by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2010 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #28 -=- ANTHRO #28 Stories
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   Billy squinted into the dusk, nearsightedly. He inhaled, drinking in the scents of the evening air. By damn, there was someone there, over by Derrick’s big, black Morbach Talon Tourer. Fox, they was; two of them, by the scent of it, male, and not just kids neither. “Hey!” he rumbled, lurching in their direction.
   He looked clumsy when he moved, and then all of a sudden there was this mountain of bear almost on top of you. Few wanted to face down a bear with his dander up, and a fox never would. They ran. Just as well; he didn’t really want to hurt nobody. Never had. Live and let live was best.
   Smiling a little to himself, Billy turned to go back to the cabin. The windows were open to let in the cool of the evening. He could hear Ma and Derrick talking inside.
   “But Billy does worry me so, Tom.” Ma called Derrick Tom sometimes, when she forgot she wasn’t supposed to. “I don’t ask where the money comes from, but I can smell the sour mash on him when he comes home. It’s a dangerous business he’s in. I don’t want to see him in prison like Dale, nor worse.”
   “Billy has to do what he must, Ma. He follows a proud trade. He provides for you and his own. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that.
   “And he’s cautious. I remember how, when I was a colt, he told me I should always have a fall-back position set up, whether or not I thought I’d need it. ‘Always know where the back door is. If there isn’t one, make one; dig one if you have to. If nobody else knows it’s there, so much the better.’ I have found his words useful many times, both literally and figuratively.”
   “He’s the best at the old ways,” Ma allowed. “But they ain’t what scare me. They’s a new world out there in the hills. They’s people what’s organized, and they don’t like competition. The law, the Alkies, they’s bad, but if they catch you they only put you in jail. You come back from that, like Dale will soon. And when he does, ain’t nobody in these hills going to hold it agin him for doin’ time for a little moonlight work. But these others, the big operators, if they get after my Billy, he ain’t comin’ back. Can’t you find something safe for him to do, in the city, maybe?”
   “I could. I could ask him to leave the land he loves, to live without these mountains and valleys. I could ask him to run from his enemies, give up on his kin, and live a life constantly pretending to be something other than what he is. I’d be asking him to do what I did, and to be what I’ve become.”
   “Tom, you never run—”
   “Ma, please, of course I ran! It’s all right. I can face the truth. You don’t have to try to hide it from me. I am what running from these hills made me. I never faced the enemies who killed my parents—”
   “No. The Creator struck them down instead. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ as She said.”
   “The Creator, or perhaps some person or persons unknown. Whoever did it, I myself never faced down my enemies. I never accused them, face to face, never stared them in the eye and told them that I knew what they’d done.
   “At the time I believed my way of handling the conflict was the best. Perhaps it was, or perhaps I merely lacked the courage to face my enemies. I have my doubts about my own motivations. I fear I always will.
   “I ran off to the city. There, I make more money than I deserve by keeping my employer’s office, and his life, running smoothly. I’ve learned to keep my eyes open for opportunities that might fall my way, and by so doing I have done well enough for myself and my own. And all I had to do was to hide what I really was, until sometimes I wonder if I was ever really anything at all.”
   Ma sounded sad. “Is it that bad, Tom?”
   Derrick, or “Tom,” laughed. “Oh no. It worked out quite well, in fact. Going to Wiltonburg, and then on to the City, was the right choice for me. I have become useful. That is always gratifying.
   “But I might remind you of something which your regard for me might have caused you to forget. I have blunt teeth. I have the wide-set eyes of prey, a mouth well shaped to accept the bit and bridle, and shoulders well adapted to a harness. We Clydesbanks were domesticated, Ma. The Highland Lairds bred us like food animals and sold us as slaves. In the end that didn’t work out quite as they had planned, of course—”
   Ma chuckled grimly. “That’s for damn sure.” Billy was shocked. He couldn’t remember hearing Ma swear before.
   “But neither was their program entirely unsuccessful. However else they changed us, we were domesticated. We became civilized. Above anything else, that meant we gained the ability to become whatever we must, to perform whatever role we must, wherever fate should happen to put us.
   “You knew that, Ma. You wouldn’t have let me go to the orphanage if you thought I’d be miserable living in the cities, or if you thought I had the strength to face down the Clan after they arranged the death of my parents and all those others.”
   “No, Tom. You’re wrong. I let them take you for exactly the opposite reason.”
   “You make me quite curious. I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
   “I let them take you for two reasons. First, because I knew you had a head for learning, and the Sisters of Mercy could give you that in a way we Tuckers never could. But for the most part I let them take you because I thought you could face down the Clan.”
   “Indeed? And that would have been so bad?” Derrick sounded surprised.
   Ma chuckled. “Indeed, and surely it would have been. Do you think that I, of all people, couldn’t see your heart? You was the sweet colt begging for apples, to look at you, but I could feel the fury of Hell in back of it all. Son, I was afeared you’d face the Clan and take ’em down. Some of ’em, maybe most of ’em, then they’d kill you. Or you’d get ’em all, and live, but you’d end up just like Snake.”
   “I’m rather complimented by that. Snake is a legend in these hills.”
   “Snake is a dead legend.”
   “I doubt that.”
   “I don’t. The Alkies gunned him down in the end. He shoulda run ’stead of trying to keep them out of them fields, what weren’t even his, when you stop to think about it. He could always grow more smokin’ hemp somewheres else. It weren’t worth his life to try to stand up to the Federal Government.”
   “I’d heard rumors of his death, but none that I ever credited. I have to point out that the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Narcotics, and Weapons didn’t report finding his body. They aren’t the first to say they’d killed him. I dare say they won’t be the last to make that claim either, before the hills hear the last of him.”
   “Perhaps so, but that don’t mean they won’t get him in the end. There’s only one way for Snake to die, and that’s in a hail of lead. I didn’t want you to end up like him. I don’t want Billy to, neither.”
   “Don’t you worry about Billy. He’ll do what he needs to do, as he always has. And should he encounter trouble, I would render such aid as I could. I would be circumspect, of course. Opinions among certain citizens of the county being what they are, it wouldn’t do Billy much good should it become general knowledge that I was providing him with support.
   “But I doubt the Alkies will ever get Billy. If I’m incorrect in this, if they do come for him in the end, we’ll deal with it at that time. Until then, let him live in the hills and live his own way. He’s wild, Ma, and he must remain so. These lands and his kin are air and water to him. His pride is his lifeblood. Let him keep it.
   “By the way, do you smell something?”
   “What do you mean?”
   “Oh, nothing. I was wondering where Billy was. He’s been gone longer than I had expected. I wonder if he did, in fact, encounter some stranger wandering around outside. I hope nobody has come to harm.”
   Billy stepped off the stoop, backed down the path a few steps, counted to ten, then walked up to the cabin door again, letting his feet clump on the boards this time. He opened the door and went in, bending a bit to avoid hitting his head on the top of the doorway as he entered. Big as all the Tuckers were, they’d built the cabin using standard sized doors. Probably, Grandpappy hadn’t had enough money for oversized ones. The Tuckers hardly had two brasses to rub together even now, but back then they’d been dirt poor.
   Hell, even Derrick was too tall for a normal doorway, for all that he was a horse and not bear-kind. Clydesbanks were big, and not just big for their kind; big for any kind. In that way Derrick fit right in with the Tucker clan. Billy was of the opinion that weren’t the only way Derrick fit in, neither, whether he talked funny or whether he didn’t.
   Derrick nodded to him as he came in. He spoke to Ma as if they hadn’t been talking about Billy while Billy was out. “And the chair is satisfactory, Ma?”
   “It’s a wonderful wheelchair, Tom—um, Derrick. I hope you won’t mind none if I say I hope to be out of it soon as I can.”
   “Not at all. I expect you back on your feet soon. The doctors assure me we need have no fears about that. I was able to arrange a visiting nurse, too, until you’re well again. Billy, was there somebody out there? It seems unlikely, but if being around you bruins has taught me anything it is that one should never doubt your noses.”
   “They was a couple of foxes near your car, but I didn’t see them doing nothing to it. They run off when they saw me comin’.”
   Derrick smiled a bit. “I have no difficulty believing that.”
   Billy laughed, a roar that shook the windows. “If they knowed me as well as you, they wouldn’t of run, maybe.”
   “On the contrary: There’s no malice in you, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to cross you if you thought your relatives were in danger.”
