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THE GOLD

"Might save a few fer the rest of us," squawked the mockingbird as Old Nathan dropped another blackberry into his poplar-bark basket.


Old Nathan looked up from what he was doing and snagged his hand in the thorns. "Go 'way, bird," the cunning man grumbled as he detached himself from the brambles. "Ye don't look ill-fed—and if ye did starve, the world 'd be a better place without your screechin'."


He eased a half step farther. The blackberry vines grew out from the margin of the woods into his oats. They'd need to be cut back before Old Nathan cradled the grain—but first he'd have berries.


"Tsk!" said the bird. "Now thet's a lie if ever I heard one! Why"—he half-spread his black-and-white barred wings to examine the interlocking edges of the flight feathers—"ifen I wish to, there's no prettier tune in all the world 'n mine."


Old Nathan grunted and collected three more of the ripe black fruit. The fingertips of his right hand were stained purple.


The strap supporting the basket over Old Nathan's left shoulder was cloth, gray linsey-woosey worn soft as soft from the days it was a shirt. Though the fabric didn't bite flesh the way a bail of split white oak would have done, there was nigh a gallon of blackberries in the bucket already. That, plus the weight of the long rifle in the cunning man's left hand, had about convinced him that it was time to traipse back to the cabin.


He reached out once more. The mockingbird got to the berry first and twisted his neck quickly to pluck it.


"Git on with you!" the cunning man said in irritation. He prodded with his rifle muzzle. The bird flew to the top branches of a dogwood growing up beside the cleared field.


Old Nathan scowled, mostly at himself. He hadn't needed the berry . . . and the bird was right, his best call was as pretty as anything on earth. Finer 'n a nightingale, said the English beau who'd heard both. 


Purple juice squirted from both sides of the mockingbird's beak. It lifted its throat and swallowed, keeping one sharp black eye on Old Nathan.


"Tsk!" the bird repeated. "Don't know why you carry thet old smoke-pole anyhow. You don't hunt."


Old Nathan found a ripe berry and twisted it off the vine. He popped it into his mouth instead of the bucket. Sweet and tart together, and gritty from the tiny seeds. Better 'n the all-sweet of honey, lessen you had a perticular notion for sweet. 


"Don't eat meat," the cunning man corrected. "Thet don't mean I choose t' find a bear in my own patch and hev nothin' to go on but a bear's good natur."


The mockingbird trilled merrily at the ridiculous notion of a bear having a good nature. "Tain't no bears hereabouts," the bird sang. "There's a couple folk up t' your cabin though, waitin' you. People's worse nor bears, most times."


Old Nathan glanced north reflexively, in the direction of his cabin. There was nothing to be seen through the heads of his grain and the swell of the ground. Even if he'd been in a treetop like the bird, he didn't guess he'd have been able to tell much. His old eyes were sharp enough still, at a distance; but he wasn't a mockingbird for vision, no more than he was a bull for strength.


"Reckon I better go see 'em, thin," the cunning man muttered. "Reckon they've come t' consult me, not t' raise trouble."


But he checked the priming of his long rifle first; because what the mockingbird had said about humans and bears was pretty much Old Nathan's opinion too.


* * *

When the cunning man came up to the back door of his cabin, past the greetings of his two cows and the mule, the visitors were standing, but they hadn't been on their feet long. The cane-bottom rocker still tapped back and forth, and the straight chair had been moved to a corner where a man sitting in it could face out with solid logs behind him.


The man who'd gotten up from the rocker was Bascom Hardy. Hardy might not be the richest man in the county as he claimed, but he was right enough the richest man who'd made his money here.


"Earned his money" was another matter. Hardy dealt in loans and land—and in the law, to enforce those dealings.


Old Nathan couldn't put a name to the other man, but the type was frequent enough. The fellow had smallpox scars on the left side of his face and a knife-track trailing from below his right ear across his nose. From his hair and features, he was a half-breed.


No sin in that. White women had been mighty thin on the ground when Europeans settled the Tennessee Territory. Old Nathan himself had Cherokee blood. There was good and bad in any race, though, and the scarred man standing in the corner didn't appear to have been fortunate in the mixture he'd gotten from his parents.


The half-breed wouldn't meet Old Nathan's eyes, but his fingers played with the stock of his short-barreled caplock musket while he looked sidelong at the cunning man. Old Nathan figured the weapon was loaded with buck and ball, several heavy shot wadded down on top of a ball the size of the barrel's diameter. A wasteful load for hunting.


Unless you were hunting men.


Another time, the cunning man would have pulled the charge from his flintlock as soon as he came in the door. This time he did not, and he leaned the long rifle against the wall instead of hanging it over the chimney board where it would be closer to the half-breed than to its owner across the room.


Not that he figured there'd be that sort of trouble.


"Hope you don't mind me waiting for you here," said Bascom Hardy, saying and not asking, and talking as if the half-breed didn't exist at all. "I reckon you know who I am."


Old Nathan dipped a gourd of water from the barrel on the back porch. He drank some and splashed the rest over his face and neck. The cool liquid soaked the front of his shirt and dripped onto the puncheon floor with the irritated sound of frying grease.


"You're a man needs my he'p," the cunning man said. "Thet's why you're here."


He kneaded his face with strong, sinewy fingers. Another time he'd have gotten a dipper of buttermilk from the jug cooling in the creek; but that would mean offering some to his visitors, and just now he didn't care t' do so.


Bascom Hardy's face stiffened. "I don't need no man," he said sharply. "You'd best remember thet."


Hardy was a tall, hollow-cheeked man, near as tall as Old Nathan himself. He wore good store-bought clothes, but he seemed to have wizened up after the garments were fitted; now they hung loose. A gold chain with several gold seals swung across Hardy's narrow chest to a pocket of his waistcoat.


Old Nathan looked his visitor up and down. There were those who accused the cunning man of hating all mankind; but there were sure-God some folk easier t' hate than others.


"Thin I guess," Old Nathan said, "thet you kin leave, for I druther have your space thin your presence."


The cat sauntered in, licking cobwebs from his fur. He'd hidden under the cabin when the strangers arrived, showing that he didn't care any more for the folk than his master did.


"Wouldn't mind a bowl of milk," the cat yowled. "Seein's as you won't fetch me a dollop of good bloody meat."


Old Nathan bent sideways to scratch the ears of the big yellow tom. He kept his eyes on the human visitors and didn't answer the animal.


For a moment, the two men were all stillness and silence. Then Bascom Hardy shook the tension loose with a laugh and said, "Didn't mean to start off on the wrong foot. My name's Bascom Hardy, and I've come t' make a business offer t' you. Ned"—he didn't look around at the half-breed—"whyn't you set on the porch while me 'n Mister Nathan, here, we talk business."


"No more juice to either of 'em thin woods rats," the cat remarked scornfully. "Though they might be fun t' kill, specially"—he eyed the half-breed slouching onto the porch as ordered—"the squatty one."


"Set, then," the cunning man said grudgingly. He gestured his visitor to the straight-backed chair and sat in the rocker himself. "What is it you come t' see me for?"


Hardy lifted the offered chair closer to the table in the center of the single room. He glanced around with a false smile as he seated himself.


