Years later Morgan Kinneson would conclude that it was probably reading that had gotten him and his brother, Pilgrim, into trouble in the fi rst place. The Kinnesons of Kingdom Mountain had always been great readers. Shakespeare’s plays. Pilgrim’s Progress. Paradise Lost. His mother had delighted in reading Miss Austen and Mr. Dickens to Morgan and his brother. Their father, Quaker Meeting Kinneson, read aloud regularly from the papers and gazettes out of Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia. After Pilgrim left Kingdom Mountain for Harvard, he sent Morgan books by his professor and friend, the Swiss-born naturalist and glaciologist Louis Agassiz, and by Emerson and Thoreau, the Concord freethinkers, and, most recently, the book by that strange Englishman Darwin, which was like no other book Morgan had ever read.
Of course the Vermont Kinnesons also read the Bible. The elderly female cousin several times removed who had quartered herself upon the family since his father was a boy had read to Morgan, with a satisfaction bordering on gleefulness, the vengeful old scriptures of cataclysmic floods and fi re raining out of the sky to incinerate entire wicked cities, and wicked giants laid low by boys with slings, not to mention women turned into salt for the least imaginable infraction, and innumerable millions wailing and gnashing their teeth in everlasting fi res for reciting their prayers one way instead of another. “Take from the Bible what you can use and ignore the rest,” Pilgrim had advised him. “Just as you would from any other book. It’s the book our ancestors were raised on. It can’t be all bad.”
“It’s the book I was raised on,” said the elderly cousin many times removed, whose name was Mahitabel, but whom Pilgrim and Morgan called Cousin Sabbath School. She gave Pilgrim a dark look. “It has served me well. It will serve him”—meaning Morgan—“well. When he is judged, at the end of what I prophesy will be a short and ill-spent life, he will know why he has been consigned. There will be no brook fi shing or roving off night and day there, I assure you.” Exactly where Morgan would be consigned, Cousin Sabbath School never specified.
“That sounds like the kind of threat a brimstone preacher would make to scare a fellow into going along with his way of thinking,” Pilgrim said. “Around comes the long-handled collection basket, boys. Pay your dues or it will go hard with you by and by.”
“We shall see what we shall see,” Mahitabel said.
“On that much, at least, we can all agree,” Morgan’s father said, hoping thereby to end the discussion.
“Aye,” said Cousin Sabbath School. “We can.”
Of all the Kinnesons, Pilgrim, who was fi ve years older than Morgan, was the most voracious reader. He studied books about medicine and trees and animals and rocks. Until he went to war he had been studying at Harvard to become a doctor. He had even spent a year studying surgery with Joseph Lister at the renowned medical college in Glasgow, Scotland. Before leaving home for Harvard and beyond, he had taught Morgan a good deal about the animals and plants and birds of Kingdom Mountain. He had shown Morgan how to shoot with Hunter, Pilgrim’s old cap-and-ball musket, converted from their grandfather’s fl intlock. And while Morgan quickly became a good shot, his brother remained the expert marksman in the family. Even after he had stopped hunting, stopped killing things altogether, Pilgrim was the best shot Morgan had ever known. For his part, Morgan had an uncanny natural woods sense, which he had honed ever since he had been allowed to go to the woods on his own. As his father sometimes said, you couldn’t haul the boy out of the woods with a yoke of oxen, though he too read avidly himself, travel accounts mainly, by explorers like Marco Polo and Captain James Cook. As for Morgan’s formal schooling, that had ended after the episode with Dogood.
In a way it had been the Kinneson mania for reading that had resulted in Pilgrim’s trouble as well. In the third year of fighting, Pilgrim had enlisted in the Union army. Like his father, who operated the northernmost station on Vermont’s Underground Railroad, Pilgrim was an abolitionist. But the rift with Professor Agassiz had led to his leaving college to enlist. It was Darwin’s Origin of Species
that had resulted in the break, though by then Pilgrim and his parents had already quarreled over the matter of Manon Thibeau. Not that Morgan believed there was any lesson to be learned from such refl ections. You couldn’t just stop reading, any more than you could help falling in love. Still, he had to acknowledge, at least to himself, that reading was the main problem, as true in his case as it was in Pilgrim’s. If he’d never encountered those travel books, he might never have come up with the idea for his own great odyssey after Pilgrim had gone missing at the place in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
For a time after Pilgrim went off to college, Morgan dreaded going to places on Kingdom Mountain that he and his older brother had once frequented. Places where Pilgrim had taught him to wait for a buck to slip down to a stream to drink. Brooks where they’d caught the vividly colored little native trout that lived in every rill on the mountain. The big lake, Memphremagog, which stretched twenty-five miles north into French Canada, where they’d watched the snow geese alight, thousands of them, sailing out of the dense clouds in family gaggles of four and fi ve and six on their way north to Baffi n Bay or south to the Chesapeake. Once, while they were trolling on the lake in the birch canoe they had made, Morgan had hooked a huge deepwater fi sh, probably a lake trout but possibly a sturgeon. The fi sh had towed the canoe for almost a mile over the border, between the steep mountains rising abruptly three thousand feet out of the water, before breaking off with Morgan’s homemade red-and-white lure in its mouth. The two brothers loved to camp overnight on top of Kingdom Mountain, high above the treeline, where you could see four different states and deep into Canada. One night, tenting on the mountaintop with their cousin Dolton Kinneson, a great bear of a fellow who was Pilgrim’s age but in his head much younger than Morgan, they’d watched the entire northern sky fl are blue, green, red, silver, yellow, and pink from the northern lights. Pilgrim had told them about the Canadian voyageurs, fur traders in colorful tuques and sashes, who paddled thirty-foot-long canots du nord in grand flotillas from Montreal to Lake Athabasca and a place with the wonderful name of Flin Flon—twenty-fi ve hundred miles and back again, racing to beat the onset of winter, singing their stirring paddling songs, penetrating wilderness never before seen by anyone save a few scattered bands of Cree. At twelve and thirteen and fourteen, Morgan had longed to go north with these bold adventurers.
