BLUE MURDER Edit
by Wilbur Daniel Steele Edit
From The Best Stories of Wilbur Daniel Steele 1946
At mill crossing it was well past sunset. The rays, redder for what autumn leaves were left, still laid fire along the woods crowning the stony slopes of Jim Bluedge's pastures; but then the line of the dusk began and from that level it filled the valley, washing with transparent blue the buildings scattered about the bridge, Jim's house and horse sheds and hay barns, Frank's store, and Camden's blacksmith shop.
The mill had been gone fifty years, but the falls which had turned its wheel still poured in the bottom of the valley, and when the wind came from the Footstool way their mist wet the smithy, built of the old stone on the old foundations, and their pouring drowned the clink of Camden's hammer.
Just now they couldn't drown Camden's hammer, for he wasn't in the smithy; he was at his brother's farm. Standing inside the smaller of the horse paddocks behind the sheds he drove in stakes, one after another, cut green from saplings, and so disposed as to cover the more glaring of the weaknesses in the five-foot fence. From time to time, when one was done and another to do, he rested the head of his sledge in the pocket of his leather apron (he was never without it, it was as though it had grown on him, lumpy with odds and ends of his trade— bolts and nails and rusty pliers and maybe an old horseshoe) and, standing so, he mopped the sweat from his face and looked up at the mountain.
Of the three brothers he was the dumb one. He seldom had anything to say. It was providential (folks said) that of the three enterprises at the Crossing one was a smithy; for while he was a strong, big, hungry-muscled fellow, he never would have had the shrewdness to run the store or the farm. He was better at pounding— pounding while the fire reddened and the sparks flew, and thinking, and letting other people wonder what he was thinking of.
Blossom Bluedge, his brother's wife, sat perched on the top bar of the paddock gate, holding her skirts around her ankles with a trifle too much care to be quite unconscious, and watched him work. When he looked at the mountain he was looking at the mares, half a mile up the slope, grazing in a line as straight as soldiers, their heads all one way. But Blossom thought it was the receding light he was thinking of, and her own sense of misgiving returned and deepened.
"You'd have thought Jim would be home before this, wouldn't you, Cam?"
Her brother-in-law said nothing.
"Cam, look at me!"
It was nervousness, but it wasn't all nervousness— she was the prettiest girl in the valley; a small part of it was mingled coquetry and pique.
The smith began to drive another stake, swinging the hammer from high overhead, his muscles playing in fine big rhythmical convulsions under the skin of his arms and chest, covered with short blond down. Studying him cornerwise, Blossom muttered, "Well, don't look at me then!"
He was too dumb for any use. He was as dumb as this: when all three of the Bluedge boys were after her a year ago, Frank, the storekeeper, had brought her candy: chocolates wrapped in silver foil in a two-pound Boston box. Jim had laid before her the Bluedge farm and with it the dominance of the valley. And Camden! To the daughter of Ed Beck, the apple grower, Camden had brought a box of apples/— and been bewildered too, when, for all she could help it, she had had to clap a hand over her mouth and run into the house to have her giggle.
A little more than just bewildered, perhaps. Had she, or any of them, ever speculated about that? . . . He had been dumb enough before; but that was when he had started being as dumb as he was now.
Well, if he wanted to be dumb let him be dumb. Pouting her pretty lips and arching her fine brows, she forgot the unimaginative fellow and turned to the ridge again. And now, seeing the sun was quite gone, all the day's vague worries and dreads— held off by this and that— could not be held off longer. For weeks there had been so much talk, so much gossip and speculation and doubt.
"Camden," she reverted suddenly, "tell me one thing: did you hear — "
She stopped there. Some people were coming into the kitchen yard, dark forms in the growing darkness. Most of them lingered at the porch, sitting on the steps and lighting their pipes. The one that came out was Frank, the second of her brothers-in-law. She was glad. Frank wasn't like Camden; he would talk. Turning and taking care of her skirts, she gave him a bright and sisterly smile.
"Well, Frankie, what's the crowd?"
Far from avoiding the smile, as Camden's habit was, the storekeeper returned it with a brotherly wink for good measure. "Oh, they're tired of waiting down the road, so they come up here to see the grand arrival." He was something of a man of the world; in his calling he had acquired a fine turn for skepticism. "Don't want to miss being on hand to see what flaws they can pick in 'Jhn' s five hundred dollars' wuth of expiriment.' "
"Frank, ain't you the least bit worried over Jim? So late?"
"Don't see why."
"All the same, I wish either you or Cam could've gone with him."
"Don't see why. Had all the men from Perry's stable there in Twinshead to help him get the animal off the freight, and he took an extra rope and the log chain and the heavy wagon, so I guess no matter how wild and woolly the devil is he'll scarcely be climbing in over the tailboard. Besides, them western horses ain't such a big breed; even a stallion."
