BY TOM SHEEHAN
ASSAULT ON MOUNT CARMEL
It’s just how I remember it on VJ Day. It was night, the war was over, the Pacific was quiet, my brother soon on his way home, and I was thumbing home from the next town with my cousin Warren in his Army uniform. Nobody gave us a ride, which pissed me off no end, him having run across Europe with Patton and that armored lance into Germany, all the way from Bastogne.
And the card game was still going on over on Mt. Carmel Road, as it had been for the years of the war and many before that.
Mount Carmel Road was a quiet dead end street in the north section of Saugus, a little more than a half century ago. In the middle of the night when the noise in the Far East was over and the radios blared out the news, all the lights went on in all the houses on that blind street, except where the card game was being played. Many of the neighbors were solidly indignant about the turn of events that VJ Night, two Mount Carmel boys among those who would not be coming back from the mad Pacific, which most of us had only seen in Saturday newsreels at the theater.
The family living in that house now is unaware of its past. Tenants and landlords hardly leave scribed notations of a dwelling, thinking all things will ferment, dissipate, and eventually pass on. Fifty years or more of recall usually get dulled, terribly pockmarked, or fade into the twilight the way one ages, dimming of the eyes, trouble at the knees, a slow turn at mortality. But I remember.
For nearly fifteen years at the gray house at the end of the road the big weekly poker game had been going on, and during the war it had been conducted behind thick black curtains that let out no light. "They’ll be no beacon trail markers from this game to the Navy Yard," a few miles distant, said Mountain Ben Capri. Mountain Ben, once an expert trapper and fishing guide, owned the house, ran the game, and his wife, the Blackfoot named Dread Child Lovey, made sandwiches on occasion, poured drinks, and picked up loose change. That loose change would have paid some mortgages, for the stakes in the game were sometimes momentous according to neighbors on that dark cul-de-sac and other parties around town. A few people in town remembered when Mother Shannon had a shady place of business in the same abode, most of them elderly men. A few elderly wives or widows remembered Mother Shannon too.
The only outsider allowed inside that coveted and dark setting was young and pesky Frankie Pike, high school football hero of some renown. They told me Frankie tried to sit in one night, but didn’t have enough money so he asked to simply look on. In time, because of good humor and energy, Frankie became the company runner, getting special orders from the half dozen classy restaurants out on the turnpike, hitting the package store for beer, wine and hard stuff when necessary (ordinarily through the back door), collaring the best cigars in town. Often he directed unwanted players away from the game site. It was an occupation of sorts.
After a few games and seeing all the opportunities around him, Frankie, with no flies on him from what I could see, cut a deal with Smokey Carlton of Smokey’s Diner; they would get a supply of bags, wrappers and boxes from the big restaurants and provide their own specials, as if the biggies had done the service. Smokey was glad to oblige, even though some of the town’s big spenders and known tough guys took part in the game. "They’re all playing with somebody else’s money anyway," Smokey would say if caught up for a reason. Frankie, to up the kitty, even went to work at Gargan’s Texan Hilltop Restaurant for two days, time enough to stash a supply of purloined imprinted bags and napkins out in the woods. I’d have to say that flies stayed off Frankie like he’d been sprayed with killer bug juice.
But Frankie and Smokey made a good deal, and they fooled the players with substitute foodstuffs prepared right in the back of the small chintzy diner rather than in one of the popular restaurants. I heard Frankie giving Smokey the lowdown. "I bring so much booze in there, Smokey," Frankie said, "that they’re half drunk half the time and well into it the other half. That old lobster boater Cal Landers wants Hilltop sandwiches all the time and now yours are as good as theirs are, only Cal don’t know it seeing the Hilltop wrappers all the time. Some nights they can’t tell Grade A from swill. And I see DC Lovey scooping a bit of change every now and then, too. She puts the wet tray with booze and stuff right on the pot or on someone’s stash and lets that old green paper stick to the bottom. There ain’t no pesky bugs setting on that old mountain man either, way he goes through coat pockets when no one’s looking. Moves easy for a big man. Hate to have him tracking me down. I’ve seen him go outside and go through some of the cars more than a few times. Smooth he does it, like a ghost in the night, like maybe he heard special information during the game."
