After breakfast he took the axe from the shed and began splitting firewood. The sun was coming up and shot warm rays through the trees still rich with red and yellow. He worked slow and easy, not rushing through. He enjoyed the fresh morning, the handle smooth and warming in his hands, and the sound of the wood splitting. The chickens stayed over by the coop, away from that flying axe.
* * *
His brother Luke came out of the cabin. Limping, he crossed to the lean-to by the chicken coop, waved, and went in for the mule. He led the mule up to James and said, "I'm going to Atherton's, you need anything? Tobacco? Anything at all?"
"You know you just have to ask. We're not so poor that you have to smoke corn silk." He paused and looked away as he said, "I appreciate all you're doing for me."
"It's nothin', nothin' to speak of."
Marilou opened the cabin door and called, "Luke, Luke, hang on a minute. Willie wants to go too."
Little Willie ran out, carrying his dad's beaver hat, and with a face full of hopeful smile.
Luke said, "All right, but you got to walk back. The mule's for the goods." He put the boy on the mule and his hat on his head before mounting. He nodded to James and started along the path to the road that led to Atherton's General Store `N` Tavern.
James watched them ride slowly between the trees, the slanted shafts of light flickering as they passed through. When he turned he saw Marilou in the doorway watching. She waved to him and shut the door. He raised the axe and went back to work.
In that October, he was a month away from eighteen. For the last three years, he'd spent the fall living in the woods and hunting. But early that spring the axe had glanced off a hickory log and Luke was left with a badly busted shin. It never healed right and left his leg a little crooked. Ma told James, "You go now and work for your brother. He needs all the help he can git and his wife's more a burden than anything worthwhile." Pap told him Ma was right.
He had three sisters, all older and married, and two brothers—Luke, the eldest at forty and childless and a widower, and Will, twenty-five, but who'd been kicked in the head by a mule near six years ago. Before that Will had got Marilou, not even fifteen, with child. Since Will was mostly useless now, except for simple chores, Luke married her so the child wouldn't be a bastard. He said, "Keep it in the family." It helped that Marilou was pretty.
James split wood until the sun shone down at a high angle through the trees. Twice he stopped long enough to drink from a dipper in the bucket by the shed. Once Marilou had looked out, paused there in the doorway as if about to call, then shut the door. Finished now, he hung up the axe and piled the wood against the side of the shed. He thought he might get his rifle—really a Hart carbine given to him by his Uncle Silas—and hunt by the creek. Last night and at dawn he'd heard the hogs down there. Some of them had had last fall, spring, and summer to fatten on acorns and such.
As he started toward the cabin, he heard a cry. He turned to see little Willie running through the slants of sunlight between the trees. He rushed to the boy. Willie's face was red and wet with tears, his body trembling when James picked him up.
"Easy, easy, Willie," he said as he hugged the boy.
"Mama," the boy said, "Mama."
Willie dug his face into James' shoulder. James patted the boy and carried him to the cabin. He kicked at the door and Marilou opened it.
"Willie, Willie," she said and reached for the boy. "What's wrong? Where's Daddy?"
The boy sobbed, wrapped his arms around her neck, and mumbled something.
"Willie, calm down, honey. Tell Mama what's wrong."
He pulled back and said, "They kilt Daddy."
While James put on his old coat—one that Pap had near worn out—and put a handful of cartridges and caps in the one patch pocket, Marilou sat in a corner holding Willie. The boy couldn't stop trembling.
* * *
James said, "I'm goin' to see what happened." He grabbed the carbine and left. He took a shortcut through the woods, bypassing the road, and shortened the trip to three miles.
Atherton's was the only building at the crossroads of a country lane and a road a few miles from the new Maysville Road. It was log with a shake roof and a shed attached to the back. The sign hanging above the entrance read "General Store N Tavern."
James went inside. As his eyes adjusted to the dark—the place barely lit by two lanterns hanging from a crossbeam—he saw a counter of a thick plank set on three upright barrels to his left, to the back were shelves and stacks of goods, and to the right were two tables and five or six chairs. Against the right wall were several barrels of whiskey, one with a tap set up on a thick block of wood. In the far corner was a cast iron stove, and on a bench, with a wet rag to his head, was Ezra Atherton. His wife, holding a mug, sat next to him. A thick-set man with his arm in a sling leaned against the counter. He drank from a mug too. An old black man mopped the floor over by the whiskey barrels. The sour smell of spilled whiskey filled the place.
"I come about my brother."
Atherton looked at James and then at his wife.
The wife asked, "You one of them Macklins from Sweet Creek?"
