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Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952 (7 page)

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952
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“Special deputy?” echoed Sam,
unfolding the paper. “Why?”

 
          
“Read
that commission. It gives you authority to make an investigation and figure out
some way to stop this wild dog nuisance,” explained the deputy. “You’re here on
the
scene,
you can do this thing and help us, and help
yourself too. See?”

 
          
When
the deputy had driven away again, Randy went into the front room, and took from
the bookshelf Sam’s copy of
Lives of the
Hunted.
He and Jebs headed away for the trail to Hobert Tasman’s house.

 
          
“Hang
back and let me talk to him alone,” whispered Randy to Jebs as they approached
the clearing. “Maybe I can read to him while you sort of investigate around—do
some detective work.”

 
          
“It’s
a deal,” whispered Jebs
back,
and Randy stepped alone
into the clearing.

 
          
“Mr.
Tasman,” he called.

 
          
The
slim figure of the hermit came slowly into sight at the doorway. “Is that Randy
Hunter?” he called back.

 
          
“Yes, sir.
I brought that book we were talking about.” Randy
approached. “You said I could bring it and read to you.”

           
“All right, come ahead,” granted
Tasman. “Tell your friend he can come along, too.”

 
          
Randy
glanced back. Jebs followed him slowly toward the cabin, his square face
crestfallen. As they came close to Tasman, they saw a slight smile at the
corners of the thin mouth.

 
          
“I
can hear a whisper a mile off,” said Tasman, with something of quiet triumph.
“When you lose your sight, your hearing sharpens up. You said something to
somebody, and
the somebody
whispered back. So I knew
there were two of you.
The same two boys who were here
yesterday.
Well, are you enjoying your stay?”

 
          
“We’re
a little bothered by wild dogs, Mr. Tasman,” said Jebs.

 
          
“You
are?” Tasman looked interested. “
Sam
Cohill
mumbled something about them once.”

 
          
“What’s
more,” pursued Jebs, “Randy here thought for a while that he saw one of the
dogs hop up and walk on its hind legs.”

 
          
“On
its hind legs,” repeated Tasman slowly. “Let’s hear about that.”

 
          
While
Jebs described the previous night’s excitements, Randy looked sharply into
Tasman’s fixed, staring eyes.
Their pupils looked, not black,
but a pearly gray.
Randy knew what cataracts were, and how they could
blind a man. But was Tasman telling the truth about depending on his ears
alone? Might he not be concealing some power to see, pretending to be blind for
reasons of his own?

 
          
“I
would think,” said Tasman when Jebs had finished, “that your friend Randy is a
little too full of stories about werewolves.”

 
          
“Werewolves?”
said Randy. “I’ve heard something about them, and seen some of those crazy
horror movies. But—well, I don’t believe in them,
that’s
for sure.”

 
          
“Lots
of people do believe in them,” said Tasman quietly. “It’s an old, old
superstition. It must go back to the beginning of time, and it’s known in every
country of the globe. You can read about werewolves in old Greek and Roman writings,
and just about the time
America
was first being colonized there were some
accusations and trials in
Europe
.”

 
          
“You
mean,
folks stood trial for turning into wolves?”
demanded Jebs incredulously.
“With judges and juries and
prosecuting attorneys and all?
What kind of evidence did they have
against them?”

 
          
“At
the time, the evidence was considered pretty conclusive,” Tasman said, rather
grimly. “You can find it in a book about werewolves written by Montague
Summers. I read it years ago.

 
          
“One
case the book described was about Gilles Gamier, a Frenchman. He was convicted
in 1573, as I remember. There were plenty of neighbors to say he turned into a
wolf, and finally he confessed. They executed him. Then there was another case,
about a man with almost the same name, Jean Grenier. He confessed, too. They
gave him life imprisonment.”

 
          
“But
that’s a fairy tale,” protested Randy. “You’re talking about things happening
in the 1500’s. Around that time, you had—”

 
          
“You
had William Shakespeare writing his plays,” interrupted Tasman smoothly. “You
had Galileo proving that the earth moved around the sun, and Richard Grenville
founding a colony down here on the
Carolina
coast—the Lost Colony they tell about in
the pageant each summer. The 1500’s produced some of the greatest scientists
and artists and heroes in history.”

