Monday, May 18, 2009
Chapter 26 - A Snake for A Bed Companion
Seven days, and I knew that he knew I was here.
He didn't seem spooked by it, but it was clear he felt my presence. After the first day the following got easier. I stayed behind him because I learned quickly that his route was often erratic, and I needed to follow. I learned that the quickest path between two points was not necessarily his preference. He had all the time in the world, and efficiency of travel was not his greatest worry. Food was.
His meals are the factor that appered to influence his route more than anything else. The third day I followed the Leatherman, he walked seven miles down a road that dead-ended in a farm, only to walk the seven mile back out when he had finished his meal. That night he stayed in the same rock shelter he stayed in the night before, since his fourteen-mile journey had lasted a full day. His evening meal he begged at a railroad shack.
And I use “beg” in the loosest form for which the word can be used. He did not need to ask. He only needed to show up, and when he did, he was greeted by smiles and calls of welcome that he simply would not respond to. Yet the friendliness of his hosts never flagged.
One woman who seemed to greet him with the kind of cold resignation she might reserve for a husband she did not love, proceeded to set him a table, with tablecloth, china and crystal, on her front lawn, after which she served him a full seven-course meal, and retired to her house only to play piano tunes through an open doorway for the old tramp until he had finished his meal.
He never seemed to finish all that was set before him, and he regularly carried food away with him, sometimes to finish while walking, and sometimes to eat for breakfast.
He walked slowly, but seemed to make about ten to fifteen miles a day. I had no accurate way to measure the distance, because his lines were never straight, and his roads, not main ones. But he was regular.
He slept, almost exclusively in rock shelters. Not caves exactly. Not caverns, but rooms built when boulder, or slabs of rock tilted into one another. There were plenty of these huge rocks, strewn about as if by some playful God. I asked McDonough for an explanation of their appearance once during our travels, and he offered me no explanation but a shrug of his hat, and a story about some Greek who was punished by the gods and made to roll a boulder for eternity.
When he rose, the Old Leatherman gathered wood for a fire, but did not build one. Instead he built the framework for one, and left it, presumably for his next visit. He dipped the tin can he used to brew coffee, or tea, or whatever it was he brewed, hanging upside down on a branch stuck into the ground. He did his housekeeping before he left for the road.
Once he started walking he rarely stopped until he reached his destination. That is, unless he spied the stub of a cigar, or the butt end of a cigarette lying anywhere near his path. These he relished, and plucked from the ground and stored in a small pouch he carried.
At his shelters in the evening, as the fire died away, he would dissembled these bits of tobacco and fill a homemade pipe, and smoke what he had found that day.
When he approached the house or store, or tavern where he would receive his next meal, he might knock on the door with the stick he carried, a seven foot rod of some hard wood topped with a natural globe. Then when the door was answered, the Leatherman would point to his mouth. It always worked. He would be eating within minutes.
On the eighth day following him we were headed straight for New Haven. The Leatherman spent the night in a shelter in the hills of Guiford. We had been walking the coast for four days.
I was relieved to be headed for a large town where I could stock up on supplies. I guessed that he avoided most cities of any consequence – New Haven, Bridgeport, Port Chester.
He sought his meals at the farmhouses and the outlying communities. And since he didn't require hardware or haberdashery, he felt no need to make it to the main throughfarses.
I was sure he couldn't detour around New Haven. It was a port city larger than Middletown. Rival to Hartford. And even if he passed through the less populated neighborhoods, he would finally have to pass by some sort of General Store where I could pick up some dried beef or fish. Truth be told, I expected to be able to buy fresh food each day, and I had already run through my store of dried biscuits and beef.
Now I was sure I would get some food.
But I was wrong to expect the Leatherman to follow the water route into New Haven. Though he stuck close to the Connecticut all the way to its mouth, and hung to the railway that followed the Long Island Sound coastline west, suddenly he pitched north when we reached East Haven.
And as I watched him from the distance finishing a huge meal provided by a large woman wrapped in a gingham apron large enough that I could have used for a tent, I realized that unless I found another approach, I would starve before I ever was able to speak a word to old man Leather.
That night I dreamed of a feast of turkey, ham and pork roast. Mounds of bread and mountains of sweet potatoes and turnips. I woke that morning with an inspiration. If the Leatherman could beg food, I could certainly buy it from these farmers. My money was as silent as he, but much more persuasive.
