussion cap firing.
"Don't reckon there's an uglier sight in the world 'n a catfish head," said the cat as he complacently groomed his right forepaw. He spread the toes and extended the white, hooked claws, each of them needle sharp. "A passel uv good meat to it, though."
"Don't matter what a thing looks like," Old Nathan said, "so long's it tastes right." He sneezed violently, backed away from his fire, and sneezed again.
"Thought I might go off fer a bit," he added to no one in particular.
The cat chuckled and began to work on the other paw. "Chasin' after thet bit uv cunt come by here this mornin', are ye? Give it up, ole man. You're no good t' the split-tails."
"Ye think thet's all there is, thin?" the cunning man demanded. "Ifen I don't give her thet one help, there's no he'p thet matters a'tall?"
"Thet's right," the cat said simply. He began licking his genitals with his hind legs spread wide apart. His belly fur was white, while the rest of his body was yellow to tigerishly orange.
Old Nathan sighed. "I used t' think thet way myse'f," he admitted as he carried his tin wash basin out to the back porch. Bout time t' fill the durn water barrel from the creek; but thet 'ud wait. . . .
"Used t' think?" the tomcat repeated. "Used t' know, ye mean. Afore ye got yer knackers shot away."
"I knowed a girl a sight like Ellie Ransden back thin . . ." Old Nathan muttered.
The reflection in the water barrel was brown, the underside of the shakes covering the porch. Old Nathan bent to dip a basinful with the gourd scoop. He saw his own face, craggy and hard. His beard was still black, though he wouldn't see seventy again.
Then, though he hadn't wished ithe thoughtand he hadn't said the wordsaloudthere was a woman's face, young and full-lipped and framed in hair as long and black as the years since last he'd seen her, the eve of marching off with Colonel Sevier to what ended at King's Mountain. . . .
"Jes' turn 'n let me see ye move, Slowly," Old Nathan whispered to his memories. "There's nairy a thing so purty in all the world."
The reflection shattered. The grip of the cunning man's right hand had snapped the neck of the gourd. The hollowed body fell into the barrel.
Old Nathan straightened, wiping his eyes and forehead with the back of his hand. He tossed the gourd neck off the porch. "Niver knew why her folks, they named her thet, Slowly," he muttered. "Ifen it was them 'n not a name she'd picked herse'f."
The cat hopped up onto the cane seat of the rocking chair. He poised there for a moment, allowing the rockers to return to balance before he settled himself.
"I'll tell ye a thing, though, cat," the cunning man said forcefully. "Afore King's Mountain, I couldn't no more talk t' you an' t' other animals thin I could talk t' this hearth rock."
The tomcat curled his full tail over his face, then flicked it barely aside.
"Afore ye got yer knackers blowed off, ye mean?" the cat said. The discussion wasn't of great concern to him, but he demanded precise language nonetheless.
* * *
"Aye," Old Nathan said, glaring at the animal. "Thet's what I mean."
The cat snorted into his tail fur. "Thin you made a durned bad bargain, old man," he said.
Old Nathan tore his eyes away from the cat. The tin basin was still in his left hand. He sighed and hung it up unused.
"Aye," he muttered. "I reckon I did, cat."
He went out to saddle the mule again.
* * *
Ransden's cabin had a single door, in the front. It was open, but there was no sign of life within.
Old Nathan dismounted and wrapped the reins around the porch rail.
"Goin' t' water me?" the mule snorted.
"In my own sweet time, I reckon," the cunning man snapped back.
"Cull?" Ellie Ransden called from the cabin. "Cullen?" she repeated as she swept to the door. Her eyes were swollen and tear-blurred; they told her only that the figure at the front of her cabin wasn't her man. She ducked back insideand reappeared behind a long flintlock rifle much like the one which hung on pegs over Old Nathan's fireboard.
"Howdy," said the cunning man. "Didn't mean t' startle ye, Miz Ransden."
Old Nathan spoke as calmly as though it were an everyday thing for him to look down the small end of a rifle. It wasn't. It hadn't been for many years, and that was a thing he didn't regret in the least about the passing of the old days.
"Oh!" she said, coloring in embarrassment. "Oh, do please come in. I got coffee, ifen hit ain't biled dry by now."
She lifted the rifle's muzzle before she lowered the hammer. The trigger dogs made a muted double click in releasing the mainspring's tension.
Ellie bustled quickly inside, fully a housewife again. "Oh, law!" she chirped as she set the rifle back on its pegs. "Here the fust time we git visitors in I don't know, and everything's all sixes 'n sevens!"
The cabin was neat as a pin, all but the bed where the eagle-patterned quilt was disarrayed. It didn't take art to see that Ellie had flung herself there crying, then jumped up in the hope her man had come home.
Bully Ransden must have knocked the furniture together himself. Not fancy, but it was all solid work, pinned with trenails rather than iron. There were two chairs, a table, and the bed. Three chests held clothes and acted as additional seatsthough from what Ellie had blurted, the couple had few visitors, which was no surprise with Bully Ransden's reputation.
The windows in each end wall had shutters but no glazing. Curtains, made from sacking and embroidered with bright pink roses, set off their frames.
The rich odor of fresh bread filled the tiny room.
"Oh, law, what hev I done?" Ellie moaned as she looked at the fireplace.
The dutch oven sat on coals raked to the front of the hearth. They'd burned down, and the hotter coals pilled onto the cast iron lid were now a mass of fluffy white ash. Ellie grabbed fireplace tongs and lifted the lid away.
"Oh, hit's ruint!" the girl said.
Old Nathan reached into the oven and cracked the bread loose from the surface of the cast iron. The loaf had contracted slightly as it cooled. It felt light, more like biscuit than bread, and the crust was a brown as deep as a walnut plank.
"Don't look ruint t' me," he said as he lifted the loaf to one of the two pewter plates sitting ready on the table. "Looks right good. I'd admire t' try a piece."
Ellie Ransden picked up a knife with a well-worn blade. Unexpectedly, she crumpled into sobs. The knife dropped. It stuck in the cabin floor between the woman's bare feet, unnoticed as she bawled into her hands.
Old Nathan stepped around the table and touched Ellie's shoulders to back her away. Judging from how the light played, the butcher knife had an edge that would slice to the bone if she kicked it. The way the gal carried on, she might not notice the cutand she might not care if she did.
"I'm ugly!" Ellie cried as she wrapped her arms around Old Nathan. "I cain't blame him, I've got t' be an old frumpy thing 'n he don't love me no more!"
