is a writer living in Millerton, New York. Her second novel, Tiger, was published this summer by Dr. Cicero Books.
The day O’Driscol drowned, Pony knew that something was not right, because he put his hand into his pocket and seized the Devil’s Shoestring, and the little black root wriggled in his hand, and was hot and cold by turns. It was like that; the roll of a pine log under his hand, the cold flurry of water sending Pony and O’Driscol down the river. Joe caught Pony by the belt. For a moment they were dancing in the freezing water, hair floating slowly, clothes heavy as pig iron. The force of the river’s current drove the air from Pony’s lungs in a long stream of bubbles, escaping with his voice. Then Joe pulled him out of the river, and they were alright again, though Joe was ornery as a snake, and cussed Pony up and down as he beat the life back into him. But O’Driscol was not lucky, like Pony. He washed a half-mile downriver, and they found him fetched up against the rocks with eyes open in the sun and his mouth full of leaves. White said he recalled the day when a minnie ball had hit O’Driscol in the temple, passed under his scalp and come out behind his ear without killing him, and he thought the son of a bitch was lucky. Dapple had stopped speaking. He had never said much anyway.
They dug a hole with their hands and covered the dead man over. Pony shivered in his wet clothes, cinching his belt tighter to hold up the heavy wool. Along his belly were red marks, where Joe’s fingernails had dug in.
That night they made camp in a hollow at the foot of what Joe said was Crow Mountain, and White said they shouldn’t have a fire because of the Home Guard, and Joe said White and the Home Guard could both take themselves to hell. When the fire was lit, the four of them huddled up to it, their bodies blocking out the light. Pony kept burping up black bile and river water. White poked at the fire with a stick. Dapple sat off to one side, staring.
“Can’t see it through winter,” said White, as the flakes began to fall. “No way in hell.” He was speaking to Joe.
Joe didn’t answer. He’d been dragged up by white sharecroppers in the Cherokee Nation, and Pony figured it was this had made him circumspect; Joe kept his thoughts to himself. He had a knife with a Mason’s eye picked up at Bull Run. He rubbed at it with the tail of his shirt, turning it in the firelight, casting a wedge of brightness.
“How long we been running?” White persisted.
“A while,” said Joe.
“How much longer?”
“A while longer.”
Pony burped, and shivered in his rag of blanket. It had once been a small quilt, probably made for a child. Somebody, he supposed the Cold Spring woman, had sewn it with the shapes of animals, but not animals that lived in any forest Pony knew. Pony never looked at the animals, because they made him think of the Cold Spring woman, her lank hair and her eyes. In the kitchen, she had reached out to touch Pony’s cheek, and her fingers were cold, and loosely fleshed, and smelled of metal. She had sat down at her kitchen table, straightening the cloth. She was still sitting like that, head hanging forward, when they had left the house.
“Bastards,” White said mechanically, without feeling. "Sons of whores. Cannibals." He fell silent. With a fingernail, he prodded his bad tooth, and wiped his fingers on his shrunken shopkeeper’s paunch.
The snow fell in the hollow, sounding in the leaves, a dry, soft crackling. White rubbed with dirty fingers on the skin of his face, which, like his coat, was loose and empty, the skin of a fat man gone thin. “You got any tobacco?”
Joe turned his face toward him, showing the long sword cut and the blue piebald eye. “Not for you,” he said.
They had come by a dead boy two weeks gone while tracking a wolverine. You could tell the animal was lame, Joe said, by the way it dragged its paw, and it would make good eating. The dead boy lay in a clearing with his legs draped over a barrel, his face, all teeth and ginger hair and white nasal bones, slowly sinking into the leaf mould. The wolverine was standing over his carcass, front claws in the body cavity, its lip curled up in a snarl. He was trailing a steel trap from one paw, affixed by a chain to the splintered head of a stake. The paw hung at an angle. Flies buzzed around it. They attacked the wolverine, clubbing it with branches and stones. It fought like two devils, despite being lame, and despite the fact that it would be dead inside of a month, a slow death of infection or hunger. It bit White’s leg, leaving strings of bloody drool on his trousers, and even when Joe clubbed its head it took the animal a long time to stop. The boy had been dead a while. There were many bullet holes, all in the front, like he’d been shot by a firing squad, sitting on a barrel. Pony wondered out loud why they would bother to do that, sit a man on a barrel just to shoot him.
