The way the sun came beating down made him feel like the iron on the anvil. He was anxious and hurried, and the trickle of sweat inching down the middle of his back didn’t help. Nor did his pal Henry, the old man who’d taught him patience, for still there were times when Hen brought him to the edge of his patience, and then pushed him over. That was the thing about Hen—when any given situation truly called for haste, you could be sure that call would fall on deaf ears. Fudge stopped on the road, turning to watch Hen, who’d stopped to pee. There was a time to bend in the wind, there was a time to stiffen your backbone, a distinction lost on his pal. “Move it, Hen,” Fudge said. “We gonna see what that boy up to, we got to get there ’fore the sun go down.” It wasn’t much past noon.
“What that boy up to,” said Hen, resuming his shuffle, “what that boy up to.”
An hour earlier, passing by on his way home to Little Brier after closing up his boot shop, Fudge had spotted a horse, apparently one of Augustus Hamilton’s Morgans, tethered out behind the Birchwoods schoolhouse, in what seemed to be attempted concealment. A young black man, Augustus had no earthly business in the white children’s schoolhouse, and Fudge feared the worst—especially since a few days earlier he’d seen him talking to Miss Eva, the young white school teacher, on Hartsgrove’s Main Street, in the middle of the town, in front of God and the whole white world. Fudge hadn’t survived thirtyeight years as a free black man without a natural sense of danger as keen as any bee’s.
It was a sweltering summer day. Fudge took off his tattered straw hat, waving it at his sweaty face, waiting. Hen caught up in his own good time, having barely broken a sweat, his floppy old felt hat still comfortably atop his head. “Your mama ever told you you was slower’n a one-legged turtle?” said Fudge.
He glimpsed a glimmer of hurt in the old man’s eyes, a leathery face frosted white with whisker stubble. “Man gotta pee when a man gotta pee,” Hen said. “Man gotta pee every two minutes whole way down the road?” “Old man do,” said Hen. “You find out one day.” They moved on, stepping on their shadows, Fudge walking slower now so Hen could keep up. The cicadas buzzed and droned in the woods close by the road, but the birds were too hot to fuss, the woods were still, even the gnats and horseflies keeping out of the sun. When the schoolhouse came into view, there stood the black Morgan, the older, gentler of the pair, the horse Augustus called
Jupiter, the one he used as a saddle horse. He was not tethered to the post in front but suspiciously to a bush out back. Fudge took Hen’s arm. “Looky there,” he said with a mournful grunt. “What that boy up to,” said Hen. Fudge reconnoitered. “Okay—we go over behind the big oak there, then make us a beeline to the rock on the other side. Get over to the corner, we can sneak on up to the window. Ready?”
Fudge dashed crouching to the oak, where he hesitated, then sprinted, still crouching, toward the big rock. He turned. There was Hen, ambling upright straight across the yard toward the school. “Dang it, Hen.”
Hen walked up to the open window and looked in. “What you up to, boy?” he said.
Fudge came up beside him. Inside the schoolroom Augustus looked up, brow raised in surprise, which did little to raise his eyelids—his eyes were constant slits. A handsome young man, his burnished skin a perfect fit for the muscles of his face, he was sitting on a children’s bench, lanky legs nearly up to his chin, a stub of chalk in his hand, slate on one knee, his hat—a narrow-brimmed black derby—on the other. The boy had manners. At the blackboard stood Miss Eva, frowning out from behind the twin curtains of brown hair that tried to hide her face—loose, flowing hair, not piled upon her head as it normally was. “Learning my A-B-C’S,” said Augustus, a picture of innocence. Miss Eva came toward the two older men in the window, the boards of the floor clicking beneath her airy step. “Not all darkies are shiftless,” she said in a voice too high and anxious to carry the authority it wished. “Not all darkies are lazy.” She swung the shutter shut, though not before they saw the flush on her face, nearly hidden behind her hair.
“Aiming to better himself,” Fudge said, the last two words rolling off his tongue like a cut of bad tobacco. He, Hen, and Lucindy, Fudge’s wife, were sitting in front of his cabin in Little Brier shelling corn for the hens, a scattering of which strutted and pecked imperiously around them. “Can’t blame the boy wanting to better himself,” said Lucindy. “You suppose he ain’t aiming to better Miss Eva in the process?” Lucindy looked up from the long corn cob in her hands. “Fudgeon Van Pelt, you hush up that mouth. Ain’t all men think like you do, from somewheres down in the ditch.”
