Lost Nation

Lost Nation

4.3 11
by Jeffrey Lent

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Lost Nation delves beneath the bright, promising veneer of early-nineteenth-century New England to unveil a startling parable of individualism and nationhood. The novel opens with a man known as Blood, guiding an oxcart of rum toward the wild country of New Hampshire, an ungoverned territory called the Indian Stream -- a land where the luckless or outlawed have


Lost Nation delves beneath the bright, promising veneer of early-nineteenth-century New England to unveil a startling parable of individualism and nationhood. The novel opens with a man known as Blood, guiding an oxcart of rum toward the wild country of New Hampshire, an ungoverned territory called the Indian Stream -- a land where the luckless or outlawed have made a fresh start. Blood is a man of contradictions, of learning and wisdom, but also a man with a secret past that has scorched his soul. He sets forth to establish himself as a trader, hauling with him Sally, a sixteen-year-old girl won from the madam of a brothel over a game of cards. Their arrival in the Indian Stream triggers an escalating series of clashes that serves to sever the master/servant bond between them, and offers both a second chance with life. But as the conflicts within the community spill over and attract the attention of outside authorities, Blood becomes a target to those seeking easy blame for their troubles. As plots unravel and violence escalates, two young men of uncertain identity appear, and Blood is forced to confront dreaded apparitions of his past, while Sally is offered a final escape.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While the classic western naturally concentrates on the West, there were pockets in the East that were as wild as Dodge City, and Lent has found one in his second novel. Northern New Hampshire in 1838 was a long way from Nathaniel Hawthorne's civilized Boston. The ominously self-named Mr. Blood trails a mysterious past into the area, bringing "twin hogsheads of black Barbados rum," some casks of gunpowder and a 16-year-old whore named Sally whom he purchased in Portland, Maine. When Blood opens his tavern, he warns Sally to be wary of the clientele, which is good advice. Trappers, outlaws and Indians wreak havoc on each other in the cold wilderness. When the high sheriff of Coos County decides to bring a little law and order to the region, he and his men are ambushed. While Blood tries to mediate a truce, his past catches up with him in the person of two boys who have come from down south, Fletcher and Cooper. Unbeknownst to Blood, these are his sons. Fletcher falls for Sally, and when Blood is arrested by a Canadian force for complicity in the murder of a French-Canadian trader, Sally goes to Fletcher for help. Lent's novel strains under the stylistic influence of Cormac McCarthy, making its way in long sentences with a paucity of commas and a surfeit of gore: "Crane had been bound hand and foot, his arms tight to his sides, and buried up to his neck in a small beaver bog that was boiling with mosquitoes and deerflies. Very precisely his eyelids had been cut away." However, it tells a rousing tale that will surely please the readers of his first, bestselling novel, In the Fall. Agent, Kim Witherspoon, Witherspoon Associates. (May) Forecast: The success of In the Fall which has sold over 150,000 copies to date proved that readers had not yet tired of Cold Mountain-style historical fiction. Lost Nation will be yet another test of the grueling subgenre, which has found a skilled practitioner in Lent. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Lent's first novel, In the Fall, was a critically acclaimed best seller prompting comparisons to the likes of Faulkner, McCarthy, and Frost. His second, about a "man who allowed torment to eat all but the final hard stone of his soul," proves that his first success was no fluke. Set in 1836 in an ungoverned region of northern New Hampshire know as Indian Stream, it follows the story of the appropriately named Blood and Sally, a 16-year-old prostitute Blood has won in a card game whom he literally hitches to his wagon. An educated man of solid background, Blood had deserted his family following the death of his wife and eldest son, sinking into deepening despair, drifting from job to job, and learning to survive amid the harsh realities of poverty and violence. With an ox cart full of gun powder, lead, and rum, he and Sally set off for Indian Stream and what he hopes will be a new beginning. His arrival, however, is greeted with suspicion and triggers a chain of events that leads to his ultimate destruction and to Sally's redemption. A dark and bloody tale about the power of guilt, the tragedy of misapprehension, and the will to survive, it offers a powerful yet compassionate exploration into the human condition and belongs in most academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A powerful impression of waste, loss, and guilt elevates the melodramatic and rather contrived content of this ambitious second novel by Vermont author Lent (In the Fall, 2000). It's 1838, in the wilderness area between northern New Hampshire and Canada known as the Indian Stream in 1838, when an itinerant trader called Blood arrives in the Stream, accompanied by a teenaged girl named Sally, whom he had won in a card game with the girl's wretched mother. In intensely charged prose very reminiscent of Faulkner's, Lent spins the mesmerizing tale of Blood's establishment as a prosperous tavernkeeper (his fortunes increased by "whoring" out the phlegmatic and resilient Sally), conflicts with both the territory's vindictive high sheriff and British "royal soldiers" occupying Canada (whose factions struggle for control over the Stream and its settlers), and painstaking revelations of secrets buried in the pseudonymous Blood's past-unearthed by the arrival of two half-brothers from Massachusetts, who have their own mysteries to solve and scores to settle. This is an extremely violent book (as well as quite clearly indebted to Cormac McCarthy's notorious Blood Meridian), whose excesses of situation and plot are more than compensated for by Lent's remarkable command of atmosphere and gift for flinty, stark characterizations. Blood is a magnificently dramatic figure, Lear-like in his stoical resolve and in the fury that consumes him when an unforeseen forgiveness for all his actual and imagined sins is suddenly, cruelly ripped away. Sally is equally memorable: a child woman who assumes a hard-bitten maturity, the consequences of which are movingly spelt out in the ingenious (if somewhat awkwardlyassembled) Postlude. Lost Nation further satisfies as a suggestive allegory of a fledgling civilization's loss of innocence and helpless pursuit of self-destructive folly. Lent is a writer who seems determined to scale some pretty formidable rhetorical and thematic heights. He's getting there.

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Read an Excerpt

The Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred & Thirty-Eight


They went on. The man Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches and a stinking linen blouse, lank and greasegrimed hair tied at his nape with a thin leather binding cut from a cowhide, goad in hand, staggering at the canted shoulder of the near ox, the girl behind barefoot in a rough shift of the same linen as Blood's shirt, her fancy skirt and bodice in a tight roll jammed down in the back of the cart atop her button-hook boots furred now with green slime, the girl's hair no cleaner than Blood's but untied and tangled, redblonde, her face swollen from the insect delirium that her free hand swiped against, an unceasing ineffectual bat about her head. Her other wrist cinched by a length of the same stripped cowhide tethering her to the rear of the lurching groaning cart. The huge dog trotting on the off side, directly opposite Blood.

The cart was loaded with twin hogsheads of black Barbados rum, smaller casks of powder sealed against moisture with beeswax, pigs of lead, axeheads, a small brass-strapped eight-pound swivel gun without carriage and bolts of plum and violet cloth-this last acquired through whimsy; the bolts were stolen and unwanted and so pressed upon Blood by their most recent possessor and Blood, who knew no thing was free, could not resist the frivolous drygoods. Thinking they might even prove useful in some as yet unseen way. Blood believed there was no happenstance, that all things served a purpose if a man only knew how to look for it. Otherwise, there was nothing but careful forethought in the contents of the cart, right down to the last ounce-weight of pigged lead topowder. So he added papers of pins and ones of needles. And a sack of pewter thimbles. Blood made no mistakes. He'd long since used up his share.

Thus he chose to go up the east side of the mountains instead of following the easier water route of the Connecticut River to the west. Once north of Fryeburg and the Conway intervale there were few people and fewer settlements, and those that were, were less inclined to interfere with questions of any nature. They had paused some days outside of Conway, camping in the woods, not availing themselves of the tavern in the village but allowing word of their presence to seep around the rough bitter populace; here he sold her service to what few men had hard coin which were not many and he was not interested in barter, not yet wanting to accumulate a thing beyond what he already had. Disgusted at the paucity of the place he pushed on, knowing the worst lay ahead. That fact alone delighted him, now faced with the worst, he had the opportunity to wrest himself from it. There was no other possibility. His delight was grim.

For some weeks they had outraced spring even at ox pace but the weather turned and softened as they halted in Conway and so they traveled then with less speed and comfort even as they climbed into the mountains toward the notch and the land beyond, their destination that vast lost land north of the mountains that might have been American or Canadian but of which no men knew or if they did none it seemed cared. The corduroy road, ill-made anyway now began to fall apart and disappear into the frost-ooze, the dank black mud that sucked at the cart wheels so they screeched in their hubs and there was often no way to know what was road and what bog or beaver marsh or simply muddy meadow surrounded by long-dead drowned trees. Their tree-corpses silver and white in the spring light; shorn of their smaller limbs they seemed to Blood to be giants of longlost men, struck mute and helpless where they mired. And then they would pass out of the muck and back into spruce and hemlock forest or hardwood and the road would be there; often not more than a crushed track pressed through the woods lining. And where the mud had not yet broken through the frost there were boulderbacks with faint scars, the sign of some other, earlier, passage. Reassuring to other men perhaps but for Blood nothing but reminder for vigilance.

