Editor’s note: This story contains scenes of violence.
Corrie gloated as he watched the big blond fellow’s back over the long barrel of his cheap flintlock trade gun. He lined the German silver front sight square up between the fellow’s shoulder blades. The way the boy poked at his smoky fire with a rotten stick, he had to believe he had the country to hisself. A man might travel for days in this part of Virginia, west of the Blue Ridge front and never see another soul, but anybody stupid enough to build a fire with that much green sycamore and rotten willow in a clearing right beside the New River ought to have the hammer dropped on him out of general principle.
The war with George III might be ten years gone, and most of the Cherokee and Shawnee might have left these hills, but in lean times some of them slipped back in. To leave this big blond boy unmolested just encouraged the heathen to range in this country. Corrie saw it as his Christian duty not to leave something like this for the Indians. The fool working the fire wouldn’t be able to hear from forty yards off with the east wind coming hard up the New River, so to Mort, his nearest companion, he whispered, “I could take him right now.”
“You could,” Mort answered on a dirty breath through gaps in what was left of his rotten teeth, “but it’d be waste.”
“How you figure?” Corrie hissed back, impatient to take the shot. Mort led this little party, and he had rights here. It was only fair. After all, Mort first picked up on the smoke off the old boy’s fire, a subtle thing to notice in this wind.
“He don’t belong out here,” Mort answered.
“So, I could pot his ass, and who’d miss him?” Corrie asked.
“You could, and we could go through his sack of belongings, but I doubt if we’d find much. Or we could sell his ass,” Mort answered.
“What in hell are you talking about?” Corrie asked, almost raising his voice more than he ought. Sometimes Mort confused him. The way Corrie saw it, he had as much right to put a ball in this old boy as either Jake or Harmon, or for that matter, Mort, more right really, since he already took the trouble to set hisself up to take the shot. Sometimes Mort interfered when he shouldn’t, and he turned ugly fast if he thought one of the others might try to take what he called his. Corrie stood his ground some with Mort, but he knew to go only so far. The night in camp always went easier if he held off until Mort said the word, except he didn’t exactly trust Mort not to steal the shot, or on some excuse, give it to Jake or Harmon just to show that he could. In some ways, Corrie saw Mort as a fool because, to Mort, saying the word for one of the others to do it meant more to him than the satisfaction of doing it hisself.
“It’s like this,” Mort said. “This old boy don’t have the set-up to come up into these mountains and homestead: no stock, no tools, nothing in the way of provisions. He won’t last to cold weather. First frost will fall on his rotting carcass. He’s running from something. Got accused of stealing, or, like as not, he’s sliding out on his contract as an indentured servant. Don’t matter which. It’d be more trouble to track down than it’s worth to find out who has rights to him. The thing to do is find a farmer, or even better, a mine operation who would buy his ass and get some use out of him.”
Anywhere but here, Corrie would have busted out laughing in appreciation. Mort was the thinker, always came up with angles that the rest of them never saw on their own. Corrie lowered his hammer. The blond boy wouldn’t bring what a black buck would, even one without papers, but it would be something. It could be five dollars.
At a motion from Mort, the other two members of the party, Jake and Harmon, both lean, tall mountain boys, eased around over toward the far side of the small clearing. Spread out like that, they could come in on the big blond boy from all four corners, and like as not he would give it up without causing them the trouble of running him down when he saw that two of them carried rifles, and the other two had smooth bores.
Maybe twenty years old, the blond boy was a horse. Corrie wouldn’t have liked to have laid hands on him without help. He doubted Mort would, either. Damn sure, Jake and Harmon, skinny little bastards, couldn’t do it together. Besides, If they brought him down running, and they damaged him, he might not bring enough to pay for their trouble.
