“The Damnyankees got
the Devil with ‘em.”
generally didn’t pay a lot of attention to the women when they gossiped around
the fireplace of a night. Men didn’t bother with that kind of palaver. Maybe he
was only thirteen, but he was a Man, by gum, because Pappy had put him in
charge of the place when he went off fighting the Damnyankees.
Except Pappy hadn’t
done so good. He hadn’t been gone a month, when his stuff come back with a
scrawled “We regrets to inform you, Miz Carpenter” note that the preacher had
read to Mam a week later. Not that she didn’t already know when the stuff come
back...didn’t take words on paper to tell her what’d happened.
So now Seth was in
charge, permanent like. Mam hadn’t liked it much, but he’d made some changes. Ground
didn’t get plowed and stock tended by itself, and he didn’t see any good reason
why his sisters couldn’t shed some petticoats, tie up their skirts, and put a
hand to it too. Yep, and pick up Seth’s old squirrel rifle (he used Pappy’s
now) and learn to shoot something for the pot.
“Someone will see
That was a laugh. Even
if they weren’t living in a holler so small it didn’t even have a name, who
would see them legs but God and other womenfolk? And he didn’t reckon God
Girls didn’t care
either. In fact, he reckoned Cassie fair relished being shut of them
petticoats, the way she frisked around. They’d got through the summer and fall
pretty good, better’n most, had a good harvest—and that was another change Seth
had made. Army had taken Pappy, so he figgered they’d paid the Army ‘bout all
they owed. Talked Mam around to that notion too, though, mind, it hadn’t taken
much talking. Most of the harvest went into hiding, and so did the stock. And
when collectors came around looking, there weren’t much to take away.
been easy, but by then, Mam had come around to the notion that there were times
when womenfolk needed to do things as weren’t proper. So when time came to do
the winter hunting and butchering, she’d been right there, looking a fair sight
thinner without all that cloth flapping around. So they’d got the farm pig done
and smoked up, and he’d got a wild sow too; pure luck, that was, she was in the
larder now. Traded the rest of the pigs for what Mam didn’t do—and for white
flour and gunpowder. Took down some geese and ducks in passage, smoked them. With
winter here and frost on the ground of a morning, he was working now on his
stalking-gear, because deer cost a bullet apiece, and he didn’t reckon on
With winter solid,
there was time for visiting, though, which, what with Seth and the girls all
chopping wood, meant that as the Carpenter hearth was the coziest, and the
Carpenter larder seemed a little better stocked than most, seems the womenfolk
turned up here more often than not.
Well, Seth didn’t
mind. There was always a big pot of blackeyed peas with a hambone in it, plenty
of johnnycake, and truth to tell, the women did come in handy. Didn’t mind
helping Mam out before everybody settled to jabber. Did some sewing and the
like for her. Had a quilting bee. Pretty handy.
Except when they
started turning their tongues to stuff like this.
need no Devil t’ get up t’ deviltry,” he said sourly. “And anyrate, what you
worried ‘bout? They ain’t never comin’ here. Even if they could find us,
they ain’t nothin’ here wuth their time.”
“They’s a holler
full of womenfolk, all alone!” began one of the hens, starting that hysterical
hencackle that’d get all the rest of the coop going.
“They’s a holler full
of womenfolk as can pick up they skirts and scoot in the woods, an’ nobody
never gonna find us unless we wants t’be found!” said Cassie, cutting right
through the palaver to the heart of it. “We got hidey holes already,
right an’ tight an’ cozy. Seth he’ped us. An’ if you ain’t, then you’re durn
“Cassie!” said Mam,
aghast. “Don’t speak unless you’re spoke to!”
“No, she’s right,
Mam,” said Seth, taking up his duty as The Man. He looked around at the
half-shocked, half-frightened faces of the other women. “Jest ‘cause I don’t b’lieve
the Damnyankees is comin’ here, don’t mean I don’t think we oughta be ready. We
cain’t fight ‘em, so we gotta hide. They come here, they gonna find the house,
with nothin’ in it but a kettle o’ beans, ‘nuff provisions for a week, mebbe,
few clothes, and nothin’ else. Got the stock in hidin’, got the food in hidin’,
an’ got hidey-holes all over them hills. An’ if’n you-all haven’t done the
same, you oughta. Right, Cassie?”