   “Well, it’s different when kin’s involved.”
   “It’s the way of the mountains. You have no idea how much I miss that strong sense of family, when I’m far from here. I’m left to my own devices in dealing with the world, for the most part.”
   Billy glanced out at the big black car. “Somehow I think you get by just fine.”
   “I’ve had my good days, yes. That’s not to say I haven’t also had my bad ones.”
   “We all has those. Sure was good to see you again. I hate to see you go again so soon. You sure you can’t stay the night?”
   “I fear it would be better if I did not.”
   “Then you should go. I don’t want to hurry you none, but it’s getting toward dark, and the road down to Austin’s Mill ain’t the best.”
   “I’m forced to agree.” Derrick got up from the guest chair. He bent low to kiss the old bear in the wheelchair, then turned to shake Billy’s hand, firmly. “You take care of yourself. You’re the closest thing to kin I have, and I love you dearly.” He sniffed deeply. “It’s strange about your nose.”
   “What is?”
   “How you can tell there are strangers in the woods outside, by scent, when you yourself always smell so strongly of licorice.” He looked into Billy’s eyes and smiled. “You can’t sneak up on me. The scent of licorice gives you away every time.”
   Billy gulped, feeling guilty. He pulled the candy sack from his pocket. “Want some?”
   Derrick smiled a little. “No thank you, but I always remember the scent with fondness, for your sake. I miss this place and you. I’d come back to visit you more often, and for longer times, if I could. Perhaps some day I can.”
   He touched his forelock and walked out. Billy followed.
   “Thanks for your help,” he muttered, as they walked to the big black car.
   “I wish there had been some way I could have covered her medical bills without her knowing at all.”
   “You done the best you could. I’m obliged to you.”
   “No, Billy, you’re not. I’m obliged to her. I can’t say that the Clan would have arranged my death, too, if she hadn’t sheltered me after the Old Number 27 cave-in… but I can’t say they wouldn’t have, either. Should I ever step in to aid you personally, you may feel obliged to me if it makes you feel better. But you never owe me a thing for anything I do for her.”
   Billy smiled and clapped a hand on the horse’s shoulder. Derrick was sturdy enough he wasn’t rocked by the affectionate gesture; there weren’t many who could have said that. “I don’t owe you nothing, nor you me, ’cept what we’d owe any brother. Any kin of ours.”
   Derrick didn’t show much of his feelings in his face. He never did. But Billy thought he saw something soft, deep in the horse’s eyes. “Thank you, Billy. Thank you very much.”
   “It ain’t nothing. Drive careful. And come back to see us again, when you think it’s safe. The Clan ain’t what they was, but be careful anyhow.”
   Derrick nodded. He clasped Billy’s hand again and got into the big car. The engine rumbled to life. Derrick put the car in gear and turned it toward the gravel road that would take him down the valley, around Tarleton Mountain to Austin’s Mill, and from there to the whole wide world beyond.

   To be fair to himself, Daggert had to admit that heading down the Tarleton Mountain Road wasn’t dodging work. It was part of the patrol area, after all. He had to check it out some time each evening.
   But it was a road he usually left waiting until he’d had enough of pulling over drunks, prowling the parking lots of taverns, and watching for the occasional moonshine runner. Tarleton Mountain Road was a good break from his routine because nothing much ever happened here. In particular, he’d never heard of a moonshine runner on this road.
   Daggert had to grin, thinking about that. It wasn’t that there weren’t any moonshiners in the area. Oh no; Billy Tucker was one of the best. If you had your choice of ’shine, you’d choose his; he made the best. But Billy wouldn’t run a still up here. Ma Tucker, bless her big old heart, wouldn’t hold with it.
   He was a good, honest moonshiner, Billy was. Made good stuff, sold it at a reasonable price, didn’t make more than he needed to make a decent living for himself and his kin, and didn’t try to muscle out the competition.
   Unlike some other ’shiners he could mention. Folks who weren’t above trying to kill their competition, or at least get them sent to prison for years like they’d done for Dale Tucker. Certain people were trying to pressure the Sheriff’s Department to close down the smaller operations like Billy’s. Hell with that. If the big boys, the dirty boys, the big business moonshiners with blood on their hands, if they were too connected for Sheriff Daggert to touch, at least he damned well wasn’t going to do work for them. The small operators could make shine forever, far as Daggert was concerned.
   It was beautiful out here tonight. The stars shone through the tree branches, and—
   The underbrush along the downhill edge of the road was bent back. Some of the twigs were broken. Gravel was scuffed up on the road surface nearby.
   Daggert slammed on the brakes. He threw the cruiser into reverse, backed up to the broken underbrush, turned on the red and blue flashing lights, the bright headlights, the searchlight, the hazard flashers, everything. After all, nobody would be running ’shine down this road, running fast and dark in the starlight. Not on this road of all roads. But they just might, anyhow. You could never know.
   He grabbed the big flashlight, checked that his big forty-one caliber revolver was firmly in its holster (but not too firmly) because, after all, you never knew. He got out of the car and walked to the edge.
   The road ran around the base of a hill here, with a long slope, moderately steep, down to Tucker Run below. He couldn’t see down the slope until he got to the edge of the road, but once he was there he could see it all well enough.
   A big black car had gone over the edge. It had crashed its way through the brush for fifty yards, then had hit trees at the very edge of the creek. Two of them, each about six inches thick, had broken off. A gnarled old oak had stopped the car. Whoever the driver was, he must have been going fast.
   Daggert leaped down the slope. The gravel was unstable, and beyond that the ground was rocky and uneven, but given his bloodline he had no trouble with it whatsoever. There was somebody in the wrecked car, half slumped over the steering wheel in billows of white fabric from the blown airbags. Daggert caught a glimpse of dark mane, of a long neck and sharp ears. It was an equine, then. It was true that equines and caprids weren’t closely related at all. Horses always seemed a little unnatural to Daggert. They didn’t even have horns, for pete’s sakes! But a horse was a leaf-eater, at least. Whatever else was going on here, at least there wouldn’t be any of that carnivore-herbivore crap to deal with.
   The wreck looked bad; how bad he couldn’t really say. But as he approached, the horse in the wrecked car stirred.
   “I’m most pleased to see you, Officer,” he said. His eyes weren’t coordinated in their movements, but a horse’s eyes moved independently anyway. He sounded a bit dazed, but there was no wheezing in his voice.
   Daggert pulled his flashlight and illuminated the horse’s face. His nose and lips were bloody, but the blood wasn’t frothy, so it probably came from external injuries. The color of his tongue was good. The pupils of his eyes reacted equally. Good. “Don’t move. Can you feel your toes?”
   “Yes. I can move everything. I don’t think I have suffered any spinal injuries. However, I am unable to leave this vehicle. The doors seem to be jammed.”
   To his surprise, Daggert couldn’t smell any liquor on this fellow. So why had he gone off the road? And damn, Daggert should have brought his baton. It didn’t look like he’d need it as a weapon, but it might have been useful to pry the door open.
   “I don’t think your door is jammed. The brush and tree are holding it closed. I don’t suppose you can open your trunk?”
   The horse fumbled with something. With a clunk, the trunk unlatched. Daggert opened the trunk the rest of the way and fumbled around, trying to figure out where they hid the spare tire and the jack on this thing. He pulled the carpeting of the trunk aside. There looked to be some sort of compartment beneath it. “What’s your name, sir? I’m Sheriff Jared Daggert, by the way.”
   “I have heard of you. I rather thought it might be you, from the uniform and your horns. My name is Derrick Clydesbank.”
   Ah, here was the tire iron, finally! Daggert took it and headed for the car’s driver’s-side door. He set down the tire iron and his flashlight as he pulled the broken trunk of one of the smaller trees aside. Then he put the end of the tire iron into the crack at the rear of the door. “Pull the handle for me, please, Mr. Clydesbank? Don’t try to push on the door, I’ll do that part. I’ve heard of you. It’s kind of you to come up here and look after Ma Tucker after her fall.”
   “You don’t sound as if you approve, however.”
   “Nothing against you, personally, Mr. Clydesbank. You’re just a reminder of bad times in these hills. My own family suffered much, too, back in the ‘good old days’.”
   “Those days are past. The power of the Clan is broken.”