He and Pilgrim and Dolton had brought Professor Agassiz to the mountaintop to examine the glacial erratics, boulders carried down from the Far North by the great ice sheet. They’d showed him the Balancing Boulder, a gigantic round rock as big as their farmhouse, perched on a smaller fl at-topped boulder, with strange glyphs that the professor called runes carved into it beside pictographs of a whale, a walrus, and a reindeer. The professor believed that the pictographs and the runes might have been carved by Norse explorers hundreds of years before, but neither he nor anyone else could tell for certain. Only that the carvings were very ancient. Sometimes Morgan and Pilgrim played a variation of blindman’s bluff at the Balancing Boulder, shutting their eyes and reaching for the boulder to see which rune they touched most often. Even when he tried not to, Morgan usually touched the symbol ~ Pilgrim ~.
At all of these familiar places Morgan had felt terrible pangs of loneliness ever since Pilgrim had gone missing in Pennsylvania. The plan had been taking shape in his mind for some weeks. After Pilgrim went off to war he continued to write to Morgan, though not to their parents. He told Morgan that he felt they were still close in spirit because they both loved the same places on the mountain. Pilgrim had liked to josh, calling Morgan “soldier” or “Natty,” after Natty Bumppo, the fabled scout in Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Morgan’s parents were too serious-minded to do much joshing. As for the aged cousin, she had never joshed in her life.
“Did Lord Jesus of Nazareth sit around the woodstove cracking wise with his cronies?” she said. “Did he, cousin?”
“I believe not,” Morgan’s father admitted.
“I believe not, too,” Mahitabel said quite viciously. “Lord Jesus of Nazareth never laughed in his life. Not once. Nor did Paul.”
“Laughing wasn’t Jesus’ department,” Morgan’s father conceded.
“It wasn’t Paul’s department either, from what I can gather about Paul.”
“They knew that laughter is a sin,” Mahitabel said. “That laughter besmirches the creation. I detest laughter.”
The old woman opened her daybook, in which she kept a careful running account of all that she detested, along with clippings of crimes and atrocities culled from the gazettes Morgan’s father subscribed to. “Look you,” she said, removing a cutting from the Washington Intelligencer of two weeks ago. “Do you call this funny? Do you laugh at this?” The heading read, fi ve hardened killers escape from york state prison camp. Below, in smaller type, “Family of Four Found Hanged. Murderers Said to Be Bound for the South.”
The article, which Cousin Sabbath School now proceeded to read aloud with relish for the third or fourth time, was especially painful to the Kinneson family because Quaker Meeting’s brother, Colonel John Kinneson, was the commandant of the prison, and during the breakout John’s wife had been shot by one of the killers. It described how, in an incredibly violent and audacious action, the killers had been broken out of the Union prison at Elmira on the morning they were supposed to be executed. The article reported that the fi ve escaped war criminals were the worst dregs that the conflict between the states had produced. Their numbers included a slave killer, a child murderer, an unfrocked minister, and a disbarred army doctor who, so far from healing the wounded soldiers under his care, had practiced vivisection upon them. The family they were thought to have murdered the next day had been connected with the Underground Railroad, a point that delighted Mahitabel, who had long opposed the Railroad and was a staunch anti-abolitionist, on the grounds that the Children of Israel had owned slaves, and what right did abolitionists like Morgan’s father and Pilgrim have to oppose a tradition sanctioned by the Lord God of Abraham and Isaac?
“Show me,” Mahitabel demanded, “where the Lord God of Abraham and Isaac told Moses to free his slaves. Show me where Jesus ordered the Romans to free their slaves.”