"All the same — Look the other way, Frankie." Flipping her ankles over the rail, Blossom jumped down beside him. "Listen, Frank, tell me something: did you hear— did you hear the reason Jim's getting him cheap was because he killed a man out West there, what's-its-name, Wyoming?"
Frank was taking off his sleeve protectors, the pins in his mouth. It was Camden, at the bars, speaking in his sudden deep rough way, "Who the hell told you that?"
Frank got the pins out of his mouth. "I guess what it is, Blossie, what's mixed you up is his having that name, 'Blue Murder.' "
"No, sir! I got some sense and some ears. You don't go fooling me.
Frank laughed indulgently and struck her shoulder with a light hand.
"Don't you worry. Between two horsemen like Jim and Cam "
"Don't Cam me! He's none of my horse. I told Jim once — " Breaking off, Camden hoisted his weight over the fence and stood outside, his feet spread and his hammer in both hands, an attitude that would have looked a little ludicrous had anyone been watching him.
Jim had arrived. With a clatter of hoofs and a rattle of wheels he was in the yard and come to a standstill, calling aloud as he threw the lines over the team, "Well, friends, here we are."
The curious began to edge around, closing a cautious circle. The dusk had deepened so that it was hard to make anything at any distance of Jim's "expiriment" but a blurry silhouette anchored at the wagon's tail. The farmer put an end to it, crying from his eminence, "Now, now, clear out and don't worry him; give him some peace tonight, for Lord's sake! Git!" He jumped to the ground and began to whack his arms, chilled with driving, only to have them pinioned by Blossom's without warning.
"Oh, Jim, I'm so glad you come. I been so worried; gi' me a kiss!"
The farmer reddened, eying the cloud of witnesses. He felt awkward and wished she could have waited. "Get along, didn't I tell you fellows?" he cried with a trace of the Bluedge temper. "Go wait in the kitchen then; I'll tell you all about everything soon's I come in. . . . Well now— wife — "
"What's the matter?" she laughed, an eye over her shoulder. "Nobody's looking that matters. I'm sure Frank don't mind. And as for Camden — "
Camden wasn't looking at them. Still standing with his hammer two-fisted and his legs spread, his chin down and his thoughts to himself (the dumbhead), he was looking at Blue Murder, staring at that other dumbhead, which, raised high on the motionless column of the stallion's neck, seemed hearkening with an exile's doubt to the sounds of this new universe, tasting with wide nostrils the taint in the wind of equine strangers, and studying with eyes accustomed to far horizons these dark pastures that went up in the air.
Whatever the smith's cogitations, presently he let the hammer down and said aloud, "So you're him, eh?"
Jim had put Blossom aside, saying, "Got supper ready? I'm hungry!" Excited by the act of kissing and the sense of witnesses to it, she fussed her hair and started kitchenward as he turned to his brothers.
"Well, what do you make of him?"
"Five hundred dollars," said Frank. "However, it's your money."
Camden was shorter. "Better put him in."
"All right; let them bars down while I and Frank lead him around."
"No, thanks!" The storekeeper kept his hands in his pockets. "I just cleaned up, thanks. Cam's the boy for horses."
"He's none o' my horse!" Camden wet his lips, shook his shoulders, and scowled. "Be damned, no!" He never had the right words, and it made him mad. Hadn't he told Jim from the beginning that he washed his hands of this fool Agricultural College squandering, "and a man killer to the bargain"?
"Unless," Frank put in slyly, "unless Cam's scared."
"Oh, is Cam scared?"
"Scared?" And still, to the brothers' enduring wonder, the big dense fellow would rise to that boyhood bait. "Scared? The hell I'm scared of any horse ever wore a shoe! Come on, I'll show you! I'll show you!"
"Well, be gentle with him, boys; he may be brittle." As Frank sauntered off around the shed he whistled the latest tune.
In the warmth and light of the kitchen he began to fool with his pretty sister-in-law, feigning princely impatience and growling with a wink at the assembled neighbors, "When do we eat?"
But she protested, "Land, I had everything ready since five, ain't I? And now if it ain't you it's them to wait for. I declare for men!"
At last one of the gossips got in a word.
"What you make of Jim's purchase, Frank?"
"Well, it's Jim's money, Darred. If / had the running of this farm " Frank began drawing up chairs noisily, leaving it at that.
Darred persisted. "Don't look to me much like an animal for women and children to handle, not yet awhile."
"Cowboys han'les 'em, Pa." That was Darred's ten-year-old, bigeyed.