She nodded. He
noticed then, as if he hadn’t seen her before, that she was getting pretty,
with her corn-gold hair and her bright blue eyes.
Now, maybe if there
had been other men here, or even another boy Seth’s age, someone would have
started talking about “coward’s ways” and “standing and fighting for what’s
ours.” But there weren’t any other men, and in the past six-eight months, he’d
come to learn that women—once you’d gotten ‘em past all that “proper” and “womanly”
nonsense—were a lot more practical than men.
“So—how’d you hide
the stock?” asked one and “What kinda hidey-holes?” asked another, and pretty
soon Cassie and Mam and Delia and Rose were telling the other womenfolk how to
spread their provisions around, keep ‘em safe from varmints, how to look for
places where, if you had to and the Damnyankees burned the cabin down out of
spite, you could live out the winter all right.
He had to watch ‘em—catch
‘em sharp when he thought one or another of ‘em was going to say “Oh, you can
share—” or “I’ll just show you—” because you start telling and showing one
woman and pretty soon all of ‘em knew where something was, and even if they
was honest, being women, they couldn’t help but spill it out and there went
your stash or your hidey-hole.
Some of ‘em started
on about it being too much trouble to take your stuff out of the larder and
hide it everywhere. It was harder work, true, keeping things going with the
provisions hidden all over the place—you had to go out every few days to get
the next couple of days’ supplies. Meaning Seth; he was the woodswise one, and
he was careful to make sure nothing bigger nor a bluejay was spying on him. But
since he was hunting anyway, every day, he’d made it part of his hunting round.
And true enough, it had been hard to build varmint-proof shelters for the stock
out in the woods, harder to go from shelter to shelter to tend the stock, but—they
only had one mule, and if he got took, it would be bad. Chickens, now, they
were Cassie’s special chore, and he reckoned she pretty well liked to go where
he’d put ‘em. And pigs were doing all right.
So if they could do
it, so could everybody else. No need to go offer to share.
gonna help you when the Devil rides up out from under Stormytop.” It was that
same, dour-face biddy that had spoke up the first time. New face in the past
couple weeks; somebody’s cousin, come here from some bigger town, place where
they called thesselves a town. Hadn’t liked her when she’d been introduced,
didn’t like her now. She squinted her eyes at him, and frowned. “Devil, he’s
got him a pack o’ Hounds o’ Hell, an he’s got him a posse o’ Ghost Riders. They
kin sniff you out wherever you are.”
“Oh, yeah?” Seth
said, thoroughly tired of this by now. “An’ what’d you know about it?”
“Seth!” said Mam,
“I seen ‘im,” said
the dour-face woman, squinting harder. “I seen ‘im, with my own eyes. He
come up outa the ground, with his purty face an’ his black heart an’ his black
horse with eyes like fire. I didn’ see the pack, but I heerd it, under
the ground, bayin’. An’ I wasn’t stickin’ around to see if they come up. I
high-tailed it outa there. Good thing, too, ‘cause next day, there weren’t
nothin’ left of Cook Spinney but burned-out cabins.”
Shocked silence. Into
which Seth snorted.
“So there, you jest
said it, you ran, an’ you got out,” he declared. “Devil or man, you jest
high-tail it into them woods and find you a hidey-hole, and there you be. ‘Sides,
you give me a good reason why the Devil’d bother with a place as hasn’t even
got a name when there’s better pickin’s anywhere else?”
That was plain good
sense and it calmed them right down again.
Even though he didn’t
believe it himself. Because he knew about that Devil, or one like it. He’d
heard about it from someone he trusted. It was the business about the horse
with the eyes of fire and the pack baying underground that had told him the
fool woman was speaking the truth. And he knew one thing more.
That Devil was
looking for a special kind of person. A person like his sister Cassie. If he
got within a certain range of her, he’d know she was there, and he’d
come a-looking for her.
So when the
gibble-gabble womenfolk had cleared out, and before the family went off to bed—he
slept on the hearth and all the girls piled in the big bed with Mam now; it’d
had comforted all of ‘em after Pappy was gone—he made like a big yawn and said,
“Mam, I reckon I need t’be gone all day t’morrow, an I reckon on takin’ Cassie
She gave him a
sharpish look. “And fer what call?”
