An Accountable Death: part 5
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
Late that same afternoon the sun was low and slow in the sky. A few clouds drifted across it and caused an immediate temperature drop that could be measured at the fingertips or on the tip of one's nose. Winter of a sort was laying in wait. Snow was promised, though it would not be heavy, before the night was over. The clouds, far to the east and north, rolled in darker and grayer and seemingly denser.
Merchant Blore sat at the counter in Audrey's Place, finishing off a plate of fried eggs and a chunk of ham and the last of the home fries of the day. He was at his third cup of coffee. Harold Igoe and Jim Wikson walked in. They were cousins who cut wood for a living. They were grubby and dirty and chips of wood and sawdust seemed to have followed them. Their leather-rubber boots made noises when they walked, and the extra denim pants they wore to fight off the chill in the woods whispered at the same gait.
Harold Igoe spotted Merchant Blore leaning over the last of his meal. He stood beside Merchant Blore and tapped him on the back.
"Howdy, Merchant. Saw you out there t'day on Sander Hill. Catch anythin'?" He turned to his cousin and said, "Merchant had this godawful long gun with him I swear was longer'n him, Jimbo. Coulda dropped an elephant with it." He turned back to Merchant Blore. "You catch anythin', Merchant?"
At the far end of the store, in front of a small table she used for a desk which was piled with receipts and bills, and perhaps her life history, Audrey Lightizer said, "Why, Harol', you know Merchant ain't but caught a cold these last thirty or forty years, and whatever else he might catch goin' down to Bangor, or Portland if'n he had enough gas. Merchant ain't the great hunter he wants to be, but he's the first to admit it, ain't you, Merchant?"
Merchant looked up from his meal remnants for the first time. He looked at Audrey Lightizer rather than at Harold Igoe. An ugly sore at one ear looked as if an old mastoid wound had opened and ran and dried up on him. The yellowness seemed hard and demanding against his skin. The visible rim of an undershirt across the bottom of his neck was dark with dirt. The darkness at his nails was heavy and thick and made his fingers seem bigger than they were.
Audrey could tell he was trying to show that he was not being bothered, but he was not very successful at it.
"I get my share of what I go after. Not ever'body kin say that. No matter what people are sayin' a man does his own thing.'
He did not look at Harold Igoe or Jim Wikson. All of them knew he was doing his best to ignore them, what they had said, what they would say, what they had said for years on end.
"You catch any good looks at anythin' lately, Merchant?" Harold Igoe, thick across the chest and the shoulders, with huge arms and hands to match, posed beside Merchant. A few chips of wood fell from his clothing to the floor. His face was red with his day in the woods.
"Just joshin', Merchant," he said, putting his hand out to tap Merchant on the shoulder, but changing his mind in mid-air. "Just joshin'. Need to keep the humor in this here life of ours, else we dry up and blow away come spring and summer."
"Hell, Aud," he continued, "me and Jimbo run outta coffee and sandwiches and decided a couple of beers was in order. And we come down along Katherine's Hill and I see them guys from Boston is still around, huh?"
Merchant Blore looked up for the first time and said, "What guys from Boston?"
"Them detectives, Merchant," Jim Wikson said. He was tall and lean and had a firm jaw and a long Roman nose that was red as a poinsettia. Wood chips, bright as stars on his dark jacket, or extra buttons, hung on tenaciously. His hands were extraordinarily large and on his right hand the little finger was about half missing.
"They the ones who're gonna solve the murder of Miriam's husband down there in Boston. You know, I still believe old Greg Maltby is ghostin' around his old place because all kinds of stuff keeps goin' on there."
Merchant Blore looked at Jim Wikson and said, "What kind of stuff's goin' on?"
"Looks like your blood is still movin' in you, Merchant," said Audrey. "I ain't seen you so curious since the day you went lookin' to see your new neighbors on the other side of the hill."
She pushed back a tress of hair hanging over her eyes.
"C'mon. Merchant," Jim Wikson said, "First Carlton gits himself kilt up here and then Harlan', and all after Miriam's husband, pore ol' George, is cut up like venison down there at the school. They're talkin' about it all the way down to Ellsworth and clean over to Cherryfield. I'll bet all the way to Bangor and then some, I'll bet. Serial killer they call it. Say its got all to do with Miriam gettin' kilt the way she did all them years ago right up there on the hill."