For the moment, she didn't know who she held, just that he was warm and solid. She could talk at the cunning man, whether he listened or not.
"Tain't thet," Old Nathan muttered, feeling awkward as a hog on ice. One of the high-backed tortoiseshell combs that held and ornamented Ellie's hair tickled his beard. "Hit's jest the newness. Not thet he don't love ye. . . ."
He spoke the words because they were handy; but as he heard them come out, he guessed they were pretty much the truth. "Cullen ain't a bad man," the girl had said, back to the cunning man's cabin. No worse 'n most men, the cunning man thought, and thet's a durned poor lot.
"Don't reckon there's a purtier girl in the county," Old Nathan said aloud. "Likely there's not in the whole blame state."
Ellie squeezed him firmly, this time a conscious action, and stepped back. She reached into her sleeve for her handkerchief, then saw it crumpled on the quilt where she'd been lying. She snatched up the square of linen, turned aside, and blew her nose firmly.
"You're a right good man," Ellie mumbled before she looked around again.
She raised her chin and said, pretending that her face was not flushed and tear-streaked, "Ifen it ain't me, hit's thet bitch down t' the sittlement. Fer a month hit's been Francine this 'n Francine that an' him spendin' the ev'nins out an' thin"
Ellie's upper lip trembled as she tumbled out her recent history. The cunning man bent to tug the butcher knife from the floor and hide his face from the woman's.
"She witched him, sir!" Ellie burst out. "I heerd what you said up t' yer cabin, but I tell ye, she witched my Cull. He ain't like this!"
Old Nathan rose. He set the knife down, precisely parallel to the edge of the table, and met the woman's eyes. "Yer Cull ain't the fust man t' go where his pecker led," he said, harshly to be able to get the words out of his own throat. "Tain't witch'ry, hit's jest human natur. An' don't be carryin' on, 'cause he'll be backsure as the leaves turn."
Ellie wrung her hands together. The handkerchief was a tiny ball in one of them. "Oh, d' ye think he will, sir?" she whispered. "Oh, sir, could ye give me a charm t' bring him back? I'd be iver so grateful. . . ."
She looked down at her hands. Her lips pressed tightly together while silent tears dripped again from her eyes.
Old Nathan broke eye contact. He shook his head slightly and said, "No, I won't do thet."
"But ye could?" Ellie said sharply. The complex of emotions flowing across her face hardened into anger and determination. The woman who was wife to Bully Ransden could either be soft as bread dough or as strong and supple as a hickory pole. There was nothing in between
And there was nothing soft about Ellie Ransden.
"I reckon ye think I couldn't pay ye," she said. "Waal, ye reckon wrong. There's my combs"
She tossed her head; the three combs of translucent tortoiseshell, decorative but necessary as well to hold a mass of hair like Ellie's, quivered as they caught the light.
"Rance Holden, he'd buy thim back fer stock, I reckon. Mebbe thet Modom Francine" the viciousness Ellie concentrated in the words would have suited a mother wren watching a blacksnake near her chicks "'ud want thim fer her hair. And there's my Pappy's watch, too, thet Cullen wears now. Hit'll fetch somethin', I reckon, the case, hit's true gold."
She swallowed, chin regally highbut looking so young and vulnerable that Old Nathan wished the world were a different place than he knew it was and always would be.
"So, Mister Cunning Man," Ellie said. "I reckon I kin raise ten silver dollars. Thet's good pay fer some li'l old charm what won't take you nothin' t' make."
"I don't need yer money," Old Nathan said gruffly. "Hain't thet. I'm tellin' ye, hit's wrong t' twist folks around thet way. Ifen ye got yer Cullen back like thet, ye wouldn't like what it was ye hed. An' I ain't about t' do thet thing!"
"Thin you better go on off," Ellie said. "I'm no sort uv comp'ny t'day."
She flung herself onto the bed, burying her face in the quilt. She was sobbing.
Old Nathan bit his lower lip as he stepped out of the cabin. Hit warn't the world I made, hit's jest the one I live in.
"Leastways when ye go fishin'," the mule grumbled from the porch rail, "thur's leaves t' browse."
Wouldn't hurt him t' go see Madame Taliaferro with his own eyes, he reckoned.
Inside the cabin the girl cried, "Oh why cain't I jes' die, I'm so miser'ble!"
* * *
For as little good as he'd done, Old Nathan guessed he might better have stayed to home and saved himself and his mule a ride back in the dark.
The sky was pale from the recently set sun, but the road was in shadows. They would be deeper yet by the time the cunning man reached the head of the track to his cabin. The mule muttered a curse every time it clipped a hoof in a rut, but it didn't decide to balk.
The bats began their everlasting refrain, "Dilly, dilly, come and be killed," as they quartered the air above the road. Thet peepin' nonsense was enough t' drive a feller t' distractioner worse!
Just as well the mule kept walking. This night, Old Nathan was in a mood to speak phrases that would blast the bones right out of the durned old beast.
Somebody was coming down the road from Oak Hill, singing merrily. It took a moment to catch actual phrases of the song, ". . . went a-courtin', he did ride . . ." and a moment further to identify the voice as Bully Ransden's.
". . . an' pistol by his side, uh-huh!"
Ransden came around the next bend in the trail, carrying not the bottle Old Nathan expected in his free hand but rather a stringer of bullheads. He'd left the long cane pole behind somewhere during the events of the evening.
"Hullo, mule," Ransden's horse whinnied. "Reckon I ate better'n you did t'night."
"Hmph," grunted the mule. "Leastways my master ain't half-shaved an' goin' t' ride me slap inter a ditch 'fore long."
"Howdy, feller," Bully Ransden caroled. "Ain't it a fine ev'nin'?"
Ransden wasn't drunk, maybe, but he sure-hell didn't sound like the man he'd been since he grew upwhich was about age eleven, when he beat his father out of the cabin with an ax handle.
"Better fer some thin others, I reckon," Old Nathan replied. He clucked the mule to the side, giving the horseman the room he looked like he might need.
Ransden's manner changed as soon as he heard the cunning man's voice. "So hit's you, is it, old man?" he said.
He tugged hard on his reins, twisting his mount across the road in front of Old Nathan. "Hey, easy on!" the horse complained. "No call fer thet!"