O’Driscol said they did that sometimes, if the condemned was too weak or too afraid to stand. And he did a little shuffling jig to one side, and rubbed his arms, yelling, “Gooseflesh!” When they went through the boy’s pockets, they found wormy biscuits, a letter, wire-rimmed glasses, broken, and a tobacco pouch and packet of rolling papers from Boston. Even without his blue jacket, the boy could only have been a Northerner: the rolling papers made it certain. There was something odd, a pendant like a star on a leather string tucked away inside the dead boy’s shirt that White said was made out of silver. They drew lots for it, and O’Driscol won. They took the pendant, the tobacco and papers and left the rest; all but the letter was just trash anyway, and what did they want with a dead boy’s letter? They divided the tobacco among themselves. They dined that night on the skunky meat of the wolverine, and in the morning they moved on.
O’Driscol took to bouncing the silver star on its leather string when they were on a long march, whirling it in circles around his hand until it plopped with a fat sound into his palm, then spinning it out again the other way. They walked, and he spun and flashed and whistled through his teeth. He had a favorite song for walking:
“Oh, the streams of lovely Nancy divide in three parts, Where the young men and the maidens, they meet their sweethearts.”
O’Driscol was vain of his complexion and his hair. He had a high, white forehead, shadowed eyes. He had carried a stone in his mouth, said it kept him from getting thirsty. Sometimes he had reared back and laughed for no reason, a sound that made the others unsettled.
By the fire, White moaned softly, stretching the muscles of his back, sore from a morning spent digging in the frozen earth. “I’ll pity the man who digs my bones in this god forsaken dirt.”
Dapple blinked his eyes. Spots of fire hung in them, the only living part of his face. Pony had asked him once what he had been, and hadn’t understood the answer, something about selling stories. Dapple had long legs, long hands and feet. He had tufty hair like the feathers of a shidepoke, sloping shoulders and toes that curled up, pointing away from each other. White said he had been some kind of mystic tramp. A snake preacher, he had called him. Holy Ghost.
Pony burped again, though his belly now contained nothing but air, and shook. All summer they had lived like foraging animals. They ate dewberries, pokeberries, bitter gourds and burdock, morels and orange trumpets and hen of the woods, wild potato, wild onion, and persimmon. They ate crayfish, which they smashed out of their shells with rocks. Sometimes there were trout in the deep, slow moving streams with overhanging banks, and Joe knew how to tickle them until they nuzzled calmly into his hand, then thrust his fingers through their gills and flip them out onto the bank. Cattails could be found in areas where the water was stagnant. The tubers were stubborn to dig out of the mud, but were rich and tasted like potato. They grazed on sorrel and watercress and fiddlehead fern, all of which liked shade and could be found near running water. And frogs that summer had been plentiful. But with the cold weather setting in, forage was scarce, and the animals were disappearing. The men had become increasingly desperate, which was why they had tracked the wolverine. They ate the wolverine meat till they were nearly sick on it. Days before that, all they had was linden bark, and a crow Dapple killed with a stone.
“O’Driscol,” said White softly, as if speaking to his own slack belly. “One of us ought to have done something.”
Joe ran a thumb down the edge of his knife, and tucked it behind his belt. White avoided his eye.
“Cold, black river,” White said. “I saw you got that fancy, Joe, that star, before we buried him. Silver. Did you get his tobacco, too?”
No one answered him.
“I don’t mean no disrespect,” said White. “Still, I imagine it'd dry out good. And the paper, too.”
A gagging noise brought all eyes to Dapple, who sat stiffly, long feet falling to either side, his fists pressed into his eye sockets, spasms cording the muscles of his throat. “Alive,” he said, “alive,” over and over, quiet into the night, a soft, oracular bird, and then his head tipped back and his eyes rolled to the trees and the greater darkness, and there was nothing human about him.
White said, “You shut up.”
