A half Cherokee horse policeman must capture a fugitive killer on a high mountain who just might be a shape-changing creature from his people’s past.
About the AuthorBorn in Indiana, educated in Chicago, he lives in the Los Angeles area with his family and felines.
Jimpsey Waterback knocked a spark from his pocketknife with a chip of flint and fanned the handful of smoking grasses with his hat till a single tongue of flame blossomed.
He hated to start a fire, but it was cold up on the mountain tonight. There was a cutting breeze hissing through the pines, causing the bones in his hands to quiver like hammer struck wire. He hoped his pursuers didn’t see or smell the flame. He had a long way to go before he got to Arkansas. The round windy moon shining like a bullet hole in black canvas was working against him.
He scooted around to the other side of the fire to hide the light and tossed in a couple chestnuts he’d gathered on the way up. They gave off a woodsy smell. He closed his eyes as the smoke passed over his face and heat slowly spread back into his prickling hands. His thoughts drifted miles away, to some green and sunny place where there were no dead women or mad nigger soldiers to trouble him.
He hadn’t meant to squeeze the life out of Peggie Scalloe. He had only meant to kiss her, but she had got to screaming and wouldn’t shut up. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t have gone any farther than that if she had just told him ‘no’ respectfully instead of shrieking like a catamount when he came at her. He’d put his hands around her slim brown neck just to pinch off that noise, but then she’d gone and swiped the side of his face with a kitchen knife. When the blood ran in his eye he had fetched her a clout on the cheek, then pressed his thumbs deep into the pit of her throat until her tongue stuck out and her pretty eyes bugged and spilled tears.
He hadn’t liked the way she looked but he’d been afraid to let go, so he’d leaned forward and pressed her tongue back into her mouth with his own. Then….well, he wasn’t sure about what had happened then. Being there doing what he’d thought about doing with her since the day he’d seen her carrying a stack of linens out of Bigelow’s down in Tahlequah with the sun shining through her skirt had sort of put the devil in him. The next thing he knew, he’d ripped her yellow dress down the front, lapping at her mean little teats like a thirsty hound. Then he’d just done what any red blooded man is inclined to do to a good looking woman. It was only after he’d slid out from between her legs and caught his breath enough to ask her how she’d liked it that he’d realized she was dead.
Peggie had a brother just out of the 10th cavalry. A big black buck named Fisher. He knew that not only would Fisher come looking for him, but the Cherokee Light Horse too. He’d only stopped at his cabin long enough to get his knife and his pa’s canteen before he’d headed up the Sparrowhawk.
Jimpsey booted the chestnuts out of the fire and wrapped them in his bandanna. He got out his pocketknife to pear away the shelling and was about to crack them when an old woman came out of the copse. She slid so quietly into view it nearly made Jimpsey jump out of his flesh. He picked up a stick and got up on one knee.
She was a rail thin, wild looking old squaw, with loose, ruddy skin. A bushy mane of mossy white hair sprung from her skull like dusty cobwebs aglow in the moonlight. She was wrapped in a frayed brown blanket, one knobby fist holding it shut. She had a broad, friendly, close mouthed grin on her wrinkled face, and glassy black eyes. Maybe she had gotten into some coffin varnish and wandered off into the woods drunk, or maybe she was one of these old time Keetoowahs with a cabin up here somewhere. Jimpsey hoped it was the latter.
“Hey Granny,” he croaked, then cleared his throat. “Whatcha doin’ out in this cold? Whyn’t you come on an’ set over here by the fire? I got some chestnuts roasted.”
The old woman’s smile did not falter. She came quickly across the clearing in little shuffling steps and settled on the other side of the fire, the glow under-lighting her face, filling the crevices with deep, flickering shadows and shading the drooping lower lids of her red rimmed black eyes so that she seemed like a wary varmint staring at him.
Jimpsey was unnerved by that stare. She was surely off, maybe an imbecile. She looked like she’d been living out in the woods, smeared with dried mud and adorned with bits of sticker and brush as she was. He was giving up all hope of shelter as he cracked the chestnuts open in the bandanna, then opened it and began to peel away the blackened shells.
“You got a place out here, Granny? A lodge, maybe a cave somewheres?”
The old woman’s beady eyes flickered down to the nuts in his hand. If it was possible, she seemed to smile wider. What was it about her eyes? They were abnormally tiny in her face, so small he couldn’t make out the whites, just a pair of black shiny holes twinkling at him like creek stones.
Hell, she wasn’t going to be any help.
He sighed and popped one of the chestnuts into his mouth.
“Here Granny,” he said, holding the open bandanna across to her.
She was like a wild dog contemplating proffered food. One gray and filthy hand snaked out from underneath her blanket, the other still curled about the folds. She reached out slowly.
“Well come on,” he said impatiently. “I got to be going.”
The hand hovered over his open palm, then slapped down fast. Her bony fingers clamped over his wrist, hard, with a grip like his pa’s. The bandanna, knife, and the chestnuts spilled into the fire.
