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Trill Coster's Burden


After Evadare caught up with me on that high mountain, her poor feet were worn so sore that we stayed there all next day. I snared a rabbit for dinner and dried its sinews by the fire and sewed up her torn shoes with them. Our love talk to one another would have sounded stupid to air other soul on earth. Next morning we ate our last smoked meat and corn pone, and Evadare allowed, "I can walk with a staff, John." So I bundled our two packs behind my back and slung my guitar on top. Off southwest, we reckoned, was another state line. Across that, folks could marry without a long wait or a visit to the county seat.

For hours we made it slantways down the mountain side and then across rocks in a river. We climbed a ridge beyond, midway towards evening, and saw a narrower stream below. There was a wagon track across and cabins here and yonder and, on the stream's far side, a white-steepled church and folks there, little as ants.

"We'll head there," I said, and she smiled up from under the bright toss of her hair. Down we came Evadare a-limping with her staff. At the stream I picked her up like a flower and waded over. Not one look did the folks at the church give us, so hard they harked at what a skinny little man tried to say.

"Here's sixty dollars in money bills," he hollered, "for who'll take her sins and set her soul free."

I set Evadare down. We saw a dark-painted pine coffin among those dozen ladies and men. Shadow looked to lie on and around the coffin, more shadow than it could cast by itself. The man who talked looked pitiful, and his hair was gravel-gray.

"Who'll do it?" he begged to them. "I'll pay seventy-five. No, a hundred—my last cent." He dug money from his jeans pocket. "Here's a hundred. Somebody do it for Trill and I'll pray your name in my prayers forevermore."

He looked at a squatty man in a brown umbrella hat. "Bart, if—"

"Not for a thousand dollars, Jake," said the squatty man. "Not for a million."

The man called Jake spoke to a well-grown young woman with brown hair down on her bare shoulders. "Nollie," he said, "I'd take Trill's sins on myself if I could, but I can't. I stayed by her, a-knowing what she was."

"You should ought to have thought of that when you had the chance, Jake," she said, and turned her straight back.

In the open coffin lay a woman wrapped in a quilt. Her hair was smoky-red. Her shut-eyed face had a proud beauty look, straight-nosed and full-lipped. The man called Jake held out the money to us.

"A hundred dollars," he whined. "Promise to take her sins, keep her from being damned to everlasting."

I knew what it was then, I'd seen it once before. Sin-eating. Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or a paid person agrees the sin will be his, not the dead one's. It's still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.

"I'll take her sins on me, John," said Evadare to me.

Silence then, so you might could hear a leaf drop. Jake started in to cry. "Oh, ma'am," he said, "tell me your name so's I can bless it to all the angels."

Somebody laughed a short laugh, but when I turned round, nair face had nair laugh on it.

"I'm called Evadare, and this is John with me."

"Take it." Jake pushed the money at her.

"I wouldn't do such a thing for money," Evadare said. "Only to give comfort by it, if I can."

Jake blinked his wet eyes at her. The squatty man shut the coffin lid. "All right, folks," he said, and he and three others took hold and lifted. The whole bunch headed in past the church, to where I could see the stones of a burying ground. Round us the air turned dull, like as if a cloud had come up in the bright evening sky.

Jake hung back a moment. "Better you don't come in," he mumbled, and followed the others.

"I do hope I did right," said Evadare, to herself and me both.

"You always do right," I replied her.

We walked to where some trees bunched on the far side of the wagon road. I dropped our bundles under a sycamore. We could see the folks a-digging amongst the graves. I got sticks and made us a fire. Evadare sat on a root. Chill had come into the air, along with that dimness. We talked, love talk but not purely cheerful talk. The sunset looked bloody-red in the west.

The folks finished the burying and headed off this way and that. I'd hope to speak to somebody, maybe see if Evadare could stay the night in a house. But they made wide turns not to come near us. I looked in my soogin sack to see if we had aught left to eat. But nair crumb.

"There's still some coffee in my bundle," said Evadare. "That'll taste good." I took the pot to the stream and scooped up water. Somebody made a laughing noise and I looked up.