Blossom put the kettle back, protesting, "Leave off, or you'll get me worried to death; all your talk. ... I declare, where are those bad boys?" Opening the door she called into the dark, "Jim! Cam! Land's sake!"
Subdued by distance and the intervening sheds, she could hear them at their business— sounds muffled and fragmentary, soft thunder of hoofs, snorts, puffings, and the short words of men in action: "Aw, leave him be in the paddock tonight." . . . "Damn fool, eh? Try getting him in at that door and see who's the damn fool! "... "Come on, don't be so scared." . . . "Scared, eh? Scared?" . . .
Why was it she always felt that curious tightening of all her powers of attention when Camden Bluedge spoke? Probably because he spoke so rarely, and then so roughly, as if his own thickness made him mad. Never mind.
"Last call for supper in the dining car, boys!" she called and closed the door. Turning back to the stove, she was about to replace the tea water for the third time when, straightening up, she said, "What's that?"
No one else had heard anything. They looked at one another.
"Frank, go— go see what — Go tell the boys to come in."
Frank hesitated, feeling foolish, then went to the door.
Then everyone in the room was out of his chair.
There were three sounds. The first was human and incoherent. The second was incoherent too, but it wasn't human. The third was a crash, a ripping and splintering of wood.
When they got to the paddock they found Camden crawling from beneath the wreckage of the fence where a gap was opened on the pasture side. He must have received a blow on the head, for he seemed dazed. He didn't seem to know they were there. At a precarious balance— one hand at the back of his neck— he stood facing up the hill, gaping after the diminuendo of floundering hoofs, invisible above.
So seconds passed. Again the beast gave tongue, a high wild horning note, and on the black of the stony hill to the right of it a faint shower of sparks blew like fireflies where the herding mares wheeled. It seemed to awaken the dazed smith. He opened his mouth: "Almighty God!' 1 '' Swinging, he flung his arms toward the shed. "There! There!"
At last someone brought a lantern. They found Jim Bluedge lying on his back in the corner of the paddock near the door to the shed. In the lantern light, and still better in the kitchen when they had carried him in, they read the record of the thing which Camden, dumb in good earnest now, seemed unable to tell them with anything but his strange unfocused stare.
The bloody offense to the skull would have been enough to kill the man, but it was the second, full on the chest above the heart, that told the tale. On the caved grating of the ribs, already turning blue under the yellowish down, the iron shoe had left its mark; and when, laying back the rag of shirt, they saw that the toe of the shoe was upward and the cutting calk ends down, they knew all they wanted to know of that swift, black, crushing episode.
No outlash here of heels in fright. Here was a forefoot. An attack aimed and frontal; an onslaught reared, erect; beast turned biped; red eyes mad to white eyes aghast. . . . And only afterward, when it was done, the blood-fright that serves the horse for conscience; the blind rush across the inclosure; the fence gone down. . . .
No one had much to say. No one seemed to know what to do.
As for Camden, he was no help. He simply stood propped on top of his logs of legs where someone had left him. From the instant when with his "Almighty God!" he had been brought back to memory, instead of easing its hold as the minutes passed, the event to which he remained the only living human witness seemed minute by minute to tighten its grip. It set its sweat-beaded stamp on his face, distorted his eyes, and tied his tongue. He was no good to anyone.
As for Blossom, even now— perhaps more than ever now— her dependence on physical touch was the thing that ruled her. Down on her knees beside the lamp they had set on the floor, she plucked at one of the dead man's shoes monotonously, and as it were idly, swaying the toe like an inverted pendulum from side to side. That was all. Not a word. And when Frank, the only one of the three with any sense, got her up finally and led her away to her room, she clung to him.
It was lucky that Frank was a man of affairs. His brother was dead, and frightfully dead, but there was tomorrow for grief. Just now there were many things to do. There were people to be gotten rid of. With short words and angry gestures he cleared them out, all but Darred and a man named White, and to these he said, "Now first thing, Jim can't stay here." He ran and got a blanket from a closet. "Give me a hand and we'll lay him in the icehouse overnight. Don't sound good, but it's best, poor fellow. Cam, come along!"
He waited a moment, and as he studied the wooden fool the blood poured back into his face. "Wake up, Cam! You great big scared stiff, you!"
Camden brought his eyes out of nothingness and looked at his brother. A twinge passed over his face, convulsing the mouth muscles. "Scared?"
"Yes, you're scared!" Frank's lip lifted, showing the tips of his teeth. "And I'll warrant you something: if you wasn't the scared stiff you was, this hellish damn thing wouldn't have happened, maybe. Scared! You, a blacksmith! Scared of a horse!"
"Horse!" Again that convulsion of the mouth muscles, something between irony and an idiot craft. "Why don't you go catch 'im?"