In fact the aged cousin had inherited, from yet another aged cousin, a half-interest in a ladies’ cotton undergarment factory near Burlington, which had recently gone bankrupt because of the war, a misfortune for which she blamed abolitionists in general and Morgan’s father in particular. She also blamed Morgan, who, after Pilgrim left Vermont for Harvard and then joined the army as a medical adjutant, had been conducting passengers over the border
to Canada himself.
That’s what Morgan was doing on this gray afternoon in late March of 1864. Not yet eighteen, tall and athletic, light-haired, with wide-set eyes the color of the big lake just before a summer storm, he was guiding a single passenger—there had been many fewer since the president’s proclamation just over a year ago—up the Kinnesonville Pike over the saddle on the east ridge of Kingdom Mountain. He was taking the man, known to him only as Jesse Moses, to the last station before Canada, a seasonal maplesugar house that Pilgrim had named Beulahland, on the back side of the mountain. There they would rest and eat the cold supper Morgan’s mother had packed for them. Then he would guide Jesse Moses the rest of the way through the Canadian forest to Magog and put him on the morning train for Montreal. Morgan’s father had already wired Auguste Choteau, the Montreal Underground stationmaster, that a passenger from the South would be arriving so that Choteau could be at the terminal to meet Jesse.
Morgan and Pilgrim had made this trip so many times that as Morgan trudged through the deep snow high on the mountain, he could hear his brother’s voice in his head, telling about Professor Agassiz’s great ice sheet creeping down from the north, carving out the lake and creating the vast bog called the Great Northern Slang. Telling him the names of the boreal plants clinging to the mountain above the tree line, plants found in few other places south of Labrador, explaining how birds had originated from lizards and humans from something more like monkeys. That’s what had caused the falling-out between Pilgrim and his teacher. The professor would have none of Mr. Darwin’s monkeys. He and Pilgrim had quarreled bitterly over the matter while on a working holiday together in the Southlands, up in the remote mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina. The quarrel had marked the end of their friendship. Now Pilgrim had gone missing. No doubt buried, according to Morgan’s uncle Colonel John Kinneson, in a mass grave for the unknown fallen at Gettysburg. And Morgan would have none of that. He knew for a fact that Pilgrim was alive, though how he knew he couldn’t say. He simply did, just as he knew that eventually spring would follow winter on Kingdom Mountain, and summer, however brief, would follow spring.
When Jesse Moses had arrived at the Kinneson place, he had not been dressed for late winter in the North Country. He had no coat, just a ragged blanket with holes for his arms and head, and rags wrapped around his feet for boots. Morgan’s mother had outfitted him with wool stockings and a shirt and some oversized trousers. There had been a fresh dusting of snow earlier in the day, with more on the way. Morgan could smell snow on the sharp north wind, see it coming in the slate sky over the mountain. He’d brought his musket, Hunter, in case he came across a bear early out of its den. Jesse followed him, carrying a tow sack around his neck and wearing a red wool jacket and felt boots Morgan had long ago outgrown. Morgan was glad Jesse was warm but aggrieved to have to give up his boyhood clothes. The red coat had been Pilgrim’s before it was his. Even with it buttoned up around his throat, Jesse was shivering. More from fear, Morgan thought, than from the cold. The old black man continually looked back over his shoulder.
“They coming,” Jesse said.
“Who?” Morgan said. “Who is coming?”
“They coming, I reckon,” Jesse said again.
They crossed the saddle of the mountain and started down toward the maple orchard. The trees on the wild north side produced wonderful syrup and sugar. The sap here ran late, often not starting to flow until early April. The syrup was light amber, the sugar a lovely blond, a full shade lighter than Morgan’s light hair. When the sap was running Morgan and his mother sometimes stayed at the sugar camp for several days. Returning to the camp through the inky maple trees at twilight behind the big red oxen, his shoulders on fire from lugging full sap buckets all day, seeing the red sparks climb high over the black woods where his mother was sugaring off, Morgan would pretend he was an Esquimau coming home from a seal hunt. He loved sugaring time, and this afternoon, guiding Jesse Moses down the mountainside, he looked for any sign that spring and sugaring were close at hand. A blue jay in some black spruces
made its late-winter rusty-hinge cry. That was all.
It began to snow lightly, hard pellets sifting through the bare branches at a slant. Morgan came to a place where something had crashed out of the snowy woods and crossed the old tote road. It was a huge, cloven-footed animal like an ox—but what would an ox be doing on the far side of the mountain before sugaring time? And where an ox’s belly would have dragged in the snow, this animal left no belly furrow. It was, Morgan realized, a moose deer. He was overcome by the hunter’s urge to strike out and track it down. His grandfather Kinneson had married an Abenaki woman. Yet Morgan, with his light hair and complexion and ice-gray eyes, seemed to have inherited all of the Indian ways in the family. Pilgrim, who was dark-complected and looked more like an Indian, was the scholarly brother. He’d have been able to say the moose’s scientifi c name. Morgan just wanted to hunt the animal.