"I didn't get your name," said the bare-shouldered woman, a-smiling her mouth at me.

"John," I said. "I heard you called Miss Nollie."

"Nollie Willoughby."

Her eyes combed me up and down in that last light of day. They were brown eyes, with hard, pale lights behind them.

"Long and tall, ain't you, John?" she said. "You nair took Trill Coster's sins—only that little snip you're with did that. If you've got the sense you look to have, you'll leave her and them both, right now."

"I've got the sense not to leave her," I said.

"Come with me," she bade me, a-smiling wider.

"No, ma'am, I thank you."

I walked off from her. As I came near the trees, I heard Evadare say something, then a man's voice. Quick I moved the coffeepot to my left hand and fisted up my right and hurried there to see what was what.

The fire burned with blue in its red. It showed me the Jake fellow, a-talking to Evadare where she sat on the root. He had a bucket of something in one hand and some tin dishes in the other.

"John," he said as I came up, "I reckoned I'd fetch youins some supper."

"We do thank you," I replied him, a-meaning it. "Coffee will be ready directly. Sit down with us and have a cup," and I set the pot on a stone amongst the fire and Evadare poured in the most part of our coffee.

Jake dropped down like somebody weary of this world. "I won't stay long," he said. "I'd only fetch more sins on you." He looked at Evadare. "On her, who's got such a sight of them to pray out the way it is."

Evadare took the bucket. It was hot squirrel stew and made two big bowls full. We were glad for it, I tell you, and for the coffee when it boiled. Jake's cup trembled in his hand. He told us about Trill Coster, the woman he still loved in her grave, and it wasn't what you'd call a nice tale to hear.

She'd been as beautiful as a she-lion, and she'd used her beauty like a she-lion, a-gobbling men. She could make men swear away their families and lives and hopes of heaven. For her they'd thieve or even kill, and go to jail for it. And not a damn she'd given for what was good. She'd dared lightning to strike her; she'd danced round the church and called down a curse on it. Finally all folks turned from her—all but Jake, who loved her though she'd treated him like a dog. And when she'd died on a night of storm, they said bats flew round her bed.

Jake had stayed true to her who was so false. And that's how come him to want to get somebody to take her sins.

"For her sins run wild round this place, like foxes round a hen roost," he said. "I can hear them."

I heard them too, not so much with my ears as with my bones.

"I promised I'd pray them away," Evadare reminded him. "You'd best go, Jake. Leave me to deal with them."

He thanked her again and left. Full dark by then outside the ring of firelight, and we weren't alone there. I didn't see or hear plain at first, it was more like just a sense of what came. Lots of them. They felt to be a-moving close, the way wolves would shove round a campfire in the old days, to get up their nerve to rush in. A sort of low crouch of them in the dark, and here and there some sort of height half-guessed. Like as if one or other of them stood high, or possibly climbed a tree branch. I stared and tried to reckon if there were shapes there, blacker than the night, and couldn't be sure one way or the other.

"I'm not about to be afraid," said Evadare, and she knew she had to say that thing out loud for it to be true.

"Don't be," I said. "I've heard say that evil can't prevail against a pure heart. And your heart's pure. I wish mine was halfway as pure as yours."

I pulled my guitar to me and touched the silver strings, to help us both. "They say there are seven deadly sins," said Evadare. "I've heard them named, but I can't recollect them all."

"I can," I said. "Pride. Covetousness. Lust. Envy. Greed. Anger. Gluttony. Who is there that mustn't fight to keep free from all of them?"

I began to pick and sing, words of my own making to the tune of "Nine Yards of Other Cloth":


And she's my love, my star above,
And she's my heart's delight,
And when she's here I need not fear
The terror in the night.  


"Who was that laughed?" Evadare cried out.

For there'd been a laugh, that died away when she spoke. I stopped my music and harked. A dfferent noise now. A stir, like something that tried not to make a sound but made one anyway, the ghost of a sound you had to strain to hear.