But Dapple ignored him, carrying on in a thin voice like a loon. His head wobbled on its thin stalk. He turned to Pony, who started back from the sheen of his eyes, from that look of decay they all knew, had seen in the eyes of soldiers, dogs and stricken cavalry mules. Pony feared Dapple would lay hold of him. He didn’t want Dapple to touch him.
“He was alive. I saw him move. His eye moved.”
White’s head swung back and forth, doglike, from Joe to Dapple and back.
“Calm down, Ghost,” said Joe. “Weren’t no chance of that.”
“The dirt come into his eye, and it moved. I saw it. He was alive. You know it Joe.” He rocked, faster and faster. “The dirt come into his eye and the eye moved.” His voice grew from a whine to a howl in the back of his throat, an unearthly and sudden sound, drill on bone, that caused Pony to clutch at the sides of his head. Pony began to cry.
“What have we done, Joe,” Dapple said, “What have we done?”
Joe lunged across the fire at Dapple, catching him in the chin with the toe of his boot, sending him over in a heap into the snowy leaves. Pony’s foot kicked into the fire, then out again, as he tried to get out of the way. White scrambled beyond the reach of the flying sparks, shielding his eyes.
“You killing us all, Joe,” he said quietly.
Dapple was looking up at Joe, becalmed. There was a bright badge of blood on his chin, leaking from the corner of his mouth.
“There,” said Joe. “All quiet, see?” He backed off a few steps, then turned his back on Dapple. From his pocket, he took the tobacco pouch and paper, squatted on stiff haunches by the fire, rolling, then trying to light the cigarette on the tip of a flaming pine branch. The damp paper wouldn’t take the light.
“I knew you got it,” said White.
Joe said nothing, watching him through the thin slice of light that fell on the piebald eye.
“I’m taking a piss.” White stood, and walked off ten paces into the woods. “We all know it’s going to happen, don’t we? Joe?” he called back at the others. “You know it too, Half-pint, don’t you? Ghost? It has to happen.” He fumbled with his trouser buttons, pissed against a hemlock. Pony sat quiet, watching his breath mist in the black air, feeling the cold and the blood sing in his ears. White did not return to the fire. He would sleep warmer under a cover of pine boughs like a farm watchdog, Pony knew, than he would in the open air, next to the fire, with his back turned to Joe. White was afraid of Joe, whatever he said. The snow would fall all night and cover him. By morning, he would be completely buried in a carapace of snow, snug with the warmth of his own breath, protected from the cold.
Beyond the fire, Dapple lay down, but not to sleep. Pony watched the swinging stars. He saw the Big Bear, and the Drinking Gourd. Against the blue of the night the pines stood out, true black. And there were horses, running horses, in the stars, blacks and bays and dapples, horses that thundered and tossed their heads, trailing broken ropes and the wreckage of cannons, the snapped shafts of the commissary wagons. He was a child who had jumped like a colt around the cook fires of the 18th Carolina while the men clapped and urged him on, had jumped higher and higher, slapping his boots and the tops of his thighs to make a galloping sound, had seen horses in the moon, horses in the stars, everywhere horses, and it had given him his name. On the great march, the horses had died first, then the mules. When the last artillery mules lay down in the mud, Pony had wept harder than he had for his own brother. It seemed to him that he had always been Pony, jumping around those fires, rubbing the noses of those mules. He couldn’t remember being plain Charley Waite, somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. Now even the campfires were becoming distant. It seemed impossible that there had ever been a time when he had cause to leap for the sky. Pony could hardly walk now. His feet were a welter of old blisters, everywhere cracked and bleeding, the arches bruised by stones. He could hardly stir himself in the morning; sometimes it took a slap from Joe to get him on his feet. And when he did walk, each step was jarring, no spring left in his body. The mules had walked that way, before they lay down in the traces and refused to get up. But Joe wouldn’t leave Pony behind. “Get up, Half-pint,” he would say. And Pony would stagger to his feet for another day.
When the snows came in earnest, and the clouds obscured the stars, the Blue Ridge would be black as a gun, from Georgia to the Mason-Dixon. The thought of it made Pony want to sleep.