I followed him into the hills around Hamden the next morning, hungry and tired. Sleeping on the ground was not agreeing with me. Once we crossed the hills and descended to the valley that stretched out to the west, the road was straight, and wide, and ran between fields of corn and beans.
Toward noon we approached two farms, one nearly opposite the other. I determined that this was my opportunity to approach one of the farmhouses for food while the Leatherman ate at the other.
This time, my assumption proved true. At the gate to the farm on the right of the road, the Letherman turned down a path that led to a large white farm house. Already the farm children gathered around a porch table that was set with steaming bowls.
Satisfied that I would have at least an hour in which to gain my own victuals, I walked down the road for another few minutes and came to the path which led to the door of the other farm house. It was a white house, much the twin to the one that I just passed. Here there was no activity. In fact the house seemed quite empty.
I climbed the stairs to the front porch and knocked.
"Hello," I called. No reply followed. I tried the back door with the same results. I scanned the fields behind the house, blue with bean plants filled with undersized fruit.
A large unpainted barn was set back a good distance from the house, and before giving up completely I decided to try my luck there. I pulled back the large sliding door and entered, closing the door behind me.
"Hello," I tried again. Again no voice responded but I heard a rustling deeper in the barn in one of the stalls.
As I turned to retrace my steps out of the barn I saw a figure silhouetted in the doorway.
"Hello," I said for what seemed to be the fifteenth time in as many minutes.
"Don't move," the figure said, in what was a scratchy female voice.
Only then did I realize that the figure had a rifle trained on me.
"Wait," I called. "I was just looking for somebody. I want to buy some food."
"And if no one was around you would've took it right on the hoof, now wouldn't you?" she asked.
"You've got me wrong. I'm a writer for a New York newspaper. I'm doing a story on the old Leatherman," I pleaded.
"Never met a newspaper writer, but I guess you could be just as big a crook as the next man. And I guess if I hadn't just seen old man Leather with my own eyes, I might have thought you was lying," she dropped the gun.
I began to walk toward her and she raised the gun again. I stopped.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"What's the name of your newspaper?"
For a moment I was stymied as I tried to remember the name I used when I lied to the boy in Middletown. Inconsistency was the downfall of every liar. But my memory failed me and I knew I hadn't lied yet in Hamden. I reminded myself to remember my lies if and when I was asked again.
"The Penny Press," I tried. I knew it was wrong as soon as I said it.
"Well, I don't read much so why don't you just walk out of this barn slow with me so I can see you, and see if you're packing any pencil and paper on that mule of yours."
This was going to be a problem, for altough I made some cryptic notes on a map, and traced an approximate route for my leatherclad friend, these would serve in no court as notes for a story on the tramp.
She expertly began to untie my packs from Abe, resting her rifle, still leveled at me, on the haunches of the old mule. She undid each pack, weaving her long thin arm through each of the packs in turn. I was experiencing a strange thrill thinking that her bronzed arm, covered with a soft blonde down, was coursing through my undergarments.
Finally she found my pencil, and map, and a package of personal material.
"Okay," she said finally lowering the rifle. "So you're a writer. What harm you want to bring to that poor old soul."
"No harm," I said. Sidling my way over to her to see just what had been the key to my survival.
She held a packet of letters from Lizzy and was looking at them closely trying to decipher their close feminine script.
"What you writing about him. That he's a killer. That he grabs small children," she was shaking the package of letters at me angrily.
"I'm just trying to see where he goes. What he does," I explained.
"What business of anybody's is it?" she protested. "So he walks around New Haven and begs a sandwich now and again. Live and let live."
She was exhibiting a sense of ownership for the old tramp that I was to discover was not unusual for those people who spared him a monthly meal. There was first of all the common misconception that his wanderings rarely took him further than the hills at any town's city limits. And more than once I would hear someone refer to him as "my Leatherman" or "our Leatherman." No one wanted him, and everyone did.
Intentional or no, this old beggar had worked out a way to get a regular meal, win the affection of the common people, and somehow maintain his own personal mystery.
I explained to her that I believed he wandered much further from New Haven than she could imagine. I told her how I myself had followed him from Middletown. And I told her that I had once I had seen him by the Hudson in New York state.
"I don't believe you," she said. "Lot's of people see him round here all the time."
"Fact is, ma'am. If you check, you'll probably find out that they see him, surely, but they see him on the same day each month. That's when he passes here, isn't it."
"'Bout one a month," she agreed.
