This story originally appeared in Best of the South 2010, Issue 69.
Threadgill had been one of them, or something like it. This part of the world hadn’t been penetrated by the Company in four seasons, ever since they lost him, their ace drummer, on the Blackwater River, where he’d been shot off a farmer’s wife by the farmer himself. While the man fumbled a fresh shell into the breech of his shotgun, Threadgill ran flopping out the backdoor and tumbled down the sheer cliff behind the cabin. There he came to rest in the arms of a mighty spruce. The tree held him like a babe till they rigged up a block and tackle to lift him out. They said he had nothing but socks on, argyle. The image bored into Cartwright’s brain like a weevil. The week the Company hired Cartwright on as a drummer, he found the dead man’s sucker list wrapped in oilskin and tacked under the wagon tongue. It was the secret of Cartwright’s success. He grew flush of commission in no time.
Polishing a new gold tooth with his tongue, Cartwright clattered down the road in a buckboard wagon. He followed the split-rail fence worming along the trace. Ironweed and seven sisters grew between the ruts, tickling the horses—a gelded pair of blood bays. The farther he traveled, the more the roadbed degraded. The spring rains had gnawed small ravines into it all the way down to the shining black chert; he kept his horses to a low canter, should they come upon a slip. The tunnel of rain-lush forest gave way, finally, to cleared farmland around the bend.
The only thing Cartwright knew about McBride, today’s prospect, was that the farmer was a sucker, though the few neighbors around there would have told Cartwright that no one knew the valley better than honest Sherman McBride—the creeks that bred trout, the caves that held flint—except for the two boys he raised off those mouthfuls of corn that rose from the fields and strained for the sun. Even so, honesty would be the man’s downfall. Cartwright gazed up at the Allegheny Mountains that trotted saw-toothed across the horizon. This was long before the forests were scoured off the mountain and the coal cut from its belly, before blight withered the stands of chestnut. A dozen passenger pigeons trickled through the sky, the first Cartwright had seen that year despite all his travels. The cherry of his cigarette tumbled, and he jumped and slapped it out of his lap.
Ah! The passenger pigeons he remembered best of all. Every fall, his family had waited for the black shrieking cloud. Word was passed down from towns to the north—Anthem, Mouth of Seneca—and there they were, a pitch river of millions undulating in the sky. When they touched down to rest, they toppled the crowns from oaks. They plucked any living plant and then the roiling swarm fell to the ground and tore at the grass. Under them, no one could tell field from road.
“Whoever cut this grade,” Cartwright said to the horses, “must have followed a snake up the hollow. Followed a damned snake!” He roomed near the courthouse in Anthem, but he hadn’t been there in seven weeks. He was deep into the summer swing through the highland counties, all the way up to Job and Corinth, the old towns once called Salt Creek and Beartown until their rechristening in a religious fervor. Cartwright glanced at the crate jostling under the tarp. He said, “Damn, boys. I’d almost buy it myself to get shut of this situation.”
He swabbed his face with his tie. Soon, the sun burned off the fog and hoisted itself into the sky. “Horses, it’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock. I tell you that much.”
He took another little drink. Bottleflies turned their emerald carapaces in the sun. Young monarchs gathered to tongue the green horseshit and clap their wings.
Before the Company hired him, Cartwright had sold funeral insurance, apprenticed himself to a farrier, and, in his youth, worked his father’s acres. To hear his father tell it, Anthem was a profane place, and they would do well to keep ground between their children and such ways. But a month after she buried her husband, Cartwright’s mother had closed the deed on their land and moved them to Anthem without debate. Her sister lived by the railroad depot.
Though it had been years since he’d swung a scythe or sheathed his arms in the hot blood of stock, Cartwright’s boyhood helped him build a quick rapport, or so he said, with the farmers who bought his wares. Truthfully, he bullied them into buying the tools, or, if they would not be bullied, he casually insulted the farmers’ methods in front of their wives. “That’s one way of doing things,” he said to the hard sells. “Gets it done sure as any other. Yessir. Hard labor! Of course, you don’t see many men doing it that way anymore. Last season, I found bluegums down in Greenbrier County working like that.”
“You don’t say.”
“No, excuse me. Season before last. And they might have been Melungeons. Ma’am, you spare some water for a wayfaring traveler?”
Cartwright would bid them goodnight and retreat to the hayloft, and, as often as not, be greeted in the morning by the farmer with a fistful of wrinkled dollars and watery, redrimmed eyes, having been flayed the night long for stubborn habits that clashed with the progressive spirit of the times.
