Cover image for The cock's spur
The cock's spur
Price, Charles F., 1938-
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Publication Information:
Winston-Salem, N.C. : John F. Blair, Publisher, [2000]

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311 pages ; 24 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In his new novel, Charles Price continues the story begun in his first two critically acclaimed books -- Hiwassee and Freedom's Altar. In this rollicking tale of cockfighting and moonshining, antihero Ves Price makes a bargain with the Devil himself -- a revenuer bent on putting an end to area distilling. At the heart of the moonshining activity is Webb Darling, who rules his kingdom from atop his mountain fortress. As Ves increasingly sells out his friends and neighbors and incurs the wrath of Darling, a second plot heats up starring Hamby McFee, a renowned trainer of fighting cocks. As the once-wealthy Curtis family spirals into decline, Hamby finds himself emerging as the head of the household where he was formerly a slave. Torn between the reluctant loyalty he feels toward the Curtises and a desire for a fresh start elsewhere, Hamby becomes the unwilling hero of the novel.

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Following Hiwassee and Freedom's Altar, winner of the 1999 Sir Walter Raleigh Award honoring the best work of fiction by a North Carolinian, this novel completes a trilogy based on Price's own family's post-Civil War quest to put aside defeat and shame and reestablish a semblance of harmony and dignity in their once-idyllic mountains of western North Carolina. In 1880, 19-year-old Ves Price personifies the chaos and lawlessness of the Reconstruction Era. Unwilling to follow in his father's footsteps and become a cobbler and tenant farmer, Ves turns to moonshining, working for Webb Darling, self-proclaimed king of the moonshiners. That proving unsuccessful, he then becomes an informant for the Revenuers, alienating even his old friend Hamby McFee, a mulatto and distant cousin of the Curtis family. When Webb finds out about Ves's treachery, he holds Ves captive and tortures him. Ves has been obsessed with 25-year-old Becky Curtis, last surviving daughter of Judge Madison Curtis. Her beauty fading, Becky is burdened with caring for her surviving brother, Andy, who is inexorably sinking into insanity and frightens away Becky's suitors. Finally, confronted by her own mortality, Becky is moved to act in desperation. The last narrative thread involves ex-slave Hamby, who dreams of amassing enough money to escape and find freedom outside the valley of the Hiwassee. In a final showdown at Webb's mountaintop fortress, a cockfight leads Hamby to a profound epiphany. Lyrically written, character-rich and authentically atmospheric, the novel affords a deeply affecting insight into the aftermath of war. While this novel holds considerable regional appeal, it could prove a favorite of Civil War- oriented readers as well, with a push provided by a planned extensive tour of the Southeast by the author. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One March 1880               S ylvester was his given name. When he was a sprout his pap used to call him Syl, but he bore his pap many a grievance, and once he got his size he swore never again to use the ill name Oliver Price, that fool, had fixed on him. So he called himself Ves instead.     Nineteen years of age, long and gangly, Adam's apple protruding like a walnut, Ves Price lay sprawled drowsing under a shebang of yellow birch bark at the edge of a ravine way up Tusquittee Creek nearly behind the peak of Piney Top, waiting for the mash to ferment. He rested mostly in shade but also amid spots and strips of light because of the way the sunshine streamed in between the pieces of bark lashed with withes to the roof of the shebang. Beneath him was a bed of fragrant spruce boughs, and under his head for a pillow were his shoes and his suit of good clothes rolled up in a ball and tied with twine. Next to him lay Rehoboam Bolt's old iron Winchester.     Laurel and ivy choked the ravine, where ran the little stream that some hundred yards below joined a branch, which wound through woods of still-leafless chestnut, oak and tulip poplar and at last emptied into the main creek down in the smoke-hazed valley. Before him on the far side of the drainage rose the Tusquittees, rank on rank of round-headed peaks, the nearest a velvety gray spotted as if from rust by the crowns of maples coming into bud, the rest wearing shades of blue that got lighter the farther off they stood, till the last range looked so faint it might have been a cloud and not a mountain at all.     