"D'ye figger t' spy on me, feller?" Ransden demanded, turned crossways in his saddle. He shrugged his shoulders, straining the velvet jacket dangerously. "Or"
Bully Ransden didn't carry a gun, but there was a long knife in his belt. Not that he'd need it. Ransden was young and strong enough to break a fence rail with his bare hands, come to that. He'd do the same with Old Nathan, for all that the cunning man had won his share of fights in his youth
And later. It was a hard land still, though statehood had come thirty years past.
"I'm ridin' on home, Cullen Ransden," Old Nathan said. "Reckon ye'd do well t' do the same."
"By God," said Ransden. "By God! Where you been to, old man? Hev you been sniffin' round my Ellie? By God, if she's been"
The words echoed in Old Nathan's mind, where he heard them an instant before they were spoken.
The power that poured into the cunning man was nothing that he had summoned. It wore him like a cloak, responding to the threat Bully Ransden was about to voice.
"slippin' around on me, I'll wring the bitch's"
Old Nathan raised both hands. Thunder crashed in the clear sky, then rumbled away in diminishing chords.
The power was nothing to do with the cunning man, but he shaped it as a potter shapes clay on his wheel. He spread his fingers. The tree trunks and roadway glowed with a light as faint as foxfire. It was just enough to throw each rut and bark ridge into relief, as though they were reflecting the pale sky.
"Great God Almighty!" muttered Bully Ransden. His mouth fell open. The string of small fish in his left hand trembled slightly.
"Ye'll do what to thet pore little gal, Bully Ransden?" the cunning man asked in a harsh, cracked voice.
Ransden touched his lips with his tongue. He tossed his head as if to clear it. "Reckon I misspoke," he said; not loud but clearly, and he met Old Nathan's eyes as he said the words.
"Brag's a good dog, Ransden," Old Nathan said. "But Hold-fast is better."
He lowered his arms. The vague light and the last trembling of thunder had already vanished.
The mule turned and stared back at its rider with one bulging eye. "Whut in tar-nation was that?" it asked.
Bully Ransden clucked to his hose. He pressed with the side, not the spur, of his right boot to swing the beast back in line with the road. "Don't you think I'm afeerd t' meet you, old man," he called; a little louder than necessary, and at a slightly higher pitch than intended.
Ransden was afraid; but that wouldn't keep him from facing the cunning man, needs must
As surely as Old Nathan would have faced the Bully's fists and hobnailed boots some moments earlier.
The rushing, all-mastering power was gone now, leaving Old Nathan shaken and as weak as a man wracked with a three-days flux. "Jest go yer way, Ransden," he muttered, "and I'll go mine. I don't wish fer any truck with you."
He heeled the mule's haunches and added, "Git on with ye, thin, mule."
The mule didn't budge. "I don't want no part uv these doins," it protested. "Felt like hit was a dad-blame thunderbolt sittin' astride me, hit did."
Ransden walked his nervous horse abreast of the cunning man. "I don't know why I got riled no-how," he said, partly for challenge but mostly just in the brutal banter natural to the Bully's personality. "Hain't as though you're a man, now, is it?"
He spurred his horse off down the darkened trail, laughing merrily.
Old Nathan trembled, gripping the saddle horn with both hands. "Git on, mule," he muttered. "I hain't got the strength t' fight with ye."
Faintly down the road drifted the words, "Froggie wint a-courtin', he did ride . . ."
Bright midday sun dappled the white-painted boards of the Isiah Chesson house. It was a big place for this end of the country, with two rooms below and a loft. In addition, there was a stable and servant's quarters at the back of the lot. How big it seemed to Madame Francine Taliaferro, late of New Orleans, was another matter.
"Whoa-up, mule," Old Nathan muttered as he peered at the dwelling. It sat a musket shot down the road and around a bend from the next house of the Oak Hill settlement. The front door was closed, and there was no sign of life behind the curtains added to the windows since the new tenant moved in.
Likely just as well. The cunning man wanted to observe Madame Taliaferro, but barging up to her door and knocking didn't seem a useful way to make her introduction.
Still. . . .
In front of the house was a well-manicured lawn. A pair of gray squirrels, plump and clothed in fur grown sleekly full at the approach of Fall, hopped across the lawnand over the low board fence which had protected Chesson's sauce garden, now grown up in vines.
"Hoy, squirrel!" Old Nathan called. "Is the lady what lives here t' home?"
The nearer squirrel hopped up on his hind legs, looking in all directions. "What's thet? What's thet I heard?" he chirped.
"Yer wastin' yer time," the mule said. "Hain't a squirrel been born yet whut's got brain enough t' tell whether hit's rainin'."
"He's talkin' t' ye," the other squirrel said as she continued to snuffle across the short grass of the lawn. "He says, is the lady home t' the house?"
The male squirrel blinked. "Huh?" he said to his mate. "What would I be doin' in a house?" He resumed a tail-high patrol which seemed to ignore the occasional hickory nuts lying in the grass.
"Told ye so," the mule commented.
Old Nathan scowled. Boards laid edgewise set off a path from the front door to the road. A pile of dog droppings marked the gravel.
"Squirrel," the cunning man said. "Is there a little dog t' home, now?"
"What?" the male squirrel demanded. "Whur is it? Thet nasty little monster's come back!"
"Now, don't ye git yerse'f all stirred up!" his mate said. "Hit's all right, hit's gone off down the road already."
"Thankee, squirrels," Old Nathan said. "Git on, mule."
"Ifen thet dog's not here, thin whyiver did he say it was?" the male squirrel complained loudly.
"We could uv done thet a'ready, ye know," the mule said as he ambled on toward the main part of town. "Er we could uv stayed t' home."
"Thet's right," Old Nathan said grimly. "We could."
He knew he was on a fool's errand, because only a durned fool would think Francine Taliaferro might be using some charm or other on the Ransden boy. He didn't need a mule to tell him.
Rance Holden's store was the center of Oak Hill, unless you preferred to measure from Shorty Hitchcock's tavern across the one dirt street. Holden's building was gable-end to the road. The store filled the larger square room, while Rance and his wife lived in the low rectangular space beneath the eaves overhanging to the left.
The family's space had been tight when the Holdens had children at home. The five boys and the girl who survived were all moved off on their own by now.
"Don't you tie me t' the rail thur," the mule said. "Somebody 'll spit t'baccy at me sure."
"Thin they'll answer t' me," the cunning man said. "But seeins as there's nobody on the porch, I don't figger ye need worry."