"Hush it! Don't waste time by going loony now, for God's sake. Come!"
"My advice to anybody " Camden looked crazier than ever,knotting his brows. "My advice to anybody is to let somebody else go catch that— that " Opening the door, he faced out into the
night, his head sunk between his shoulders and the fingers working at the ends of his hanging arms; and before they knew it he began to swear. They could hardly hear because his teeth were locked and his breath soft. There were all the vile words he had ever heard in his life, curses and threats and abominations, vindictive, violent, obscene. He stopped only when at a sharp word from Frank he was made aware that Blossom had come back into the room. Even then he didn't seem to comprehend this return but stood blinking at her,, and at the rifle she carried, with his distraught bloodshot eyes.
Frank comprehended. Hysteria had followed the girl's blankness. Stepping between her and the body on the floor, he spoke in a persuasive, unhurried way. "What you doing with that gun, Blossie? Now, now, you don't want that gun, you know you don't."
It worked. Her rigidity lessened appreciably. Confusion gained.
"Well, but— oh, Frank— well, but when we going to shoot him?"
"Yes, yes, Blossie— now, yes— only you best give me that gun; that's the girlie." When he had got the weapon he put an arm around her shoulders. "Yes, yes, course we're going to shoot him;.what you think? Don't want an animal like that running round. Now first thing in the morning "
Hysteria returned. With its strength she resisted his leading.
"No, now! Now! He's gone and killed Jim! Killed my husband! I won't have him left alive another minute! I won't! Now! No, sir, I'm going myself, I am! Frank, I am! Cam!"
At his name, appealed to in that queer screeching way, the man in the doorway shivered all over, wet his lips, and walked out into the dark.
"There, you see?" Frank was quick to capitalize anything. "Cam's gone to do it. Cam's gone, Blossie! . . . Here, one of you— Darred, take this gun and run give it to Camden, that's the boy."
"You sure he'll kill him, Frank? You sure?"
"Sure as daylight. Now you come along back to your room like a good girl and get some rest. Come, I'll go with you."
When Frank returned to the kitchen ten minutes later, Darred was back.
"Well, Darred, let's get at it and carry out poor Jim; he can't lay here. . . . Where's Cam gone now, damn him!"
"Cam? Why, he's gone and went."
"Up the pasture, like you said."
"Like I — " Frank went an odd color. He walked to the door. Between the light on the sill and the beginnings of the stars where the woods crowned the mountain was all one blackness. One stillness too. He turned on Darred. "But look, you never gave him that gun, even."
"He didn't want it."
"Lord's sake; what did he say?"
"Said nothing. He'd got the log chain out of the wagon and when I caught him he was up hunting his hammer in under that wreck at the fence. Once he found it he started off up. 'Cam,' says I, 'here's a gun; want it?' He seem not to. Just went on walking on up."
"How'd he look?"
"Look same's you seen him looking. Sick."
"The damned fool! . . ."
Poor dead Jim! Poor fool Camden! As the storekeeper went about his business and afterward when, the icehouse door closed on its tragic tenant and White and Darred gone off home, he roamed the yard, driven here and there, soft-footed, waiting, hearkening— his mind was for a time not his own property but the plaything of thoughts diverse and wayward. Jim, his brother, so suddenly and so violently gone. The stallion. That beast that had kicked him to death. With anger and hate and pitiless impatience of time he thought of the morrow, when they would catch him and take their revenge with guns and clubs. Behind these speculations, covering the background of his consciousness and stringing his nerves to endless vigil, spread the wall of the mountain: silent from instant to instant but devising under its black silence (who-could-know-what instant to come) a neigh, a yell, a spark-line of iron hoofs on rolling flints, a groan. And still behind that and deeper into the borders of the unconscious, the storekeeper thought of the farm that had lost its master, the rich bottoms, the broad well-stocked pastures, the fat barns, and the comfortable house whose chimneys and gable ends fell into changing shapes of perspective against the stars as he wandered here and there. . . .
Jim gone. . . . And Camden, at any moment . . .
His face grew hot. An impulse carried him a dozen steps. "I ought to go up. Ought to take the gun and go up." But there shrewd sanity put on the brakes. "Where's the use? Couldn't find him in this dark. Besides, I oughtn't to leave Blossom here alone."
With that he went around toward the kitchen, thinking to go in. But the sight of the lantern, left burning out near the sheds, sent his ideas off on another course. At any rate it would give his muscles and nerves something to work on. Taking the lantern and entering the paddock, he fell to patching the gap into the pasture, using broken boards from the wreck. As he worked, his eyes chanced to fall on footprints in the dung-mixed earth— Camden's footprints leading away beyond the little ring of light. And beside them, taking off from the landing place of that prodigious leap, he discerned the trail of the stallion. After a moment he got down on his knees where the earth was softest, holding the lantern so that its light fell full.