The still-house sat in the throat of the ravine not ten steps from where Ves lay, but it was nonetheless unseen, so cleverly had Rehoboam Bolt teased out the branches of the ivy and laurel, so intricate had been his interweaving of creeper and cut branches of balsam. Higher up was the tub-mill, where they ground the corn after sprouting it; it was made of such rude stuff it more resembled some natural outcrop of rotten rock than anything from the hand of man. Nor would the furnace of the still-house, when lit, give out more than the merest thread of nearly transparent gray smoke, thanks to Rehoboam's skill in laying the fire and the care with which he and Jared Nutbush tended the embers, keeping them hot enough to cook the mash but not so hot they would flare and smolder. There would be only that thin line of smoke and the slight shimmer of heat in the air above it to suggest there was anything in that ravine beyond a lot of brush and clutter.     What was there wasn't just the blockade Ves and Rehoboam and Jared had gone partners on; there also awaited Ves's future in life. Ves had resolved to win himself a stake selling blockade--a stake the likes of which he could never earn cobbling shoes and farming on shares, no matter how earnestly he toiled. He was quits with all of that. Let his pap spend his days bent over shoe lasts pecking away with a peg hammer, then waste every evening following the hind end of a borrowed mule up and down the furrows of somebody else's field. Let his pap groan and sweat and burst his blood vessels from strain. Ves would marry Becky Curtis and live on the money he fetched selling moonshine--and on her dowry, too, which he reckoned to be considerable. They would flourish and prosper while Oliver Price went on wearing himself out in labor worse than any nigger.     Already Rehoboam and Jared and Ves had made a run of singling, which they had put through a thumping-chest and prodded some with lye and buckeye pods and a dash of pepper and ginger, to give it a bite and make it bead up convincingly. Most of this run Rehoboam and Jared had carried down to Hayesville in ten-gallon kegs on a mule sledge last evening to sell; they were due back anytime now with the sacks of shelled corn they'd gotten for the next run. Till they returned it was Ves's job to tend the mash, which was now in its seventh day of fermenting and might at any time turn to beer ready for the still.     Ves rose from the shebang and crept in crisp sunlight down the ravine to the still-house, a shanty irregularly roofed with a few loose planks. Here the mash was steeping in several large barrels that Rehoboam Bolt had buried in the ground up to the top hoops, the better to keep them hid. Hard by, a trough made of split lengths of poplar came down crookedly from upstream and took an elbow turn into the top of the big barrel enclosing the worm, atop the furnace of mortared rock. Save for the beer itself, all was in readiness for the stilling. Ves opened a barrel of mash and gazed in, frowning. This was a delicate time, and Ves was nervous as to whether he could recognize the signs.     Ree had told him how the bubbling mash would sound when it was ready--like rain on a roof, or pork frying in the pan--and how it would taste--sour as all hell, and like to knock you dead if you sampled more than a dab of it. Ree had also taught him how to get the still working. But Ree hoped to return before there was any need for Ves to undertake that, because stilling was Ree's specialty. He'd been blockading ten years, and when he wished he could make the smoothest, most limpid and powerful sugar liquor anywhere around--although on these last two occasions he'd elected to still the singlings, rather than to take the time to work the doublings and so get out the water and worst oils. Nor had the Revenue ever come near him. Still, Ves hoped Ree would soon arrive. Ves had never done a whole run by himself, had only made one run partially with Ree coaxing him, and he'd been so nervous then that he couldn't remember a thing about it now.     Also he felt skittish on account of what he planned for later on. It was a large thing he had in mind to do. Once he got his money from that run of blockade he would go down to the Curtis place and call out sweet young Becky and tender her his heart. He might take as much as twenty-five dollars as his share of the eighty gallons--after the cost of the corn and the tribute Ree must set aside for Webb Darling, the king of that region, were deducted. He thought that if Becky favored him maybe she would go away with him right off, right the evening of this very day, so that before the sun came up again he might lie with her, as he'd dreamt every hour since coming into Clay County four years ago to stay. That was when he set eyes not on the gawky snot-nosed gal-child he'd ignored on his first trip up, but on a divine being ten years older than he remembered her, a woman now, all filled out bosomy and willowy, a heap of lustrous brown hair piled high, her flesh as fair as ivory.     