He blinked at her,
slow and steady, and said, “‘Cause some tall-tales got some truth in ‘em.”
She went white, but
nodded. “Stop an’ do them chickens on the way, then.”
It wasn’t on the way,
but he would. Because he was going to go see the Spirit Woman, and Mam knew it.
And Mam knew that the
Spirit Woman had the Power. Because Seth was the only one of the family who
hadn’t grieved over Pappy. He’d already done his grieving, because the Spirit
Woman had told him Pappy wasn’t coming back. That wasn’t all the Spirit Woman
had told him over the years, but he didn’t tell most of it to Mam.
He’d come across her
when he was seven or eight. Or she’d come across him. Other folk had seen her,
but she’d never talked to anyone but him, except to trade with ‘em, not like
conversation. They tended to keep shut of her; she scared most of ‘em, with her
long white dresses on a wraith-thin body, her white hair down to her ankles,
but a smooth face like a young girl. Not a pretty face—too sharp-featured for
pretty. People assumed she was white, but Seth had always reckoned her for
Injun; she had the look, he thought, and Injuns were supposed to be good with
spirits. She had a funny way of talking, too—you’d say it was high-falutin’,
except she had no airs about her, just this feeling that she knew so much she
couldn’t help soundin’ like a fancy schoolmarm. And she acted kind of like she
just took everything in and weighed it all alike without judging it.
She lived all by her
lonesome in the swamp; Mam said she’d been there thirty, forty years. She’d
come to a house to trade, now and then; always knew you had what she wanted,
always had something you wanted or needed, so folks welcomed her for that. Otherwise,
she kept to herself. Never came to church, but spoke respectful to the
preacher, and he said she knew her Bible and spoke well of her, and that was
enough for most folks.
But she took a shine
to Seth, and he to her. So she told him things, and he acted on ‘em, and the
fact was, when he did, things came out all right. Well, except for things he
couldn’t change, like Pappy never coming home.
Early on, she’d
showed him the way through the swamp to her little cabin. Fact is, she was the
one who’d told him to hide the provisions and find hidey-holes for everybody. “Soldiers
are probably not going to come—but there is a single thread in the
weave-to-come that shows them in your hollow. So if they do arrive, be ready,
leave just enough in the cabin that they’ll take it and not burn the place. And
if you hear about a man on a coal-black horse with eyes of flame, or about
people hearing dogs howl underground, you come to me quick. And bring Cassie. She
has something he wants.”
Come morning, he and
Cassie were both up before anybody but Mam; she didn’t rightly sleep all that
good anymore, but there weren’t anything he could do about that. She put
johnnycake and bacon and drippin’s inside both of ‘em, and sent ‘em off into
the dawn and a light frost. Seth greeted the frost with a grin of pleasure,
though Cassie made a face. Hard ground would mean they would leave no tracks.
“Where we goin’,
Seth?” Cassie asked him. She was dressed as he thought proper for the weather,
a skirt over a pair of Pappy’s old trousers, her feet in four pairs of
stockings stuffed into his old boots, Granddaddy’s coat, and Seth’s old hat
tied down on her head with a knitted muffler. Smart girl, Cassie. Sixteen now,
and not a bit feather-witted. No whining about there not bein’ any boys around
for courtin’ like some of the others in the holler did. Not to be helped,
anyway. Families ran to girls around their holler, for some reason, an’ anyway,
all the menfolk that could’ve followed the drum when the Damnyankees got onto
Georgia clay. There was a couple old men, the rest were all little boys, no
older’n ten, and with a damnsight less sense than Seth’d had at their age.
Afore the War, girls
hereabouts had gone off to stay with kinfolk when they was old enough, so’s to
find a young man. Now, well, it seemed safer stayin’ home.
“We’re goin’ to
Spirit Woman,” he said, and though her eyes got round, she looked more pleased
than scared. “She to’d me that when I heerd tell of a man on a coal-black horse
with eyes of fire I was to take you to her. I dunno no more’n that.”
“She knows all kind
of witchery, they say,” Cassie replied, thoughtfully, sticking her bare hands
into her armpits to keep them warm. “You reckon she might teach me?”