Merchant was standing beside the stool at the three stool counter. He could have been shipwrecked or marooned or lost for a whole week without a guide up around Katahdin, the way he looked.
"Miriam was killed by a hit and run driver. Everybody knows that," he said. "What's that got to do with her husband and Carlton and Harlan'? We just got someone plain loco and doin' people in, and we ought to catch them ourselves, don't you think?"
"You mean, we ought to tell them foreigners they shouldn't be diggin' round here?" said Jim Wikson. "They're from so far away they're like aliens? Well, Cal Holender thinks them two guys in the little black car are like some kind of gods. Ol' Clockburn, too. He shines on to the both of them like they was special trout lures, but especially that little guy. Heard tell he's a bird watcher and him and his girlfriend been stayin' now and then at Skrudland's place out on Route 1. Skrud tol' Amie Churchill at the hardware."
"How'd that get from Amie Churchill to you, Jim?" Audrey Lightizer said, as if the whole tone and tenor of the conversation had suddenly changed.
Which it had.
Jim raised a little redness in his cheeks, his whole life in sudden exposure, opened up for any discussion or interpretation.
The link, to Audrey, was obvious. It had gone from Amie Churchill, to Amie's cousin Angel who was a tart of the first order, and Angel had obviously told Jim while they were at play or work in between the sheets of her bed in the trailer tucked up there in the woods, if she used sheets, of which Audrey was not so sure, and let the question run around in the back of her mind for a while.
Audrey knew what the trends in the business did for one business or another.
Merchant Blore had suddenly been left out of the whole conversation. He slipped out of the store, soft as deer after apples, got in his old pick-up truck, kicked over the engine with a bit of difficulty, and drove off down Route 182.
The sun had gone by that time, a bright easiness going downhill in the next county, and the clouds thicker and darker and more of winter in them than most people of Franklin realized.
"Merchant sure actin' kind of funny, ain't he?" Harold Igoe said.
"Not much of a change in that, is there?" Audrey added, seeing the redness still rising in Jim Wikson's cheeks. "He ain't been the same dude since his car was stolen that time so long ago."
She tried to remember the passage of years, but they leaped too rapidly for her to tie a leash on. "He sure favored that car. Figures to this day that one of us here in Franklin took it off his hands and sold it down country."
"That didn't make him no winder peeker, losin' that ol' Packard Clipper, did it?" said Harold Igoe.
"Ol' Merchant ain't the only peeker in this here town of Franklin and neither in Hancock County," Audrey said. "I've had a few peekin' in my winder who wouldn't turn their noses up at anythin'. What turns a man on turns a man on, I say, whether it's the real thing he's seein' and ain't gettin' near any himself or a classic car he has to keep together and runnin' with wire hangers and gum and prayers all winter long. What turns a man on turns a man on."
She dropped her eyes on Jim Wikson, now and then a casual customer of varied services at Audrey's Place on Route 182, north side, running east.
Slightly red-faced, Jim Wikson was studying how the hardwood floor was put together.
Max The Most got into her evening class just in time. At one minute past five. It was a special session for advanced students whom George Hinckler had suggested she generate and tutor. David Crestwood had been a member of the class. The students were noisy and colorful and she had a special feeling for every one of them. To a person each had a penchant for the entrepreneurial, and their enthusiasm and creativity were part of her continual up-beat attitude. It was as if she could feed off the class.
She looked about the classroom and knew she could find both the smiles of contentment and the smiles of the expectant. Their energy was electric and transfusible.
It was as much a mirror as anything else. A visitor could see that.
She wore a tan sleeveless sweater over a yellow blouse and a brown skirt that showed off her shape. Her hair was put up in the back and she looked stunning as ever. Many of the male students eyed her dreamily, as happened on many occasions.
As always though, at the start of a class in these recent days, she thought of George Hinckler, and then his wife Miriam, before discussions got fully under way. A legacy had been left for her, a rite to be performed, a part of another person's passion to clasp to her own bosom. It beat at her in the classroom, as it had in the halls of the school as she hastened to get there. Down to the core, she knew she was a piece of all this. An integral piece. First there was a hunger. And then a satisfaction. Bandley was firmly in her blood. It would be there forever. George Hinckler had started it for her. And George Hinckler's murderer would be found out.