He gave over his fence building. Returning to the house, his gait was no longer that of the roamer; his face, caught by the periodic flare of the swinging lantern, was the face of another man. In its expression there was a kind of fright and a kind of calculating eagerness. He looked at the clock on the kitchen shelf, shook it, and read it again. He went to the telephone and fumbled at the receiver. He waited till his hand quit shaking, then removed it from the hook.
"Listen, Darred," he said, when he had got the farmer at last, "get White and whatever others you can and come over first thing it's light. Come a-riding and bring your guns. No, Cam ain't back."
He heard Blossom calling. Outside her door he passed one hand down over his face, as he might have passed a washrag, to wipe off what was there. Then he went in.
"What's the matter with Blossie? Can't sleep?"
"No, I can't sleep. Can't think. Can't sleep. Oh, Frankie!"
He sat down beside the bed.
"Oh, Frankie, Frankie, hold my hand!"
She looked almost homely, her face bleached out and her hair in a mess on the pillow. But she would get over that. And the short sleeve of the nightgown on the arm he held was edged with pretty lace.
"Got your watch here?" he asked. She gave it to him from under the pillow. This too he shook as if he couldn't believe it was going.
Pretty Blossom Beck. Here for a wonder he sat in her bedroom and held her hand. One brother was dead and the other was on the mountain.
But little by little, as he sat and dreamed so, nightmare crept over his brain. He had to arouse and shake himself. He had to set his thoughts resolutely in other roads. . . . Perhaps there would be even the smithy. The smithy, the store, the farm. Complete. The farm, the farmhouse, the room in the farmhouse, the bed in the room, the wife in the bed. Complete beyond belief. If . . . Worth dodging horror for. If . . .
"Frank, has Cam come back?"
"Cam? Don't you worry about Cam. . . . Where's that watch again? . . ."
Far from rounding up their quarry in the early hours after dawn, it took the riders, five of them, till almost noon simply to make certain that he wasn't to be found— not in any of the pastures. Then when they discovered the hole in the fence far up in the woods beyond the crest where Blue Murder had led the mares in a break for the open country of hills and ravines to the south, they were only at the beginning.
The farmers had left their work undone at home and, as the afternoon lengthened and with it the shadows in the hollow places, they began to eye one another behind their leader's back. Yet they couldn't say it; there was something in the storekeeper's air today, something zealous and pitiless and fanatical, that shut them up and pulled them plodding on.
Frank did the trailing. Hopeless of getting anywhere before sundown in that unkempt wilderness of a hundred square miles of scrub, his companions slouched in their saddles and rode more and more mechanically, knee to knee, and it was he who made the casts to recover the lost trail and, dismounting to read the dust, cried back, "He's still with 'em," and with gestures of imperious excitement beckoned them on.
"Which you mean?" Darred asked him once. "Cam, or the horse?"
Frank wheeled his beast and spurred back at the speaker. It was extraordinary. "You don't know what you're talking about!" he cried, with a causelessness and a disordered vehemence which set them first staring, then speculating. "Come on, you dumbheads; don't talk— ride/"
By the following day, when it was being told in all the farmhouses, the story might vary in details and more and more as the tellings multiplied, but in its fundamentals it remained the same. In one thing they certainly all agreed: they used the same expression —"It was like Frank was drove. Drove in a race against something, and not spared the whip."
They were a good six miles to the south of the fence. Already the road back home would have to be followed three parts in the dark.
Darred was the spokesman. "Frank, I'm going to call it a day."
The others reined up with him, but the man ahead rode on. He didn't seem to hear. Darred lifted his voice. "Come on, call it a day, Frank. Tomorrow, maybe. But you see we've run it out and they're not here."
"Wait," said Frank over his shoulder, still riding on into the pocket.
White's mount— a mare— laid back her ears, shied, and stood trembling. After a moment she whinnied.
It was as if she had whinnied for a dozen. A crashing in the woods above them to the left and the avalanche came— down-streaming, erupting, wheeling, wheeling away with volleying snorts, a dark rout.
Darred, reining his horse, began to shout, "Here they go this way, Frank!" But Frank was yelling, "Up here, boys! This way, quick!"
It was the same note, excited, feverish, disordered, breaking like a child's. When they neared him they saw he was off his horse, rifle in hand, and down on his knees to study the ground where the woods began. By the time they reached his animal the impetuous fellow had started up into the cover, his voice trailing, "Come on; spread out and come on!"
One of the farmers got down. When he saw the other three keeping their saddles he swung up again.
White spoke this time. "Be darned if I do!" He lifted a protesting hail, "Come back here, Frank! You're crazy! It's getting dark!"