He jerked his head
around, startled. “Why? What d’you wanta learn witchery for?”
witchery,” she amended. “I dunno. Jest seems it’d be useful, like.”
“Better not let
Preacher or Mam hear you talkin’ like that,” he replied. “I don’t care, ‘cause
Spirit Woman never did no body no harm that I ever saw, but Preacher don’t hold
with witchery, and Mam holds by the Preacher.”
She wrinkled her
nose with scorn. “Think I dunno that? I got more sense’n that!”
Secretly, he was
pleased. He didn’t see where it would hurt Cassie any, and she was right, it
might help. She’d always been the kind to keep herself to herself, so she’d
keep her mouth shut about it.
They tended the
chickens, then doubled back, confusing the trail behind them with brush he tied
to their coats, as well as with bundles of hay he tied over their shoes so they
weren’t making human-type footprints. He was taking no chances. Not when the
family’s survival hung on so narrow a margin of error.
He felt more relaxed
when they got past the edge of the swamp. No one came here, and even if they
did, they’d have to know the safe way in. It wasn’t something you could follow,
exactly. Part of it involved jumping from hummock to hummock of springy grass
that didn’t take tracks, didn’t hold a scent, and didn’t stay pressed down for
long. One hummock looked pretty much like another, but jump to the wrong one
and you’d end up on a path that would dead-end somewhere you didn’t want to be.
The swamp wasn’t less
dangerous in winter; maybe it was more dangerous. If you fell in and got
soaked, you might could die of cold before you could get somewhere you could
make a fire to warm up and dry yourself out.
Cassie was as
sure-footed as a goat though, and he had no fears for her. He just took the
path and depended on her to follow; she hiked her skirts up above her knees and
tied them there and did just that.
Deep in the swamp, so
far in that you could stand on the place and holler for all you were worth and
nobody on the edge’d hear you, was Spirit Woman’s house. It was no cabin; it
was a real plank house, though it was up on legs to keep it clear of the
water. She had something like a porch built all around it, and she was standing
there watching as they came into view. Seth wasn’t at all surprised; she was
there every time he came to call. Maybe she heard him coming, maybe the birds
in the swamp told her with their calls; maybe she had some other ways of
knowing he was on the way. He’d never bothered to figure it out.
He clambered up the
ladder and Cassie followed, quiet, her eyes wide and round. “So. You’ve heard
something of the man on the coal-black horse with eyes of flame,” she said,
without so much as a “how’dye do.” “I feared as much. Come inside.”
The house had a real,
proper door too, that fit tight in the frame, and not a skin nor a piece of
burlap hanging down in from the top. Seth eyed it askance, as he always did. He
couldn’t for the life of him imagine how this lot had gotten lugged through the
swamp, leave alone built here. Inside it was as neat as a pin, though the stuff
that was lodged there wasn’t the kind of thing you’d look for in the houses of
people he knew. There were bunches of dried plants hanging upside-down from the
ceiling, shelves of brown bottles full of some sort of liquid, brown pottery
jars with handwritten labels, and more odd paraphernalia than he could name. And
he knew from experience that the critters perched—and hidden—in every nook and
cranny were not stuffed.
Cassie took it all
in avidly. Spirit Woman settled them both in cane rocking-chairs beside the
very cheerful fire burning on the hearth, and handed them thick pottery mugs of
A cat jumped right
into Cassie’s lap. That was all right, but he expected her to jump and shriek
when an owl flew right down out of the rafters to land on the back of her
She didn’t, and it
was his turn to feel his eyes go round.
Spirit Woman just
smiled, thinly. “And we don’t tell our little brother everything, do we, missy?”
Cassie sniffed. “He
already thinks he knows ev’rything, so why should I tell him?”
Spirit Woman turned
to Seth. “This is what the Dark Man wants. The maiden that sings the birds out
of the trees, and the wild things into her hand. The girl that whispers a
melody under her breath, and a quarrel is quickly mended. The child that is
wise enough to hide what she is from the time she can toddle. He will know her
when he sees her, and if he comes near enough, he will scent her out, just as I
did.” She settled back in her chair, and steepled her hands together. “If he
has come near enough that rumors of him have reached you, then he draws near
enough to catch a tantalizing hint of her. Now. What do you intend to do about
At first Seth had
been angry that Spirit Woman hadn’t offered to hide Cassie, or to protect her
in some way. It hadn’t seemed at all fair to him; wasn’t she a woman grown, and
didn’t she have Powers?
