فصل 09

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فصل 09

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  • زمان مطالعه 15 دقیقه
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Chapter nine

Death in the Mountains

If the part of the mountain they climbed had a name, Stobrod did not know it. He and the two men with him walked looking down at the ground, their hats pulled over their noses, and their hands pulled up into their coat sleeves to protect them from the cold. The Pangle boy was close behind Stobrod, and the third figure followed six steps back. The night before, they had found a couple of dead rabbits and had lit a fire and cooked and eaten them. Now they regretted it, because they all had bad stomach pains, and from time to time one of them had to go off behind a bush.

It was almost dawn and there was no color to anything, only shades of brown and gray. They came to a piece of flat ground where three paths met. The three men stood together, breathless from the climb.

“It’s cold,” the third man said. He had been one of the group at the outliers’ cave and had never offered a name. He was from Georgia, a boy of no more than seventeen years, black-haired, brown-skinned. He had fought in the war for a year, then left to walk back home. It had taken him three months to reach Cold Mountain, and he had been found by one of the outliers, wandering aimlessly in the forest. The men had agreed that he should leave with Stobrod and Pangle, who were setting off alone to find a cave to live in somewhere near the Shining Rocks.

First, however, they had gone to a hiding place where Ruby had hidden some food. Stobrod had told the boy about Ada and Ruby, and how Ada had persuaded Ruby to feed them, although the women could not give quite enough for the men to live on. Ruby would not allow the men to visit the farm, as she thought it was too dangerous, so she left the food in a place that she had discovered as a child. They had gone there before they started on their journey and found cornmeal, dried apple, and some meat and beans.

“Do you know which path we want?” the Georgia boy said now to Stobrod. But Stobrod was not at all sure where they were nor which way they were going.

Pangle watched him for some minutes, and then, apologizing, said he knew exactly where he was, and that the right-hand path went right across the mountain and was the path they wanted.

“We’ll cook a meal and go on then,” Stobrod said.

The men built a small fire and boiled up some cornmeal. They sat as near to the flames as they could, and passed a bottle, waiting for the fire and drink to warm them up. The Georgia boy sat bent over, with a hand on his stomach.

“If I’d known I’d feel this bad, I wouldn’t have eaten one mouthful of that rabbit,” he said.

He stood and walked slowly into the trees. Stobrod’s head fell sleepily to his chest, and when he looked up again he was looking at three men on horses, their guns pointing at him. Stobrod started to get up.

“Sit still,” Teague said. “I’m not even going to ask you if you have papers. We’re looking for a group of outliers living in a cave. They’ve been robbing farms. If a man knew where that cave was, it might help him.”

“I don’t exactly know,” Stobrod said. “I’d say if I did.” His voice was quick and bright, but inside he was thinking that in a month he’d be back in Virginia using a gun.

Pangle looked in surprise at Stobrod. “That’s not true,” he said. “You know exactly where it is.” And he gave a detailed description of how to find the cave.

“Thanks,” Teague said and smiled at his men, and they all climbed off their horses. “We’ll join you at your fire and take breakfast with you.”

They built up the fire and sat around it like friends. The Guards had meat with them, and they cooked and ate it, offering some to the outliers. Teague took a bottle from his coat and handed it around. When they had finished eating, Teague looked at the fiddles, which were lying on the ground, and said, “Can you play those things?”

“A bit,” Stobrod said.

“Play me something, then,” Teague said.

Stobrod did not much want to. He was tired and he guessed that his audience did not take pleasure from music. But he picked up his fiddle and started to play, and Pangle joined him. Teague and his men had never before heard such strange, wild music, nor heard anyone play with such feeling and skill.

When they had finished, Birch said to Teague, “Good God, these are strange men.”

Teague looked off into the distance. He stood and straightened his coat, then he took his gun and pointed it at the two men.

“Stand up against that big tree,” he said.

The two men went and stood against it, holding their fiddles in front of them. Pangle put his free arm around Stobrod’s shoulders. The Guards raised their guns and Pangle gave them a friendly smile.

“I can’t shoot a man who’s smiling at me,” one of the men said.

“Stop smiling,” Teague said to Pangle.

Pangle tried to stop smiling, but without success.

“Take your hat off and hold it over your face,” Teague said.

Pangle raised his hat and put it over his face, and when he did the Guards fired. Pieces of wood flew from the tree trunk, where the bullets struck after passing through the meat of the two men.

“And when they had finished, they didn’t cover them or even go and stand over them to say words. They just got on their horses and rode off. I don’t know what kind of place this is, where people kill each other that way.”

The Georgia boy sounded like someone who had had a terrible shock. “I saw it all,” he said, “saw it all.”

“Then why were you not killed or taken, if you were close enough to witness?” Ada said.

The boy thought about it. “I heard what I didn’t see, anyway,” he answered. “I’d stepped into the woods. I needed to be private.”

“We get your meaning,” Ruby said.

“I came here as fast as I could. I remembered where the fiddler said you lived.”

“How long ago?” Ruby asked.

The boy thought for a moment. “Six or seven hours.”

“You can guide us back there,” Ada said.