It was Frank's own fault. They told him plainly to come back and he wouldn't listen.
For a while they could hear his crackle in the mounting underbrush. Then that stopped, whether he had gone too far for their ears or whether he had come to a halt to give his own ears a chance . . . Once, off to his right, a little higher up under the low ceiling of the trees that darkened moment by moment with the rush of night, they heard another movement, another restlessness of leaves and stones. Then that was still, and everything was still.
Darred ran a sleeve over his face and swung down. "God alive, boys!"
It was the silence. All agreed there— the silence and the deepening dusk.
The first they heard was the shot. No voice. Just the one report. Then after five breaths of another silence a crashing of growth, a charge in the darkness under the withered scrub, continuous and diminishing.
They shouted, "Frank!" No answer. They called, "Frank Bluedge!"
Now, since they had to, they did. Keeping contact by word, and guided partly by directional memory (and mostly in the end by luck), after a time they found the storekeeper in a brake of ferns, lying across his gun.
They got him down to the open, watching behind them all the while. Only then, by the flares of successive matches, under the noses of the snorting horses, did they look for the damage done.
They remembered the stillness and the gloom; it must have been quite black in there. The attack had come from behind— equine and pantherine at once, and planned and cunning. A deliberate lunge with a forefoot again: the shoe which had crushed the backbone between the shoulder blades was a fore shoe; that much they -saw by the match flares in the red wreck.
They took no longer getting home than they had to, but it was longer than they would have wished. With Frank across his own saddle, walking their horses and with one or another ahead to pick the road (it was going to rain, and even the stars were lost), they made no more than a creeping speed.
None of them had much to say on the journey. Finding the break in the boundary fence and feeling through the last of the woods, the lights of their farms began to show in the pool of blackness below, and Darred uttered a part of what had lain in the minds of them all during the return:
"Well, that leaves Cam."
None followed it up. None cared to go any closer than he was to the real question. Something new, alien, menacing, and pitiless, had come into the valley of their lives with that beast they had never really seen; they felt its oppression, everyone, and kept the real question back in their minds: "Does it leave Cam?"
It answered itself. Camden was at home when they got there.
He had come in a little before them, empty-handed. Emptyheaded too. When Blossom, who had waited all day, part of the time with neighbor women who had come in and part of the time alone to the point of going mad— when she saw him coming down the pasture, his feet stumbling and his shoulders dejected, her first feeling was relief. Her first words, however, were, "Did you get him, Cam?" And all he would answer was, "Gi' me something to eat, can't you? Gi' me a few hours' sleep, can't you? Then wait!"
He looked as if he would need more than a few hours' sleep. Propped on his elbows over his plate, it seemed as though his eyes would close before his mouth would open.
His skin was scored by thorns and his shirt was in ribbons under the straps of his iron-sagged apron; but it was not by these marks that his twenty-odd hours showed: it was by his face. While yet his eyes were open and his wits still half awake, his face surrendered. The flesh relaxed into lines of stupor, a putty-formed, putty-colored mask of sleep.
Once he let himself be aroused. This was when, to an abstracted query as to Frank's whereabouts, Blossom told him Frank had been out with four others since dawn. He heaved clear of the table and opened his eyes at her, showing the red around the rims.
He spoke with the thick tongue of a drunkard. "If anybody but me lays hand on that stallion I'll kill him. I'll wring his neck."
Then he relapsed into his stupidity, and not even the arrival of the party bringing his brother's body seemed able to shake him so far clear of it again.
At first, when they had laid Frank on the floor where on the night before they had laid Jim, he seemed hardly to comprehend.
"What's wrong with Frank?"
"Some more of Jim's 'expiriment.' "
"Frank see him? He's scared, Frank is. Look at his face there."
"He's dead, Cam."
"Dead, you say? Frank dead? Dead of fright; is that it?"
Even when, rolling the body over, they showed him what was what, he appeared incapable of comprehension, of amazement, of passion, or of any added grief. He looked at them all with a kind of befuddled protest. Returning to his chair and his plate, he grumbled, "Le' me eat first, can't you? Can't you gi' me a little time to sleep?"
"Well, you wouldn't do much tonight anyway, I guess."
At White's words Blossom opened her mouth for the first time.
"No, nothing tonight, Cam. Cam! Camden! Say! Promise!"
"And then tomorrow, Cam, what we'll do is to get every last man in the valley, and we'll go at this right. We'll lay hand on that devil — "
Camden swallowed his mouthful of cold steak with difficulty. His obsession touched, he showed them the rims of his eyes again.
"You do and I'll wring your necks. The man that touches that animal before I do gets his neck wrang. That's all you need to remember."