The cabin had few amenities, though they were all the owner required. Two chairs—the rocker to set in, and the straight chair by the table for when he ate, wrote, or did figures. Chests along one sidewall with stored clothing and a handful of personal items—nothing that would tempt a thief. On the table, an alcohol lamp; and on the chimney board above the walk-in fireplace, five fine porcelain cups, a plate, and a few knickknacks of less obvious purpose.


Hardy focused again on the cunning man's hot green eyes. "Waal," he said, "I guess you're a man wouldn't be feared of a spook, now, would ye?"


He thought nothing of the sort. His voice cajoled, encouraging Old Nathan to create a fearless self-image which would agree to do whatever the rich man wanted done—but feared to do himself.


"Say yer piece," Old Nathan said flatly. The chair rocked minutely beneath him, scritch-scritch; the high pine back moving no more than an inch at a stroke.


A pair of titmice, blue-gray with a black tip to their crests, flew in the cabin's open front door and perched for a moment—one on the underside of a roof pole and the other on the muzzle of the cunning man's rifle.


"My brother Bynum died over t' Maury County nigh three months ago," Bascom Hardy said. "A day past the new moon. He was a rich man, rich as rich."


"Tsk! There's a cat here," chirped one of the titmice as it fluttered from the gun to the roof, then out the back door in concert with its companion. "Tsk! But he can't ketch us!"


"Like you are yerse'f," Old Nathan stated flatly. He knuckled his beard, black despite his age, with his knobby right hand.


The cat's head turned to watch the birds. His tail beat twice. The second time it made a soft thump against the puncheon floor. The big tom got up from beside the rocker and walked toward the visitor's chair with an evil look in his eyes.


"That's true, I am," Bascom Hardy said. His tone was half between irritation at being interrupted and pride at what he took for flattery. "But that's not a speck t' do with my brother, and my brother Bynum's the reason I'm here."


He glanced around again, unable or unwilling to keep his lip from lifting in a sneer.


The cat rubbed firmly against the visitor's ankles, leaving a track of hair against the fabric of the black trousers. Hardy squawked, jerking his legs aside as though his boots had slid him into a cesspool.


"Cat!" Old Nathan snapped, coming up off the rocker. "You git back from there!"


The cat lifted his nose. "Hmpf," he said. "That un don't half hate cats, don't he?"


The cunning man's left index finger pointed. A spark of static popped in the air between Old Nathan and the animal.


"All right, all right," the cat grumped. "Keep yer britches on." He padded across the floor, then disappeared out the back door in a single fluid bound.


Bascom Hardy settled himself again in his chair. "That's better," he growled. He indicated the roof poles with a lift of his clean-shaven chin. "If thet dirty beast comes up t' me again, I'll kick him right through yer shakes."


Old Nathan remained standing. "Did you hear thet I don't eat meat, Bascom Hardy?" he asked.


Hardy raised an eyebrow. "I heard thet," he said. "I don't see how it signifies."


"But," the cunning man rasped, "ye never heerd I was a Quaker as wouldn't larrup a man to an inch of his life ifen he kicked my cat in my home. Did ye now?"


He grinned at his visitor. His eyes flashed like sparks of burning copper.


"I beg your pardon," said Bascom Hardy. His voice was sincere, at least in its undertone of fear.


Old Nathan relaxed and walked again to the water barrel. "Tell yer tale, Mister Hardy," he said. "Tell yer tale."


"I reckon Bynum knew his time or purty close to it," Bascom Hardy resumed. "For nigh a month, he'd been sellin' his notes and his land holdins—at a discount to shift 'em fast, like he'd gone out of his head!"


Hardy's voice lowered from its tone of shrill disbelief. He bent forward and added, "But he turned it into gold, all his paper and land into gold; and there must 've been a mort of it, rich as Bynum was!"


Old Nathan felt his skin tingling. There was nothing he could put a name to, no image or echo from the words his visitor had spoken; but there was something here waiting, and mayhap waiting for the cunning man himself. . . .


Old Nathan saw the image of gold coins tumbling across the surface of the rich man's mind, as though the brown eyes were windows to Hardy's thoughts. "Go on," he said. "Tell yer tale, Bascom Hardy."


The rocker still nodded from the vehemence with which the old man had risen from it; back and forth, a skritch and a squeal against the wear-polished pine floor.


Hardy blinked and returned to the present moment, but his voice was husky with memory as he said, "Bynum 'n me, we didn't git on, never had from childhood. We split Pappy's holdings when he died, and I don't mind tellin' ye that Bynum would hev cheated me on the settlement—but I was too sharp fer him!"


"You were full blood kin, you and your brother?" Old Nathan asked suddenly.


Bascom Hardy blinked again. "Eh?" he said. "The same mother, you mean? Thet's so, but I don't see how it sig . . ."


His voice trailed off as he heard it echoing previous words.


Old Nathan reached into the air above and behind his head. His eyes were open but fixed somewhere far beyond the solid log walls of his cabin. He felt . . . and it was there, his fingers closing on the bone-scaled jackknife as they always did when he twisted them just right.


He wasn't sure where the knife was or how he found it; but he did find it, this time and each time before, and perhaps the next time as well.


His visitor's eyes narrowed. Hardy was sure that the knife had come from Old Nathan's sleeve, or perhaps had been hidden all the time by the cunning man's long knobby fingers . . . but it looked as though—


Old Nathan handed the knife to Hardy and said, "Take it, take it. There's no magic t' this."


No more was there; but wherever the knife had been was cooler than the late-August air of the cabin.


Bascom Hardy frowned as he took the knife. It was an ordinary two-blade jackknife, with German-silver bolsters and scales of jigged bone. The shield in the center of one yellow scale was the only thing to differentiate it from thousands of other knives brought into the territory in peddlers' packs. The inset was true silver, which Old Nathan himself had hammered from a section of ten-cent piece and fixed to the knife by a silver rivet.


"Rub the silver plate with yer thumb 'n hand it back to me," the cunning man directed. Hardy obeyed, but he frowned both at the brusque tone of the command and his inability to tell what the older man had in mind.


"Tell your tale, Bascom Hardy," Old Nathan repeated quietly. He held the knife with the shield facing him. When he whispered a few words under his breath, the silver became a clouded gray.


"When I heard the discounts Bynum was takin', I rid right over to him," Hardy said. "Fust time I'd seen him since we settled Pappy's estate, but blood's thicker 'n water."


"And gold's thicker nor both," the cunning man muttered, his eyes on the shield.


"Lived in a little scrape-hole cabin not so big as this," Bascom Hardy said scornfully. "Bynum never knew thet if money was power, then power was money too. You got to put out to bring in, the way I do. He was the elder by a year, but I'm the one who got the sense."


"Some families," said Old Nathan, "the one child's as big a durned fool as the next." If he had glanced up as he spoke, the comment would have been pointed, but the cunning man continued staring at the knife in his hand.


"He'd took to his bed," Hardy continued. "He knowed he was failin', thet was sure. Didn't own a thing no more but the cabin and a few sticks o' furniture—" The visitor's eyes danced around the room in which he sat. "And gold. He'd sold all thet land and all them notes-of-hand for gold. And he wouldn't tell me where it was he kept the gold."