Like his own father, the people Cartwright sold to worked rocky mountain acres, wresting little more than subsistence from the ground. None had owned slaves. Some abstained from the practice out of moral doctrine; all abstained for lack of money. They carded their own wool, cured their own tobacco, and died young or back-bent, withered and brown as ginseng roots twisted from the soil. A handful of affluent farmers in the river bottoms owned early Ford tractors, odd and exoskeletal, but most still worked mules and single-footed plows. Cartwright had seen acres of corn that grew on hillsides canting more than forty-five degrees. But even to the humblest farmers, Cartwright managed to sell a few harrow teeth or ax-heads.
It also ensnared him: The more success he found, the more desolate the places the Company sent him, and the higher the profits they came to expect. He was the rare man who could wring dollars from these scanty places, but he’d grown tired of the counties they cast him farther and farther into like a bass plug. A man couldn’t even buy a fresh newspaper where he roamed. Cartwright brought them the first word of the laws and statutes that a young state government was trying to filigree over the backcountry. Cartwright should have said no, but the Company representative had appealed to his vanity: ‘‘I’ll be straight with you. We’re in the middle of a recession and” —the man was a veteran of the Spanish War—“we need our best on the ramparts. We know you can make quota, buddy. You’ve proved yourself.” The praise had flooded Cartwright’s belly with a singing warmth, sure as a shot of clean bourbon. Only now did he realize the Company had taken advantage of his loyalty. As soon as he hit Anthem, he’d demand a promotion.
Cartwright took the last hit of whiskey and licked his lips. “My ass hurts,” he said to the horses, with a sly sidelong grin. “Do your feet hurt? Huh now?”
Now there was the trouble of the last plow. He’d never returned with inventory and wasn’t about to start. Had to make quota. Cartwright lobbed the jar into a roadside holly bush, where it left a quivering hole in the leaves. “Hup,” he said, slapping the horses’ haunches with the reins. The sweat went flying. A swarm of insects gathered to sup at the horses’ soft eyes, nostrils, and assholes. He began to doze but a furry gray deerfly tagged him on the neck. He slapped it away and cursed softly, so not to spook the horses. Blood formed, round and perfect as a one-carat ruby. Again, he lifted his tie.
McBride seemed to be getting up a small orchard of thorny apples along the road. The split-rails of the fence became fresher till they gave out, for around the bend he found two boys planing and setting lengths of locust by the roadside. Fresh from the adze, the cut lumber gleamed silver in the sun, if marred in places by heartshakes and spalting. The boys wore a coarse homespun, bearing the scurvy look of those who live without women. Their long hair was cut severely, as if it had been chopped with a mattock.
Over the chip-chop-thunk of the adze, the twins spoke to each other in a fluttering brogue, the voice of orioles. They saw the wagon and fell dumb, tools gone limp in their hands. Cartwright reined his horses and said, “Hello there, fellows. You the men of the place?”
While one answered, the other spat on the blade of the scrub plane and ran it grating over a stone. The boy said, “English barn a quarter mile up. Ought to find him there. You a preacher?”
“Ah. That’s too bad. We haven’t heard good preaching in awhile.” Cartwright wouldn’t have guessed it, but both of the boys could cipher well. The eldest had read the family Bible seven times through. The one on the left asked, “You play music?”
“Not the tax man, are you?”
“I’m a salesman.”
The boy had no comment for this. Waving Cartwright on, he opened a mouthful of teeth so black and broken they looked serrated. He stuffed a rasher of tobacco inside. Cartwright thanked both boys and slapped his horses forward. The wagon went rattling on.
When the drummer was out of earshot, one asked, “What do you think?”
“I expect he’ll expect us to feed him dinner.”
His brother sighted down the scrub plane, eyeing it for flaws. “Need that like a hot nail in the foot.”
“Least he’s not here for taxes.”
The twins turned away, shouldered a rail in tandem and set it atop another.
Catholic Irish, Cartwright thought, like his mother’s father, who’d been converted to the Southern Methodist Church when the preacher said how the Pope’s Catholics was little better than cannibals, eating up the body of Christ and carving the thumbs off of saints. The body is profane, the spirit real! When Cartwright was young, he heard a Catholic in the infirmary praying to beads. They’d come here to dig railroad tunnels, but, like exotic flowers, had never quite taken to the place and died about as quickly as the land would take them.
Soon, he came upon a sharp-shouldered man plowing up earth with acres to go. The farmer’s face was sallow and long-whiskered under a broad-brimmed felt hat, but his hands and arms were the color of leaf tobacco. His boots had been mended with baling twine. McBride, for sure. He whoa’d the mule to a stop. The animal was stout and gleamed wetly in the sun, like a doused ingot of iron. Waves of salt had dried on its shoulders.
“Hi there,” the drummer said, lifting a hand from the reins. “Name’s John Cartwright.”
“Good-looking animal you got there.”
