The Colonel’s Boy
When the snows came, the cattle would break away by twos and threes, and we would have to track them into the hills.
From the windows of my chambers, I’d watch the snow whirl down the valley to the fields and the town, and in the white hush I’d picture my sons wading across the upper pasture of our farm, half-obliterated, their switches scraping at air, and I’d see the cattle groaning and flicking their nostrils to the wind. And when they broke free, these cattle, we’d have to mount up and hunt them into the treeline and sometimes beyond, into the rugged, stunted land where a man could take no shelter.
Nobody around here was really cut out for that work; nobody but the Colonel’s boy, Buddy Drummer. Buddy was only sixteen when he first stood before my bench, tense as a bobcat, black felt hat tugged down over eyes the rough-edged blue of chicory flowers. I fined him a dollar for shooting songbirds in the street. Two dollars for snipping the famous white locks of Angelica Sim, the sexton’s daughter. Three for public urination on Easter Sunday. On and on it went. He’d shrug out of my courtroom tossing a cool backward glance, not at me so much as the whole upright establishment, spoiler of his free-swinging nature. And so I marked him for trouble. If you watched him closely, you’d notice he never met your gaze, not squarely, but rather guarded those blue eyes under insolent, heavy lids as if concealing the dark matter that made him who he was, that made him and unmade him.
The Colonel’s farm in the foothills was a dismal one, fettered up with rope, wire, mud and spit. It was just Moses and Buddy and sometimes a hand, but the hand would never stay long; he would hear the stories and that was enough, he’d be off with the night. The house itself gave off an air of entrenched and ancient gloom. But on close inspection everything was in tolerable order: no fallen boards or blind windows, nothing like that, just a sag in the roof, some flyaway shingles and scaling paint—these and the strange destitution that comes over a place without the feminine graces.
Still you dreaded going there. If you found yourself on the Drummer Road in winter, it meant one thing and one thing only. Through the snow-etched air you’d see Moses’ long white beard shift in the window, see him wriggle into his snug Union greatcoat. And when the old door swung wide you’d take him in shyly, in pieces: leathery shoulder, flop-brim hat, cloud of beard, oaken peg. Moses would stand with his coat flaps whipping up in the wind, pinning you scientifically in those hard blue beams. “How many gone to the hills?” he would ask. Then, irritably, “Well, what’s it worth to you?”
Naturally you named the wrong price, and Moses would turn to the hills, squinting, as if watching something fly off there. And he’d say, witheringly, “That a fair deal by you?”
Buddy was a good tracker, and he could ride like a seedling on the breeze. So splendid were his gifts that you forgot how ruthless work in the hills could be, you forgot and forgot until poor John Bowen reminded you. John was Buddy’s rival, a quiet fellow with small, darting eyes and a fastidious mouth. We did not consider him as preternaturally skilled as Buddy, but we liked him better and trusted him more. Three winters ago, John went up after his father’s prize bull and lost his way in a storm. I have watched him in my mind’s eye, wheeling into the elements, blinded, furious, lurching this way and that, until his horse sank defeated into the iceman’s cape.
We sent out a party. It was my boy Ethan who found him, reclining hatless in the sun.
The toll of the church bell had scarcely faded when Buddy set to revising the epic eulogies. He’d swagger up to the smoke shop in that peculiar way he had, elbows and knees scissoring through the mud, head cocked on its powerful spring, and plant himself among the vets who sat around telling war stories in the stove’s red warmth. He’d listen and nod, chin down, leg bouncing. Then waving a dirty cob pipe in the air, he’d cut in: “Well, but that’s nothing. One time I got caught in a blow on South Mountain, above the falls, oh, way up where you’d never find old John, God rest him . . .” and unravel clumsily told tales of horses and bears and snow. Well, that was just Buddy. We sloughed it off with minimal rancor. Mainly we envisioned the Colonel up on that dreary old farm, licking his thumb, toting up the windfall. The world owed him, and by god he would collect.
Walt Wheeler, one of our prosperous farmers, searched out a man to replace John Bowen and restore the competitive balance, but he turned up only brash mediocrities whom nobody would ever be foolish enough to hire. So Wheeler agitated among the farmers who in due course called at my chambers.
“What about Ethan?” they said crowding my desk. “He’s game all right. Told us so himself.”
“Don’t even think it, boys, don’t even think it.”
“Your honor, it’s Ethan brings down your own cattle.”
“Nobody’s but mine. And that against my better judgment. Can’t keep a buck like Ethan from smashing an antler if he’s a mind to.”
The men stood silent and shifting.
“Buddy’s your best bet,” I told them. “Haggle it out with old Moses, he’ll come down. Has to.”
In Wheeler’s arched visage I detected mockery. Wheeler, my chief critic in the matter of Spanish George, the itinerant Negro whom the back hand of providence had delivered into the Drummer household the previous spring. I could read his thoughts as if they were written on his brow: Again Judge Chapman sides with the contemptible Drummers. Why does he do it?
I could not have laid it out for him if I’d wanted to. My defense of the Colonel was half-buried in history, in obscure ideas, in the emotional flotsam of the war. In sixty-two our regiment fought at Sharpsburg. I can still see Moses plunging into the rosy powder haze of battle, his shiny black colt rearing and twisting in the sunlight; still see that thicket of bodies closing round him as puffs of blue smoke drifted up from the trees and bullets whipped the cornfield like hailstones.