A girl stepped out into the other side of the clearing. Had he already pulled down on the old boy, they would have never knowed the girl was anywheres around. Pretty, with lots of blond hair like the old boy’s, only much longer. Their hair color was similar enough that they might be brother and sister. Corrie tried to puzzle it out until it occurred to him that whether they were or not didn’t amount to a damn thing anyway. Brother and sister or not, this long out in the woods and they’d be doing the same damn thing anyway. Her ragged dress barely concealed the product. From the months out in the woods, she had a little ground-in dirt, but not so much that you couldn’t tell her as white. This’n definitely wasn’t a ‘troon, one of those one-eighths coloreds who sometimes tried to come west and pass themselves off as white. Slender and luscious and shaped at the same time, the girl struck him as one that Mort would find himself in no particular hurry to sell, but Mort was a true friend and if he insisted on being first, he would share. At moments like these, Corrie was proud that he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
On Mort’s signal, all four of them stepped out into the clearing. The girl shook the old boy’s arm. He didn’t have any kind of firearm, but he had him a good-sized poleaxe, which he took care to stand next to. It was as well for his immediate future he didn’t touch it.
Mort smiled. Corrie knew this smile, but the big, blond boy would have no way of understanding what it meant. Mort could charm, had a sense of style about him. He could just lay out what he meant to take, but it would tell better if the boy agreed to give it to him.
“What can I do for you men?” he asked. His voice held a bit of a tremor. If he really understood, he would know to just go ahead, pick up that big poleaxe, and take a few balls. There was worse than death. Being caught and toyed with by Mort and Corrie was worse. They prided themselves that they could one-up the things they heard that the Indians did to prisoners.
Mort was smooth. “They’s things we can do for each other. Provided we understand each other and you don’t got nothing against sharing.”
“Sure, I’ll share. Be willing to share anything I got. Only as you can see, I ain’t got no food much nor anything else.”
“Food ain’t what we got in mind,” Mort said.
“What then?” the blond boy asked.
“Your woman.” Mort smiled.
Corrie halfway expected to see him go for the poleaxe and be done with it, wasting himself before they could sell his ass, but that’s what he liked about Mort. He already knew he wouldn’t. Wadn’t in this old boy. He wadn’t that kind. Instead, the big blond boy said, “I hope I’m among friends, sure.”
The girl spoke. “You bastard.” And she kicked him hard behind the knee, but between his size and his fear he showed none of the pain.
“Don’t see that I got much choice, honey.” He avoided turning to face her blue eyes.
“He’s right,” Mort said. “He don’t and you don’t, neither.” Mort in high spirits fed off the consternation of those two he had sure. “Now come on over here a little closer, girl, and let’s us get acquainted.”
The great forest formed the indifferent stage, maybe a stage without memory, if a man could know what a forest remembered. The dramas usually played out unwatched, but not this time. Thirteen-year old Argyll Drumcliff watched. Tall as a man, his frame lean with nothing on it but gristle, he wore sewed and patched hide clothing that bore the wear of sleeping in the dirt for months. Caked-in dirt destroyed any youthful sheen his hair might have shown, and ragged knife cuts on the matted long brown strands kept the hair out of his eyes and marked his only attempt at grooming.
Argyll watched the scene in the clearing from behind a near head-high stand of black cohosh tipped with long tapering white blooms. In the deep green of the high summer forest, the white blooms, when come upon suddenly, startled the eye and almost forced a person to blink. The unexpected stark white played tricks on the eye and served to conceal the whiteness of his face, an advantage Argyll used without considered intent. Hours ago, he laid up in this stand of these tall flowers to wait out the east wind coming up the New River. The wind threw the squirrels, the deer, and the small birds off their normal feeding rhythms, and in a high wind, they disappeared. Argyll mimicked the patterns of the only things he felt worthy of emulation, the animals and birds of the great forest.