“Ought to be,” McBride said. He took off his crushed felt hat and swept it across his forehead like a bandanna. “We paid big on him at the auction. My last mule lived to be thirty-two years old. Hell, my neighbor just give him to me on trade and we worked him swaybacked. After the war, it was. Know how much the price on a mule goes up in thirty-two years?”
Cartwright wanted to say, It’s called capital, old buddy. Instead, he politely inquired as to what the years could do to the price of a mule.
“Enough to take a belt of the good stuff before raising my bidding hand.”
Cartwright shook his head knowingly. “It’s an animal you can’t do without.”
“Indeed. Like I tell my boys, you can’t do without a mule no more than you can do without legs. You’re a cripple without one. Don’t I, boys? Don’t I say you can’t do without a mule no more than legs?”
“Yes. He says it all the damn time.”
The boys had stalked up from behind. Cartwright couldn’t help but jump.
“I told you,” McBride said. “All the damn time I say it.”
Cartwright regained his composure. The pitch: “You speak with a lot of sense and experience. Fellows, a mule is important and so’s a man’s tools. I was a farmer for many years and indeed I know that a farmer is only good as his tools. Let the harness match the hide, as they say. You need something to equal that good mule.”
McBride flinched. A less experienced drummer might think this the wrong tack, but Cartwright knew his trade, and his trade was talk. In his mind’s eye, he saw the contents of the Irishman’s barn: cracked, broken harnesses and homemade harrows, antiquated briar hoes and other tools of the Old World. They might even shell corn by hand. “Yessir,” he continued, “I got something here that will double, if not triple, a man’s yield at harvest with only half the effort. Half the effort, twice the yield. Powerful math. Now how about that?”
McBride said nothing. The good mule stood there in the furrow, radiating a potent silence. The best draft animals have no discernible personality, and this one seemed such a beast.
“Now me,” Cartwright said, “I’d say you couldn’t beat that with a stick. This tool a man can’t afford to be without. Latest from Virginia Progressive Agriculture. Help me, boys.”
The twins pitched forward. Cartwright dismounted, whispered into the horses’ toggling ears, and walked around to the wagonbed. He peeled back a yellow oilskin, revealing a rectangular crate. He took out a small pry-bar and removed a series of staples. The twins helped him lift the lid off a steel-pointed, double-footed plow packed in dry straw. It had been polished to a violent gleam, and the sun caught and danced like hooked minnows on every point and angle. McBride didn’t dare look back, but he was imagining his own single-footed plow: crude, hand-forged, nicked and dull as any kitchen blade. Wouldn’t even break roots.
“Brand new, our latest model. This here is the McCrory Reaper,” Cartwright said, “but I call it the Miracle Plow. Our engineers have designed it to render a maximum harvest as far as crops go, clearing twice as much land in the same amount of hours and cutting a deeper furrow, turning up fresher soil and more nutrients. We guarantee better crops or your money back. It’s been tested by a scientist at the state college for three years and the results have been proven.
“Look. I’m not the first drummer who’s come down the road and won’t be the last, but I sell no snake-oil. I’m a farm boy myself, grew up on a spread about the size of this one. I know what it’s like to rise with the last star and work under the light of the first. We lost that farm because we had two bad years running,” Cartwright said, licking his mouth with the moisture of the lie. “That’s all it took: two bad ones. I say with confidence, if we’d of had the McCrory Reaper, we’d still be farming my dad’s acres. But my dad wasn’t progressive. Wouldn’t change with the times. Now another’s working our land—successfully, with the Miracle Plow. Sold it to him myself. Broke my heart, too. Probably shouldn’t be telling it, but I did. You got to get that dollar. Boys, help me move this thing. If you don’t mind, Mr. McBride, let’s unbuckle your old plow and hitch up this one. You got a singletree? No? That’s okay. Let’s run a couple furrows with it, free of charge, and see how it measures up. Break up a half-acre. Would you be averse?”
The question hung there. The twins looked to McBride for instruction, eyes black and hard. Cartwright saw that one boy had only nine fingers—the one way to tell them apart. McBride gave them a slight nod, and they harnessed the new plow.
Tucking his tie between the buttons of his shirt, Cartwright approached the mule as the Irishmen sat on their haunches in the shade of an outbuilding. It was awkward for them to watch another man work without falling in line behind him. They rebelled against their jittering tendons, forced themselves still.
Cupping the mule’s nose, Cartwright said, “You got to get to know a mule, right? What’s his name? Ronald? Is that right? Ronald, do I have a treat for you. This thing’s going to feel light as a vest.”
He moved behind the double-footed plow, leaned forward, and slapped the mule on its ass with a tack fitted on the inside of his ring. The mule surged forward, the leather harness yanked with such force it began to groan.