“That boy do, or I miss my guess,” said Fudge. Taking another ear from the basket, he slipped his thumb into a slit, into the fair silky hair. From the swimming hole came the sounds of whoops and splashes, half the population of Little Brier—including Napoleon and Belle, Fudge’s boy and girl—seeking relief from the swelter in the cool creek waters. Hen was still peeling his first ear of corn as Fudge twisted his third, kernels rattling into the tin basin on the ground between them. “That boy’s up to no good.”
“What you think, Hen?” said Lucindy.
Hen shrugged, resting his half-peeled cob on his knee. Fudge said, “Them crackers think ’Gustus sniffing around a white woman— even one mousy as what Miss Eva is—then they end up sniffing around Little Brier. And that’s something we can’t use.”
Hen and Lucindy took that into account, the only sound for the next few moments that of kernels peppering tin, the odd shout and splash from the creek. The last time white folks came sniffing around was well remembered after fifteen years, the fires and the wailing, every shack in the settlement burned to the ground. A stolen pig had been found in one of the shacks, and Fudge could still feel the heat on his face, wet, blistering heat, watching the flames, watching the red embers shoot and twist out over the black creek waters.
Hen started twisting his cob, one kernel dropping at a time. Fudge looked at Lucindy frowning down at the cob in her own hands. She was a tall, handsome woman, wide shoulders, glowing with sweat in the heat, her indigo work dress drooping between her thighs as she leaned over the basin. He loved how the red rag tied in her hair made her cheekbones shine. She looked up. “What if he just learning his A-B-C’S like he say?” “All they got to do is think he sniffing around,” Fudge said. “You ain’t never liked that boy,” said Hen. “No,” said Fudge. “I ain’t.” Augustus Hamilton had appeared in Little Brier the spring before, the warm, wet spring of 1856, building himself a cabin, purchasing himself a wagon and a brace of fine, black Morgans, finding himself work as a teamster. Where he got the capital, nobody knew. Fudge had said all along the boy didn’t talk like a Yankee, he’d talked to plenty a Yankee, and so he doubted Augustus’s claim that he was a free Negro from Connecticut, his certificate of freedom, which he kept in a leather pouch strapped to his leg, notwithstanding. Where were his family, his friends? But it was the eyes that cinched it. Augustus’s eyes never seemed to open all the way, obviously, in Fudge’s mind, hiding something behind them. And his smile that all the girls loved—including his own Belle, just eight—the white teeth, the lifted lip, still amounted to nothing more, in Fudge’s eye, than a fancy sneer.
“Ain’t got nothing to do with the wrestling he always beat you in, or the racing he always fastest at, or the fish he always catching that’s bigger’n what you ever catch,” Lucindy said. “No,” Fudge said. “It ain’t.” Hen said, “First time they rassled, never seen a man flat on his back so fast.” “Ain’t no joking matter,” said Fudge. “Real trouble brewing.” “Leas’ you handsomer,” Lucindy said, and Hen laughed. Nothing slow about the man when it came to laughing, laugh wrinkles on the back of his neck to prove it, from years throwing back his head. Hen’s laugh always made Lucindy laugh too.
“Ain’t funny,” said Fudge, but he smiled a little, aware of his own looks, balding head, skinny chin, bony cheeks, the prodigious gap between his front teeth. The smile faded quickly, and he waited, patiently shelling his corn, watching
the kernels bounce on tin, listening to his children shouting and splashing in Little Brier Creek, the laughter of his wife and friend winding down, till it was all used up.
Yellow Charlie was the name of the pioneer who’d founded Little Brier some forty years before, albeit with no intention of doing so. A mongrel, part Oriental, part white, part colored, Yellow Charlie had been something of a hermit, building a shack on the east bank of the Little Brier, at the edge of the Pennsylvania wilderness. The Little Brier flowed into Potters Creek, which flowed through the heart of Hartsgrove, the town that he wished to avoid. He disliked people, engaging with them only when he had to, as when he wheeled his barrow into town to sell the stone coal he picked from the creek beds for money for flour and other items he couldn’t rightfully grow, kill, or steal on his own. He’d arrived at Little Brier with a young colored boy named Henry Westerman whom he’d come across a few years earlier when Hen was only a small boy—nobody knew his age for sure—in an isolated cabin back east in Lycoming County after his family had been murdered by a rogue Seneca Indian called Sassy John. The boy had survived by pretending to be dead, the story went, and for years folks wondered if he’d really been pretending at all. As to why a man like Charlie would take in an orphan in the first place was anybody’s guess, though few believed the goodness of his heart had anything to do with it. Most believed that he’d looked upon it as the pilfering of a useful object. They believed in fact that it was Yellow Charlie’s hard driving of the boy in his younger years that accounted for Hen’s laziness as an old man. He’d simply been worn out.
