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John Brown Lies a Mouldering

December 15th, 1859 “I think it was murder, plain and simple.” “What was murder? The hanging, Ma? Or what he done?” asked Mercury, stuffing some more pie in his mouth. Supper was early, as a summer storm had blown in. Rain fell heavily, punctuated by occasional lightening and thunder. “I am referring to the hanging. It’s not for us to judge another man and to revenge the dead by hanging. ‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ It’s presumptuous of men to usurp God’s authority. And don’t say ‘what he done,’ say ‘what he did’ instead, Mercury.” “Yes ma’am.” “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Mercury swallowed his bite of pie hastily. “Yes ma’am.” “Now Mary Sue, the man murdered nineteen innocent people. Are you saying a man like that shouldn’t be punished? Also men need to shift for themselves, I don’t recall seeing any divine intervention coming down recently and smiting evil doers. Men have to take on the burden of judging and punishing wrongdoers. We have to protect them that can’t protect themselves.” “I’ll second that,” said Grandpa Curry between mouthfuls. “I’m not talking to you, old man.” Mary Sue glared at Grandpa Curry. He looked back at her, and refilled his plate. Irritated, she turned to her husband and glared at him. “And how did hanging John Brown protect the innocent, Hermes? Remember what John Brown and his sons went through here in Kansas, being attacked by all those pro-slavery folk, and for no reason at all. There is a great deal of sympathy for him and for his intentions, misguided as he was into unnatural acts of violence. This will lead to no good.” “I suppose you have a point there, Mary Sue,” Hermes conceded. “Things don’t seem to be calming down at all, and tempers are getting short. The hangings do seem to have stirred up a hornet’s nest. There’s talk of war, and that’s no good for us farmers.”

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“Oh Pa, will there be soldiers and fighting? That would be horribly exciting, I mean horrible,” Mary corrected herself. “Excuse me, Mrs. Curry, ma’am. Can I leave the table? I’m done eating.” It was humid, and he was uncomfortable at the table. He wanted to rest his head. “May you leave the table, Hannibal, dear. And yes you may.” The boy, who was visiting his distant relatives for the day, primarily to escape from home, left his seat. He sat on the floor in ‘listening range’ of this interesting conversation. There had been a lot of talk about a place called Harper’s Ferry, and this John Brown man, and murders, and hangings, and freeing the slaves for the past couple of months. “I have to say Mary; it’s only talk I have heard. Talk don’t injure folk. People will probably come to their senses, and there will be no war at all,” Hermes said as he tried to calm his daughter. Mary pouted and sat back in her seat, clearly disappointed. Sue laughed at her sister. Jed munched happily while swinging his feet under the table. The conversation resumed, and Hermes and Mary Sue Curry discussed the situation in more detail. Heyes began to drift off to sleep, but was awakened by a sudden rap on the door. Mercury ran to the door and opened it. Visitors were always welcome because they turned up so rarely. Mercury was rewarded for his alacrity with the wonderful vision of a soldier in full uniform holding a bayoneted rifle. The soldier strode in without being asked. He stood in a position of attention, his cloak dripping water, and addressed the adults. His voice was deep and grim. “I am sorry to interrupt your meal, sir, ma’am. My men and I are in pursuit of an escaped criminal. Have any strangers come by here?” The family gasped, and Heyes sat up. He was awake now. “No, sir, we’ve had no strangers here today,” answered Hermes. “Have you children seen anyone, or you Grandpa?” The family shook their heads no. “If you folks do see someone, report it to me,” and he turned to leave. “But who should we be looking for?” asked Mary Sue nervously.

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“John Brown, ma’am.” “But surely, the man is dead. He was hanged,” she quavered, “wasn’t he?” “No, ma’am. The government didn’t want to alarm folks, so let out to the papers he’d been hanged. In reality, his dastardly followers attacked the guard in overwhelming numbers, and after a struggle in which we lost many of are own brave men, but not without making them feel the pain of death themselves, they secured his freedom. Most of his accomplices have been captured, but the wily devil has eluded us so far. We’ll catch him yet, but be on your guard.” The officer left, and his men followed.