And everywhere, over everything, as if boiled out of the mud by the sun, the swarms of gnats and blackflies, no-see-ums, clouds in the open bogs like silver glistening screens, lit by the sun, prismatic. Over all open skin and in ears and nostrils and eyes and mouth. As if the land was not enough but the air must join to fight against their traveling. Blood cut a square of cloth from one of the bolts and folded it into a triangle and tied it over his face, just below his eyes. He offered nothing to the girl.

He had purchased her from a gin-sot bawd in Portland in the small hours of a cold early April night, raining there in Maine, the cobbles wet and slick from offal and garbage, rats rampant off the harbor ships, the alleys littered with glass shards that glistened when chance lamplight struck against them. The rain windblown, salt laden, the shifting and supplications rising off the wharf-fettered ships long groans in the night. This Anna far gone with gin hallucination, having lost her night's earnings to him. Blood sat across from her with his toddy of rum, the cards greasy and blunt edged and he chose his moment well, interrupting her keening over her misfortune and offering the eagles back for the girl over one more hand. Anna gathered the cards and spilled them and shuffled them and spilled them again and dealt them out, Blood taking his time studying his own as if unsure of his game and the woman suddenly animate, swift and avaricious, her eyes pouched and ruined in red glare, watching while Blood drew and studied and drew again, all the while Anna holding her first draw and Blood called and turned out a straight and the girl and coin were his. By the time they'd roused the sleeping girl Anna was sobbing, bereft, breathless and beseeching. The girl was her daughter. The girl, dressed, stood mute before the spectacle of her mother and the silent ruffian man. As if this had someway already happened to her. Anna was pleading.

Blood said, "Have gratitude woman. A girl is naught but trouble for a mother. She'll fare as well with me as here with you."

Thinking Anna had already paid twice for the girl, the once unknowingly begetting the child and again now, losing all she had been willing to stake. He led the girl out by the hand and she walked yet silent beside him, taking no leave of her mother. They went through the dead-dawn streets to the stable where his cart was already laden and where by lantern light he cut the tether for the girl and goaded up the oxen from the dirty litter and yoked them and spoke to the big mastiff/wolfhound and together the five of them went out through the port onto the turnpike road inland, away from the coast, toward the small towns and the mountains beyond. Still raining and the drizzle held back the dawn so they were well out into the countryside by the time some indeterminate shadowed light filmed over them and the rain turned to sleet and the caulked shoes of the oxen chipped against the hard road, the pods of urine-stained ice and packed bleak snow mired in frozen mud. So the first day passed and they did not speak. Blood had nothing to say to the girl and she was frightened by her prospects or of him. Perhaps she even was dumb-either way it did not matter to him.

At night they camped in a riverside glen of elms away from the road and fed on cold boiled bacon and ship-biscuit crackers and made their bed under the cart, the cowhide serving as a groundsheet and damp wool blankets over them and the cold bore down upon them and the girl pressed up against him.

"They call me Sally," she said. He could smell and feel her breath, sour after the long day. "I'll work to please you."

He pushed her away from him. "Sleep then," he commanded.

They traveled through the bleak time when the winter has exhausted itself but still holds the land for near three weeks when they stopped at Conway and he first sold her out to whomever had the coin and was willing to lie with her beneath the cart. Just some feet away in the woods Blood kept a fire going and drank black tea. After the last night of it there, when they were going ahead into the first warm day and the road was softening and Blood's head was lifted to study the mountains still well west and north of them but inevitable as a fist of god, she spoke up, calling from where she walked barefoot leashed to the back of the cart.

"That last one, he used me hard. Where he hadn't ought."

He did not look back although the great beast of a dog paused and cocked its head back at her, one foot arrested up before it turned forward again. After a time Blood said, "Some men will." Still not looking back.

The next day he took her skirt and bodice from her and wrapped them in her woolen shawl and set them along with her boots down into a crevice of the cart and left her in her linen shift and he did not need to tell her that it was to save them. It was warm enough with the rough walking to keep her well. But in the muck and mire of the road her feet turned softer even as they tried to blister and toughen and were stabbed through with the spikes of dead branches buried in the road and bruised on hidden stones so that by the end of the first day they were swollen and raw, punctured gruesome things. After she washed them clean in a snowmelt rill he knelt and portioned her a dab of axle grease from the pot suspended under the cart, which she worked into her feet. And each evening he allowed this. She did not know if this was kindness or prudence on his part and only wished that he'd allow her to re-dress her feet also before the start of each day but he did not offer and she did not ask. So far, he had not touched her and she knew enough to know this meant that if he should it would not be a manner she would want or welcome and so intended to keep it that way.

Anyway it was just her feet and the mud wouldn't last forever or the road either. Although she did not allow herself to think about where the end of the road might be. She still bled when she shat. But that would pass and her feet would toughen. The days warmed more although the nights stayed cool. She did not know if they were less cold or if she was getting used to it. They began to climb into the mountains and afternoons she sweated through her shift; then came the blackflies and midges and she ceased her worries over their destination and more than once found herself thinking kindly of Portland until she caught herself, knowing that if nothing else Blood represented prospects as yet unknown, whereas what lay behind her was all too clearly limned. She believed she could endure anything if there was hope for change and she knew that walking with this brooding quick-paced broadbacked man was the best hope for change that had come her way. If pressed she would not have been able to say what exactly she hoped for. But each step forward was one toward that possible unclear clinging thread. Blackflies after all just blackflies and while she could see how a man might lose his mind attempting to get away from them she knew it was a lesser man than Blood was, or herself for that matter. She had no education but a quick mind and saw already that she had learned something from Blood. She was fifteen years old as best she knew.

They passed through a settlement called Errol, a plankbuilt tavern and store and rough log houses. They did not pause there but Sally watched as a woman in clothing as crude as her own came to a raw-timbered door and studied her with open disdain and she thought Women is the same everywhere if they don't know better. They crossed over the Androscoggin River by rude ferry and then for some miles had decent road, the corduroy of logs with bark yet on them firm atop the ground and that afternoon made good time toward the cleft of mountains before them. At dusk Blood clubbed a partridge that stood motionless studying the approaching apparition as if for the bird such strangeness could only be curious and not danger. It was the first fresh meat since he'd bought lean tough pork in Conway, although each day the dog would disappear into the woods and return hours later with blood on his muzzle and the sweet reek of raw meat about him, a smell that overwhelmed her, filled her mouth with saliva that she swallowed over and over as if to find succor there. And now this partridge. When the dusk was all gone to dark but for pale green light off within the trees they made camp and Blood threw the bird for her to pluck while he gathered wood, dead branches broken off the lower reaches of spruce and tamarack, and for the first time made a fire of consequence and roasted the bird. As if he'd passed an invisible line in his mind, a point where some sense of safety gained upon him. Not quite ease but something she could not name. Anyway, the fire was pleasure enough without parsing Blood. Whatever it was she knew it was more than the simple river crossing of the noontime.

The ship-biscuit crackers were gone but there was a sack of wormy meal that she mixed with water and patted into flat cakes to roast on stones turned against the fire. While above the bird dripped and spat grease and blackened on the thick ramrod spit from his rifle. The smell unbearable.

When they finally ate she burned the roof of her mouth on the first hank of breast torn from her half of the bird. Blood had split the carcass evenly and she considered if this was kindness or if he was simply maintaining his investment. For the moment she was happy to be maintained. The corncakes were dry and hard but also hot and she sat on the ground with her legs curled under her to one side and felt for the first time as if, things turned right, she might sometime prosper.

They woke some time of the night to horrific ascending unending screams seemingly rods away in the woods surround. The fire burned down to nothing, a scant mask of color over heaped dead coals. The oxen stamping, trodden beasts chained in place, low moans from them as if they scented their own death. The dog paced the dim rim of light, its hair hackled in a sharp quilled ridge. Blood spoke a low command to the dog, locking it in place even as the girl rolled over and grappled Blood, against and then over him, pressed tight, her hands locked in hard knots that grasped through his linen blouse to clutch the curls of his chest hair and wrapped both her legs in a hard cramp around one of his, it feeling to Blood like her legs encircled his times beyond counting. He was pinned, constrained, snared all ways. Her teeth grazed his neck, terror all through her, a possession absolute, and through her pants of fear her voice choked, begging to be saved.