Maybe he laid up here because, even in this wind, he had the harsh, almost unpleasant scent of this herb on his fingertips whenever he bruised one of the tapered leaves. The wind took away the sense of smell, and with it the sense of what lay just out of sight. Maybe some scent, even that of this fairy candle, made him feel better than smelling nothing beyond the humid leaf meal that made up the forest floor, a smell that always waited for him whenever he put his nose close to the dirt in sleep or rest. For a reason he couldn’t quite articulate, it bothered him that he dared to use the black cohosh to flood his senses. The old women named it among the dark herbs. Argyll didn’t yet know its uses, and he feared it a little.
Argyll watched more than he lived, disappearing often from his family for weeks at a time in the great forest. This summer season marked the longest he had stayed out. Argyll feared little of flesh and blood, not from confidence derived from a proven toughness, but because he had seen so much death in his short life that he couldn’t bring himself to view his own death as anything out of sequence or time. Things he understood less, things from the world of ideas and essences or so he called them for want of a more sophisticated way of pinning them down, unsettled him more than the possibility of an accident or a sudden, violent death.
He read with consuming energy from his family’s extensive library, but he wasn’t sure that the books didn’t damage him more than they strengthened him. He saw the books as the root cause of the dreams he wished he knew how to escape, yet he lacked the will to fight the irresistible draw of the written word. His grandfather, the oldest living member of a long line of Drumcliffs, who carried the name Argyll, told him more than once that he possessed the Drumcliff evil. Maybe Argyll hid in the forest and feared the great forest less than other men because he feared this thing inside himself more than anything he expected to find out here in the old growth trees, a place that fed, sheltered, and hid him.
Most people on some level understood the otherness of the forest. The homesteaders hated the dark forest. They didn’t consider a place a home until they made a clearing, taking the Biblical invocation of “let there be light” literally. Perhaps if he read the Bible more often and more carefully, he could find the injunction that decreed the inevitable rotting trash pile that marked the presence of the homesteaders. In the deep woods, they made noise and left marks, old fire pits, axe slashes on trees, anything to make them feel that this vastness hadn’t swallowed them without a sign of their passing. The eyes they couldn’t name or understand bore into their backs. They lived their lives hiding from these eyes. Argyll avoided such people.
When the blond boy and the girl arrived in the clearing an hour after he found this spot to lie up out of the wind, he could have faded farther back into the midday shadows, but the girl interested him. He understood why it might be wrong to watch people, but if he did something that no one knew about, did that act carry moral weight? He cut off that line of thought. In that direction lay only despair. By watching animals in their unguarded moments, he expected to gain understanding. If that held true of animals, might not the same apply to the girl?
He watched her boss the sullen boy and push him away when he tried to touch her, but he saw nothing that led to any kind of insight, although he considered the possibility that he took in more than he understood. When he watched animals, he accustomed himself to accept the futility of explaining every behavior. If he catalogued the animal scenes he witnessed in a complete memory, maybe one day when he had seen enough, these collected scenes would make sense.
When the four men showed up at the edge of the clearing and began to stalk the people in it, he knew he should disappear deeper into the shadows, and he would have, but for the girl. If he lost the words on the wind of the man closest to the blond boy and the girl, the menace of the man’s approach told him enough. Another of Grandfather Argyll’s dictums came to mind, “Avoid the squabbles of the trash. Injustice merely marks advantage. Shift the advantage and you change the recipient of the injustice. Nothing more.” Argyll didn’t seek his grandfather’s company, maybe because his dictums held more appeal than he liked to admit.
In his hands, Argyll held the ability to alter the scene about to play out. The threat of a .36 caliber rifle ball from an unseen shadow would stop those four long enough to give the boy and the girl a chance to run. He could fade back into the trees, and they would have their start. He owed them no more. Tomorrow, if he thought it worthwhile, and it still interested him, he could look at the story the ground always told and see if his gift had meant anything.
If he did kill one of those men, his grandfather and the rest of his family need never know. He dreaded giving them the satisfaction of knowing that he had killed his first man. He wanted to shrink from that assumed family name. They weren’t really Drumcliffs, or maybe they were. Maybe you were what you chose to be? An idea bubbled up in his mind—if a man in his family over a hundred years ago could choose the name Drumcliff and with his life define everything the name came to represent, why couldn’t he choose as well?