From the very outset George Hinckler had been Bandley through and through. Some causes leaped of their own right.
And her Gyrfalcon had become a piece of Bandley in his own manner. It would not spoil on him, she thought at length. Harry would solve the case. He would bring everything into the right focus. The light would fall on the right shadow, in the right corner. The light would glare on the bitter darkness hidden there, like a light coming on the other side of the moon. The killer would be seen.
Harry would see to that.
On the way home from Franklin she had browsed as intended in one shop which had attracted her. Harry's Christmas would have to be special this year, and she had been shopping around for the right kind of present. Something with a twist to it. Something new. Something special for her Gyrfalcon.
When she had first seen the currency with the birds on it, the lovely and compelling artwork and artistry that the bills had inscribed on them, she knew that Harry was going to start a new hobby. He'd be a paper numismatist.
The currency was Brazilian, Reals or comparative dollars, and the first ones she had seen were 1, 5 and 10 Reals. The engraver's artwork was superb and she loved the importance that birds were given on the currency, full spreads across the backside of the paper money. The flora and fauna of faraway Brazil tantalized her, and the high romance of travel and adventure came rushing at her. A hummingbird (in Portuguese printed below the bird, Beija flor) was feeding a pair of fledglings on the 1 Real bill, an engraving in which the bird was captured in a most delicate shading of green, and its suspension of flight was caught forever on the back side of the small bill. A great crane (Garca), standing in the shallow part of a lake or inland waterway, graced the back side of the 5 Real bill, with most of the bird having a background of a plum shadow, and a clump of water-borne reeds at the bird's feet locked it into the earth it so graced. And finally, a most beautiful etching of a parrot (Scarlet macaw Ara macao, Arara), facial details so accurate and compelling the parrot could almost be heard screaming in its raucous voice. The bird was done in a rich grape and brown shading, exact and beautiful down to each feather, and it leaped off the backside of the 10 Real bill. The Arara's feathers, their vanes, barbs, barbules and rachides, were exquisite and lifelike and gave the currency a sense of value at sight and at touch.
Getting a good collection started would be easy and probably easy to complete. It would be, she thought, at least easier than doing stamps with birds on them. A full collection of bird stamps promised, from the outset, to be a formidable task. She had seen so many over the years, from so many countries. The stamps would have to wait for another time.
They had forever, didn't they?
These Brazilian bills would be excellent collection starters for Harry. She promised herself she would get a proof of each one for Harry to start up with. She checked the currency values. If there were a 10,000 Real bill, he would have to wait for it until her ship came in.
Or she could give him something else for Christmas.
The thought warmed her all over again.
With Harry she knew there'd be lots of Chistmases.
A voice spoke from the back of the room. "Ma'am, could we put off some of today's class to talk about Dave Crestwood and Professor Hinckler. None of us believe Dave did it. Not one person in this room believes he did it. We've talked about it, but we know he didn't do it. It was not in him to be a murderer. We were hoping there could be some kind of discussion today. "
It was a plea as much as a request that Maxine heard. The speaker was one of the older students, a former Marine who had been in Somalia amongst other places. Some of the harshness of life he had seen, and some of its godawful tragedies.
His name was Paul Thorenson and he was a rugged and handsome young man with light blond hair in a crew cut, blue eyes, a season-ending tan. He was of medium height. Some of the others jokingly had begun to call him Pops. On his next birthday he would be twenty-six years of age. One female student, blonde, doe-eyed, sort of hidden as Harry might have said, had been from day one of classes trying to get near him. Maxine promised herself she'd watch her progress.
"Sure," she said, slamming her book shut. "Close them up." She held the textbook up over her head and then put it aside. Here was another slice of their education being pointed up for them. She leaned on the edge of the podium and wondered where to start the discussion on a topic that had inflamed her feelings so much.
"What do you think, Ma'am? Do you think Dave did it? That's kind of important for us to know."
It was another student in the front row. He had thick glasses and a heavy jowl and was, she knew, brilliant in his own right. In the Adamian Graduate Center Pavilion his voice carried crisply up the rise of the amphitheater. There was no other noise in the ascending room.