He tried to jerk away, but she held him there. Her skin felt like cool creek clay around his hand, and was hard and intractable as a branch. It felt larger too, like it encircled his whole arm.
Then the hand that held the blanket unclenched, like a waking spider. One finger was longer than the others. The nail reached a full six inches past the fingertip. It curled and gleamed like a boar tusk in the moonlight, like some prehistoric weapon carved from yellow bone. The blanket fell away. The sagging flesh drooping on her skeletal body was as dirt caked as the rest of her, as if she had risen from slumber in the earth itself.
Something in her black eyes made the hairs uncurl on the tops of his arms, made something quiver deep between his shoulder blades. They seemed to expand past her eyelids, bugging out like Peggie Scalloe’s had, but they were still wholly black.
Then she was pulling him towards her across the fire, towards her unchanging expression, towards that long, curling finger.
He opened his mouth to scream. The stone sharp fingernail darted in over his tongue and pierced the back of his throat like a dagger, choking off the sound at its source, drowning it in an eruption of bubbling blood.
“Waterback!” Ben yelled into the fire-lit clearing, levering his Winchester for effect. “It’s Ben Burnham! I’m comin’ in. Show me your hands and don’t make no moves.” Or I’ll put one in your leg and you can limp to the scaffold, he thought.
‘Redbone’ Ben Burnham had been trailing Jimpsey Waterback up the side of Sparrowhawk Mountain for a good five hours, ever since he’d cut the murderer’s sign out back of the man’s cabin and followed it east into the foothills. He’d had to turn his horse loose at the bottom, and had faced a hard scrabble with the cold wind coming down the mountain urging him back the whole way. Fifteen minutes after he’d seen the light of Waterback’s campfire above, he now had a long hike back down with his prisoner to look forward to.
This whole business had put him in a sour mood. He knew and liked Fisher Scalloe, a freedman just mustered out of the 10th cavalry, and had ate at Peggie’s table. The Cherokee part of him wanted to tie this son of a bitch to a tree and deal with him the old way, but his father’s cool English blood counseled him against it. Fort Smith was still keeping an eye on Tahlequah and the Light Horse Guard, ever since the big shootout between Zeke Proctor and the marshals at the Whitmire schoolhouse two years ago. Waterback was a miserable half breed whiskey peddler, but his pa was a marshal in Judge Parker’s court. If he didn’t make it to trial it would go hard for the tribe.
Waterback remained hunched in front of the fire, his back to Ben as he stepped into the clearing. His long dirty hands were held out at his sides and he looked back over his shoulder at Ben like a scared rabbit.
“Don’t shoot me, Ben!” he pleaded.
“Don’t give me no reason,” Ben said. “I’m takin’ you back to Tahlequah for what you done to Peggie Scalloe this mornin.’”
“OK, OK,” said Waterback.
Ben came to stand behind him. The barrel of his rifle almost touched the back of Waterback’s patchy head. He could easily scatter his brains into the fire. It would be a damn sight easier than towing him back down the mountain. He looked down at the wretch, and noticed something in the fire, what looked like a piece of rag. He could smell chestnuts burning.
“You ain’t got nothin’ to say about it?” he pressed.
“I’m sorry for what I done,” said Waterback quickly, like a kid prodded to apologize.
“Get your ass up.”
Waterback rose slowly. Ben grabbed his elbow and spun him around. He was a sorry looking bastard, his head newly shaved and spotted with flea bites, his threadbare clothes covered in briars and streaked with dirt. A quick onceover showed he hadn’t any kind of weapon on him, just a couple chestnuts in his pockets and an old CSA canteen over his shoulder. There was dry blood on his lips. Peggie had been found with bite marks on her breasts.
“You know, you hadn’t lit that fire, I mightn’t have caught you so quick,” said Ben, unlocking the iron shackles he’d ported and fitting them around Waterback’s skinny wrists.
“I got cold,” said Waterback lamely.
It was cold. The trees were waving overhead, the branches click clacking together like skeletal applause, the wind an unseen tide breaking again and again over the mountain. It was gonna be hell going back down in the dark. The little campfire was nearly laying on its side, struggling to stand aright.
He thought for a minute. There was an old timer he knew named Tsi-s who everybody called Doc Rabbit. He lived in a cabin up here. It was on the other side of the mountain but only half the way down. Probably an hour’s walk as opposed to five.
When Waterback was in fetters, Ben made up his mind.
“Awright, walk ahead of me,” he said, stamping out the fire and pocketing the key to his chains.
The full moon made the descent a little easier. There was a clear view off the mountain. The land below was painted silver, and the Sparrowhawk Loop of the Illinois winding between the swaying sycamores was all shimmery, almost clear on to Goats Buff rising in the distance. They circled through pines and slid now and then down the slopes of loose flint rock. Waterback spoke not at all. Ben was not inclined to hear what he had to say anyway.
It was a little less than an hour when Waterback stopped in his tracks and perked up his head, sniffing the air lingeringly like he had detected a fresh baked pie.