“Jesus,” McBride whispered. “Look at Ronald pull.”
‘‘This way, you’re it working the ground, and it ain’t working you,” Cartwright said, chewing on the poor food. “I hate to say it, but it’s true. These days a man can’t hope to compete without one.”
They took supper in the kitchen, the core of a three-room shotgun, dredging up beans and their white, watery gruel with a great circle of cornbread that McBride had cooked in a deep skillet, scooping the golden meal from a sack that stood open beside the woodstove. The meal had quite a grit to it, so the cornbread offered no flavor and the consistency of damp sawdust. Cartwright choked it down, thinking, Promotion, promotion. The sullen boys ate little, seeming to draw their fire from tobacco and wee hits of whiskey from a jug, which they didn’t attempt to conceal but didn’t offer to share, either, as they surely would to a neighbor.
McBride and Cartwright discussed the merits and dimensions of the new plow at length. Look how effortlessly it turned the earth. Like a knife through hot bread, McBride kept saying, shaking his head. It barely wears on the mule, barely at all.Cartwright looked about the room. Why’d Threadgill even note these people? But the sucker list said SHERMAN McBRIDE in its lovely, arching script. Jumping Jesus, McBride couldn’t scrape together fifteen dollars if you held a straight razor to his turkey neck, even if he sold everything in the cabin and not a cent to the government. These people were prime candidates for Moses’ Jubilee. Perhaps there was a relation who could lend them the money, with interest.
Come nightfall, McBride scratched up some fodder for Cartwright’s horses and showed him to the barn-loft. McBride bid him good night and retreated to the cabin. A shining sliver of moon rested on the planks, and blue fox fire wafted on the hills. Shivering in the cool of the evening, Cartwright stood in the barn door and watched Orion wheel in his chase.
Cartwright saw the twins standing in the twilight. They draped ancient flintlocks over their shoulders, the heavy octagonal barrels tamped with cut-nails and brass buttons. Not far away, a boarhog threw itself against the stall and bawled out, raking tusks against the wood. If a man fell in, it would leave nothing but a skull plate. He looked at the guns.
“They got a fox pinned on the mountain,” the ten-fingered boy said. “Sometimes they cross the river here at the cut. Might get us a shot. Hear them hounds singing?”
Bound in a nimbus of light, the boys cocked their ears as if to a phonograph for music.
“There a bounty on it?” Cartwright asked.
Oh yeah, the boys said. They named a good figure. Maybe a piece of that plow, they hinted. They said it carefully, their green young minds grappling with the hard currency of commerce. “I see you looking at my hand,” the maimed boy said, holding it up to the lantern.
Cartwright felt his stomach coil.
“Lost it baiting a jaw-trap. Hand slipped.” He looked Cartwright in the eye and said it bluntly, without threat; he hadn’t lived in a civilized town yet. He hadn’t learned shame.
“We put too much oil to it,” the other said. “Got it slickery.”
“Easy mistake to make,” Cartwright said, relieved. “Do you cure them or bounty them?”
“Depends if the fur traders or the government men are coming around,” the ten-fingered boy said. “Neighbors send word up the road.”
“You know,” Cartwright said, with a knowing shake of his head, “an animal has just enough brains to cure its own hide, be it deer, fox, or bear. Something to study on, I’d say.”
The boys thought on it for a minute. “That is something,” the nine-fingered boy said. “I’d never thought of it, but it’s true. Wouldn’t call it a puzzle, but it’s something to note.”
A grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, the ten-fingered boy said, “You were a farmer, weren’t you?”
“Oh yeah,” Cartwright said, smiling. “Those were good times.”
“Hunh. We’ll have to talk some more about that plow.”
Before they left, they slipped him a twist of tobacco, as they would a neighbor. Cartwright snapped his fingers, twice. He was in with them now.
Cartwright climbed the rungs of the ladder. Out the window, he glanced up at Andromeda, chained to the rock. The drummer was careful with his cigarette, cleaning the boards with his shoe and killing the cinder on the wood. Then he heard a woman screaming on the mountain, but remembered that it was merely the cry of a gray fox, a dog that walks trees like a cat. He leaned back, breathing the ancient smell of cured apples and tobacco hanging from the rafters. Also, the whiff of swallow droppings.
The smell brought to mind his father, mother, brothers, and sisters. Cartwright’s family took up pine-stobs, brooms, and pokers, beating pigeons to death by the dozens, so numerous and stupid they were. His father lined them up on the ground, and his sister Audrey broke kindling to fire the kettle and scald the feathers from the bodies. They gorged themselves, like every other hard-up family from Canada to Texas. It was nothing less than manna, and the bird-soil fell like flakes of lime, his mother and sisters holding umbrellas straining over their heads to keep it off their dresses. The birds they couldn’t eat, they ground into fertilizer. Back and forth, his sisters carried the pailfuls of feathers and pulp. The flocks blotted the sun and spooked the horses, which tried to crop grass to the verge of foundering because they weren’t ready, at midday, to return slack-bellied to the barn and stand hungry in the darkness. The screaming clouds peeled back the green table of grass, and the horses chewed faster, faster.