When the swarm parted, Moses lay in the dust, gaping at clouds, one leg bent terribly under him. As I stumbled past he caught me with his wild blue gaze, and in that moment I felt a weird mischief tangle my senses. The rattle of gunfire, the thunderous canon, the hoofbeats and the distant drums—all of it went silent in my ears. I turned. Moses’ eyes still held me, but now he was screaming. I turned. The column tumbled forth in disarray and swept me along its dusty current, and a Rebel brigade broke from the woods and shredded us to pieces, and we fell back toward the creek we’d crossed at sunrise. I turned. Amid the clamor, I found Moses again, his face taut as a flag and raised an inch or so above the ravaged earth.
As I scrambled toward him my thighs went numb. I thought I’d been shot in the spine. Dropping to all fours, then to my belly, I spied Moses through a forest of boots, spied him thrashing around like a fish pulled from the sea. Private Hooper lumbered out of the whirlwind. “No, Hoop, I’ve got him, I’ve got him,” I said, but he showed me his gravedigger’s back and slung the Colonel up like a sack of salt. Then he trotted off through a tiny hole in the smoke. I pushed myself up with my musket and caught a last glimpse of Moses, bucking to the rhythm of Hooper’s gait, holding me, incriminating me with those eyes, yet with a furrow deepening between them.
At sunset I walked to the field hospital. The lanterns were burning. In the soft golden light I saw the surgeons with their arsenal of knives and saws, blood on their forearms and aprons and boots, cutting, hacking, waving leadenly at the drunken flies. A nurse was carrying a shod leg out into the dark. I asked after the Colonel, and he pointed with the leg to a large white tent. Walking across camp, I saw a hundred small tents paling in the dusk, their shadows massing ominously, and all was heavily silent except for soldiers’ pitiful moans rising and fading under the cold white stars. I paused outside the tent and listened.
Two privates carried a sheeted corpse past me. Then I slipped inside and saw the Colonel lying at the end of a short row of cots, staring up at the mildewed canvas with an expression of utter blankness. The fresh stump had tinted his dressings a watery brownish-red. As I studied the broken men in their little cots the reek of putridity hit me, and I buried my nose in my sleeve. I turned away then, wondering why I’d come and regretting beyond reason that Moses Drummer had survived.
At Fredericksburg I caught a ball in the meat of my calf, but it was nothing, I returned to battle in the Shenandoah. The horrors I witnessed there were as regular as the rain. In time they no longer struck me as horrors so much as the ordinary chaos of men—men tearing away at one another as little boys tear at butterflies’ wings.
Much of the war escapes me now. Only Sharpsburg bodies forth in my mind, that moment of bewilderment fixed in Moses’ irises as if we had mysteriously swapped destinies, every glory foretold to him now safe within my covetous breast: a seat in Congress, the judgeship, prosperity.
Buddy arrived in sixty-four, the male heir Moses had so badly wanted. But fate’s indemnity was short-lived. After a grueling labor, Mary Drummer sat up on her elbows and looked about the room. Then she collapsed and lay very still, the tiny silver cross she wore on a leather string rising and falling in the hollow of her neck. A lady in attendance held the bawling child aloft. Dr. Westgate swiveled his head and noticed a vacant urgency in Mary’s eyes. As Westgate reached for her wrist, she eased into the folds of the bedclothes, damp yellow hair fanned out like a corona of sainthood. She was heard to murmur, “What a shame, what a shame,” and then her eyes flickered and shut.
“This will happen sometimes,” Westgate said in a high voice. Tiny flames glinted off the smudged lenses of his pince-nez. “I’m sorry, Moses.” The Colonel stood at the window, hands clasped behind his back, watching the cold bone of the moon gaze down upon his desolate farm. He did not turn when they carried his wife from the room.
Next spring I summoned Westgate to my own place on the fertile upland overlooking our town. He brought forth into this curious world my little light, my blessed Olivia, whom even now I see cradled with plump contentment in her mother’s embrace.
I have always been wary of newcomers to our valley. They find their way here, heaven knows how or why, and they alter the flow of life in ways too subtle to apprehend until the reef is struck: marriage plans dashed, land bought up, trusty old shops driven out of trade. In my experience, newcomers portend only upset and misery, burdening our people with all manner of careless trespass.
Spanish George wandered into the valley one spring when the cherry trees were in bloom. George was unlike our Negroes. Ours were chatty, affable folk with squat physiques and bright round cheerful faces. George stood lean as a rake with narrow green eyes and sharp, jutting cheekbones: some sort of half-breed. He spoke with a faint island lilt and fussy diction, and his long thin mouth never worked itself into a smile or a grimace. To the tackboard of the general store he pinned a small placard inscribed with careful, cultured script: “Industrious worker desires seasonal employment. Call at Skiffington. George Louverture.”
How our people made him for Spanish I don’t know—the accent they couldn’t place or the woolen poncho draped over his thin frame or the dusky sheen of his skin. He carried himself gracefully, chin upraised like a prince’s, and he pranced about on a big white Appaloosa. We shook our heads. He loitered in town for a few days, gazing imperiously at passersby on the square. Naturally Wheeler made a point of seeking him out, and soon he was extolling the man’s noble character to a dubious smoke shop crowd. But even Walt conceded George’s opacity on the subject of origins, surmising that he was indeed royalty of some piffling stripe, gone out to gather intelligence on free America.