He looked over his shoulder at Ben. He was grinning like a simpleton.
“Smoke,” he said.
The smoke was streaming from a black iron pipe poking through the canopy below. In a little bit they spied Doc’s hickory log and mud wattle cabin with the old white rabbit hide nailed to the door and the branches of a corkscrew tree scraping the roof.
Ben hadn’t been to Doc’s cabin in seven years. Doc and his father had been friends, but after his father had run off, Ben hadn’t had much reason to come around. Doc was an old time dida-hnvw-sgi , and had been on the Trail of Tears, though he never spoke about it. When Ben was eight he had been bit by a copperhead down by Elephant Rock. His pa had taken him to Doc to be cured. The old man had saved his life. It struck him funny that he hadn’t come around to visit before now. Maybe he associated Doc too much with his crazy father, though the two were as different as night and day.
As they came down the mountainside, the door creaked open. Doc himself stepped out, his long gray hair whipping about his shoulders as the wind kicked up to a gust. He had the same old hat with the three rattlesnake tails in the brim, and he was carrying a bowl of milk. He stopped when he saw them coming.
“O-si-yo!” Ben called over the howling wind, raising his hand.
“Who’s that?” the old man hollered back in Tsalagi.
“Redbone!” he answered, using the name the old man had given him as a boy and most others had since picked up. It meant mixed blood, but it was affectionate.
The old man’s face brightened into a smile that shone beneath the black brim of his hat.
“Hey a-tsu-tsa! Good to see you! What the hell are you doin’ up here on a night like this?”
“Had to run a man down,” he answered, coming closer. “What’s that you got?” he said, nodding to the bowl.
“For the little people. Got some livin’ under that big stump over there.”
Doc peered at Waterback and his chains. Waterback hunched his shoulders like a pigeon against the wind, and he nodded to the old man awkwardly.
“How do?” said Waterback.
Doc’s face fell.
“This ain’t Jimpsey Waterback is it?” he said.
“How’d you know?” Ben asked.
He sighed and looked at Ben.
“What if I was to tell you Fisher Scalloe and Buck Tate was settin’ inside at my table eatin’ kanuchi?”
Ben stiffened. Fisher had stormed out of the cabin upon finding his sister’s body and lit out to kill Waterback himself. Buck Tate, another ex-soldier, half Choctaw and half Negro, had gone along. Some said Buck and Peggie had been sweethearts. They must have come another way up the mountain and had the same idea of holding over at Doc’s.
“I’d say this is a hell of a mess. Might as well get it over with.”
When they went into the cabin, the smell of hot stew and the warmth of the fire, even the cessation of the biting wind, provided little comfort.
At the table, swabbing their bowls with chestnut bread, were two men. Fisher was powerful, broad shouldered and thick fisted, with a long kinky beard flecked with grey and round spectacles that made him look like a fighting scholar, a schoolteacher who recited the classics but felled forests in his free time and spent his summers embracing black bears to death. Buck Tate was slighter and yellow skinned, with long, wavy hair and a faint mustache. They looked up with dull curiosity as Ben walked in, but when they saw who was with him, their intent crystallized before his eyes. Ben saw two drops of soup fall from the hunk of bread poised over Fisher’s bowl.
Then Waterback stupidly said;
In a minute the table and everything on it was over on its side and Fisher kicked over the chairs to get at Waterback, a long knife in his hand to cut through Ben if he stayed in the way. Buck had snatched his Winchester off the table before it went. A split second after Ben had his own rifle pointed at Fisher, Buck levered his Winchester and aimed it at Ben’s face.
“Hold on!” Ben yelled.
Fisher didn’t even pause. He slapped the barrel of Ben’s rifle away and lunged at Waterback under his arm, nicking Ben’s side as he did.
Waterback stumbled back and fell half out of the door. Ben, enraged at having been cut, smacked his rifle barrel against Fisher’s head, bringing him down like a train run short of trestle. He was sure Buck would have shot him if the old man hadn’t stepped between them.
“Knock it off, goddammit! You’re wreckin’ my place! You wanna shoot each other to pieces, do it out in the wind!”
“I don’t wanna do that, do you, Buck?” said Ben.
“Naw,” said Buck. “I guess not.”
Ben relaxed a little, letting his rifle barrel drop, but Buck did not lower his own.
“But soon’s you step out the way I’m gonna blow that sonofabitch behind you off the side of this mountain.”
“You can’t do that, Buck,” said Ben. “We got laws and they got to be upheld. I know you and Peggie were sweethearts. I’m sorry for your loss. But you know the trouble that’ll come down on all of us if a breed with an uncle in the marshals turns up dead in Tahlequah District killed by a Choc soldier. The marshals, the Army, and both our tribes’ll be fightin’ over who gets to build the gallows.”
“We could tie him to my tree and whip him to bits, let the crows eat him,” Doc offered helpfully. “That’s what we woulda done in my day.”
“This ain’t your day no more, Doc,” Ben said.