Cartwright’s brother Nige handed him a dead passenger pigeon to play with. He turned it over in his hands: the red eye set there like a hardened drop of blood, the slaty guard-feathers the color of water churning over the bottoms of river that hold trout. The body was limp in his hand, neck lolling about, and he stroked the saffron underbelly. In his trunk in Anthem, he now kept that mummified pair of wings, feathers still crisp as fletching against his thumb. Wrapped in black gauze and smelling sweetly of dry mold, they could have been torn from its back yesterday. He would wrap them back up and put them away under his winter clothes. There were damn few pigeons left now and someday the sky would be evacuated of everything but rain, airships, and stars.
Cartwright turned and felt a sharp comer dig into his kidneys. He plunged his arm into the straw and came up with a jar of corn. “Hallelujah,” he said, grinning. He held the clear liquor up to the moon, which looked as hollow and weird as Thomas Jefferson’s death mask. He turned the jar, and the geography of the moon warped and spilled to the corners. With luck like this, he’d be back in Anthem in no time. He unscrewed the two-piece lid with a grainy, skirling sound.
After taking a third of the jar, Cartwright made a nest in the straw and settled into a dream-sleep rife with women. He was a man of low station, a virgin at twenty-five. He wouldn’t be Threadgill, though. Cartwright wanted a steady woman. Regional Manager pay would get him one. Maybe she’d have earth to till, a few acres. Yes, she would. He cocked his ear. The gray fox screamed.
The nine-fingered boy said, “Here it comes. Dollar bills on the foot,” and his brother laughed a laugh dry as cornhusks. The boys waited for the fox under a wash of stars. There were hunts, too, ciphered in the sky above: the hare, the dogs greater and lesser, and the Great Hunter whipping them on.
A square of sun teased Cartwright’s face and chest in the morning. Blinking, he glanced about the loft, trying to remember where he was. Swallows peeked out of their mudnests and streaked blue-and-gold out the window. He woke to their piping, and McBride called him out of the barn. In the kitchen, a tray of sloppy eggs was laid out and a kettle whistled. The tea had the musty tang of roots, or the kettle had been used to make chicory coffee, one. Cartwright asked if the boys had shot themselves a fox. McBride said he supposed they had not.
“That’s a shame,” Cartwright said. “Bounty’s a good way to tum a few dollars.”
McBride flinched. Cartwright meant to spur a conversation of whether McBride wanted to buy or not—his back ached from sleeping strangely and a bouncing wagon might cure it—but like these mountain people do, McBride shunned talk of money and led the drummer in an elliptical conversation that touched upon foxes, what foxes eat, foxes and chickens, bounties, plows, planting by the signs, the Stations of the Cross, the months of the moon, the death of his wife in the winter, TB, washing handkerchiefs of red roses, foxes again, plows again, and, finally, the matter of money. McBride counted out quarters, wheat pennies, and paper bills, building them into a small pile.
Cartwright frowned, plucking off the Confederate note the man placed on top—a two-dollar Judah Benjamin—and setting it aside. He said, “This is only half, I’m afraid. Barely half.” It was time to go. Experience told him that McBride was about to offer him goats and old boots to make up the difference.
“I know this,” McBride said. “But you said it yourself, this is a tool a man can’t do without. I got something to cover the rest. It’s out where we get flints, just sitting in the ground. It can be sold back where you come from for great profit.”
“If you’re talking about ginseng or hides, I don’t truck in that,” Cartwright said, the tooth flickering as he spoke.
“The agent buys hides all the time.”
“Look, you don’t understand. I don’t buy them. It’s too much bother. Town-people don’t barter no more. The Company says I have to take federal money. Legal tender. I had a fellow wanted to give me a rarified sidelock shotgun all the way from Italy and I couldn’t take it.”
“This goes beyond your typical deal. This is five shotguns. Cover the plow and more and you can have the rest for your troubles.”
Cartwright looked about the room. No. If McBride had some silver buried about the place, it wouldn’t be such a wreck. “Well,” Cartwright said, standing up, not even bothering to hide his disgust, “I’ll be taking my leave of you, Mr. McBride. Good luck with your yield. Got to find somebody who can actually buy this thing.”
