Late that afternoon, amidst impossibly elongated shadows that reshaped the world into a dismal vale of sorrows, we found our way to where the Carson spills from the slopes, and there, along the wooded banks of that stream, we spied a stranger clad in blue woolen shirt and broadcloth pantaloons kneeling upon a freshly dug grave and tapping at a makeshift wooden cross with the flat of his spade. As we approached, we could hear him muttering through choking sobs.
Moore dismounted from Grandee, and Judge Cutler swung down from his strapping Morgan, and the two of them approached the mourner with soft, reverent steps, hats clutched to their chests. Stormy and I followed, leading our mules. Gently interrupting the fellow’s murmured lamentations, the judge said, "Soft, now, friend, and forgive us our intrusion; yours is a comfortless sorrow, and words no salve, that’s easy enough for any man with eyes. And even yet do we feel compelled to proffer a hand in fellowship and serve up whatever meager inspiritment our humble fraternity might yield.”
The stranger blew his nose into his sleeve and rubbed at his eyes. “What’s that you say, now?” he said, blinking.
Moore cleared his throat. “Only that we wish to offer you whatever comfort a group of strangers can give to one bound up in unspeakable sorrow, as you so clearly are,” he said.
I hadn’t heard Billy talk that way very often. I guessed he was showing off for the judge a little maybe.
“Mighty kind of you,” the mourner said, and then plunged his face down into his hands, overcome by another wave of grief.
The judge laid a hand upon the poor fellow’s quaking shoulder. “There now, son,” he said. “You’ve got to weep, so weep. The poet of Ecclesiastes knew all about hard times and urged us to go on and blubber when blubbering was the order of the day. Wail and faint like the frailest woman, for all we care; we’ll not judge of you. Go on, whine and bawl like any maiden; we’ll not question your sand. Put aside your manhood, that’s it, and snivel like a tiny girl. Mewl out your vagitus, bleat—”
“Tell us, friend,” Moore interrupted. “For what blessed soul do you pour out your noble tears?”
“Yes,” said the judge. “Who was she? What comely young thing lies cold there ‘neath the loam, so newly wrenched from our midst? Describe her to us, top to bottom, leaving nothing out: her symmetry, her lithesomeness, the supple contours, the swell and crest of—”
“It ain’t a woman lies here a-tall,” the man said, still shuddering with sorrow.
Judge Cutler clicked his tongue and shook his head sadly. “Your little boy,” he murmured. “Oh, it’s an awful thing when the young are taken! How can a man keep faith in a world where the candle of youth may be so cruelly snuffed out, and never a moment’s notice either! He was your very image, wasn’t he, glad and true-hearted and brimful of expectation. He—”
“Nosir,” the stranger drawled, “’Tweren’t my boy, for I haven’t ever had none.”
“Well, then, who, confound it, so’s I can direct my grievances proper?”
“My pard,” the man said. “Mick.”
“Mick,” said the judge, crushing his hat against his chest anew. “Yes, Mick.” He dropped to one knee in the fresh dirt and a-hemmed loudly, motioning the rest of us down around the grave. The others knelt in the overturned soil, but I couldn’t get there, quite, for Ahab had his ears laid back and his knees locked up, disliking the smell of things.
“Poor Mick,” Judge Cutler began. “Poor, poor old Mick. No finer comrade did a working man ever boast. Strong? Oh, I reckon he was a little bit strong—if strength means carrying a keg of nails on each shoulder over a half a mile, barefooted through the sleet. Loyal? True? Don’t talk to me of such things, when Mick strode the earth. You never see a man whiter than Mick, quicker to sacrifice his own comforts for the good of his brethren. If there was chores to be done, Mick was there in a minute. He couldn’t stand to see anybody else discommoded for an instant. There’s Christians, and then there was Mick. How about the time he gave his boots to a wayfaring stranger who he judged to be a degree or two poorer than himself, and then caught a fever that laid him up six weeks? That was Mick all the way. Or when, hungry and destitute, he spent his only dime to feed a little pickpocket orphan and, thus depriving himself of sustenance, nearly succumbed to the Marasmus, and the urchin reformed so thorough that now he preaches to the cannibals along the Gold Coast? Children! That was his tenderest spot. If ever you spoiled for a fight with Mick, though I don’t know why you’d want to, just disadvantage a child or two in his presence. Then you’d wish you’d sharpened down a stick and poked at a wolverine some. Did the ladies love Mick? Oh, I reckon not. They only slipped off their petticoats in helpless surrender the instant he hove into view. Mick knew how to please them, too, knew some techniques that were his and his alone, come by through hard experience. Why, he could—”
“Suppose,” said Billy Moore, “we let this gentleman talk a while, since he alone among us was acquainted with the deceased? Tell us, friend: how ever did Mick come to grief?”