Then one morning as the sun crept over the hills, Moses Drummer was seen outside the Skiffington Hotel, the grand old pile where George Louverture was taking rooms. That afternoon George rode out to the Drummer farm on that fine tall horse of his, and nine days later he was dead.
In hindsight I see that a clash was inevitable: Buddy and his life of privation, Spanish George and his toplofty airs. We should have guessed Buddy would take one look at that Appaloosa and be unable to bear it, the injustice, the world flicking mud in his eye again. But what could we do? Nothing but wait. And when that horse went flying down Drummer Hill dragging its master by the boots, well, nobody wondered if Spanish George had got himself tangled in his own gear.
The old bachelor Robert Meech, returning from the woods with a cartload of birch, noticed a queer flash racing into the shadows of the hillside. He jogged his team across a meadow to get a better look, and the flash evolved into a magnificent white horse bolting down the hill. It drew something in its wake. Alarmed, Meech tried to intercept the animal, but creaking and rattling across the meadow with that heavy load, he saw it was hopeless. The white horse circled toward him then sprinted off, a heap of bloody rags twisting and bounding at the end of a rope.
In a patch of sunlight above him Meech saw a young man trip into view greatly agitated. The man stopped and kicked at the grass. A second man appeared casually behind him, framed by high sculpted clouds. The first man turned and began shouting at the second, who merely shrugged. Meech recognized them both. The first man clasped his hands to his head and sank to his knees but quickly popped up again, shouting and cursing.
“Hey, hey!” Meech called out.
The men froze: Ed Peck and Buddy Drummer. The parties regarded each other in wary silence. Then Buddy cupped a hand to his mouth and hollered out something that got lost in the echo. He tapped his sidekick on the arm, and they went loping over the hilltop and out of view.
They’d gone down to recover the horse—found it standing in the woods like a unicorn, dazed and exhausted, unable to throw off its nightmarish freight. Buddy severed the rope and the Appaloosa bolted off, weaving in switchbacks through the birches and pines, and was not seen again. The young men hauled the body up to the Colonel. “Another damned greenhorn,” Moses said, rolling his eyes at the pulpy remains. “Make a box, ay? And ride them two old cows in. They’re going to the butcher tomorrow.”
This is the story we had from Ed Peck’s stray whisperings. When I summoned him to my chambers, he sat there mutely, twitching like a jay. “Coward,” I said finally, and waved him from my sight. I went to the window in time to see him join Buddy Drummer in the deep blue shadows of the elms.
One morning while reviewing the docket in my chambers, I heard a small commotion in the anteroom. The Colonel. He wheezed out a querulous “. . . spare his precious time . . .” and my heart sank. Fathers did this, came here hat in hand, heads bent low by the scrolled and pillared majesty of the place, squirreling about for leniency. But I never expected Moses Drummer to call, not ever; how it must have oppressed his lonesome pride to hobble up the steps of my domain.
I asked the clerk to send him through.
The light changed in the doorway, but I did not look up from the docket. I pored over its broad leaves, made notations here and there, scraped the nib of my pen; finally I glanced around as if by accident. Moses stood on the threshold spattered with mud, his features arranged in a series of fierce downstrokes. He poked his way across the room working his lopsided track into my rug.
I frowned. “Rough going out there, eh, Colonel?”
Moses unloaded himself into an armchair, folded his hands across his thick middle, and tossed his head toward the window. “All this mud. Reminds me of the war days. Never could get nowhere.”
“Mud! Sunk down in mud and more mud. Mud far as the eye could roam. Maybe you don’t recollect that.”
“Dust. I recollect dust.”
“Oh, sure,” he said with a sly music. “I’ve no doubt.”
“Yes, it’s the dust I remember. Graying up our blue.”
He took a pipe from his waistband and swished it in the air. I indicated my lighter, a Congressional hunk of silver given to me at the conclusion of my second term. He turned it ostentatiously in the light. Cocking his head at his bulging reflection he said, “You had the mark of fate on you.”
I regarded him warily. “I suppose I did—we all did.”
“No supposing about it.” He puffed away at his pipe and looked round the chestnut paneled walls. “Remember when you were a rabbity little kid, never said nothing? Look at you now. Your word flows out of this place and all down the whole valley.”
His eye lingered on a canvas behind my desk, a battle scene of Shiloh. “All down this miserable valley. Oh, you must think you’re the cheese.” He spoke tiredly, without heat, his gaze riveted on the painting. “Goddamn pictures never get it right. Make it all look so . . . heroic.”
Clearing my throat, I summoned the clerk. “Be a good fellow and show the Colonel out. We are done here. Where’s his hat?”
A corrupt light shone in Moses’ eyes. “Settle down, Judge, settle down. I come all this way.” Then to my clerk: “Give us a moment yet. We two relics. I’ll show my own self out.”
I shut my eyes, and the clerk withdrew.
Moses scanned the shelves, tongue clicking softly, some little plan or other working itself out beneath his matted silver curls. “These books you got here. Statutes’n so forth. Ordinances. They got it all covered, eh?”
He leaned forward, braced on his muddy peg. For the first time I noticed drops of milk clouding those great blue marbles. Lowering his voice to an unctuous rasp, he said, “All the contingencies?”