The spirit of George Hinckler seemed to surround them. For sure, it hovered over them. A plausible icon in momentary retreat.
A picture of Harry at work came to her. Then she saw George Hinckler in one of his poses, bent on a solution. And the rod of unknown use came flying into her mind. She saw the shiny point of it and the broad handle of it and could almost feel the cold steel of the handle in her hands. It was as real as a dream come true. It was not here with her now, but surely it existed.
It was real.
It was meant for something.
It meant something.
All the back of her mind was alive in a search, words and ideas in a mad flux and flo. Why was she not able to pin something down? Why could she not see this problem as easy as the problems the numbers had brought to her those many years ago way down in Wallagrass? She had pored over them and had beaten them.
Numbers didn't lie.
Lots of things didn't lie.
George Hinckler was not an old doddering fool playing around on the backside of Maine for some fool reason.
He was no Gold-rusher.
He was no 'Forty-Niner.
Other thoughts came swiftly rushing at her as if a flock of birds had taken off and were flying right through her mind, wings flapping, calling and crying out to each other. Something to be grasped not being quite graspable.
Franklin, Maine, in all its Fall-brown spread came to her, and the unyielding reach of winter; how it came crawling across the land, the stillness that followed, the abject silence at times that socked down on the land.
It all came to her in the middle of her class. And too came James Clockburn with his red-striped pants and Kell Thorn dressed to the nines, and George in his perambulations, and the picture of Miriam Maltby Hinckler. Go on, George, she had written.
"Ma'am?" the student in the front row was still saying, "Ma'am?"
She brought herself swiftly down the road from where she had been.
"Not for one minute do I believe David Crestwood is guilty of murder," she said with a stiff determination. "You know it. I know it. And a friend of mine is, at this very moment, pursuing all the leads he can find to prove David's innocence. If there is any one who can do it, it's him."
Many of the students smiled in innocence.
The class time became a seesaw of ideas and passages of information. There was give and take. She talked and they talked. She asked questions and they asked questions. It was a totally free exchange. Interest in them grew beyond the plight of one of their classmates. She told them of George Hinckler's trips down there to the outposts of Maine, and his walks, and described the rod for them, and told them of Miriam Hinckler's death by a hit and run driver so many years ago.
The studious faces loomed out in front of her. Color and quiz ran free, doubts and hopes, now and then a sagging chin finding resolve. The passions of fear and surprise and hope and a sense of loss behind all of them came to her from their eyes. Thrown out on the platters of their faces.
The class time was almost over when Paul Thorenson said from the back row, in as much a statement as a question, "Ma'am, did they never find out the driver of the car that killed the professor's wife?"
"No." Professor Maxine Humdroph stood beside the podium shaking her head.
"No clues at all? No leads?" Paul Thorenson, standing at his seat, had come back to her.
Something about the tone of his voice grabbed at her. It might have been full of meaning. It might have been nothing. It might have been insight. It might have been full of an understanding she had not seen yet. It might have been the straw of which some odds are made. It might have been the personification of potential that rode in his words, that sat on his face.
"Not the slightest one, and that was fifteen years ago, that accident." For a moment she thought she was providing an excuse for Harry.
"Then I'd like to tell you all a story I heard once from a Marine I was having a few beers with down in Atlanta one time."
He appeared very serious. The class laughed lightly. Someone muttered, "A few?"
He continued, "The brother of one of the guys in his platoon was in the Air Force. It was just at the end of World War II and they were still in England, due to come home at any time. A big inspection was coming up, a real big one, and they had a practice run at it. They pulled an inventory on the T.O.&E. to get ready for the inspection. That's Troop Order and Equipment and tells everything that should belong in the flight or wing or whatever they called their group. You're only supposed to have what's on the list and what's not there has got to be explained. Everything from typewriters and desks and planes and propellers down to cook stoves. In fact, right down to mattress covers and blankets. Everything that belongs in standby inventory. You name it. They got to have it."
The weight of that situation sank in as he paused to let the class get the big picture. "When they got through with the inventory they found out there were two D-6 Caterpillar bulldozers on their roster. That was a horrible mistake."
"Did they lose one?" said Maxine.
"No, Ma'am," Paul Thorenson said, his eyes bright, explosive, begging her to catch the idea before anybody else did. "They didn't lose one. They had one extra. And that was a great big problem for them."