So the game went on, and in one quick night the war was over, that special August night. The whole town celebrated, lights flashing on and off, a few stored up firecrackers or bottle rockets set off, a lot of horns and sirens cutting loose from long silences… except the house on Mount Carmel. Nobody went in and pulled a shade back, nobody came out on the porch to see what was going on. The game was the thing. Only the game.
Warren and I heard about it that same night, tired from the long walk, still angry.
And that didn’t sit well with a lot of people. I was all ears later on. "Tell me, Frankie," Clint Wardley the undertaker said one night around the cracker barrel in the back of the package store, "what the hell makes you think they’re such sacred cows in there?" Clint was always in a starched collar, locked into his trade. "They all come my way sooner or later," he often said. Nobody knew if Clint’s words were promise or threat.
"I’ll say this for those boyos," handsome Frankie Pike replied, "they’re not afraid of anybody or anything ‘cepting the game not getting its place of a Friday night. In the storm a couple of years ago that shut down the power for nearly a week, they had Mountain get Coleman lanterns and fire them all up. Mountain knows about those camp lamps and them little wicks he calls mantles, like butterfly wings almost. Had three or four of them going he did, almost boiling the room away. Way I hear it, they talk about the game all week long, who did what last game, who can make the big fake and pull it off, who’s getting shit luck with his cards and when it began. I think they have a pool on when it runs out, each having some kind of turn at a losing streak. They heard the war was over and that was it. They wasn’t in it and wasn’t getting away from it."
Frankie’s sense of timing was as good as an actor. His eyes collected and measured the audience. "Jake Crews said he ain’t celebrating people getting killed or not killed. His daddy came home from the Great Stink in France back in ‘18 all gassed up and not much of a father from then on. Said his old man never got laid again, even though the old lady was a laundry bag. Life just became a big sourball for him. Jake ought to know, him wearing the scars of it all, the only boy in that big house with that bad ass bastard. ‘Cept for the game, he’s been a loner his whole life. I’ll tell you this," Frankie added, bringing football right back into the balance, putting it all in his own perspective, "I’d be comfortable with him across the huddle from me in a big game. He has that fire in his eye you don’t always get, if you know what I mean." Frankie got them nodding as though they had the inside privy on certain players that "didn’t bring it with them all the time the way Frankie did."
Frankie liked to sit in the back of McGarrihan’s Package Store, around the wood stove puffing on a winter day, a dozen pair of boots hoisted on the rim of the big iron stove, and hold forth with the other gabbers. They were the psuedo-historians, gossips, ward-heelers and petty politicians looking for the grip on someone, for rich gossip or a shared bottle they didn’t have to pay for. Frankie shone there because of his football exploits, being, as many of them would say, "the best damn money player to come down the pike since Harmony Hiltz worked his magic at the stadium in the early Thirties, and then went up-country and played for Dartmouth College."
The players in the game were a cut from another life, the way it’s told; few of them had regular jobs yet always had a "piece" of some small operation. A jacket’s inner pocket was an office. For most of them money spilled out of their pockets like an algae growing down inside with the lint. None of them carried money in a wallet, rather doled it out of thick clusters kept in the inner breast pocket of a jacket or in a shirt pocket under a sweater. "They buy their chips with a wad of bills, ever last one of them, taking it out of an iron clip." Frankie said "iron" as if it were "eye-ron," bringing the boys deeper into the fold, getting real up-country homey with them. It was true old Yankee stuff he could get at when he had a mind to. Frankie had timing, if you know what I mean.