"By tonight he'll be five miles away," I assured her.
"You too?" she asked.
"Famished. Old man leather eats better than I do.”
"That's right," she agreed. "He's feed-baggin now down the Patten's house. He'll sit for about an hour. I've got time to fix you a lunch."
"I appreciate it, surely, Miss...?"
"Dailey. I'm sorry. Nancy Dailey. You can call me Nancy. Most everyone else does."
"Nancy. I can pay. My paper pays my expenses."
"What's a piece of cheese, and a slab of ham cost?"
"Why in the city, in Manhattan, it's a nickel if it's nothing," I elaborated on my lie.
"Go on. What fool'd pay a nickel for a sandwich when he could make one himself."
"Why in the city, it's considered a pleasure to go to a restaurant and have someone else make the food and serve it to you. Of course they charge you money to do it," I explained.
"Sounds like an awful waste to me, neighbor."
She served up several slices of thick ham, marbled and trimmed with fat as white and smooth as satin. She cut a wedge from a homemade cheddar, and sliced four apples into quarters. With this she delivered a whole loaf of dark brown bread with a thick crust, and a pitcher of cool water.
I ate without speaking. And when I finished, I offered to pay again.
"This ain't no restaurant," she laughed. "No need to pay here. Want some dessert?"
She brought a huge rice pudding from the pantry, and though the sides were crusted as if it had been a part of a meal the night before, the center was soft and moist and delicious.
"You live here by yourself?" I asked.
"Used to be me and my husband, but he went off West to find us a homestead and never came back. I got a daughter. She’s down the road at the Patten's watching the Leatherman eat. They like to leave pennies for him on the fence post. They say if he takes yours, you'll have good luck for a month."
I guessed that she could not be more than thirty years old, but I reckoned now that she might be much younger, and that the years working the field, and the sun had put an age into her that wasn't her own.
"Ever been kissed?" she asked abruptly.
"Yes, why, yes. Of course, " I assured her.
"Don't look like you had. Ever been with a woman?" she asked with a keener directness.
I confessed that I had, with some reluctance, for I suddenly realized where she was leading.
"I watch my cow and bull, and I get lonely. Sorry if I’m plain spoken, but I learned early on if you don’t say what you mean, you don’t get what you want. Don't think the worse for me Jack, but once a woman's been married, the strong box is opened. When I was a kid, I didn't know what I was missing. Now I do. Would you come to my bedroom?"
She was a handsome woman, beneath the man's hat and the work clothes. I could not see her form, but she was not padded, merely muscular. Her face had a plain beauty that I hadn't noticed before beneath the smudges of dirt and the knots and tendrils of sweaty hair that hung on her neck and forehead.
I found myself attracted to Nancy Dailey, and my poker was reacting.
"I know I'm direct, but if you're off following old man Leather, I got no recourse but to be direct," she apologized. "So will you take me to bed."
"Yes," I said, surprising myself.
She disappeared into the bedroom where, over the nextt en minutes I heard the splashing of water, and the wail of drawers being pulled and pushed, and when she came to the doorway, she was a different woman. She wore a thin white shift that revealed a modest bosom, and generous spread of hip. Her hair had been pulled back into a pony tail that seemed to pull the skin on her face over high cheekbones. When she smiled, I noticed for the first time that her eyes were blue.
"The bed is ready, there's a basin in the yard," she instructed. And I went to make myself clean.
When I returned I found her already beneath the sheets of an overstuffed featherbed. As rugged and functional as her kitchen was, this bedroom was soft. And the woman who waited here, bare pink shoulders peeking like a bookmark from beneath the sheets bore no resemblance to the woman who stood and aimed a rifle at me minutes before.
I disrobed quickly to join her beneath the sheets.
No sooner was I with her then I found our mouths joined and our tongues entwined. She was consuming me like a starving woman. I put my lips to her breasts and after a deep breath she began to talk.
"I haven't had a man since my husband left. He was meaner than a cat with a broken tail. He didn't know how to treat a woman."
Now she rolled me over and climbed on top of me. She nibbled at my earlobes and shoulders, ran a tongue down my sternum and teased my navel. Suddenly she had my poker in her mouth and my body went rigid with the sensation.
"Relax, Jack. This will take but a minute."
And a short minute it seemed as fuse after fuse was ignited and burnt from my loins to my brain. I felt myself finishing when the sensation stopped and I was face to face with her again.