"A big problem?" Maxine had stepped to the front of the podium. Her eyes were fixed on the eyes of the former marine, her mind whirring to catch up to what was unfolding in her.
"Yes, Ma'am," said Paul Thorenson. "All it meant was a whole lot of extra paperwork would have to be done. A damn whole lot! It was a real problem for the top commander all the way down to the last guy in line, most likely the guy in charge of the heavy equipment for the group. And some guys might not get to go home when they were supposed to go home. I guess it was that serious."
"Couldn't they just transfer it over to some other outfit?" A student in the front row had turned to look at the former marine.
"Not from what I heard," Paul Thorenson said. "A mistake like that goes right on up the ranks and someone somewhere gets sweated for it. It's how it goes in the military. Don't screw up the paperwork or you pay for it. It makes me think about a British movie comedy called UP THE CREEK about a destroyer that was lost up a small river in the countryside and it was like the ship and its personnel didn't exist any longer. It was hilarious. It was a paperwork screw-up. You screw up, you get in trouble, like I said."
The light was beginning to glimmer for Maxine down the end of a long long tunnel.
"So what did they do, Paul? Sell it on the Black Market? Trade it? Turn it in for something else?"
She felt like she was adding to the joy of discovery, adding to the suspense beginning to crank up in the air.
The silence in the Pavilion of the Adamian Center For graduate Studies carried a glow in it.
"No. Ma'am. That's the whole twist to the story," said Paul Thorenson. "Later that evening, right after sundown they told me, the two D-6 Caterpillar bulldozers went out of the base on a work detail. In the dark, some time later that night, only one bulldozer came back to the base."
"Where did they leave the other one?" The student in the front row was back on his feet.
A glow of light was still in the high room, a soft sheen touching on odd surfaces, touching on matter. Not all of the students had seen it, though some faces began to show the sheer delight of intelligence.
Paul Thorenson smiled at his fellow classmate and then at Maxine Humdroph leaning over at the front of the podium. A light was shining in her eyes, the look of utter clarification was on her face. The corners of her lips started to turn up in a pleasing smile.
"They used one bulldozer to bury the other one," he said. "Somewhere out in Heathcliff country, somewhere out there in the moors of the English countryside, they buried a D-6 Caterpillar bulldozer and it's probably still there. No paperwork to do for that sucker!"
For a moment there was silence in the Adamian Center for Graduate Studies, a ceiling-reaching silence, a wall-to-wall silence, an impeccable silence. Not a shoe slid its sole across the floor. Not a creak in one single seat. Hardly a breath could be heard
There was something truly electric happening. The current suddenly came on, switched from a power source
They exploded, that group of students, in an exclamation of joyous belief and hope that had not previously been heard in that amphitheater of a room.
Maxine thought she would burst a gut. Her mind, too, exploded. She couldn't wait to tell Harry the story. It would bring everything right into focus. The light would shine on all the fifteen years of darkness. It would shine, once and for all, on George Hinckler's endless mission, his endless passion. It would shine on Miriam's picture.
George, go on!
It would shine all over Franklin, Maine, that was for damn sure.
Paul Thorenson saw the exuberance on Maxine's face.
Even before he had begun the story he knew that she'd see the comparisons.
In the midst of the noise and revelation, he gave her a thumbs-up signal.
She gave him one back.
While there was still daylight left that day, Harold Igoe and Jim Wikson kept buzzing their way through the timber on the other side of Catherine's Hill. The two Jonsered chainsaws cut through the downed oaks like they were going through a side of beef. To the two men, who for years had scratched their living out of the forest, the chainsaws released a special music for their ears. Though their hands occasionally got cold from gripping the saw handle, the hum and roar of engine and cutting chain was a rhythm and a sweetness they understood.
Their nostrils, as ever, were full of the smells of resin and fresh wood and the cutting edge of oil.
Life, for them, was the Maine woods being worked.
And a few suds.
Once in a while an expensive bourbon.
Or a woman.