   “More or less, Mr. Clydesbank. More or less… there! Got it.” He pried with the tire iron and the door creaked open a few inches. Daggert braced his back against the side of the car, put his cleft hoof against the edge of the door, and pushed hard. It resisted, but it opened enough for someone to wiggle in, or out.
   “Thank you.” Derrick reached across and unbuckled his seat belt. He gasped and his eyes widened.
   “What’s wrong?”
   “On reflection, I think I might have… That hurts. Badly.”
   “How bad?”
   “Bad enough. It might be best to summon an ambulance.”
   Daggert cursed to himself. “It might be best, but we don’t have a repeater in this valley. My radio won’t reach.”
   “Can you get to the Tucker place? They have a phone.”
   “Since when?”
   “Since last week.” The big horse scowled a bit in a way which Daggert, good mountain-bred goat he was, recognized as Ask no questions.
   But he didn’t have to ask questions. The pieces of the story were right there for him. Derrick Clydesbank, they said, had more money than he knew what to do with; the Tuckers were poor; they were also Clydesbank’s best friends in the world, but they were too proud to take charity, even from him. So he’d paid for a phone for them, but nobody was supposed to know he had.
   Daggert nodded. “Of course they have a phone.”
   Clydesbak’s eyes softened a bit. “Thank you, Sheriff. I know it’s not possible, but try not to let Ma know I’m injured.”
   “She’ll know. Can’t keep nothing from her. And Billy will know too, of course.”
   “Well… that I can endure. I would rather that the news not spread to everyone in the county, however.”
   Fat chance of that. “I’ll do my best, Mr. Clydesbank. I don’t want to leave you here, but…”
   “But I can’t get better until the ambulance arrives, so it’s best you go call for it. I understand. I’ll be fine here until you return.”
   Daggert took off his jacket and tried to tuck it around the injured horse. Clydesbank seemed to be slumping over the steering wheel more. Perhaps he was weakening. “I’ll be back soon’s I can.”
   “Whatever happens, whether I survive this or not, I know you did your best. Please hurry.”
   Daggert hurried. He had all the lights on, and hit the siren too before he reached the Tucker place. Alkies coming in on raids moved silently, not with lights and sirens.
   Billy was at his ma’s house when Daggert drove up. The huge bear waited on the stoop, squinting in the light, sniffing deep. “Sheriff?” There was a world of suspicion in that word.
   “Could I use your ma’s phone, Billy? There’s been an accident.”
   “Of course, sure! Who is it?”
   “Derrick Clydesbank,” Daggert muttered to Billy. Ma would hear soon enough, of course; he wondered why he bothered to lower his voice. “I’m sure he’s not hurt that bad, but I don’t want to try to move him. We’ll let the paramedics do that. They know how.”
   “Damn! What happened?”
   “Went off the road and downhill, nearly ended up in a creek. Strangest thing. Not a hint of booze on his breath, but he was going real fast, and he didn’t hit the brakes before he went over, neither. No skid marks.”
   Daggert picked up the phone and dialed the operator. “Edna? Daggert here. Call the station and the hospital in Wiltonburg, tell ’em we got a crash on Tarleton Mountain Road, scramble the meat wagon, advanced life support. Got that? Yes, I know it’ll be forty minutes to an hour—be a damn sight longer if you keep talkin’ back. All right, all right, thanks, bye.”
   “Damn! Those foxes,” Billy said.
   “Nothing,” the bear said, but he was scowling something fierce.
   “Billy, if somebody’s breaking the law—well, an important law—you got to tell me.”
   “Tell the Sheriff what you know, Billy.” Ma wheeled out of her room and into the light. So much for trying to keep her out of it!
   “Yes, ma’am.” Billy took a deep breath. “Earlier this evening I smelt a couple foxes near Derrick’s car. Don’t know who they was, they smelled like all of your red foxes.”
   “And how’s that?”
   “You know how foxes is.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “They smelt to high heaven, like to numb your nose or at least make you wish it’d go numb. And they’d soaked themselves in soap an’ scent to try to cover it up, but that just made the stink worse. They was just a couple of foxes. I didn’t see them doing anything to the car, but they was near it.”
   “Do you know who they were?”
   “No, sir. Couldn’t sniff ’em out of a line-up neither, lessen they don’t change the brand of their scent.”
   Daggert frowned. You couldn’t get a conviction based on the brand of cologne anyway. “We’ll talk about this later. Ma, I think Mr. Clydesbank will be all right. We’re calling the ambulance ’cause we want to be safe. I’m heading back down there now to wait with him.”
   “I’ll ride with you,” Billy said.
   Billy was smart enough, and strong, and good under pressure. Daggert could do worse than to have him along. “Good idea. Much obliged, Billy. Goodnight, Mrs. Tucker. I’ll call your phone soon’s we get Mr. Clydesbank taken care of.”
   “You go, then, Sheriff. Thank you.”
   Daggert went.
   Clydesbank’s car was as he’d left it. Daggert parked at the edge of the road and jumped out, but fast as he was, Billy was down the slope first. Bears were fast, downhill anyhow. Uphill was another matter. He’d had to chase bears before, and run from ’em, too. It helped to know these things.
   “Don’t move me, don’t move me,” he heard the big horse saying. “I went off the road. Brakes quit on me, I went to downshift but something was wrong, missed the gear. I don’t remember. Think maybe… thought I was bound to… to crash somewhere. Couldn’t prevent it, but I could choose where. This was… good place as any. Thought it was flat enough and the brush would stop me before the trees. Wrong about that. Thought a chance to survive the crash, here. But I’m not sure.”
   Billy was in tears. “Damn. I’m gonna get me some fox skins.”
   “Billy!” Daggert shouted. “The feuding days are over! You start anything and—”
   “No foxes. Didn’t do it. Not there… long enough to do anything, I’m sure. My fault. All mine. New car. Brake squeak… thought… fix, easy, simple, I did it. I adjusted the brakes. My fault only. No foxes.”
   “But Derrick! You sure? Them foxes, I don’t know who they was, what they was doing on Ma’s land.”
   “My fault. Mine only.” The horse gasped. His face looked a little blue. “Billy? Call Arthur Fairweather. My boss. Take me home—not Wiltonburg. Have him send a car, ambulance. Promise me.”
   Taggert bristled a bit. “The hospital in Wiltonburg is as good as anything in the city. We’re not just hicks up here.”
   “Not hicks, I know, but no, no. Sheriff… old times. The Clan. I fixed the squeak in my brakes—” Derrick half-laughed, then coughed, twisting in pain. “Fixed the squeak… completely. No sound at all. No sound but breaking glass… But if it wasn’t me. What if it wasn’t me? Old times. The Clan. Or even if they didn’t fix my brakes, if I’m where they can get me, wouldn’t they try? Wiltonburg hospital… too dangerous.”
   “I hate to say it, but I see your point.” Somewhere in the distance he heard a siren. “The ambulance is coming. Billy, go up to the road and show them the way down when they get here. Hang on, Mister Clydesbank. It will be all right.”
   “Yes. Yes, it will. The worst is over when you know what you’re up against.”

   Art Fairweather unrolled the blue-line prints across the bed. “This is the most exciting commission we’ve had all year,” he said. “And the design is beautiful. Josephine came up with the first idea. I’ve refined it a little bit. I like it better the more I see it.”
   “Indeed, sir?”
   “Oh, yes, Derrick. Just look at it! Here’s the main entrance. We’ll put the staircases to the upper bleachers around the hockey rink in these glass cylinders, one to each side. We’ll use green mirrored glass. By day it will reflect the downtown skyline. At night the lights inside will make it glow like a huge emerald, and…”
   He sighed and rubbed his head at the base of his horns. He looked at the occupant of the hospital bed. His eyes looked unsure. “I don’t know why I felt I had to tell you all this,” he said.
   Derrick smiled. “Perhaps because you don’t know any better way to show you care about me than to share what is precious to you.”
   Art cleared his throat. “Um… well. Good gods, Derrick, how could this happen to you?”
   “You didn’t hear? Faulty maintenance work on the Talon’s brakes. I can’t even fire the mechanic; he was myself, and he’s been punished thoroughly already. I should have left the work to licensed mechanics. Rest assured I will do so in the future.”
   “It’s hard to think you could make a mistake.”
   Derrick chuckled. “Thank you, sir. But I am no God. I make many mistakes, and my mistake was especially stupid this time. In a hurry, I did something I knew was dangerous without taking proper precautions. I paid for it up there in the mountains of the State of Crockett.
