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Authors: John Claude Bemis

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BOOK: The Wolf Tree
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Ray said slowly, “It’s just, Sally, that if Mother Salagi can’t find out what happened to him and he hasn’t come back to us, is there any hope of finding him?”

Sally stood and brushed her knuckles across her eyes. She held out a hand to pull Ray up from the chair. “There’s always hope, isn’t there?”

He wrapped his arms around Sally and hugged her.

For the last year, Ray had held hope for many things coming to pass. His father returning. Learning to cross. Finding Jolie again. But hope had brought none of them.

The following day crackled with the excitement of the impending party. Strings of acorns and cedar greens and bunches of white and purple berries from the forest hung from the ceiling. The main floor of the lodge was rearranged to accommodate all the tables for the feast. Down in the cellar, the black iron stove needed constant feeding as Ma Everett and her kitchen crew baked pie after pie.

More guests arrived, some in wagons like the Everetts, others on horseback, and still more on foot. By the end of the day, the celebration had begun, even if unofficially.

Some of the guests were neighbors, people within a few days’ journey of Shuckstack, whom Nel and the others had befriended while trading tonics in the local stores. They were hearty mountain folk or Cherokee whose kin had escaped the Removal to the West. There were veterans both black and white who had served with Nel and Ox Everett in the War. Some had come from as far away as Minnesota and the Gulf Coast. An elegantly dressed couple was introduced to Ray as the descendants of the Abolitionist family in Ohio who had befriended Nel in his younger days. Root doctors and gypsy Travelers arrived, dressed in wild outfits. The lodge was overflowing by nightfall, and many guests erected their own tents by the millpond.

At first the Shuckstack children were excited by all the visitors, but as the crowd increased, the kids grew shy, tucking close to Ma Everett’s skirt or to Marisol or Nel. As the instruments came out—for it seemed nearly every other arrival brought something to play, from fiddles to tin-sheet drums to strange instruments from foreign lands—the children grew friendly again and danced in big, galloping circles.

“We’ve got to get these children to bed!” Ma Everett announced well after midnight. “Tomorrow’s a busy day. Marisol, round them up.”

“I’ll help you,” Ray said quickly.

Later, after Ray got the children to bed and lay down on his own mattress, he could still hear the droning accordions and chanting choruses reverberating off the mountainside and up to the stars.

*   *   *

The following afternoon, with a light snow falling, Nel’s eighty-first birthday celebration officially began. The food was all cooked, the final decorations placed, and the children washed and dressed in their best clothes. Fortunately for Ray, Si had picked up a new linen shirt for him on a recent trip into town. Ray tied a kerchief around his neck and joined the others downstairs for the meal.

Ray felt that all of Ma Everett’s hard driving was worth the result. The tables were pushed together in one enormous row across the den but were dwarfed by the feast of food laid out upon them. There were roasted haunches of venison and turkey, plates of cornbread and buckwheat cakes, every imaginable vegetable and root—both wild from the mountainside and grown in the gardens of the guests—next to tangy pickles and salted pork. It took much growling from Buck to keep the small hands settled in their laps until Nel blessed the meal and thanked all the guests who had traveled near and far to be with him.

Ray sat between Sally and a Cherokee elder. “Won’t forget what Nel did for me,” the silver-headed man said as he jabbed at a piece of vinegar-soaked greens. “Summer of fifty-five. The Ripe Corn Moon, if I recall. Hunting this big old black bear with my sons. She tore a chunk out of my side with her claws before I took her down. Right fortunate Nel was visiting Thomas Black Beaver at the time. My sons got me into the village, half-emptied of all my blood….”

Across the table, Si abruptly stopped chewing.

“Nel fixed me up good,” the man said, raising his cup of
sassafras beer in Nel’s direction and saying something Ray couldn’t understand.

Nel laughed from the end of the table and replied back in the man’s language.

“I didn’t know Nel spoke Cherokee,” Sally whispered to Ray.

“I’ve learned all kinds of things about him over the past two days,” Ray said. “Did you know Nel once fell over a waterfall?”

The Cherokee man laughed. “On a horse! Did you hear that part?”

“No!” Si said, leaning over the table to hear better.

“Nel came up at the bottom, but the horse never did. Horse belonged to his friend Chestoa. Doubt he ever forgave him for that. That was back in the old days, before …” The Cherokee looked embarrassed and called to Ox to pass him the roasted groundnuts.