“Contingencies!” I snorted. “I’m sure I don’t get you. These books are the law. I am the judge. I weigh it all out.”
He was silent for a moment, appraising. “Riddles. It’s all wrote out in riddles. You can read ’em however the fiddle-faddle you want.”
“If only that were so.” I forced a smile and promptly regretted it. “Surely you realize, Colonel, I can’t discuss—”
Moses stopped me with his hand. “No, no, goddamn it,” he said as if I had violated some private code. He pushed himself up with a weary ooph. “You weigh it all out, then. Weigh the whole cursed thing.”
He brushed his hands on his vest and followed his dirty track out of the room, out to his world of mud.
It hit me then that Moses had accomplished his task. He need not have said a word, but merely sat beneath my chandelier, the Old Testament glower sufficient to remind me of his misfortune and my cryptic role in it. I struck my desktop with the flat of my hand. The proper course of action? I weighed the damned thing out all right.
One autumn evening the following year we all sat down to dinner: Ethan, Cal, Livvy, Luke, my wife and I. The leaves were turning in the hills, but the day had been mild and a breeze drifted through the windows, stirring the wildflowers that Livvy had picked in the afternoon and arranged in the cut-glass vase set before us. I looked at the faces of my loved ones. We’re all here, I thought, all here together still. The sun dove into the hills and kicked up its evening fire. I turned to my wife thinking we might share the moment, but her eyes had sharpened upon Livvy.
“Tell us, Olivia, who is the man of mystery?”
Luke had been teasing Livvy about some trivial matter, a boy, the drug store, something. My wife sat still as moonlight. Luke squirmed and bounced in his chair as roses burned in Livvy’s cheeks.
“Luke, it isn’t anything—”
“I’ll just whisper his initials . . .”
“Buddy Drummer!” Luke sang out.
“Nothing of the sort!”
“What’s this?” I said. “Livvy, my dear, that is one young man you should not pass time with. You can’t. I forbid it.”
“Pass time! Father! Won’t anyone let me speak? I went to the drug store and sat down for a dish of ice cream. I was running an errand for Mother, Luke and I—”
“And he came in?”
“They were smiling all Chinesey, both of ’em,” Luke said.
“Yes, he came in,” Livvy said, boldness flaring in her eyes. “It was quite innocent. Small talk.” She shrugged curtly.
“All he did was brag, brag, brag,” said Luke, “and Livvy ate it up, every word.” He made a parody of feminine laughter.
Livvy squared on Luke much as I square on young lawyers from the city, and for a moment I thought I might lose my stern composure. “What do you know about anything? Are you inside my mind?” She turned to me. “Father, I just sat there is all. A captive audience. Buddy always did have a tale to tell, and truly, I’ve known him my whole life. I don’t understand all this fuss.”
“Know him? Faw. The girls always think they know a fellow when he flatters their vanity. Let me be frank, Livvy. You don’t know Buddy Drummer. You don’t know him from a heap of hay. Have you already forgotten Spanish George?”
“You yourself ruled Buddy innocent!” she said in a haughty soprano.
“Well, a Negro drifter,” said Cal.
“A stranger, blown in off the open road,” Ethan mused. “Who knows about a fella like that? Guess Buddy’d be rotting his hide in the poke if you didn’t judge him innocent.”
“There were no grounds to try the wastrel! That’s what I ruled. I hope you, all of you, get the distinction. That poor man is dead. Mr. Louverture. Next time Buddy accosts you, Livvy, you might ask him why. Maybe he’ll brag.”
“Some say he did us a service. If . . .” She faltered, recognizing her error.
“Livvy,” I said gently, “remember what I have told you.”
She bowed her head and resumed eating, and that was the end of it.
A gale stripped the trees bare, and our valley of many colors settled into its gray season. Feeling lethargic among my dusty books, I stepped out for a stroll on the square. At a distance I watched an old woman struggle against the wind, bunching her skirts with one hand and clasping her fluttering black bonnet with the other. She made such astonishingly little headway that I thought I might trot over and lend my arm, but I tarried over my enjoyment of the comic scene.
Then in the foreground I saw Buddy Drummer. He was headed in my direction, staring at me with his head tilted and a faint smile upon his lips. He did not at all resemble himself. He seemed to rise up in a whirl of dead dry leaves as absurdly as Botticelli’s Venus in her giant clamshell. I waited tensely for him to say something, but all he did was nod pleasantly and move on.
One afternoon I was reading Emerson in my chambers, looking out every now and again at the crystal blue sky that blesses our valley after a snowfall. The hills seemed scrubbed clean on such days, close at hand, as though one might ride through the wooded fringe to the bald white peaks in a matter of minutes.
Turning from the window, I perceived my second son as an arrangement of floating specks on the far side of the room. “Cal!” I said. “Come here, boy, what is it?”
Mouth drawn into a figure eight, he began to sob. “Livvy. Father, it’s Livvy.”
“Speak, speak! What is it?”
“She was skating at Madden Lake. With Buddy. They went through.”
“A party’s gone out . . .”
I pushed away from my desk and flew out to the stable, not bothering with my coat or Cal’s voice trailing tearfully behind. I rode as in a dream. My mind conjured, struck down, blockaded ten thousand images: nothing would certify my anguish.