Four horses, one with a side-saddle, were hitched to the rail. Usually there were several men sitting on the board porch among barrels of bulk merchandise, chewing tobacco and whittling; but today they were all inside. That was good evidence that Madame Francine Taliaferro was inside as well. . . .
The interior of Holden's store was twelve foot by twelve foot. Not spacious by any standard, it was now packed with seven adults
And a pug dog who tried to fill as much space as the humans.
"Hey, you old bastard!" the dog snapped as the cunning man stepped through the open door. "I'm going to bite you till you bleed, and there's nothing you can do about it!"
"Howdy Miz Holden, Rance," Old Nathan said. "Thompson" a nod to the saddler, a cadaverous man with a full beard but no hair above the level of his ears "Bart" another nod, this time to the settlement's miller, Bart Alpers
"I'm going to bite you!" the little dog yapped as it lunged forward and dodged back. "I'll do just that, and you don't dare to stop me!"
Nods, murmured howdies/yer keepin' well from the folk who crowded the store.
"'n Mister M'Donald," the cunning man said with a nod for the third white man, a husky, hard-handed man who'd made a good thing of a tract ten miles out from the settlement. M'Donald looked even sillier in an ill-fitting blue tailcoat than Bully Ransden had done in his finery the evening before.
Madame Taliaferro's black servant, on the other hand, wore his swallowtail coat, ruffed shirt, and orange breeches with an air of authority. He stood behind his mistress, with his eyes focused on infinity and his hands crossed behind his back.
"Now, Cesar," the woman who was the center of the store's attention murmured to her dog. She looked at Old Nathan with an unexpected degree of appraisal. "Baby be good for ma-ma."
"Said I'm going to bite you!" insisted the dog. "Here goes!"
Old Nathan whispered inaudible words with his teeth in a tight smile. The little dog did jump forward to bite his pants leg, sure as the Devil was loose in the world.
The dog froze.
"Mum," Old Nathan said as he reached down and scooped the dog up in his hand. The beast's mouth was open. Sudden terror filled its nasty little eyes.
Francine Taliaferro had lustrous dark hairnot a patch on Ellie's, but groomed in a fashion the younger woman's could never be. Her face was pouty-pretty, heavily powdered and rouged, and the skirt of her blue organdy dress flared out in a fashion that made everyone else in the store stand around like the numbers on a clock dial with her the hub.
But that's what it would have been anyway; only perhaps with the others pressing in yet closer.
Old Nathan handed the stiffened dog to Madame Taliaferro. "Hain't he the cutest li'l thing?" the cunning man said.
The woman's red lips opened in shock, but by reflex her gloved hands accepted the petrified animal that was thrust toward her. As soon as Old Nathan's fingers no longer touched the animal's fur, the dog resumed where it had stopped. Its teeth snapped into its mistress's white shoulder.
Three of the men shouted. Madame Taliaferro screamed in outrage and flung Cesar up into the roof shakes. The dog bounced down into a shelf of yard goods, then ran out the door. It was yapping unintelligibly.
Old Nathan smiled. "Jest cute as a button."
There was no more magic in this woman than there was truth in a politician's heart. If Ellie had a complaint, it was against whatever fate had led a womana ladyso sophisticated to Oak Hill.
And complaint agin Bully Ransden, fer bein' a durned fool; but folks were, men 'n women both. . . .
"By God!" M'Donald snarled. "I oughter break ye in two fer thet!"
He lurched toward the cunning man but collided with Alpers, who cried, "I won't let ye fall!" as he tried to grab the woman. Rance Holden tried to crawl out from behind the counter while his wife glared, and Thompson blathered as though somebody had just fallen into a mill saw.
"Everyone stop this at once!" Madame Taliaferro cried with her right index finger held upright. Her voice was as clear and piercing as a well-tuned bell.
Everyone did stop. All eyes turned toward the woman; which was no doubt as things normally were in Madame Taliaferro's presence.
"I'll fetch yer dog," blurted Bart Alpers.
"Non!" Taliaferro said. "Cesar must have had a little cramp. He will stay outside till he is better."
"Warn't no cramp, Francine, honey," M'Donald growled. "Hit war this sonuvabitch here what done it!" He pushed Alpers aside.
"What d'ye reckon happint t' Cesar, M'Donald?" Old Nathan said. The farmer was younger by thirty years and strong, but he hadn't the personality to make a threat frightening even when he spoke the flat truth. "D'ye want t' touch me 'n larn?"
M'Donald stumbled backward from the blufffor it was all bluff, what Old Nathan had done to the dog had wrung him out bad as lifting a quarter of beef. But the words had this much truth in them: those who struck the cunning man would pay for the blow, in one way or another; and pay in coin they could ill afford.
"I don't believe we've been introduced," said the woman. She held out her hand. The appraisal was back in her eyes. "I'm Francine Taliaferro, but do call me Francine. I'men vacance in your charming community."
"He ain't no good t' ye," M'Donald muttered bitterly, his face turned to a display of buttons on a piece of card.
The cunning man took Taliaferro's hand, though he wasn't rightly sure what she expected him to do with it. There were things he knew, plenty of things and important ones; but right just now, he understood why other men reacted as they did to Francine Taliaferro.
"M' name's Nathan. I live down the road a piece, Columbia ways."
Even a man with a woman like Ellie waiting at home for him.
"I reckon this gen'lman come here t' do business, Rance," said Mrs. Holden to her husband in a poisonous tone of voice. "Don't ye reckon ye ought t' he'p him?"
"I'll he'p him, Maude," Holden muttered, tryingand he knew he would failto interrupt the rest of the diatribe. He was a large, soft man, and his hair had been white for years. "Now, how kin"
"Ye are a storekeeper, ain't ye?" Mrs. Holden shrilled. "Not some spavined ole fool thinks spring has come again!"
Holden rested his hands on the counter. His eyes were downcast. One of the other men chuckled. "Now, Nathan," the storekeeper resumed. "Reckon you're here fer more coffee?"
The cunning man opened his mouth to say he'd take a peck of coffee and another of baking soda. He didn't need either just now, but he'd use them both and they'd serve as an excuse for him to have come into Oak Hill.
"Ye've got an iv'ry comb," he said. The words he spoke weren't the ones he'd had in mind at all. "Reckon I'll hev thet and call us quits fer me clearin' the rats outen yer barn last fall."
Everyone in the store except Holden himself stared at Old Nathan. The storekeeper winced and, with his eyes still on his hands, said, "I reckon thet comb, hit must hev been sold. I'd like t' he'p ye."