I set down my guitar and stood up. I said, loud and clear:

"Whoever or whatever's in sound of my voice, step up here close and look at the color of my eyes."

The noise had died. I looked all the way round.

Deep night now, beyond where the fire shone. But I saw a sort of foggy-muddy cloud at a slink there. I thought maybe somebody had set a smudge fire and the wind blew the smoke to us. Only there was no wind. The air was as still as a shut-up room. I looked at the sky. There were little chunks of stars and about half a moon, with a twitch of dim cloud on it. But down where I was, silence and stillness.

"Look at those sparks," said Evadare's whispery voice. First sight of them, they sure enough might could have been sparks—greeny ones. Then you made out they were two and two in that low dark mist, two and two and two, like eyes, like the green eyes of meat-eating things on the look for food. All the way round they were caught and set by pairs in the mist that bunched and clotted everywhere, close to the ground, a-beginning to flow in, crowd in.

And it wasn't just mist. There were shapes in it. One or two stood up to maybe a man's height, others made you think of dogs, only they weren't dogs. They huddled up, they were sort of stuck together—jellied together, you might say, the way a hobby of frog's eggs lie in a sticky bunch in the water. If it had been just at one place; but it was all the way round.

I tried to think of a good charm to say, and I've known some, but right then they didn't come to mind. I grabbed up a stick from the pile for whatever good might come of it. I heard Evadare, her voice strong now:

"Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night."

The dark things churned, the eye-sparks blinked. I could swear that they gave back for the length of a step.

"Nor for the arrow that flieth by day," Evadare said on. "Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness."

They shrank back on themselves again. They surrounded us, but they were back from where they'd been.

"What did you say to them?" I inquired Evadare, still with the stick ready.

"The Ninety-first Psalm," she said back. "It was all I could think of that might could possibly help."

"It helped," I said, and thought how I'd stood like a gone gump, not able to call up one good word to save us. "If those were sins a-sneaking in " I said, "there was a sight of them, but good words made them wait."

"How long will they wait?" she wondered me, little and huddled down by the fire. She was scared, gentlemen; and, no I reckon about it, so was I.

Those many sins, a-taking shape and hungry to grab onto somebody. One might not be too bad. You'd face up to one, maybe drive it back, maybe get it down and stomp it. But all of those together all sides of you, gummed into one misty mass. Being scared didn't help. You had to think of something to do.

Think what?

No way to run off from Trill Coster's sins, bunched all round us. Maybe the firelight slowed them some, slowed the terror by night, the pestilence in darkness. Evadare had taken them on her, and here they were. She kept whispering prayers. Meanwhile, they'd pulled back some. Now their eye-sparks showed thirty or forty feet away, all directions. I put wood on the fire. The flames stood up, not so much blue in the red now.

I took up my guitar and dared sit down. Old folks allow the devil is afraid of music. I picked and I sang:


The needle's eye that doth supply
The thread that runs so true,
And many a lass have I let pass
Because I thought of you.

And many a dark and stormy night
I walked these mountains through;
I'd stub my toe and down I'd go
Because I thought of you.  


Then again a loud, rattling laugh, and I got up. The laugh again. Into the firelight there walked that bare-shouldered woman called Nallie Willoughby, a-weaving herself while she walked, a-clappping her hands while she tossed her syrupy hair.

"I call that pretty singing, John," she laughed to me. "You aim to sleep here tonight? The ground makes a hard bed, that's a natural fact. Let me make you up a soft bed at my place."

"I mustn't go from here right now," said Evadare's soft voice. "I've got me something to do hereabouts."

Nollie quartered her eyes round to me. "Then just you come, John. I done told vou it'll be a soft bed."

"I thank you most to death," I said, "but no, ma'am, I stay here with Evadare."

"You're just a damned fool," she scorned me.

"A fool, likely enough," I agreed her. "But not damned. Not yet."

She sat down at the fire without being bid to. There was enough of her to make one and a half of Evadare, and pretty too, but no way as pretty as Evadare—no way.