The river flowed out of the hills and ran like black ribbon through the countryside. I left the road and picked up the river trail, lashing my horse frightfully as she humped through the drifts. We breasted a hillock and saw Madden Lake spread out below like a great bottle of tipped ink. A small crowd stood on the lakeside, banded darkly together and muffled up to their eyes. Someone held a whinnying colt by the reins; a loose mare frolicked giddily on the far shore.
Out on the ice three men lay upon their bellies. I slid off my horse, and the folk huddled around me murmuring, “Judge, Judge, don’t go out, we beg you.” I shot an arm into the sunlight. “Away!” I cried and tottered onto the snow-dusted flat. Two brooms lay crosswise on a patch of silvery ice scratched up with blade tracings. I tried in vain to cast out the thought that I had made their solitude necessary. In town just beyond the green sits a maple-bordered pond where our people skate, a festive locale fitted out with brick pathways and pleasant gas lamps. But Madden Lake, with the river current flowing through, was a known peril, the harmless-looking scene of many a summer drowning.
At my approach three red faces turned. The men scooted back from the hole. One of them, Walt Wheeler, raised what I in my grief took to be an impertinent hand: “Whoa, Judge!” The ice shuddered and pinged. “Out of here,” I growled. They did not stir. Water with its atoms of black sediment gushed over the lip of the hole. “What . . . ?” I said, turning to Wheeler. He looked quizzical, embarrassed.
“She’s wedged under there. Current keeps rollin’ her about.”
“Under . . . That’s her?”
I cupped some water in my hands and dropped it onto the ice. The monochrome form with gray flowering skirts was my darling Livvy, her dull face pressed to the air-flooded world as if wondering how to get back there. I put my head down and braced myself upon my knees.
“Give me that hatchet.”
“Judge,” said Wheeler.
I hammered at the frozen lake. It came away in small sparkling chips. Blue sky flew across my shoulder as I heaved and struck. At last I broke through, widening the hole, determined to hook my bare fingers round the blades of her skates.
“Judge,” Wheeler said. “We got to think this out.”
The shiny black water rippled under the ice. I was getting closer. I tossed the hatchet aside and leaned over the hole to submerge my arm, but the flexing river skimmed Livvy away.
“Don’t even see her now,” grunted Frank Pierce, a dour little man with bright red whiskers.
“Dadgum current,” Wheeler said.
I pushed myself up. We waited there in the silence of my breathing.
“And Buddy?” I said at last.
They were sitting on the ice, the three of them, glancing around at one another. Wheeler struggled to his knees and said, “Let’s get ourselves off this blasted lake.”
“Gentlemen, I am staying put. I will not leave my daughter here alone.”
Wheeler draped his coat upon my shoulders and spoke quietly to me. “Judge, you gain nothing staying here in the cold. We’ll come back later with reinforcements.”
As Wheeler’s mouth opened and shut I stared at the shimmering hole desperate to hurl myself in. But the crazed moment passed and I was left feeling sick and bodiless. “Confound it. I can’t move.” The men raised me to my feet, and we shuffled toward land. Light flooded the valley and glared savagely off the snow. I thought of my poor wife in these last moments of her tranquility and then of Moses and our queerly parallel fates, knotted now by these deaths. Screening my eyes from the sun, I asked if word had been sent to the Colonel. Wheeler made no reply and so I repeated myself.
“Yeah,” he said hollowly.
When we reached the shore, the tiny crowd shrank from me as if the grim vision imprinted on my mind were reflected back at them.
“Who went up there?”
Again the men looked at one another, and it dawned on me that their small, tight mouths indicated reluctance. Pierce glaring at Wheeler said, “Who is going to tell him?”
I looked from face to face. “What? Tell me what, boys?”
The tips of Wheeler’s mustache drooped and curled below his chin so that they almost touched. “We found Buddy staggering on the road, half-frozen to death. Strapped him to a mule and had a boy take him up home.”
“You— you are saying he is alive?”
Again they gave me silence.
“He is alive and my daughter is not? The great Buddy Drummer, he does not save Livvy and yet saves himself? This is a man?”
As the fury rose behind my eyes, Quitman, the blacksmith’s apprentice, started to say something.
“What now?” I snapped.
“Sir, ah, I hope it’s some small consolation that old Buddy put up one hell of a fight.”
“Did he now? You saw this fight, Quitman?”
“No, your honor, I did not. But one look at Buddy, one look, sir, all slabbed in ice—”
“Buddy made mention of this battle with the elements? Or do you merely surmise it from his appearance?”
“Oh no, sir, he told us all about it.”
In the depths of Madden Lake she tumbled on, innocent of her drowning, and sometimes I would seem to wake in the night and grasp her hand across the sacred barrier. The moon rippled overhead as we strolled arm-in-arm among the shadow gardens that parted and swayed in the current. I was not so lonely then, and I daresay she was not so lost.
But the touch of daylight would reveal our family to be quietly crumbling. The boys were sullen and withdrawn. My wife watched me steadily, with some combination of inquiry and reproach, and feeling her eyes always upon my face or hands or back made me irritable. I took to walking in the fields. Sometimes I’d return after sunset to a dim house, my meal simmering, everybody gone to their rooms except Luke, who would wait for me while reading a dime novel or plinking out “Camptown Races” on our old piano with its cracked brown varnish. I’d stand out on the veranda listening to his flubbed notes, dreaming Livvy’s fluidity into them, dreaming Livvy herself into the parlor, her upright form and porcelain neck all intelligence and gentle fire, and I’d hear Mozart flying from her fingertips.