Ves took a dipper and lifted out a little of the mash and tasted it. It was sour enough to make a pig squeal, as Ree had said it would be when it turned. Maybe had turned; maybe it was ready. But then again maybe it wasn't. Ves stood irresolute. But after a time he convinced himself the mash could go awhile longer. He arrived at this conclusion because he was afraid of starting the stilling only to somehow mess it up, although he couldn't admit that fear to himself. Hoping for the best, he replaced the lid of the mash barrel, then stood and checked the position of the sun, which was two hands' breadth above the eastern horizon. It was a brilliant sky that heralded the coming spring, blue as periwinkle, with just a scud of low clouds off to the northwest drawing patchy shadows after it across the face of the hills. Nervously Ves licked his lips; it was past time for Ree and Jared to come climbing back, and he was worried; but then he remembered that the mule drawing all that corn would slow them down. Returning to the shebang, he pulled up a fern and, squatting there, commenced plucking off its leaves one by one.     He'd first set eyes on Becky Curtis when he was six and she was eleven, when he came up with his pap to visit the Curtises; but at such a time of life a boy is apt to pay small heed to any female, no matter how fetching her grin or how bright her eyes of brownish gold, like the pebbles at the bottom of a clear pool lit by the sun. He'd spent all his time cavorting around the Curtis house with the Cartman boys, chasing calves to ride, snaring toads and garter snakes, trying to get the swinging bridge undulant enough to pitch somebody in the river. But in the time since, Ves's sap had risen and Becky had blossomed like the rose of Sharon, and even though she was twenty-one to Ves's fifteen when next he saw her, he wanted her so fiercely his heart throbbed like a sparrow's whenever he beheld her.     Normally Ves cherished few notions not applying entirely to himself, and it was true that when he conceived of Becky it was often to contemplate the joys of the flesh that might be his, were she to couple with him. Yet there was something more to what he felt than this. He could not name the thing or even guess its nature, but all the same he felt it, and he knew the innocent soul of Becky had inspired it. Because of it Ves sometimes pondered buying Becky a dress or singing her a song, not in the low hope that a dress or a tune might tempt her to give herself to him at last but simply for the pleasure of seeing her done up in fresh gingham or smiling at his melody.     Now at twenty-five Becky was the last of Judge Madison Curtis's girls left unmarried. Regrettably she was something of a spinster, not because of any ill looks or awkward ways or disagreeable traits but on account of having a brother, old Andy Curtis, who on occasion acted rude and strange--so strange that most fellows who might've offered themselves as beaux were shy of him. Andy had dashed the contents of a milk pitcher over one would-be swain--meaning no ill, he'd explained, but trying to drown a small person he'd seen squatting on the fellow's hat brim. Another he'd run off by raving poems at him. A third he'd pursued around the yard brandishing a blacksnake he swore was a coachwhip. One suitor he greeted at the front door wearing a wreath of laurel branches on his brow. But Ves had known Andy Curtis most of his life, and Andy's quirks were nothing new to him, Andy having always been peculiar. Ves doubted Andy would light into him, sane or no. Ves's obstacle was Tom Carter, damn his soul.     Having stripped the fern, Ves got up and stood musing. Then on impulse he left the shebang and took the weedy path up out of the ravine to where a big gnarly red oak stood leaning, dry patches of last year's leaves still clinging to it. This was the lookout. He shinnied barefoot up the shaggy trunk to the first crotch, which gave him a long broad view down the slope. Settling there, he squinted this way and that along the part of the mountainside where he knew the dim trail came zigzagging up underneath the laurel and galax. Sure enough he glimpsed a stir in the tops of the brush halfway down the pitch, maybe as much as a half-mile off. Although he thought it was Ree and Jared coming up at last--was in fact certain of it--still there was always a chance it was the Revenue instead. So he slid down from the oak and descended to the shebang and took up Rehoboam's Winchester. Opening the action partway, he looked in to confirm that a shell lay in the chamber. Then he sat on the edge of the ravine with the rifle across his knees and waited.     