The mourner appeared to squirm a little at the question, as if he’d have preferred to hear the judge go on prattling, but all eyes were on him now, wide with curiosity, and so he drew himself up straight, brushed off his shirtfront, and said quietly, “Gentlemen, what y’all see standing before y’all is a broken man, busted sure as any stick of kindling.” He sighed heavily and went on. “Mick and me, we was glued side b’ side the better part of two year. I had me a brother back home in Tennessee and loved him—but not like I loved Mick. I had me a daddy, right up till I was eleven and he rolled off’n a bridge and drownded and died, and I loved him—but not like I loved Mick. I had me a woman, too, one time, and loved her—but not like I loved Mick. Had me a bluetick coonhound, fine animal, smart’s a whip, tenacious, treer, hot-nosed, bawled on track, chopped on tree—”
“You loved him, I suppose,” the judge said impatiently, “But not like Mick.”
“Loved who?” said the stranger.
“Why, your blasted hound.”
“Then why’d you say ‘him’?”
“Thunder and lightnin’,” Ford cut in. “Because you was just talking about the infernal blame dog.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have said ‘him’,” the stranger drawled, “for that hound was a bitch.”
“I don’t believe you ever did say ‘him’,” I said, with as much kindness as I could muster, which wasn’t a heaping great amount. “I believe the judge presumed it.”
The mourner nodded. “His mistake,” he said. He turned to Cutler. “Your mistake. Understandable, but still. Anyhow, as I’s saying, I loved that coonhound—but not like I loved Mick.”
“Mick and me just cottoned to each other straight from the git-go. He was a stump, a regular stump. We was hauling freight in the Reserve, is where we met, and then we had to run off on account of a bad occurrence in Cleveland, which was his fault as much as “twas mine, or my fault as much as ‘twas his, I should parbly say; and we cut heel and busted clear of the states, side b’ side. Right side b’ side. Skinned buffalo out in Kansas but didn’t take to it, neither one of us. Too gutsy, sort of. Guided some emigrants, though that was all bellyache and no profit, the way they fussed and squabbled. Loaned ourselves out to a sawmill, which was the drudgeriest thing either one of us ever put a hand to. And then come out to Californy to hunt the color. Right beside each other every step of the way, side b’ side. And did we tire of one another, even one time? No, sir. Opposite thing happened. Why, I’d open my eyes in the mornin’, and there would be Mick, and we’d grin like it’d been years and take up the thread of just whatsoever little old thing we’d been natterin’ at the night before. Just side b’ side, hear? Never got to know a man better, nor to have such feeling for one. Loved him better than my brother back in Tennessee, better than the father I had till I was eleven, bet—”
“Thunder and lightnin’,” Ford said, “one single word about that goddamned dog of yours, and I’ll put you right in there with Mick.”
Some instinct for preservation told the stranger that Ford might mean what he said, and though I could see that it pained him to lop off his litany before he’d fetched clear through to the coonhound, he bore it manfully, lowered his head, and said softly, “And now, gentlemen, I come to the melancholiest thing that ever met men’s ears. Mick was just as the preacher here described him—” he meant the judge “—affable, warmhearted, generous to a fault, kind to any and all, and all those in between. He and me we looked at the world through one set of eyes, you could say, agreed on everything, right down to the very most slightest. It was side b’ side all the way for us. Why, me and Mick, we spoke of every single thing there was to talk about, and if there was an opinion to make, we’d make it up together and share it like brothers who’s maybe only got one pair of britches between ‘em. That warn’t no stretch for the two of us, ever. Right side b’ side. Well, anyway I thought we’d spoke about all there was to speak about, but somehow or other we’d missed a topic or two, it seems, and just this morning them topics sprang up, as things will, by and by. Well, make a long story short of it, this is it: Mick was … a Yankee!”