His grandfather and his father always said that they lived lives thrust upon them by some combination of crass chance and predestination, but Argyll noticed that, whether they believed the truth in that or whether they just said it, they lived with great relish and loved who and what they were, without the slightest taint of remorse.
He knew the story of the Drumcliff origins told only among the family. Argyll Campbell, a grandson of the lowland lord of the same name, found his circumstances so reduced that he hid in a graveyard, crouched under an ancient headstone. The sanctuary of the shadow made by the full moon on the weathered stone hid him from the English cavalry patrol passing by close enough for him to smell the horse sweat and taste the dust raised by their hooves.
In 1660, the hiding man’s grandfather almost manipulated himself into the English crown. Twenty years later, this younger Argyll hid from the vengeance of both the clans and the hated English. Finished in Scotland, and on the run both for his taste for gold and for the blood of his enemies, he needed to find a ship headed to the new world where he could spend his precious gold in anonymity. When the English hooves thundered away from the graveyard, a powerful feeling came over him. Something in this hallowed place held an unshakeable and inescapable importance for his future, if he could only find it.
Some force from outside himself drew him to examine the headstone behind which he hid. With his fingers, he tried to trace the impressions of the wind and water-worn lettering. The face of the headstone leaned toward him at such an awkward angle it would discourage a closer look in most circumstances. His attempt to cipher out the lettering in the dark with his fingers failed, but he thought he made out something about a horseman, which excited him. In desperation, hoping the English horsemen long gone, he reached into his greatcoat for a flint and a steel, and a small pouch of dried thistle down. He risked offending the night by striking sparks to the thistle down until it burst into flame. With the flame he lit a taper. Under the wavering light, he read the remains of the partial inscription, “Here lies Drumcliff. Horseman pass by.” It came to him then. He needed a new name if he expected to get past the English and board a ship for the new world. Drumcliff was the perfect name because, as far as he knew, it was obscure, and the last of that name had died out more than a hundred years ago. It was the name Drumcliff that he was meant to find in this place. He took that name, but his vanity would not allow him to abandon his given name, Argyll.
If this youngest thirteen-year old recipient of the name Argyll lived to have descendents, he swore to himself that he would never pass on that hated name or that hated story. Both needed to die with him. He wanted to be his own man, but in the night, in the enveloping dark safety of the great forest, he doubted he held the power to resist the Drumcliff evil.
Argyll raised his voice to carry to the four men just as the one broadest across the chest stepped closer to the girl. “You might want to reconsider, fat boy.” His choice of words suited him well enough, but when he heard his own, cracked child’s voice, the first time he had used it in months, he sensed his error. It lacked the timbre necessary to pack the needed authority.
The voice caught Corrie and his buddies, Jake and Harmon, and the big blond boy and the girl by such surprise they stopped cold to cast around with their eyes into the dark forest surrounding the clearing to locate its source. Everybody but Mort, Corrie had to hand it to him. Old Mort, he just stood there not trying to see nothing, just smiling, almost laughing. Like whoever was out there didn’t amount to a damn thing. Nobody, however, not even Mort, took another step.
Mort, without shouting or turning his head, only raising his voice to carry a little distance, said, “And just who do you think you are to be interfering with our business?”
“Argyll Drumcliff,” the voice shouted back, but the wind fragmented the words, challenged them, overrode them in a way that couldn’t have happened to a man Corrie could associate with a name so well known in this country west of the Blue Ridge as Argyll Drumcliff. Just the sound of the name spoken in challenge in these dark woods, where anything or anyone might lie concealed, made Corrie sick. He liked an even fight as well as the next, but he wanted nothing to do with Drumcliffs. Everyone who followed the ridges and the river knew the name. Even if only a small portion of the stories about the various Argyll Drumcliffs held some truth, too many people in the country repeated stories of both the son and the father for it to be easy to ignore them. So the stories went, both the son and the father sought excuses to exercise their cruelty, cruelty far beyond anything Corrie had seen even out of Mort. Stories of Argyll Drumcliff went back as long as white men had traveled in these hills until the tales mixed, and maybe that made no difference. Maybe the Argyll Drumcliff of a hundred years ago and the Argyll Drumcliff of today was the same in anything that mattered.