A figure formed, on the silver shield or in Old Nathan's mind; he couldn't be sure, nor did it matter. A crab-faced man, his skin stained yellow by the lingering death of his liver, lying on a corn-shuck mattress with a threadbare blanket pulled up to his throat. The man was bald and aged by sickness, so that he might as easily have been Bascom Hardy's father as brother.


"He warn't able t' care for that gold!" Bascom Hardy added bitterly. "He warn't able t' care fer nothin, him a-layin' there on the bed and not a servant in the house. Couldn't get up to fetch a dipper of water, Bynum couldn't!"


"Hadn't any neighbors in t' he'p him, then?" Old Nathan asked.


Bascom's voice had caught when he mentioned the dipper of water. The cunning man did not need his arts to imagine the hale brother at the bedside, tempting the sick man with sight of a cool drink that could be his if only he spoke where his wealth was hidden. . . .


"Bynum didn't hold with neighbors pokin' their noses in his business," Bascom Hardy said sharply.


Old Nathan smiled at the silver. "No more do you," he said.


"Thet's as may be!" his visitor snapped. "I told you once, it's not me thet's your affair, d'ye hear?"


"Say on, Bascom Hardy," the cunning man said.


Hardy settled back in his chair, though he couldn't have been said to relax. "He said he'd come back and tell me of the gold whin the moon was new again," Bascom said.


On or through the knife's silver window, Bynum's jaundiced image mimed the words Bascom spoke aloud.


" 'Come back here', that was how he put it," Bascom continued, "and then he died." Hardy frowned at the memory. "Didn't even ask fer a drink, though I had the dipper right there."


He looked up, his brown eyes full of purpose and as hard as polished chert. "I want you t' set up in Bynum's old cabin when the moon goes in, three nights from now. You listen t' what he says and you won't be the loser fer it, you hear me?"


Old Nathan was in a dream state where all knowledge was bounded by the blurry walls of the tunnel which linked him to the shield on the knife scale. It was broad daylight in the world of the cabin, but formless gray in his mind.


Bascom Hardy's voice penetrated with difficulty to the cunning man's consciousness. The cries of birds and animals going about the business of their lives were lost in the shadows.


"Hit's been nigh three months since your brother died," Old Nathan said. The face on the silver was changing to that of a hard, square man of middle age. His front teeth were missing. "Who did ye put t' setting up afore me?"


"I don't see it signifies," Bascom Hardy grumbled. His host's blurred consciousness disturbed him, though he had no idea of what was going on behind Old Nathan's hooded eyes.


After a moment, Hardy said, "Gray Jack it was. I have enemies, you kin see thet. He looked out fer me, the way Ned does now. I figgered when the new moon come again, Jack could spend a night in the cabin. If anybody come by t' speak—waal, he was a brave man, so he told me."


Old Nathan's lips twisted into an expression that could have been a smile or a sneer, whichever way a man wanted to read it. "You didn't say to him thet it was your dead brother would come t' speak, did ye?" he said. His voice echoed from the gray tunnel of his mind.


"How did I know it was?" the rich man blazed in defensive anger. "Anyhow, Jack didn't ask me, did he? And there's an all-fired mess of gold thet my brother hid somewhur, a mess of gold, I tell ye!"


"There's a well in front of yer brother's cabin," Old Nathan said as images streamed across the silver and through his mind.


"There's nothin' to the well but water 'n a rock floor," Bascom Hardy said dismissively. "D'ye think I didn't try thet the first thing out whin Bynum died?"


"Sompin come out of the well," the cunning man said. "What I cain't tell, because my mirror's silver and there's things silver won't show . . . but I reckon it was yer brother."


"Gray Jack said nobody come," Bascom said harshly. "I knowed he was lying. Shook like an aspen, he did, whin he tole me in the morning. I figger he run away soon as he seen Bynum."


"You figger wrong," Old Nathan said, too flat to be an argument. "The cabin has one door only, and Bynum was to thet door afore yer man heard him. He'd hev run if he could, but he hid under the bed. And yer brother, he et the supper and went out t' the well again."


"There's nothing in thet well, I tell you!" Bascom shouted. "Nor in the cabin neither! I warrant I searched it like no cabin been searched afore."


He swallowed, then continued more calmly, "Bynum, he's burried t' the back of the plot, not the front. I'd hev put him in the churchyard down t' Ridley, but the Baptists wouldn't hev him. I reckon they figgered I oughta pay them—but how was I t' do thet, I ask you, whin I haven't found airy cent of Bynum's money?"


Old Nathan smiled again. "Don't guess money was the problem, them not wanting yer t' bury yer brother," he said. The distance from which he spoke took the edge off the words. "What happened t' Jack, Bascom Hardy?"


The rich man looked up at the roof poles. A strip of bullhide dangled from them, the horns at the top and the coarse hairs of the bull's tail-tip brushing the floor. "I reckon," he lied, "Jack went off on his own."


"He hung hisself," said the cunning man.


"And what if he did?" Bascom Hardy shouted. "Hit was his own choice, warn't it? Just like the poor folk, they don't hoe their crop 'n thin they blame me when I buy their land at the sheriff's sale!"


"Was a woman the next time," said Old Nathan as the images in his silver-washed mind changed. "Old Mamie Fergusson from Battle Branch down Columbia way."


Bascom Hardy had come to Old Nathan because of the cunning man's reputation, but he squirmed nonetheless at proof of the reality behind that reputation. "Guess hit might hev been. She come t' me. I reckon she thought she'd find the gold herse'f, but what she said was she'd sit up fer me."


"Calls herse'f a witch," Old Nathan said quietly. "There's other folks as call her worse."


"What's thet to me?" his visitor demanded. "Anyhow, who're you to speak?"


"The Devil's loose in the world, Bascom Hardy," Old Nathan said without emotion, staring into the silver pool. "But I'm the Devil's master, depend on it."


Hardy grimaced, upset by the thought and the turn of conversation. "Don't signify," he muttered. "Anyhow, she didn't he'p neither. Guess she run off too."


"Guess she would hev chose to," said Old Nathan, "but she didn't get thet pick. Hit was at the door, and she hid in an old chest while hit et her supper. Your brother Bynum did."


"Warn't nothing in thet chest worth hauling off," Bascom Hardy said uncomfortably. "Nor the chest itself, neither."


Forestalling the next question, he added, "The old woman, she went off with her daughter. I reckon they'll put her in the State Farm if she don't quit shoutin' and carryin' on, but thet's not my business neither!"


Layers of thick gray felt peeled back one by one from around the cunning man. Sunlight streamed into his consciousness, but for a moment he could only shiver despite its warming impact. The knife trembled in his hand, but he didn't trust his control to put it away just yet.


Birds chirped in fear and anger. One of Old Nathan's heifers complained loudly at a rabbit which had hopped across the meadow and startled her.


"What's the matter with you?" Hardy demanded. He was concerned not with his host's condition, but that the condition might somehow threaten him.


Old Nathan shook himself. He gripped the back of the rocking chair. The solid contact was all that had kept him upright for a moment. "You mind yerself," he muttered. "Nothin's the matter with me."


The yellow tomcat stepped into the cabin again with his head high. There was a titmouse in his jaws. It peeped and fluttered one wing minusculy.