 
          
“And
some of the greatest werewolves,” suggested Jebs.

 
          
“Well,
Montague Summers’ book contains the records. The one I liked best was a German
werewolf called Peter Stumpf. There was a long list of signed witnesses, who
swore they’d seen him change from a beast into a man.”

 
          
“Willie
Dubbin ought to be listening to this,” said Jebs. “He’d get chills and fever
enough for a whole county. Say, Mr. Tasman, you remember that book right clearly.”

 
          
“That’s
another thing about being blind,” Tasman said. “You remember the books you read
when you could see. You mull them over and over in your memory. But, speaking
of books, you said you’d brought
Lives of
the
Hunted ”

 
          
Randy
was standing almost close enough to touch Tasman. He decided to find out, once
for all, if Tasman’s blindness was complete.

 
          
“Yes,
sir,” he said. “Here it is.”

 
          
And
he thrust the book swiftly and directly at Tasman, almost into the gaunt face.

 
          
Randy’s
movement was almost violently sudden, and the book came within three inches of
striking Tasman’s nose. But Tasman’s fixed eyes did not shift or blink. Plainly
he could not see, or he would have flinched involuntarily away.

 
          
“Thanks
for bringing it,” said Tasman. “All right, what’s the first story in it?”

 
          
Randy
looked at the table of contents. “It’s called
Kragy the Kootenay
Ram ”
he said. “It’s
about a mountain sheep, I guess.”

 
          
“Mountain
sheep,” repeated Tasman. “I used to like to be in the mountains. Wait, please.”

 
          
He
turned and shuffled back into the house. After a moment he returned, carrying
an old kitchen chair in each hand.

 
          
“Sit
down, you two,” he invited. “Start reading, while I work in here.”

 
          
Randy,
watching him return through the open door into the half-gloomy interior, saw
Tasman move confidently across the floor, put out a hand and find the back of a
chair. The blind man sat down before a sort of work bench and dipped his hand
into a metal pan.

 
          
Randy
began to read Ernest Thompson Seton’s absorbing story of the heroic ram of the
Rocky Mountains
.

 

 
        
CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 
          
TASMAN'S
STORY

 

 
          
Listening
to the adventures of Krag, Tasman took from his pan a lump of clay, gray and
dripping wet. He worked it furiously in his hands, dipped it into the water
several times, and finally brought it to the soft, workable consistency he
wanted. Then he slapped it down at the very center of his bench, on a round
wooden platform that was fixed there, like a primitive plate or dish. His feet
reached for a treadle like that of a sewing machine, set on a pivot under the
bench. He worked the treadle, faster and faster, and the platform began to turn
swiftly. While it spun around, Tasman’s hands made themselves busy with the
clay.

           
Randy glanced up between paragraphs,
watching briefly. Jebs, quiet in his own chair, became absorbed in Tasman’s
work. Tasman kept dipping one hand into the pan for palmfuls of water to
sprinkle on the clay, while the fingers of the other quested along the lump’s
outer edge. Those fingers acted like the blade of a lathe against a turning
block of wood. The clay gradually changed shape to a thick bunlike disk, still
spinning around and around. Then Tasman shifted his hand carefully toward the
center, and the boys could see the shape change again as it revolved.

 
          
The
inside dipped down and the outer rim rose until it resembled a heavy saucer.
Tasman’s thumb came into play, and as the saucer continued to turn it grew
narrower and higher, becoming a bowl, a cup. It assumed the shape of a large,
thick-walled drinking tumbler, while Tasman’s foot kept the treadle going and
the horizontal potter’s wheel turning.

 
          
And
he did all this almost as though he were not thinking about it at all. His ears
listened eagerly to the tale of a wild lamb that grew, its horns appearing and
curving nobly out, its little body growing into a big body. While Randy
sketched the growth of a lamb into a ram, Tasman’s skilful fingers seemed to
spin the lump of clay into a gracefully curved and flaring vase.