Mort answered in the same pleased, slightly louder-than-normal conversational tone. “Don’t amount to a damn thing who you are. They is still four of us and only one of you. A rifle only carries one ball. Pull the trigger, and we’ll be on you before you can reload.”
A heartbeat after Mort had the last word out, Corrie heard the crack of the rifle. He tried to place the direction of the shot, but failed. At first he assumed the fool had missed, proof that whoever watched from out there lied when he called down the name of Drumcliff. All four of them still stood. He looked to Mort to hear what to do next, whether to run or whether they should course through the woods like a pack of hounds trying to come upon the man who would be trying to reload, but he saw that Mort had no interest in telling them anything. Mort still had his feet under him, but blood edged down the corners of his chin from the ball that took him in the center of the chest. After standing a few seconds, Mort plopped himself down on his ass on a big sycamore blowdown just behind him. Mort was alive, but they all saw where the bullet took him in the lungs. He wouldn’t live out the morning.
The voice from the woods rang out, calmer than before. “Now there are three of you. You may wish to consider which among you will show me the next mark of disrespect.” The nonchalant tone upset Corrie more than what had happened to Mort. Without the needed word from Mort, he, Jack, and Harmon stood in the clearing, as if they forgot the value of the seconds passing.
Less than a minute later, Argyll exposed himself to the people in the clearing, pushing a long rifle barrel and half a face around the edge of a big yellow poplar where he could shoot but offer little target. Argyll had put the ball in the man for challenging him and advanced toward the clearing rather than fading back into the forest, more for his anger at himself than for anything happening in the clearing that compelled either action. He should have never called down the name, Argyll Drumcliff, and when he fired his rifle, the blond boy and the girl should have used the momentary confusion to run. Their failure had nothing to do with him. As much as he told himself that he wanted to be his own man, the first time he found himself the least pressed, he called down that name he hated. Maybe he was his grandfather; maybe he was Argyll Drumcliff.
Harmon took it upon himself to answer. “I seed Argyll Drumcliff once at Fort Chiswell and you damn sure ain’t him.”
Jake threw in, “Boy’s bluffing. Nobody could reload that fast.”
Corrie willed for Jake and Harmon to go get him. That way, even if this damn boy wadn’t bluffing, and one of the old boys he hung with took a ball, he would have him sure when he emptied his rifle. Once that rifle fired, he wouldn’t mind taking on this one a damn bit. The boy couldn’t be fifteen and carried less than half his own weight.
The figure behind the big poplar said, “Fight or run. Decide immediately or I kill now.”
Corrie didn’t know but for what the boy might shoot him first. A second’s pause, and he knew he would die first. For damn sure, he looked more the man than either Jake or Harmon, and it made sense for the boy to shoot him first and take his chances with the other two. He lit out, heading for the tree line as hard as his legs could take him. He heard Jake and Harmon not far behind.
Argyll eyed the three running men from a braced standing position against the bark of the big poplar. They might run a mile and never let up, and never look back, or they might run just out of sight and come back. If they decided to come back, he wanted two to come back instead of three. On the straightaway shot, he didn’t need to lead. He put the gold bead of his front sight on the hindmost, holding for the spine, and dropped the hammer. Through the haze of white smoke exiting his muzzle, he watched the man tumble in the dirt. Some instinct had told him to take the easiest shot on the hindmost runner, and the other two would never turn their heads for a look back. And they didn’t. He had no idea how he knew or even if he did know. The morality of the thing forced his hand. It was the way he was brought up. A clear, close shot at a known enemy, that was what his rifle was for. That was what he was for, consequences be damned.