"Whoiver bought thet thing!" cried the storekeeper's wife in amazement. She turned to the niche on the wall behind the counter, where items of special value were flanked to either side by racks of yard goods. The two crystal goblets remained, but they had been moved inward to cover the space where the ornate ivory comb once stood.
Mrs. Holden's eyes narrowed. "Rance Holden, you go look through all the drawers this minute. Nobody bought thet comb and you know it!"
"Waal, mebbe hit was stole," Holden muttered. He half-heartedly pulled out one of the drawers behind the counter and poked with his fingers at the hairpins and brooches within.
The cunning man smiled grimly. "Reckon I kin he'p ye," he said.
He reached over the counter and took one of the pins, ivory like the comb for which he was searching. The pin's blunt end was flattened and drilled into a filigree for decoration. He held the design between the tips of his index fingers, pressing just hard enough to keep the pin pointed out horizontally.
"What is this that you are doing, then?" Francine Taliaferro asked in puzzlement.
The other folk in the store knew Old Nathan. Their faces were set in gradations between fear and interest, depending on the varied fashions in which they viewed the cunning man's arts.
Old Nathan swept the pin over the counter. Midway it dipped, then rose again.
"Check the drawers there," the cunning man directed. He moved the hairpin back until it pointed straight down. "Reckon hit's in the bottom one."
"Why, whut would that iv'ry pin be doin' down there with the women's shoes?" Mrs. Holden demanded.
"Look, I tell ye, I'll pay ye cash fer what ye did with the rats," the storekeeper said desperately. "How much 'ud ye take? Jest name"
He was standing in front of the drawer Old Nathan had indicated. His wife jerked it open violently, banging it against Holden's instep twice and a third time until he hopped away, wincing.
Mrs. Holden straightened, holding a packet wrapped with tissue paper and blue ribbon. It was of a size to contain the comb.
She started to undo the ribbon. Her face was red with fury.
Old Nathan put his hand out. "Reckon I'll take it the way i'tis," he said.
"How d'ye guess the comb happint t' be all purtied up 'n hid like thet, Rance?" Bart Alpers said loudly. "Look to me like hit were a present fer som'body, if ye could git her alone."
Francine Taliaferro raised her chin. "I know nothing of this," she said coldly.
Rance Holden took the packet from his wife's hands and gave it to Old Nathan. "I figger this makes us quits fer the rats," he said in a dull voice. He was slumped like a man who'd been fed his breakfast at the small end of a rifle.
"Thankee," Old Nathan said. "I reckon thet does."
The shouting behind him started before the cunning man had unhitched his mule. The timbre of Mrs. Holden's voice was as sharp and cutting as that of Francine Taliaferro's lapdog.
* * *
Taking the comb didn't make a lick of sense, except that it showed the world what a blamed fool God had made of Rance Holden.
Old Nathan rode along, muttering to himself. It would have been awkward to carry the packet in his hand, but once he'd set the fancy bit of frippery down into a saddle basket, that didn't seem right either.
Might best that he sank the durn thing in the branch, because there wasn't ought he could do with the comb that wouldn't make him out to be a worse fool than Rance. . . .
The mule was following its head onto the cabin trail. Suddenly its ears cocked forward and its leading foot hesitated a step. Through the woods came, "Froggie wint a-courtin', he did ride. . . ."
"Hey, thur!" called the mule.
"Oh, hit's you come back, is it?" Bully Ransden's horse whinnied in reply. "I jest been down yer way."
Horse and mule came nose to nose around a bend fringed by dogwood and alders. The riders watched one another: Old Nathan stiff and ready for trouble, but the younger man as cheerful as a cat with a mouse for a toy.
"Glad t' see ye, Nathan old feller," Bully Ransden said.
He kneed his mount forward to bring himself alongside the cunning man, left knee to left knee. The two men were much of a height, but the horse stood taller than the mule and increased the impression of Ransden's far greater bulk. "I jest dropped by in a neighborly way," he continued, "t' warn ye there's been prowlers up t' my place. Ye might want t' stick close about yer own."
He grinned. His teeth were square and evenly set. They had taken the nose off a drover who'd wrongly thought he was a tougher man than Bully Ransden.
This afternoon Ransden wore canvas breeches and a loose-hanging shirt of gray homespun. The garment's cut had the effect of emphasizing Bully's muscular build, whereas the undersized frock coat had merely made him look constrained.
"I thankee," Old Nathan said stiffly. He wished Bully Ransden would stop glancing toward the saddle basket, where he might notice the ribbon-tied packet. "Reckon I kin deal with sech folk as sneak by whin I'm gone."
He wished he were forty years younger, and even then he'd be a lucky man to avoid being crippled in a rough and tumble with Bully Ransden. This one was cat-quick, had shoulders like an ox . . . and once the fight started, Bully Ransden didn't quit so long as the other fellow still could move.
Ransden's horse eyed Old Nathan, then said to the mule, "Yer feller ain't goin' t' do whativer hit was he did last night, is he? I cain't much say I liked thet."
"Didn't much like hit myse'f," the mule agreed morosely. "He ain't a bad old feller most ways, though."
"Like I said," Ransden grinned. "Jest a neighborly warnin'. Y' see, I been leavin' my rifle-gun t' home most times whin I'm out 'n about . . . but I don't figger t' do thet fer a while. I reckon if I ketch someb'dy hangin' round my cabin, I'll shoot him same's I would a dog chasin' my hens."
Old Nathan looked up to meet the younger man's eyes. "Mebbe," he said deliberately, "you're goin' t' stay home 'n till yer own plot fer a time?"
"Oh, land!" whickered the horse, reacting to the sudden tension. "Now it'll come sure!"
For a moment, Old Nathan thought the same thing . . . and thought the result was going to be very bad. Sometimes you couldn't help being afraid, but that was a reason itself to act as fear warned you not to.
Ransden shook his head violently, as if he were a horse trying to brush away a gadfly. His hair was shoulder length and the color of sourwood honey. The locks tossed in a shimmering dance.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the mood changed. Bully Ransden began to laugh. "Ye know," he said good-humoredly, "ifen you were a man, I might take unkindly t' words like thet. Seeins as yer a poor womanly critter, though, I don't reckon I will."
He kicked his horse a step onward, then reined up again as if to prove his mastery. The animal nickered in complaint.
"Another li'l warning, old man," Ransden called playfully over his shoulder. "Ye hadn't ought t' smoke meat on too hot uv a fire. You might shrink hit right up."