When Cartwright went out the door, it was the serene way that McBride said, “You’ll regret it,” that called him back. The Irishman took a folded piece of newspaper from his wallet and smoothed it out on the knife-scored table. “I had to go to Jephthah for court day. I was on the jury that hung that Brad fellow for jiggering his little niece and I got this off the corner-man.”
Cartwright read it once, and read it again. McBride said, “I know where you can get one of them, a great big one.”
“Why haven’t you got it out already?”
“Thought you said you was a farmer,” McBride said, bristling. “Anthem’s more than sixty mile. You can’t go leaving.”
“Hey now, settle down,” said Cartwright. “I ain’t casting aspersions.” He read the notice a third time, a grin swelling on his face. “We’ll split it sixty-forty,” he said. “But that’s a solid forty.”
No one had been to the cave much since the War, when a few dozen men harvested saltpeter for the Confederacy, and then for the Union, when they were told they lived no longer in Old Virginia. They’d shrugged, saying, Makes no difference to us, we just want to eat. And avoid conscription, they might have added. When the War ended, their profit vanished and the cave was plunged back to obscurity. A scattering of people knew the place, but none knew it like McBride’s boys: They crawled into the Sink of Gandy to harvest flint and hide from downpours when they hunted spring turkeys.
Toting a bundle of tools, the nine-fingered boy led Cartwright on cattle paths to skirt their few neighbors, suspicious people loyal to no one but blood and that even questionable. They wandered into high meadows drowning in beaver dams and dropped into the next valley. A thin jade river fled north and drained with a sucking roar into the Sink of Gandy, a hatchet-wound grinning in the mountainside. The Sinks led to a lacework of caverns undergirding the farmlands. The river resurfaced four miles north-by-northwest.
Stubby stalactites drooped from the opening and a hush issued from the hole, exhaling the smell of wet rock. Cartwright held out a hand and found it too mild for hell. He glanced over his shoulder at the humpy valleyland, beckoning him back. “Two miles in,” the boy said, stuffing his belongings into a wet-proof satchel made of stomach. “Long miles.”
They were swallowed into the cold bowels of the mountain. Cartwright cursed, sinking his leg into a sump of cavemud as the boy lit a pineknot from his satchel. The torch spat glow on soapstone walls that glistened wet as a dog’s mouth.
A frothy roar. Crotch-deep in the river, their flesh shriveled. All manner of beast erupted from the crevices-blind wormy salamanders, hare-eared bats whose wings were silk fans brushing their faces. They scrambled over rocks and hangs as the river dropped and narrowed, sluicing through a trough. Deeper they went. Walls closed and they squeezed through closets of stone, rooms within rooms. Cartwright felt his chest cave, his ribs compress. Each breath painful, space no more than a corncrib. His lungs burned. He cried our, casting echoes through the tunnel.
“Quit your wailing,” the boy said, holding out his hand to the mud-smeared man who still wore a necktie. “Breathe deep. Scoot sideways.”
Cartwright popped free into a chapel of stone. The boy pulled a fresh pineknot from his bag, touched it off, and handed the hissing lantern to the drummer. The room soared overhead, massive wet ribbons of rock dripping in folds from the ceiling. The chemical burn of waste in his nostrils, a roof of rodents screeching above. In the old days the men said, The bats sow shit and we reap gunpowder.
They came to an opening, a single slur of light on the floor. Cartwright stuck his head inside and drank the sweet air. Covered crown to boot in coffee-colored mud, he asked, “Won’t that fire choke us in here?”
The boy ran his four fingers over the remains of abandoned saltpeter hoppers pegged to the wall, troughs of cucumber wood and oak. “Big window up top lets the fire out. Indian smokehouse. Funny thing, you walk through the field and a flock of bats just pop out the ground beneath you. You near piss yourself.”
They felt the earth settle and creak, the animals shuddering in waves overhead. A few squeaking kits fell from the ceiling, and they couldn’t help but tromp them under boot.
“What if the whole mountain falls down?”
“Been standing since Genesis,” the boy said. “Look, here we are.”
The ground was a carpet of fossilized dung. With their torches, they studied the wallscratchings of a lose people, charcoal men in positions of coupling and war. That’s when Cartwright saw the face glaring back at him. The maw of a cave bear jutted from the rock, trapped by flood long ago. The greasy pine fire burned against it with a contained fury, illuminating the hollows of it face. It was clearly no mean bruin, its skull gargantuan, with black canines dripping down the jaw. Cartwright put his hand to the wall and soft shale flaked and fell away. He took the clipping from his shirt pocket and read it aloud, taking a second go at the longer words.
REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE TO APPEAR AT ANTHEM CHAMBER OF COMMERCE—COMPENSATION FOR FOSSILS OF PREHISTORIC MEGAFAUNA. One of the states most famous visitors, Thomas Jefferson, found rare claw-bones of a giant three-toed sloth in the Organ Cave, on the old Nat Hinkle farm in Greenbrier County in 1792. Dr. Charles Lands Burke, a young scholar from Washington, D. C., seeks to follow in his footsteps and is looking to local landowners for aid with this government initiative—with generous compensation.
“Sounds right to me,” the boy said. Could the boy have even read it? Did someone explain it to them? He took a hammer and a chisel from his bag and handed them over to Cartwright. Turning his shoulder so the boy couldn’t see, Cartwright folded the newspaper clipping back into the sucker list, marrying the two documents together, and tucked them into his jacket.
Stepping forward, Cartwright ran his thumb against the sharp ring of the occipital bone and the worn points of fang, tracing the fissures of the skull that rippled like stitches under his touch. It thrilled him. He couldn’t wait to turn it over in his hands. He was amazed there were such things in the ground, waiting to be dug out like potatoes. Cupping them in his brown palm, Cartwright’s father used to show off the arrowheads he tilled out of the fields.
The boy said, “Something, ain’t it?”
A scene came drifting up from the lakebed of memory. When Cartwright was seven years old, his father had bought a gold locket for his wife’s birthday from a drummer passing through. A smile they hadn’t seen before took hold of her face, but a week later, his father stood clutching the doorframe, looking shamefully at where the false gold stained her pale skin, like gangrene. He tore it from her neck and threw it down the well. It was the one time his father had cried in front of them. The frightened children fanned into the woods. That night, Cartwright’s father had to come looking for him with a lantern to fetch him back home.
Cartwright grooved the chisel’s tooth into the base of the skull, where the spine would fuse, and lifted the hammer. He let it fall. The chisel jumped in his hand and half the skull turned to silt. It cascaded down the rock wall with the faintest sigh. The boy let out a string of oaths so profane, so unparalleled, that surely they’d been inspired by a hell so near.
Cartwright was glad to have a hammer in hand.
Once again they waded the river, water sucking at their limbs. A pinprick of light appeared ahead. Neither spoke, even when a toothy rock tore Cartwright’s jacket with a startling rip. Soon, a delicate sun and then a javelin of light truck the drummer’s chest. They came to the mouth of the Sinks of Gandy. “I see them coming,” the boy said.
Indeed, McBride and the ten-fingered boy stood there with guns in hand, laughing, each with a fox draped over his shoulder. McBride held a double-barrel sixteen-gauge loaded with pumpkin-ball slugs, a gun the drummer hadn’t seen before. They lifted their bloody foxes to the sun. They were fresh, tongues still pink with the suggestion of life. The foxes couldn’t be eaten, only sold, because like all predators they reeked of the flesh they’d consumed. One was a black-socked vixen with a sleek coat, the other a gray fox, its face and limbs streaked with red, which had obviously been living in a briarpatch. It could use a curry-comb and wouldn’t bring as much, Cartwright mused miserably, but still a good price.
“You all get it?” McBride asked. “Them bones don’t look like much, but they say it’s money in the bank.”
“Ask your drummer here,” the nine-fingered boy said, cocking his head.
“That skull was too old! No one told me how old it was. That was damaged goods.”
McBride colored. “Good what now?”
“It’s in a thousand pieces,” the boy said. “You couldn’t broom it out of the dirt.”
Cartwright opened his hands. “That skull wasn’t worth a damn. You misled me. You violated our contract.”
“That’s the law. It’s contract.”
“We shook hands,” the farmer said, looking to his boys. “Drummer, you said a man can’t do without it.”
“It’s the law. The legislature wrote it. We just got to live by it.”
“What? What are we going to do about that plow?”
“Hey now,” Cartwright said, “don’t bounty those foxes. Tan the hides and sell them. You’ll turn a better profit. You get a few more dozen and I’ll come back in the fall.”
“Know how long it’ll take to cure these hides?”
Cartwright said nothing.
“That’s right. You’ll be off down the road and we won’t see you for a year. Hell, two year. You’ll come back when you feel like it. Where will we be? I’m tired of this ground working me, I’m ready to work it. You said it yourself.”
The nine-fingered boy said, “What’s this?”
The boy knelt and picked up a folded piece of paper. Cartwright felt the world turn on a pivot. He grew light-headed and loose-limbed, as if he’d just been bled with leeches. The boy peeled the sucker list away from the newspaper clipping. His eyes scanned the lines. Cartwright thought about running, but he didn’t know the way back to the road.
The nine-fingered boy read the words aloud, which listed the name McBride among the county’s daft, drunken, gullible, and insane.
“Says we got an eye for any piece of metal, long as it’s shiny. Drills, reapers. Pine away for it, we will.”
“No better than rooks,” his brother said.