But the boy did not wish to go back up the mountain, and would, he claimed, rather be shot where he stood than visit it again.

Ruby said, “Do as you want. We have no need of you. I know the place you’re talking of. We’ll feed you, though.”

She opened the gate and let the boy into the yard. Ada stepped to her side and looked at her face, then reached out and touched the dark hair at Ruby’s neck. But Ruby twisted her neck away and did not cry or show any sign of sadness. She expressed only one concern. Should they bury the men on the mountain or bring them to Black Cove?

“We can’t just go up there and dig a hole,” Ada said.

“If it was me, I’d rather rest on the mountain than anywhere else,” said Ruby.

Ada could find no argument to that. She reached out and put her arms around Ruby for comfort, if nothing else, but Ruby just stood with her arms by her sides.

The women made food for the boy, then started planning their journey. They packed blankets and shovels, cooking pots, matches, rope, a gun, lamps, and grain for the horse. Ruby decided that pants were more practical and they found two pairs of heavy wool hunting pants. They put on wool shirts and sweaters and big hats. Then they gave the boy food and blankets and told him to sleep in the barn until dark made it safe for him to travel. When they left leading the horse, the boy waved to them like a host saying goodbye to his guests.

Toward evening, snow fell through fog in the woods. Ada and Ruby walked under the trees, faint shapes moving through a place that had no color except shades of gray and black. They had climbed for a long time and were now going down into a valley. Light snow was falling and for a time they walked by a stream, but then the path they were following turned back into the forest. They walked on past sunset, and the snow started falling harder.

In time they came to an area with great flat rocks. Ruby looked around until she found the place that she was looking for, one that she had known as a child, where three rocks had fallen together to make a natural shelter. There was a little stream twenty meters away. The women gathered the driest wood they could find, made a fire at the entrance to the shelter, and boiled a pot of water for tea. Then they sat and drank it, and ate a few dried apples and dry bread.

The temperature was dropping fast, but the fire soon heated the stones, and when Ada and Ruby wrapped themselves in blankets and buried themselves among the dry leaves, they were warm as lying in a bed at home. “This is fine,” Ada thought, as she lay there. She watched the fire shadows and listened to the sound of snow in the leaves and soon she slept a dreamless sleep, not even waking when Ruby rose to put more wood on the fire.

Next morning, they found the Pangle boy lying alone beneath the big tree, covered in snow. Ruby brushed away the snow to look at his face, and when she did she saw that he was still smiling. She put her hand to his fat cheek and then touched her fingers to his forehead.

Ada turned from him. “Where is he?” she said.

“No man from Georgia can tell more than half the truth,” Ruby said. “Dead or alive, they took him with them.”

They started digging a deep hole, and soon they were so hot in their coats that they had to take them off. When the hole was deep enough, they went to Pangle and each took a leg and slid him into the grave. By the time they had covered him, Ada was crying, though she had seen the boy only once in life. She made a cross from two thin branches and stood it in the soft ground at Pangle’s head, and though she did not say words aloud over him, she said some in her mind. Then she went through the woods to the stream and knelt and washed her hands and face. She looked around and saw a low rock that formed a kind of shelter. Under it sat Stobrod, his eyes closed and his legs crossed, with his fiddle in his lap.

“Ruby,” Ada called. “Ruby, I need you here.”

They stood over him and his face was the color of the snow, since he had lost a great deal of blood. Such a little man. Ruby put her ear to his chest and listened.

“He’s alive,” she said.

She took off his clothes and found he had been hit three times. The most serious wound was a bullet that had gone through his chest into his back. Stobrod remained unconscious while Ruby lit a match and held a knife in the flame. Then she cut into Stobrod’s back and he still made no sound as she put a finger around the bullet and pulled it out.

“You boil some water,” Ruby said to Ada.

She wandered off through the woods, returning an hour later with roots she had found that she thought could be useful. She cut them up and packed them around Stobrod’s wounds, holding them there with pieces of blanket.

After a time, she said, “It’s too far home. He won’t get there alive. And last night’s shelter is too small for all of us. There’s a place I know. If it’s still there.”

They carried Stobrod across the stream in blankets and laid him over the horse, then set off, the sky flat and gray above them. They walked for some time without speaking, except when Ruby said “Here,” and then they turned. After some hours, they started going down into a valley, moving toward a stream that they could hear but not see. Ada began to see shapes through the trees. Cabins. A tiny Cherokee village, a ghost town, its people forced to leave by their enemies. Ada thought of Inman’s story. She wondered if any of those who had lived in the village were still alive, and if they remembered this lonely place.

Ruby chose the best of the cabins and they took Stobrod off the horse and lay him on the dusty floor. The house had one windowless room and the rich smell of a thousand old campfires. While Ruby built a fire, Ada looked after the horse, which was wet and shaking. She looked at him and at the sky and thought that he might be dead on the ground by morning. She tried to lead him into the cabin but he did not want to go, and finally she used a big stick and hit him with it until he went in.

It was almost dark and Ada felt tired and cold and frightened. This seemed like the loneliest place on earth. Ruby had cooked some cornmeal, but Ada could not eat it. She sat with it in her lap, exhausted and silent. Outside, the snow started to fall again.

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