“Yours neither, a-tsu-tsa,” Doc said, peering past him. “Your prisoner just scuttled on out the front.”
Ben whipped around. It was true. The bastard had wriggled away on his belly, out into the dark. He hadn’t even heard the chains clink.
He rushed out front into the wind. There was no trace of Waterback. He cursed himself for not packing the leg chains.
Buck was at his side in a minute. In the doorway, Fisher was getting slowly to his feet, wiping his bleeding head with his sleeve.
“You dumb sonofabitch,” he spat.
“We’ll get him back,” Ben said, crouching down and staring at the dirt. “I think he doubled back the way we came down.”
The brush and trees through which they’d passed were too thick to see if he was there. The wind was shaking them every which way.
“You think!” said Fisher, lurching unsteadily out of the cabin. The knife was still in his hand. Ben noticed that most of the point was broke off the blade. He hadn’t remembered if it had been that way before.
“I ought to cut you too,” Fisher said, stalking over, glaring.
“You already did,” Ben said, inspecting the thin line of blood on his exposed ribs.
Fisher looked away.
“I didn’t intend to, you damn fool.”
“I think he’s right, Fisher,” Buck said, after studying the trail a little himself. “He’s headed back up.”
“Then we get that fucker at the top,” Fisher said, putting his knife away.
“You can’t kill him, Fisher,” Ben insisted.
“See if I can’t,” Fisher said.
“You do it and you better run, ‘cause I’ll have to come for you,” Ben said.
Fisher got within a few inches of Ben, so that his dark face filled his whole vision.
“Only one law on this mountain tonight, boy,” Fisher said. “See you don’t get in the way of it.”
“I’ll be comin’ with you,” Doc called from the cabin. “Just lemme get my squirrel rifle.”
Ben and Fisher held each other’s eyes for a moment.
“You bring the old man,” Fisher said.
He turned and rushed off into the trees with Buck.
Ben turned toward the cabin door, thinking of how to tell Doc to stay, but the old man was already closing the door behind him, a big Sharps rifle in his arms. Ben wondered just how large the squirrels got on the Sparrowhawk.
“Hey Redbone, c’mere a minute,” Doc said.
Ben watched Fisher and Buck slip into the trees and trotted over. If he didn’t stay with those two he’d have a passel to answer for in Tahleuqah. The worst part was he didn’t care to stop them. Jimpsey deserved whatever Fisher did to him.
“What’s this, d’you think?” Doc asked, handing him a flat shard of steel.
Ben held it between his fingers. It was broke on one side, uneven, honed to a razor on the other, about four inches long.
“Huh,” he grunted. “It’s a piece of Fisher’s knife. Musta broke off on something. Some stone in the doorway?”
“There ain’t no stone in my cabin.”
“Well, maybe it snapped off on Jimpsey’s buckle.”
“He wasn’t wearin’ one,” Doc said gravely.
Ben handed the bit of steel back.
“Look Doc, we gotta keep up with them two. Can you do that?”
“I live up here, kid,” Doc said, slipping the metal into his pocket. “Can you keep up with me?”
It was colder than a witch’s third tit during the ascent, maybe colder than before because of the rip Fisher had put in Ben’s shirt that let the wind right in to raise bumps on his flesh. They tried to keep Buck and Fisher both in sight, but the two ranged far ahead. Nearly an hour into the climb they split up to circle the mountain and make sure Waterback didn’t try to double back again and slip away.
Doc was true to his word and did not lag behind. They came to a point just ten minutes or so below where he’d first caught Waterback and only then stopped to catch their breath.
“How come you never came up to see me, Redbone?” Doc asked abruptly. He never had taken the long way around things.
Ben took off his hat and felt the cool wind through his hair.
“I dunno,” he said. “I been busy.”
“Bullshit. Bustin’ up stills and lockin’ up drunks ain’t no full time occupation, even in Tahlequah. Be straight with me.”
“Maybe….it was because bein’ up here reminded me of my pa so much.”
“That ain’t so either. You been around lawyers too damn much. Didja think after your pa left I wouldn’t wanna see you? Didja think I thought less of you because he lit out?”
He’d never truly thought about it that way, but it might be so. Everybody had loved his pa around Tahlequah. When English John left, some had whispered it was typical of a white man to leave his Indian family and that had made him feel ashamed as a son. A lot of times he and his pa had walked this mountain with Doc. Doc would point out the birds and the varmints and name them all, and tell him which plants were good for what ailments, which to steer clear of. He had learned a good deal more from Doc than he ever had from his pa.
Ben scratched his head and put his hat back on.
“Your pa always had itchy feet,” said Doc, “but I don’t think he was a bad man. He was just the sort of man kept a tally of other folk’s blessings, never his own. I ‘spect he told himself when he went off that he’d be back some day with money enough to move you all into a big house. Hell, maybe he will. That’s a white man’s truth. But that ain’t got nothin’ to do with you or who you are.”
Doc slapped Ben’s shoulder hard, then moved on.