"Yes, yes— no— that is " Poor Blossom. "Yes, Mr. White, thanks;
no, Cam's not going out tonight. . . . No, Cam, nobody's going to interfere— nor nothing. Don't you worry there. . . ."
Again poor Blossom! Disaster piled too swiftly on disaster; no discipline but instinct left. Caught in fire and flood and earthquake and not knowing what to come, and no creed but "save him who can!"— by hook or crook of wile or smile. With the valley of her life emptied out, and its emptiness repeopled monstrously and pressing down black on the roof under which (now that Frank was gone to the icehouse too and the farmers back home) one brother was left of three— she would tread softly, she would talk or she would be dumb, as her sidelong glimpses of the awake-asleep man's face above the table told her was the instant's need; or if he would eat, she would magic out of nothing something, anything; or if he would sleep, he could sleep, so long as he slept in that house where she could know he was sleeping.
Only one thing. If she could touch him. If she could touch and cling.
Lightning filled the windows. After a moment the thunder came avalanching down the pasture and brought up against the clapboards of the house. At this she was behind his chair. She put out a hand. She touched his shoulder. The shoulder was bare, the shirt ripped away; it was caked with sweat and with the blackening smears of scratches, but for all its exhaustion and dirt it was flesh alive— a living man to touch.
Camden blundered up. "What the hell!" He started off two steps and wheeled on her. "Why don't you get off to bed for Goll sake!"
"Yes, Cam, yes— right off, yes."
"Well, I'm going, I can tell you. For Goll sake, I need some sleep!"
"Yes, that's right, yes, Cam, good night, Cam— only— only you promise— promise you won't go out— nowheres."
"Go out? Not likely I won't! Not likely! Get along."
It took her no time to get along then— quick and quiet as a mouse.
Camden lingered to stand at one of the windows where the lightning came again, throwing the black barns and paddocks at him from the white sweep of the pastures crowned by woods.
As it had taken her no time to go, it took Blossom no time to undress and get in bed. When Camden was on his way to his room he heard her calling, "Cam! Just a second, Cam!"
In the dark outside her door he drew one hand down over his face, wiping off whatever might be there. Then he entered.
"Cam, set by me a minute, won't you? And Cam, oh Cam, hold my hand."
As he slouched down, his fist inclosing her fingers, thoughts awakened and ran and fastened on things. They fastened, tentatively at first, upon the farm. Jim gone. Frank gone. The smithy, the store, and the farm. The whole of Mill Crossing. The trinity, the three in one . . .
"Tight, Cam, for pity's sake! Hold it tight!"
His eyes, falling to his fist, strayed up along the arm it held. The sleeve, rumpled near the shoulder, was trimmed with pretty lace. . . .
A box of apples. That memory hidden away in the cellar of his mind. Hidden away, clamped down in the dark, till the noxious vapors, the murderous vapors of its rotting had filled the shut-up house he was ... A box of red apples for the apple grower's girl . . . the girl who sniggered and ran away from him to laugh at him. . . .
And here, by the unfolding of a devious destiny, he sat in that girl's bedroom, holding that girl's hand. Jim who had got her, Frank who had wanted her lay side by side out there in the icehouse under the lightning. While he, the "dumb one"— the last to be thought of with anything but amusement and the last to be feared— his big hot fist inclosing her imprecating hand now, and his eyes on the pretty lace at her shoulder He jumped up with a gulp and a clatter of iron.
"What the — " He flung her hand away. "What the-hell!" He swallowed. "Damn you, Blossie Beck!" He stared at her with repugnance and mortal fright. "Why, you— you— you "
He moderated his voice with an effort, wiping his brow. "Good night. You must excuse me, Blossie; I wasn't meaning— I mean— I hope you sleep good. / shall. . . . Good night!"
In his own brain was the one word, "Hurry!"
She lay and listened to his boots going along the hall and heard the closing of his door. She ought to have put out the lamp. But even with the shades drawn, the lightning around the edges of the window unnerved her; in the dark alone it would have been more than she could bear.
She lay so till she felt herself nearing exhaustion from the sustained rigidity of her limbs. Rain came and with the rain, wind. Around the eaves it neighed like wild stallions; down the chimneys it moaned like men.
Slipping out of bed and pulling on a bathrobe she ran from her room, barefooted, and along the hall to Camden's door.
"Cam!" she called. "Oh, Cam!" she begged. "Please, please!"
And now he wouldn't answer her.
New lightning, diffused through all the sky by the blown rain, ran at her along the corridor. She pushed the door open. The lamp was burning on the bureau, but the room was empty and the bed untouched.
Taking the lamp she skittered down to the kitchen. No one there. . . .