 
          
But
it was not to finish as a vase. At length, Tasman stopped his treading foot. As
the vase stood still, he explored its wet, plastic lip with his fingers. Then
he deftly pinched it at one point into a pitcher-mouth. Taking another bit of
clay from the pan, he rolled it between his palms into a little rod, and bent
this to join on as a handle, above and below. Randy paused in his reading, and
both he and Jebs looked on in admiring wonder.

 
          
“I
never saw the beat of that before,” confessed Jebs.

 
          
Tasman’s
slight, brief smile flashed at them. “It takes a little doing,” he said. “I
learned potterymaking when I was years younger than you two. My whole family
makes pottery—what the educated folks call ceramics—up in the western part of
North Carolina
.”

 
          
Carefully
he lifted the pitcher from the wheel, and set it aside to dry. “Are you tired
of reading?” he suggested.

 
          
“No,”
said Randy. “I’ll catch my breath and go ahead.”

 
          
Again
he took up the story of Krag. While he read of the brave ram’s leadership of
his mountain flock, and the half-crazy pursuit of Krag by a hunter who swore to
collect that majestically horned head, Tasman prepared another lump of clay. He
fashioned a second pitcher, and then a third, while Randy continued the story
to its end, with both Krag and his human destroyer going down to death. All
three were fascinated by the narrative, and when it was finished, Tasman set
his last pitcher to dry with the others.

 
          
“That’s
not the sweetest story ever told, boys,” he observed, “but that’s the way of life.
When folks tell you that nature is always kind, they’re being too short and
simple. Nature can be rough, too.”

 
          
“I
reckon I go along with that, Mr. Tasman,” said Jebs. “Nature
raises
up whole nations of animals, and nature destroys them again, too. Maybe when a
hunter kills an animal, right quick and painless, he could be saving it from a
worse death.”

 
          
“Yes,”
said Tasman, pushing back his chair. “Any animal—one as strong and smart and
brave as that Krag ram your friend was reading about—may live long enough to
get old. When that happens, he’s in a fix. He can die pretty miserably if he’s
old, or crippled—or blind.”

 
          
He
shut his mouth, with an audible snap of his teeth. Then he smiled, as though it
took an effort to do so.

 
          
“I
think I owe you kids
an
explanation,” he went on.
“That mountain-life stuff in the story carried me back in my own thoughts. I
used to live in the mountains, just like I told you.”

 
          
“The
North
Carolina
mountains
?” prompted Jebs.
“Right.
I reckon there’s been a Tasman in the
North Carolina
mountains since ’way back to the first
settlers. A Tasman fought at
Kings
Mountain
in the Revolution. There was a Tasman in
Congress about the time of Andrew Jackson. My grandfather was in the
Thirty-second North Carolina Infantry that nearly got wiped out on the second
day at
Gettysburg
. And long before I was born, Tasmans made
pottery, plain and fancy. For quite a spell of years, my folks did right well
at pottery-making, because they got to selling their work in tourist towns—
Asheville
,
Hendersonville
, and so on—for the visitors to buy for
souvenirs.”

 
          
“Sounds
like a good job,” Jebs offered.

 
          
“Think
so, boy? It might be, if you liked it. But I was sort of different from the
rest of my folks. Potterymaking’s an indoor career, and I wanted to be
outdoors.”

           
Pausing, Tasman shuffled to the
doorway, and sat down on the sill. His sightless eyes turned here and there, as
if striving to see the clearing and the trees.

 
          
“I
purely loved the mountains,” he resumed. “You feel on top of everything when
you’re a mountain man. You realize why they call that part of
North Carolina
the Land of the Sky.” His eyes turned
upward for a moment. “Well, I made pottery with the rest of the family while I
was a kid, but I managed to get a scholarship. I went off to college—to
Davidson
College
, near
Charlotte
. I studied science and natural history. I
wanted to spend my life learning and telling about the animals and plants of
the mountains; maybe even writing books about them.”

 
          
“That
would be a good life, too,” said Randy.