But he got over his
mad pretty quick. She didn’t say so in as many words, but he got the notion
that there was something keeping her from helping in that way. Maybe it was
because she wasn’t strong enough. She didn’t say so, but he got the feeling she
knew this Dark Man, and she didn’t reckon on him getting sight of her again. He
could generally tell what people were feeling, though with Spirit Woman he didn’t
have nearly as much luck as with most. But the more palaver that went on, the
more sure he was that she was scared of that Dark Man, real scared, and didn’t
want to come next or nigh him.
Seth had learned a
long time ago that you didn’t want to call a grown person on being scared of
something. They just denied it, and it either made them angry with you or just
plain shut them up. So he didn’t call Spirit Woman on this one, because he and
Cassie needed to hear what she had to say about the Dark Man—who was, all
skepticism aside, sounding more and more like, if not the Devil,
certainly a Devil.
He surely had a pack
of hellhounds he could call on. And he had a posse of damned souls, what had to
ride with him to hunt down whatever he set the hounds on.
won’t call the Hunt on you, though,” Spirit Woman said, frowning with
concentration. “He’s more likely to try and charm you into his hands, and only
use the Hunt as a last resort. There’s too great a risk that you’d die at the
fangs and hands of the Hunt before he could get there, and he wants you, girl. He
wants you whole and unhurt.”
Well, that was
certainly cheerful hearing.
But he had his
weaknesses, did the Dark Man. And as Seth and Cassie heard about those, a plan
began to form in his mind. Especially when she said that the Dark Man would
probably try an indirect approach first, away from the holler, as far from
where people lived as he could manage.
Cassie, however, had
other things on her mind than just dealing with the Dark Man. When Spirit Woman
finally ran out of useful information, Cassie looked her square in the face,
and said, “And you’ll be teachin’ me witchery after. Right?”
To Seth’s amusement
and Cassie’s chagrin, Spirit Woman just shrugged. “There’s nothing I can
teach you, child, that you can learn. You use what you have already as
naturally as breathing. You just keep on as you’re going. It’ll be slow
learning, but that’s the best sort.”
And not another thing
would she say on the subject, which relieved Seth a good bit. He did not
particularly want Cassie coming out here into the swamp all the time, because
that would for certain sure mark her as suspicious with the neighbors, and what
they tolerated in Spirit Woman they would not countenance in Cassie. But on top
of that, he needed all the hands he could muster just to make sure things kept
going as well as they had when Pappy was still alive, and he couldn’t spare
her. Gallivanting around with Spirit Woman half the day would make it hard to
get all the chores done, come spring.
“You’re as armed as
I can make you,” Spirit Woman said decisively. “And I cannot see the future
around you, so the rest is up to you.”
Seth gave her a sour
look, but he said nothing. It seemed a hard thing to him that this grown woman,
who presumably had some sort of witch-power, should leave a boy and a
half-growed girl to fend for themselves against a Devil. But he knew better
than to protest. Things were what they were, and he’d learned by now that
protesting never changed them.
Instead, he got to
his feet, made a polite farewell—because if he and Cassie made it through this
thing, or if the Devil never came here at all, he’d want to keep up his
acquaintance with Spirit Woman—and he pulled a reluctant Cassie away.
By this time, it was
well after noon. Spirit Woman had fed them—she was never behindhand with her
hospitality, at least—but there were still chores to do, and a short time to do
Seth knew when he got
home, there was going to be a good long thinking spell in front of him, too.
If that Devil came
here, he and Cassie were going to have to be smart, clever, and lucky. The
first two he could control, and as for the third, well he reckoned the
Carpenter family was about overdue for some good luck they didn’t have to make
But it turned out
that Cassie hadn’t been just sitting there like a frog on a log. She must have
been thinking the whole time Spirit Woman had been talking. The moment they got
on firm ground and didn’t have to think about jumping from hummock to hummock,
she pulled on Seth’s sleeve.