Fudge Van Pelt himself had come to Hartsgrove some twenty years before, after learning from an overland teamster that Hartsgrove was in need of a bootmaker just as he was nearing the end of his apprenticeship in Harrisburg. Fudge had been born a free man, his family having been given their freedom by Squire Brown of Chester County two years before his birth. After he’d settled in Hartsgrove with his new bride, Lucindy, he’d soon discovered Little Brier— where a number of other colored families had congregated by then—and just as quickly resettled there. It was a peaceful place, among the willows along the banks of the creek, a collection of tilting little shacks and shanties, an easy trot to Hartsgrove, out of sight, out of mind.
Dr. Means came into Fudge’s shop the next day, a pair of brogans beneath his arm. He was a white man, small and friendly, possessed of a red goatee and an infectious enthusiasm that included a habit of thrusting one or both of his hands before him, thumbs up. One of Fudge’s earliest customers, he and Fudge had gradually become friends. Even more gradually, they’d become colleagues. The doctor was a Quaker, one of Hartsgrove’s few, and a strict abolitionist—one of Hartsgrove’s even fewer. “Good morning, Fudgeon—how’s the back?” Fudge looked up from his lapstone. “Mustard water working pretty good, Doc.”
“I was wondering if you could repair these for me.” Fudge took the shoes; they looked as good as new. Probably were as good as new, Fudge having crafted them for the doctor the year before, and never having seen them on his feet. He took a rasp file from the row of tools hanging on the wall above his bench, idly applying it to a heel. Means looked around the little shop, a small room in the back of the American Hotel, then out the door, where Hen sat dozing in his bootblack chair. No one was in the corridor. Even so, he lowered his voice. “How’s everything out Little Brier way?” Fudge offered a shrug, a question creasing his brow. “There’s talk,” Means said. “Bad talk.” “Bad talk ain’t good.” “Raises concerns about the safety of the cargo.” Fudge swiped at the heel with the tool. “I been thinking along them same lines.”
“Not just the cargo. I’d worry for that boy, Augustus. And for you and Hen as well.” “Let me have a talk with the boy.” “You talk to him.” “See if I can’t straighten this here thing out.” “Cast your magic spell. Use your silver tongue.” At that the two men laughed, unconvincingly, as the doctor took his leave.
Down in the lobby and barroom of the hotel, voices hummed and chattered. White folks couldn’t be bothered with Little Brier. They never set foot in the settlement just a little northeast of their town, with the one flaming exception some fifteen years earlier, and that had involved only the sheriff and his ruffians. White folks were just as pleased to have their black folks out of sight, to have them appear only when needed, to not have to think about them, nor about the problems they’d created, problems like abolitionists and states’ rights and the Missouri Compromise and bleeding Kansas. Problems pointing toward a whole lot of trouble brewing. White folks, Fudge knew, would be just as pleased if black folks didn’t exist at all, except maybe when they needed a boot made or a bale toted or a sty mucked out or a spittoon scrubbed.
White folks let Little Brier be. They didn’t want to know what went on there.
Fudge had seen runaway slaves run down in Harrisburg, and he’d seen what happened to them, one unfortunate nigger in particular, his black skin in shreds and tatters, his blood washing the gutter. Fudge was aware of the ways of the world, and when Dr. Means had first approached him, he’d decided to do something about it. Now more than ever, white folks not wanting to know what went on in Little Brier was a good thing.
And along came Augustus Hamilton, aiming to spoil a good thing.
Night had settled over Little Brier, the only sounds the ripple of the creek, the hoot of the owl, the odd nickerings and lowings and barkings of restless pets
and livestock. Fudge sat outside his cabin watching the half moon climb the sky through the branches and leaves overhead. Down through the trees he could see the fire Augustus Hamilton had built in front of his shack. The boy liked his fires, big, angry fires. Sometimes the young people gathered around them in the evenings, laughing and singing, as they had tonight—foolish, foolish children, celebrating fire on a night so hot—but it was late and they had all gone home to their beds, Napoleon and Belle among them, already asleep in the cabin behind Fudge, and Augustus sat alone. Fudge sensed that this was his preference, solitude, the condition best suited to hiding whatever it was he had to hide.