"It's a cat, girl." His hands up pushing against her shoulders' writhe. "A catamount is all."

"It's after us idn't it? It smells us idn't that right?"

"It's not after nothing. They scream like that."

"No. It's coming. Screaming to scare us witless is what it's doing."

He paused. He'd heard the screams before and always took them to be because the cats could-they could curdle the night and freeze up all living creatures-but he'd never considered it might be for hunting. It was the first rule-the notion of not alerting your prey in any way. But for a moment he reflected on the child logic laid before him. And Sally took that moment to harden her hold of him and his hands were ineffectual against her and so they grappled and he did not hear the cat cry again. But could suddenly smell himself reflected against the girl and could smell her as well, no fresher than himself but still the deep emission of an other, and could taste also the girl of her, the woman, the bitter salt of her skin and the roasted meat breath and the other, the smell of the ocean sea she was born beside. And then got his free leg up, his knee raised as he pulled his heel up for purchase against the ground and he threw her up and not off him for that was not possible and no longer wanted but over where he followed down on top of her and the breath went out of her as her back struck the earth hard and he raised himself and tore up her shift and unbuttoned his flies and sank back against her and he jerked into her but also into the night, into the very earth itself, and the small sounds that came from her were not her child's voice but some other voice altogether as she locked around him and he pressed harder against her, harder to try and drive away the sound of that voice, to drive it out of her. And could do that no more than he could drive it from his own brain. As she spoke, her voice stretched and drawn, that one word Oh Oh Oh over and over and it might have been, surely was, No No No and he would never know how she knew, how it came from her but it burst through him and ran heat through his spine and the tendons of his legs and arms and a scree of chill over him and he clenched his eyes shut and finished in her, already again just the girl Sally. Already back exactly where he was. By a cold dead fire on a cold spring night in the deep north woods, the mountains with names he did not know, the place he was aiming for and did not know either; all this again before him. He lifted himself from her and stepped away, pulling up his breeches as he went.

He went out into the dark and stood there. The dog came up and sniffed and marked a tree and Blood went around to the oxen and tugged the ring in each nose to settle them and he saw there was faint light in the east and turned back to see the girl up, scraping open the fire with a stick and then feeding wood onto the flaring coals. Her shift was on the ground where they had joined and when she bent over the fire her small breasts stayed high and tight against the bones of her ribcage shown in the firelight as bars of orange and black. Her hair down loose shrouding her face, the slight swell of her hips where she squatted.

Blood's groan inaudible to her.

* * *

Midmorning she walked up beside him, a short dangle of the tether displayed from her wrist, the end gnawed and wet. They were climbing into the notch now and the sliced sides of the mountains overshadowed even the thin wedge of sky, far up the slopes bare of trees where sunlight struck off white quartz. The brook alongside the road was overflowing, snowmelt water jammed in the narrow confines of boulder and ledge. The brook was all they could hear, that and the ever-anguishing creak of the cart.

"See," she said, her wrist held up for inspection. "There idn't no need to tie me like a beast. I'm not going nowhere you ain't anyhow."

He called up the team and the oxen stood blowing, heads dragged earthward. He sighed and took up her hand and studied the strap still around her wrist; then he released her and unrolled the cowhide from the cart and cut a new, longer strip while she stood watching him. He made a loop in one end of the thong and caught up both of her hands and bound them together fast so the leather cut into her skin and tied her again to the rear of the cart. He paused a moment and then took up his knife once more and cut off the remnant of the first strap and pitched it into the shadbush growing between the road and the brook and walked back past the cart and took up the goad leaned against the cart wheel and spoke up the oxen and the mean conveyance lurched and ground forward again.

"Treat me how you will," she sang out. "I'll not forget a bit of it."

"I'd not think so," he called back without turning or breaking stride.

Late afternoon found them stalled three hundred yards from the constricted top of the notch, the road here a jumble of boulders and mud-slick gravel, the cart listing off to one side, one wheel mired, the other up on a boulder. The oxen strained to hold the angled rig in place; Blood had stacked stones behind the lifted wheel to help. Now he sat off to one side in a scanty stand of scraggly spruce. Ravens barked from the ridgeline out of sight. The sun was gone although the light streamed high above them. The freed girl hunched on a nearby stone, her arms wrapped around her chest. There was a whetted wind. The axle was broken.

There was a shadow of bruise on her face where he'd slapped her when the catastrophe first occurred and she had turned striving to hide her laughter-a glee he thought edged with excitement, as if immediately she knew the pendulum had swung ever so little toward her in balance. Now she sat, her face vacant, waiting.

Blood held his head with his hands. He was tired and his head hurt. None of the remedies that occurred appealed. He knew in all likelihood in the open land beyond the head of the notch there would be a farm, perhaps more. Perhaps a forge but even if not, probably someone who could help mend the axle, fashion some sort of replacement, whatever was needed to limp onward to wherever a permanent repair could be made. Although uncertainties they struck him as being not unreasonable. The problem, most simply, was how to get here to there.

Even with his head held he knew she was watching him, knew also that if he did not speak she soon would. And silently pleaded for her own silence. He did not feel up to her.

"It's a pickle." Her voice almost gay, only scarcely guarded.

He said nothing, did not lift his head.

"I don't know what's more trouble, the load or me. But I know this: Even I wasn't here that load would set right where it is, regardless of what you was to do. I don't see how you could just leave it, go off for help. Someone might come along. Of course, there's that-someone might come along, be willing to help we waited long enough."

He looked at her now but remained silent.

"How long," she asked, "you think before that might happen?"

After a time he spoke. Slowly. "The way it works, it'd be just a minute I was to leave it here and go after help. But then, we was to set here, we'd likely eat up both the beeves before we saw a single living soul."

She nodded. He wondered if she really understood this, the full implications of this formula and how it applied to their peculiar circumstance. Then recalled her background and guessed likely she did. She said, "What do you figure to do?"

"I don't like any of it."

She nodded again. "One of us has to stay and one go on for help. That's all there is to it. Question is, which one's the better guard?"

"You got that calculated."

She shrugged. "I'm tougher'n dried cod. You was to leave the dog, if he'd stay, and leave me your rifle, I'd do just fine unless it was a passel of em and then likely it wouldn't matter twas you or me here."

"You could as easy see me top the ridge and strike out back the way we come. I got no idea how far it'd be to find repair even of the roughest kind."

"But if I was the one to go after help you'd have no idea when to expect me back. You'd just be setting here. Either way you got to trust me."

"Mind your tongue girl."

"Listen," she said. "I'll whore for you cause I got no choice in it. But it seems to me, we was to work together just the least bit it might not be such a bad thing. You was to trust me some I'd trust you to watch out for me. That's the plain truth."

"You say that now, cold and brokedown. But you'd skedaddle first occasion you thought might be just a smidgen better."

She studied him, raking fingers through her hair, tugging at knots and tangles, freeing bits of twig and trash. She said, "Whoever you are, you're a fearsome man. And wherever you come from I doubt I even want to know about. But I got no choice but to trust you. And I'll tell you this too-I might be off here in the woods set to whore for you when the chance comes but it's still better than what I'd be up to every day back to Portland. At least this is-"

"What," he asked. "What do you call this?"

"Well," she said. "It's interesting, is what it is."

"Christ girl," he said. "Look at you. Half naked, feet all cut up and swelled all over with the fuckin bugs and bout starved to death and you set there and tell me it's interesting."

She stood and stretched her arms up high over her head and he turned his eyes from her and she came and leaned her hands on her knees and brought her face close to his and said, "It takes a rough patch to get you talking, don't it?"

He stood off the stone and stepped around her and bent once more to survey the busted axle. She squatted down beside him to look also. When he glanced to her, she said, "It don't change much, looking at it. Does it now?"

He pushed up, his hands on his knees. She stayed where she was, her face tilted toward him. He said, "All right then. Get your clothes on, your skirt and such."

She stood. "What for?"

He was too tired to tell her to just do it because he said to. He said, "So, if someone does come along, you look respectable."

She stood then too. Looked at him and nodded. Then said, "Is there a name to call you?"

"Name's Blood."

"I mean one I can get off my tongue."

"Get dressed." He turned from her. "Blood's all the name anyone needs of me."