This revelation did not have its desired effect upon his audience, but he proceeded along just as if it had scandalized us all.
“Yessir, he told me so his very own self. Admitted to it like it warn’t nothing at all, easy as you’d say your Mammy was a Jones or a Smith. Born and reared up in Massachusetts. Massachusetts! Now, I’d always known he talked a little funny, but I just thought he was a little different. Hell, I loved that slicked-up voice of his. But good heavens, this morning! Why, with a perfectly straight face he swore up and down that he’d vote Republican first chance he got. Republican! That’s exactly what he said, and if he didn’t I wish I may never stir. Well, you can just imagine how it hit me, hearing this. Why, it spun me around so fast I couldn’t tell t’other from which. A Yankee! All that time! And sleeping right shoulder to shoulder of me!”
None of us spoke; we were, at last, rather engrossed.
“How he kept that hid from me for so long I’ll never come to fathom. But it must have been a strain on him, actin’ so good for so long to fool me, with all that evil and hatred toward our way of life abiding there in the darkness of his heart. I tell you what stumps me most is how he ever come to be so handy with a rifle, for there ain’t but one Yankee in a thousand, you know, ever touched one in his life. Or handy with other things, neither. Horses. Rope. Tools. Slept right on the hard ground, too, just as offhanded as a Santy Sioux. Put up with cold, and fleas, like a man! Yankees, you know, never goes outdoors, scarcely. Sure enough never sleeps out there, or works outdoors. But Mick? He did it all, without a moment’s fuss, which is impossible for a Yankee, of course. But I ain’t said the worst of it yet. Things got mighty warm mighty fast, conversationally, I mean, betwixt him and me, and pretty soon it come out that he warn’t just any old Yankee. My Mick—my old Mick—was a true-blue, by-God abolitionist. Abolitionist! I know you won't believe me, but I swear it’s true. He said so his very self this morning, and if he was still available I’d have him vouch for it, for Mick never was one to lie nor to make light.”
We could not speak. We all could see now which direction this story was headed, and we were loath to hear its inevitably grim conclusion. In the awful silence, the stranger lowered his head and began muttering almost to himself in the same sorry tones we’d heard on our first approach, “I just can’t understand how a Yankee abolitionist could act so fine and manly, keeping up appearances for nigh unto two years. But Mick done it. Too many for me, I tell you.”
“What did—what did you … do?” Billy Moore finally asked.
“Why, I did the only thing I could do. I brained him with my spade and buried him up, and here he lays, forever still.’
He stared at us through hollow, red-rimmed eyes. “Oh, I warn’t happy to do it. As I say, I’m busted up forever and ever. No good for life after this. But when a man bumps hard up against evil, he’s got to be a man and stand up to it, or we’re all lost. I did it for my country, for Jesus, for the sake of decency. Oh, I wish to the Lord I never had to. Why, if only he hadn’t have admitted it, and so free and casual, too…"
“Why, you dimwitted cretin,” Judge Cutler said. “You never had to murder the man!”
The stranger scowled bitterly. “Oh, no,” he said. “I reckon I could just as well have let him roam around, despising freedom and righteousness, maybe let him take a wife and raise up a whole passel of little old Yankees to ban the Bible and take away all that’s good from us honest, God-fearing folks!”
This final outburst appeared to have expended him, for here at last the stranger gave over wholly to his grief, flung himself down on the grave, and with a great gnashing of teeth fell to cursing and bemoaning the departed Mick, to blaming heaven, and to petitioning the very stars for an understanding of how an abolitionist could have cloaked himself in feigned morality for so long.
We four crept back to our horses and mules and left him to his wild lament.
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