   “This is hardly my first bad mistake. In the course of my career I’ve made more mistakes than you might believe, or I might care to remember. But one hopes to use one’s intelligence. A mistake may be forgiven, but one must never make the same mistake twice.”
   “Good gods, you’d better not do anything like this again! Or if you do, don’t you dare die, because I want you alive to choke the crap out of you myself!”
   Derrick chuckled. “It’s good to know you care, sir.”
   Art rolled up his prints. “I do have to say you look a lot better than you did when they brought you in here. I’m more glad to see that than you can imagine.”
   “Yes. Well. That.” Was Derrick embarrassed? He actually seemed to be going red inside his ears. “It seems my injuries were not so serious as was believed, when I arrived.”
   “You were turning blue, horse!”
   “They tell me I was hyperventilating. They say that can happen sometimes, when one is frightened enough. Dr. Peck was ungracious enough to term it a ‘panic attack’.”
   “Don’t be hard on yourself. You’d just been in a car crash in the mountains, and trapped in the wreck to boot. Of course you’d be terrified. Anybody would.”
   “It’s embarrassing to think I could have been that frightened, though. In any case I seem to be unhurt, except for some minor cuts and bruises. These injuries don’t feel minor to me, but Dr. Peck assures me they are. I’m checking out of the hospital today, with his blessing. I will stay away from work for a while, though, if you can spare me.”
   “Of course! How can I help you, Son? I could have Mr. Stanley drive you where you need to go in the company limo. Do you need any help around your home while you heal up? Perhaps we should hire a cleaning service.”
   “Thank you for your offers, sir. You concern yourself with my well-being far more than I have any right to expect.”
   “Nonsense. You’re not my oldest employee, but already we’ve been through a lot together. I’ll call Mr. Stanley, then. Would a home-visiting nurse help?”
   “Oh, no sir. I don’t need a nurse, or cleaners, or the company limousine. Your concern is appreciated, but my injuries don’t handicap me in any way. I don’t even believe this sling is necessary, although the doctor thought it might be good to wear it in order to rest my shoulder for a few days.
   “As for transportation, I do have a second vehicle which I can drive until the Morbach returns to the road.”
   “Not that old van of yours!”
   “The van is in better condition than it appears, sir. It suits my current needs. I did, however, wish to request some vacation time.”
   “How much?”
   “It may seem excessive, but two weeks, if that is acceptable. I have felt the need for a rest for some time, and frankly, this accident has shaken me. There are certain old friends I should visit, certain old tasks to complete. It occurs to me that I should deal with these matters now, while I can.”
   “By all means, Derrick. Take more time if you need it. A few weeks off is nothing compared to what I owe you. Just come back when you can. The way things have improved for us since you came, sometimes I think you’re our lucky charm. Nan and I would never want to lose you.”
   Derrick smiled, in his small, quiet way. “I am what I am and nothing more, sir.”
   Art laughed. “I’ve heard you say that, often. I wonder if you realize that not even God could say more. In any case, I hope your vacation helps you. Too bad it won’t be fun, bruised up as you are.”
   “Oh, it will be fun, sir. I’ll make it fun.”

   Claws tapped on the office door. “Mr. Austin? Sorry to bother you, but he’s back.”
   “Consarn it, Ray, you know you don’t bother me after lunch!” Carter Austin tried to put sleepiness into his voice. Everyone thought Carter took a nap after lunch. Let Ray think that too.
   “I wouldn’t have, but you told me to let you know right away if he ever came back.”
   “I’m trying to be patient with you, boy, for your aunt’s sister-in-law’s sake, but sometimes I don’t think the Creator gave you the sense he gave a road-kill possum. Let alone us foxes. What are you talking about? Who is back?”
   “The Horse with the Twisted Lip, sir.”
   Carter inhaled sharply. “Hew Boone?”
   “Yes, Mr. Austin, sir.”
   “Damn. Where is he?”
   “Over at Clara’s—”
   “Yes, sir. He’s sitting at the bar, drinking Old Rooter applejack straight, big as life.”
   “A leaf-eater would just about have to be Hew Boone, to go into Clara’s.”
   “Yes, sir. There’s like to be trouble, so I’d wager he won’t be there long.”
   Carter tucked the papers into his secret ledger and slipped it into the hidden compartment of Great Grandpappy’s huge roll-top desk. Great Grandpappy had put that compartment there for papers that were better hidden from the Law. Dealings with and for the Clan, mostly, in Great Grandpappy’s day.
   Carter used the compartment for much the same purposes. Traditions, the good old ways of doing things, died hard up here in the mountains of the Great State of Crockett.
   The compartment had built-in fitted case for a gun, too. Carter’s snubnose revolver and holster didn’t fit it quite right—some things changed over the years, after all—but they fit in there well enough.
   He pulled the revolver from hiding. Its holster clipped to his trousers, concealing the revolver inside his waistband. He tugged his vest down to conceal the gun better and checked his reflection in the dusty glass of the bookcase doors to be sure. Then he closed and locked the desk’s secret compartment and went to unlock the office door. He never had the secret compartment and the office door unlocked at the same time.
   The room outside his office was large, floored with worn, unfinished pine planks. The lower half of the walls was ancient oak wainscoting, the upper half new cheap wallpaper over crumbling plaster. Good, honest beams sawn from the chestnut trees that had once grown in these hills formed trusses overhead. Light bulbs glowed in cages in hanging light fixtures, their shades enameled green outside, white inside.
   There were eight desks in the room, all empty. Typewriters on the desks were shrouded in vinyl dust covers. Two of the desks had computers instead. These were still fairly new, but were sitting silent, shrouded against the dust, too.
   Somewhere far away across the plant floor a sawblade whined. Good; an order must have come in. That reminded Carter to check his vest and his bushy brown-red tail, to flick off the inevitable flecks of sawdust he’d collected somehow.
   “You sure it was Snake Boone?” Carter asked the younger fox.
   “He’s hard to mistake.”
   “Damn. Well, he won’t stay ’round long. He never does. I’d best go speak with him now. No, Ray, this isn’t one of them ‘special jobs’. I don’t need you and Forrest to come along.”
   “Is that wise, Mr. Austin? Boone’s a cousin to the Derricks, and the Derricks run for the Westerfields.”
   Carter laughed, a single sharp yip, although he let his hand brush his waistband where the revolver rested. “The feuding days are done, son. We mountaineers, all of us, got to band together against the Feds these days. Besides, the leaf-eaters ain’t that loyal to the First Families what runs them, or which once did run them, I’d better say. They been emancipated. Didn’t they teach you that in school?”
   “You’re the one who’s always telling me that mountain traditions don’t die, and shouldn’t.”
   “Well, true. But this is Hew Boone we’re speaking of, and he wasn’t never loyal to but two things: Money and himself. Don’t worry yourself, Ray. Hew Boone ain’t part of no feud, and nothing’s going to happen to me.”
   Something bad might happen to somebody else, though. To a coward who’d fled these hills long ago. Carter had sent Ray and Forrest after that coward a little while ago, and for once it looked like those two had done a pretty good job. But Derrick Clydesbank, as Thomas Derrick called himself these days, got away somehow. Seems the Devil always looked after his own.
   Which brought Carter back to Hew Boone, who was one of the Devil’s own if anyone ever was. Boone might be the one to open the gates of Hell for Clydesbank the assassin. And Clydesbank wouldn’t even know it was coming.
   Carter Austin headed out the side door of the sawmill and through the little settlement that surrounded it. He walked toward Clara’s. He let his hand brush the revolver at his waistband again. It was still there, still ready, and so was he.
   After all these years the old scores were going to be settled. Ever so slightly, he began to smile, thinking about it.

   “You hear me, boy? We don’t like hoofers in here. Specially the ugly ones.”
   The horse sitting at the bar was, in fact, rather ugly. By his bay color and his large size, he had a lot of Clydesbank blood in him. But he departed from the Clydesbank standard in a number of ways. None of them made him any prettier.
   He seemed even a bit taller than the usual Clydesbank, although that might only be the woodsman’s cleat-soles he wore strapped and screwed to his hooves. Muscular as any Clyde, he’d gone soft and paunchy around the middle the way Clydes hardly ever did. His tail was the usual Clydesbank black, although it was ragged and studded with burrs. But instead of black his mane was washed-out brown, heavily streaked with a shocking red.