Augustus looked up as a twig snapped beneath Fudge’s boot. “Up past your bedtime, old man.” He gave a smile-sneer, eyes narrow in the flickering firelight. “We got to talk,” said Fudge. Augustus gave a grand gesture. “Pull up a stump.” Fudge sat. Rubbed his knees, looked across the fire at the boy. “Miss Eva,” he said.
Augustus glared. “Man can’t learn his A-B-C’S? Man can’t better his own self?”
“Lesson number one,” Fudge said. “Man’s a whole lot better off with his balls still on him.” Augustus said nothing, his stare going blacker. “You keep sniffing ’round that white girl, you ain’t gonna have no balls to call your own. Ain’t nothing better off about that.” Fudge told him it didn’t matter if he was only after learning; what mattered was what the crackers in Hartsgrove would think, the crackers who loafed all day down at Captain Alcorn’s distillery on the Red Bank, the crackers who were ignorant themselves and didn’t hold the value of education in much regard, the crackers who burnt down Little Brier once before and who wouldn’t believe for a minute that a black man was trying to better himself, only that a nigger was trying to get into a white girl’s snatch. Then a number of them would see that he had no cause to, never again. “It ain’t like that,” Augustus said. “That’s exactly what it’s like.” “She ain’t like that,” said Augustus. Those four words, the look on the face of the boy who said them, caused the clouds to part in Fudge’s mind, caused the sweat to break out on his face—the boy was in love. The dunderheaded young fool had fallen for a white girl. “You sweet on that girl.” Augustus flung another branch into the fire. “She oughta set you in the corner with that dunce cap on your head,” Fudge said. “Why can’t you just leave us be?” “I ain’t gotta tell you that,” Fudge said. “You already know that. Any nigger know that.” When Augustus didn’t say anything, Fudge told him anyway, told him everything he already knew: His balls were the least of it, his neck was too. Strong, healthy blacks in their prime were valuable commodities, liable to be
kidnapped and sold into slavery, any certificate of freedom only good for as long as it took the sheriff to strike a match. He told him what he already knew, and he told it with relish, for he had Augustus in a headlock now and he was pouring it on, going for the pin, the only difference between this and the Sunday afternoon matches—in every one of which the younger man had come out on top—being that there was no crowd of neighbors gathered around, cheering. That and a little less sweat. Fudge went on. Folks would notice, he said. Folks weren’t blind. Folks had already noticed. He told him it was bringing attention to Little Brier and that there were things going on that it would behoove the black folks of Little Brier for the white folks of Hartsgrove not to know about. At that, the slits of Augustus’s eyes opened up. “What things?” “Things you got no need to know about,” said Fudge. The eyes narrowed again. Unlike everything else Fudge had told him, this was something Augustus hadn’t known—that he was excluded, an outsider, that there were things happening in his settlement about which he was being kept in the dark—and Fudge, ignoring a twinge of sympathy, pressed his advantage. Augustus had to stay away from the girl. Simple as that. He had to stop slipping around with Miss Eva and he had to stop now. For his own good, as well as for that of the settlement. What kind of a woman was she anyways, slipping around with a man, not even her own kind, behind the backs of her own kind, behind her own papa’s back—what kind of a woman carries on like that, a woman who was supposed to be schooling little white children to be moral and upright?
“Shut your mouth,” Augustus said, fire in the slits of his eyes. “She ain’t like that. You don’t know nothing about the woman, so shut your mouth.”
The fire popped and they watched a scattering of embers lift the smoke. “Ain’t no good can come out of it,” Fudge said.
They watched the smoke till the embers were gone. “Her daddy whips her,” Augustus said. “Whips her bad.” Fudge could see the chest of the young man heave. “She knows what it’s like to be a nigger, what it’s like to be owned by somebody else.”
Fudge nodded at the fire. He said, “Mr. Free Negro from Connecticut. How you know what that’s like?”