He worked while she knelt at the brook and washed herself. He packed more rocks around and under the cart and levered it up with a stout pole and wedged more rocks to hold it in place. He used the pole as a mallet to remove the cotters from the wheels and pulled them from the axle and then, lying on his back under the cart cursing, worked free the axle. It was near dark, the long spring twilight. He unhitched the oxen and chained one to a tree and strapped the axle across the back of the other. Then stopped and built a fire and hauled in loads of wood so there was a great pile alongside the cart and last he gave her the rifle and told her to just hold it up steady and aim at whomever she might need to and let the dog do the rest. He did not need to tell her the gun was useless after the one charge it held. The dog was called Luther. Blood bent, grunted and lifted it in his arms and placed it atop one of the rum hogsheads and commanded it to stay. He had no idea how long he'd be gone. He took only a single piece of corncake and a moldy chunk of bacon, hoping his scanty rations would reassure her.

He left as the light went purple, not looking back at where she sat up on the other hogshead in her skirt and bodice and shawl, the rifle gripped before her like a talisman. Her feet dangled bare, too swollen to fit into her shoes. The fire burned sufficient beside the cart, the stack of wood high enough so that for the time being at least she could merely lean to feed it. He yupped the laden ox and they went up toward the last feeble light at the crotch of the mountains just above them. By the time he could see out onto the open vastness beyond he could no longer see the cart or her. Just a pale flicker high up where the firelight struck against the bare quartz rock or the last rotten embedment of ice.

* * *

There was a light far out ahead in the vast black bowl of broad long valley surrounded by the mountaintops now low hills rearing also black against the sky. But what he paid first attention to were the stars coruscating overhead, cut off midway to the horizon by a bank of rolled cloud coming from the north-northwest down upon where he stood. The wind that felt so keen down below had lost some bite so he could not say if he faced rain or snow but either way he and the girl were in for it and he hoped they were both equal to whatever came. With this study he placed himself in the otherwise measureless landscape ahead. He rested a hand on the dingy ox-shoulder beside him and yupped it again and moved forward into the night, onward toward the light. Which was soon lost from sight as they descended the valley and into the growth of hardwood and spruce and tamarack forest which surrounded them. The road underfoot firm with frost and back in the woods the snowpack, a luminescent shadow of the night itself. This land stalled in winter.

He told himself it was April and whatever the weather it would change soon. Even a heavy snow would linger but a handful of days. The girl would be all right. The important thing was the glimpsed light. It would've been so natural for it not to have been there at all. He could not predict this land. It was this fact, most simply, that had brought him here.

She had dragged the cowhide up onto the hogshead and had the luxury of both blankets and so was sleeping curled tight to fit the round space but more comfortably than she had since the man took her from Maine. This after supping on the rich hot black tea that he reserved for himself and great rinds of bacon that she could not slice but washed the worst of the mold in the bitter brook water before roasting so the fat spit and burned her face and what mold was left was burned clear and she ate as much for once as she wanted. Sharing the hide-rind with the dog who sat atop its hogshead watching her as if recording her transgressions with some silent stamp. Still, the dog was happy to eat the offered food. All the time with the wind funneled piercing down through the cleft above. But the fire was high and warm and there were no blackflies and she went to sleep with her belly stretched and her mind slowed and easy. So when the enormous hound woke her with his roaring she was blear-eyed and thick-headed.

She thought at first it was the snow the dog sounded, great platelets the size of saucers in a drafty sweep down through the wavering ovoid of firelight, and was scrambling up to her knees and holding the rifle tight as she reached one hand to try and calm Luther when she saw the wolves. Three of them. She had never seen one before but there was no mistake, the nightbeasts shadowed gray against the black, the yellow rimfire eyes turned hot sideways toward her as they moved, pacing back and forth just at the edge of light, the three forms weaving past one another the way water braids through a cat-tail stand. The lone ox was bellowing now also, heaving its weight against the side of the cart as if it might join the dog and girl atop the load, the cart rocking against its terror.

The wolves still had thick winter pelts and against the new-fallen snow and the light of the burned-down fire they appeared to float. They were silent, making a half circle back and forth where the cart was lodged against the steep cliffside of the road, leaping dainty over the brook to keep as close to the cart as they could or would. The ox was down on that open side of the cart and the wolves would make slight feint as they approached and fall back again as they passed, the dog Luther stretched high and quivering on his stoop, howling, extended as far out as he could over the bulging fearful ox, his four legs bunched together, feet jammed against the cask-rim, his head lowered so that he bayed his awful roar down the side of the stricken ox and the sound flowed out toward the wolves.

Sally had her feet pulled under her and her shawl over the flintlock of the rifle although she guessed the cap was already wet from the snow but did not know enough to know what to do about it. Her hands wet and there seemed no way to check it. With her other hand she reached out and dug a hard hold of the heavy hair and fold of skin at the base of the dog's tail and he turned and snarled at her but she gripped harder and shouted at him and he looked at her again and then turned back to the wolves. She would let the wolves eat the ox before she would let the dog off the cart. He was all she had. She thought a moment of Blood returning with a mended axle and only a single ox for a load that needed a team and wished he was here, that he'd waited until morning to set off and then she realized that if the ox was killed they would have to go through something like this all over again and she began to shout at the wolves. At first just words yelled, Git, Git, Git Out Of Here, and then the delicious fever of release came over her and she began just to scream, the high drawn pitched cry of her soul-and her screaming seemed to enthrall the wolves. One sat on its haunches in the snow and tipped back its head and watched her and the other two slipped back a scant pace and weaved among the trees. The one seated then began to howl, its mouth agape to the night and the long cry coming as if answering her. And she screamed back and the hound and ox roared their wails as well and the night filled with this music against the silent old forbearing earth.

One of the other wolves, made bold by the sound or finding it provoking or just too hungry to wait longer made a dash in toward the ox and the ox turned and slashed with a hindfoot that struck nothing but sent the wolf back toward the dark and it was then, still screaming and not knowing what she was doing, that she raised the rifle and did not aim so much as simply hold the howling wolf with her eyes so it was secured under the barrel of the gun and she hammered back the lock and pulled the trigger and the rifle went off with a tremendous concussion that nearly threw her from the hogshead. A glut of powdersmoke sifted through the air and the falling snow was obscured for a moment. And the music was smothered. The first thing she could hear out of the ringing silence was the trifling spatter of snow against the covered ground.

On the evening of the third day Blood returned with the repaired axle, a hindquarter of young moose and a soft-tanned bearskin slung over the back of the ox, coming through the snow that had fallen that first night and most of the following day but was now shrunk back and melting under warm days and the night interval, the snow rotting from the bottom up and so running streams of water in every declivity and pooling in every hoofprint or smallest depression between stones, and found her, back in her shift with her stream-washed clothing hung to dry over a shadbush with swollen buds and the wolf carcass hanging from a tree where she had drawn it up on a length of rope to keep the dog from attacking it, far enough from the cart so the camped ox was calm but close enough to warn off other wolves.

The fire was still going even with the warmth of the day, piled over with fresh spruce boughs to smudge against the blackflies now out and the stack of wood was even greater than what he'd left her with and he stopped above the camp on the track down from the notch and surveyed all this while she stood silent waiting him. And when he finally looked back at her after this long perusal she saw he understood everything, even likely the liberties she'd taken with their provision.

He goaded the loaded ox down the last length of rock-strewn trail.

She said, "I drank up all but the last of the tea. I figured the bounty on that wolf would pay it back."

Blood nodded. He was unstrapping the axle from the load. His leather breeches were soaked through to mid-thigh. He said, "It's a long ways to anyplace might have tea to sell. Or to collect wolf bounty either one."

"Well," she said, "we'll just have to make do then."

He laid the axle next to the cart and took down the rest of the load, setting the bearskin up on the pile of bedding without speaking of it and passed over to her the weight of moose meat. Then he handed her his belt knife and said, "Cut a pair of thick steaks but take that smudge off before you roast them. Cook em slow while I ready the cart. Don't rush it-I'm starved for fresh meat myself but waited to get back here."

"I ate up most of the bacon."

"Get yourself sick?"

"Not hardly."

"I couldn't stomach any more of it myself. I'll miss the tea though."

"There's a mite left."

He was down on his knees, fussing and adjusting the stone tiers holding the cart aloft. Then turned on his back and pushed under it, dragging the axle with him. She used a stick to clear the smudge from the fire and turned to the meat. She had no idea how to cut it but would not ask him and so ran her fingers over the quarter of meat, letting them learn the muscles and tendons and how the bone lay underneath and trying to gauge how to butcher. Then he came out from under the cart, his back and one side streaked and grimed with mud. He held his hand over his eyes against the sun and looked up at her. He said, "When was it you shot the wolf?"

"That first night. When it snowed."

"You reload the rifle?"

"I don't have the first idea how."

He nodded. Then said, "That was some god-awful snow, wasn't it?"

"It weren't so bad."

"Was it just the one wolf?"

"There was three of em."

He studied her. "What happened to the other two?"