   Unlike most Clydes, his mane had also started to go gray with age. Gray streaks might have made another horse look distinguished, but in his case they only made him look scruffy.
   The worst thing was the scar, though. It started near the right corner of his mouth, where it pulled his lip up into a perpetual sneer, exposing teeth that were straight enough to suggest superb dental care but yellow enough to suggest no care at all. The scar went across his cheek to his right eye. Beyond the eye it continued to the top of his skull near his ear. The iris of that eye was milky, and its white was bloodshot.
   He seemed to be able to see well enough through his right eye, though. Or at least he was content to look the bear who menaced him up and down with it, not turning his head to use the other as he should have if the right eye were blind.
   “A little early to be drinkin’ heavy and pickin’ fights, don’t you think?” he said in a friendly tone of voice, raising his own tumbler of applejack to his lips on the side away from the scar and taking a long sip. If there was irony between his words and his actions, he didn’t seem aware of it.
   The bear growled. “I’m telling you, boy, we don’t like your kind in here. Walk out of Clara’s while you can still walk.”
   “And who’s telling me?”
   “Bedford MacClough. Now, you ain’t from around these parts. You don’t know what that means, so I’m going easy on you.”
   The horse sipped his applejack again. “I seem to recall the MacCloughs was big in this county. They was straw bosses to one of the first families who ran things round these parts. That’s long time gone, though. They ain’t amounted to much since the War.
   “I done heard of one, though, come to think. Can’t rightly recall his name. Lives round these parts, has a name for hangin’ around bars and rolling drunks. Beatin’ up smaller folk, shakin’ them down for small change. They say he’s a bad ’un, in a bullyin’ and backstabbin’ kind of way.”
   The bear roared and started forward. The horse got up off his bar stool quietly, very quietly, and turned to face him.
   “Bedford.” Carter Austin was almost tiny compared to the two would-be combatants, but his voice cut across the smoky old tavern with the sharpness of long command. “Leave this one be. Sit down and have a beer.”
   “Mister Austin, he done said—”
   Carter chose not to notice that Bedford was trying to speak to him. He turned to the horse. “Do I have the honor of addressing Mister Hew Boone? Snake Boone?”
   Bedford MacClough went pale beneath his black fur. He bowed quickly to Carter, mouthing “Yes, sir,” without a sound. He took a seat at the far end of the bar, motioned Clara over and ordered a beer, with a bounce of whiskey too.
   The horse nodded. His nod was almost a small bow. “Some call me Snake. I ain’t never cared for the name, but you couldn’t know, so I ain’t fixing to hold it against you.”
   “I’m mighty pleased to meet you. Can I buy you a drink?”
   “Sure. Let’s sit at the table in the corner.” Half hidden by a jukebox that hadn’t worked in five years, the table was the most private place in the tavern, unless you wanted to draw attention by having Clara open up one of the sleeping rooms that hadn’t been much updated since the stagecoach days. Carter approved. It seemed that Snake Boone was smart enough and professional enough to recognize a business proposition before it even began.
   “Clara? Bourbon and ice, and whatever this gentleman was having.”
   “Right away, Mister Austin.”
   Carter followed Boone to the table. The huge horse sat down on the sturdier-looking of the two bentwood chairs. Carter took the other. Neither said anything until Clara shuffled over, set glasses in front of them, and shuffled off behind the bar again.
   Snake lifted his glass in a little toast. “Thanks for gettin’ that damfool to back off.”
   “I think you could have taken him.”
   Boone snorted. “Hell yes I could have taken him! Bar bullies is all the same; hell on wheels until they come up agin someone can fight back. But I don’t want to bust him up if there ain’t no reason.”
   “Really? I’m surprised. You have a reputation for many things, Mr. Boone, but if you don’t mind my saying so, being tender toward the people you fight isn’t one of them.”
   Boone snorted into his applejack. “Ain’t the fightin’ I mind, nor the killin’ neither if it comes to that. It’s that there ain’t no reason. Hurtin’ or killin’ folk when you ain’t got to ain’t efficient.
   “And however good you are, there’s always the chance the law might give you trouble.”
   “That too, though they’s plenty things worse than the law. Y’all worried about cops?”
   “Not too much. I have an understanding with some of the higher authorities. I’m a good citizen, Mr. Boone, and like any honest businessman I make my contributions to all the right campaign funds. If I don’t cause no trouble, then my business is mine, and doesn’t have to interest the… well, a certain Federal agency. I don’t want to draw attention in any way that would break that little agreement.”
   “Do tell? I heared you did something t’other day that might have interested the Sheriff and the State Boys, if not the Feds. Somethin’ about the brakes goin’ wrong on a car.”
   “I don’t care to speak on that.”
   “Neither would I, if I done such sloppy work. You got some beef ’ginst this feller what drove that car?”
   Carter kept his annoyance hidden from his face. He had to hope his lime cologne covered the scent of his emotions. Or weren’t horses’ noses that good? He didn’t know. He took a deep breath, forced calm into his words, and went on. “There might be some old grudge. If his car went out of control downhill and crashed and kilt him, it might not be more than he deserved. What do you know about my family? The Austins?”
   “More’n I should say, maybe.”
   “Feel free.”
   The big horse sipped his applejack. “One of the First Families of the county since settlement days. Town here’s named after you, and they’s always been an Austin runnin’ the sawmill, and the flour mill too back when they was one. Used to be big in distillin’. Some say they still is.”
   “Some say. There’s money in distilling, though the competition’s tough. These days there’s competition from hemp growers too, not just from other distillers. Now, that’s one dangerous trade, hemp. Takes a tough man to make it in that business.”
   Boone lifted his glass to Carter. “So I’ve heard. ’Course distillin’ ain’t a trade for someone who ain’t got more than his share of sand, neither.”
   Carter lifted his glass back. “But you can see, if my family has a reputation for that business, I really don’t care to have the cops nosing around. Whether we really are in that business or not. Some cops get a hint they might catch me in something, and I won’t never get rid of ’em. They’ll be howling on my trail ’til the Trump of Doom.”
   “Y’all want to do somethin’ you’re afeared might catch their eye, though?”
   “I might. What I want done first, the law itself should have done. But it didn’t. If the law won’t do the right thing—”
   The horse sipped his whiskey. “Then there are other ways. I’m listenin’. I ain’t promising nothin’, and we’re just talkin’ like friends over a drink, right?”
   “Of course.”
   The horse put down his glass and looked into Carter’s eyes.
   “All right,” Carter said. “The horse who was drivin’ that car that crashed. I’ll say out front he’s your kin. He was born Thomas Derrick but he goes by Derrick Clydesbank these days.”
   “I heared of him. Went to college, works in the city. Done good by hisself. They say he owns land around these parts, here and there. Never lacks for money. Nobody knows how he got it. That always makes a fellow wonder, don’t it? Got to be somethin’ to it he wouldn’t want known in the light of day. But he ain’t been in trouble with the law neither, not that I heared.”
   “Do you feel—If you had to let something bad happen to him, well, he is kin, right?”
   “He ain’t never done nothin’ for me. I don’t owe him nothin’. Go on. I’m listenin’, you’re buyin’ the drinks.”
   “Well. There’s lots of secrets about Clydesbank. Lots of things ain’t nobody knows.
   “I lost my folks in the Clan poisoning, all them years ago. Lot of good, honest folk, the best people of the county, died ’cause Death Cap mushrooms ended up in the stew at the Clan’s November banquet. County ain’t been the same since. Feds running the place, state cops, sticking their noses in everything, a businessman can’t make an honest dollar around here no more.”
   “Sad,” Boone said, sipping his applejack. He motioned to Clara, who brought him more. Carter hadn’t finished his first bourbon yet. “And this Derrick poisoned the stew? I can’t stand poisoners. Poison, now, that’s cold.
   “I heard whispers he was in these hills when the stew got poisoned. Whispers, just whispers. They died down, ’cause nobody can see how he could possibly have done it. Them mushrooms weren’t even known in these hills before the Clan died of ’em, but they’re all over the place now.”
   Snake nodded. “So maybe he done it, maybe not. It was good clean work, if it was work at all, but it ain’t certain enough to be much of a reason for y’all to be doin’ somethin’ rash.