“Before what?” Sally asked.

The man glanced at Nel and, seeing him engaged in conversation with the Ohio couple, whispered, “Before he lost his leg in all that John Henry business.” Looking warily again at Nel, he added, “Ain’t been the same since then. Lost his Rambler powers, you know.”

Ray wanted to ask more but sensed the man’s reticence to continue. “Who was Chestoa? A Cherokee?”

“No, a white man. My uncle helped him uncover the Elemental Rose. Chestoa was a Cherokee nickname my uncle gave him. Means ‘rabbit.’ What was his real name? I’ll think of it.”

Sally, her eyes bright with curiosity, asked, “Was it Bill Cobb?”

“Oh, yeah,” the man said, turning to Sally. “Li’l Bill. You heard of him?”

Ray answered, “He’s our father.”

The Cherokee paused, giving Ray and then Sally a deep look and rubbing his jaw. “He was a good man. Powerful Rambler.” Then he called down the table, “Nel, whatever happened to that little sorrel horse you used to own?” And the conversations turned from one story to another and then another.

After dinner was finished, the dishes were cleared and the tables moved to the porch. The oil lamps hanging from the rafters were lit. Gourd banjos, fiddles, and all manner of instruments were brought out of cases and sacks, and the players formed a half circle against the wall, talking to one another about which tunes to play. In the end, they deferred to Nel, since it was his birthday. Nel took his harmonica from his pocket and tapped it to his knee before saying, “How about
Ruckus Juice Stomp
!” As he began the melody, the hodge-podge band struck up behind him.

Ma Everett grabbed people’s hands and pulled them to the dance floor. As the dancers squared off, she shouted out steps for them to follow. Ray tried to get Si to partner with him, but she said she was still feeling weak from her injury and settled next to Buck on a bench.

Ray danced with each of the younger girls: Naomi, Carolyn, Rosemary. He and Marisol passed several times on the dance floor, occasionally getting a few moments to dance
together before partners were switched again. While wide, laughing mouths shone from the faces around the room, Ray noticed Marisol forcing a smile each time he looked at her.

When he discovered she was no longer on the dance floor, Ray thanked Sally for the dance with a silly dramatic bow and went to look for Marisol. He found her in the next room, moving plates into a tub of soapy water.

“Hey, there’ll be time for cleaning up in the morning. Don’t you want to dance?”

She dropped a handful of knives with a splash. “Somebody has to start on this cleaning.”

“You can do it tomorrow,” Ray said.

Marisol frowned. “And the day after that and the day after that …”

“What’s the matter?” Ray asked.

Marisol tossed more silverware into the tub. “Nothing.”

“Is it Ma Everett? I know she’s been a little hard, but there’s been a lot to do to get ready for the party.”

Her cheeks grew red. “It’s not Ma Everett. You … you wouldn’t understand, Ray.” She pushed past Ray as she strode out the door.

He followed her, passing from the thick warmth of the lodge into the drifting snowflakes on the porch. Marisol was in the shadows at the far end past the stacked tables, her hands clutching her bare elbows against the cold.

“You’re right,” Ray said. “I don’t understand. Tell me what’s going on, Marisol.”

She turned, her lovely face more calm, but her almond eyes black and rimmed with tears. “It’s my life here. Don’t get
me wrong. I love Shuckstack. But you, Ray … you get to wander off into the wild for months on end. You’re learning all these things. You’re becoming a Rambler. What am I doing?”

“Is it the show?” Ray asked. “Do you miss performing?”

“Sometimes.” She shrugged. “But it’s not just that. Look at Si. Even she gets to travel off with Buck.”

“And what happened to her?”

“I know. That was horrible. But this …” She gestured to the lodge, to Shuckstack, to her life and what it had become. “This is not all I want. I need to get away.”

Ray looked at his feet. “Are you going to leave? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No!” Marisol put her hand to her temple. “No, that’s not what I mean. I knew you wouldn’t understand.” She turned away, gripping the railing with clenched knuckles.

Ray saw goose pimples prickling across her arms in the cold. He was cold, too. He wanted to go back in, join the laughter and fun of Nel’s celebration. But he knew whatever had boiled up in Marisol was something that had been coming for a long time. He had never fully appreciated all the responsibility that rested on her shoulders.

“What if you went with me sometime?” Ray asked.

Marisol lifted her head, thinking for a moment before turning. “Do you really mean that?”