"They left."

"Well by Jesus. I bet they did."

She said, "If you got that axle on we could eat and get along. I'm sick of setting here."

Blood sat looking at her. Then he slid down out of sight again under the cart. He heaved and cursed and writhed against the ground, his heels kicking for leverage as he worked. She cut the meat as best she could and hunkered by the heap of coals with two chunks of moose impaled on peeled branches, positioned where she could watch both the cooking and the repair. After a bit he stood and wiped dirt from his face with the grimed back of his hand. Then sat with his legs splayed before him, his bootsoles showing holes. Blood said, "Time comes to collect that bounty, it's not just the tea and bacon gets deducted. But the cost of the ball and cap as well." Watching her.

"That's fair," she said. "You going to charge for my supper here too?"

He stood and wiped his hands on his breeches. "No. No, I don't believe I will."

"Well then. You ready to eat?"

Both squatting before the fire, holding the slow-cooked meat in both hands and eating, he looked across and asked, "Can you sew?"

She shook her head. Chewed and swallowed. "I can mend. Why?"

"Never mind."

Later he left her with the cowhide as a groundsheet and the bearskin to wrap herself in beside the fire and took the foul blankets and himself off into the underbrush and she lay warm listening to him thrash and groan as he turned for comfort against the muck and hard ground and rocks.

"Come in by the fire," she called. "Come warm yourself."

No he called back, the word choked as if the thoughts behind it were some kind of bile or vomit he would force down before spewing.

They had traveled from winter through spring back into winter again in the notch and now they would travel spring once more. In the morning they went that final three hundred yards up to the head of the notch before sunup and descended into the valley, into the boundless unbroken northern woods as the sun cleared the mountains behind them and lit the land, a pale washed lambent glow settling on the red buds of the maples and the pale quaver of spring branches. In daylight there was no light to mark the farm far down the valley where Blood had found repair for the axle and purchased the hide and fresh meat, and although he could see the languid lean smoke-rise from the house of the goodwife there, he did not point it out to the girl and she did not see it, so far away and faint it was in the morning sun. The people there had been accommodating and the man indeed had a forge though little custom. He and his wife were pleasant but reserved and the smith made no offer to accompany Blood with the repaired axle. As if they read correctly Blood wanted nothing more of them than what he bought. They were happy enough for the hard coin currency, having already, Blood was sure, a box stuffed with scribbled promissory. More important, they told Blood of the shortcut road north he'd find not more than a mile from the head of the notch, a road coarse and ill-made, largely untraveled but yet one that could save him a week, perhaps more, than if he followed the main road on west beyond their farmstead to the Connecticut River where he would only then turn northward. They warned against the inferior route but in such a way that Blood was convinced they correctly read his desires. He had no interest in the settled towns and expansive farms along the big river valley. If he could circumvent he would. And so the shortcut road.

The girl said nothing when they turned onto the ragged little track studded even at the junction with small stumps and upthrust rocks not cleared from the road and young alders, no more than waist high and lithe as grasses but clear signs of the conditions ahead. She only paused at the junction, still out in the muck of the main road and peered awhile down where they would not be going, as if trying to divine what she was missing. And he did not speak or call out to her but went on, knowing she would follow. She was no longer tied to the back of the cart.

Loosed from her tether, her tongue was set free also. As if some part of her long damped down was allowed to breathe and flare. She chattered along, her words as unencumbered as the rush of water that ran everywhere, small mountain snowmelt brooks making their own brief courses where they must. She was more child than woman then, even if she spoke as a woman and child oftentimes all at once. Blood knew she was freed not once but twice; the once when he'd assaulted her as some demon of his own mind-that had been Blood's first forced hard look at her as something more than a method for possible gain. The second when she'd shot the wolf and for her this had been clear and easy victory-she could take care of herself. And Blood. There was a tenderness in him that he thought had been gone long since. Determined she would never know it, he now thought of her as something out of providence; perhaps, he thought, nothing more than yet another test of his soul.

And like her words the world was coming alive around them, the roadside birds-the waxwings and red-winged blackbirds, nuthatch and robin and chickadee-the birds of winter and summer mixed as easily as the woman and child bound up in the one body, all these seemed to enjoin her to sing out, to cry full throat the day.

Blood could walk miles without once responding to her. There was no need. Everything she said was addressed to him but she expected nothing in return. She would as easily tell herself to the oxen or the hound Luther. Whom she was trying to make a pet of and who would snarl at her if she got too close, ran her hand too long along his back. But who had taken to bringing back from his afternoon disappearances meat for them all, snowshoe hares still in their winter white pelts or ducks or geese ambushed from some thick reeds, once an inedible muskrat. And Blood saw this and knew the dog's loyalty was not redirected but expanding and this troubled him as some outward sign of his own feeble wavering. If Sally saw any of this she did not speak of it. And Blood was sure she saw at least something of it. And so was impressed again by her. And further disturbed within himself.

Could he resent her springtime?

Did he have a choice?

He was a man self-shorn of choice. But he could not stop her and she knew it. If it was a perverse god who had brought her to him he knew also that he was his own agent, he had someway sought her. If a man acts that does not mean it's condoned. And there she was, a pretty little girl with her feet toughened, in her plain shift with her hair loose down her back skipping along to his steady trudge, her hand batting at the blackflies, her life so unexpected, ingenuous with delight.

She said, "I was figuring to slip on out of there someways, anyhow when you come along, I just didn't know how, and then I didn't have to. I had you pegged for a fearsome kind of man right off when she woke me and you were standing back there in the dark of the hall. I thought if it's got to be one that takes me off it might as well be one that others will be feared of. So much the better for me, is what I'm hoping. I might be wrong but I can't help it-it's how my mind works. These blackflies are a plague, idn't that the truth? I never seen nothing like em. But it beats the nits, I give you that. That house was lousy with nits. She bought that special soap off the barber and we all washed with it but some more regular than others. Without naming no names. But, you laid with her, you might like to check yourself good. Not that there's much you could do. 'Cept to stay away from me. I'm clean as a whistle and know it. I check myself every day. She was a bad one for it. Didn't care. I recall once setting to eat and looking over and seen em working in her eyebrows. Just crawling. She'd buy that soap and then not use it. But she had to have it there. Some men was particular about their parts, wanted to wash before and after. It was the old married ones mostly. The young ones, they'd be too worked up to care. Most of em sea-men anyhow and most of them was the ones brought the nits in the first place. I guess. I always thought they was something about like rats-just always there, a part of things. These blackflies they ain't nothing next to nits. You could lay there and pick em off with the tip of a pin, had to pry em off and then crush em with the head of the pin and you could do that all day long and the next day there would be as many as before. The most terrible wicked itch I ever known. You scratch, scratch, scratch and it just makes it worse.

"You're not married are you? You're the most single man I ever seen. She always claimed she was my mother and I guess maybe she was. I couldn't see myself, looking at her, but that don't mean a thing. If she had a clue who fathered me she never let on. I never had but the one name as far as I know. Just Sally. Come to think of it, you see the need for me to have a second name we should talk about that. I wouldn't care to have two but I'd like some say in what the other might be. Just don't spring one on me, introducing me to someone wherever it is we're going. If you have any mind to do that I mean. Not only cause I'd like some say but also I might go ahead and forget what it was and botch things up somehow. I got no objection to just being Sally. Sally's who I am, always has been. Sally and Blood. It makes for an interesting couple, don't it? That fearsome thing you got about you, it just rolls right off up against me, don't it? It would make people curious. Might be, it could work good for us. Whatever it is you got in mind. Although I guess I know well enough what that is. Leastways for me. But"-she turned where she was ahead of him on the path-"that don't mean I won't take what comes my way."

"Why don't you hush," Blood said. "Doesn't your jaw ever get sore with all that jabber?"

"I like you Mister Blood. You're the first man ever in my life I felt like I could say whatever came to mind without him trying to figure out how to get something out of it for himself."

"Well you could take a pause, couldn't you?"

The track ran along the edge of a widespread openland of beaver marsh and ponds, and meadows of harsh wild hay just beginning to green at the base of the dried clumps of last year's grass and they stopped for a night although it was not yet the usual stopping time of dusk. Blood lifted the yoke from the oxen and ran a length of chain between their nose-rings and turned them loose to forage. Sally was already gathering firewood; it was her job and since the wolves she liked a big fire she could feed throughout the night. Blood took a hook and handline and baits of cubed salt pork and caught a string of orange-bellied spotted trout, all the while watching the network of beaver lodges strung throughout the ponds to see if they'd been trapped out or not. He heard at least a couple of warning tail-slaps and saw one swimming and what he thought were young atop one of the more distant lodges. Not perhaps abundance but they hadn't been wiped clean, at least not yet. Some feller would be in here soon enough. He had no traps himself. Beyond all edges, that's what he thought of the trapper's life. The ones he'd known all went crazy or broke or both. Maybe crazy to start with. There was much wrong with himself, a blunt fact, but he was not crazy. And as pleasing as the prospect might seem, it was not for him to do. It was his job to keep himself right where he was. All the time every inch of every way aware of himself. The way a drunk would struggle to keep his finger in a candleflame for the count. Except there was no end to it. And no free drink at the end either.