The otherwise stillness of the forest, which came when they temporarily shut down the saws to gather the four-foot lengths or shorter thicker chunks into a pile, was also understandable. They were survivors. They were workers. In all the world they had no enemies and no hate. And this end of the world was special. It was where only time and the depth of the forest stood against them. Time, like the indefatigable forest of trees around them, stood on end and waited to be cut, but so minimally. Time and trees would fall, but the core would go forever. It was only sweat that was a sense of measure for them, and time against them. It was a good game they waged.
They were belted and buckled and buttoned against the cold, which was like accepted company about them. Cold belonged and had to be tendered. Each of the men somehow thought about fighting the cold, now beginning in earnest, coming later on to be more serious. Before they knew it, in a few weeks at most, it would be bone-chattering cold. It would be daylong, bone-chattering cold even under the slanted rays of the sun. The snow, eventually, would be a trap at their feet and they'd be driven off the hill. They thought of it in their silence and thought of the things that were going on in Franklin. The strange twists and happenings. They thought of a good first swallow when the saws were finally shut down for the day. They thought of a few beers later on with kindred spirits. They thought of past women and coming women. They thought of loss. They thought of cold and they thought of death. They thought about Carlton Evers and Harland Grovers, old friends almost spanning the millennium. They remembered Miriam Maltby the way a first date is remembered, a kind of sweetness on the far horizon.
If each of their minds could be penetrated at once, their thoughts would be shown eerily similar.
Without a word, and at the same time as if by a mutual signal only they understood, both of them packed in their gear. The sky told them it was time. The forest told them it was time. Sweat under their clothes told them it was time, the razor-points of cold sweat pellets touching at the skin.
The sharpening files and saw tools went into small carryall cases. Oil was placed back in one main container. The gas cans were capped tight.
"I've had it this day, Jimbo," Harold Igoe said as he reclined against the piled up logs they had raised in the day. It was a good twenty feet long and five feet high.
The side of the hill was littered with small piles of trimmed limbs like random beaver houses along a marked trail.
"Have a hair of the dog, Jimmy boy," he said as he took a small bottle from his carry-all case. He handed his companion a small bottle, buttoned the top button of his black and red lumberjack shirt, and rubbed the back of his neck against the shirt collar.
Somewhere behind them they heard the whir of wings and a small fearful cry uttered across the cold plane. Each knew the sound of a hawk finding a rabbit, knew when the claws of the talons went home for good. The struggle, on both sides of the unseen event, was acceptance.
"How long will this hill last, Friend?" Jim Wikson said, passing back the bottle. He pointed away as someone would point to forever and then some.
"Until we're long gone and our grandchildren, if any come, have been warm for a hundred years and they don't build any condos up here, like a skyline covered with cheese boxes or dominoes. But things change too fast, Jimbo. What we have goin' now is just another sample of it. Christ, we ain't had a murder in thirty or forty years and now we got two or three and who knows what's goin' on."
Harold Igoe took back the small bottle. He looked at it before he took another swallow. It was clear he was not measuring, he was entertaining himself.
"Lot of strange things goin' on is right," he said. "And Merchant sure is strange enough for all the dilly-dally he does. Walkin' around these hills like to wear out his leather 'n' then some. If he's lookin' for somethin' he sure got no good idea where it is. Bite off his own tale if he don't watch hisself. You think that stuff about old gold mines is real?"
"Friend," Jim Wikson said, taking back the bottle, "how long do you figure we been cuttin' up in here?"
"You're right, Jimbo. Probably thirty or so years now and we ain't found no nugget yet. Which makes it real plumb peculiar for our old neighbor Merchant to go traipsin' around for nothin' but his good health which ain't none too good in the first place far as I can see."
Jim Wikson pulled his collar up on the back of his neck. He shivered as he spoke and his teeth chattered. "I'll get the truck. You get me around that big oak there and we'll sneak right up alongside this here pile. And keep your eye out for Merchant. We sure got to figure out what to do with that ol' boy."
Before the engine of the old International started up, Harold Igoe heard the sounds off in the brush and uphill a ways. He stayed close to a fall with its roots up and clothed himself in the heavy roots reaching out of the mass. It had to be Merchant Blore, always out there whenever he and Jimbo were cutting this close to his property. Like he was some kind of watchdog.
In thirty or so odd years they had not taken another man's tree. No need for Merchant to start suspicioning they would this late in life. He shook his head in disbelief.