“After you take this feller to the calaboose, you come back here an’ see me now and then, huh?”
Ben smiled to himself, but he wondered if it would be Waterback or Buck and Fisher he wound up taking back.
Then they heard the singing wheeling down the mountainside. It was a high voice, melodious like a woman’s, but strange. Sometimes when a lion yowled in the night, people mistook it for a woman’s scream. This was something like that. The voice sounded like a wildcat pretending a human voice.
Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
Ben fought down his rising hackles with a forced smirk. The words didn’t make sense. He looked over at Doc. The old man was leaning heavily against an oak tree. Ben couldn’t see his expression.
Doc shushed him and turned his head slowly, listening, but the voice was carried away on the blowing wind.
“What the hell was that?” Ben repeated.
Doc looked back. His face was drawn and grave.
“Sound to you like it come from up there?”
He motioned towards the little clearing up the mountain where Waterback had built his fire.
“Come on,” said Doc. He doubled his pace so that Ben kept up only with effort.
They reached the spot. The small patch of smoldering black earth from Waterback’s fire was still there. Ben crouched down and sifted through the ash. He found a scrap of burnt cloth. There was a small unblackened corner of red paisley, like a hanky. He saw something else he hadn’t noticed before. A blackened pocketknife, opened. Why drop all this in the fire? Jimpsey wasn’t stupid enough to think a little fire could destroy a knife was he? But he hadn’t used a knife on Peggie anyhow, so it wasn’t like this was evidence. Maybe he had dropped it accidentally. There was blood on the ground too. Six drops of it. Had he nicked himself and dropped it? He hadn’t been bleeding when Ben had clapped the shackles on him.
There was a movement in the bushes. Both he and Doc snapped aright, rifles at the ready.
Fisher stepped into the clearing from the opposite side and came over.
“Did you hear that singing a little awhile ago? Like a woman’s voice?” Ben said.
“Blowin’ hard up here. I didn’t hear no such thing.”
He passed out of the shadow of the pines. They saw that his clothes, hands, and face were smeared with blood. His spectacles were gone too.
“Goddammit! What’d you do, Fisher?” Ben mumbled, shaking his head.
“Found Waterback. Left him back there,” Fisher said dully, indicating the brushes behind him.
The wind was stirring the fallen leaves in the clearing, causing the trees to sweep the dark sky. Ben stalked across the clearing and jerked aside the bushes.
Waterback was face down in the rotting leaves. His blood was black and gummy in the silver light, like crude oil. It looked like Fisher had butchered him. A big flap of his face was torn back. Waterback’s teeth and naked eyeball showed.
“Dammit,” Ben whispered.
Doc came up behind him and stood over the body. He got down to look closer.
Ben went back into the clearing. He covered Fisher with his Winchester. Fisher made no move for the pistol belted around his waist.
“I told you, Fisher, goddammit. Now I got to arrest you.”
“I know,” Fisher said. “I’ll go with you, Ben.”
Ben stepped forward, then thought of something. The chains. The chains hadn’t been on Waterback’s wrists. How the hell had he gotten them off?
“Hey Ben?” Doc called from the trees.
Ben looked back.
“We better start back now, Ben,” Fisher said. “It’s late.”
There was something odd in his tone, a shift in the way he was carrying himself. He’d been a mad bull before. Now he seemed like a dog, eager to please. Neither resigned to his lot nor proud of doing what he’d set out to do.
“Where’s Buck?” Ben asked.
“Hey! Ben!” Doc called again, more forcefully this time.
Fisher took a step toward him.
“He’ll be along.”
Ben looked back. Doc was standing on the edge of the clearing, but in a different spot from where he’d gone into the brush. He was aiming his rifle right at him.
“Get down!” the old man yelled.
Ben dropped to the ground.
Doc’s rifle boomed. Ben felt the shock of the big bullet passing overhead. It struck Fisher dead center, with enough force to pierce a bull’s forehead.
Ben rolled and stared at Fisher.
He hadn’t fallen. Fisher turned and was ran, crashing through the brush, giggling as he went.
Doc fired again, but Fisher was gone, cackling in a high, throaty pitch like an old woman.
“Jesus!” Ben exclaimed and looked back at Doc. “What’d you do that for?”
“That wasn’t Fisher,” Doc said.
“Fisher’s layin’ back here. Come and look.”
Ben approached the crazed old man warily, his rifle on him, but Doc lowered his Sharps and made no move against him, just gestured to the break in the trees from which he’d emerged.
True enough, the black man was laying there dead, naked on his back amid the shrubs. There was a big tear in the flesh just below the breastbone. His top two ribs and been snapped and yanked half out of his body. There was a dark, empty cavity with shreds of connective tissue hanging loose.
“I seen Waterback’s wounds weren’t too fresh,” Doc said, as Ben knelt to examine the corpse. “His chains ain’t there neither.”
“I saw that too.”
Ben passed his hand over Fisher’s face to close his wide, staring eyes. How could he be laying here? Who had that been in the clearing? Buck? It had sure looked like Fisher.