"Whyn't you set up fer your brother yerse'f, Bascom Hardy?" the cunning man asked.


His visitor looked away from the probing green eyes. "Bynum 'n me, we didn't git along when he was alive," Hardy said. "Don't guess him bein' dead ud change thet fer the better now—ifen it is him comin' back, the way he said he would."


Hardy lost the aura of discomfort which had momentarily softened his angular body. "Look here," he said. "Thet gold's mine now, not some dead man's. Mine by law and mine by right. I mean t' have it!"


He leaned forward again. "Now, you know about spooks, I reckon. Nothing there t' skeer you. You set up in Bynum's cabin when the moon's dark these three nights from now, and I'll see you right of it. D'ye hear me?"


I hear more 'n you think you're saying', Bascom Hardy, the cunning man thought as he looked down at the other man. Aloud he said, "Reckon I kin git a neighbor t' milk the cows fer a few days."


When he smiled, as now, Old Nathan's mouth looked like an axe-cut in a block of walnut heartwood. "I don't know thet I'd claim t' hev friends hereabouts. But airy soul knows I pay my debts . . . and there's none so sure of hisse'f thet he don't think he might need what I could do fer him one day."


Bascom Hardy stood up. "Waal," he said, though the words were flummery, "I'm a businessman and I like t' see another businessman. Will ye come with me now t' Bynum's cabin?"


"I reckon I kin find it myse'f," Old Nathan said. "I'll be there afore the new moon."


"I'll look for ye," Hardy said in false joviality.


He opened the front door wider to leave. The motion pulled a breeze that scattered a slush of gray pinfeathers across the cabin floor. It was always amazing to see how many feathers a bird had, even a small bird.


"He had his say," muttered the cat past a mouthful of titmouse, " 'n I had mine."


Old Nathan scowled—at the cat's ruthlessness, and at the image of that same set of mind which he knew was within his own soul.


* * *

"Thur's horses waitin' up around the next bend," said the mule as his shoes click-clicked down the loose stones of the sloping trail. "Thur's men with 'em too, I reckon."


"Thankee," said Old Nathan.


He shifted his flintlock so that it lay crossways to the saddle horn, not slanting forward. The undergrowth springing from this rocky clay soil was open enough that the long barrel wouldn't catch; and it was neither polite nor safe to offer a stranger his first view of you over a rifle's muzzle.


"Thet mean we're goin' t' set a piece, thin?" the mule asked.


"I reckon it does," the cunning man agreed.


The mule blew its lips out. " 'Bout damn time," it muttered.


It was a good beast. Always grumbling, but no worse than any other mule; and always willing to do its job, though never happy about it.


Bascom Hardy scrambled to his feet when he saw Old Nathan mounted on the mule. His bodyguard Ned was a step slower, but that was because the half-breed's first thought was to point the musket toward the sudden sound. Ned had a hard man's instincts, but he warn't sharp enough nor quick enough t' be a problem if he decided to try conclusions at the small end of a rifle. 


Folk hereabouts hed got soft. Back in the days when he followed Colonel Sevier to King's Mountain, then men were men. 


The hillside had never been cut for planting. Bynum Hardy's cabin was just out of sight among pines and the dogwoods which had grown up where the narrow clearing let in the sun. Old Nathan knew the building was there, though, because he'd seen it in the silver shield of his knife. The well that he'd seen also, just downslope of the dwelling, set right there next the trail where Bascom Hardy and his man waited.


Hardy tugged out his watch, gold like the chain on which it hung, and flipped up the cover of its hunter case. "I figgered I'd come t' make sure you kept your bargain," he said irritably. "I'd come t' misdoubt thet you would."


"You keep yer britches on," snapped the cunning man. A feller who used a watch t' tell time in broad daylight spent too much of his life with money in tight-hedged rooms. . . . "I said I'd be here, 'n here I am—"


He looked pointedly up at the sky. The sun was below the pine-fringed rim of the notch, but the visible heavens were still bright blue "—well afore time."


"Could use a drink," the mule grumbled. It kept walking on, toward the well. There wasn't a true spring house, but the well had a curb of mud-chinked fieldstones and a shelter roof from which half the shingles had blown or broken.


"Us too," whickered Bascom Hardy's walking horse, tied by his reins to a trailside alder. He jerked his head and made the alder sway. "Didn't neither of 'em water us whin we got here, 'n thet was three hours past."


"Lead yer horses t' me," Old Nathan grunted as he swung off the mule. "I'll water the beasts like a decent man ought."


The curb's chinking was riddled with wasp burrows. The well rope had seen better days, but it was sound enough and the wooden bucket was near new. The old one must uv rotted clean away, for a man as tight as Bynum Hardy to replace it. 


Old Nathan looked down into the well.


"There's nothing there, I tell ye," Hardy said. A tinge of color in his voice suggested the rich man wasn't fully sure he spoke the truth—and that it might be more than callous disregard for his horse which kept him away from the well.


"There's water," said Old Nathan. He leaned his rifle carefully against the well curb and released the brake to lower the bucket.


The same two poles that held up the shelter roof supported a pivot log as thick as one of the cunning man's shanks. The crank and take-up spool, also wooden, were clamped to the well curb. The pivot log squealed loudly as it turned, but it kept the rope from rubbing as badly as it would have done against a fixed bar.


"Ned, take our horses over," Hardy ordered abruptly.


The well was square dug and faced with rock. When the bucket splashed against the water a dozen feet below ground level, the sky's bright reflection through missing shingles shattered into a thousand jeweled fragments. The white-oak bucket bobbed for a moment before it tipped sideways and filled for Old Nathan to crank upward again.


He took a mouthful of water before tipping the rest of the bucket into the pine trough beside the well curb. It tasted clean, without a hint of death or brimstone . . . or of gold, which had as much of Satan in it as the other two together, thet was no more 'n the truth.


"You wait yer turn," the mule demanded as Hardy's horse tried to force its head into the trough first. "Lessen you want a couple prints the size uv my hind shoes on yer purty hide."


"Well!" the horse said. "There's room for all I'd say—ifen all were gentlemen." But he backed off, and the mule made a point of letting the bodyguard's nondescript mare drink before shifting himself out of the walking horse's way at about the time Old Nathan spilled the third bucketful into the trough.


Old Nathan looked up to the cabin, dug into the backslope sixty feet up from the well. It squatted there, solid and ugly and grim. The door in the front was low, and the side windows were no bigger than a man's arm could reach through.


The cabin's roof was built bear-proof. Axe-squared logs were set edge to edge from the walls to the heavy ridgepole, with shingles laid down the seams t' keep out the rain. The whole thing was more like a hog barn thin a cabin; but it warn't hogs nor people neither that the sturdy walls pertected, hit was gold. . . . 


"Well, ye coming in with me?" Old Nathan said in challenge.


"I bin there," Bascom Hardy said without meeting the cunning man's eyes. "Don't guess there's much call I should do thet again, what with it gettin' so late."


Hardy's hand twitched toward his watch pocket again, but he caught himself before he dipped out the gold hunter. "I reckon I'll be going," he said, tugging the reins of his horse away from the water trough. "I'll be by come sun-up t' see thet you've kept yer bargain, though."