Sometimes the nights were so still it seemed to Fudge, lying in his bed beside Lucindy breathing, as though the waters of the Little Brier were flowing just outside his window, sometimes closer, sometimes beneath the very ropes of his bed, and in his dream he felt the motion of the running water, and found himself floating downstream toward Potters Creek and Hartsgrove. He was content at first, at one with the water, watching the green hills lift away from the creek, the crows soar in the sky overhead, the fronds of the willows reach out over the banks, until, gently drifting, he found himself suddenly drawn toward the wheel of Cook’s Sawmill, then, splashing away in a frenzy, toward the hidden hooks of
the fishermen who had materialized there on the banks of the creek just north of town. White. Every time he dreamed the dream, the faces were turnip white, twisted in grim determination to hook him, land him, flay him, shred his black skin into tatters, fry him up over their fire. Then a scream from a panther in the woods would awaken him, or a shudder from Lucindy, or Napoleon snoring, or little Belle coughing, and he would feel the heat on his face, and he would be watching the terrible orange flames leaping up from the shanties of Little Brier. Some nights, when the wind through the high branches of the trees concealed the sound of the waters, he might find himself soaring with the black crows high over the wooded hills until, eventually, inevitably, he would become ensnared, entangled in the strings of the kites, and find himself plummeting again toward the grim white faces.
Fudge didn’t go to bed, resting instead in the rocking chair by the hearth still smoldering from the supper fire. Dr. Means had said a cargo would be delivered soon, perhaps as early as morning, and he didn’t want to disturb Lucindy only to rise in an hour or two when the cargo arrived and disturb her again. He dozed in the chair, in the sour smell of ashes, watching the room gradually slip from black to gray, listening to the birds waking in the woods beyond his door, when finally he started awake at the sound of a voice—the voice of a woman, or a girl, no distinguishable words, only an exclamation of some sort, of surprise, anger, maybe fear. Had the cargo arrived? He stepped outside into morning. The dawn was beginning to lighten the eastern sky above the trees, but the forest itself was teeming with fog, heaped high and thick over the creek, spilling out through the woods all around. Nothing at the trailhead behind his house. He glanced toward Augustus’s shanty, but beyond the nearest trees the fog was impenetrable. No sign of life, no motion. Everything was still, except for a sense of the fog slyly stirring, lifting, shifting. Had he dreamed the voice? He went back inside to the hearth.
It was quiet, the bird sounds suffocated by the fog, and he dozed again, his thoughts infused with the flavor of dreams. Before she’d been sent away to the Brookside Seminary for Young Ladies, Fudge had seldom seen Miss Eva except in the company of her father, Captain Alcorn, a stern widower with a curled moustache, drunk as often as not, who rode a sorrel horse with a silver mane and a bridle ornamented with leather straps, balls, and tassels. He was a man who was proud of his possessions, and Fudge had often seen him with his daughter, riding—she beside him on the seat of his one-horse shay, or behind him on the sorrel horse, her face averted, her hands gripping the cantle before her—or walking hand in hand on the board sidewalk of Main, between his distillery and his foundry. Sometimes he saw them in the hotel, socializing on court day, sometimes at the campground at the annual muster, sometimes picnicking down by the sand spring where the creeks converged. Always Fudge was invisible. Always Miss Eva’s face wore a sour, pinched, and painful aspect—she seemed a most unhappy child. This was the first time Fudge had thought—dreamed—of
Captain Alcorn and Miss Eva, and the sour look on her face melted in his mind into an unaccountable blush as she approached the window of the schoolhouse, Augustus on the little bench behind her, knees nearly up to his chin.
The sweat broke out of his face just before he heard the voice, a premonition perhaps, followed by another voice, softly calling. The cargo.
Stepping outside, he saw Hen shambling up through the fog. Fudge waited, the older man taking his time, measuring his steps, and Fudge heard the creek waters ripple in his ear and felt the ripple in his chest at the thought of the hidden hooks. They walked without a word back to the trailhead, where, emerging from the fog and the woods, was Silas Mckay, a white man from Harmony Mills, leading two young blacks, a man and wife, scarcely more than children, both dressed in little more than rags. Two Virginia hams, the cargo Dr. Means had promised.
Mckay, a big man in a baggy blue waistcoat, introduced the runaways, Luke and Mary, then took his leave, clasping Fudge’s hand warmly, then Hen’s, turning and vanishing again into the fog, back up the trail to the Coolbrook Road where his wagon would be waiting in the trees, then south, home to Harmony Mills and sleep. He seemed to Fudge like a tolerable white man, and it was odd to realize that this spot, the trailhead behind his cabin, was the only place on the face of the earth where he had ever seen the man, and the only place he likely ever would.