 
          
“You
sound as if you might know what I mean, son. Well, when I finished college, I
went back to the mountains. My mother’s father had died, and he willed me a
little farm he’d owned, off in
Jackson
County
. Lowlanders might laugh at a place like
that. I guess it had more acres stood up on end than set flatwise. But it was
high living, any way you want to use those words. Why!” Tasman’s sinewy hands
gestured eloquently. “Standing up there on a tall point of those mountains, and
looking northward toward Asheville, you can see the peaks of the Balsams, so
far away it makes you dizzy to think of the distance; and farther still, the
Black Mountains, all covered with trees, and Mount Mitchell poking highest. And
westward, you see the Smokies, and nearer in around you the peaks like Pisgah
and Hogback and Whiteside, with rivers and lakes kind of caught in among them,
like little trickles and puddles in the hands of giants. You boys go there some
day, and see the beauty I can’t tell you.”

 
          
“You
know the truth?” said Jebs. “I’ve never really been to the mountains, except
Chimney Rock and
Bat
Cave
. I’ve lived all my life in
North Carolina
, and I’m ashamed to say I never got up
there.”

 
          
“And
the big things aren’t any better than the little ones,” went on Tasman, swiftly
and eagerly. “I used to watch the birds—the little
Carolina
wren, and the cardinals, and the
woodpeckers and the mountain
ravens
. I’ve stood where
I thought I was about as high as a man could get, and I’ve seen a hawk sliding
back and forth above me, so far up there that by comparison I might as well
have been in a hole at the bottom of a valley. And the animals, too—wildcats,
bears, foxes, and squirrels and rabbits and deer, just like the beginning of
time.
And flowers more than any tongue could tell.”

 
          
“You
make me wish I could see them,” said Randy.
“The people,
too.”

 
          
“The
people!” echoed Tasman. “Mountain folks are fine folks. They live simply, but
they’re happy. They work hard and they play hard. The play-parties I’ve been
too, and the square dances—with fiddle and guitar and accordion all playing the
old songs! Of course, I had to work my farm, but I liked that. It was a sort of
three-story farm.”

 
          
“Three-story
farm?” said Jebs after him. “How do you mean?”

 
          
“I
had corn patches, on three terraced places on the side of a slope. I’d get up
there and chop weeds, cultivate, see the corn ripen, and harvest it. It took
two mules to haul a wagon up from one patch to another, and those mules needed
all eight of their feet for brakes on the way down. Past my place ran a stream,
from way up the mountain—one little cascade after another, maybe a hundred in
all. I called it
Hundred
Falls
. Here and there it made quiet pools, and
there were trout in there. I used to fish for them. Trout’s wonderful for
breakfast. I reckoned to live my whole life up there, happy every day till my
last one. But now—” His hands rose to his somber face.

 
          
“But
the lights started to get dim. Then they got gloomy. A doctor told me I was
going blind, and when he told me that I was so scared and sick that I broke him
off in the middle of what he was saying. I called him names and walked out of
his office. But he’d said the truth. And I had to give up my farm.” “You had to
sell it?” suggested Jebs, his own face tragic.

 
          
“No,
I couldn’t stand to do that. I rented it to a man I knew, and dragged myself
back home to make pottery for a living. The darker things got, the more I
learned to depend on my fingers and ears. But my folks—my uncles and
cousins—seemed to think that this bad luck served me right. They hadn’t liked
my quitting the family business to be a farmer. They let me come back and work
with them, but I didn’t need eyes to know they were sneering. And anyway, the
mountains aren’t for a blind man.”

 
          
“I
think I know what you mean,” said Randy.

 
          
“Do
you? Do you know what it means to be afraid to take a step outdoors without
somebody leading you, for fear you’ll fall off a ledge or down a slope? I had
to come to some place where it’s flat, here in the lowlands, so I could make a
bluff at taking care of myself.”

 
          
“And
you do take care of yourself,” Randy said.

 
          
“I
get my farm rent, and I ship my pottery back to shops in the mountains, that
will take all I make to sell. I pay those Indians who run errands for me. I
make it worth their while. Here around this cabin, I know my way. I’m not
beholden to anybody.”

 
          
“Of
course not,” agreed Randy, closing the book. Tasman started at the slight noise
of the covers coming together.

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1952
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