The rich man and his bodyguard mounted together. If Ned had been the man he was hired t' be, he'd hev waited so they weren't the both of 'em hanging with their hands gripping saddles and each a leg dangling in the air.


Bascom Hardy settled himself. "I warn ye not t' try foolin' me," he called. "I kin see as far into a millstone as the next man."


"Hmpf," grunted Old Nathan. He took his rifle in one hand and the mule's reins in the other. "Come along, thin, mule," he said as he started walking toward the cabin. No point in climbin' into the saddle t' ride sixty feet. 


"Ye'd think," he muttered, "thet if they trust me not t' hie off in the night with the gold, they oughtn't worry I'd come where I said I'd come."


The mule clucked in amusement. "Whur ye goin' t' run?" it asked. "Past them, settlin' a few furlongs up the road, er straight inter the trees like a squirrel? The trail don't go no further thin we come."


The cunning man looked over his shoulder in surprise. The two horsemen had disappeared for now; but, as the mule said, they wouldn't go far. Just far enough to be safe from whatever came visiting the cabin.


And Bynum Hardy's cabin really was the end of the trail that led to it. "Broad as the trail was beat, I reckoned there was more cabins 'n the one along hit," Old Nathan muttered.


Gold had beaten the trail. Need for money had brought folk to Bynum Hardy's door, even back here in a hollow too steep-sided to be cleared while there was better land still to be had. A cheap tract, where a cheap man could settle and sow the crop he knew, gold instead of corn.


And when the loans sprouted, they brought folk back a dozen times more. People bent with the effort of raising the payments until they broke—and Bynum Hardy took their land and changed it in good time to more gold.


"You'll feed me now, I reckon," the mule said at the door of the cabin.


Much of the clay chinking had dropped out from between the logs. It lay as a reddish smear at the base of the walls. The cabin was still solid, but it had deteriorated badly since the day it was built for want of care.


Old Nathan looked upward. The sky was visibly darker than it had been when he met Bascom Hardy. "I figger," he said, "I'll get a fire going whilst there's daylight. Like as not I'll need t' cut wood, and I only packed a hand-axe along."


"Reckon you'll feed me now," the mule repeated. "Thur's no stable hereabouts, and I don't guess yer fool enough to think the reins 'll hold me ifen I'm hungry."


The cunning man leaned his rifle against the wall, then turned to uncinch the saddle. Most of the load in the saddlebags was grain and fodder for the mule. He hadn't expected to find pasture around the dead miser's cabin. . . .


"You're nigh as stubborn as a man, ye know thet?" he said to the mule.


The beast snorted with pleasure at the flattery. "What is it ye need t' do here?" it asked.


Old Nathan lifted off the saddle with the bags still attached to it. "Set till somebody comes by," he said. "Listen t' what they say."


The mule snorted again. "Easy 'nuff work," it said. "Beats draggin' a plow all holler."


"Easy enough t' say," Old Nathan said grimly as he unbuckled one of the bags. "How easy hit is t' do, thet we'll know come morning."


There were no clouds in the sky, but the blue had already richened to deep indigo.


* * *

The soil round about the cabin had been dug up like a potato field, and the fireplace within was in worse shape yet. All the stones of the hearth had been levered out of their mud grouting and cast into a corner.


Somebody since, Gray Jack or the witchwoman Mamie Fergusson, had set a fire on the torn clay beneath the flue. Recently cut wood lay near the fireplace where the bodyguard tumbled it the day he watched and waited—for Bynum Hardy, though he didn't know that at the time.


Old Nathan got to work promptly, notching feathers from the edge of a split log with his hand-axe. He made a fireset of punk and dry leaves to catch the sparks he struck from a fire steel with a spare rifle flint, then fed the tiny flames with a blob of pine pitch before adding the wood. When that log had well and truly caught, he added others with care.


The process was barely complete before the hollow's early dark covered the cabin. The cunning man stepped back, breathing through nostrils flared by the mental strain of his race with the light. There were other ways Old Nathan could have ignited a fire . . . but though some of those ways looked as easy as a snap of the fingers, they had hidden costs. It was better to struggle long in the dark with flint and steel than to use those other ways.


The orange flames illuminated but did not brighten the interior of the cabin. The single room was bleak and as dank as a cave. The furnishings were slight and broken down—but most likely as good as they had been while Bynum Hardy lived in this fortified hovel. There was a flimsy table and a sawn section of tree bole, a foot in diameter, to act as a stool.


The bed frame was covered with a corn-shuck mattress and a blanket so tattered that Bascom Hardy had abandoned it after his brother's death. The cunning man remembered the image of Gray Jack cowering beneath the low bed, hopelessly slight cover but all there was . . . and sufficient, because the one/thing who entered the cabin the night of the new moon wasn't interested in looking for whoever might be hiding.


The leather hinges had rotted off the chest by the sidewall. The lid hung askew to display a few scrappy bits of clothing. Gray Jack was too big to fit into the chest, but it had been just the right size for Mistress Fergusson.


Neither of Bascom Hardy's two watchers had escaped, not in the end. One hanged and one raving; and a third, Old Nathan, waiting for his fire to burn down so that he could make ash cakes with the coals.


The cunning man sighed. He'd been afraid before, plenty of times; but he'd never been so fearful that he didn't stand up to it. If there was a thing on earth he was sure of, it was that running didn't make fear less, and standing couldn't make it greater.


But that didn't mean the thing you feared and faced wouldn't eat you alive. There were false fears; but some were true enough, and there was nothing false about whatever came to this cabin for the bodyguard and the witch a month ago, and a month before that.


Old Nathan added more wood to the fire, then began a task to keep his hands full and his mind calm. As he worked, he clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and called softly, "Hey there! Anybody t' home?"


"Who's thet you're speakin' to, then?" the mule demanded from the other side of the closed door. Like everything else about the cabin, the door panel was crude but massively strong. It had wrought iron hinges and crossed straps of iron on the outer face.


"I reckon there might be somebody as could tell me about Bynum Hardy," Old Nathan answered. "A squirrel, maybe, er a mouse."


The mule snorted. "Naught here t' bring airy soul," the beast said. " 'Cept a man, I reckon, 'n they ain't got the sense God gave a rock."


Old Nathan opened his mouth to snarl a reply; but when he thought through the mule's comment, it was all true enough. No food, and shelter worse nor a log rotted holler. . . . 


He went on with his task.


"Whut is hit you're doin' in thur, then?" the mule asked.


It occurred to the cunning man that his animal was uneasy, though there was little chance of a bear or a painter hereabouts. Bynum Hardy's cabin was strengthened against human enemies, not beasts. . . .


"I'm pulling the charge from my rifle gun," Old Nathan said. He tipped down the flintlock's muzzle. The powder charge dribbled along the bore and out onto a square of hard-finished leather. From there he would transfer the powder back to the polished cowhorn whose wooden stopper measured the charge proper to this weapon.


"Whutever possessed ye t' do sich a durn-fool thing as that?" the mule demanded in outrage. "Whut sort uv place d'ye think this is, anyhow?"


On the table before Old Nathan lay the ball and the patch lubricated with a mixture of butter and beeswax. He would not use tallow, anymore than he would eat meat; from a bird, a beast, or a human, it was all the same in his mind.