In the spring some boys at play found Livvy’s remains downriver, fetched up among weeds. We buried her in the family plot on the plateau above our farm where my cattle liked to graze—where a chunk of new marble shone in the thick green grass. OLIVIA CHAPMAN, BELOVED DAUGHTER, 1865–1886. The Reverend Doctor John Thrale delivered his sermon with an actorly quaver, but my attention wandered to the beasts champing away beyond our black circle, and I imagined Thrale’s solemn poetry flowing out of their stupid crosswise jaws.
I suppose I began to smile because I saw our friends steal glances at me and lift their faces to the short horizon. As we watched, the herd parted and a buggy rolled up the old cart path. The Colonel. I had not laid eyes on Moses since Livvy died. He stayed long enough to let himself be seen, sitting sternly erect upon his rig, and then he gave a sharp tug on the reins and went off in a trail of dust. That was all. Still I was grateful for the tribute. But as I stood in the breeze the thought hit me like a whiff of shit that perhaps Moses had intended no tribute after all, that he was telling me in a way that only I would understand, Ay, Judge, you know what it’s like now, we are even—at long last we are even.
I stood there like granite, turning it over and over in my mind. Moses had not doffed his hat or bowed his head. He simply sat there on the arc of the land, smoldering against the bright blue sky. What should I make of it? What was the proper conclusion? When the dust settled and my cattle filled the rift that Moses had made, I turned to the polished box on the grass, the sun burning a white ball into its ruddy grain, and I found myself isolated outside the scene, like a fly of many eyes taking in the human spectacle. Look at these people, I thought in my confusion. Look what has happened to these poor people.
That whole wretched year my thoughts kept returning to the case of Spanish George, three seasons past. In the absence of eye-witness testimony I had ruled his death a misadventure. I paid little mind to the dissenters, Wheeler and his coterie. What did they know of the law and its requirements; what did they know of the puny limitations of my charge?
Mainly the people of our valley favored my decision, they accosted me on the square and shook my hand and called me wise. Yet the clannish tone of their praise spoke to my unvoiced doubts. They maligned George Louverture without cause, building rumor into fact through ever-bolder adornment, all to justify their conviction that a Negro stranger’s killing should not unduly trouble us. They assumed that I agreed. And hadn’t I, in the end? And hadn’t the ricochet of my decision struck Livvy like a bullet to the heart?
Time failed to soften the burr in my conscience. I spent nights refashioning the Drummer case in my mind, playing it out according to a truth I knew as surely as any god could know it. In these reveries I became the tyrant I longed to be, an omnipotent judge destined to be misunderstood by the ordinary run of men. But always the shine of that vision wore off, and the things that are real churned and sifted about me, the Honorable William Cushing Chapman, powerless to lift the curse of Buddy Drummer, powerless to hush poor Livvy calling out from the lakebed of my dreams.
The winter of 1888 arrived in a torrent of snows. In common memory it climaxed in the great March blizzard that stole the lives of three children making their way home from school. That is what people remember, three frozen flowers in the snow, that is what they talk about when the big snows return. Forgotten are the livestock disasters of the early winter when all of nature seemed to go quietly berserk; forgotten is the event in the hills which bore all the tragic tidings. Yet it is always in me, always. I stood somberly at the courthouse windows as the cold settled in and snow grayed the sleeping grass on the square. And I saw projected on the dead horizon my boys in the upper pasture, Ethan upon his mount, Cal and Luke scrabbling toward a perimeter through which the livestock were blurring and vanishing.
I left the courthouse and rode past the shopkeepers and tradesmen closing early, I rode to the uplands amid flakes no longer falling gently but shooting slantwise across the fields now covered except for a few pale stalks bent double in the wind. My wife met me on the veranda. Her cheeks were drained of color, and her pretty dark eyes appeared raw and anxious.
“Your sons,” she said. “You mustn’t allow them to ride in the strays.”
I dismounted and tipped my hat. “Right-o,” I said. “Just Ethan will ride if it’s necessary at all. Just Ethan.”
She started to speak, but instead she drew her coat about her and walked away with a hard, heavy step. I sighed and wondered what to do next. Across the yard I heard a leisurely commotion, the barn door sliding open, a soft thunder of hoofs, and I led my horse up there. The barn looked nearly black in the thick grain of the weather. Shielding my eyes, I could just make out the copper gamecock above the roofline, darting this way and that in the wind. I went in among the earthy smell of the cattle. They were lowing in their stalls and Cal and Luke were pitching down fresh hay.
“You ought to have done this sooner.” The boys stared at me blankly. “Well, how many have gone?”
Cal said, “Five. Half-dozen. Haven’t made a proper count yet. A whole pack broke off. We turned some of ’em back, Ethan’s gone up for the rest.”
Watching the snow fly across the open door, I noticed the lamps coming on in the house. Ethan would have sense enough to turn back at the tree line, I hoped, and not push on through to the windy escarpments, the wild high ground where instinct drove the cattle as if it were the peaks of Ararat. My thoughts rambled and roamed. Out of the air I conjured Ethan, stamping into the barn. Good boy, I whispered, good boy, though he was empty-handed and furious. Cal and Luke thudded down onto the boards, scattering the apparition before me, and once again I saw the storm blotting out all but the lamps in the distance. We went to the house and waited.