To himself he bitterly spoke that name again--Tom Carter. Tom came of a long line of Methodist preachers from over by the Pinelog, and by repute there were even Quakers in his background, too. With so much religion running in his veins how could Tom escape being tedious? He was a pious soul, one of those lofty ones who when a good thing happened would render conspicuous praise to God and when misfortune occurred would just as loudly thank Him for the wisdom and humility to be gained from a setback, the Divine Will being unknowable. Faith so showy and outspoken struck Ves as the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and turned his stomach with disgust. Yet Tom Carter's righteousness was much admired, and, furthermore, when his pap passed on, he would possess his own farm of a hundred acres of cropland and fifty of timber, and so Andy Curtis for all his strangeness looked on Tom with favor. And Tom fancied Becky Curtis as much as did Ves himself. Ves was shrewd enough to calculate that when the time came to choose a spouse for Becky, loony old Andy would cast her lot with Holy Tom before he would with Ves, who despite his upright pap and God-fearing people had earned a notorious name, in addition to being six years younger than the woman he craved.     So it was elopement or nothing. After elopement might come all the slippery delights of the flesh at last. Hence his plan. This was what Ves pondered as he impatiently waited for Ree and Jared and the mule to climb the trail--or, less likely, for the Revenue to spring out at him. He felt a need to ease his nerves. Presently, laying aside the Winchester, he fetched the tin flask from his clothes bundle, and uncorking the one demijohn of the run that they'd kept back, he poured the flask full. In the grip of his sudden thirst he took a single greedy swallow. It went down easy if a little oily, but then it stung him so his eyes teared up, and after that it set his belly afire. He felt scorched as if with sunburn, and tiny sparks danced before his eyes. He shuddered, and then he grinned. It was the bumblings sure enough; he supposed folks would call it White Mule, Forty-Rod or Bust-Head. it would positively send a body flying. * * *     Ree was a Melungeon, dark as any nigger or Ay-rab but with the pale eyes of his mysterious kind, who some surmised sprang from a lost tribe of Israel or maybe Portuguese sailors somehow cast away on the highlands. He had a wild mop of black hair that stuck out from under his hat in thick ringlets. He came up the trail leading the mule, and at the edge of the ravine he stopped and sniffed the air, and his face got even blacker, and his eyes snapped with temper. "Hit's ready," he declared, nodding toward the mash barrels. "Why ain't you a-cooking hit?"     Ves laid the Winchester down and shrugged and dug in the ground with his big toe; after his swig of corn he felt a little slow. "I was fixing to," he murmured. "Directly. Till I heard you-all a-coming."     Down the trail a ways, Jared Nutbush peered anxiously at Ves around the loaded sledge and the rump of the mule. In exasperation Ree glared, and the look on his face made Ves recall hearing how Ree had once killed a miller back in Hancock County, Tennessee, where he was from--shot him down with a Remington pistol for grinding Ree's grain too coarse and then sassing him. Ves knew Ree had gone partners with him against his better judgment. Anybody nineteen years old that hadn't yet made brush whiskey couldn't be much of a man, Ree had sneered. It was Jared, Ves's boyhood chum, who'd talked Ree into it--Jareds' people had been moonshining as long as anybody in the Hiwassee Valley could remember. But Ves had been timid and slow to learn and had made a number of blunders, and now he could see that Ree was tired of putting up with him. Ruefully it occurred to Ves that his scheme of making a stake blockading might be shorter of life than he'd counted on.     Ree threw up his hands. "Get that corn off," he growled at Ves. "And then load up the sledge with the slops. Take the slops down to your pa." He turned and crossed to the still, swearing and stripping off his coat. By the buried mash barrels he rounded on Ves again and snapped, "Feed the mule first."     For some reason Ree admired Ves's pap--maybe on account of their both serving in the same brigade of the old Army of Tennessee. Often Ree tried to do Oliver Price favors, most of which Oliver managed politely to decline, since Oliver, a temperance man all his life, didn't approve of blockading. Yet aside from this they were friendly in a distant sort of way, and now that Ves had earned Ree's displeasure he partly counted on Ree's liking for his pap to keep Ree from chasing him off. Ves needed that stake.     