“I looked around a little, and that’s when I found him.”
“It’s Fisher alright. What the hell happened to him? Looks like a bear ripped him open.”
“His liver’s missin.’ Look at the back of his neck.”
Ben got down lower and pushed Fisher’s cooling body on its side. He squinted. There was a tiny mark about the size of a dime on the back of his neck.
“That’s how she gets ‘em,” Doc muttered.
“Sometimes she’s called Nûñ’yunu’ïv.”
“Stone Dress?” Ben repeated, standing up. His knees shook a little, and he stamped his foot. Just the cold.
“But we always called her U`tlûñ’tä,” said Doc. “Spearfinger.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“In the old days, back in the Carolinas, she used to come down from the blue ridge of Whiteside mountain. She’d come as an old woman. She’d go after the children mostly. Set ‘em in her lap to brush their hair, then prick them in the back of the neck like that. You heard her singin’ earlier.”
Ben thought back to the nonsense singing they’d heard on the wind.
‘Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
Liver, I eat it. Su’ sä’ sai’.
“She’d come down when the people burnt the leaves off the mountains. She knew the smoke meant dinner. She ripped the livers outta folks, just like this.”
Ben stared at the old man in the dark. He had known him too long to take him for a liar. Doc wouldn’t waste time telling stories given the situation. Besides, he’d seen and spoken to two dead men tonight himself. This thing, this Spearfinger, must have killed Waterback before he’d even found him. It’d let him chain it. It had wanted to go back to Tahlequah. Even as Fisher it had tried. If he were a little more English, maybe he would’ve held onto doubt a little longer. But the fact was, he was Cherokee too.
“Where’d it come from? I mean, how could a thing like that exist?”
“Nobody knows. Could be it sprung from the earth. Maybe it come outta the underworld, or maybe a witch’s heart got buried in the ground and Spearfinger grew around it.”
“You seen this thing yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Back before the whites came and burned out Chillhowee -that’s where she was supposed to have been killed. Chillhowee hunters baited her, got her in a pit and did her in. But…”
“On the Trail, this is forty years ago,” Doc said. “Lots of us died. Lots of…children,” he said. He swallowed hard, like he was trying to get down something bitter. “You heard how that was. When the soldiers come and took us.”
“Yeah, I heard.” Ben’s mother had been on the Trail as well, freezing on foot or in an uncovered wagon from New Echota to Fort Gibson. Four thousand Indians had dropped dead along those roads, one of them his infant aunt who his mother had lost crossing an icy river. Ben had heard, but never from Doc, not even when he’d once got up the gumption to ask.
“The cold killed a lot of us, and some starved, but I believed then and I believe now, that there was somethin’ else too. Somethin’ that come along with us. We set out from Rattlesnake Springs, and right off we started findin’ some of the children like that,” he said, nodding to Fisher’s body. “I think she pretended to be one of us, and she got caught up in the march. I think she took the young ones, the weak ones, the way a wolf will trail a herd and cut out the dying.”
“But you said she died at Chillhowee?”
“Maybe she didn’t. Or maybe this is one of her kin. Once I thought I heard that singin’ when I was huntin’ down in Pumpkin Hollow. Before that, ‘last time I heard it was on the Trail. Maybe she ranges all over. Sometimes I heard about folks disappearin,’ or windin’ up dead in the hills. Once I heard about a man who come home to his family and found another man looked just like him standin’ on his own porch. Dog wouldn’t let him in the door.”
“I heard that story too. I took it for shine talk.”
Then they heard, from somewhere up on the ridge, woven in the rushing wind and the rasping bushes;
‘Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
How could it have got above them so fast?
“I’m scared, Redbone,” Doc said, smiling faintly. “All the years I lived, more’n I got any right to, maybe. But I’m scared of what’s out there.”
“How’d they her in the story?”
“Spears and arrows busted off of her. She had power over stones. You seen how my rifle didn’t do nothing. But in the story…her heart. Yeah, I recollect her heart could be pierced.”
“You cut it dead center with your Sharpes and it didn’t…”
There was a shot then, clear and echoing. Two more. Buck Tate’s rifle.
“Ben?” came Buck’s voice from high up on the mountain. “Doc?”
“Buck!” Ben called.
“It could be her,” Doc warned.
“She knows where we’re at. We ain’t moved.”
Then, to Buck;
“Where are you Buck?”
“I dunno! Up above you, I guess. Ben, I seen somethin’ a little while ago! I don’t know…I thought it was Fisher!”
“We know about it! Don’t go near it! It ain’t Fisher! Fisher’s dead!” Ben yelled. “Didja hit it?”
“I thought I did…but it went off into the trees!”
“Don’t go near it, and keep where you can see it coming! We’re comin’ up! Keep talkin’ so’s we can find you! An’ shoot your gun once in awhile so we know it’s you!”
Buck did keep it up. They followed his voice and rifle, scrabbling up the inclines of shifting stone, forging through the wind lashed brush, the river just a ribbon now, a thousand feet and more below. Finally Doc did give out.