There was a good supply of wood at Beulahland. Last fall Morgan had cut several cords against this spring’s sugaring season. He passed under the rowanberry tree in the camp yard, marked with the rune t, Thurisaz. A black man, an Underground conductor himself, had carved the symbol deep into the tree many years ago, when Morgan’s father was a boy. There was a similar rune on the Balancing Boulder atop the mountain. Pilgrim’s professor had said it meant
“gateway,” which made sense because the Kinnesons’ Underground station was the gateway to Canada.
Morgan lifted the latch of the plank door, went inside, and poured a little coal oil on some kindling in the stove to get a fire going.
Jesse Moses started to unbutton his borrowed jacket. “I gone give you back you warm red coat, mister tall boy,” he said. “Put me in mind of that Joseph coat.”
Morgan smiled at Jesse’s “mister tall boy.” He was ashamed of his selfish unwillingness to part with something no longer of any use to him. “You keep that coat, sir,” he said. “It’s just a mite small for me.”Snap
. Outside, a snow-laden branch broke off a maple tree, as loud as a pistol shot. Jesse started. “It’s all right,” Morgan said. “Just an old tree limb.”
Morgan could not seem to stop thinking of his brother. Pilgrim had no great love for hard physical labor around the farm—making hay, threshing oats, cutting fi rewood—but he loved sugaring season, loved to come to the camp to help celebrate the fi rst exhilarating task of the approaching spring.
As Morgan unpacked ham, bread, baked beans, and pie from his haversack and laid them out on the unplaned table, he ran his eyes over the titles of the books on the window shelf. Most had belonged to Pilgrim. Gray’s Anatomy. The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The professor’s great book on glaciation.
“We waits here till somebody come for me?” Jesse Moses asked Morgan. “Somebody will come?”
Morgan thought how frightening all this must be to Jesse. The gathering snowstorm, the deep north woods, the rough mountainside cabin miles from anywhere. He wanted to tell him that the president’s proclamation freeing all slaves had gone into effect more than a year ago, that they were four or fi ve hundred miles from the nearest slave state, that he was as safe, as Quaker Meeting liked to say, as a toad in the palm of God’s hand. But Jesse’s eyes were
Morgan smiled at him. “By this o’clock tomorrow, Mr. Jesse, you’ll be in Montreal.”
“Where that?” Jesse asked.
“Promise land,” Jesse Moses said.
“Yes. The promised land.”
“A young gal ’bout you age been through here lately? Runaway gal, pretty as a pitcher, maybe gots a little boy with she?”
Morgan shook his head.
“You staying with Jesse, I reckon,” Jesse said. “You daddy say you staying with Jess. Put him on the cars. I gots something to tell you. Something important.”
Thinking about the moose, Morgan said, “I’ll be back. By nightfall or shortly afterward.”
“I gots to tell you—”
“I won’t be gone long. No one will fi nd you here.”
Morgan knew he should remain with the frightened man. What if, while tracking the moose deer, he was overtaken by the oncoming blizzard and couldn’t return to the camp? But he had to get on the animal’s trail while there was still tracking light. When he’d first seen the track, it was all he could do not to send Jesse on alone to Beulahland while he lit out after the animal then and there. He’d never shot a moose deer. L’original, the French Canadian trappers who sometimes brought furs down the pike to sell in Kingdom Common called the moose. On this one animal his family could live for an entire year, preserving the meat in the icehouse. He would feel better about putting his plan into action knowing that they had that moose. So he told himself.
“I’ll be back by one hour after dark,” he told Jesse Moses. “I promise.”
The old man gave Morgan an uncertain smile and reached out and patted his arm. Morgan smiled back. Then he was out the door into the small driving grains of snow betokening more snow to come. He peered up the mountain through the dark maple boles and judged that he still had half an hour of good light. He started back up the trail at a trot.
Morgan wished that he’d thought to bring along his snowshoes. If Monsieur L’original got into the slang, where the
March snow still lay four feet deep, he’d need them. Climbing up the mountain from Beulahland, now running on the snowy trace, he thought he saw where a bear had come out of its den in the tumbled boulders at the foot of a cliff, then had returned to sleep out the balance of the long northern winter. High in a yellow birch tree beside the trail a partridge was nipping off buds, its small head bobbing herky-jerky like a yard hen’s. Once he and Pilgrim and their
cousin Dolton had found one hundred and sixty-two alder leaves neatly folded one atop the other inside the crop of a cock partridge that Morgan had shot off its drumming log. Morgan knew the exact number of alder leaves inside the bird because Dolton had counted them out in his loud, deliberate voice, the way a child might who had just learned to count to one hundred and beyond. “You’re a good counter, Dolt,” Pilgrim had said, and Dolton nodded, happy to be complimented by his cousin. After Pilgrim enlisted, Dolt too had attempted to go to war. Twice he had been rejected as unfit for service, once in Vermont, once in Albany. Dolt had decided to stay on in York State because there he would be closer to the war, and who knew, he might yet fi nd a way to join the army.