Picking trout bones from her lips and flicking them into the fire, her mouth shining with grease, she looked up at him and said, "You had to've been to that house before. For her to play cards with you that way."

Blood had been enjoying the quiet. Had even stopped eating to leave the rest of the trout for her, thinking a full belly might send her to sleep and bring quiet if not peace for himself. Now he frowned at her and did not answer. Then wanted one thing made clear and so spoke.

"It was not my habit. But yes, I'd stopped there a time or two. There was a time when she was a fair hand to the cards."

"That gin's something bad. I'd never let myself get like that."

"Nobody ever knows what lies ahead. But you can try and learn I guess."

She nodded. Then said, "So it's awhile you knowed her."

"Some years yes. Infrequent, like I said."

"How many?"

He made a gesture with his hand. He didn't know, wasn't sure. "I couldn't say."

She was quiet a moment, wiping her hands on her shift. Then looked back at him and said, "I'm either fifteen or sixteen, I ain't sure which."

He looked at her a long while. Then he sighed and said, "It hasn't been half that long ago. I know for certain. Don't even be thinking that way."

She nodded and looked away out into the dark. And he thought she was done with it. Then she looked back at him and said, "I don't care anyways. But, also, I don't see you as the sort would take his own daughter out to whore."

She had no chance to stir he moved so fast upon her, dragging her upright by her hair and his free hand slapping one side of her face and then the other, gripping so hard her eyes bulged and he continued backhanding her even as she began to scream and beat her through her screaming until she was broken to soundless sobs, draped down limp where he held her up by her hair, her eyes white and rolling and he dropped her then and went to the meadow and brought in the oxen and hooked their chain to the side of the cart, still not looking at where the girl lay on the ground, the dog Luther standing near her, looking neither at her nor at Blood. Who looked away from her and reached down into the cart and found the cob-stoppered clay demi-john of Barbados rum and took that up and went out into the woods away from her.

After some of the rum he went back in and took up his rifle and turned back to the woods, then stopped and looked over at where she lay by the dying fire. She had turned on her stomach and was flat against the ground. He leaned the rifle against the cart and went over and dressed up the fire and laid spruce boughs over it to smudge against the insects. Then got the bearskin from the cart and spread it over her and retrieved the rifle and went back to the woods.

He drank no more of the rum and neither did he sleep. Twice he went in and built the fire back up and smudged it down. At first light she was still sleeping, now on her side with her knees pulled up. He went past her and down into the beaver meadow where he stripped off his clothes and waded out into the snow-shocked water and slid forward into it and swam until he could not breathe. Came out and stood dripping and looked upon the day. A delicate blue dawn. Some few high rose clouds in the west. There was no air moving. Trails of mist smoked off the beaver ponds. He dressed and went up to what remained of the fire.

He would sell the girl for good the first chance he found.

Two silent days later they passed the blazes and posts of a surveyor that cut in a straight line angled across the road. Blood guessed it was a grant boundary and not some individual's pitch. The day after that the road took a sharp turn to the northwest, following a river that if his information was correct was a branch of the Dead Diamond. Or perhaps the main stream itself. His inkling was that the land itself was the only source of truth. Even the farmer-smith in the notch valley had been vague.

He did not regret his actions. And he felt her firm-shut mouth was good for her-the world did not reward gladhearts or levity. But yet he missed her prattle. What little of innocence she owned he'd squelched and while it was inevitable, by someone else if not him, he thought it would have been a meager indulgence to have allowed her that enjoyment for whatever time it might have lived on within her. The two of them alone, traveling thus, he could have endured it. He'd taken nothing from her-she'd earned it well and true. Still, he thought, if this be her sole happy time then too bad it must be so short. But then all things were so. More than any other the farce of happiness.

The following day they came upon a dwelling set amongst the trees with no effort of clearing made, a one-room single story palisade of unskinned logs chinked with a slurry of mud and moss and a lean-to roof of great slabs of elm bark held in place with a crosshatch of unpeeled poles woven together. A daub and stone chimney leaned more than stood against one end of the structure. There was the distinct stench of rotting flesh, given off Blood guessed by the flayed carcasses of animals trapped and skinned over the winter and the ones not edible thrown off into the deep-frozen quietude of winter drifts, now come back to haunt the place. Blood guessed also that the trapper did not smell them, sure that the small hot interior had endured the winter with a like reek of flensed pelts, stretched and salted but pungent nonetheless. He whoaed the oxen and halloed the log house. Whoever dwelt there, if he be home, already knew of their presence. It was quiet awhile but Blood stood where he was in the road. The girl mute with hapless downturned head at the rear of the cart. The only sign of life a crew of ravens that lifted out of the woods behind the house when he first called out.

"Make one step, I'll blow you through." The voice came from behind them, from the deep woods across the road from the log house. Blood thought Of course he heard us coming long before we come into sight. Blood was up by the team, armed only with the goad. The rifle was back in the cart. He couldn't see Luther.

He paused a moment before answering. "I was already stopped, you called out. I'm no harm to you, friend."

A long silence. Blood cursed himself. The man, whoever he was, a trapper certain but how insane there was no way to judge. He could shoot Blood and bury him off in a bog and the cart and all the stores would be his. All for Blood's own lack of caution.

Then he heard the man stepping through the underbrush and Blood turned slowly to face him. To show dearth of fear as much as view what was coming.

The man was in filthy imperfectly tanned leather leggings and tall moccasins and a tunic shirt belted around his waist. His hair was loose, in strings pushed behind his ears. His face the color of old brick, not only from sun but also wind and cold, this coloring clouded by a layer of grease and woodsmoke. His eyes bright and dark as river water were neatly focused on Blood, not roaming the cart or the girl, which Blood took as a good sign. He carried a shotgun which Blood guessed carried a heavy charge of buckshot. What would rip a man in two.

"What's your business?"

"Traveling through is all. Up toward the Indian Stream."

The man peered at the cart and back at Blood. "That's not household goods you're freighting."

"No. It's not. I was thinking to do some trade."

"Trade for what?"

"For what there is. I have yet to learn the country."

"Pelts? Furs?"

"Why yes. Could be."

"Mostly what there is. That's worth anything but to barter anyways. Otherwise it's just grain or meal or potash, some charcoal. Maybe a little linsey-woolsey some of the women work. But it's scanty for hard money. Furs is the closest thing you'll find."

"I thought maybe."

"I've got some pelts."

Blood nodded. "I guessed you might. But most of what I've got is in full lots. I'm not set up yet to piece-trade."

"Tell you what," the trapper said. "You look at my bale, then see what you might have handy. It might work out for both of us. It'd save me a trip, maybe."

Blood didn't like it but there was nothing to do. The man still held his shotgun, loose down at his side like it wasn't even there but Blood knew how fast that scatter-gun could rise. As close as they were the man could shoot one handed from the hip. Blood said, "Won't hurt either of us to take a look."

The man stepped up. Extended his hand. "Name's Gandy. I didn't have any idea what was coming along. You're the first white man I seen on this road cepting the survey party last summer. And they didn't want to have much to do with me." He grinned. Broken black and yellow teeth. "I was on the wrong side of their line for them to have any claim on me. And I wouldn't work for em. Wanted me to guide em through the woods. Last thing I wanted, was anybody else knowing how to get around. I've got trouble enough from the Saint Francis heathen."

Blood took the hand and spoke his own name. Then for the first time Gandy looked at Sally. Who was watching both of them. Gandy said, "Is that your woman there?"

Blood said, "She's with me ain't she."

The furs were a prime lot. Marten, fisher, wolverine, lynx, some mink, more of beaver, some white weasel, two black bear hides, all carefully stretched and salted, supple. In a ruder state than Blood had seen before but they looked good to him. About what he'd hoped for. In a separate stinking roll were uncured pelts of what Gandy said were thirteen wolves. Gandy would not untie them but dug his fingers along the edge of the roll to count.

He said, "For the bounty they don't need to be in any special condition. I tried awful hard to get one more. You can't get em in the summer. I hated to end the season on thirteen. But it looks like that's it. Might be the bad luck is the wolves not mine."