“I got me some ideas,”
she said. “‘Cause if the Dark Man comes, I ain’t gonna sit there and wait fer
you to come rescue me.”
Seth heaved a mighty
sigh of relief at that, because—well, because you never did know exactly what a
girl was going to take into her head to think. And though Cassie had never
shown any evidence in the past that she was the kind of critter that reckoned
she needed cosseting, once a girl started looking womanly—which Cassie did,
certain-sure—you just didn’t know what notions she was going to take up.
“Well then,” he
said. “We don’t want Mam to get next or nigh this business, so let’s get it
settled afore we get home.”
“Plan” was a little
too elaborate a word for what he and Cassie came up with. Having a “plan”
implied that they had some idea of when and where this Dark Man was going to
show, and were going to be able to take the high ground against him in advance.
In fact, they didn’t even know if he was coming, much less when and
where. All they could really do was to arm themselves with what their own
limited resources would afford, and stick fairly close together.
And Cassie could
stop singing, or even humming under her breath. Because that, evidently, was
what was going to bring the Dark Man down on them. Cassie, according to Spirit
Woman, had a power, and it came out through music. Spirit Woman called it “shine,”
which was news to Seth, since he’d always thought that “shine” was what the men
used to make in their stills in the woods, before corn got too dear to waste on
liquor-making. Whatever, that was what the Dark Man was after, and that was why
he wanted Cassie unhurt.
So as long as Cassie
wasn’t singing, the Dark Man might not even know she was there. One small
problem, of course, was that everyone in the holler knew that Cassie had a way
of easing hurts, mending quarrels, lifting the black despair that made ropes
and knives and cold, cold rivers look so attractive to a woman who looked ahead
and saw nothing more in her life but loneliness, bitter hard work, and pain....
And Cassie couldn’t
help but want to make those things better. Especially the black despair.
Because suicide was a terrible sin, but worse yet was leaving behind a passle
of raggedy kids to bring themselves up alone. And every home in the holler
already had all the mouths it could possibly feed.
So she couldn’t quit
her singing altogether. And Seth just couldn’t harden his heart enough to yell
at her for it. And so, they waited.
No further news,
either of Damnyankees or the Dark Man, came to the holler. The Preacher, a
circuit-rider who only made it in once in every four Sundays, had nothing of
note to tell. Not that he would have spread any tales of a Devil serving the
Damnyankees; preaching about the Devil in Hell where his proper place was, now
that was one thing and rightly following the Lord’s Way, but telling tales of a
Devil on a black horse in the here and now, well, that was superstitious and
gossip, and the Lord allegedly abhorred both superstition and gossip together.
cautiously, to hope. After all, they were back of beyond of nowhere; they might
have been on the moon for all that the world ever dropped by to say howdy. Even
when the menfolks had been here, it had been the holler that went out to the
world, not the world that came to the holler.
But he didn’t relax
his vigilance, and neither did Cassie. They were never more than fifty yards
apart at all times, even if he had to take her with him when hunting. Turned
out that wasn’t so bad; she was a help when he got game, and company when he
And besides—when she
was with him, at least he knew for sure she wasn’t singing.
Any other times—well,
all bets were off. Because as the winter wore on, and things got harder for
everyone, it seemed there were more and more temptations for her to use what
Seth had thought
that at least, if the Dark Man actually came, he’d have some warning. Thought? No,
he’d been sure, as sure as he’d ever been about anything.
But when it happened,
there was no sign whatsoever, so it was a blamed good thing that he’d insisted
that Cassie never be far away from him from the moment that Spirit Woman had
told them about the Dark Man.
Of course, “not far”
He was in a blind,
overlooking a deer-trail, waiting with Pappy’s rifle; Cassie was well out of
scenting-range behind him though still within earshot, patiently waiting until
he got too frozen with cold to sit there anymore, or until he got a deer. Whichever
came first. She had some confounded womanly stuff to do with her, in a basket. Mending
or knitting or some such, whatever she would have done if she’d been with Mam. It
was a nuisance, but what was he to do? He daren’t leave her at home, and there
was too much to do for her not to tote it. And anyway, the basket was
So he watched the
trail for the little signs of a deer moving in the distance, and listened for
what the crows and jay-birds were telling each other, and waited. The trouble
was, if he recollected right, she had this habit of singing to herself over her
work. And if she forgot—
The jays began to
scream bloody blue murder. And he got a feeling. A real bad feeling. An urgent
Before he knew what
he was about, he found himself scrambling on hands and knees through the brush,
heading back to where he’d left Cassie.