Morgan came to the place where the moose had crossed the tote road, its strides a full yard-measure apart. Just up the slope he saw where it had been browsing. Several striped-maple trees about twenty feet tall were barked from the snowline up to eight or nine feet above the ground. When the feeding animal heard him and Jesse coming, it must have rushed across the trail, breasting through drifts a deer would have to leap or go around. Its track was three
times the size of a big buck’s.
Think like a moose, Morgan told himself in the dwindling daylight. How did a moose think? Did a moose think? What else besides striped-maple bark did it eat? Where would it go to find its next meal?
The animal seemed to be headed down the mountain toward Pond Number Three, which the professor had called a glacial tarn. Morgan was running again, angling away from the tracks. He planned to cut the moose off at the base of the mountain before it got out onto the frozen slang beyond the tarn, where it would easily outstrip him. With luck it would stop to feed on the cedar branches and alders along the edge of the slang. If he was fortunate enough to kill it, he’d have to borrow his father’s yoke of Red Durhams to skid the dead animal around the foot of the mountain to the home place. Either that or butcher the moose where he shot it and pack out the meat in several trips. He was getting ahead of himself. First he had to shoot it. He ran faster, his felt boots throwing off scoops of snow like a winter hare bounding through high drifts. If the slang beyond the tarn was open, the moose would circle out around it and he could still intercept it before full dark. It was snowing harder. Morgan’s hunter’s blood was up. He ran faster. The hunt had become a chase.
Morgan was fi ve feet eleven and one half inches tall and still growing, with long legs like a racehorse. He was as farsighted as a hawk. Three years running, at the Harvest Saturday turkey shoot in Kingdom Common, he’d placed fi ve of fi ve balls in the bull’s-eye at one hundred paces with Hunter. He was confi dent that if he could get that close to the moose with any shooting light at all left in the sky, he could kill the animal. That was all that mattered to him as
he leaped over a blowdown, cleared a crease in the snow where a rill cut diagonally down the slope, glimpsed dark water ahead at the base of the mountain where the flume dropped into the pond. Water. Not ice. He believed, hoped, that the moose would avoid the frigid open water at this time of year. The swirling snow fell thicker, blotting out the slang beyond the tarn. The air smelled like spent gunpowder, like wet hay smoldering, like more snow coming.
Morgan thought he heard church chimes. Here on the back side of the mountain, that could not possibly be, though once from the mountaintop, when the wind was out of the southwest, he’d heard church bells fl oating out from the Common, faint and mysterious. Yet he was almost certain he heard music. He even recognized the number, “Sucre d’érable”—“Maple Sugar”—maybe played on a zither like his mother’s. Running to intercept the animal, he thought of
church music, thought of a herd of lean moose devouring a herd of fat moose to the bright wild strains of “Sucre d’érable,” like the cattle in Joseph’s dream. A year ago at the Sabbath school pageant at church, Morgan had recited the story of Joseph to the entire congregation. Then he had told them straight out in his sharp, carrying voice that if he’d had a raft of good-for-nothing jealous brothers like Joseph’s and they’d shoved him into a pit to be devoured by
wild beasts, he’d have found a way out and hunted them down one by one, little brother Benjamin excepted, and done unto them as they had done unto him. The congregation had been horrifi ed, especially the somber old churchmen and the ancient churchwomen who shared Mahitabel’s opinion of the place where Morgan and his like would spend eternity. In fact, he had deliberately outraged the churchgoers in retaliation for their urging his parents—not that they had needed much encouragement—to forbid Pilgrim to marry Manon Thibeau, a French Canadian Catholic, on the grounds that such a union would condemn the young couple to eternal hellfire. Manon’s parents, who attended Our Lady of the Green Mountains in Kingdom Common, felt the same way, threatening to send their daughter to a convent in Quebec City if she continued to keep company with Pilgrim. Shortly afterward Pilgrim had enlisted. Heartbroken, Manon had wandered off into the slang and vanished forever.
After the pageant Morgan’s parents had stopped making him attend Sabbath school and church, so when he fi nished his barn chores on Sundays he had all day to hunt and fi sh. That had been the second part of his design in telling the sanctimonious old churchfolk that in Joseph’s place he would have hunted down his treacherous brothers from one end of the Holy Land to the other. At the same time he’d spoken in deadly earnest. Maybe it wasn’t in Joseph’s nature
to see justice served, but it was in his.