Cartwright opened his mouth, then let it shut with a click. He felt weary from the cave, and the years on the road, and his entire body was slick with mud, pantlegs heavy as dragnets. He leaned against a sycamore lording over the Sinks of Gandy. He could retch. “Look,” he cried, “I know what it’s like! I’m from here!”
With a crack, the nine-fingered boy slapped a creeping armored caterpillar off his pantleg. “Jesus Christ,” he said, looking down. It was a brilliant green, nearly five inches long. He looked back to Cartwright.
The slug punched Cartwright’s side like a party ballot. The drummer fell against the slippery bark and the shot patch fluttered against his face, a sulfur burn in his nostrils. Once, when he was young, he’d tasted a bitter pinch of gunpowder and said it tasted like a chimney. His father had laughed, clamping a loving paw on the boy’s shoulder, his palm rough as a file. Cartwright threw up a hand and the second shot took his forearm in a hail of bone and the third struck his chin, unhinging the mouth.
When Cartwright fell, he did it watching the light play through clouds on the face of the mountain.
McBride laid the shotgun on the ground and reached for a pipe of tobacco, hand shaking.
The ten-fingered boy asked, “What was that on your leg?”
“Hell if I know.”
The boys turned the dragonlike caterpillar on a stick, its orange spikes waving. They ran their thumbs across them. The spikes were hard as apple-thorns. “That’s called a Hickory Devil,” McBride said, turning back to the drummer’s body. “Digs into the ground and turns into a big old red moth.”
“Kill it,” one said. “It’ll kill a dog if it eats it.” Tartly, McBride said, “Don’t. That’s a myth. It won’t hurt nothing.”
It was a lonely place, and they merely covered the drummer in pine-boughs, confident that no one would find him and no one would care. They should have known better, for the bears and the foxes broke him apart and scattered him a good ways. Rodents gnawed his belt and boot-leather for their share of salt. Five years later, a hunter found Cartwright’s brass belt-buckle in the leaves and slipped it into his pocket.
It says something of the quality of the buckle’s manufacture, as well as the hunter’s eye, for it was the fourth week of October and the leaves were a thousand shades of brown, mottled like the skin on a copperhead’s back. Later, some lost boys from Moatstown found part of him but paid it little mind, calling him a deer because they failed to check the long lithe bones for hooves or fingers. In twenty years, a bearhunter pried the gold tooth from his jaw and threw the husk to the ground. An old woman of Palatine-German stock gave his ribcage a Christian burial after a dog dragged it behind her springhouse. She chanted the verses, murmuring, “Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” But she was fading herself, near death, and troubled in her mind. Is only his torso in heaven? she wondered. Do his legs dance in hell? But she was too frail to go searching for the rest, though his pelvic bone rested near a prominent fork in the road, gathering dry leaves like a crock.
The three Irishmen painted Cartwright’s wagon black—“black as Mariah,” the neighbors said—and set the smart new plow behind the mule in its traces. With a searing poker, they smeared the blood bays with their own brand. Cartwright would have recognized the sound of crackling flesh, because it sounded like the red-hot horseshoes he’d dropped hissing into a water-barrel in his days as a farrier’s apprentice.
After a day’s excitement, McBride and his boys eased back into the rhythms of planting and sowed their corn. They enjoyed a typical harvest, green spears coming up straight and tasseled in mean if nourishing numbers. They chewed the lining of their cheeks in wonder, but, then again, they’d merely completed their task with the Miracle Plow, a quarter of the fields. Next year would be the true test. The earth turned and cooled and they waited out the long winter like denned bears, wagering on next year’s harvest.
When next harvest came, they would have killed Cartwright all over again. The Miracle Plow had failed to increase their yield by any measure whatsoever, no better than the one it replaced. When Cartwright’s replacement came down the road three years later, they told him so. He urged on his horses with a grim flick of the traces.
As for the three men, they never roamed beyond the Sinks of Gandy, they waited each year for the trickle of passenger pigeons, they reposed in the ground with the cavebears. Leaning against the completed fence, each lit a clay pipe, savoring the ache of a day’s labor. McBride and his sons watched a lone red fox jumping in the hayfield, pouncing for mice with devilish glee. The people came to call this place McBride’s Slashings, after the acres they wrestled for dominion, but the names can be forgotten. Trees can reclaim the fields, maps can burn, courthouse deeds can be painted in the wondrous colors of mold.
In the distance, among the frailing waves of grain, the fox’s red tail flickered like the birth of a field-fire. The two young men rose from their haunches, taking up their guns to go out and make it worth something, for from their visitors, they took their lessons.
“Something You Can’t Live Without” was originally published in this magazine in 2010. It will be reprinted in Null’s collection Allegheny Front, forthcoming form Sarabande Books in May.