The Dark Man was
already there ahead of him.
He saw the figure
just in time, and burrowed back under cover of the brushwood before—he hoped—the
Dark Man saw him. And as shivers played up and down his spine, Seth knew why
that durn fool woman had been so spooked at the sight of him.
The black horse, if
horse it truly was, stood too quiet-like to be natural. Didn’t even seem to
breathe, truth to tell, and yes, it had red eyes that glowed like a couple of
coals. But it was the rider that sent chills all through Seth.
The rider was dressed
all in black, too, boots to hat, the little kepi-hat that both sides wore—but
this one didn’t have any insignia on it, and there was no mistaking the color
for Damnyankee blue, no, this was black, blacker than black, like the rest of
the stranger’s clothing, it swallowed up light, it was so black. Black boots,
not shiny, no—black trousers—black swallowtail coat, like the Preacher’s—black
shirt. Black hair, too, thick, straight hair that was too long for any man Seth
knew, more like an Indian’s, it was so long, but his face, his hands, they were
pale, pale, so pale they were almost a watery blue-white, like skimmed milk. His
eyes—well, they might’ve been green, but a green so dark it was near-black.
Oh, those eyes! Cassie
was purely, plainly caught up in those eyes, and couldn’t look away. She was
frozen where she sat, there on a fallen tree, the mending fallen into her lap,
her mouth a little open.
Seth felt his hands
clenched on Pappy’s rifle so hard they ached. But he knew better than to take a
shot at the Dark Man. Spirit Woman had warned him that he’d just turn a lead
bullet back on the shooter, and now that he’d seen the fellow, Seth was
disinclined to test that point. For there was a kind of halo of shadow around
the man, like the black rainbow that sometimes formed around the moon in
“Girl,” said the Dark
Man, amusement in his cold, cold voice. “You fight me.”
Cassie just raised
her chin and stared at him. So she wasn’t completely helpless!
“Do not,” the Dark
Man continued. “You have no hope. Yield to me, and you will discover that I am
not a bad master.”
A stab of alarm went
through Seth; and somewhere inside him a part of himself yelled “Liar!” For the
Dark Man was lying; Seth knew that, and not just because Spirit Woman had
Then again, he
always had known when someone was telling him the truth.
Cassie shook her
head, ever so slightly. Her mouth formed the word, “no,” even though nothing
“You task me, girl,”
the Dark Man said, irritation starting to creep into his tone. He wasn’t amused
any more. “Come here.”
Cassie’s chin jutted,
and though she was shaking like a reed in a high wind, she didn’t move.
“Must I come down to
Cassie just stared. Seth
held his breath. If she—
The Dark Man
dismounted, and stretched out his hand, palm up, towards her, then crooked it
into a claw, and pulled. Cassie paled, swayed a little—but stayed where she
The Dark Man
snarled, and with impatience radiating off him like heat, he strode to Cassie
and bent down to grab her wrist and drag her to her feet.
But the instant
before his fingers touched her wrist, she had snatched Mam’s second-best
cast-iron fry-pan out from under her skirt and whanged him upside the
head with it.
And Seth dropped the
rifle like it was red-hot and exploded out of the bushes.
Now, Spirit Woman had
said that the Dark Man was “vulnerable to Cold Iron,” but Seth hadn’t rightly
understood just what that meant until the moment when fry-pan met skull. There
was a kind of explosion, except there was no sound—but something went
off like a canon that’s been fired one too many times, and the Dark Man went
staggering backwards, hands clasped to his head, howling in pain. Now Cassie
jumped to her feet and held up the fry-pan between them to fend the Dark Man
But by that point,
Seth had jumped the stranger, and had the loop of baling wire he’d kept in his
pocket around the Dark Man’s neck.