Late in the day Ethan had not returned. My boys and I sat quietly in the parlor and my wife bustled about the kitchen humming to herself, a soft, high, nervous hum that only made the matter worse.
“Luke,” I said. He kept going to the window and drumming his fingers on the sill. “Luke, stop that, bring some wood.”
The song broke off in the kitchen. My wife stood in the doorframe wearing an apron, her fine-boned face regal and tragic. I looked at her and felt ashamed.
“It’s time,” I announced preemptively, leaning forward, hands upon my knees. “It’s time I go up. Will you bring out that lantern?”
“What? And lose you too? There’s going to be nothing left of this family.”
“I’m not nothing,” Luke said.
“No, you aren’t nothing,” said Cal.
I searched my wife’s eyes for the purpose that had come into them. “I can’t sit around and wait any longer. Don’t you see I must go?”
“You’ll go,” my wife said. “You’ll go up to Moses Drummer’s and engage the young man.”
We gaped around at one another.
“No!” cried Luke. “Buddy made our sister die!”
But I could not pretend her ruthless logic escaped me. I nodded to Cal, who hesitatingly rose from his chair. On the way to the barn he said, “Father, won’t this make us look . . . weak?” I understood but I cuffed him anyway. So we rode off, Cal and I, our horses tethered, and we slogged through the near-dark and the flying snow, navigating by the soft blaze of distant homesteads all the way to the foot of Drummer Road.
Moses burst outside as we approached. Through the wind, I could hear that peg scraping around on the porch.
“Hey?” he called, vexed, unwelcoming.
“Where is your son?”
“Finishing up in the barn.”
Moses studied the implacable judge’s mask I wore for the occasion. A small sound of protest, nearly a squeak, issued from his throat. “What d’you mean—? Damn it, Judge, he just got in with our own.”
Cal and I started over to the barn, Moses staggering after. Buddy in his dim golden rectangle moved about the animals, bending and turning and reaching as though electricity were bouncing around his body and he was trying to shake it out. Then peering out at us, he stood very still. Moses came up behind, panting into his beard, gathering his indignation.
“You come to me, Judge, you come to me!” He paused to catch his breath. “Or”—a look of doubt grazed his brow—“is this another goddamned legal matter?”
“No, no, Colonel. I’m sending Buddy up to the hills.”
“Ho now! Look who thinks he’s sitting up high and mighty at his court! You gone funny? Your word’s not but a vapor out here. Buddy ain’t going up those hills for nobody’s beasts, not in this nonsense, not for all the silver in the valley.”
I held my hand up to the snow. “I think it’s letting up a bit.”
“Well, this beats the Dutch.”
“Anyway it’s not my livestock Buddy’s going to fetch. It’s Ethan. He’s up there, he’s not come down.”
The Colonel’s outraged eyes shrank like embers that whirl about and fade to nothing. After a moment he said, “Judge, even if it is your boy . . .”
“Let me change my shitkickers,” Buddy said in a flat, loud voice. He walked off into the murk, talking over his shoulder. “And get my saddlebag ready. Take but five minutes.”
“That settles it then.”
“Just everybody hold on and wait. I tell you I don’t like it. But if he’s hellbent on going up—” Moses said, working his way toward the delicate question of payment. He searched my face sourly, all the misery and failure of his years scrawled deep upon that once-remarkable countenance.
“Yes?” I said coldly.
The Colonel’s lower lip quivered for an instant, and then he drew himself up, once again an old soldier. Grinning without warmth, he turned away, tottering from side to side and grumbling into the wind. “Blessed be nothing,” he said as the storm effaced his receding shape.
My house looked unnatural as we rode toward it, cold yet ablaze as with fever. Luke stood at the window scratching pictures into the icy glaze, and when he saw our little caravan draw forth in its lantern ring, he put his sleeve up to the pane and rubbed. Snow flew off the roof and scrolled up in a fine dry mist. Through it I saw my wife appear stiffly at Luke’s side.
“No, he’s not come back,” I said to Buddy and Cal.
Buddy sidled away from the house a little, a peculiar deference, his gaze catching the windows askance as if he might see Livvy flitting by. “I’m away, then,” he announced. I rode with him to the upper pasture. Between gusts the snow fell so delicately as to seem almost harmless though already it had buried the cart paths and drifted deeply across the roads. And as we reached that modest altitude, the wind came steadily, blowing across the fields, and I pictured the snows it carried weaving and curling among the Chapman gravestones that lay off in the dark. Buddy removed his gloves and lit an old pipe, his broad cupped hands manipulating the flame expertly. He glanced in my direction.
“No lantern?” I said. “Take mine.”
Raising it up I saw the hollows of Buddy’s cheeks and jaw brutally exaggerated. “Nah,” he said. “She sees pretty damn well at night. Better’n we do.”
Without another word he galloped off toward the treeline.
I trotted back to the house and found the boys sitting slack-faced by the fire, flipping down cards among the leaping hearth shadows. I passed into the kitchen. On the table were sliced apples and a slab of dough over which my wife hovered motionless, lost in thought. She flinched at my approach.
“I can barely crack an egg I feel so weak,” she said.
“Will you boil me up some coffee? I’ve got to get back out there and keep watch.”