Rain pelted down. Storm clouds obscured the sky, and hid the moon, turning the afternoon into night. Hannibal sat on the floor with his knees drawn up, arms wrapped around them. He knew he had to remain awake but the humidity was oppressive. He rested his chin on his knees, and tried to keep his drooping lids open. All the Currys with the exception of Grandpa sat at the table in silence. The room was still but for the rocking of the chair. Occasionally a chair scraped the floor as the body seated in it shifted. An hour passed this way. Mercury drummed the table with his fingers only to be shushed by the weight of his father’s hand on his. “I hear a noise outside.” Hermes voice sounded jagged against the quiet. “Are you certain?” Mary Sue mouthed. Hermes stood and motioned for Mercury to join him. He took his hunting rifle down from the wall, and checked it carefully. He then took down the rifle he had recently purchased for Mercury and checked it as well. He loaded the rifles, and handed Mercury his. Father and son went out the front door. Grandpa Curry rocked back and forth.

“Ma, why haven’t they returned?” Mary wimpered after a half an hour had passed. Sue was clutching her corn husk doll, stroking it for comfort.

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The children all turned to Mary Sue. What could she say? She didn’t know how long it had been since her husband and son left but it felt like hours. She was helpless. Hannibal turned from her to Grandfather Curry. The old man’s chair was empty. It still rocked back and forth. Mary Sue rose and picked up an axe. She went out into the rain, leaving the door unlatched, and her young children behind. Noise that sounded like scuffling came from the direction of the chicken coop. A shrieking sound was followed by squawks from the birds. The children eyed each other nervously. The rocking chair creaked, and rocked back and forth. The corn husk doll lay on it, and slid backwards and forwards. Sue was gone. Wind blew rain in through an open window. Mary turned robotically, and rigidly walked to the window. She closed it. The door slowly opened and the children jumped. Hannibal felt his throat constrict and swallowed. He and the others stared at the widening gap between door and wall. He wanted to close the door but was too terrified of what might be beyond it. Rainwater streamed in through the doorway, and formed a muddy puddle on the floor as the children watched. Something came in through the door and Mary screeched. It was a headless chicken. It rotated in small wobbly circles, dripping blood, until it finally fell. The small body jerked for a few moments before it stilled. Mary was white. She wasn’t going to touch the dead bird. Hannibal felt his heart race, but was frozen too. Hannibal steeled himself and inched forward. He was barefoot, and felt the tamped dirt floor beneath his damp feet. Sweat trickled down his face; his hair was wet on his forehead and beside his ears. By the time he reached the bird, he was having difficulty breathing. He looked down at it. He could see every detail of the lifeless body. Every feather was magnified, and he could make out every bump on the birds legs. He bent over and stretched out his arm. His hand shook. He stopped. Then he darted quickly, grabbed the chicken, threw it out the doorway, and slammed his body against the door. He latched it and spun around. He stared at Mary. The rocking chair was gently moving. The doll was gone. “Where’s Jed?”

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“What?” The girl gasped and turned. “He was here. He was beside me. I don’t know. I…he must have gone up into the loft.” They raised their heads. Hannibal opened his mouth to call for his cousin. “No,” moaned Mary, “don’t call for him. They’ll hear you.” She raised her hand and limply pointed outside. Hannibal walked back to her until he was close enough to feel her breath and hear her panting from fear. “I’ll go up and get him.” “No, don’t leave me alone. I’ll die if you leave me.” Something hit the window; Hannibal yelped and Mary shrieked. A grey brown mass of fur and teeth threw itself against the glass. The beast kept hitting the window, pounding and then it scratched it trying to dig an opening. “It’s a wolf!” Mary cried. “It must have smelled the chicken’s blood.” The wolf hit the window again. It pressed its snout on the pane. Then it opened its mouth and the two children could see its pointed teeth gnashing. It kept scratching at the window. “”Why does it want in?” The girl raised her arms to her head. “Make it go away Hannibal.” “It must have eaten the bird. It must think there’s more inside. It can smell the blood.” “Do something,” Mary said. The scratching stopped. The boy and girl looked at each other in relief. “I think,” Hannibal began. A crash was heard on the opposite window. The wolf hadn’t given up. Not being able to enter through the one window it had run around the house until it found another. It threw itself relentlessly against the window. What could the children do without a rifle? Hannibal and Mary sank to the floor in despair. The scratching and pounding wouldn’t cease, and the rain pelted down pinging on the roof. Mary began to cry.