The log house was close, smells layered too thick to break apart into any one source but together making the air a paste of dread and death. A hand-split plank table and bench was the only furniture other than a rope-strung bed built into one corner, a mattress of stinking dried rush with no ticking of any sort and a snarl of soiled blankets.

Blood said, "What do you want for them?"

"You're the trader."

"No. Not yet I'm not. I'm not ready to break into my goods. You seen my cart, it's about a load as it is. I'd be pressed to get that bale up on there. I could pay hard money or you could wait and come up to the Indian Stream and find me there."

"I'd do as well to haul em on a hand-sledge over to the Connecticut."

Blood nodded. "It's a hard haul."

"Or I could float em down the Dead Diamond and over to Maine."

Blood said, "You could. And paddle upstream coming back."

"Either way, either place, I know I could get just what I wanted."

"Sounds like, that's the best for you."

"But you're here right now."

"What I need to do, is get on. I need to get set up. You're not the only one'll be coming out of the woods."

Gandy said, "All I really need is powder and shot. And some of whatever you got in them hogsheads. I need a good bit of that. The way I see it, we could be convenient to each other."

"I can't tap a cask here. I'd be sure to loosen the bung on this rough road. I won't risk it."

Gandy's mouth was moist. "What is it anyhow?"

"Black Indies rum."

"Oh my Christ Mister. I'd certain like some of that. All I had this winter was some of that potato licker them farmers make over along the river."

"I've a demi-john near full. That's all but the hogsheads. I'd risk opening a powder keg for you, you wanted enough of that. You got a mold?"


"There's pigs of lead too. If you could be happy with the powder and lead and a small bit of rum. I'd let you have the rest in coin and come time you run low it'd be an easy hike with no load up to find me. It'd be worth the trip then. It can't be but about a dozen miles. Ain't that right?"

"Sixteen or so to the Connecticut Lake. But it's big country up there. You could be anywheres at all, I came looking."

"I plan to be right in the center of things. A man wants to trade, it's where he needs to be."

Gandy looked around the room as if seeking some answer there. Then he said, "Show me the rum."

* * *

Outside, with the girl watching at a small distance, Gandy hefted the clay john but made no move toward the cob stopper. He leaned toward Blood and said, "It's a rough country up there. There idn't no law but enough people so there's problems. So mostly they solve their own. There's all kinds but each one's ill-disposed to somebody they don't know. They might be glad to see your goods but that don't mean they'll welcome you."

Blood nodded. "I'm not accustomed to welcome."

Gandy thought about that and then said, "How about the girl? Can I get some of her in the trade? Against what's coming to me?"

Blood said, "No."

"It's an awful mean hard winter alone."


"I don't mean offense."

"No. Listen, figure what you want. Make a total of it and then we'll go over the stock you can get now and I'll make up the rest in cash money. I can't be all day at this."

"Why now," Gandy said. "I thought you'd stop the night."

"We'll be going on."

Gandy said, "If I was a mind for mischief it would be the easiest to let you go along. The pace of an ox team ain't much to match. And I could slip in on you sleeping. So stay the night."

Without raising his voice Blood said, "Luther." The dog came out of the woods silent as a trout in a stream.

Gandy said, "Good God."

Blood said, "You'd never see him coming. I sleep when and where I want to."

"That's the goddamnedest creature I ever saw."

Blood did not smile. "We going to do business or should I call my girl and get on?"

They went on through the dusk and into the night. There was no moon and Blood got down his candle-lantern for the first time and lighted it and left open the slide so he could see the worst of the stumps and rocks ahead. The girl Sally was up on the cart, half-seated, half-wedged against the hogshead to rock against the bale of furs which were rough-lashed with rawhide strings to the top of the load. The stinking wolf skins jammed down in the back corner on top of the skin from her wolf.

"I'm hungry," she said.

"We're not stopping yet. All we have's what's left of the bacon anyhow. If you're famished eat it cold. But don't come crying it makes you sick."

She spat a thick spume of bile. "It makes me retch just thinking of it."

"Then wait. Cooked, it'll freshen up."

"You afeared that man'll follow us?"


They went on silent. An owl called off in the woods and from another place a different one echoed back. The calling did not frighten her but seemed to soften the night. As if there was something sweet and unknown out within it. She wondered how owls coupled. If they did it flying. She wondered what that might be like. She guessed one owl would be hard-gripped by the talons of the other. She guessed she knew which would be the one gripped, would bleed from the wounds of the mating.

After a time she said, "That trapper-man back there. When he wanted to take part payment in me. How come you to say no?"

Blood said nothing. Going forward at the head of the oxen, goad in one hand tipped back just before their noses to stop them quick, the candle-lantern held high in the other to shine the light. The cart was rocking over uneven ground and she realized they were climbing now, rising slowly up some height of land. The dog Luther was trailing the cart instead of his usual lead or side post. As if he knew without command where his master wanted him.

She had given up on response, had almost regretted asking. Wondering what it would take for her to learn to leave Blood be. When without turning his voice came back in the night.

"I don't know what to do with you."

She thought about that. Long after a sickle moon lifted over the treetops and long after they stopped and made a small fire and cooked bacon he trimmed with his knife and even after she'd rolled herself into the bearskin and the cold night air settled down and promised frost on the hide in the morning. Long after she heard the steady tortured snoring of Blood and after Luther had come in from the night to not lie but sit upright between the two of them, watching out into the midnight. She was still thinking about it the next morning when he roused her with the sun already up and breaking slantwise among the trees. It was the first thing in her mind. And she said nothing. Was determined for once to be silent and wait. She'd discovered that what she knew of men wasn't near what she thought. Not near what there was to know. But maybe Blood was the man to learn from.

Whatever he was, was a way she would like to be. What it was, she thought, was opportunity.

Also she figured not to give him reason to whale upon her again. But would not stop from speaking up if she had to. The rest of it, what lay between her speaking and his reaction, was up to him.

Midday they came out onto the open height of land they'd been climbing toward and paused to survey what spread before them. A little east of north lay a large lake, only partly visible although he could track the vague outline of it by the treeline and the surrounding low hills. From near the lake rose trails of flimsy smoke and further up one hillside was a lush billow where men were burning slash where they were making a field amongst stumps. With the distance they could hear nothing, could not even smell the woodsmoke but there it was. Between where they halted and the lake were a series of low hills and in places he could see silver stands of dead trees marking bogs and beaver marshes. Beyond the lake the land stretched off toward the north in long low ridges. To the east were larger mountains and looking back, southwest, more mountains stood. The shortcut, he saw, had been a good one.

When they camped at dusk they were all but out of food and Blood took his handline and turned rotted logs for grub-baits and went after trout in the roadside brook. After the other night it was almost the last thing he wanted but the only thing worse was alerting the settlement with gunfire. He wanted to come in unexpected. They were close enough now to smell the woodsmoke from the houses and he told Sally to keep the fire low this night. An unneeded caution as the blackflies and midges were swarming from the nearby marsh and she needed a low fire to hold a good smudge. He wasn't worried over the smell of smoke. There was plenty of that. It was light he wanted to avoid. There was no way to know who might be situated so as to look out over this stretch of land.

They ate by that dulled light. If the trout reminded the girl of anything it was only how hungry she was. He studied her, eating. She stripped the meat from the bones with her fingers, as if combing a loved one's hair. When she finished each trout there was a head and tail connected by the bare spine and most of the ribs intact and she would hold each out in the flat of her hand. Luther would take up the offering with mild courteous mouth and they could hear him chewing the bones and head of the fish. When she was done she took herself out into the bushes and then to the brook where she washed her hands and face. Then returned and dug her skirt and bodice and shawl from the cart and shook them out and draped them over a bush to let the night take the wrinkles from them. She sat again and looked at Blood.

"I'll have to walk in barefoot. My feet's too swelled to get my shoes on."

Blood said, "You won't be the only one barefoot there."

"What sort of place is it?"

He shook his head. "I can't tell you much. What I heard it's rough. As you know, it's a good long ways from anywhere else, so it's whatever the people there have made of it."

She was quiet, clearly considering the implications.

After a moment Blood sighed. He spoke again. "However it is, there's a chance there may be someone who thinks they know me, one maybe who's heard something of me. There's stories told of me. You can believe what you want. Just don't bother me with any of it. I won't dispute a word, truth or no."

Saying this he looked severe upon her but once done turned his gaze off into the darkness. Not daring her to probe but unmistakably ending it.

After another time Sally said, "There was people to know them, there could be plenty stories told of me I guess. True and not true, I'm sure. But it don't change who I am."

Blood looked back at her. He said, "Oh, the true ones change you all right. There's just nothing you can do about em."