"All the folks act pure scared to come near youins," she told us. "I came to show there's naught to fear from Trill Coster's sins. I nair feared her nor her ways when she lived. I don't fear them now she's down under the dirt. All the men that followed her round—they'll follow me round now."

"Which is why you're glad she's dead," Evadare guessed. "You were jealous of her."

Nollie looked at her, fit to strike her dead. "Not for those sorry men," she said. "I don't touch other women's leavings." She put her eyes to me. "You don't look nor act like that sort of man, John. I'll warrant you're a right much of a man."

"I do my best most times," I said.

"I might could help you along," she smiled with her wide lips.

"Think that if it pleasures you," I said. I thought back on women I'd known. Donie Carawan, who'd sweet-talked me the night the Little Black Train came for her; Winnie, who'd blessed my name for how I'd finished the Ugly Bird; Vandy, whose song I still sang now and then; but above and past them all, little Evadare, a-sitting tired and worried there by the fire, with the crowd and cloud of another woman's sins she'd taken, all round her, a-trying to dare come get hold of her.

"If I'd listen to you," I said to Nollie. "If I heeded one mumbling word of your talk."

"Jake said you're named Evadare," said Nollie across the fire. "You came here with John and spoke up big to take Trill's sin-burden and pray it out. What if I took that burden off you and took John along with it?"

"You done already made John that offer," said Evadare, quiet and gentle, "and he told you what he thought of it."

"Sure enough," Nollie laughed her laugh, with hardness in it. "John's just a-playing hard to get."

"He's hard to get, I agree you," said Evadare, "but he's not a-playing."

"Getting right cloudy round here," Nollie said, a-looking over that smooth bare shoulder of hers.

She spoke truth. The clumpy mist with its eye-greens was on the move again, like before. It hung close to the ground. I saw tree branches above it. The shapes in it were half-shapes. I saw one like what children make out of snow for a man, but this was dark, not snowy. It had head, shoulders, two shiny green eyes. Webbed next to it, a bunch of the things that minded you of dogs without being dogs. Green eyes too, and white flashes that looked like teeth.

Those dog things had tongues too, out at us, like as if to lap at us. Evadare was a-praying under her breath, and Nollie laughed again.

"If you fear sin," she mocked us, "you go afraid air minute of your life."

That was the truth too, as I reckoned, so I said nothing. I looked on the half-made hike of the man shape. It molded itself while I looked. Up came two steamy rags like arms. I wondered myself if it had hands, if it could take hold; if it could grab Evadare, grab me.

One arm-rag curled up high and whipped itself at us. It threw something—a whole mess of something. A little rain of twinkles round the root where Evadare had sat since first we built the fire.

"Oh," she whispered, not loud enough for a cry.

I ran to her, to see if she'd been hit and hurt. She looked down at the scatter of bright things round her. I knelt to snatch one up.

By the firelight, I saw that it was a jewel. Red as blood, bright as fire. I'm no jeweler, but I've seen rubies in my time. This was a big one.

Evadare bent with both hands out, to pick the things up. From the mist stole out soft noises, noises like laughter—not as loud as Nollie could laugh, but meaner, uglier.

"Don't take those things," I said to Evadare. "Not from what wants to give them to you." I sent myself to throw that big ruby.

"No," said Evadare, and got up, too. "I must do it. I'm the one who took the sins. I'm the one to say no to them."

She made a flinging motion with her arm, underhand, the way girls are apt to throw. I saw those jewels wink in the firelight as they sailed through the air. Red for rubies, white for diamonds, other colors for other ones. They struck in among the misty shapes. I swear they plopped, like stones flung in greasy water.

"Give me," she said, and took the big ruby from me. She flung it after the others. It made a singy sound in the air. Back from the cloudy mass beat a tired, hunting breath, like somebody pained and sorrowed.

"All right," said Evadare, the strongest she'd spoken since first we'd made out camp. "I've given them back their pay, refused all of it."

"Did you?" Nollie sort of whinnied.

"You saw me give them back," Evadare said, "All of them."

"No, not all of them, look at this."