Camden had reached the woods when the rain came. Lighting the lantern he had brought, he made his way on to the boundary fence. There, about a mile to the east of the path the others had taken that day, he pulled the rails down and tumbled the stones together in a pile. Then he proceeded another hundred yards, holding the lantern high and peering through the streaming crystals of the rain.
Blue Murder was there. Neither the chain nor the sapling had given way. The lantern and, better than the lantern, a globe of lightning showed the tethered stallion glistening and quivering, his eyes all white at the man's approach.
"Gentle, boy; steady, boy!" Talking all the while in the way he had with horses, Camden put a hand on the taut chain and bore with a gradually progressive weight, bringing the dark head nearer.
"Steady, boy; gentle there, damn you; gentle!"
Was he afraid of horses? Who was it said he was afraid of horses?
The beast's head was against the man's chest, held there by an arm thrown over the bowed neck. As he smoothed the forehead and fingered the nose with false caresses, Camden's "horse talk" ran on— the cadence one thing, the words another.
"Steady, Goll damn you; you're going to get yours. Cheer up, cheer up, the worst is yet to come. Come now! Come easy! Come along!"
When he had unloosed the chain, he felt for and found with his free hand his hammer hidden behind the tree. Throwing the lantern into the brush, where it flared for an instant before dying, he led the stallion back as far as the break he had made in the fence. Taking a turn with the chain around the animal's nose, like an improvised hackamore, he swung from the stone pile to the slippery back. A moment's shying, a sliding caracole of amazement and distrust, a crushing of knees, a lash of the chain end, and that was all there was to that. Blue Murder had been ridden before. . . .
In the smithy, chambered in the roaring of the falls and the swish and shock of the storm, Camden sang as he pumped his bellows, rilling the cave beneath the rafters with red. The air was nothing, the words were mumbo-jumbo, but they swelled his chest. His eyes, cast from time to time at his wheeling prisoner, had lost their look of helplessness and surly distraction.
Scared? He? No, no, no! Now that he wasn't any longer afraid of time, he wasn't afraid of anything on earth.
"Shy, you devil!" He wagged his exalted head. "Whicker, you hellion! Whicker all you want to, stud horse. Tomorrow they're going to get you, the dumb fools! Tomorrow they can have you. / got you tonight!"
He was more than other men; he was enormous. Fishing an iron shoe from that inseparable apron pocket of his, he thrust it into the coals and blew and blew. He tried it and it was burning red. He tried it again and it was searing white. Taking it out on the anvil he began to beat it, swinging his hammer one-handed, gigantic. So in the crimson light, irradiating iron sparks, he was at his greatest. Pounding, pounding. A man in the dark of night with a hammer about him can do wonders; with a horseshoe about him he can cover up a sin.
And if the dark of night in a paddock won't hold it, then the dark of undergrowth on a mountainside will. . . .
Pounding, pounding; thinking, thinking, in a great halo of hot stars. Feeding his hungry, his insatiable muscles.
"Steady now, you blue bastard! Steady, boy!"
What he did not realize in his feverish exaltation was that his muscles were not insatiable. In the thirty-odd hours past they had had a feast spread before them and they had had their fill. . . . More than their fill.
As with the scorching iron in his tongs he approached the stallion, he had to step over the nailbox he had stepped over five thousand times in the routine of every day.
A box of apples, eh? Apples to snigger at, eh? But whose girl are you now? . . . Scared, eh?
His foot was heavier of a sudden than it should have been. This five-thousand-and-first time, by the drag of the tenth of an inch, the heel caught the lip of the nailbox.
He tried to save himself from stumbling. At the same time, instinctively, he held the iron flame in his tongs away.
There was a scream out of a horse's throat; a whiff of hair and burnt flesh.
There was a lash of something in the red shadows. There was another sound and another wisp of stench. . . .
When, guided by the stallion's whinnying, they found the smith next day, they saw by the cant of his head that his neck was broken, and they perceived that he too had on him the mark of a shoe. It lay up one side of his throat and the broad of a cheek. It wasn't blue this time, however— it was red. It took them some instants in the sunshine pouring through the wide door to comprehend this phenomenon. It wasn't sunk in by a blow this time; it was burned in, a brand.
Darred called them to look at the stallion, chained behind the forge.
"Almighty God!" The words sounded funny in his mouth. They sounded the funnier in that they were the same ones the blundering smith had uttered when, staring uphill from his clever wreckage of the paddock fence, he had seen the mares striking sparks from the stones where the stallion struck none. And he, of all men, a smith!
"Almighty God!" called Darred. "What you make of these here feet?"
One fore hoof was freshly pared for shoeing; the other three hoofs were as virgin as any yearling's on the plains. Blue Murder had never yet been shod. . . .