Luke was a lanky young man, possessed of a small nose on a prayerful face, all muscle and bones, no pickings on him at all, and his wife, Mary, was even skinnier, her jaw slack with weariness, her large white eyes and large hands empty and wanting. Fudge said they must be tired, Hen said they must be hungry, and Luke said they were both. Fudge turned to take them inside where they would eat and sleep, where they could rest until after dark when he and Hen would move them north, further north on their journey, deliver them up to the Deer Run station near Sugargrove.
Hen was the first to see her. Seeing him start, Fudge looked: There, wisps of fog all around her, stood Miss Eva, just beyond the trailhead at the edge of the woods, like a ghost herself in the mist. There was a flash of white, a glimpse of light from behind the curtains of hair hiding her face as she threw back her head, her arm rising, a finger pointing straight at Fudge, Hen, and the two young runaways. In an instant she was gone, swallowed by the fog. Hen was the first to give chase. He dashed off toward where Miss Eva had vanished, leaving Fudge frozen for a moment with the runaways.
Fudge quickly followed. The woods were darker than the clearing by the cabin, the mist was damp in his nostrils, wet on his face, and he ran, crashing through the undergrowth, unable to see more than a few yards ahead, a few trees before him, scarcely able to keep the heels of Hen in sight. A minute or two later, he caught up to his companion, who had stopped. Fudge started to speak,
but Hen held up his hand. “Shush—listen.”
Nothing but silence, their labored breathing, a slight moan of breeze, the muffled warble of a bird. No sound of running feet. “She gone to ground,” Hen said. “Or she faster’n a scalded pussy,” said Fudge. They listened another moment more, then, out of breath, he said to Hen, “When you got so quick? Never seen you move so quick before.” Hen caught his own breath, giving a solemn nod. “Always been quick.” Footsteps crashing behind them, Augustus bursting out of the mist. “Where she at?” he said. Hen shrugged. “Gone,” Fudge said. “What she see?” said Augustus. Hen shook his head. Fudge said, “Seen something she shouldn’t of saw.” Augustus was scarcely breathing hard. He rolled his head toward the foggy trees, the canopy of gloom overhead.
Fudge said, “You brung her here? After what I done told you? You brung her here?”
“I ain’t brung nobody here,” said Augustus, frowning down at the two older men. “Then what she doing here?” “Running away,” Augustus said. “Told me she running away from her papa. She show up, middle of the goddamn night—ain’t nothing I can do ’bout that.” “Running away?” said Hen. The three men stood still, the young man, the old man, and Fudge in the middle, looking from one to the other, as the fog seemed to lift, fresh light filtering in. Off through the trees, something crashed through the brush, but they could tell from the sound it was a smaller animal. “Damn,” said Fudge, his bony cheeks beginning to lift just a little.
Hen smiled bigger. “Run her up north with the cargo, she want to run away.”
Fudge said, “First-class fixings for the young white lady—back of a wagon underneath a load of straw and manure.”
Hen threw back his head and laughed. “When she ain’t walking down a trail in the black and rain, tripping over roots, shooing off wolfs.” “Flinging rattlesnakes out of lofts.” “Getting lost in a swamp whole way up to her bustle.” Augustus stared through his half-closed eyes. “Glad you gentlemens ain’t lost your sense of humor. You done yet?” “Gots to laugh, young man,” said Hen, “else you just end up crying.” Fudge took a breath, exhaling the last bit of amusement. “Now what?” “I know where she probably head to,” Augustus said. “I’ll find her. She listen to me. I can make her see what’s right, make sure she don’t tell nobody nothing.”
All Fudge could see was the raised finger pointing in the mist, a ghostly
specter of accusation. Of doom. He said, “Cap’n Alcorn bring a whole lot of hurtin’ down on this place.”
At that they nodded in unison, as if bowing their heads in prayer.
By the time the sun had seared away the morning fog, Luke and Mary were heaped together in Napoleon’s bed, sleeping like stones, their bellies full of hotcakes and molasses, unaware that they were in any particular jeopardy beyond that which they faced every day. Fudge had taken precautions. Napoleon, bored, scratching random marks in the dirt with a stick on the Coolbrook Road, wishing he could form them into words, was watching and listening for any sign of hostile traffic, his ram’s horn under his arm, his sister down the Little Brier Road at the far edge of earshot, equally bored, equally vigilant. Fudge was in his shop in the back of the American Hotel in Hartsgrove, unable to concentrate on his work, sweat dripping from his face with irksome regularity onto the leather spread over his lapstone. With equally irksome regularity he stepped out to Hen’s bootblack chair, where Hen seemed calm, a calm before a storm, Fudge’s ears buzzing, straining to sift through the many conversations taking place at once in the lobby and barroom beyond, keen to latch on to such words as Eva, or Alcorn, or missing. Or Augustus, or slave, or runaway. Attuned as well to hostile glances.