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Then the scratching stopped as suddenly as it had first begun. The wolf howled in pain, over and over again. Its cries turned into yelps that became whimpers that became less frequent, and finally ended. It was quiet except for the rain, and Mary’s crying. The door opened with such force it broke the latch. A bearded man entered. He held an axe in his hand. It was covered in blood. Hannibal stood. He was dizzy. He looked at the axe. “Aunt had that axe. How did you get it?” “Found it outside boy. Killed the wolf with it. Lucky for you, I would think.” The man smiled mirthlessly revealing long stained teeth. He had a wild, evil appearance. His hair was long and matted as was his beard. His clothing was covered in mud, and he smelled stale. He walked towards the children. Hannibal backed up putting his arm in front of Mary protectively and bringing her back with him. The man neared the boy. He tilted his head, and pulled the collar of his shirt down. Hannibal saw the man’s neck and was horrified. It had a ring of rope burn around it. “John Brown. You’re John Brown.” The man walked two paces closer. Hannibal clutched at Mary’s wrist, but it was gone. He turned distractedly. She was gone. That was impossible. The chair was rocking. He could hear it. He heard a low growling chuckle. He turned back. John Brown was in the rocking chair, grinning and stroking the axe that lay across his knees. John Brown rose. He walked forward. Hannibal backed up until he was against the wall. Brown suddenly reached out. Hannibal ducked, and barely escaped the man; so close he could feel his fingertips. He ran to the ladder, and started to climb upwards grasping the rungs. He put his left hand on the third rung and felt wet beneath it. He raised his hand. There was blood on his palm. He put his hand back on the rung and raised his right hand to grasp the next rung. There was blood covering the next rung, and dripping down. He forced himself to wrap his hand around slippery wood, and continue upwards. He neared the top. On the last rung he saw the chicken’s head. He gasped in shock. Its glazed eyes followed the boy’s movements. Its mouth opened but no sound emerged. In disgust Hannibal flung it off the ladder. He dragged himself into the loft.

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He lay on the wood, panting. After some moments he pulled himself up. The loft was quiet. He didn’t see Jed. The children’s beds were empty. The only other article of furniture was the large chest in the far corner. Hannibal stood and noiselessly walked towards it. Jed must be hiding behind it. He reached the chest, and put his hands on it to hold his body stable. “Jed,” he whispered. “Jed,” he repeated, “it’s me, Hannibal.” He leaned against the rounded lid of the chest, and stretched himself over the top so he could see behind it. John Brown’s severed head cackled at him wildly. Jed was nowhere in sight. Hannibal fell off the chest in terror. The laughter increased in volume and insanity. It followed the boy as he backed away. It became so loud that the boy covered his ears to block it out. Thick, muscular, hair-covered arms grabbed him from behind and wrapped around him. He kicked his legs and beat on the arms with his fists. The laughter came from behind him now, from the man holding him. “I’ve got you now, boy.” One arm moved up and was wrapped in a stranglehold around Hannibal’s neck. His windpipe was crushed and he struggled to breathe. Hannibal bit the man’s wrist as hard as he could. The man shrieked in pain and dropped the boy. Hannibal tumbled against the man, and unbalanced him. They wove in an ungainly dance, and then fell backwards off the edge of the loft. Hannibal dropped into a void.

“Real nice story O’Gursey,” said the Kid in a sarcastic tone. “It went real well with lunch. Especially the part with the headless chicken. Oughta be real good for my digestion.” “Thank you,” said the little man, choosing to take the outlaw at face value. “It was one of my better ones, I’ll be thinking,” he continued swelling with pride.

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“Well,” said Heyes standing, “seeing as the Kid’s disappeared and I’m falling in a void, I don’t suppose you’d mind sending us back to our hotel room now.” “Now, now, now. Don’t ye be in any hurry. If I stop with that tale, where would ye both be? No, that wouldn’t do at all. And at any rate it was just a wee bit of fancy. I’ll be returning to your true history now that lunch is over. Would ye fancy a bit of tea and dessert?”

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