He dropped the crescent butt of his rifle to the dirt and reached for a paper-wrapped powder charge from the leather possibles bag hanging open at his side. To reload, he looked at neither his rifle nor the bag. The lightweight curly maple stock on his slender mountain rifle might break at the wrist from a sudden powerful back and forth jerk. Unloaded, the rifle lacked the value of a weak club. In a hot action, he expected to reload his rifle in twenty seconds.
To speed reloading, his father picked up a slight from the British Army and taught Argyll to wrap his ready powder charges in waxed paper. He bit into the paper with his teeth and poured a little of the powder into the flash pan and the remainder down the barrel. From here, loading a rifle slowed compared to loading a smooth bore regulation British Brown Bess musket, because he needed to force the ball down through the rifling.
A thin rectangular board with drilled holes secured six greased and linen-wrapped lead balls. Catching the bottom of one of the balls in the board in the muzzle, he drove the ball down just below flush with the end of the muzzle. A tap from the heel of his hand on the rounded head of his hickory starter rod seated the ball enough for him to use a small knife to cut the excess patching even with the end of the muzzle. Turning the tool to use the three-inch hickory rod fitted into the other side of the starter ball, he drove the lead ball into the barrel.
With the ramrod only halfway free from the brass tumblers under his rifle barrel, he heard the girl scream to the big blond boy, “Kill him. Kill him before he gets the ball seated, you fool.”
At the girl’s word, the boy rushed forward with his poleaxe held high. The excited, pleased look on the girl’s face commanded more of Argyll’s attention than he had to spare. For the first time he saw that a girl’s smile might not represent anything he imagined. He knew rifles. He knew edged weapons. His ignorance of women came too close to paralyzing him. He wanted to scream, “Why?”—whether he lived long enough to reach an answer amounted to high speculation he didn’t have time for. Argyll let his precious rifle drop softly into the grass, hoping the handmade hickory ramrod hanging out of the barrel at a vulnerable angle wouldn’t break. He would never live long enough to seat the ball home. Backing away, he shouted, “Don’t you understand? I just saved your life.”
Argyll looked more to the girl than the boy to see if his words registered. The girl’s oval face, framed in all that heavy blond hair, contorted, and she screamed louder, “Kill him.”
Maybe she meant to shock the boy back into forward momentum when he stopped, flat-footed, to circle well out of reach of his axe. The boy hesitated as he looked for that perfect finishing stroke, rather than rushing forward to take the first quick hit.
Argyll, who still wasted too much attention on the girl, saw that she sensed the boy’s error. His grandfather had drilled it into Argyll to watch for hesitation in an opponent. Hesitation meant that the boy had either never killed or that he had little experience with killing.
Before he came upon this clearing, Argyll had never killed a man. He had killed enough animals. Animal or man, he saw little difference, except as far as he could tell, he held no particular feelings about killing a man who needed it, maybe beyond a desire to avoid killing because by sidestepping violence he would irritate his father and grandfather, who killed, as much from habit as necessity. With an animal, he often felt a sharp pang at extinguishing the life of something magnificent, a feeling somewhere between poignant and painful that he didn’t pretend to understand. If a difference existed between killing a man and an animal, when he walked away from this clearing he would know it—if he walked away.