He paced for a while, four steps from the bench to the shelf and back, back and forth, uncertain he could outlast the day. He sat upon his bench, but didn’t reach for his tools. He thought of Lucindy’s father. John Jacob Johnson had been dead for five years, and Fudge remembered him, a big man, size fourteen shoe, the only man who could stack three barrels of flour atop one another at the Harrisburg grocery store where such stacking was done for sport. Young Fudgeon was greatly impressed. And nervous, to be asking such a great, loud man for his beloved daughter’s hand in marriage. That day, the day he planned to ask, had been much like this one, hot after a morning fog, the occasion of a family picnic in the yard. And the dog. The memory of John Jacob Johnson was forever linked to the dog. That and the taste of the fried chicken, a taste Fudge could summon to his tongue at any time, prepared by Lucindy’s mother from a recipe she took with her to her grave—buttermilk was involved, and ginger and clove. The dog was named Asher. He belonged to Lucindy’s father, who by all accounts was quite fond of him. But during the course of the gathering, something had irked the dog, and he’d nipped at a child, breaking the skin on her arm, drawing blood, and without hesitation John Jacob had seized Asher by his hind legs—he was not a small dog—and swung him into the side of the barn, dashing his brains out. That was the sort of proposal day memory that lingered.
Hen came into the shop. The taste of buttermilk chicken, a taste Fudge had never again enjoyed after that day, settled over his tongue, drifting up into his eyes. “What that boy up to,” Hen said. “Let’s get on out of here,” Fudge said. “Where we going to?”
“We’ll know when we get there.” “What we looking for?” “We’ll know when we see it.”
Grumblings of thunder from out of the west. Low over the horizon, black thunderheads were sprouting like toadstools on a freshly dug grave, reaching high into the sky that had been overcome by haze, erasing all traces of blue. They walked toward the Birchwoods schoolhouse, Hen content in his own laggardly pace, Fudge, his face damp and clammy, clenching his fists to keep from breaking into a trot. The breezes commenced ahead of the storm. The leaves on the trees began to flip and twist in panic, lifting and falling in unison, and Fudge could smell traces of an odor that always put him in mind of the innards of a freshly gutted trout. Fudge pulled ahead. “Move it, Hen. We gonna get wet.” Hen shrugged, his pace unaltered. “Little wet never killed nobody.” “Tell that to Noah,” Fudge said. Around the bend, down through the hollow, the schoolhouse came into view. There stood the black Morgan, Jupiter, tethered to the bush behind the building. They stopped in the road, stared at the horse, tossing his head and pawing, his long, black tail rolling like a flag in the wind from the incoming storm. Neither man spoke. After a minute Hen said, “You suppose they in there?” “Ain’t likely they anywheres else.” They stared for a few moments more, wind picking up, thunder grumbling closer. “We best go on in, see for ourselves,” Hen said. “How come they ain’t no noise?” said Fudge. “What kinda noise?” “Noise. Voices. Talking. Yelling. Crying.” “Maybe they busy.” They approached the building, making no effort to conceal themselves. At the door, which was closed, they stopped again and listened. Nothing. No sound but the wind in the branches, the thunder on the rise. A small limb snapped free of a tree, flew to the road, tumbled away. When the first fat raindrops began to lash at their backs, Hen pushed open the door. Miss Eva floated like an angel. They stepped inside to behold her. She was hanging from a rafter, her face hidden by her hair falling down, graced by a stripe of red ribbon. A gust from the open doorway caught her, riffling her skirts, lifting the ribbon in her hair, making her body sway and turn in the gloom. Across the room on the little bench, nearly unseen in the shadows, sat Augustus, elbows high on his knees, face buried in his hands.
Miss Eva Alcorn passed into the collective lore of the town, an unfortunate girl who’d led a short, sorrowful life. When she was found in the schoolhouse, a
bench tipped over beneath her slippers, suicide was assumed by most, for the hidden bruises over the years had not gone unnoticed, nor had her previous attempts to run away, nor her father’s unnatural sense of possession. Captain Alcorn was diminished by his daughter’s death, by the whispers and rumors around it. He fell from favor with the town’s elite. Invitations to dances and dinners declined. No longer was he invited to review the local blues on muster day. He spent less time in his foundry, more in his distillery, drinking his product, counting his profits and losses.