“Sure. Why couldn’t you come with me next time?”

“You don’t think Nel would mind? You wouldn’t mind?”

Ray smiled with a shrug. “I didn’t know you wanted to. I
could take you over to the gorge. The laurels will be coming in soon and—”

Marisol’s attention caught on something over Ray’s shoulder. A man with a dark beard mounted the last step up to the porch. He shook the snow from his wide-brimmed hat.

“This Joe Nelson’s place?”

Ray looked out in the dark and saw a horse tied up to a sapling in the yard. He had been so intent on his conversation with Marisol that he had not heard the horse’s footsteps in the snow.

“Can we help you?” Ray asked.

“I sure hope so. Name’s Herman Bradshaw. I come all the way from Kansas to find a Mister Joe Nelson. If he’s the Rambler that Water Spider says, he’s the only one who can help me.”

Bradshaw broke into a fit of coughing such that he doubled over. Marisol went inside and soon Nel stepped out onto the porch after Buck and Si.

“Mister Bradshaw,” Nel said, talking over the music and laughter flooding from the lodge. “Won’t you come inside? You’ve traversed a fair distance, and we’ve got food and a warm fire.”

Bradshaw twisted his hat in his hands and said, “I appreciate it, but I didn’t come here to interrupt your party.”

“We realize that it’s not your intent, but you’re here and it’s late, so why don’t you come in?”

“Frankly, what I’ve got to speak of ain’t fit for the joy of that room yonder.”

Nel turned to Si. “Will you get Mister Bradshaw a plate and some warm cider to drink? Bring it down to my room.” Nel turned back to the man. “Let’s go downstairs. There’s a stove you can warm yourself by, and we can talk.”

Nel led them down the stairs to an outside door to his room in the cellar. Ray followed with Buck and Marisol. Nel lit the stove and offered Bradshaw a chair. In the yellow glow of the room, Ray noticed how strangely discolored Bradshaw was. Ray had never seen anyone the unnatural shade of Mister Bradshaw. His white skin had an odd gray tint like paper turned to ash.

Nel asked, “Why have you come so far to find me, Mister Bradshaw?”

“If I were to tell it proper, it would take us all night, Mister Nelson. And I feel sore that I’ve taken you from your party, so I’ll tell you as briefly as I can. I know you’re friends with Water Spider of the Oklahoma Cherokee. I live up in Kansas, but he and I have become acquainted over the years. He says you’re the only one who can help me.”

“With what?”

“The Darkness.” At these words, Bradshaw broke again into a terrible, hacking wet cough.

Something about the way he said the word drenched Ray in iciness.

Before Nel could continue, Si came down the stairs with the food and cider. Mister Bradshaw, released from the fit, wiped at his mouth and nodded his thanks to Si as he took the plate and mug. For a moment a curious expression passed
over his brow as he seemed for the first time to notice the strange group of people all listening expectantly to his story.

Nel leaned forward from his stool. “What do you mean, the darkness?”

Mister Bradshaw set the plate on his lap, already forgotten as he collected his thoughts. “Where to begin? I come from Omphalosa, Kansas. Smack in the middle of the state. Came out there with my brothers when it was still just a territory. We made a good life for ourselves. Good, honest people there. Built a respectable town.

“I reckon we first noticed it around New Year, just over a year ago. With the passing of the winter solstice, days should have been lengthening. On the prairie, you count on the land and the weather for survival. You notice that kind of thing. Each day the sun set a little earlier, when it should have been later. And dawn just extended more and more into the morning.”

Mister Bradshaw rubbed his clenched fist in his other hand as he continued. “By summer, we knew something was powerful wrong. The sun wouldn’t rise until nearly eleven o’clock. Just pass in a low arc across the horizon and then drop again by two. By October, the Darkness set in for good.”

Mister Bradshaw gauged the faces around him. Nel chewed on the end of his unlit pipe. Buck cocked his head. Ray, Marisol, and Si frowned.

“I suspect you take me for a fool or a madman, mayhaps. I ain’t, but I’ve no way to assure you of that except through
my words. Some from our town traveled out from time to time, visiting acquaintances, trading goods. They found the same. It weren’t near the same complete darkness that had covered Omphalosa, but it settled in bit by bit. A darkness spreading over the towns of the prairies! You head out for a hundred miles any direction of Omphalosa and you’ll see the growing dark.

BOOK: The Wolf Tree
10.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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