"How much money you think been showed in that room, Frankie, best lot?" Andy Tolliver was a member of the school committee who never went to college, never could spell curriculum, but had a magic for trading off "one for you and one for me" when things got tight. He would feel undressed if he were caught without a bow tie. For twenty-six years he had been on the school committee. Andy, they all knew, could get anything in the system from the mix of teachers for those who wanted it bad enough, including himself. Frankie had seen Andy pick up the new history teacher as she walked home late at night. Had seen it a four or five times, once waiting for two hours by her house before Andy dropped her off, just to see how things went. Now Andy wanted to know how much money was in that room at one time.
"Well," said Frankie, probably thinking Andy was at least twice as old as the new teacher and having a sudden admiration for him, curriculum or no curriculum, "one night, and this is the truth because I was able to count it out, there was over twelve thousand dollars in that room. Course," he added, the sparkle in his eyes, "some of that was loose change." The laughter was pleasant and a few of the listeners elbowed the guy beside them.
"Andy eyes lit up. "Twelve thousand dollars! My, God, that’s almost the budget on raises for the next two-three years."
"Hell," Frankie said, "one night Mountain came back in from sniffing through the cars and leaned over Jud Duvall and whispered in his ear. They say Mountain told him someone had been fooling around his car, he has that Pierce Arrow with the big lights up on the fenders. So Jud went out and came back in with his sweater wrapped around something and kept it under his chair and Mountain was real nervous. I heard later Mountain had come across a stash of twenty-five thousand bucks and was scared to death of touching it, but had to tell Jud some way. He didn’t want to be pegged for grabbing it. Mountain knows Jud would have him dropped in the river for less."
But of all the guys who talked shop and whatever around the stove, it was Wolf Stearns who kept alive the VJ Night ignorance of the game players, going back to that dark and bright night every chance he could. I’d seen Wolf’s eyes light up more than once when the subject was opened, eyes light up and his lips get tight. One of the boys not coming back was Wolf’s cousin, Edwin Talbot, a Marine fighter pilot lost in the Solomon Seas on the day of his eleventh kill. "Guess whose birthday is next Wednesday, guys? You couldn’t guess in a hundred years, now could you? It’s Eddie Talbot’s birthday. The kid would be twenty-five years old next Wednesday. Do you think those dinks at the game give a shit? Not in a hundred years. They played all through the war and when it came stand up time they stayed behind the damn curtains. Never even came out on the porch to see what was going on, never mind saluting someone for a change." Now his eyes made movies and darkened as if he were measuring an infinitesimal edge, like a wave of heat off the stovetop or another space uncounted for. Now and then he dropped cautious tidbits like, "Somebody ought to teach them a lesson or two. ‘S’all I got to say about it."
Then Wolf would look again at a point in space none of the others hoped to find. Wolf had been around a lot and never left much trail about what he was at or after. He had scars here and there, on his cheeks, one on his wrist as if it had been ripped by barb wire, perhaps on his back the way he scowled so much of the time, bitter angry, the world to be pissed on occasionally.
A few other men seemed to side up with Wolf but never got too vocal about it. Under the layers it was apparent that a means of revenge was swilling in the thicker cloth, probably dark and mean, and naturally would have the backing of the whole of Saugus, loving its heroes to the death.
When it happened it was clean and quick. God, I wished I was there. So did cousin Warren. It was just after midnight, Mountain getting sleepy in one corner, Dread Child Lovey about done with her work and smoking a cigar, Frankie Pike’s errands long over and ready to go home. The door burst open and four masked gunsmiths stood aiming their sawed-off shotguns at the players. Mountain rose from his seat and one of the gunsmiths hit him with a crow bar. Mountain smacked the floor like a pallet of concrete blocks. Dread Child Lovey continued to smoke her cigar, ignoring all the men in the room, never batting an eyelash.
Jud Duval, pivoting idly in his chair, said, "If I were you guys, I’d…. " He said no more as the barrel of a shotgun was stuck in his mouth. "There’ll be no talking but us," said one of the masked men. "Rake it up, Three," he said, pointing to the players. "Empty their pockets, their money belts, their wallets. Clean out their jackets. Look under the chairs, too."