Nollie held out her open palm. There lay a ruby, big as a walnut, twice the size of the one I'd taken up.

"How many thousands do you reckon that's worth?" Nollie jabbered at us, her teeth shining. "I got it when it fell, and I'm a-going to keep it."

"Miss Nollie," I said, "you should ought to have seen enough here tonight to know you can't keep air such a thing."

"Can't I?" she jeered me. "Just watch me, John, I'll take it to a big town and sell it. I'll be the richest somebody in all these parts."

"Better give it to Evadare to throw back," I said.

"Give it to little half-portion, milky-face Evadare? Not me."

She poked the ruby down the front of her dress, deep down there.

"It'll be safe where it's at," she snickered at us. "Unless you want to reach a hand down yonder for it, John."

"Not me," I said. "I want no part of it, nor yet of where you put it."

"John, said Evadare, "look at how the cloud bunches away."

I looked; it drew back with all its shapes, like the ebb tide on the shore of the sea.

"Sure enough," I said. "It's a-leaving out of here."

"And so am I," spoke up Nollie. "I came here to talk sense to you, John. You ain't got the gift to know sense where you hear it. Come visit me when I get my money and put up my big house here."

She swung, she switched away, a-moving three directions at once, the way some women think they look pretty when they do it. She laughed at us once, over her shoulder so bare. Evadare made a move, like as if to try to fetch her back, but I put my hand on Evadare's arm.

"You've done more than your duty tonight," I said. "Let her go."

So Evadare stood beside me while Nollie switch-tailed off amongst the trees. I reckoned the misty shapes thickened up at Nollie, but I couldn't be dead sure. What I did make out was, they didn't fence us in now. I saw clearness all the way round. The moon washed the earth with its light.

Evadare sat down on the root again, dead tired. I built up the fire to comfort us. I struck a chord on the guitar to sing to her, I don't recollect what. It might could as well have been a lullaby. She sank down asleep as I sang. I put my soogin sack under her head for a pillow and spread a blanket on her.

But I didn't sleep. I sat there, awaiting for whatever possibly happened, and nothing happened. Nothing at all, all night. The dawn grayed the sky and far off away I heard a rooster crow. I put the last of our coffee in the pot to brew for us, all we could count on for breakfast. While I watched by the fire, three men came toward us. Evadare rose up and yawned.

"John," said Jake in his timid voice, "I bless the high heavens to see you and your lady all safe here. This here is Preacher Frank Ricks, and here's Squire Hamp Dolby, come along with me to make your acquaintance."

Preacher Ricks I'd met before. We shook hands together. He was thin and old, but still a-riding here and there to do what good was in his power. Squire Dolby was a chunk of a man with white hair and black brows. "Proud to know you, John," he said to me.

"I hurried in here just at sunrise," said Preacher Ricks. "I'd heard tell of poor Trill Coster's death, and I find she's already buried. And I heard tell, too, of the brave, kind thing your lady agreed to do to rest her soul."

"I hoped it would be merciful," said Evadare.

"How true you speak, ma'am," said Squire Dolby. "But the sins you said you'd take, they never came to you. They fastened somewhere else. Nollie Willoughby's gone out of her mind. Round her house it's all dark-shadowy, and she's in there, she laughs and cries at one and the same time. She hangs onto a little flint rock and says it's a ruby, richer than all dreams on this earth."

"Isn't it a ruby?" I inquired him.

"Why," he said, "the gravelly path to my house is strewed with rocks like that, fit for naught but just to be trod on."

"I fetched these folks here on your account, John," said Jake. "You done told me you and Evadare hoped to be married."

"And we can do that for you," allowed Preacher Ricks, with a smile to his old face. "Squire Dolby here has the legal authority to give you a license here and now."

"It's sure enough my pleasure," said Squire Dolby.

He had a pad of printed blanks. He put down Evadare's name and mine, and he and Jake signed for the witnesses.

"Why not right now, under these trees and this sky?" said Preacher Ricks, and opened his book. "Stand together here, you two. John, take Evadare's right hand in your right hand. Say these words after me when I tell you."


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