   “Well, that’s not all. I had an uncle, too. Derrick Clydesbank was at the Knob Pass Inn and threw Uncle Jim Roy out the night he died. Jim Roy’s truck went over the cliff out on Highway 17 ’cause the brakes went bad on his truck and the driveshaft fell out too, just happened to be at the same time, you know? Just by chance. And Derrick Clydesbank was there when it did.”
   “So y’all, or someone, saw to it Clydesbank had the same accident just t’other night. That weren’t smart. Y’all don’t think he could connect them two accidents? Somebody done told him he’s bein’ hunted, and pretty much told him you’re the one doin’ the huntin’.”
   Carter sipped his whiskey and scowled. Ray and Forrest were kin, and loyal, but he couldn’t say the quality of their work impressed him none. Clydesbank wasn’t supposed to have survived that crash! “Sure looks that way,” he said, muttering into his glass.
   “Again, if Clydesbank fixed your uncle’s truck, that’s clean work. But was it work at all? Trucks crash, special if the driver’s drunk enough he got hisself bounced out of the bar. Y’all have any proof there’s anythin’ more to it than that?”
   “I know he worked on Uncle Jim Roy’s truck. I can’t prove nothing, but I know what I know.”
   “Y’all tried to get the cops to look into your uncle’s truck crash?”
   “No. By the time I started sniffing around there weren’t no evidence left. You’d think a word from me might get some charges placed, or at least get this Derrick brung back for an interrogation. But the State Boys or even the Sheriff ain’t got the respect for the first families of the county that they should, that they used to, and the Feds never did nohow. They won’t do nothing about Uncle Jim Roy now. I asked them. They done nothing. They say if I thought there was something strange about Uncle Jim Roy’s accident, I should have told them back then.”
   “And y’all didn’t. Why?”
   “I wasn’t much more’n a kit back then. Like you say, he crashed, people crash. It happens. I didn’t suspect nothing until years later, something else made me suspicious.”
   “What was it?”
   “There’s these small-time distillers runnin’ operations in the county. There always has been, but now these small timers are givin’ the professionals a bad name, makin’ it hard for us- I mean them.”
   “And takin’ customers away from the better businesses? Go on, I’m listenin’.”
   “Taking customers away too. These small-time trash going to make enough noise that the Alkies won’t have no choice but to come nosin’ around. When that happens, all the businessmen in the county gonna suffer, right?
   “So one of these small-timers is the Tuckers. At first I just want to get at them on general principles, right? Because they’re going to bring the Feds down on us all.
   “Now, they’s two Tucker brothers, Dale and Billy. They both make ’shine. Billy, he’s small fry. Not worth botherin’ with, but being a good citizen, a couple months ago I gave the Sheriff a word to the wise. But that damned goat—how we ever got a leaf-eater—” Carter glanced at Snake and swallowed hard. “I mean, I told him ’bout Billy’s still, but he didn’t do nothing. I can’t stand a corrupt cop.”
   Snake sipped his applejack. “Shocking,” he said dryly.
   “I thought so. Billy’s brother Dale was another matter. He was the bigger operator. The biggest of the small operators, I mean.
   “A while back somebody tipped the Alkies on him, and we got him out of the way for good. Or I thought we had. He was in court, and should have got a sentence to keep him in ’til his fur was all gray, but he got a damned petifoggin’ lawyer who got him off with a two year sentence. After all the time and… fees… it cost to get the Alkies to take interest in him in the first place, he gets off with a two-year sentence ’cause he had some high-priced lawyer. And that’s what led me to Derrick Clydesbank.”
   “I don’t see no connection.”
   “Well, neither did I, but after Dale got a slap on the wrist it got me thinkin’. Who hired that expensive lawyer for him, all secret-like? I found out it was this here Derrick Clydesbank.
   “I started looking into his past. ’Course I knew the basics. Derrick Clydesbank’s real name is Thomas Derrick, damned coward changed it to help hide hisself from his betters when he was younger—anyhow, the Derricks was neighbors to the Tuckers, not kin. But when Clydesbank was little he lost his folks—in an accident—and the Tuckers took him in for a while. Clydesbank ended up in an orphanage in Wiltonburg, but he and the Tuckers kept in touch.
   “Now he’s paying for Dale’s lawyer, on the sly. What else is he doing that he wouldn’t want nobody knowing about?
   “I got to wonderin’ about Uncle Jim Roy, and when he had his accident, Clydesbank was the last to see him before it happened. And when my folks was poisoned they say Clydesbank was around. And other good people had accidents, and for a lot of ’em Clydesbank was around. Always Clydesbank. If it hadn’t a been for hirin’ that lawyer for Dale Tucker, I never would a figured it out.”
   Boone blinked. “It’s always the little things that trip you up.”
   “Yes. Good thing to keep in mind. So anyhow, I start wondering if something bad might happen to Clydesbank. But it ain’t easy. He’s a coward and a sneak. He don’t never come here for long at a time, and you never know when he will.
   “Only time I knew he would be in these hills for sure was when Ma Tucker busted her leg. He came here just like I expected. Damned near didn’t get away again neither.”
   “Y’all want this Derrick Clydesbank to have an accident hisself, then? And a good one this time. Y’all got anythin’ particular in mind?”
   “No, long’s it hurts. Seems to me first thing is to get him up here into the hills, on our ground. I don’t know how to trouble him where he lives, but I ain’t got no idea how to get him to come back here neither. I was thinking to trouble the Tuckers more, that might get Derrick to come back, but would it? It did the once. It might again.”
   Boone sipped his applejack. “It might,” he allowed. “Depends on what kind of trouble. Sometimes critters have more loyalty to their kin than you’d think.”
   “Couldn’t have the Law in it. I can’t get the Law too interested in the distilling business in these hills.”
   “It just might be something could be done. The Tuckers might have some trouble, at least. They might have to give up moonlight work. Might be something could happen to this Derrick too, even where he lives. But if you found somebody to take the job, they wouldn’t come cheap.”
   “How much is ‘not cheap’?”
   “Twenty thousand bux might do it.”
   “Twenty thousand!” Carter swallowed hard.
   “You ain’t got that much?”
   He could come up with half that, maybe, but it would break him. “Business hasn’t been the best lately.”
   “Take it or leave it. You’ll need ten up front, the rest three weeks after.”
   Carter had an idea. He tried to hide a smile. “I can do that.”
   “Good. Y’all know where County C-105 meets State 17?”
   “They’s a sign there for the Telstar Motel what burnt. Big pine snag beside it, burnt out, has a holler in the side. Put ten thousand in that holler, to start.”
   “And when would… they… start work?”
   “Day after the money shows up.”
   “I understand. Thank you, Mr. Boone.”
   “Don’t mention it.” Carter had a feeling Boone meant that literally. With a little nod, Boone got up and walked out of the tavern.

   Billy Tucker pulled the old pickup up to the pumps. He got out, started the pump, put the nozzle in place and started it filling the truck’s tank. Then he walked around and grabbed the old, gray, galvanized gasoline can, a five gallon can probably older than he was, and walked to the side of the station, where the white gas pump was.
   “Hey, Clyde.”
   “Hey, Billy. Anything in the air?”
   Billy made a big show out of raising his head and sniffing the air. Bears had great noses, everybody knew that. Didn’t hurt none to have Clyde think he could smell a change in the weather, even though he couldn’t. Well, not usually, lessen there was snow.
   “Might be some rain coming,” he allowed. He set the can down, unscrewed the cap, and started filling it from the white gas pump.
   “Hate to tell you this, but I’m probably not gonna carry that white gas much longer.”
   “Dang,” Billy said, watching the colorless stuff flow into the can. “I hate to buy that there ‘lantern fuel’ at the Lo-Bux in Wiltonburg. Same danged stuff as this, but you buy it in the gallon can and throw away the can when you’re done, and at four, five times the price. You stop carrying it, Lo-Bux is the only place left I can get white gas for my lanterns at all.”
   “There just ain’t the market for it any more. Most folk have ’lectric at home these days, even way up in the hollers. I sell it to folk for their huntin’ camps, or tent campin’ folk up from the City, or folk runnin’ coons in the woods at night, but they only uses a gallon or so at a time. Ain’t hardly nobody uses white gas steady no more.”
   Clyde didn’t ask why Billy needed so much white gas, or what Billy was doing at night someplace off the electricity grid. It wasn’t polite to ask too many questions up in the mountains of Crockett.