"Ifen I leave the charge in the bore overnight," he said softly, more to himself than the mule, "hit'll draw water 'n rust. And besides . . ."


Firelight winked from fresh, unoxidized lead where the screw in the back of the cunning man's ramrod had dug in to withdraw the ball. When he returned home, Old Nathan would recast the bullet; but—needs must and the Devil drove—he could use the ball as it was. Seated with the screw gouge down against the powder, it would fly true enough for the purpose.


"And besides," the old man said, "I don't reckon whativer comes 'll be much fazed by a rifle ball, so mebbe hit's best I don't put temptation in my way."


The mule grunted, but it said nothing more.


Old Nathan set the empty flintlock in a corner beside the door, away from the smoke and sparks of the fire. There weren't any pegs to hang a rifle up properly, though he didn't guess a man as rich and fearful as Bynum Hardy had done his business without a gun to hand.


He set the cloth-wrapped paste of corn meal on the hearth and raked coals over it to cook the batter into ash cakes. It wasn't so very late, but it felt late.


The Devil himse'f knew it felt late. 


* * *

The sauce pan was full of leather-britches beans boiled with hot peppers. Old Nathan set the container on the table, then stepped back to the fireplace to fetch the ash cakes.


"Hey!" the mule snorted. "Ye've comp'ny comin', old man!"


Old Nathan poised for a moment, hunched over the hearth with his eyes closed. Well, he hadn't come all this way not t' meet Bynum Hardy. He straightened and walked to the door, opening it wide.


Something—somebody—was climbing out of the well. The figure was almost over the curb, but Old Nathan had time Gray Jack and the witchwoman didn't have. Time to run . . . except there was never a good time to run.


The mule snorted restively. The beast was a warm presence, but Old Nathan could see nothing of it beyond the glint of starlight on one wide, staring eyeball.


Bynum Hardy wore a suit of rusty black with a collarless shirt. The soles of his ankle boots were patched with patterned cowhide. He and his garments were as clear as though a living man stood in broad daylight, but whatever illuminated the figure cast no glow on the solid objects around it.


"I'm not so durned a fool thet I'll wait here!" the mule muttered as it moved off at a shambling trot. The animal's course was marked by occasional sparks from its shoes on quartz and the crash of undergrowth at the edge of the clearing.


Bynum Hardy began walking up the short trail to the cabin.


Old Nathan went back inside. He left the door open. His fire had burned down, but its orange flames had a cheerful character that he hadn't imagined in them until after he saw the cold gray light dripping onto the surface of the figure from the well.


He recollected how much afraid he'd been at King's Mountain—after the bullet hit him. His buckskin breeches wet with hot blood, and him unwilling to look down to see what the bullet had done. Though he knew where the bullet passed—and what it passed through on its way.


Old Nathan spilled the layers of ash and burned-out coals from the cloth over his cakes. Before he placed the ash cakes on the table, however, he added a fresh log to the fire.


When he turned with the cakes, Bynum Hardy was at the door.


"Howdy do," Old Nathan said in a voice as gruff and clear as that with which he'd greet any benighted traveller. He put the hot corn cakes down on a slab of bark and peeled the cloth off the top of them. "How ye gettin' on?"


"All right, I guess," said Bynum Hardy. He sounded as though he were still calling up out of the well, but it might be he always sounded that way—alive as well as now that he was dead.


He looked at the cunning man and added, "I hope you're well?"


"About like common," Old Nathan said. He flicked his bearded chin to indicate the food on the table. "Set 'n eat with me, won't ye? Hain't much, but it's hot."


"No thankee," said the cabin's dead owner. He walked around the table to the hearth. His feet did not sound on the puncheon floor. "Reckon I'll jist warm myse'f at yer fire, ifen ye don't mind."


Old Nathan stared at the dead man's back. "Suit yerse'f," he said; and sat on the sawn round of treebole; and began to eat.


The food had no taste in his mouth, for all the pepper in the beans and a touch of onion in the ash-cake batter.


When the cunning man finished his meal, using his hands and the spoon from his budget, he looked at Bynum Hardy again. Mostly the fellow held his palms out to the fire, but occasionally he turned his hands to warm the backs. His body appeared solid as a living man's, but the cold internal glow defined parts which should have been in shadow.


Old Nathan took another swig from his water bottle. The last bite of ash cake hed like t' stuck in his throat. . . .


He got up and stepped to the hearth, carrying the slab of poplar bark he'd cut for a plate. Bynum Hardy moved aside in a mannerly fashion, making room for the living man. His figure had no temperature Old Nathan could feel, neither as warm as life, nor cold like a corpse buried three months in the wet clay.


The fire had sunk to a few sawteeth of flame and coals reflecting back from white ash. The cunning man tossed the bark in and watched it flare into bright popping yellow. Bynum Hardy folded his arms, but he did not back away.


"If ye like," Old Nathan said, "I'd throw another stick er two on the fire fer ye."


No response. "Er you kin fix it the way ye choose, I reckon."


The bark burned away to a twisted black scrap. The room seemed darker than before the quick flames had lighted it.


Bynum Hardy turned and said, "Thankee, but I reckon this'll do me. You jist go about yer business."


Old Nathan met the dead man's eyes. "Myse'f," he said, "I figger I'll turn in. Hit's been a long day."


He opened his blanket roll, took off his boots, and settled down against a sidewall, away from both the fire and the rotten scraps of Bynum Hardy's bed.


He didn't guess he'd be able to sleep. Bedding down was the best way to keep from showing the fear that would otherwise consume him.


But sleep the cunning man did, looking back toward the settling fire and the crisply illuminated figure standing in front of it.


* * *

Old Nathan awoke.


It was nigh about midnight from the fire's state. The hearth cast a patch of warmth into the air, but only the faintest glow suggested coals were still alive.


Bynum Hardy was walking toward the door, and his boots made no sound.


"Howdy," the cunning man said.


The ghost image turned and looked at him. "Reckon I'll go off, now," he said in hollow tones. "Thankee fer the fire. I been mighty cold the past while."


Hardy took another step toward the open door.


"I thought there was maybe a message ye wanted t' speak," Old Nathan said, supporting his torso with one arm. "Fer yer brother, it might be."


Bynum Hardy turned again. "Not here," he said. "You foller me t' home, then I'll give you a word t' take t' Bascom."


"I understood this t' be yer cabin," Old Nathan said. He fetched his left boot forward in the dark and began to draw it onto his foot.


"Hain't mine now," said Bynum Hardy. "You foller me, and ye'll git the word ye come fer."


He went out the door. The cunning man hopped after him, pulling on his right boot.


It wasn't a surprise, not really, to see Bynum Hardy disappear back into the well.


Old Nathan paused at the curb. He gripped the well rope, wishing he were younger; wishing—


No. He was where he chose to be, and he was the man he chose to be. He wouldn't have it otherwise.


Hand over hand, Old Nathan climbed down into darkness.


* * *

Old Nathan's head dropped below the level of the well curb. The world above him became a handful of gray blotches cast on greater blackness: patches where shingles missing from the shelter roof showed the sky. Some hint of light must remain to the heavens, though there had been no sign of it when the cunning man looked up before grasping the well rope.