Ransden spurred his mount forward, jerking the left rein at the same time. The horse's flank jolted solidly against the mule's hindquarters, knocking the lighter animal against an oak sapling.
"Hey thur, you!" the mule brayed angrily.
"Sword 'n pistol by his side!" Bully Ransden caroled as he trotted his horse down the trail.
"Waal," said the mule as he resumed his measured pace toward the cabin, "I'm glad that's ended."
"D'ye think it is, mule?" the cunning man asked softly. "From the way the Bully was talkin', I reckon he jest managed t' start it fer real."
The two cows were placidly chewing their cud in the railed paddock behind the cabin. "Thar's been another feller come by here," the red heifer offered between rhythmic, sideways strokes of her jaws.
"Wouldn't milk us, though," the black heifer added. " 'Bout time somebody does, ifen ye ask me."
"Don't recall askin' ye any blame thing," Old Nathan muttered.
He dismounted and uncinched the saddle. "Don't 'spect ye noticed what the feller might be doin' whilst he was here, did ye?" he asked as if idly.
"Ye goin' t' strip us now?" the black demanded. "My udder's full as full, it is."
"He wint down t' the crik," the red offered. "Carried a fish down t' the crik."
Old Nathan dropped two gate bars and led the mule into the enclosure with the cows. His face was set.
"Criks is whur fish belong," the black heifer said. "Only I wish they didn't nibble at my teats whin I'm standing thur, cooling myse'f."
"This fish don't nibble airy soul," the red heifer explained in a superior tone. "This fish were dead 'n dry."
Old Nathan removed the mule's bridle and patted the beast on the haunch. "Git some hay," he said. "I'll give ye a handful uv oats presently. I reckon afore long you 'n me goin' t' take another ride, though."
"Whyever do a durn fool thing like that?" the mule complained. "Ye kin ride a cow the next time. I'm plumb tuckered out."
" 'Bout time," the black heifer repeated with emphasis, "thet you milk us!"
The cunning man paused, halfway to his back porch, and turned. "I'll be with ye presently," he said. "I ain't in a mood t' be pushed, so I'd advise ye as a friend thet y'all not push me."
The cows heard the tone and looked away, as though they were studying the movements of a late-season butterfly across the paddock. The mule muttered, "Waal, I reckon I wouldn't mind a bit uv a walk, come t' thet."
The cat sauntered through the front door of the cabin as Old Nathan entered by the back. "Howdy, old man," the cat said. "I wouldn't turn down a bite of somp'in if it was goin'."
"I'll hev ye a cup uv milk if ye'll wait fer it," the cunning man said as he knelt to look at the smoke shelf of his fireplace. The greenwood fire had burnt well down, but there was no longer any reason to build it higher.
The large catfish was gone, as Old Nathan had expected. In its place was a bullhead less than six inches long; one of those Ransden had bought in town the day before, though he could scarcely have thought that Ellie believed he'd spent the evening fishing.
"What's thet?" the cat asked curiously.
Old Nathan removed the bullhead from the shelf. "Somethin' a feller left me," he said.
The bullhead hadn't been a prepossessing creature even before it spent a day out of water. Now its smooth skin had begun to shrivel and its eyes were sunken in; the eight barbels lay like a knot of desiccated worms.
"He took the fish was there and tossed hit in the branch, I reckon," he added in a dreamy voice, holding the bullhead and thinking of a time to come shortly. "He warn't a thief, he jest wanted t' make his point with me."
"Hain't been cleaned 'n it's gittin' good 'n ripe," the cat noted, licking his lips. "Don't figger you want it, but you better believe I do."
"Sorry, cat," the cunning man said absently. He set the bullhead on the fireboard to wait while he got together the other traps he would need. Ellie Ransden would have a hand mirror, so he needn't take his own. . . .
"Need t' milk the durn cows, too," he muttered aloud.
The cat stretched up the wall beside the hearth. He was not really threatening to snatch the bullhead, but he wasn't far away in case the cunning man walked out of the cabin and left the fish behind. "Whativer do you figger t' do with thet ole thing?" he complained.
"Feller used hit t' make a point with me," Old Nathan repeated. His voice was distant and very hard. "I reckon I might hev a point t' make myse'f."
* * *
"Hallo the house!" Old Nathan called as he dismounted in front of Ransden's cabin.
He'd covered more miles on muleback recently than his muscles approved. Just now he didn't feel stiff, because his blood was heated with what he planned to doand what was likely to come of it.
He'd pay for that in the morning, he supposed; and he supposed he'd be alive in the morning to pay. He'd do what he came for regardless.
The cabin door banged open. Ellie Ransden wore a loose dress she'd sewn long ago of English cloth, blue in so far as the sun and repeated washings had left it color. Her eyes were puffy from crying, but the expression of her face was compounded of concern and horror.
"Oh sir, Mister Nathan, ye mustn't come by here!" she gasped. "Cullen, he'll shoot ye sure! I niver seen him so mad as whin he asked hed you been by. An' my Cull. . . ."
The words "my Cull" rang beneath the surface of the girl's mind. Her face crumpled. Her hands pawed out blindly. One touched a porch support. She gripped it and collapsed against the cedar pole, blubbering her heart out.
Old Nathan stepped up onto the porch and put his arms around her. Decent folk didn't leave an animal in pain, and that's what this girl was now, something alive that hurt like to die. . . .
The mule snorted and began to sidle away. There hadn't been time to loop his reins over the porch railing.
Old Nathan pointed an index finger at the beast. "Ifen you stray," he snarled, "hit's best thet ye find yerse'f another hide. I'll hev thet off ye, sure as the Divil's in Hell."
"Fine master you are," the mule grumbled in a subdued voice.
Though the words had not been directed at Ellie, Old Nathan's tone returned the girl to present circumstances as effectively as a bucket of cold water could have done. She stepped back and straightened.
"Oh, law," she murmured, dabbing at her face with her dress's full sleeves. "But Mister Nathan, ye mustn't stay. I won't hev ye kilt over me, nor"
She eyed him quickly, noting the absence of an obvious weapon but finding that less reassuring than she would have wished. "Nor aught t' happen to my Cull neither. He" she started to lose control over her voice and finished in a tremolo "ain't a bad man!"
"Huh," the cunning man said. He turned to fetch his traps from the mule's panniers. He was about as embarrassed as Ellie, and he guessed he had as much reason.
"I ain't goin' t' hurt Bully Ransden," he said, then added what was more than half a lie, "And better men thin him hev thought they'd fix my flint."