The leader heard Mountain groan and nodded to another gunsmith. "Hit him, Two." The man popped Mountain on the head again with the crow bar. Dread Child Lovey kept on smoking. Jud said that he noted the men were all in sweat suits and sneakers.
The sweepdown was complete in every sense. Every coin, every bit of currency in the room including the entire cash drawer kept by Mountain and Dread Child Lovey, was scooped up and placed in a black bag that looked like a doctor’s bag.
Frankie, fidgeting, started to move, looking to get to a door, but was jabbed in the backside by one of the gun wielders. "Uh, uh, kid, we need you. You’re going to be a bit of security for us. Hostage stuff. You’re gonna earn your keep this night, hero." The guy turned to the card players and said, "One bad word outta any you guys, we knock off the kid. We’re taking him with us. Don’t nobody move around or scream until the big guy wakes up, and I’d be real gentle about that. That’s gonna be one pissed-off big gent."
One of the gunsmiths opened a door to a small pantry and motioned all the players and Dread Child Lovey into the soon-crowded space. The door was slammed behind them and a couple of spikes were hammered into the door and the jamb. Silence came. Darkness set about everything, falling like clouds on top of Mountain who was out of it for almost another hour. Later it was said a couple of the players copped a few feels of Dread Child Lovey who never batted an eyelash then either nor said a word in that small crowded room. Mountain was really upset when he finally woke up and freed the players and his wife from the pantry, because he found her underpants on the floor.
Mountain was like old Mountain, ranting and raving and carrying on like a wounded bear, marking every one of the players with a terrible eye, cowing them right out of his house as if a curse had been placed on them.
The police gave up the search for the kidnapped Frankie Pike two days later when he walked back into town, a couple of marks on his face, but healthy as ever otherwise. Mountain never had another game at his house. The players, after a break of a few weeks, found a new place to play, in the back of Tal Rumson’s boathouse. And Frankie Pike walked with a jingle and a tingle in his pockets and was never out of coin for the whole next year. But nobody did anything about it, figuring the players had finally paid their real dues for not standing to when they should have, that VJ Night so long ago, the night my cousin couldn’t get a ride and him in uniform.
OH, DEATH OF THE PALE RIDER
Life had its full range of artillery out for him, front and center. Oh, Death of the Pale Rider sounded anew in the silence of Briggs Thornton’s mind, even as the day bore itself harsh as a frozen thunderbolt, a huge icicle with breath and as cold as the bank was to his latest overture. Around his neck the wrap of a muffler was not a comfortable wrap, feeling it a trade-off of an itch to keep the chill off his nape.
Adding to all his misery, Humboldt was sick, the stallion not going to make it out of the barn on his own, not on those great legs for sure. And the ground now frozen at least two feet down. Briggs Thornton didn’t know how he was going to bury Humboldt, if it came to that, though everything pointed to his death. It would be like setting in a new gasoline tank, all that digging. Not selling that great animal for glue or meat was a certainty, but the weather was dropping a degree an hour and would sock the earth into more solid granite, Mother Earth’s deep-poured concrete. Keeping that worry company was the other onus working on him, the responsibility of getting Dabney Overton, his last ranch hand, settled someplace, not appeasement but settlement, not payment but duty, for the old ramrod was so owed. A seventy-year old man doesn’t just up and move on from where he’s spent fifty years of his life, no matter how mouthy he was getting. Of late the ranch hand’s impatience with Briggs’ decision-making had become very noticeable. "Sometime when the time comes, boss, it’s already gone." And Briggs’ wife Mavreen had noted on a number of occasions that the old cowpoke was getting "testy and stretching his mouth too far from the saddle."
The frozen thunderbolt clapped about him again. Oh, Death of the Pale Rider.