As the truck backed his way he directed his friend around the fall and a big oak tree and they began to load the wood. They'd take as much as they could for the night and come back in the morning. Snow or no snow. Rain, lightning, earthquake, hell and high water, they'd come for what they sweated on. They always had.
They were loading the logs when Harold Igoe said, "I heard Merchant again, Jimbo. Uphill and like to be headin' home."
"Satisfied he was that we didn't take one of his trees?"
"No sense us tryin' to fool each other, Jimbo. He's been cuttin' trail across anyone who's been up near here for longer than we care to think. It's probably not wantin' anybody to find somethin', plain as all that far as I can see."
"Can't be nuthin' good, Jimbo. Can't be nuthin' good."
"What if it's as bad as it can get, what can we do? He's Franklin, Friend. He's pure-bred Franklin," Jim Wikson said, throwing a heavy butt-end of a log on the back of the old International. He grunted some sort of punctuation.
"Might not make any difference if it's as bad as it can be," his companion said, echoing his companion's grunt as the heavy log rolled on the flatbed of the truck.
"Might be right treacherous for a lot of us up here," Jim Wikson said into the impending darkness.
In the slim darkness sifting across the hill, sharing space with the cold, Merchant Blore was heading home.
He hated the uphill climb at the back end of the day.
He was still angry, and he was cold.
He'd been out too long this time.
In one hand he carried a rifle. He'd never go out without one. Not in these woods. Not with people walking all over creation. In his red and black lumber jacket pocket he carried four extra shells. His gloves had been forgotten on the kitchen table. Vaguely he remembered that's where he had left them. The cold was in his fingers. But he complimented himself that his feet were still warm. The boots were worth the money. The inside felt shells were warm on his feet. They were like a pair of the best gloves. He wondered why he had waited so long to get them. How many years had he been cold? He didn't try to remember. Just that it was a long time.
The damn fools Harold and Jim had been on the edge of his land for years. They were just like everybody else. He had to keep his eye on them. Them and other nosy neighbors. And the men from Boston in the little black car. A little pisser of a car. Probably couldn't even get around in the winter when it finally comes on. They had no idea what cars were all about. And he could never trust any of them. Not since day one. He couldn't remember how long it had been now. Everything piles up on top of itself. Time gets piled up like leaves or pine needles. Layers build and build and build and build and you have no idea of how much is underfoot. And suddenly it's all compost. It goes down to a black richness. It gets its own steam and the steam rises and fills the air. And it all gets blacker and richer. And it begins all over again. He wondered if all of this was going to grow over again.
There was no way he could keep on going forever. He'd not go down into the ground and turn black and get steamy and rise again and start this all over. There'd be no way to do that. He had chosen to be alone. It wasn't so bad, going out when he wanted and looking when he wanted and remembering just about everyone of them he had seen.
Now as he dragged himself up the hill in the darkness and the cold, he remembered Audrey and Harland in the back of her place. He'd done it the same way with Audrey as he'd done it with his wife Mabel so long ago, Merchant could vaguely remember. Just a bull of a man and all noise and swearing and calling her damn fool names that made no sense. And her so big and smothering, so much flesh and so much spilling over, and her mouth like some cavern or mine tunnel. The light had spilled on her more than once and he'd seen her nuzzle and muzzle and grovel and Harland must have found it downright torturous to be with her. Even when the light went out or she fell or went into a shadow in the deep room, there was nothing hidden about her or her deeds. There was a vastness and a girth about her that could swallow a man whole. He had felt it right through the window, right through the glass.
That other time, once a couple of summers ago, in the dead heat of an August night, he'd heard her talking about himself. Behind the big oak tree he knew they couldn't see him. "If Merchant is out there and watchin' us now, now he knows what's good for him." She had stood on her bed and wagged and wiggled herself in the light of two bed lamps and had drawn her hands all over herself and her darkness and made Harland roar in his drunken stupor.
"It's all here, Merchant. This is where the world begins and where it ends. Right here, Merchant! Right here!" and she had fallen back on the bed and Harland had fallen on top of her and was swearing and calling her names.