Ree didn't know that Oliver had spurned his last gift of slops. A few days back Ree had sent Ves down with a load, but Oliver had refused it, saying his mast-fed hogs made firmer lard than slop-fed ones and gave meat that was tastier and more delicate. Oliver was so trusting he didn't suspect Ves of blockading with Ree. Ves told his pap Ree had paid him fifty cents to make the delivery, after they'd met by chance in the woods; Oliver thought Ves was hiring out to a farmer over by Hickory Stand. Ves had dumped that whole load of slops in the Hiwassee rather than risking Ree's ire by telling him the truth. He guessed he'd do the same today, once he got far enough away from camp. Yet he knew that he could not long play that game, for it was only a matter of time before Ree and his pap spoke together and found him out. But Ves was used to slithering flee of such dilemmas; it was a skill he'd counted on his whole life, having been always more sly than wise.     Grudgingly Ree passed Ves his twenty-five dollars. Then while Ree and Jared commenced stilling Ves changed into his good suit and put on the patent-leather high-button shoes he'd made for himself to celebrate the great occasion he imagined was to come. * * *     Ves set off down the branch with the sledge load of slops. The nearer drew the moment when he would stand before Becky Curtis and make his proffer, the more uneasy he became, so now and then as he walked beside the sledge holding the reins of the mule he resorted to his flask and liberally sampled it. Around him the day soon grew agreeably mellow, and presently Ves felt himself equal to any conceivable challenge or emergency, up to and including winning the hand of his beloved Becky. A merry mood came over him, so that he spoke nonsense to the mule and then berated the beast in fun for failing to answer him in kind.     At the fork of the branch and the Tusquittee--a spot where the water ran quick enough to go frothing over the rocks--he checked the mule and, overturning the barrels one by one, dumped the slops into the current. Concealing the empty barrels in a nearby laurel slick, he mounted the sledge and, after taking another drink, rode the rest of the way down the Tusquittee, giving the mule its head. Knowing its way from habit, the mule plodded steadily on. Ves lay on his back on the bed of the sledge, his hands cupped behind his head and the reins loose over one arm, lazily watching the clouds change shape and slowly drift across the sky. Once he saw several turkey buzzards circling high up. Another time he heard the Shrill of a hawk but did not glimpse it. Bees hummed. He thought of Becky, of her brown-gold eyes. He drowsed; he dreamt; Becky took him tenderly by the hand--he felt her soft palm cupping his, as real as anything. Then he awoke and was sorry to find himself alone, after having had her so close and familiar. He sat up bemused, then after a moment fetched the flask, uncorked it and swallowed another dram. When he replaced the cork the flask was nearly empty.     It was not that he and Becky had an understanding. In fact Ves had never in his life spoken a private word to Becky on this enormous matter. Indeed he'd spoken precious little to her on any subject whatsoever. Nor had there ever been much chance. Never were they alone together--always her brother or her nephews or the mulatto Hamby McFee or Oliver Price or somebody had been about. It was possible this would've made no difference; in her presence his tongue always grew thick and stupid and his hands and feet felt three sizes too large. Mostly this was because Becky hexed him with her charms, but also it reflected a certain discomfort Ves had forever felt among the Curtises, a sense of being slightly out of place even while given ready welcome.     At all times Ves was aware he had the run of the Curtis farm only by sufferance, on account of deeds done long ago that caused his pap and Andy Curtis to hold one another equal. When all was said and done it had to be conceded that Curtises were quality and Prices weren't, and this was in nowise forgotten, not by any party on either side. A Price did not presume on a Curtis. So Ves had worshiped Becky in solitude and with the fewest of words and from afar. Yes, he was aware how great a gulf he must leap, the cobbler's son longing to possess the planter's daughter. Yet his ardor was such that he was sure she must've felt the sear of it the same as he. On occasion their looks had mildly met, he thought. Also he was certain she had smiled on him once, exclusively, two years ago in the fall, when he was helping Andy cut river cane. And they had talked, he and Becky. One time they talked about whether trolls lived under bridges, and another time they talked about the doctrine of infant baptism, and the third time they talked about her chestnut pony, Lauralee.     