Augustus Hamilton and Little Brier did not escape unscathed. Though it passed too quickly for the rumors to truly gain purchase, they never truly died, and Fudge could sense, with his bee’s instinct, an elevated level of hostility in the whispers, frowns, and glances on all the grim white faces. Augustus, meanwhile, became active in the underground activities to which he had heretofore been excluded. He was in. Luke and Mary were delivered safely to the Deer Run station, as were subsequent cargos, Augustus’s sturdy and roomy wagon proving perfect for the purpose.
On a Sunday afternoon a month later, Hen again found Lucindy and Fudge in the yard at their leisure, shelling corn for the hens. He pulled up an old wooden box and joined them, though he didn’t reach for an ear in the basket. The hens pecked and strutted in the dirt, and there was a hint of fall in the air, along with the smell of baking bread. Down through the trees, Augustus had brought his Morgans, Jupiter and Lovejoy, around from the stable and was showing Napoleon how to clean Lovejoy’s hooves with a hoof pick, while Belle, undaunted despite having been chased away once by Napoleon, sat on a nearby stump, feigning interest. “You think that white girl done herself in?” said Fudge, staring down through the trees.
“Course she did,” said Lucindy. “She go and fall in love with a nigger—and what girl ain’t gonna fall in love with that nigger—ain’t nothing else she can do. What else a little white girl can do, ’specially one with a pappy like that?” “All’s I’m saying,” said Fudge, “’Gustus, he only cry the once. That’s all.” “When he cry?” said Hen. “That boy crying when we got there. When we found him there with Miss Eva.” “I never seen no tears.” Lucindy said, “So what you saying? You saying she didn’t do herself in, that boy done it for her? Lynch her up like a nigger?” “I’m just saying,” Fudge said. “Ain’t you ask him what took place? You spend all them nights alongside him in that wagon, you ain’t never ask him?”
“Never ask him nothing,” Fudge said. “Can’t go ask a man no question like that.” “Why not?” Lucindy said. “Why you can’t ask him that?” Fudge looked at his friend. “Hen, you tell her why you can’t go ask a man no question like that.”
Hen shrugged. “Figure the boy talk when he want to. If he want to.” “And what if he don’t never want to?” Lucindy said. “Then we ain’t never gonna know,” said Fudge. “Are we?” The three stared down to where Augustus stood with his hands on his hips, Belle beside him mirroring his pose, both watching Napoleon at work, cupping Lovejoy’s hoof, holding it close to his leg, picking out the manure and dirt without digging in the point of the pick. Lucindy gave a twist to her cob and a great shower of kernels rained into the basin. “Course she done herself in,” she said.
Fudge and Hen pondered the possibility. Finally Fudge offered up his own theory. “Raining like blazes that day,” he said. “Maybe ’Gustus just hung her up there to dry.”
There was a moment of silence, till Fudge’s gap-tooth smile broke through his straight face, and Hen threw back his head to laugh. Lucindy frowned. Or tried to frown. Her face twisted into a mass of conflicting wrinkles as the words clawed their way out of it: “Man can’t eat no soggy cracker!” and she gave in to a great hysterical laugh herself, louder than either man.
Down by Augustus’s, the three youngsters all stood frozen, mouths open, staring up through the trees at the three old folks howling with laughter, falling to their knees, slapping the earth in delight.
The laughter ended, the glee as fleeting as ever, leaving only the mystery to endure. That, and the stone wall that Fudge passed every day on his way into Hartsgrove, the stones dappled with moss and lacking all symmetry, but set in perfect harmony, as still and permanent and peaceful as the earth itself. Little more than a month later, as he lay abed stricken with the fever—with what everyone believed, at least at first, to be the fever—visions of the stone wall kept entering his mind, bringing him peace, and he thought too about his friend Hen, also enduring, and about the mystery of Augustus and Miss Eva, though the answer still would not come to him. Some things, like Hen, would not be hurried.
Some things, however, like Hen too, could turn surprisingly fleet. Death, for instance, quick as a flea. And so it was for Fudge. Dr. Means could not save him. No one could. As Fudge lay dying, a ghost of moonlight upon the floor, his face shining with sweat, he could hear the waters of the Little Brier, waters that carried him away as the crows, soaring overhead, watched him born downstream, unalterably, unerringly, toward the place where the hidden hooks were waiting.