At the moment Briggs couldn’t discern if Humboldt’s problem was worse than the foreclosure he was facing, or Dabney’s imminent plight. A hundred and twenty years on this New England land were the Thorntons from the old country after the first of them being stashed in a horrible ship’s hold for a damnation of a journey. And it had fallen upon him to lose the land they had quested and conquered, land with more than one page of history. This was the place where the first Thorntons fought the Puritans, the Brahmins, as well as the new politics. And here long ago was found the body of Quilkin the Sneak Pirate atop three of his crew in a deep ditch below the cliffs in the north section, cliffs rising as a fortification for the north pasture. The three pirates had been shot in the back, and Quilkin in the face, as if he had shot them in the hole and one of them, not quite gone to sea, had fired back at their killer.
Humboldt, Briggs’ own horse for years, was a black giant, with eyes like great greenish-yellow orbs stolen out of a Chinese color scheme. They were readable and you knew he was knowing you, but couldn’t say if he enjoyed the company or not. Briggs’ father, Jock Taggard Thornton, died thirty years earlier sitting up frozen on Humboldt’s sire, the other great black that owned outright those fields the Thorntons claimed. His name had been Manitou the Magnificent. Manitou had brought the old gent back to the barn in the midst of the worst sneak storm in a hundred years, stiff and straight up as a bayonet-stuck rifle he was, marking his death on the battlefield of storms.
Young Briggs, from a kitchen window, knew from the posture of the rider, from his rigid sitting the saddle, that he had heard the last Yeats’ poem from his father on the summer porch where the fireflies would dance him off to bed. In all those years, he had not forgotten that silent death, the awful and visible stiffness of the man of tongues, the storyteller. To that scene he had given the title Oh, Death of the Pale Rider, the way man and horse made a dim silhouette against the snow-battered barn, a moonish and sparsely colored silhouette at best. But each time out it seemed as though the old man’s voice always said the words of the title and not his own voice, not even under his own breath where identity is always found.
Oh, Death of the Pale Rider. The old gent had said it again, as if hung out on a point of the frozen thunderbolt.
But Briggs kept thinking about the great black horse, the eyes wild at times, and he could bring back instantly his own early fright at the size of such creatures, the way they trod the fields massive as a mountain, fearful with height. Horses like Humboldt, in Briggs’ young days, filled the barn door like some colossus out of Egypt or Rhodes he’d only seen in picture books.
"You’ll have to truck him out somehow," his wife Mavreen said as he entered the kitchen, swinging her hair up in a gesture, all the punctuation she needed to stress her adjudication. "Get him out of here before he freezes up and in the spring rouses flies and maggots." Mavreen had not been on a horse yet, after eight years of marriage. That had been a minute difficulty at first; Briggs’ first wife Julia Rose had fallen from horseback and been impaled on a broken shovel handle. She had walked to a nearby road, holding onto the shovel handle, and collapsed in front of a car coming over the hill. She was dead long before she arrived at the hospital. Mavreen, in turn, was insensitive to horses of any kind, yet her shape was still thin and curvesome and her skin glowed with a rosiness that five-mile walks returned to her. At times Briggs was convinced her only care-giving was in bed. It was not fair, he thought, but it might be true. Glory be in the truth, he smiled sub-vocally, letting part of an argument fall away.
Clad in a puffed denim down jacket, Briggs had come into the kitchen for coffee, and a sheen of silver rode his hair as if the frost had touched it with a wand. His eyes were dark and brittle and a moment of the cold had come with him, sweeping under Mavreen’s skirts, and bristling in its rise to touch the back of her neck. He saw her shiver, offered her his coffee. She smiled back, "You can’t duck it, Briggs. We got troubles piling on us. I know you love that animal, but he’s going to make more trouble, mark my words."
Briggs, at minute evasion, felt like musing. "The old gent must be rolling over in his grave or raising hell among the clouds. Might be paying us back in a new storm. Forecast is unsettled but it looks like snow, even this cold."
"I’m talking about the bills, Briggs. They just don‘t go away when you talk about something else. Even if you sell the stock we have left, we can’t pull ourselves out of this one. I know you’re worrying about Dab, too." She tossed her hair again, as much a gesture of futility as she could muster in the face of the man she loved but whose horses she wouldn’t ride for love nor money. "I won’t tell you what he said yesterday."