Riding along to the jolt of the sledge and pondering his thoughts, Ves from time to time caught sight of certain early wildflowers that captured his fancy, and soon the happy notion came to gather a nosegay to give to Becky. From a piece of woods he plucked some purple violets that were just now poking their heads out of the dead leaves. From a rocky bank he took some dwarf irises and a hank of trailing arbutus whose tiny white blossoms were newly opened. From a clearing in the forest he picked dandelion. Because of the whiskey he also chose some weeds and nettles and plumes of sedge without knowing it. All these collections he laid on the bed of the sledge next to him, a mass of many hues, if somewhat irregular looks.     Untended, the mule would've gone trudging on to Hayesville, but where Peckerwood Branch came into the Creek Ves got him turned aside toward the Curtis place. In doing so he felt a certain numbness in his fingers and toes, and his head commenced to swim. Also his vision had gone shimmery, and he suffered a mild headache. It didn't occur to him that it was the lightning working, for he'd drunk his flask all unintended. By an effort of will he went on, lightly slapping the hindquarters of the mule with the reins, affectionately cussing it. Leaving the Tusquittee, he steered among the sycamores along the bank of the Peckerwood, and then coming into open country, he passed under the Double Knobs by way of Downings Creek.     Along here lay the Shuford farm, old Pete and Liza's place, and it was Ves's poor luck that eighteen-year-old Katie Shuford was swinging on the gate as he drew near the lane. Ves was forced to admit that Katie looked as fetching today as a yearling colt, her black hair all a-fly and her green eyes dancing. Her smock of burlap hung loose and inviting, so when she leaned at him from the gate, which she did now, her could see her two teats dangling, each with its pink nipple like a Maytime dogwood bud. Had he not been on an errand of such gravity Ves would've dallied; in recent times he and Katie had gone mingling up many a holler and hayloft. But he was on a mission of love, and Katie was naught to him but an appeasement of the loins.     Katie shone with delight. "Why, Ves Price," she cried, having spied the bouquet by him on the sledge, "you've brung me flowers." Dropping off the gate, she advanced to grasp up what she thought to be her trophy of devotion.     But quickly Ves held up a hand. "No, I ain't. Fact is, this here's my token to another." The light died in Katie's face, and tears rose to make her eyes glimmer. "I'm sorry for it," Ves hastened to say. He hated it when a female wept; because of him many a one had done so, yet he'd never got used to the sight of it.     "Ves Price, I ought to snatch you bald-headed," Katie declared. Stooping, she picked up a stone out of the road and flung it at him. It struck his forehead with a noise so sharp his skull might've been a dry gourd hanging from a limb. It hurt like fury and made Ves see about a million stars. He spoke to the mule and started off, Katie following, cussing at him and pitching stone after stone. One hit him in the back; the others bounced off the sledge or the rear end of the mule. He left her in the bend of the road hollering. * * *     Near the place where the Curtises' lane cut off the wagon road Ves guided the mule on to the grassy edge of a meadow shaded by a stand of pine. Tethering the mule to a fence corner, he turned aside, not noticing that the knot he'd tied in his drunken state came loose almost at once, when the mule first pulled at it. Finally now Ves felt utterly calm in the face of the mighty thing that awaited. In what he conceived to be serene composure he patted the dust from his clothes and with his handkerchief wiped the dirt from his patent-leather shoes. Wetting his fingertips, he smoothed down his cowlicky hair. He opened his trousers and lavishly pissed. Then he took up the bouquet and started confidently forward. He was unconcerned when he found himself walking not in the lane at all but stumbling amid weeds in the ditch beside it; gravely he climbed out and stood picking beggar-lice off his pants, thinking of his mam, how she'd loved him; he hoped Becky's love would be akin to that--a devotion that never questioned nor repined.     Comforted by the memory of his mam Ves went on slowly down the lane--he seemed to be wading--to the turnaround at the end, in front of the big white frame house with its double gallery. A varnished black buggy with a leather hood was parked in the turnaround; the sorrel gelding hitched to it turned its head inquirinsly to look at Ves, showing its white blaze. The horse appeared familiar, but for the moment Ves couldn't place it. Why , he dully thought, they've got company . He hesitated, uncertain; it might not be fitting to come courting at such a time. He glanced about to observe who'd arrived, but all he saw were the gelding and the buggy in the turnaround and old Andy Curtis rocking on the lower gallery of the house, wearing a collarless shirt and carpet slippers, a big book open in his lap, and a long ways off in the cornfield Hamby McFee plying a hoe. Ves recovered his resolve and went unsteadily up the walkway between the boxwoods; he would approach old Andy and inquire after precious Becky.     