"I think my uncles are from there or there abouts. I don't know. All I know is my brother Luke come here and his son said he was killed."
"He's killed all right," said the man by the counter. "They killed him right good."
"The Vances, Tom and Charlie, and Coleman Hayer, and some young fella. They come in late last night in a wagon, all drunk as skunks. Dad let them sleep on the floor. This mornin' they helped themselves to the whiskey and got rowdy. When your brother come in with his boy, Charlie said somethin' about the boy comin' off a strange vine. Your brother took it wrong and grabbed Charlie and threw him against a barrel. Your brother picked up an axe handle but the others grabbed him and in the fight Tom Vance pulled a knife. He stabbed your brother twice."
The wife said, "Ezra yelled at them to stop, but they paid no mind. They grabbed a jug and took off. They had a wagon but they took your brother's mule too."
Atherton stood up and crossed to James. "They took off without paying for the whiskey."
"Where's Luke? Where's my brother?"
"I had the nigger drag him outback. There was blood pouring out of him like water from a spigot. Besides, he was dead. Couldn't do nothin' for him."
The wife said, "The boy was cryin', screechin' and callin' Daddy, but it was no use. He hung on as the nigger drug the body out. Blood everywhere. The nigger said once they was outside the boy run off."
Atherton said, "Those Vances are a bad lot, true, but your brother started the fight."
"I want to see him, my brother."
"The nigger'll take you to him."
The black man leaned the mop against the counter and James followed him out the door. They went around to the back where Luke lay on his back on the ground. His face was pale and sharp as if cut out of stone. His mouth was open slightly and his jaw jut out. The lower half of the shirt was black with dried blood, and there were streaks of black along the trouser legs.
The black man said, "I closed his eyes so he'd look right, like asleep."
"Thanks." James said, paused, then asked, "Did you see it? The fight?"
"Was it like they said?"
"Yes, sir. But it was one of them, that Charlie Vance, not your brother, grabbed the axe handle. And he took your brother's hat too. Plopped it on his head as they left. And they didn't run neither. They walked out calm as you please . . . like they was goin' for a stroll."
James bent down to lift the body and the black man helped hoist it on the right shoulder. Then he went around the building, staggered some, and started along the road, the dead weight of his brother on his shoulder and his carbine in his left hand. He thought that if the boy, heart ripped open, could run those five miles he should be able to carry Luke home.
By the time he saw the cabin through the trees, the body was getting stiff. He dropped the carbine and when he set the body on the ground by the wood pile the eyes were open, but dull with no inner light. He got a canvas sheet from the shed and lay the body on it. He stood there looking at his dead brother for a long time.
* * *
He went to the cabin and opened the door slowly. Marilou sat on the bed with the boy on her lap. She held him close as she rocked back and forth. She coughed, then asked, "Is he?"
"Yes. You want to see him? Want me to bring him in here?"
"Not now. No, not now." She looked down and said, "You'll have to tell his folks. You goin' to tell them . . . I mean, now?"
He nodded and went out.
He walked the mile or so along the creek, then through a line of trees to the clearing where his parents lived. Will was carrying a bucket of water from the well and Ma stood waiting on the porch.
Will turned and called, "Ma, it's James come to visit."
When he got to the porch James said, "I come about Luke."
Ma asked, "What about Luke?"
James waited, swallowed, and looked up to see Pap in the doorway. "Luke's been killed."
James and Will dug the grave and Luke was buried at the edge of the woods, next to Pap's mother and his two sisters who died only a week after they arrived all those years ago. Ma read the twenty-third psalm while the family stood there with bowed heads. Willie held his mother's hand and stared at the grave. The sisters and their husbands were quietly solemn, and their children were able to stand still for a few minutes.
After, when the others were sitting around the kitchen table, Pap motioned to James to follow him outside. They walked back to the grave and Pap said, "James, now it's up to you. I'm too old and Will can't. By rights, it should be little Willie, but he's too young. Your sisters' men don't amount to much, if the truth be told. Not for something like this. I know it's a heavy thing to carry, but you have no choice. You don't think it's right what they did, do you?"
"You got to do something about it." The old man looked off, then said, "I reckon they took off for somewheres. They'd know somebody be after them, I suppose. I don't expect the Vances would go to their folks, not right off. My guess would be to Maysville, to the river."
"When you find them, don't give them a chance. They didn't give your brother one."
Suddenly James felt light, as if he could simply float away.
"Ruth Ann's husband knows both Vances. He'll tell you what they look like. Best you start tomorrow at daylight . . . before they get too far. Here, this poke's near half all the coin we have. You bring back what you can."