   “Well, it’s a shame. Guess I’ll keep buying from you long’s I can. Let me know if ya do decide to stop selling, maybe I can lay in a big supply. By the way, you seed any strangers around here, snoopin’ around?”
   “The usual flatlanders going to their huntin’ camps or summer cabins. Or wandered off the State Route and wantin’ nothin’ but to get back to it. Anyone in particular?”
   “No, no, I just smelt somebody in the woods. Saw some tracks. Made me think somebody mighta been watchin’ me, or followin’ maybe.”
   “Y’all be careful, Billy. They’s dangerous folk in the hills, and some more than others. I even heared Snake Boone’s been seed.”
   “Snake Boone’s gone to his reward, since that Alkie raid on the weed fields.”
   “So they says, but then they’s seed him walkin’ around, just last week, over near Austin’s sawmill.”
   “Well, maybe. I’ll be careful.”
   “I see anyone nosin’ around, I’ll let you know.”
   “Thanks. You’re a good friend, Clyde.”
   Snake Boone. Billy thought about that, driving the pickup, creeping up the rocky trail toward the old farmstead where he kept his still hid these days. It couldn’t be Snake Boone. But if it was, Billy was in past his depth. He trusted his nose, but Snake was one fellow Billy would never smell coming.
   What could he do? It might be good to shut down for a while. Maybe he should ask Derrick. Derrick knew a lot about things you wouldn’t think he could, sometimes.
   Here was the old Jenkins farm. It was in a little hollow high up on the side of the mountain. The view to the west could take his breath away, even though he’d lived in these hills all his life. He could see why Old Man Jenkins had stayed up here, even though the soil wasn’t worth the plowing.
   The house had been built of sawn lumber; it was a small wonder that Old Man Jenkins had found the money for that, poor as his farm was. It had fallen in last year, after Old Man Jenkins died. The barn, though, had been made of cheaper stuff; logs sawn on the land, mortar from limestone ground up and burned on site and mixed with sand, half trees for roof beams and galvanized sheet metal for a roof. It was too solid for comfort; digging the escape tunnel through the foundation and the rocky soil had left every bone in his body aching for a week. But it made a fine place to hide a still.
   Billy grabbed the can of white gas and headed for the barn. He stopped in the doorway. He smelled fox.
   The click of a revolver hammer being pulled back was unmistakable. “Good to see y’all finally. C’mon in and make yourself to home. Here. Now.”
   In the cow stall right next to the door, surrounded by straw, stood a horse who looked like he only had one eye. With a mountaineer’s eye for weapons, Billy identified the revolver pointed his way as an Army surplus forty-five; a mean, mean old gun, and the hand that held it was absolutely steady. Billy wasn’t used to fear, but he felt it now. If he tried to run, he’d be a bloody rug in an instant.
   He was so impressed by the revolver—looked like you could a drove a train down its barrel—that it took him a few seconds to notice the fox. He stood in the shadows to the side. A mask hid his face, and lime scent hid his own scent.
   “Get the hell in here,” the horse growled.
   “What are you doing—”
   “Blowin’ out a damfool’s brains lessen you get in here and do as you’s told. Look at this fool,” the gunman said, turning his head toward the masked fox. “He stinks of licorice, just like my friend said he would. Smelt him comin’ a hundred yards off ’cause of that.”
   Billy blinked. “Licorice?”
   “Get the hell in here! Hands behind your back!”
   Billy studied the horse behind the revolver. After a moment, very quietly, he set the gas can down and walked slowly into the stall. He tried to read something in the horse’s horrible eyes. The horse grabbed his wrist, shockingly fast and strong. Handcuffs clicked closed; Billy hissed as they bit tight. He was jerked to his knees, and then there was another click and the handcuffs were locked to something in the wall behind him.
   The horse held a big, clunky portable telephone to Billy’s ear. He punched a number, waited, waited, waited…
   “Y’all never mind who. Listen if you know what’s good for you.”
   He took the phone and jammed it to the side of Billy’s head. “Tell him who you are, your name, and that you’re alive.”
   “Hello? Hello? It’s Billy Tucker. I’m locked up—”
   “Good enough.” The horse put the phone back to his own ear. “Y’all hear that? Never mind who. Y’all just listen and do as you’s told. Fifty thousand bux. Bring it to the old Jenkins farm, you know where. Come alone. What? Tomorrow night. Don’t give me none of that. Y’all got the money, or can get it. No, y’all better not—you’s late, I gets me a new bearskin rug.” The horse laughed at his own humor. “All the same to me. Be here. Tomorrow night.”
   The horse, Snake Boone, it had to be Snake Boone, pulled down the phone’s antenna and shut it down. He made sure Billy’s handcuffs were locked solid to the wall. Then he walked out of the barn door and into the sunlight. The masked fox followed.
   Billy wondered if he’d ever walk in the sunlight himself, ever again. But there was something else going on here. Licorice?

   Boone led Carter out into the clearing. “Well, that’s it, then. Y’all shouldn’t be here to see the end of it.”
   Carter nodded, removing his mask. He looked suspicious. “How’d you call Clydesbank? Didn’t know cell phones worked up here.”
   “Oh, that? Ain’t a cell. Satellite phone. Voice alterin’, when you push this here button like I did. Picked it up from one of my former buddies in the Special Forces. Don’t worry, he didn’t need it no more. Satellite phone’s damned hard to trace, even if y’all knows how.”
   Carter nodded. He walked off, toward a little Fourster Mountain Goat four-wheel-drive almost hidden in the brush at the edge of the clearing.
   “Don’t come back,” Boone called after him. The horse opened his revolver’s cylinder to check the load, nodded, then holstered the gun. “Don’t come back. Y’all don’t want to know.”

   But Carter Austin was back, the next night, lurking in the woods behind the barn.
   Whatever else he might be, Snake Boone wasn’t native to these valleys. He came from the next county over.
   That wasn’t enough to make much of a difference, but Carter was pretty sure Snake didn’t know every creek, valley, and trail here the way he did. And that might give Carter the edge he needed against the big horse.
   That and the fact that Snake Boone didn’t know Carter planned to kill him.
   Boone had said the old Jenkins place was perfect for their needs because it only had one road in and out. Carter knew that was wrong. Boone hadn’t known that a tiny coal pit, a thin vein where locals had come for years to get stove coal for free, lay only half a mile from the old Jenkins place, across the ridge. You reached it up a trail that went nowhere near the Jenkins farmstead. Carter could drive the Fourster to the coal pit, come in on the Jenkins place from behind, and Boone would never know he was there.
   He might get his ten thousand bux back. He might get the fifty thousand Derrick Clydesbank would be bringing. In any case, he would get rid of Snake Boone before the ten thousand he owed Boone, the ten thousand he couldn’t get, came due.
   The trail across to the Jenkins place was an easy one. Probably Jenkins had fueled his stove from the pit himself. In the gathering darkness, Carter settled down with his lever-action rifle and waited.
   The sun set. It was only a day past full moon, so it wouldn’t be a dark night, but even so the gathering darkness seemed profound. The glare of a white-gas lantern, whiter and harsher than electric light, leaked out of the log barn where the metal sheets of its roof overlapped and gapped. The log walls themselves were too tight for any light to seep through. There didn’t appear to be a door anywhere except for the big one on the end of the barn toward the trail down the mountain.
   Silence, or near silence, for a long time. It got darker, then a bit lighter as the moon began to rise on the other side of the ridge. Once, he thought he heard muffled shouts, and the sound of blows. Other than that nothing but the breeze, the insects, the night birds.
   Was that the sound of gears and a powerful engine, far away?
   Yes! Some heavy vehicle was creeping forward in low gear. It was coming nearer. It had to be Derrick Clydesbank, coming to his doom.
   He couldn’t see from here. Carter eased into the clearing. Keeping to the shadows, he positioned himself near the ruins of the Jenkins farmhouse. The truck, whatever it was, kept coming closer.
   Lights, fog lights and not full powered headlights, shone through the trees. Lurching, the silver van eased into the clearing. It stopped. Its powerful engine shut down.
   The door opened and somebody got out. Carter had never seen Derrick Clydesbank in person, but by the Goddess of Sharp Teeth, he was big! He was almost as tall as Snake Boone, but without Boone’s paunch.