Andy was reading out loud--to himself, to an imaginary audience, maybe to all outdoors. "Almost five thousand years agone," he intoned, "there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are: and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived there to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all year long."     At the foot of the steps Ves stood swaying, holding his flowers before him in both hands, but Andy never took any notice. He read solemnly on: "Therefore at this fair are all merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones ..."     Ves blinked in befuddlement as the river of words without meaning flowed over him. His headache was worse--it pounded in his temples like the beat of a drum--and now his stomach gave a heave of nausea. Big dollops of sweat suddenly drenched him. He opened his mouth to address Andy, but no speech came forth; he seemed to have lost the power of utterance, as if his tongue was bee-stung and swollen up. Andy, his little square-lensed spectacles pinching his nose. kept reading in a flat voice, making no sense at all as far as Ves could tell: "Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers ..." Ves reeled, felt faint. Then nearby he heard the sparkle of Becky's laugh.     She came around the corner of the barn arm in arm with Tom Carter. The sight of Becky in all her glory--she wore a white shirtwaist as pure as her soul, and her bounty of hair shone brightly in the sun, like so much spun copper--stunned him so that for an instant the odious presence of Tom Carter failed to register. He stared in admiration as Andy read on and on--"As in other fairs of less moment, there are the several rows and streets, under their proper names, where such and such wares are vended and several such vanities sold." Then, afire with love, Ves got his tongue to stir at last and spoke Becky's name and advanced between the boxwoods holding out the bouquet. The look of horror on Becky's face stopped him even before Tom Carter pushed between them and laid a hand on Ves's breast. Not till then did it come to Ves who Tom was, that the gelding belonged to Tom. He glared in scorn at Tom while Becky gaped.     Living with a brother who had been losing his mind for the better part of a year had accustomed Becky Curtis to many a peculiarm, if not repugnant, sight, but none was so unseemly as the one Ves Price now presented. Ves reached around Tom Carter to offer her his flowers, so drunk he could hardly stand. A great knot was on his brow, from which so much blood had poured that his face and suit coat were soaking with it. His trousers were smeared with mash slops and sodden with piss, and worst of all his fly was unbuttoned so that his thing hung out thick-necked from its hairy thicket, bent slightly to one side like a great blind worm. Nor had Becky ever smelt such a stink as Ves gave off. Covering her face, she turned away; Ves made as if to follow her, but Tom shoved him back, and Ves lost his balance and fell. He could hear Andy still reading on the gallery as he sought to rise. On his hands and knees he started gathering up the flowers he had dropped. Then he commenced to puke. * * *     Of course the mule Ves had so laxly tethered wandered off. Hamby McFee discovered it next day in the Hiwassee bottom, where the sledge had fetched up between an ash tree and a big boulder. Hamby recognized the mule and the sledge as belonging to Rehoboam Bolt and went to Ree's seeking to return them. But by then Ree and Jared Nutbush had been taken up by the Revenue, who, while watching the streams for evidence of moonshining, had observed the mash slops Ves dumped and eventually found the empty barrels hid in the laurel. Following the branch, they'd come on the still-house while Ree and Jared were charcoaling the latest run of blockade. Though Ves was the cause of their capture neither Ree nor Jared condemned him to the Revenue; such was blockaders' honor. They went away to the government penitentiary in faraway Auburn, New York, without any utterance whatsoever. In their absence Webb Darling the moonshiner king looked after their families.     Ves cleaned himself up in the creek the best he could, then made his way to the Shuford farm and hid in the corncrib till night, when he pitched pebbles at Katie's window, hoping to entice her out to give him comfort. It developed that Katie was in a forgiving mood; they sported away the hours till dawn.     This continued a great while afterward, a year or so, till Jared Nutbush, of all people, took up with Katie after coming home from the penitentiary. Copyright © 2000 Charles F. Price. All rights reserved.