“I can’t get no higher,” he panted, leaning against a big tree.
‘Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
They heard it clearer now, and closer.
“She’s right up there, I believe,” Doc said.
“Ben, did you hear that?” Buck called down.
“Yeah! I’m comin!” Ben looked once more at Doc. “You be alright here?”
Doc nodded, panting so hard he couldn’t answer. He waved him on.
The wind got to blowing so hard he felt the need to cling to the ground and the trees, lest it knock him right off the mountain. At last he clambered to a stony area near the summit where the sycamores sprouted between broken boulders and the wind was very strong.
Buck was there, hugging his rifle, crouched in a small space between three jutting stones. His hat was gone, and his curly hair was blowing everywhere. He looked wildly at Ben, but then smiled and waved to him.
Ben waved back and started creeping along the rocky ground towards Buck, angling his rifle everywhere he looked.
Then there was a grinding clamor of shifting rock and sliding gravel. Buck cried out.
Ben broke into a run. When he reached Buck, he found him half-pinned between the three big rocks. They had closed on him like stone fingers trapping a fly, and before Ben’s astonished eyes, they continued to turn inward as if to pinch him to death.
Buck shrieked in agony as the big stones pressed into his hips and back. He had dropped his rifle, and wriggled in his stony trap, reaching for Ben desperately.
Ben rushed to the rocks and put his shoulder to one, trying to shove it off, but it was too heavy. Whatever power had animated it was irresistible. He could hear Buck’s bones snapping beneath his hoarse screams.
Ben jammed the stock of his rifle underneath the base of the smallest boulder and heaved, trying to lever it out.
Buck wailed and pulled at the gravelly earth, trying to pry himself loose.
Ben stuck both feet on the boulder and put all his weight on the rifle. There was crack as the wood stock splintered and snapped off, but for a moment the stone gave. Buck slithered out, dragging his crushed legs behind him like something scuttling out of the sea for the first time.
He lay there on his belly coughing up blood.
Ben leapt away as the big stone he had been wrestling with suddenly rolled towards him, crushing his rifle.
He turned, scooping up Buck’s gun in one hand and Buck in the other arm. Pulling the man to his feet elicited another scream that Ben seemed to feel travel the whole length of Buck’s sweating body.
“Come on!” he hollered above the wind. He began to limp with him away from the rocks back toward the edge.
Then there was another crackling sound from behind. Ben dared to look back and saw an immense shape perched like a giant buzzard on one of the stones. She was a gray old woman with mud covered skin and whipping white hair, her ratty brown blanket flapping like a cape about her. Her limbs were absurdly long and thin, like the legs of a crane, her body and head disproportionately large. She leered at him in the moonlight. Her teeth were jagged and black as coal, black as her two cannon bore eyes, wide and buggy in her emaciated skull. A thick oily mud leaked from the corner of her blood splashed mouth and hung like melted cheese from her narrow chin. She held her spindly arm out, beckoning with the curved talon on the end of her long finger. As though in answer, the big stone lying on its side began to shiver and crack.
Then it blew apart.
Ben looked away as the jagged bits of stone flew at them like a torrent of focused hail. They struck his arm around Buck’s waist and smashed the elbow, ripping Buck from his grasp.
Ben fell to his knees clutching his gravel-riddled arm. Buck lay flat on his face beside him, his body shredded and leaking dark blood as if he’d been blasted with a load of grapeshot.
Ben swung around with Buck’s rifle and fired. He could scarcely lever the Winchester with his bleeding, broken arm.
She slid down off the boulder easily and stalked toward him, her body angled, her murderous hand held at length beside her. She was tall enough to reach the lower limbs of the sycamores. Her long strides crossed the distance rapidly. He saw his bullets strike her, but it was like shooting into the earth – they ricocheted away or sunk in her muddy flesh. She took no notice. Her movement was marionette-like, suggesting human locomotion, but ultimately strange.
She began to sing as she came;
‘Uwe’la na’tsïkû’. Su’ sä’ sai’.
The rifle went empty. He gripped it by the barrel and got slowly to his feet, holding it shoulder height.
When she was within reach he swung with all he had. It was like striking a telegraph pole. The shock traveled up his arm. The stock of the rifle broke against her face.
She swiped at him with her single claw. He barely stepped aside, but her back hand struck him in the chest and knocked all the wind from him. He landed on his back a few feet away, wheezing.
She stepped towards him but stopped short. Bucks bleeding hand was gripping her ankle.
She squatted down and slid her jagged finger under Buck’s chin, raising up his head to look into his eyes. For a moment, Ben saw them regarding each other. Buck’s expression was of stricken disbelief. Hers was a strange mix of curiosity and pity. Then with one thrust her finger entered his throat up to the knuckle. The end of it protruded from his left eye socket, the resident eyeball skewered on the tip.
She flung Buck’s body down contemptibly and turned her black grin on Ben again. Then Ben saw it. In the palm of that deadly hand was a dark, bulbous lump, pulsating, like a cake rising and falling in a cooling oven.