   Clydesbank seemed to be injured, though. He got out of the van awkwardly. He had one arm in a sling. Once out, he reached back into the van with his good hand and pulled out a briefcase. Then he limped across the clearing, into the pool of glare spilling out from the barn, and on in through the barn door.
   Carter waited.
   He waited.
   And he waited. What was Boone doing? How long could…
   BOOM. A deep, hollow explosion, the roar of a large-caliber firearm with a low muzzle velocity. Like the revolver Snake Boone carried. Carter had almost convinced himself that would be the end of it when he heard it again: BOOM. A second shot. It was all over, then. Carter had had two enemies inside the barn, and now there had been two executions.
What? A third shot? What the hell was going on? Carter thumbed the hammer back on his rifle and hurried, silently, to the barn door.
   He looked in. The white gas lanterns lit the scene with a glare that seemed brighter than noonday sun.
   In the middle of the barn, the still stood, its chimney passing up through the roof. The still was running; a fire burned beneath it, steam oozed from its joints. A shelf of glass jugs and jars of clear liquid stood near. Moonshine dripped from the end of the condensing coil into another jar of clear liquid.
   In the back of the barn, at the base of an immense stack of old dry hay, lay a body dressed like Snake Boone. There was another, bigger body in the stall near the door, where Billy Tucker had been handcuffed. At the base of the shelves of moonshine jugs lay another body dressed as Clydesbank had been. A briefcase lay beside it.
   Carter crept into the barn. He kept his rifle cocked. Derrick Clydesbank seemed to be dead on the floor. He didn’t move, anyway. Billy and Snake weren’t moving either.
   Goddess! They’d all killed each other. He couldn’t believe his luck. All he had to do was grab the money and leave! He uncocked his rifle. He bent over and reached down for the briefcase.
   There was something wrong with Clydesbank’s body. There was straw poking out of the gaps in the clothing…
   And a rustle, something moving in the straw behind him.
   Carter spun, pulling his rifle up into firing position again. Somebody, some big horse—he couldn’t tell if it was Derrick Clydesbank or Snake Boone—seemed to be rising out of the ground near the barn’s downhill wall. The horse had a rifle too, a strange one; stubby, with a thick stock that ran to a silver cap beneath the rifle’s barrel proper. In surprise, Carter realized it looked just like the muzzle end of the powerful pump-up air rifle he’d had when he was a kid.
   The rifle made a small sound, like spatt. The horse, whoever he was, couldn’t have missed at this range. Yet somehow, he missed!
   Or had he? Glass shattered. One of the gallon jugs on the shelves blew into a thousand pieces. Carter hit the straw-covered floor as the shower of moonshine soaked him to the skin and soaked the straw and he’d hit the shelves as he started to dive for cover and they were going to topple too, all those glass jugs…
   But the moonshine that had soaked him didn’t smell like moonshine. It smelled like gasoline.
   White gas…
   And everything went orange. Heat washed over him.

   It had been a long time since Lieutenant Briley had had Derrick Clydesbank visit his office. But of course he remembered to put the guest chair to the side of his desk and put the two-seat miniature couch in front of the desk for his oversized guest. The side chair would work fine for his other Sergeant Cobb.
   He had to smile as Derrick came in. Derrick was a little hesitant, almost shy, the way he usually was. It was almost cute. You weren’t supposed to let species prejudice affect your work, but he liked the horses, especially the big drafters. There was just something sweet and harmless about them.
   “Welcome, Derrick. Good to see you again. This is Sergeant Cobb of the Crockett State Police Investigative Bureau. Have a seat?”
   “Thank you, Lieutenant. Pleased to meet you, Sergeant. I understand that my recent actions have caused you a certain amount of irritation. I sincerely apologize for that.”
   Cobb growled. He was of the terrier line, and they always seemed to think they had something to prove. “Why would we be mad at you? You just ignored our calls for almost two weeks, that’s all.”
   “I apologize again. I was on vacation, and I seem to have forgotten to recharge my phone. I must admit I might have been less than conscientious in maintaining its battery charge. I’ve long felt that it isn’t really a vacation if you’re carrying your cell phone with you wherever you go.”
   “So what did you do on your vacation up in the mountains near Austin’s Mill?” Cobb asked.
   “Austin’s Mill? I regret that somebody has misinformed you, sir. I spent my vacation performing some amateur theatrics while visiting some cousins of mine. I’m even credited in the Shearford Festival’s production of Richard the Third. I can get you a copy of the program if you’d wish.”
   Richard the Third? The one with ‘My kingdom for a horse’?”
   “Exactly, sir. You can guess which part was mine: Poitiers, the horse who rescued Richard from the battlefield and then accompanied him to his final triumph at the Battle of Lancaster. It is a little-known fact—little known except to members of the Clydesbank clan, of course—that Poitiers was a Clydesbank himself. We were bred as warriors, you understand, and we fought on that battlefield as on many others. It’s rather astonishing to think that one of my distant ancestors is entombed in Westminster Cathedral.”
   “Are there any witnesses…” Cobb groaned. “Oh, gods: The Shearford Festival. The audiences are enormous. Of course there were witnesses.”
   “Yet someone reported that I had been in Crockett, sir?”
   “There was an accident there. It was a fire that claimed the life of a leading citizen of the region, a gentleman who was a close personal friend of Senator Bird. The Senator wants the truth of the case, right now. And so do I.”
   “Might I repeat my question? Did some person report seeing me in Crockett? I assure you, sir, I was acting. I was engaged in playing a role, as I told you.”
   “A young fox named Ray McCoy, who worked for the victim, said he’d overheard his boss say you were coming to the area.”
   “And did Mr. McCoy supply any further details?”
   “Um… no.” Cobb seemed angry about something. Perhaps there was something about McCoy’s testimony that Cobb didn’t want getting out.
   “Well, that doesn’t sound especially reliable, sir. And even if someone thought they saw me in Crockett, how could they be sure that it was me and not some other Clydesbank? Others of my kin live in that region, and we do tend to look alike.”
   Briley’s eyes widened for a moment. Clydesbanks looked alike, and Derrick Clydesbank had said he’d gone to stay with some of his cousins in Shearford. How could anyone be sure that the horse on stage in the Shearford festival had been Derrick, and not some other Clydesbank? Especially since a stage performer would be trying to use a stage voice, and would be wearing makeup, which would make identification that much harder.
   But that was silly. This was Derrick he was thinking about. Working on the Nan Fairweather case had taught him Derrick’s strengths and weaknesses. Derrick was earnest, hard-working, and in the long run quite intelligent; but he was slow-moving, placid, sweet, and if he figured things out well in the end, it sure took him a long time. A master conspirator Derrick was not.
   Cobb sighed. “I’d so hoped you could clear up the case for us.”
   “I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, sir. You know it is a matter of great pleasure to me to assist the police in their inquiries, when it is possible for me to do so.”
   Cobb said “You see, I don’t think the death was an accident. Let’s just say that the victim should have been aware of the fire danger in… what he was doing… where he was doing it. It makes me suspicious when somebody dies under those circumstances.”
   “I can see it would, sir, but even experts make mistakes sometimes. I could tell you about an incident of that kind, repairing the brakes on my car, if I could stand the embarrassment of speaking about it.”
   “Indeed. Do you happen to know a distant cousin of yours, Hew Boone? Goes by the nickname of Snake.”
   “Anyone who lived in that part of Crockett knows of Snake Boone, sir. I can’t say I ever met him in person, however.”
   “And of course you’d have no idea where he might be.”
   “No. And I’m rather glad I don’t. He has the reputation of being a dangerous fellow. The further his life is kept from mine, the safer I will be.”
   “That’s a bit of an understatement. But since he’s a cousin, you might cover for him, if you did happen to know where he was.”
   Derrick smiled a small smile. “All the more reason for me to be glad that I honestly don’t know where he is, or what happened to him. I’d heard the Alkies killed him. I almost believed it this time. Is there anything else?”
   “Not at this time.”
   “Thank you, sir.” Derrick rose from his seat.
   “But in a hypothetical sense, you might cover for him.”
   “In a hypothetical sense, perhaps. Blood ties are the tightest ones of all. But I think you can trust me to do the right thing, whenever the chips are down.”
   “Whatever the right thing might be.”
   Derrick smiled slightly. “Good day, Sergeant Cobb. Good day, Lieutenant.”

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