"I'm as sweet a dessert as you'll get," she said, pulling my breath from me with another deep kiss, and then she slid into a sitting position with her skutch in my face.
"Taste and see," she said.
And I did. And she was. And just when I felt her moving to a rhythm my own tongue was clicking out she moved again, and I was on top of her, and in her, and we were rolling to the same rhythm until, in a chorus of grunts, shrieks and moans, we lost ourselves in each other at the same time.
When we were done she was out of bed before I could hold her tight against me again.
"Got work to do," she said slipping out of her shift, and into the work clothes that I had first seen her in. "If you don't get out of that bed, you'll lose track of old man Leather."
She pointed out the window that faced the road. Through the billowing curtains I saw the shuffling figure of the Leatherman headed back up the road that he had so recently come down.
She was in the kitchen a piece of the ham in her hand when I came into the room shirtless and bootless.
"I'd like to get to know you better," I said as pulled my shirt on.
"You already know me better than my husband did," she smiled.
"I'm sorry, you know what I mean. I'd like to see you at some other time," I said awkwardly.
"Follow old man Leather and you'll see me in a month," she said.
What I really wanted to say was that I wanted to see her again and again. That I didn't want her to see anyone in my absence. That I thought we could learn to love one another. But I couldn't say that because I couldn't find the words.
My boots were on and I stumbled to the door.
"I'll be back," I said. "Don't forget me."
She walked toward me with the same smile on her face. She stopped inches from me, put a sack in my hand, that I later found was filled with cheese and cured meat, then she leaned over and kissed me again in a way that made me feel as if I was filling the entire room. That I was growing so large that I would never be able to leave.
"I won't forget you, Jack," she purred. "Long as you don't forget me."
I left her standing on her porch waving. She didn't wave long. Just long enough to make for a functional good-bye. When I turned to look again, she was gone.
I followed the Leatherman about five miles south, mostly along a populated road where, as luck would have it, I was more than able to pick up supplies. I bought a sack of onions, a sack of potatoes, some bread and bacon, and oats for Abe. The road was so straight, I was able to buy all of this and load it on my mule before the Leatherman got out of sight.
That night he ate at a farm beneath Mount Carmel then headed for the hills as usual. The road up was steep but negotiable all the way to the summit with Abe.
Each night I was attempting to camp a bit closer to the old man without spooking him. I still wanted to make my approach to him as cautious as possible, because he was as skittish as a cockroach.
I bedded down on a patch of moss that made a natural mattress between two flat oval boulders that leaned against each other. I saw the Leatherman step down into another of his rock shelters, his head bobbing as he took the rough steps down, and was asleep.
The Leatherman stood above me in bright light. It felt like a dream to have this creature, who I had been observing so closely, yet from a distance, suddenly hovering over me. He had one leg on each side of me, snug against each arm. They were secure, and couldn't have been moved if I wanted to move them. I had to rub some of the sleep from my eyes.
He stared down at me with a frightening countenance. I tried a smile.
He didn't move a muscle.
I smiled again, and suddenly he flew into action. He reached down quickly, I closed my eyes and turned my head waiting for a blow to my face. When none came I opened them again, and saw that the Leatherman had drawn a snake, thick ugly and brown, from the crook where my head lay against my pack. He had the beast by the tail and with a single swing he dashed its brains against a nearby tree. I was frozen with fear.
I couldn't move. That snake was inches from my head when I was asleep. What if there were more. I looked at the Leatherman's face pleadingly. He looked back at me completely absent of expression, then lifted his leg over me and walked away.
Then I heard the Leatherman readying to leave, and I knew that if I delayed too long I would miss him. All at once I had the feeling that he had been waiting for me this morning, that he wanted me to follow him, that he wanted me as companion on the trail. But despite his desires, he was ready to go now, and I wasn't.
I hopped up quickly, moving rapidly from beneath my blankets to be sure that there were no snakes in residence. When I made my rapid survey I knocked my boot against the same tree that the Leatherman had used to knock the snake senseless, and put them on. I bundled my belongings together quickly, but not without taking a moment to examine the lifeless copperhead that lay like a broken rope next to the cold cinder of my fire. At his thickest he was about four inches around. A bite from him in the right location might have caused me great discomfort, and at least weeks of sickness. At worst I would never wake.
By the time I had Abe packed, the Leatherman was out of sight, but the road was straight for a quarter of a mile at the bottom of the mountain, and I found him moving South toward the Sound once again.