He came out on the edge of the cedar bog at the north end of the tarn. Along the slang draining the bog were the moose’s tracks, and out on the frozen surface, as black as a bear in the falling snow, the huge animal was making fast toward an island of cedars, where the ice ended and the open water of the slang began. It was moving in ponderous, loping strides entirely different from the bounding of a deer, and it was well beyond the killing range of Hunter. The moose disappeared in the patch of cedars. If Morgan had been five minutes earlier he’d have had a perfect shot broadside at close range.
Through the thickening snow he marked a beaver lodge jutting up through the bog just this side of the cedar island. The lodge squatted round and dome-roofed like the Esquimau icehouse in his old school geography. Across from it, on the opposite side of the open lead of water through the ice, stood a dead pine tree. Many years before, the pine had been struck by a bolt of lightning, which had corkscrewed its way down the trunk from top to bottom and riven the tree wide open in a spiraling crease, exposing the heartwood. In the top of the pine sat a fi sh hawk’s nest abandoned for the winter. The stick nest was nearly as big as a hayrick. Morgan studied the beaver house and the osprey nest. He tried to think what the moose might do next. A true deer would bed down in the cedars and wait out the storm. Toward dawn if the snow stopped, it would come out to feed. He supposed that a moose deer might do the same. He decided that at fi rst light the next morning he’d be back here waiting for the animal. He’d spend the night in the sugar camp with Jesse and be here ready at dawn. Then he would take Jesse along to Magog and the railway.
Again he swore he could hear chimes fl oating over the bog. The music was eerie. “Rock of Ages,” he thought. It faded in and out of earshot. I gots something to tell you. Something important. What was it Jesse wanted to tell him? Morgan couldn’t imagine. Just as he turned to start back up the mountainside he heard the fi rst gunshot,
muffled by the falling snow but followed seconds later by another.
He sprinted back up the mountain, his feet finding the trail, which he could discern only by looking ahead at the narrow opening between the tops of the snowclad fi r and spruce trees delineating the path below. There were tracks in the road where two men had come through after him and Jesse, headed in the same direction. Ahead the tote road forked. The left branch went west to the big lake, then hooked north. The right branch led directly to the sugar camp. It was hard to tell which way the men he was following had gone. The falling snow had sifted deep into their tracks
and drifted over them, but from a slantwise indentation, little more than a shadow on the snow, it appeared to Morgan—who could trail a deer or bear over hardpan ledge by the faintest imprint in the lichen, or by a snapped-off saxifrage blossom or a hair caught on a Labrador tea plant—that the men had taken the route to the sugar camp. When he and Pilgrim played the tracking game they called Chase, Pilgrim had taught him to watch for a single bent-back bladeof grass, a wool thread snagged by a bull thistle, half a heel print in the swale. Spring or fall, summer or winter, Morgan read the woods the way Pilgrim read books. From the inside out.
He moved quickly over the snow. He was quite certain he would overtake the men soon and was hoping against hope to come up on them before the sugar camp. The snow was letting up. Behind the thinning clouds he could see moonglow.
On the mountaintop the Balancing Boulder shone like a huge crystal ball in the emerging moonlight. Ahead, Morgan smelled wood smoke. In the pale moonlight he saw smoke standing straight up from the chimney of the sugar camp. Searching for the pole star to tell the time, he looked up through the black and leafless branches of the rowanberry tree outside the camp door. A corpse dangled with its feet just above Morgan’s head. Jesse Moses. Hanging dead on the rowanberry tree.
The cabin door opened, and Morgan slid behind a tree. In the pale starlight a black bear stood upright in the doorway and pissed in the snow. No, not a bear. A huge man in a bearskin coat with the head of the bear still attached and pulled up over his head. The animal’s front legs were tied loosely over the massive chest of the man in the shaggy coat, each bear paw as big around as the bottom of a milk pail. The bear-man saluted Jesse Moses hanging in the
rowanberry tree, and as he did so, snapping off the salute neat and brisk as you please, Morgan raised Hunter and fi red. The man gave a surprised howl and reeled backward into the cabin, gripping his left shoulder. In his haste Morgan had aimed high.
“What is it?” a voice inside the camp cried out. “Did you spot the nigger wench? For God’s sake don’t kill her.”
The cabin door slammed shut. Morgan started running back down the mountainside toward the cedar bog.