Now Harland was gone. It was Harland's rifle, which had killed poor old Carlton. It was Carlton's rifle, which had killed Harland. Carlton's shots were not just poking fun at him that day. Nor were Harland's words covered in sweetness. Knowledge had proved dangerous. And it was pure magic how he had done it all. So easy to arrange. He knew where everything was that belonged to people They'd be guessing at that forever and ever. They'd be wondering how it all had been done, this gun or that gun, how this gun or that gun had been used. Who used them? Was ownership guilt? It was a stroke of genius. He never used one of his own rifles. Not once. Never cranked off a shot from his own rifles. Not one single round in all the years. Not in all the years he walked around keeping his eyes on the nosy ones. The ones crawling all over the edge of his land. And the professor coming right on it like there was no tomorrow. Just as proud and snootful as you can imagine with that stupid rod of his jabbing the ground for all it was worth and finding nothing he wasn't meant to find.
He clambered up the hill and hit the straightaway across the fields and felt the wind sock at him the way it always did. His hands were still cold. But his feet were still warm. He loved his new boots. Why did he wait so long? It had been foolish to wait. His feet were important. It appeared he might be out here forever on the watch. He switched the rifle to his other hand. He pocketed the resting hand. It curled warm against his stomach and his crotch. The cold crawled down his neck. He'd make a nice meal for himself. He thought of a good soup he might make. He'd put potatoes in it and rice and some leftover corn and a few tomatoes and make it thick. He'd stir it on the stove and his hands would be warm and he'd rest. Tonight he'd get to see the new girl in the new house. It was almost like she knew he was there the way she danced around with nothing on. And her husband not getting home from Ellsworth until just after midnight. And she was so thin there was almost nothing to her. That made her so graceful and smooth the way she danced around and walked like other people were looking at her. And there was a magic in her darkness when she touched herself.
Miriam had been like that. There never was anybody like Miriam. There never would be. She was special. In all the world she was the most special girl of them all. He thought of her deeply as he came near his house. Not a light glowed. But a curl of smoke swirled from his chimney. It made him warm. Even his hand didn't feel cold any more.
He bet there had never been a day he had not thought of Miriam. He'd be loyal to her forever. She was so gentle and so sweet. It was music watching her. It sounded in his head like violins playing low and easy and making the blood move just a little bit faster each minute. The night he had seen her undress that old fool of a man had seemed like hours long. There were shadows around her and then no shadows and she was moving so slowly and so easily. She reminded him of a kitten playing with yarn. Only there was meaning to all of her movements. It was all a kind of moving music. A music you could see rather than hear.
He swore he could hear the sounds of a music that had never been heard.
Or had never been played in the first place.
He smiled to himself at the thought.
But that hadn't been the first time. He recalled the very first time he had seen Miriam Maltby from the tree outside her house. How small she had been and so complete. Glorious little curves that made her so elegant. A whiteness he thought was like the thickest of creams. All the special parts of her. The beginning of darkness. He couldn't remember how many times he had climbed the same tree to look into her room when she was still in school. He'd seen her grow up. She was just like his own property. His own woman. He'd seen her long before the man who had become her husband came along and spoiled all of it. Not that he was the first one. He'd seen her with a couple of others. He'd seen her out blueberrying that one time and she went down in the bushes with the boy from Bangor. Right out on top of the hill. Right in the heat of the day. Right in the middle of sunshine and blue skies. How he hated that city-bred animal. And the one from Portland who moved here when they were almost out of school. Right on his property on top of the hill in the back of the car and her thinking him back in his house and having no idea what she was up to. But that one went away fast and never came back like life must have ended for him.
And there was the night she looked out at him looking at her and had drawn her shade and he never saw her again. She never said a word. Never made a threat. No one ever came to him and told him to stop. When he saw her in town she looked him in the eye and never said a word. He swore once, down at Ellsworth at a fair, she had a kind of smile at the corners of her lips when she looked at him. And life was never the same again. It was like he had been blessed. It was all right that he had seen her with no clothes on. She was beautiful and she knew it and she was not mad at him.
She was not mad at him for looking at her small breasts and how they had grown over the years. And how her hips had widened and flowed into her thighs. And her darkness which made him shiver every time he ever thought about her and heard the music playing so lightly nobody else in the whole world could hear it.
And suddenly, like the first shot you hear in the hunting season, she was laying on the edge of the road and there was blood all over the place. He had no idea where she had come from.
No idea at all.
Except she had been in his dreams forever.
To be continued...