Even without that big poleaxe in the boy’s hands, Argyll gave up too much in strength and age, at least sixty pounds and five or six years, to have a chance, except that he was Argyll Drumcliff. He understood nothing close to fear. He only experienced the deepening concentration and perhaps some of the irritation expected of a man forced to solve an immediate problem without the use of his preferred tool. With a practiced reach that began with his first step sideways into the clearing, he pulled one of his pair of franciscas. Medieval French in origin, the francisca looked close enough to an ordinary tomahawk, except that its head showed the lines of forged and tempered steel. The less than one-pound tool head with its short hickory handle could not match the fury of the powerful boy and the big poleaxe that bore down on him. He hated to do it. He hated to let go a tool, but he saw no choice. He sent the francisca spinning toward the boy. Aiming at the chest, his throw went high and spun toward the boy’s face. An edge on hit would split the skull as easily as the cull pumpkins he sometimes practiced on, but his rotation was off. The handle partially deflected off the butt of the axe handle before it bounced sideways with its remaining rotational force to flatten the boy’s nose and slam into his front teeth hard enough to stun him. Blood poured from the boy’s nose and covered his lower face. Argyll used the seconds to close inside the arc of the axe.
Maybe he made a mistake by going to his second francisca instead of his knife, but he wanted the greater reach and power. With the francisca in his hand, he kept the opportunity alive of stepping back out of the boy’s range and hitting him again with an accurate throw, something his knife lacked the balance to accomplish. His sweep with the francisca caught the tip of its honed social edge across the boy’s stomach. Before Argyll could hit him again, the boy shoved the butt of the axe handle against his chest, and pushed him out of his francisca’s reach. Argyll staggered and almost fell backwards. The boy pivoted hard and drew the poleaxe back for his finishing stroke. As the boy stepped in to deliver the full power of the stroke, he hesitated, leaving the tip of the poleaxe quivering high in the air.
The boy’s deeply opened stomach amounted to a fatal cut, but enough life remained in him to swing the axe. Through his bloody face the boy said, “You missed. Now it’s my turn.” He delayed his stroke against the pleasure of the last word.
Argyll couldn’t back outside the boy’s reach fast enough, and he had nothing to block the swing of that big poleaxe. Instinct held him from closing. Inside the arc of the big axe, Argyll could wrap himself around the boy’s body and deliver repeated strikes with the francisca, but even in his final death throes, the power remained in the boy to hurt and maybe maim him before he could still his thrashings.
A nonchalance of the hand Argyll didn’t know he possessed came to him as he said in a quiet tone, enunciating every word, “Think so? Look down.” A cut from a razor-sharp edge may not hurt immediately, a thing Argyll understood from long schooling by the men in his family, and he bet that the boy didn’t appreciate the depth or the width of the cut across his stomach.
The boy looked down to see part of his intestines protruding in front of his ruined, blood-soaked shirt. The sight choked him and instead of unleashing that final stroke and killing Argyll, he dropped hard to his knees and began to sob. The boy cradled the axe under his arms and against his side. With his hands, he tried to push his intestines back inside. Argyll backed away as the axe slipped from the boy’s hands.
Argyll turned toward the girl. Necessity had forced his eyes too long from her. Which took her the most, disgust at her man’s collapse, or fear of Argyll, he couldn’t tell. He said, “You can fight too, but you’ve just seen what I can do. I couldn’t advise it.”
The girl dropped to her knees and extended her arms in supplication. Looking up through lowered eyes, she said, “Whatever you want of me, sir, it’s yours. There’s no need to kill me.” After months of running, the older girl still weighed as much as Argyll, and maybe she was stronger, too. He looked at her hard to see if she feigned surrender or if the will to fight had seeped out of her. He couldn’t tell.
Argyll backed toward his partially loaded rifle. The world was a better place with a loaded rifle in his hands. Without taking his eyes off the girl, the boy, or even Mort, who still sat upright with some life left in him, he picked up his rifle and his loose ramrod. Both Mort’s rifle and the trade musket of the man he shot in the back running away, lay in the grass in the little clearing in closer reach to the girl than to him. Mort still had his rifle in arm’s reach. The man didn’t look like he had it in him to try to pick it up, but Argyll watched him. Part of Argyll thought, ‘pick up that already loaded rifle first.’ Another, stronger part of him said, ‘Load yours or pick up his. Do one or the other. Whatever you do, do not waste time.’ Without losing a beat, he placed his ramrod in the muzzle of his own rifle because he trusted his own loading. Many men used sloppy loading technique or carried their rifles loaded too long in the damp, and in the moment of need, their rifles misfired. As he seated his ball home, he glanced again toward the man he shot in the back, running away. The man lay still. He thought he had a good center hit. Whether his light .36 caliber ball, meant more for squirrels than something the size of a man, killed him clean or whether he just lay stunned, he wouldn’t know until he had time to walk out there and check.