At dawn Ludi Too eased downslope in Morgan’s tracks. The entire eastern sky was suffused with alternating bands of gold and crimson and turquoise. Ludi, wrapped in his reeking bearskin, elided into “Marching to Georgia” on his hammered dulcimer. He’d created the instrument from a washboard nailed over a rectangular ammunition box. The strings had belonged to a piano in a darky church that he’d fi red. Chestnut-wood pegs, a black cherry soundboard. Inside the cut-down ammo box was a loose rattlesnake rattle to give the instrument vibrato and resonance. The dulcimer hung around his neck on a thick strap made from mule reins stained dark with sweat. He beat the strings with two mallets of yellow poplar, for of all the trees in the forest the tulip tree made the most melodious music in a windstorm. And oh, the dulcimer sounded like a whole marching band going off to war. Out of it Ludi could coax the wail of a fiddle, the ringing notes of a banjo, the feeling sentiment of a Spanish guitar, the percussive beat of a kettledrum, even the brassy blare of a bugle, cornet, or trombone. How he conjured such concerts from his homemade mountain instrument no one knew, least of all the musician himself. Even with an injured left shoulder where Morgan’s musket ball had torn through flesh andgrazed bone, Ludi was a wonder musician. It was said in the coves and hollows of Ludi’s mountains that he could lure a wild rabbit out of a laurel thicket, the heart out of a pretty maid. The troubador could charm fi sh from a brook right into his fry pan, quail to his horsehair quail trap, could still a storm like the Lord on Gennesaret. Ludi Too could play the venom out of a moccasin, money from a miser, silence from a preacher, the fi ght from the fi ghtingest enemy. If A.D.’s wench was laying low nearby, he had no doubt he could
conjure her out of her hidey-hole with the magical dulcimer.
Ludi was as uncanny a shot with his breech-loading Yellow Boy carbine as he was a musician. With the Yellow Boy, both south and north of Mason and Dixon’s Line, he had dispatched more than three hundred Union and Secesh soldiers. This morning, allmerciful Jesus willing, he’d dispatch the bushwhacker who had winged him the night before at the cabin on the mountain. And, if not before then afterward, he’d run down the gal into the bargain. He might have her himself before turning her over to A.D., aye, he might. But he would have to keep the mad doctor off her. It had been all Ludi could do to prevent the vivisectionist from ripping out the old nigger’s live beating heart with his dreadful gleaming instruments before they hung him up in the tree to bait the gal in. Ludi made up his mind to put a bullet in Doctor Surgeon’s brain the moment they captured the wench.
Ludi carried a second weapon, which resembled a long horse pistol such as cavalrymen sometimes wore. But instead of one barrel, it had two snugged up side by side, with two hammers and two triggers. One barrel threw buckshot, the other a four-ounce ball capable of penetrating an oaken door. Ludi wore this weapon around his neck on a lanyard of human gut. Its cracked walnut stock was held together with a spare string from the dulcimer. Etched on the barrels were several demonic faces.
The Yellow Boy was mounted with a slim telescopic tube,through which Ludi now scanned the frozen swamp below. The
swamp stretched out for miles in the clear morning sunlight. Good light to shoot by, Ludi thought, though whenever possible he preferred to work with the sun at his back. Also he preferred to work alone. That’s why he’d made the clubfoot remain behind in the cabin. Doctor Surgeon had wanted to come along, but Ludi had important work to do this morning, and he did not want the lame little medical man getting in his way. Why King George had brought the clubfoot with them during the escape, or the actor and the Prophet either, was a mystery to Ludi. He and George could
easily have taken care of the business at hand themselves.
Except for a black thread of open water winding through it, the swamp was snow-covered. Here and there islands of evergreen trees stood up. The largest one lay only about an eighth of a mile away and occupied no more space than a mule could plow from sunup to sundown. Just across the dark water from the island stood a dead pine tree, with a very large bird’s nest at the top. Between the island and the lightning-snag pine, a beaver lodge of peeled sticks
jutted out of the frozen swamp. Ludi couldn’t tell for certain, but he believed that the tracks he’d been following approached the beaver lodge and stopped there. So much the better, he thought, as he jacked a shell into the chamber of the Yellow Boy.
Morgan spent the night in the woods at the foot of the mountain. Toward dawn his battle plan had come to him all of a piece. The haunting music from up the mountain was still quite faint, and as he walked across the frozen bog and along the edge of the open slang he knew that he had time. He approachedthe beaver lodge and ripped some dead sticks away from the side. Then he walked backward in his tracks to a stump beside the slang. He removed his felt boots and woolen stockings and rolled his wool pantaloons up above his knees. Without hesitation he stepped into the water. It was well over his knees and shockingly cold. He gasped, caught his breath, felt his way over the silty bottom to the lightning snag.