The house of the Cold Spring woman had smelled of shit and boiled pork. It was the scent of it they followed from the forest, a farm of empty outbuildings, an empty corncrib and a deserted barn, not even a hen to peck the dirt. Near the house there were two graves covered with grass, a year old maybe, both so small they could only have been the graves of children. When Pony, Dapple, White, O’Driscol and Joe came up to the house, she was standing on the porch, and Pony thought it odd, her standing there like she was waiting for them. Then he saw her eyes, big, strained and glassy, saw how her clothing hung off her in folds, and he looked away.
“Girl,” said White, “where’s your husband?”
The Cold Spring woman shook her head, not saying a word. She was a tiny little thing.
O’Driscol pulled the Colt revolver out of his pants, held it low next to his thigh. He was humming again, Streams of Nancy, over and over, smiling at the woman on the porch.
In the kitchen, they found a bottle of corn liquor and a pot cooking down on the stove. The woman watched them as they ate like dogs, burning themselves, their eyes fixed on the woman while they strained to catch stealthy sounds from the road and the woods beyond the walls of the house. There was a rifle propped against the kitchen door, and a pile of clothes, boots, rough shirt and suspenders, the heavy trousers worn by poor dirt farmers.
“If you got no husband,” said White to the woman, “whose clothes are these?”
The woman opened her mouth, but it was empty.
“What?” said White.
The woman shook her head. Dead, was what she meant.
“Liar,” said O’Driscol, drinking the last of the corn liquor from the bottle. “Where’s the grave at, then? He ent in the yard with the kiddies. You chuck him in the woods, did you? Leave his clothes on the kitchen floor? It’s a pig sty you keep here, woman.”
The woman looked at O’Driscol, at the Colt in his belt and his dirty hands, slick with meat grease. Her shoulders slumped and her forehead gathered in the middle, like she was going to cry. But then she laughed, startling them all, revealing grey, starved gums, a white tongue. Pony understood then, and he backed away from the stove. Dapple understood too.
“Ain’t pork,” Dapple said.
“Jesus God,” said White.
O’Driscol smashed down the bottle on the side of the stove, and with the jagged glass neck in his hand advanced on the Cold Spring woman. The woman just stood there, chest jerking up and down. O’Driscol snarled, showing his handsome teeth.
“Stop it,” said Joe. “You stop it, Ned.”
O’Driscol turned on Joe, on all of them. And there was something, just for a moment, a soft appeal. “Give me a reason why not,” O’Driscol said. He whined and showed his teeth. “Give me a reason. Joe? Half-pint?” He was begging, his right hand clutched around the bottleneck, his left held out before him, palm up and empty. “Holy Ghost?”
Dapple said, “Can’t you just… won’t you…” But he was afraid of O’Driscol. He shrank back against the wall of the kitchen and fell silent, looking to Joe for help.
But Joe said not another word. He turned away from O’Driscol’s eyes and the laughter of the Cold Spring woman. He walked out of the house.
A movement in the darkness beside him told Pony that Joe had come close.
“Here,” Joe was saying to Dapple, “Sit up. You’re a mess.”
He pulled Dapple up into a sitting position, and, with the sleeve of his shirt, began cleaning the blood from his lip, and his face filled Pony’s vision in the crack of light under his eyelids, all coarse, black hair and cutlass scar, cigarette in his mouth. And Pony thought of the river bottom, of the cold darkness cut by fractured light, of brown trout and the metallic heartbeat of the river, of the slow rolling motion in the grip of the current, of rough hands that circled him and pulled him up from underneath and then struck and pummeled him in the broad daylight ‘til the river was expelled. He thought of O’Driscol singing Streams of Nancy, and of the eyes of the Cold Spring woman. He watched Joe remove the cigarette from his lips, saw Dapple flinch with the bruised sting as Joe placed it between his. Pretending to sleep, he watched the piebald eye.
“What have we done, Joe?” Dapple said again. “It weren’t for us to do.” The lit spark jumped in the night. His words were smoke. “After that, what’s it matter?”
“That’s the last,” Joe said. “Don’t waste it.”