Manly Wade Wellman - John the Balladeer 02

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - John the Balladeer 02
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After Dark

 

Manly Wade
Wellman

 

 

 
 
         
By Manly Wade Wellman

 

 
          
AFTER DARK

 

 
          
THE OLD GODS WAKEN

 

 
 
 
         
After Dark

 

 

 
          
MANLY
WADE WELLMAN

 

 

 
          
DOUBLEDAY
&
COMPANY, INC.

 

 

 
          
GARDEN
CITY,
NEW YORK

 

 

 
          
1980

 

 

 

 
          
All of the characters in this book
are fictitious, and any resem-
 
blance to actual persons, living or
dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 
          
ISBN: 0-385-15604-9

 

 
          
Library of Congress Catalog Card
Number 80-650
 
Copyright © 1980 by Manly Wade Wellman
 
All Rights Reserved

 

 
          
Printed in the
United States of America
 
First
Edition
 

 

 
          
for

 

 

 
          
my
Southern mountains

 

 
          
and
the seers, poets, and friends I have found
among them

 

 

 
 
 
         
When
you have a memory out of darkness, tell to a seer, to a poet, and to a friend,
that which you remember: And if the
seer say
, I see
it—and if the poet say, I hear it—and if the friend say, I believe it: Then
know of a surety that your remembrance is a true remembrance.

 
          
Leabhran Mhor Gheasadiareachd (The Little
Book of the Great Enchantment)

 

 

 
          
Let
no one scorn the friendly tale,

 
          
Or
doubt, unkind, its shadowed truth. . . .

 
          
—Frank Shay, Here's Audacity

 

1

 
 
          
You
can feel right small and alone amongst those foresty mountains, even by the
light of the day; and the sun was a-sagging down toward a toothy sawback of
heights there at the west. I slogged my way along the track
Fd
been told was a shortcut to where the singing would be. I traveled light, as
usual. I toted a blanket with an extra shirt and socks rolled into it, a soogin
sack with a couple of tins of rations and a poke of cornmeal, and of course my
silver- strung guitar. My wide black hat had summer sweat inside the band. And
I was glad for roominess inside my old boots, resoled I can't recollect how
many times.

 
          
That
track was a sort of narrow, rutted road. It must have been run there when
wolves and buffaloes walked it, and Indians hunted after them before the first
white man was even dreamt of in those parts. Off to right and left, pointy
peaks and ridges shagged over with trees. They looked to hold memories of
witchmen and bottomless pools; of Old Devlins, who watches by a certain
lonesome river ford, though folks declare he died long years back; such things,
and the Behinder that nobody's air seen yet and lived to tell of, because it
jumps you down from behind; and a lot more, scary to think about.

 
          
Now, a cleared-off space to the left there.
I minded myself
of how I'd heard once what had fallen out there a hundred years or so back. How
Confederate soldiers had scooped up a bunch they allowed were Union
bushwhackers—maybe rightly called that, maybe not.
An unlucky
thirteen of those, a couple of them just boys a-starting their teens.
They'd sat the thirteen down, side by side on a long log, and then tore down
with their guns and killed them. Afterward, they dug a ditch right there and
buried them. No log there now, naturally, after all that long time. But folks
vow up and down that after dark the log comes back again to where once it lay.
And that those unlucky thirteen dead ones come out of their ditch and sit down
on it, maybe speak to you if you walk past in the night.

 
          
It
wasn't full night yet, as I've said; but I thought to myself, something sort of
snaky showed there, like the shadow of the log. And I made my long legs stretch
themselves longer to get away from the place, quick as I could.

 
          
Whatever
was I there to do? Well, gentlemen, I'd been a-going through the county seat,
and there were signs nailed up to tell folks about a big sing of country music,
along about sundown, the sort of thing I've always loved. It would be into the
hills near to where a settlement name of Immer had once lived and died. I’d
seen more signs about it, in
Asheville
and over the mountains in Gatlinburg and so
on. Since that was my kind of music, I'd reckoned I'd just go and hark at it
and maybe even join in with it.

 
          
“Along
about sundown'—that was all the posters had said about the time, and it would
be along about sundown right soon now. But when I rounded a bend of the track
past a bluff, I could see where I'd been headed. There was a hollow amongst the
heights, with a paved road looped into it from the far side. There stood a
ruined old building of different kinds of mountain stone, big as a courthouse,
with torn-down walls round about it. That had been an old, old hospital folks
told about; built for Immer and the other houses in the neighborhood by a
doctor—Dr. Sam Ollebeare he’d been named—who wanted to give care to the people
in those wild places. When he’d died after long years of his good work, the
hospital had gone to ruin, for no other doctor had taken over. Ruin had
likewise come, they said, to the houses where folks had lived in Immer and
round there. The folks had gone off some place else or maybe just died or just
uglied away.

 
          
Rows
of cars were parked in a big level space, and people milled round. I saw that
amongst the ruined w'alls was a big hole they used for an entrance. The folks
out of the cars walked thataway and paid their money to a man who waited for it
to be paid. A vine grew up the tumbledown wall, with white evening flowers on
it.
To
me, it seemed like as if the flowers watched
wiiile the man took in the money. I waited for the way to clear out before I
walked up to him.

 
          
"Admission
two dollars,” he said, in a sort of fadeaway voice.

 
          
I
took me a long look at him. He wasn’t big, wouldn’t have come air much higher
than my shoulder. He had a sort of tea-colored face, with a right big mane of
hair darker than mine, combed back from it His black coat came to his knees,
like a preacher’s, but it was buttoned right up to the neck. His black pants
fitted him snug and his black shoes looked to be home-cobbled. Something about
the coat and pants looked like homemade stuff too. There were big saddle
stitches at all the seams.