“Keep watch over what?”
I had decided to reconnoiter the upper pasture, the whole plateau above my farm, in order to avoid fidgeting around a house grown tense with foreboding and cool estrangement. I looked at my wife as she busied herself about the stove. Her fair skin had turned wan and papery, with black half-moons beneath her eyes. Watching her from the doorway, I had a flickering desire to recover her lost heart, to tether it anew, if I could only figure out how. She handed me my big tin cup and went back to her apples.
As I rode off the house shrank behind me in wood smoke and snow. I crossed the pasture and pushed onward to the edge of the realm and stamped about before the old massed trees with my lantern swinging. The wind came blasting down the valley and I sheltered my face in the swale of my horse’s mighty neck. Then drawing back from his sudden stillness I said, “You see something out there, boy?”
From the woods came a remote timbery crack, a hard downhill thud and the rapid beat of something large. Groping for my pistol I dropped it into the snow.
“Halt, halt!” I shouted.
A stooped figure on horseback crossed the granular yellow eye of my lantern. “Buddy, hey?” I said throwing out light in a wide arc. I edged up close. With great effort the figure straightened. He was so rimed and bent that I took him for an old man, but as I steadied the lantern, I made out beneath his hatbrim the beaten-silver face of my boy Ethan.
“Have I made it out? Am I here?”
Not knowing what to say as emotion welled against my breastbone, I asked about the livestock.
His eyes were dull and unperceiving. “All I got’s this one crazy cow,” he said in a wind-tangled whisper. “The rest . . .”
“Cow? What cow?”
Ethan drew his horse around and stared mystified at the night. “Hell. Guess I got nothing, then.”
“You spy Buddy Drummer up there, by chance?”
“Was that you calling at him? I thought the devil come into my senses.”
“Well, son, you better get on down.”
“Right, let’s go.”
My mind had been a room of mirrors, but at a stroke I saw only one reflection, that of an old judge risen up in darkness, hard but fair. I dropped down into the snow and fished out my pistol.
“Have Mother lay you out by the fire. And take some brandy, the good brandy, you know where I keep it.” A lantern was cinched to his saddle, cracked and lifeless. “Can you get yourself down all right?”
The dulling cold fell from Ethan’s eyes like ice from a milking pail. “You saying Buddy’s up there for real?”
“Sent him after you, didn’t I?”
“Father, listen, it’s death up there. You can’t go. Buddy’s his own best chance. Anyway he’d of known to turn back. Night’s going to pieces.”
“So it is. Get on now.”
Ethan regarded me for a long moment, and I made of myself a stone, cold, intransigent, daring him to inquire deeper. He looked away. “I don’t understand. He’s not worth the risk. You know that as well as I do.”
“Go on home.”
I rode into the maw of the woods. White on black, heaven on hell, I rode. In a little glen amid the tall trees I believed I saw a dappled flank slide elegantly past. What the christ, I thought. Cantering after it, I broke through some sticks into a frozen bower, and there I found three cows, huddled up against one another, half-dead on their hoofs. One of them raised its head and moaned.
“Sorry ladies. Got to get on. Hold fast till I’m down.”
I brushed under the pines along the river and made the delicate crossing, the water swelling perilously against my horse’s belly and then subsiding. On I rode, up and up through that queer diminishing country. The trees grew stunted and warped. Wind shouted across the great nothing like the voices of the damned. Ethan was right: it was death up there, and I could sense how easily the divide might be crossed. Advancing gingerly, I watched ice crystals fall down my chest, an immense beard of them, rolling off into the silver night.
Careful, I told myself, careful or you’ll wind up like John Bowen.
“Ethan! Ahoy, Ethan!”
The voice blatted out of the storm like a toy trumpet, tuneless, thin. I found the butt of my pistol. In the dim foreground, crusted in snow and ice, sat a ghostly human form, inching downhill on its buttocks.
“Hah! Ethan! There you are, you filthy pig.”
Raising my lantern I stared full into the untamed blue of those eyes, Buddy’s eyes. I cleared my throat and said, “Where’s that mare of yours?”
“Oh . . . It’s you.”
The chill between us was double. In a cold corner of my mind I saw him reel away from Madden Lake, the death aperture flattening out behind him, over his stiffening shoulder, only his own life precious. “She stepped into a gully. Rolled over on me and busted her leg. Mine too, I guess.”
I understood then that providence had affirmed my judgment, there in the high country. I let my hand fall to my side.
“You put her down?”
“Nah, she three-legged it into the woods or somewheres.”
I dismounted. “That’s too damn bad.”
“Ethan?” he said.
“Oh, he’s down safe. A little worse for wear.”
“I’ll be lucky to get offa this mountain with all my fingers and toes on me. Won’t I, Judge Chapman?”
Squatting I held the lantern close and watched my breath scud across Buddy’s dumb, probing face. “Young man, I don’t see you having that kind of luck.” I straightened and touched his broken shin with the tip of my boot. “Damndest thing,” I said. “Thought I saw that old Appaloosa in some brambles below the river. You imagine? Just an effect of the storm, I guess.”
Buddy raised himself on his elbows and gazed off toward the unseeable valley. “Come on, Judge. Let’s get out of here. I’m dying of the cold.”
“We’re all dying of something, Buddy. A little every day.”
And there I left him, on the drift plain of my inner eye, suspended forever.