He waited for the splash that meant Bynum Hardy had reached the surface of the water. He heard nothing but his own breath wheezing in the square stone confines of the well shaft.


He waited for his boots to touch the water. Wondered what he would do then, go on like a blame fool till he was soaked and cold, or haul up again and tell Bascom Hardy that he'd failed. . . .


He didn't come to a conclusion. The choices kept walking through his mind as his strong old hands lowered him further—until he realized that if this rope led anywhere, it was not to the water from which Old Nathan drank and drew for the horses.


The cunning man's mouth worked, but he said nothing aloud. He'd not been able to pray since King's Mountain; and this was no place for a man to curse.


His arms ached. He sweated with the effort of the descent, but the droplets runneling down the troughs beside his spine were cold by the time they soaked the waistband of his trousers.


Abruptly, Old Nathan began to laugh. He wheezed from exhaustion, but the humor was real enough. It wasn't every durn fool who had time to see what an all-mighty durn fool he'd been for the last time in his life!


There was Zeb Frawley, who thought he could call down lightning, which was maybe right—and thought he could direct that lightning's path, which was wrong as wrong, and his bloated body to prove it the next morning. There was John Wesley Ives who'd witched Leesha Tazewell into his bed—and forgot that while Rufe Tazewell didn't know a lick of magic, he could shoot out a squirrel's eye at thirty paces; or shoot through the bridge of John Wesley Ives' nose at a hundred, as it turned out.


Then there was—


The weight came off the cunning man's arms. The distant echo of his laughter rumbled back to him, as if from the walls of an immense cavern. He felt nothing under his feet to support him, but neither was he falling.


The air around the cunning man was not black but gray, a gray so dense that he could not see his own hands when he raised them to his face. His calloused palms felt rough and loose from the pull of the rope.


"Bynum Hardy!" he called. "I've come t' ye. Now show yerself!"


He didn't know what he expected; only that he was no longer afraid. He'd faced this one till he beat the part of it that was in him; and for the rest, well, every man had his time, and if this was his time—so be it.


The gray cleared like fog streaming in a windstorm. A long tunnel with a figure at the end of it, then up close enough to touch: Bynum Hardy, twisting like a pat of butter across a hot skillet, and nowhere to go however it turns.


"I played yer games," Old Nathan said harshly. "Now I'll hev my side of the bargain. Give me the word t' take t' your brother."


"D'ye know where I am, wizard?" Bynum Hardy said. He spoke through tight-clenched lips, like a man tensing against the pain of a gunshot—knowing that his blood and life ran out regardless.


"Thet makes no matter t' me," Old Nathan replied harshly. "Hit's between you 'n whoever it was put ye here. Just answer me where yer brother's gold is at."


"The gold's in the pivot log of the well," Hardy said. "But it hain't Bascom's gold."


Vague figures reached up from behind the dead man, or they may have been wisps of fog. Something constrained and tortured Bynum Hardy, but there was no sign of it to the cunning man's eyes.


"Tain't your'n anyways," Old Nathan snapped. His conscious mind had only loathing for the tortured figure, but the skin of the cunning man's arms pricked up in goosebumps from the sight. It warn't fright; only the way his body was contending. 


But the righteous truth was, he wanted no more part of this wherever place.


"I've told you what Bascom wants t' hear," Bynum Hardy said, twitching and grimacing between the words. "Now I'll tell ye what he must hear. He's t' take thet gold and give it t' them poor folk I wronged when I was alive. Tell him!"


"If bein' poor meant bein' virtuous," Old Nathan said in sudden anger, "thin there'd be a sight less wickedness in the world. D'ye think scatt'ring money on good folk 'n bad alike is going t' buy you out uv this here place?"


"Don't you be a greater fool 'n God made ye, Nathan Ridgeway," said the dead man, speaking a name Old Nathan thought there wasn't a soul in the county to remember or care.


Bynum Hardy leaned forward, against the pull of invisible, flamingly-cold bonds. He gasped with pain, then went on, "Hit don't signify what they were, good men nor bad. Hit's what I did thet put me here. I squeezed, 'n whin they cried out I squeezed the harder, fer thet meant they were weak. Bascom's to give the gold t' them as I took it from, their crops 'n their land . . . and if I could, the very clothes they wore."


The skin of Bynum Hardy's cheeks drew out to either side, as though men with tongs had gripped him. He sobbed wordlessly with his eyes closed for a moment. "All the gold, all the prayers on earth, wizard . . ." Hardy managed to whisper.


His eyes opened, filled with pain, as he continued, "None of it's airy good t' me now. Hit's all too late. I never done a speck uv good t' airy soul while I was alive—but I'll do this now fer my brother Bascom, ifen he'll only listen. Tell him t' give my gold away, and maybe he'll find a better place whin he follows me."


A spasm of something unendurable dragged a scream from the dead man's throat. "Tell him


thet . . ." he rasped, and the smoke-gray emptiness swept over Old Nathan again.


The cunning man felt movement, but he could not tell how or whither. There were moans, but they might have been the blood soughing in his ears—


And the clammy fingers that twice plucked Old Nathan's garments could have come from his imagination alone. . . .


* * *

"Thur's a couple horses comin' down the trail," called the mule. "Reckon thur's men with 'em too."


It was dawn, thought barely. Old Nathan was wrapped in his blanket, but he felt as stiff and cold as if he'd spent the night in the rain on a barn roof.


He threw his cover back. His feet were bare, and his boots stood upright at the foot of the blanket.


The mule stuck its head in the cabin's open door. "Wouldn't turn down some breakfast," it said. "Say, whur was it ye went last night?"


Old Nathan drew his boots on. "Don't know thet I did," he said as he stood up.


The mule snorted and backed away to allow the cunning man to pass him. "Don't give me thet," the beast said. "What d'ye take me fer, a horse? I watched fum the trees whilst you went down the well with thet feller. Didn't see ye come back, though."


Old Nathan kneaded the mane and neck muscles of his mule. The beast butted him and muttered contrarily, "Naow, thur's no cause fer this." It was happy for the attention nonetheless.


"If I was down thet place . . ." the cunning man said. He looked toward the well, but he thought about somewhere far more distant. "Thin I'm right glad I did come back, however thet was."


He strode toward the well.


"Hoy!" called the mule. "Ye forgit my breakfast!"


"I forgit nothing!" Old Nathan growled without turning around. "Ifen you come down here, yer majesty, I'll pull ye some water, though."


He had the third bucketful in the trough and the mule was drinking, when Bascom Hardy and his half-breed companion came around the bend in the trail. The bodyguard led. When Hardy saw that the cunning man was up and about, he pushed his horse past his servant's and trotted the short distance to the well.


"Waal, what did ye see, old man?" Bascom Hardy demanded.


He wore the same clothes he'd wore yesterday, and he'd slept in them. There was a wild look in his eyes that reminded Old Nathan of Hardy's brother Bynum; and reminded him also that there was more than hot iron as could torture a man.


"I seen yer brother," the cunning man said simply. "He's in a right bad place—"


"Told ye he tried t' cheat me of Pappy's prope'ty, didn't I?" the rich man crowed. He swung out of the saddle. "But where's the gold, thin, tell me thet?"