He put his boots and stockings back on and began to climb up the dead stobs jutting out from the pine trunk. Up he went, hand over hand, marveling at the whorling wound gashed deep into the trunk of the great tree. He scooped the snow out of the osprey’s nest and pulled himself into it. Carefully, he upended his gun, poured powder from his horn down the barrel, ramrodded it home, dropped in the wadded ball, ramrodded again, placed a brass cap under the gooseneck hammer. He drew back the hammer, then pawed moresnow out of the nest to make a hollow for himself. To his astonishment he found a fi sh skeleton four feet long in the bottom of the nest. In the fish’s skeletal jaw was the faded red-and-white homemade lure he’d lost years ago when he and Pilgrim were trolling in the big lake and he had hooked the great fi sh that had towed them and their canoe into Canada. The three hooks hanging from the bottom of the lure were rusted to points. What this curious reminder of the outing with Pilgrim might signify, Morgan had no idea. Nor could he imagine how the osprey had carried the fish, which must have weighed thirty pounds or more, to its nest. But now a man was coming out of the woods at the foot of the mountain. He was wearing a bearskin coat and playing a zitherlike instrument depending from his neck. Morgan wedged deeper into the nest.
He waited until the musician drew near to the beaver lodge. Waited until he raised his rifl e and cut loose with a thunderous volley. Waited until he had discharged both barrels of the scattershot into the lodge as well. Then Morgan fi red, and the rifl eman sat down in the snow, holding his side.
“You’ve kilt old Ludi dead, Yankee boy,” Ludi Toosaid, pressing his blood-soaked hand against his side.
“Deader’n pork. And smashed my instrument to boot, damn your cold gray eyes.”
“You killed Jesse Moses,” Morgan said. He didn’t like it that Ludi had noticed the color of his eyes. He reached out and lifted the strange pistol with two barrels over Ludi’s big head.
“I’m paunch-shot,” Ludi said. “Hand me back over that double horse cock of mine so’s I can finish it.”
Morgan kicked the big pistol over to Ludi. The killer picked it up, cocked both hammers, called Morgan a misbegotten bushwacking bastard, pointed the gun at him, and pulled the triggers.
The hammers clicked on empty chambers, as Morgan had known they would. He’d seen and heard Ludi fire at the beaver lodge with both barrels. Even so, it was terrifying to have a man cut down on him with a mortal weapon from six feet away.
“They goddamn!” Ludi shouted, and hurled the gun feebly at Morgan. It fell at his feet, and the boy picked it up and hung it around his neck by its lanyard.
“Well, then,” Ludi said. “I’ve played out my hand. End it, old son. Put a ball in my head. For I don’t care to bleed out here in this arctic fastness. Hark. I’ll sing me a hymn to pass over on.”
Ludi reached into his bear coat pocket and brought out his poplar mallet, and on the shattered dulcimer he played a bar of “Rock of Ages.”
“Let me hide myself in thee,” warbled the minstrel. “Come, boy, join in. We’ll make a duet of it.
“For the sake of Jesus seated at the right hand of Jehovah, put a ball in my breast, lad. I’m begging you. Put a ball in my breast and take my instrument and sing in a ballad that I died game. Finish me, man. Only tell me fi rst. Where be the nigger’s stone? Does the gal have it?”
Morgan stared at him.
“Never mind,” Ludi said. “Anno Domini will get it. One way or another, old A.D. will come at it when he finds the wench.”
It was clouding over again in the west beyond the mountaintop. Big flakes of snow were dropping out of the sky.
Morgan said, “Toss me your ammunition belt.”
Slowly, Ludi unbuckled the two bandoliers crossed over his chest under his bear coat and heaved them in Morgan’s direction. He was bleeding harder now.
Morgan fetched the Yellow Boy, half buried in the snow nearby, and reloaded it with one bullet from Ludi’s belt. He set the rifle upright against a cedar tree, training his musket on Ludi lest he snatch up the loaded rifl e and turn it Morgan’s way. “I’m leaving you your gun with one shell in the chamber to do with as you see fit,” he said.
“How do you propose that I pull the trigger?”
Morgan knelt at the musician’s feet and pulled off Ludi’s right boot and stocking.
“Wigwag your toe.”
“Wigwag your great toe. Do you have life in it?”
Ludi moved his toe, as black as his boot.
“That’s how,” Morgan said and began backing away toward the cedar island, the musket in his hands pointed at Ludi.
“A curse on your yallow head, boy. Unto the seventh generation.”
Morgan faded into the cedar trees on the island, trotted to the other side, and began to run toward the foot of the mountain. The snowflakes were as big as the palm of his hand and coming faster. A minute later he heard a muffled shot from behind him. Quartering with the northwest wind on his left cheek, he reached the shelter of the woods at the foot of the mountain. He wanted to return to the cabin and deal with the second man, whose tracks he’d seen going over the mountain with Ludi’s the night before, but his wet feet and legs were freezing. He had no choice but to stop
and pull some loose bark from a yellow birch and break off dead limbs close to the trunk of a skunk spruce, make a brush pile, and build a fi re. Otherwise he’d freeze his feet, and that he could not risk. If there was one part of him that Morgan Kinneson knew he would need over the coming weeks, it was his feet.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Walking to Gatlinburg by Howard Frank Mosher. Copyright © 2010 by Howard Frank Mosher. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.