Ellie Ransden tossed her head. "Waal," she said, "I reckon ye know yer own business, sir. Won't ye come in and set a spell? I don't mind sayin' I'm glad fer the comp'ny."
Her face hardened into an expression that Old Nathan might have noticed on occasion if he looked into mirrors more often. "I've coffee, an' there's a jug uv good wildcat . . . but ifen ye want fancy French wines all the way from New Or-leens, I guess ye'll hev t' go elsewheres."
With most of his supplies in one hand and the fish wrapped in a scrap of bark in his left, Old Nathan followed the woman into her cabin. "I'd take some coffee now," he said. "And mebbe when we've finished, I'd sip a mite of whiskey."
Ellie Ransden took the coffee pot a step toward the bucket in the corner, half full with well water. Without looking at the cunning man, she said, "Thin you might do me up a charm after all?"
"I will not," Old Nathan said flatly. "But fer what I will do, ye'll hev to he'p."
He set his gear on the table. The bark unwrapped. The bullhead's scaleless skin was black, and the fish had a noticeable odor.
Ellie filled the pot and dropped in an additional pinch of beans, roasted and cracked rather than ground. "Reckon I'll he'p, thin," she said bitterly. "All I been doin', keepin' house 'n fixin' vittles, thet don't count fer nothing the way some people figgers."
"I'll need thet oil lamp," the cunning man said, "but don't light it. And a plug t' fit the chimley end; reckon a cob 'll suit thet fine. And a pair of Bully Ransden's britches. Best they be a pair thet ain't been washed since he wore thim."
"Reckon I kin find thet for ye," the woman said. She hung the coffee over the fire, then lifted a pair of canvas trousers folded on top of a chest with a homespun shirt. They were the garments Bully Ransden wore when Old Nathan met him earlier in the day. "Cull allus changes 'fore he goes off in the ev'nin' nowadays. Even whin he pretends he's fishin'."
She swallowed a tear. "An' don't he look a sight in thet jacket he had off Neen Tobler fer doin' his plowing last spring? Like a durned ole greenbelly fly, thet's how he looks!"
"Reckon ye got a mirror," Old Nathan said as he unfolded the trousers on the table beside the items he had brought from his own cabin. "If ye'll fetch it out, thin we can watch; but hit don't signify ifen ye don't."
"I've a hand glass fine as iver ye'll see," Ellie Ransden said with cold pride. She stepped toward a chest, then stopped and met the cunning man's eyes. "You won't hurt him, will ye?" she asked. "I"
She covered her face with her hands. "I druther," she whispered, "thet she hev him thin thet he be hurt."
"Won't hurt him none," Old Nathan said. "I jest figger t' teach the Bully a lesson he's been beggin' t' larn, thet's all."
The young woman was on the verge of tears again. "Fetch the mirror," Old Nathan said gruffly. That gave her an excuse to turn away and compose herself as he proceeded with the preparations.
The words that the cunning man murmured under his breath were no more the spell than soaking yeast in water made a cake; but, like the other, these words were necessary preliminaries.
By its nature, the bullhead's wrinkling corpse brought the flies he needed. The pair that paused momentarily to copulate may have been brought to the act by nature alone or nature aided by art. The cause didn't matter so long as the necessary event occurred.
Old Nathan swept his right hand forward, skimming above the bullhead to grasp the mating pair unharmed within the hollow of his fingers. He looked sidelong to see whether the girl had noticed the quickness and coordination of his movement: he was an old man, right enough, but that didn't mean he was ready for the knacker's yard. . . .
He realized what he was doing and compressed his lips over a sneer of self-loathing. Durned old fool!
The flies blurred within the cunning man's fingers like a pair of gossamer hearts beating. He positioned his fist over the lamp chimney, then released his captives carefully within the glass. For a moment he continued to keep the top end of the chimney covered with his palm; then Ellie slid a corncob under the cunning man's hand to close the opening.
The flies buzzed for some seconds within the thin glass before they resumed their courtship.
The woman's eyes narrowed as she saw what Old Nathan was doing with the bullhead, but she did not comment. He arranged the other items to suit his need before he looked up.
"I'll be sayin' some words, now," he said. "Hit wouldn't do ye airy good t' hear thim, and hit might serve ye ill ifen ye said thim after me, mebbe by chance."
Ellie Ransden's mouth tightened at the reminder of the forces being brought to bear on the man she loved. "I reckon you know best," she said. "I'll stand off till ye call me."
She stepped toward the cabin's only door, then paused and looked again at Old Nathan. "These words you're a-speakin'ye found thim writ in books?"
He shook his head. "They're things I know," he explained, "the way I know . . ."
His voice trailed off. He'd been about to say, "yer red hen's pleased as pleased with the worm she jest grubbed up from the leaves," but that wasn't something he rightly wanted to speak, even to this girl.
"Anyhow, I just know hit," he finished lamely.
Ellie nodded and walked out onto the porch of her cabin. "I'll water yer mule," she called. "Reckon he could use thet."
The beast wheezed its enthusiastic agreement.
Old Nathan sang and gestured his way through the next stage of the preliminaries. His voice cracked and he couldn't hold a key, but that didn't seem to matter.
The cunning man wasn't sure what did matter. When he worked, it was as if he walked into a familiar room in the dead dark of night. Occasionally he would stumble, but not badly; and he would always feel his way to the goal that he could not see.
He laid the bullhead inside the crotch of Ransden's trousers.
In between snatches of versenot English, and not any language to which he could have put a nameOld Nathan whistled. He thought of boys whistling as they passed through a churchyard; chuckled bitterly; and resumed whistling, snatches from Mossy Groves that a fiddler would have had trouble recognizing.
* * *
"How would ye like, my Mossy Groves,
T' spend one night with me?"
* * *
Most of the life had by now crackled out of the extra stick of lightwood Ellie had tossed on the fire. Beyond the cabin walls, the night was drawing in.
The pair of trousers shifted on the table, though the air was still.
A familiar task; but, like bear hunting, familiarity didn't remove all the danger. This wasn't for Ellie, for some slip of a girl who loved a fool of a man. This was because Bully Ransden had issued a challenge, and because Old Nathan knew the worst that could happen to a man was to let fear cow him into a living death
And maybe it was a bit for Ellie.
* * *
The ver' first blow the king gave him,
Moss' Groves, he struck no more. . . .
* * *
Life had risks. Old Nathan murmured his spells.