"Don’t gunnysack me, Mav. Don’t add on to it. I’m not struggling to realize what’s at us. I’ve been hard at it for months. I wanted to sell off a smaller piece, but it’s like heaven or hell’s been arranged against us."
"Or Danton Oliver at the bank has arranged it so that no one comes forward with an offer. He’s sworn to get this land. We’ve known that for a long time. I think he’s spent a long time arranging us behind the eight ball, and you keep getting hung up on a horse. My god, Briggs, you lost one wife to a horse." Her mouth hung open, full of her own surprise. The chill touched her again.
The knife-edge of that implicit statement slipped under Briggs’ skin. "Mav, you always knew and still know that what counts first with me is loyalty. That great horse out there," and he nodded to the barn, "has earned his way through life. He has supported us every inch of the way and I’ll be damned to see him cut up for glue or meat just so we can get him out of here at the least cost to us. He’s earned his way!" As if in agreement with Briggs’ promise, the wind shifted around and came directly out of the northeast and banged against the windows and the walls of the old homestead. Someplace a board was loose and slapping at its connection and the sound of a barn door slamming boomed like a chunk of thunder. "And Dab counts, just like you say. We can always move on I suppose, but I’m not sure he can. I know he’s worried a whole lot more than he shows. His mouth is just part of that."
Briggs sipped his coffee as a signal, put his jacket back on; the motions said things loose have to be righted. He welcomed Mavreen into his arms as she said, "I didn’t mean it the way it sounded, Briggs. Not really. There’s just so much weight coming down atop us. I know what history means to you. The family. The vows. And the promises that people long dead have exacted from you. I’m just so helpless in this. I can’t get horses into my blood. It’s the way I am."
She wanted to stand on her toes, to look directly into his eyes at his level. "Horses have nothing for me. It is not a sin for me. It’s just what I am. And now I’m damn worried about what’s going to happen, not to us, but to all of this." Her gesture of widespread hands meant the whole ranch. "My very last gem was in that recent payment." Her fingers were bare, her wrists were bare and he knew her jewelry box was empty. Briggs Thornton drew her tighter than he had in a long while. "I know what you’ve given up, Mav, but don’t give up the last treasure you’ve got. Don’t give up hope." The steel of his arms cut her short of breath and he slipped out the door, each of them sharing the delayed pressure of the other against their bodies.
Leaning against the wind, Briggs saw one barn door slapping loose and a board floating nearly free in a tall fence beside the barn. As the wind blew around him, as the cold continued its hold on the surfaces of all things, his mind kept searching for a solution to the coming problem. Dabney Overton, Briggs’ last employee and fifty years at this hitch, stood at Humboldt’s stall, his collar tight about his neck, a wool stocking cap down over his ears, age cutting across his face the way lines cut old canvas, eyes calling out an old ramrod’s backbone.
"It gets no better, Briggs. Soon’s it comes, he goes down like a shot. I’ve seen it before, like I said yesterday. Davey Warwick’s Hellfire went down the same way, like as I said. No name for it but plain tired and life gone out of the blood." Briggs was thinking that Dabney’s voice was loaded with messages.
"It’s the way some heroes go, Briggs. Just the way they choose. Hellfire was not the horse this one was, but he was a piece, I’ll tell you."
"Soon you think?"
"Yuh, all of that. If it’s just you and me, we best get him set for the easy move, get him where we can manage him with the tractor." Dabney pointed to the open part of the barn, the finger pointing repeatedly and loaded with enunciation. "Best get him there, under a blanket or two and wait him out. Be a trick or two if I do say." As if to throw that problem under the shadow of another problem, he said, "I have a few hundred dollars in my kit and a few checks not cashed yet. You’re welcome to them. This place has been home to me for too damn long. I don’t like the thought of leaving it in a huff."