Her heart was in her hand.
“Hey! Spearfinger! Hey, you raggedy ass old liver-eater! Remember me?”
It was Doc, calling from down below in Tsalagi.
She turned at the sound. Her incessant grin faltered.
“Come on down here, you old child suckin’ bitch! I got a liver for you to take! One you missed! Remember my voice?”
For a moment the old woman stood there, her head cocked towards his voice. Her expression softened. If possible, it was more terrible to see a look approaching human on that ancient, monstrous face. Leathery lids slid thoughtfully over the big black frog eyes.
She turned from Ben as if he was nothing. In two long strides she leapt down below. He saw her disappear into the darkness, her long white hair and the ragged blanket streaming behind her.
He scrambled to his feet. His ribs were moving against each other, pushing the air out of him. He reeled drunkenly and got to the edge.
Down below he saw Spearfinger rushing down the embankment. Doc was standing with his back to a big oak tree, his Bowie knife in his hand.
“Doc! It’s in her hand! Her heart’s in her hand!”
Ben flung himself over the lip of rock and crashed down the flinty slope, bouncing off trees and rolling, sometimes head over heels.
He came to a stop on his belly and forced himself to his hands and knees. His face was purpling. Through watery eyes he saw Doc and Spearfinger. They looked like an adult dancing with a toddler, hand in hand, waltzing left and right, turning. Doc’s knife flashed in the moon glow, crossed with Speafinger’s claw like the weapons of a pair of old time duelists.
Ben heaved himself up and stumbled towards them, hugging his throbbing sides. The run was only eight or nine feet, but it was taxing. There was a dead log directly behind Spearfinger. Ben set his foot on top of it and used his momentum to propel himself up and onto her back.
He had meant to tackle the pair of them to the ground, but grappling the ogress was like clenching a knotty old oak tree. She didn’t even stagger under his weight, and the jagged angles of her body poked him wherever he gripped her.
Ben’s appearance momentarily distracted both of them though, and while the old witch’s head turned to regard him with an annoyed snarl, Doc’s hand popped free and he lost his knife.
Her hand broke out of Doc’s grip, came up, and grabbed Ben by the hair, wrenching him from her back and flinging him to the earth between her feet.
She brought her claw down to dispatch him, but Doc was there, hugging her arm with his whole body.
Then Spearfinger screamed.
Ben was reminded again of the howl of a lonesome wildcat in the night. Her voice was unearthly, all pretense of humanity swept away by her primal agony, as Doc slashed with the broken end of Fisher’s knife at her beating palm. Her hand erupted in a burst of blackish, foul smelling blood that spurted down on Ben.
She twisted and flung Doc away like a biting dog.
Ben got to his feet again. He found Doc’s knife in the dirt.
He swept it up as he stood, and hacked at her clawed hand.
She flinched away and swung at him again, opening a gash on his forearm.
She stabbed at his chest, and he ducked under her arm. The wicked claw stuck into the trunk of the tree Doc had been standing in front of.
Flipping the Bowie in his hand, Ben gripped her wrist and drove the point into the back of her hand with all that was left in him, feeling it punch through and bury itself in the bark behind.
Spearfinger threw her head back and let a long and plaintive call, like baying wolves, yowling catamounts, and a warren of screaming rabbits all at once burst and then taper from her shriveled lips. She shuddered in his grip and fell to her knees like a supplicant before the knotted oak.
Her head bowed and her blanket fell from her twisted, muddy shoulders. Then she sank inward and was still but for the wind stirring her clumped hair. Her black, pungent blood streamed down the length of her arm, seeping from around the hilt of the knife that pinned her to the tree. The smell from the wound was like the pungent stink of peat and rotting compost.
Ben fell on his ass and sat there doubled over, fighting to breathe through his broken ribs.
A hand touched his shoulder.
“You OK, a-tsu-tsa?” Doc asked.
He managed to nod, but speaking caused a painful heaving in his chest. He nearly passed out.
The old man knew his mind though.
“On the Trail, one night in the wagon,” he said. “Like I told you, I didn’t see her, but I heard her. Heard her song, like it was in my ear. There was this boy. He was sicker’n me. Dyin.’ And I said ‘Spearfinger, don’t take my liver tonight. Take this boy’s. He’s sick anyway.’ I thought I was dreamin.’ In the morning he was dead and I was alive.”
Ben looked up at him. Doc’s eyes were shining and he turned away, wrinkling his nose at the stench pouring out of the dead thing pinned to the tree.
“Come on, let’s get out of the wind,” he said, helping Ben to his feet.
Ben groaned. He had come to catch a murderer and was returning empty handed.
“What’m I gonna say?” he whispered.
“About Jimpsey?” said Doc. “In Tahlequah, tell ‘em the truth. In Ft. Smith, lie.”
Ben nodded. Concerning the woman-killer Jimpsey Waterback, the Cherokee would have their truth, and the white men theirs.
He was just the man to deliver both.