If the fellow had
reacted poorly to the fry-pan, he plain went crazy over the soft iron wire. And
to Seth’s amazement, beneath the loop of wire, the skin of the Dark Man’s neck
began to redden, then blister, as the fellow screamed at the top of his lungs
and clawed at the wire, or tried to.
Didn’t try for long,
though, because every time he got a finger on it, he screamed again, and within
a couple of minutes, his hands were blistering and burning too.
Cassie flailed at him
with the fry-pan, and the haughty Dark Man stumbled back, still trying to get
the wire off his neck, until he tripped over a log and tumbled to the ground.
And as the two youngsters
stood over him, the Dark Man, the fiend who had burned whole villages to the
ground, was reduced to a whimpering, kneeling, groveling thing, rolling around
in the dead leaves, pawing at his neck, and whispering “Take it off! Take it
“You done good,
Cassie,” Seth said, approaching the creature cautiously.
“He almost got me,
Seth,” she replied somberly. “He almost got me with them eyes. I felt like a
rabbit looking at a fox— ’member what Spirit Woman told us!”
“Ayuh, well—you!” he
said, poking at the creature with his toe. “You hear me, Dark Man?”
“I—hear—” came the
hoarse whisper from behind the curtain of hair.
“I’ll take that off,
but you swear like I tell you!” He wanted to kill the thing, but Spirit
Woman had warned them that killing the Dark Man might make things worse. A lot
worse. ‘Cause then there’d be the start of a feud, and there were kinfolk of
the Dark Man as would set fire to half the state over it. So she told him to
tie the fellow up in swearing and oaths he daren’t break. “You swear by the
High King and the Morrigan, you hear me? You swear you are never gwine
to touch, nor harm, nor cause to be harmed, nor hurt, nor mislay, nor mislead,
nor set astray, nor cause to be set astray, nor curse, nor cause to be cursed,
any of me and my kin to the tenth degree of relatedness?”
“I—swear—by the High
King—and the Morrigan—” came the tortured reply.
“And do you swear
that your kin to the sixth degree, and your vassals, and your allies,
will be bound by that selfsame oath?” The words that Spirit Woman had taught
the both of them had a kind of grandness to them, like they came out of the
Bible; they made him feel stronger and more sure just by the speaking of them.
“And do you swear by
the Names Not To Be Spoken and the Bonds Not To Be Broken that within the same
mortal breath and heartbeat that the Cold Iron is taken from you, you will
depart this Middle Earth, never to return?” Spirit Woman had said that ‘Middle
Earth’ was the name for here-and-now; in the middle between Hell and Heaven,
which seemed right to Seth.
“I—swear—” the voice was the
thinnest of whispers now—and Seth hastily said the thing that was supposed to
make it all legal “I do accept your word and bond!” and pulled the wire loose
from the Dark Man’s neck—
For a moment, it didn’t
seem as if he’d gotten it off in time. But then, the Dark Man started to breathe
again, and slowly got to his feet.
He looked down at
Seth with a face full of impotent wrath. “If I knew who’d taught you that, boy,
they’d be dead before the sun rose again,” he said, and snapped his fingers. The
horse came to life, and trotted over to him.
He mounted, still
glowering. “And as for you—”
“You jest hold by
your bond,” Seth said, tersely. The burns—around the Dark Man’s neck, and the
side of his face where Cassie had hit him with the pan—were healing and fading
before his eyes. “Now, you get! And don’t you come back here no more!”
For answer, the Dark
Man uttered an inarticulate growl—then put spur to the horse’s sides.
The horse reared, and
was gone. Just that quickly.
“Dang.” Seth dropped
the bit of wire, and looked at Cassie. “Mam finds out you got that—”
Cassie shrugged. “She
hain’t used it for years,” she pointed out. “It’s too little to cook for more’n
two. An’ it’s s’pposed to come to me in my hope chest anyway.”
Seth took a deep
breath, and felt himself start to grin. “So, s’ppose I tell your beaus what you
really do with it, huh?”
Now Cassie threatened
him with it. “You dare, Seth Carpenter,” she yelled, as she chased him
with it, “You dare—”
Seth laughed, and
ran. Come rain, come shine, come Damnyankees, he didn’t care. He and Cassie’d
beat the Devil. So just at this moment, the way he had it figgered, there weren’t
much they couldn’t do!