Throughout his childhood, the older Drumcliffs had drilled into him not to stand around in a stupor after a fight, but to use what might only amount to a lull to finish what required finishing. His rifle loaded, he stepped behind the boy. The axe lay on the ground within easy reach of the boy’s fingers. He pushed it out of his reach with his moccasin.
The big boy said, “I’m done fighting. You have to help me now.”
“I will,” Argyll answered in almost a soothing voice. “For the way you and your girl responded to my help from these men, I can offer you the mercy of a Drumcliff.”
“Thank you, sir,” the boy said.
His plea told Argyll that the boy didn’t understand the implications of the deep cut across his stomach. The bloodied nose and smashed mouth shouldn’t kill him, although they might prove disfiguring, but no one could survive the intestines opened to the air. Whether left alone, or whether he received the finest care, he would die screaming, although that might take days. Argyll couldn’t chance someone coming along this afternoon or tomorrow, hearing the boy scream, and finding him lucid enough to tell the story of what happened.
Some stories needed to be silenced forever. The two who got away might or might not talk, but considering that two grown men ran from a fight with a boy, by the time they reworded their version of what happened, it would appear both unrecognizable, and more importantly, deniable. Their words wouldn’t carry the weight of a dying man’s confession, even if the dying man’s confession amounted to a lie.
This one was already dead, just not finished. No need to ruin the edge of a francisca or turn it around and use its hammer head on the back of his skull and risk cracking his hickory handle with the shock of the hard blow against bone. Fashioning a hickory handle was the work of hours. Neither did he want to waste a rifle ball or stick him with the knife and risk having to reshape the blade where it touched bone, and spray more blood on his clothes, blood that might be difficult to remove and inconvenient to explain.
The butt of his big leather-wrapped knife handle had a lead weight countersunk into the end of the full tang. He took a step closer to the big boy. In an abrupt motion, he sank the back end of the lead weighted knife into the his skull. The boy slumped over dead and Argyll didn’t damage a precious tool.
Mort spoke. “Same for me? Mercy of a Drumcliff?”
“Yes. Same for you.”
“You just don’t seem like you could really be Argyll Drumcliff. You’re just a boy.”
“But I am. You’re thinking of my grandfather or maybe my father.” By this time, Argyll had stepped behind Mort, although it had never occurred to him to ask for a name.
“I always heard that the Drumcliffs were a rough sort, not to be bothered with, especially Argyll. If I’d a believed you when you called out your name, I’d a left you alone. I’d a offered you that respect.” Mort strained to speak with the pain from the sucking chest wound, but to say the words seemed to mean something to him, and Argyll saw no reason to deny him his final say.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but now you know.” With that, Argyll sank the butt of the lead-tipped knife into the man’s skull.
The girl didn’t stare at Argyll in the wide-eyed terror he expected. Older than him by several years, she had already seen something of the world, but she did look at him differently, and in a way he didn’t, and possibly couldn’t understand. The eyes she looked at him with held an understanding he couldn’t touch. She was to be his now, her future and his whim the same. Her actions had forfeited any claim she might make for mercy. His would not be the first hands she had passed through, and if she accepted her place with appropriate deference, his might not be the last hands she would know.
© Copyright 2016 Edd B. Jennings
Edd B. Jennings runs beef cattle in the hills of Virginia along the New River.
Listen to the audio podcast of “The Mercy of a Drumcliff” narrated by Matt Dedon here.