 
          
"Two
dollars,” he said again, like a judge in court a-telling you a fine.

 
          
"Hark
at me, sir,” I said, and smiled. "My name’s John. I pick on this guitar,
and I sort of reckoned I might
could
pick on it here
tonight, a little bit.”

 
          
He
looked me up and down, with
midnight
eyes that didn't seem like regular eyes.
Maybe he didn't much value the way I was dressed, with my old jeans pants and a
faded hickory shirt and that wide old country hat.

 
          
“John,”
he repeated me my name. “I don't believe that you've been sent for to sing
here, John.”

 
          
Just
inside that broken-down gateway hole, I saw a couple more men, a-waiting and
a-watching me. They were dressed like the gatekeeper, long black coats, with
swept- back hair. They might
could
have been brothers
to him, all brothers in a not very friendly family.

 
          
“Hold
on,” said another voice, soft but plain.

 
          
Somebody
came at us. He was middling tall, dark-haired like those others, but his hair
was cut and combed like as if it had been styled for him. He wore good store
clothes, a black and white check jacket that fitted him like a special- made
sheath for a knife, and his gray pants belled out stylish at the bottoms. On
his sharp-nosed face he had smoked glasses, though the sun was as good as down
over the heights at the west.

 
          
“Hold
on,” he said again as he came near. “What does this man want?”

 
          
“He
says he wants to sing,” mumbled the money-taking one, and he didn't sound in
favor of my a-doing that.

 
          
The
stylish fellow set his glasses on me. “Can you play that guitar with those
pretty, shiny strings?” he inquired me.

 
          

There's
been those who've been nice enough to say I could.”

 
          
“The
old, old songs?” was his next question. “Traditional?”

 
          
"Them,
and now and then I make me one.”

 
          
"Very
well,”
and he grinned white teeth at me. "Make
one for us to decide on. About
who
you are and what
you do.”

 
          
Another
bunch of folks was there to go in at the gate. They stood and watched while I
tuned my guitar here and there, and thought quick of some sort of tune for what
Fd
been bid to make up out of my head. I tried some
chords; something a-sounding like maybe "Rebel Soldier,” though not much:

 
          
"You
ask me what my name is,

           
And what I’m a-doing here—

           
They call me John the Wanderer

           
Or John the
Balladeer.

 

           
"I’ve sung at shows and
parties,

           
I’ve sung at them near and far,

           
All up and down and to and fro,

           
With my
silver-strung guitar.”

 

 
          
The
listening folks clapped me for that much, but the one with the glasses just
cocked his head, didn't nod it. "Go on,” he said, and I went on:

 

 
          
"Sometimes
I travel on buses,

           
Sometimes I travel on planes,

           
Sometimes I travel a-walking

           
On the country
roads and lanes.

 

 
          
"In
the homes of the rich and mighty

           
Sometimes I’ve laid me down,

           
Sometimes on the side of a mountain

           
On the cold and
lonesome ground.”

 

 
          
By
then, they all were a-listening so you could purely feel it. I stuck together a
last verse:

 

 
          
“I’ve
made up my songs and ballads

           
And sung them both far and near,

           
But the best of them all I’ve
whispered

           
With only myself
to hear.”

 

 
          
More
handclapping when I finished. The man with the glasses smiled again.

 
          
"Not
bad, John,” he said. "Not bad at all. Very well, come in and sing that one
for us tonight. You seem to have a ready gift.”

 
          
He
sort of stabbed his smooth-gloved hand at me, and I took it. It was nowhere the
size of my big one, but it was strong when he gripped for just a second and
then let go. "Come along,” he said, and led me inside. I made out that his
boot heels were built up to make him look taller.

 
          
They'd
set up all right for their singing. The ruins of the old stone hospital and its
outside wall closed a big space in. Logs had been strung in rows, and folks sat
on them, maybe the way those bushwhackers had sat to be shot down. They all
faced toward a stage made of poles and split puncheons, with canvas hiked up at
the back.

 
          
"My
name's Brooke Altic,” said the man, with his whitetoothed smile. "I'm
running this program. We’ll play it by ear, more or less—impromptu. Out behind
there are the other performers. Go and get acquainted, John. I'll call you to
sing your songs when it seems to be the right time.”

 
          
He
walked away, on his built-up boots.

 
          
I
went behind the stage. Some lanterns hung from the trees there, and musicians
sort of milled round. I saw instrument cases scattered here and yonder, like
shoes flung off by giants. To one side, four fellows in black shirts and pants
were softly playing together—guitar, banjo, fiddle, and bass. Nearer in, I saw
a man I knew—turkey-faced Jed Seagram with his big rodeo hat and green rodeo
shirt and the banjo he knew maybe about three honest breaks on. He was
a-talking to a girl in dark red slacks, with a fine tumble of bright yellow
hair and a guitar.

 
          
"All
I was a-saying, Miss Callie, is that you hold that guitar funny,” Jed was
a-lecturing at her.

 
          
"Well
then, listen to what I say,”
she
told him back.
"This happens to be my guitar, and I’ll happen to hold it whichever way I
choose.”

 
          
Fire
in her words, I tell you. Jed squinched his turkey face and walked off away
from her. I walked toward her.

 
          
"The
way you got Jed told was the right way,” I felt like a-saying to her.
"Wherever he is, Jed always wants to run things.”

 
          
She
looked at me with a sweet, round face, big blue eyes in it, and a mouth as red
as a cherry. "Oh,” she said, and smiled. "I know who you are; I’ve
heard you with your guitar at
Flornoy
College
. You’re John.”

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