Briggs wanted to put an arm around Dabney’s shoulder, but held off. "You and Mav been the best part of me through all this, and you loving horses and her not. Different you are and the same. What I been thinking, Dab, is to drop him at the foot of the cliff and dropping a chunk of it over him. Blast it off with dynamite. That long fissure across the top face has been beaten at by wind and water and the earthchill for a million years now. We might pop enough loose to give him cover forever."
"That’s a decent tolerable idea, Briggs. We got some trouble getting Humboldt into the ground where he belongs, but we can sure keep him from the scavengers. There’s a whole lot of them out there’d like to tear his carcass to pieces, right to the quick of his bones." At his slight urging, the great horse listlessly moved out of his stall and Dabney threw a blanket over his back.
As he was about to throw the second blanket on him, the yellow eyes of Humboldt turned white and then a lime green and full of shadow, and the great horse crashed to the floor of the barn. The two men could hear a leg bone breaking, caught at the wrong angle, the body athwart itself and falling. There came no other sound but the escape of breath, as if a huge canister emptied itself of air. The wide barn was silent on the inside, only the wind talking on the outside, beating at boards, seeking to whistle its entry. Humboldt allowed one more cavernous sound from his lungs and made silence a fitting gesture, a hero easing off almost by himself. The whole structure of barn board and beam shook down through the fieldstone foundation, and emptiness ensued, a very heady emptiness, as if all things were beholding to death itself, patience being the ultimate acknowledgment.
With chain and rope and a come-along, they got the great horse onto a sled attached to the tractor, Dabney muttering all the time he was setting chain and rope. At last, figuring to have complained long enough, he exclaimed, almost under his breath, about the final demise of the faithful. "Talk about a kick in the hind quarters, this is a one! Sorry, hoss, never believed I’d see it! Get your ass dragging and they drag your ass off!"
Briggs, tying knots, testing them, was trying to understand all the asides thrown at him by the old rider. He felt a crude rawness and cold stabbing at his hands and at his heart, and the muffler failing on his neck again.
In the cold blue air they hauled Humboldt off to the cliff section at the northern end of the ranch, along with a cache of dynamite.
They left the sled with Humboldt atop it against the face of the cliff. Dabney drove the tractor into the copse of cottonwoods standing like a quiver of arrows fifty yards away, his shoulders hanging rounded and sloped. Briggs had not seen the old man like this before. History, he thought, was suddenly catching up to the old rider.
Briggs set up the charges inside the fissure snaking across the front of the cliff. Thirty minutes work in the cold air had him sweating. The picture of his father astride Manitou, the great barn pale behind them, kept entering his mind. He could not shake that eternal picture or the sounds coming with it, Oh Death of the Pale Rider. It was neither song nor eulogy, but it was continuous, rhythmic, in tune with the wind doing its work, spiraling the snow along. Then, as if willing to get out from under one image, something in his mind grabbed onto an image of Julia Rose with the shovel handle coming through her stomach. He knew, down into his boots, that he was going to suffer all his history and all of the family’s. It was coming at him. In the midst of it all he could see a crowded ship off the coast of Cork, heading for America. The teeming mass below deck was a piece of Cork itself, dark, damp and unsure that trailblazing was ahead of them.
The frigid air was at his sweat, and beads of it froze him into a new consciousness. He counted out the sticks of dynamite he had planted and reaffirmed their locations. Calling out to let Dabney know the blast was soon coming, he heard him yell back. Briggs walked back away from the cliff edge trailing the wire behind him. He hid behind a huge boulder, heard the wind blow around him, could almost feel the thickness of clouds, and fired the charge.
The blast set off a large section of the cliff, as if a plate had separated from the front face, and the whole section dropped as one piece, falling away in slow motion and then breaking up in a thunderous roar. There was a little smoke and less dust. The wind had quieted as if the blast had set it back on its heels. When Briggs walked off the far end of the cliff and down past the copse of trees, he saw the tractor, the face of the cliff broken over what had been Humboldt on the sled. They were completely covered. He did not see Dabney anywhere, but saw one set of tracks in the snow heading back toward the cliff.