Hardy's horse, with a patch of mud on its side that hadn't been curried off, would have bumped Old Nathan on the way to the water if the cunning man hadn't stepped back. The mule raised its huge, bony head from the trough and said, "Tsk! Watch it, purty boy, er they'll find yer ribs in the middle uv next week."


"But I'm parched!" the horse whinnied.


"Let the poor feller drink, mule," the cunning man said. "He's jist the way he was born. Hain't nothin' he kin help."


"What's thet?" demanded Bascom Hardy. "What's thet you say?"


"Hit don't signify," Old Nathan said tiredly.


He rubbed his eyes, then met the rich man's nervous glare. Hardy shifted from one leg to the other, ready to bust with frustration.


"Bynum said where the gold was," the cunning man continued, "and ye'll hev thet in a moment, so don't git yer bowels in an uproar. But he said you're t' pay the money out t' all the folk he took it from. You would've took his papers off first thing whin he died, so I reckon you kin find a few of them folks, anyways."


Bascom Hardy's mouth gawped open and let out something between a snort and a hoot of laughter. "Bynum was a fool airy day he lived," the rich man said. "But he warn't no sich fool as thet!"


His face hardened into fury. "What I figger," Hardy rasped, "is thet you reckon t' keep the gold fer yerse'f, old man. Well—"


He lifted his left hand and snapped his fingers. The half-breed cocked the hammer of his musket, though he kept the muzzle pointed down on the far side of his mare. Hardy's own walking horse skittered sideways in panic at the metallic warning.


"Oh, yer a fine brave crew," Old Nathan whispered. His voice sounded like a file setting up sawteeth. "Ye want the gold, d'ye? Well, I reckon you kin hev it."


Anger sluiced the stiffness out of the old man's joints. He stepped onto the well curb, then gripped the pivot log with both hands as he shouldered the nearer of the support poles aside.


"What's thet you're doin'?" Hardy demanded.


The pole gave enough for Old Nathan to spring the turned-down end of the pivot from the auger hole in the support. He pulled the log free, letting the well rope tumble down the shaft.


The pivot log was red oak. A heavy wood in all truth, but this was far heavier than wood.


The cunning man turned. Ned swung his musket over the mare's neck to half-point in the old man's direction.


"You do thet, boy," Old Nathan said. "And you better be quick with the way you use it."


"Ned," said Bascom Hardy. "There's no call . . ."


But the bodyguard had already hidden the weapon again, behind his body and the horse's.


Old Nathan reached over his head. His fingers touched, gripped . . . came out into open air with the bone-scaled case knife. He stood on the stone curb, smiling coldly and staring at Ned. The half-breed refused to meet his eyes.


The cunning man used the knife's larger blade to pry at the faint seam in the end of the pivot log. The plug dropped. The cavity within was the diameter of a man's fist. Bascom Hardy's breath drew in.


Old Nathan tilted the log and slid out the long leather poke that filled the hollow. It was so heavy that it clanked with a sound more like a smithy than a banker's till.


Hardy snatched the sack from the trampled dirt. "Ned," he gabbled in a high-pitched voice as he trotted up to the cabin, "you watch the door, ye hear me?"


The cunning man tossed the empty oak cylinder away and stepped to the ground. He didn't reckon Bascom Hardy meant him to follow to see what was in the poke; but—he smiled grimly at Ned, who twisted his face away to avoid the hard green eyes—he didn't reckon there'd be anyone try to stop him, neither.


He folded the blade and put his knife away. 


The rich man trotted up the trail, but the sack's weight slowed him. Anyhow, Old Nathan's long legs had covered more miles in their time than Bascom Hardy had rode over. The two men reached the cabin together.


Hardy reached to close the door. The cunning man held the panel open with an arm as thin and hard as a hickory pole.


"Reckon you'll want light," Old Nathan said. "Lessen ye brung a tallow dip?"


The fury left the rich man's face. "No," he said. "I reckon the door kin stay."


The poke was folded three times at the neck, but it had no drawstring tie. Hardy opened the end and gently fed its contents onto the table like a farmer squeezing milk from a cow's udder.


The contents were gold, all gold but for one thin Spanish dollar.


"Oh . . ." the rich man sighed as he laid a glittering worm of coins across the surface of the rickety table.


There were twenty-dollar double eagles and every manner of other gold coins of the United States, but that was no more than half the assemblage. British guineas gleamed beside broad coins bearing the image of Maria Theresa, and the gold of a score of other nations and dynasties spilled across the table with them.


The folk who settled central Tennessee came from every part of Europe and from the world beyond. Those who had wealth brought it with them; and a part of that wealth had stuck to the fingers of Bynum Hardy. . . .


Old Nathan looked at the gold and looked at the face of Bascom Hardy; and began to pack his traps.


The rich man's fingers moved with the precision of a clock's escapement as he ordered the mingled coins into stacks and rows. Old Nathan rolled and tied his blanket, then gathered loose items and packed them in his budget.


He saved the sauce pan out. He'd scour that with water and sandy clay when he reached the well.


Gold chinked and whispered across the tabletop. Bascom Hardy did not look up.


"There's the matter uv my pay," the cunning man said.


Hardy started upward. For the first instant, his face bore the snarl of a fox surprised in a henhouse; but that passed as quickly as a lightning flash, leaving behind the stony haughtiness of a banker in his lair.


"Your pay, old feller?" Hardy said. "Show me the writing! I s'pect you know there's no contract between us, not so's any court 'ud find."


Old Nathan said nothing; only stared.


Bascom Hardy met the cunning man's eyes, then looked away.


"I'm a generous man," the rich man said. His fingers played across his stacks of gold, touching them as lightly as wisps of spidersilk trailing from the grass. "I wouldn't hev it said I didn't treat a man better thin the law requires."


He glanced up, meeting Old Nathan's eyes briefly, then looking down again. On the table before Hardy were eleven guineas in stacks of five and five and one. His sallow index finger touched the lone piece, then raised again to hover above the sheen of pale African gold.


With a convulsive movement, Bascom Hardy slid the Spanish dollar instead across the table toward the cunning man.


"There," the rich man said. "Take it 'n thankee. I'll tell all I come to thet you're a clever man. Thet'll be money in yer pocket so long as ye live."


Old Nathan took the eight-real coin between two fingers and turned it over. He set the silver piece back on the table.


"I tell ye!" Hardy said, his voice rising. "There's no contract! You cain't force me t' pay you airy a cent!"


Old Nathan picked up his saddlebags and pan in one hand, then paused in the doorway to take his rifle from where he'd leaned it.


"Hain't loaded," he said with a tiny smile. "Don't guess there's ought I'll meet t' worry me on the road back."


He walked out of the cabin. Hardy's bodyguard had dismounted by the cabin. He watched the cunning man sidelong, nervously lipping his moustache.


"Wait!" Bascom Hardy called from the doorway. "Take your pay. It's good silver!"


Old Nathan turned and looked at the rich man. "I reckon," the cunning man said, "hit may take a heap of money fer ye to get where ye desarve t' be. I wouldn't want ye to come up short."


As Old Nathan walked toward his mule, he whistled the air of a grim old ballad between his smiling teeth.


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Framed