He was breathing hard when he stepped back, but he knew he'd been successful. Though the lines of congruence were invisible, they stretched their complex web among the objects on the table and across the forest to the house on the outskirts of Oak Hill. The lines were as real and stronger than the hard steel of a knife edge. The rest was up to Bully Ransden. . . .
Old Nathan began to chuckle.
Ellie stood beside him. She had moved back to the doorway when the murmur of the cunning man's voice ceased, but she didn't venture to speak.
Old Nathan grinned at her. "Reckon I'd take a swig uv yer popskull, now," he said. His throat was dry as a summer cornfield.
"Hit's done, thin?" the girl asked in a distant tone. She hefted a brown-glazed jug out from the corner by the bed and handed it to the cunning man, then turned again to toss another pine knot on the fire. The coffee pot, forgotten, still hung from the pivot bar.
Old Nathan pulled the stopper from the jug and swigged the whiskey. It was a harsh, artless run, though it had kick enough for two. Bully Ransden's taste in liquor was similar to Madame Taliaferro's taste in the men of these parts. . . .
"My part's done," the cunning man said. He shot the stopper home again. "Fer the rest, I reckon we'll jest watch."
He set the jug down against the wall. "Pick up the mirror," he explained. "Thet's what we'll look in."
Gingerly, Ellie raised the mirror from the table where it lay among the other paraphernalia. The frame and handle were curly maple finished with beeswax, locally fitted though of the highest craftsmanship. The bevel-edged four-inch glass was old and European in provenance. Lights glinted like jewels on its flawless surface.
Ellie gasped. The lights were not reflections from the cabin's hearth. They shone through the curtained windows of Francine Taliaferro's house.
"Won't hurt ye," Old Nathan said. "Hain't airy thing in all this thet could hurt you."
When he saw the sudden fear in her eyes, he added gruffly, "Not yer man neither. I done told ye thet!"
Ellie brought the mirror close to her face to get a better view of the miniature image. When she realized that she was blocking the cunning man's view, she colored and held the glass out to him.
Old Nathan shook his head with a grim smile. "You watch," he said. "I reckon ye earned thet from settin' up alone the past while."
Bully Ransden's horse stood in the paddock beside the Taliaferro house. Madame Taliaferro's black servant, now wearing loose garments instead of his livery, held the animal by a halter and curried it with smooth, flowing strokes.
"He's singin'," the woman said in wonder. She looked over at the cunning man. "I kin hear thet nigger a-singin'!"
"Reckon ye might," Old Nathan agreed.
Ellie pressed her face close to the mirror's surface again. Her expression hardened. Lamplight within the Chesson house threw bars of shadow across the curtains as a breeze caressed them.
"She's laughin'," Ellie whispered. "She's laughin', an' she's callin' him on."
"Hain't nothin' ye didn't know about," Old Nathan said. "Jest watch an' wait."
The cunning man's face was as stark as the killer he had been; one time and another, in one fashion or other. It was a hard world, and he was not the man to smooth its corners away with lies.
The screams were so loud that the mule heard them outside and snorted in surprise. Francine Taliaferro's voice cut the night like a glass-edged saw, but Bully Ransden's tenor bellows were louder yet.
The servant dropped his curry comb and ran for the house. Before he reached it, the front door burst open. Bully Ransden lurched out onto the porch, pulling his breeches up with both hands.
The black tried to stop him or perhaps just failed to get out of the way in time. Ransden knocked the servant over the porch rail with a sideways swipe of one powerful arm.
"What's hap'nin?" Ellie cried. Firelight gleamed on her fear-widened eyes. "What is hit?"
Old Nathan lifted the lamp chimney and shook it, spilling the flies unharmed from their glass prison. Mating complete for their lifetimes, they buzzed from the cabin on separate paths.
The trousers on the table quivered again. The tip of a barbel peeked from the waistband.
"Hain't airy thing hap'nin' now," the cunning man said. "I figgered thet's how you'd choose hit t' be."
Bully Ransden leaped into the paddock and mounted his horse bareback. He kicked at the gate bars, knocking them from their supports.
Madame Taliaferro appeared at the door, breathing in great gasps. The peignoir she wore was so diaphanous that with the lamplight behind her she appeared to be clothed in fog. She stared in horror at Bully Ransden.
Riding with nothing but his knees and a rope halter, Ransden jumped his horse over the remaining gate bars and galloped out of the mirror's field. Taliaferro and her black servant watched him go.
"I'll be off, now," Old Nathan said. There was nothing of what he'd brought to Ransden's cabin that he needed to take back. "I don't choose t' meet Bully on the road, though I reckon he'll hev things on his mind besides tryin' conclusions with me."
He was shivering so violently that his tongue and lips had difficulty forming the words.
"But what's the matter with Cull?" Ellie Ransden begged.
"Hain't nothin' the matter!" Old Nathan gasped.
He put a hand on the doorframe to steady himself, then stepped out into the night. Had it been an ague, he could have dosed himself, but the cunning man was shaking in reaction to the powers he had summoned and channeled . . . successfully, though at a price.
Ellie followed him out of the cabin. She gripped Old Nathan's arm as he fumbled in one of the mule's panniers. "Sir," she said fiercely, "I've a right to know."
"Here," the cunning man said, thrusting a tissue-wrapped package into her hands. "Yer Cull, hit niver was he didn't love ye. This is sompin' he put back t' hev Rance Holden wrap up purty-like. I told Rance I'd bring it out t' ye."
The girl's fingers tugged reflexively at the ribbon, but she paused with the packet only half untied. The moon was still beneath the trees, so there was no illumination except the faint glow of firelight from the cabin's doorway. She caressed the lines of the ivory comb through the tissue.
"I reckon," Ellie said deliberately, "Cullen fergot 'cause of all the fishin' he's been after this past while." She tilted up her face and kissed Old Nathan's bearded cheek, then stepped away.
The cunning man mounted his mule and cast the reins loose from the rail. He was no longer shivering.
"Yer Cull, he give me a bullhead this forenoon," he said.
"We goin' home t' get some rest, naow?" the mule asked.
"Git up, mule," Old Nathan said, turning the beast's head. To Ellie he went on, "T'night, I give thet fish back t' him; an fer a while, I put hit where he didn't figger t' find sech a thing."
As the mule clopped down the road at a comfortable pace, Old Nathan called over his shoulder, "Sure hell thet warn't whut Francine Taliaferro figgered t' see there!"
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