Dabney’s impatience had won out.
Caught up in the madness of death, Oh, Death of the Pale Rider sounding out again for him, Briggs Thornton suddenly noted, on the newly exposed face of the cliff, his father astride a great horse silhouetted against the white of the barn, Julia Rose with the shovel handle coming through her gut, the darkness in the hold of a ship long gone to sea, an old man with his arm around the neck of a big black horse, and the glitter of gold pieces and gems freed from Quilkin the Sneak Pirate’s hiding place in the cliff.
He was not sure what his treasure was.
I remember the open car
my father drove one-handed,
how it cornered like a G-Man’s
in a Thirties movie.
Sunlight was a passenger
in the deep seats long after
nightfall. The hood cooled
slowly as the Erie Canal.
One fragrant October from
my bedroom window, I
watched him change a tire,
his arms crow-barred, leaf-red,
his fingers at doctoring.
I thought: How marvelous
to know what you are about,
when steel releases itself
and configurations change.
He tossed his head into day-
light, threw broad sheets
of his shoulders onto shadows
of linen on crisp ground,
begged for my assistance.
I counted lug nuts as coins,
twirled them doubloons in hand,
screwed them until muscles
told my name, aired my age.
The fenders proposed alliances,
loomed like armories or redans
in the mystics of my head.
How is it to be so crystal,
to love dramatically a tear
of sweat toiling off a brow,
to view Detroit as Olympian,
old Packards as caskets,
their ribs full of air
and coming tales of rust.
FACES OLD BARNS HAVE
The motley barn, like an old stain
gone haywire, is a dread easel.
Knots, carved into walls like old
promises, wait for campfires
or late hearths, warmth from Earth’s
Only the darkness is inconclusive where
night points its finger. In the deep aches
knots have fallen from, stars fall in, fields
of them, with the evening leader digging
deepest, digging first after yesterday’s carcass
linking still in the eyes’ behavior.
Shadows, upstaging any moon, argue on
its surfaces laterally. I have seen more mandates
than dreams in the dim recesses where wood
envies time, chases after it a whole age of
transparent death; just sunken cedars
in the swamp, drowned black, live on longer,
scaled at new livelihood.
Against a thousand storms this barn has stood,
never folding inward, only down by faint degrees
of ant strokes, termite mandibles, the odd carpenter;
its shoulders going sideways, knees turning softly,
its breath slow and halting.
A SOUND IN THE EYE
This midnight’s as thick
like listening devices
waiting for one breath
to find me out.
In the woodpile
I can’t see, a snake
settles where my hand
left a moment’s warmth
on a slanting of birch
plunging past white,
wound tight as bark.
Field mouse, beneath
owl’s infrared eyes
and sudden wing thump,
gathers into minutes.
The only flag
is pennant of skunk,
the tail-up streamer
recalling every vengeance
borne on mysteries
of abiding shadows.
and a collective of agents,
are pierced by peephole
of a nail-head star,
That night when you found my war poems alive,
my still retreat from the Korea hills,
Chinese who spoke with brass banging clamor,
when my voice went down in ravines like cairns
hollowed in the old country, we tied roots.
Blue eyes, blood type O, alliterations
that roll like candy off our Irish tongues,
God images that ply from sea and bog.
Whatever it is that pervades your voice,
gives gunfire to thought, answers upright stone,
soars over Benbulbin's head, rolls down Rs,
is flaked with a megalithic laughter,
it rings as true as bells in that hallow place
where song and poem find their sanctuary.
We share such dogged difference, or is it
the other way around, different doggedness?
Our tenancy at poet's bare retreat or dark
rooms where we dream proper echoes,
is never lonely, but nobody's there.
What's over your shoulder is not my eye,
but I would be there by choice. The music
of your gearing up, shift of syncromesh,
piston pop of words, sounds through your letters
like a magnificent engine's full hum. You drive
through half the counties of the state, alert,
absorbent as green neoprene, finding dark
corners and dim passages. You touch them
with your words, give life, nee poem.