* * *

There was hard frost on them in the morning and she huddled shivering before the small fire and turned journeycake on stones while the woods about them filled with mist from the unseen marshes, trailing through the bare gaunt trees in phantom multitudes and the light when it came was a hard blue that seemed to come from some far more distant sun than the one they knew. Even Blood was shivering where he hunched.

"Damn it," she said. "Ain't there ever a spring to last?"

"I don't know. I sure hope so."

"It makes me wonder what winter must be like."

"Don't think about it. We got all spring and summer before worrying about that. No telling what winter will bring. Where it'll find us, you or me both."

By late morning they were sweated through when they came out into the opening of the first cleared lands although even here north-facing hillsides held crumbling remnant snowbanks and all meadow edges ran overflow brooks and they passed through without seeing a dwelling or person. The field they were in had not been worked but tatters of last year's cornstalks flagged among the stumps. They came out the far side of the field beside a flooded river and onto a real road, one mired thick with a sandy marl and rutted where the ground was firmer and they went up that toward where they could see woodsmoke and dwellings, a house of logs some better than the trapper Gandy's but not much and across from that a larger two-story house of boards beside a mill that stood where the lake emptied over a ledge into the river. Sally walked by the side of the road, pressing through close-packed underbrush of old broken grass and bracken of brown-rotted ferns where here and there a gray-green uncurled new fern was pushing up. She had her skirt lifted to her knees and her feet and ankles were overlaid with layers of dried mud. She carried her shoes in her hand, not as if she would put them on but to be seen as a person who owned shoes.

A quarter mile before the mill three men came out of it and stood watching down the road at them and soon another man came from the log house and joined the first three. None carried guns of any sort but one in a heavy smock had a sword in his hand and the man from the log house had a club of firewood with him. The board house had heavy shutters over the windows and gun-slits cut in the upper story, a small fortress. As Blood watched the house some unseen hand pushed the open front door closed and even this far away he could hear how solidly it shut into the frame.

Sally said, "I'd feel better I could see a woman."

He looked over at her. "Those fellers don't know it yet but they're going to be some glad to see us, is what I think. Also, you might find the women here not as friendly as the men. I might be wrong but that's my guess."

She looked at him as if gauging his intentions but he already was looking ahead up the road. Then he said, "Get back in the road, behind the cart. Walk there with the dog."

So she waded back into the slurry and wordless lurched after the cart which was pitching and heaving side to side as the wheels found irregular frozen foundation deep within the mud. She stepped up and set her shoes in the cart and then fell back a few paces, trudging slow with the waist-high dog beside her. Luther walking through the mud as if it wasn't there. She wanted to rest a palm on his head but did not want to risk rebuff. It was enough he was beside her.

There were stacks of board lumber up on chocks alongside the mill and in a field opposite were a hundred or more logs. The lake stretched capacious beyond the mill, the water blue near to black and glittering as if strewn with chipped and sharded ice. The lake and sky were bright and clean, while the road was a mean puny thing and the four men out awaiting them seemed to be more of the road than of the land around them. She wished the men weren't there at all, that they might just travel through. To where she could not say. Just on into this good day.

Blood halted the cart fifty or sixty yards down the road from where the men stood waiting and walked forward to meet them, carrying with him the ox goad because he already had it in his hand and it was natural to take it with him and would look otherwise were he to lay it up in the cart. Blood was only of medium height but thick-trunked and wide-shouldered, with heavy arms and thighs and the goad itself was a sinister tool; heavy ash-wood with an iron point on the slender ground end and the thick butt capped with bullhide over a brad of lead. He came to a stop a dozen feet from where they clumped, ample room for the goad should he need it. The men were winter-lean save for the stout miller but Blood had long since learned that heft or the lack of it could be a trivial feature in a man.

"Good morning," he said to all or none of them. "Or is it noontime yet?"

"Still forenoon," said the miller. "You carrying an Eastman deed?"

"I'm carrying no deed at all, Eastman or otherwise. I'm not looking to farm but trade." All the men but the miller leaned to peer down the road at the cart. Blood waited, silent.

"Where'd you come from?" The miller again. This brought the attention of the other men back.

Blood determined to take the question in a local manner. "Come up the road through the puckerbrush from the head of the notch."

The man with the firewood club said, "That so."

"It's some rough road."

"You didn't come up through Coos County then?"

"Not that I know. It's not a place I passed through."

The miller frowned at him. "You didn't come through Lancaster?"

"I busted the axle in the notch and there was a farmer with a forge told me there was a shortcut road."

One of the other men said, "David Brown."

Blood nodded. "I believe that's what he called himself." Then, wanting the rest out of the way, added, "The girl and I brought the load out of Portland down in Maine up through Conway and Errol and then through the notch. Then north to here."

"What's in the cart?" One of the other men.

Blood ignored this as bad manners. "The word I got was that a man could make a start for himself here. If that's what he was looking for."

The miller said, "And you have no deed?"

"I didn't know I needed one."

One of the other men smiled. "Most likely, you're better off not having one."

"What you're talking about is land speculators, idn't that so?"

"Honest men that done the work here don't care a whit what some fool paid for and so thinks they own."

"All I own's my stores. Of course, I'd be looking for someplace to set up shop. Someplace not too far out of the way if I can help it. Maybe some feller who things ain't worked out for the way he'd like. But I'm not looking for anything but one where everybody'd benefit."

The miller now said, "You're not after some place in particular? You don't have some one feller's name in mind?"

Blood said, "I've got no tomfoolery about me."

The miller said, "You've got some years on you. To be starting new in a place like this."

"Older men than me have had to start over."

"Now, that's true."

The man with the club said, "There's plenty this time of year discouraged with the outlook. If it was cash money you was talking about." He grinned.

Blood looked hard at him. "When it's the right man I'll make my arrangements with him. To his satisfaction and mine too."

Club said, "I wasn't prying. Spend the winter and see how you sing then."

The miller said, "Every man's business is his own. But there's too few of us here not to watch out for each other."

"Mostly." One of the other men spoke for the first time.

The miller looked at him and back at Blood. "You'll not get rich here."

Blood said nothing to this.

The miller ran his free hand over his face, thumb and fingers kneading cheek muscles. "There's Sam Potter."

"Why yes." Club interrupted.

The miller went on. "Lost his wife trying with their firstborn this winter. Took the piss right out of him. Sold his cow for potato licker and lived on moosemeat and I don't know what. He's young enough but was tender over that girl. I imagine he'd be happy to hump back downcountry, he had something to show for it."

Blood said, "It never makes me happy, to hear of another's misfortune."

The miller nodded. "Everyone gets their share. Some sooner than later."

"That's right. This Potter place, is it off in the woods or someplace people could get to easy?"

"Why it's right down to the mouth of Perry Stream. Most of the land's north-facing but that wouldn't make a difference for you I guess."

"I'd want pasture meadow for the oxen."

"There's a intervale by the dadewater. It's not much but it would do for winter hay. And there's all the upland you could ask for to summer them on."

"Summer," said Club. "Now what's that?"

"You recall," said one of the others. "That's when the sledding gets bad."

Blood said to the miller, "You think I'd find him to home?" Asking far more than he appeared to.

The miller understood this. "He's not taken to woods-running. Just setting with the mope, mostly. You want, I'd walk down there with you."

Blood studied the lake a moment. Then looked at the miller. "It might be less harmful to his pride, I was alone."

"That's right."

Blood said, "I've got powder and pigs of lead. Other goods as well." He glanced toward the board house. "There's some bolts of cloth might be welcome to your women." Then he extended his hand for the miller and said, "Name's Blood."

The miller took up his hand, a short hard grip. "Mister Blood. I'm Emil Chase. Saw your logs or grind your meal. For cash or shares, either one."

Blood looked at the other men but made no effort at introduction. He turned back to Chase and said, "I've got two hogsheads of good Barbados rum as well. I come to terms with young Potter, come down and have a dram."

Chase nodded, promising nothing. Then he could not help himself. "Have you a Christian name?"

Blood stood stone-still, holding the other's eyes. "Just Blood."

Sam Potter was more boy than man and Blood would not allow himself to consider how it must've been only the year before when he brought his young already pregnant wife into this wild land with his head and eyes full of expectant vision, nor would he consider the events that ruined that twist of hope in the boy. He saw how Potter looked at Sally, his eyes raw with hunger and then self-disgust but Blood did not send her from the house; it was not in his interest to diminish Potter's despair.

The pitch was poor enough with few improvements made-the log house was but a single large room with a loft although Potter had taken the time to build a center standing chimney of well-fitted stone and back-to-back fireplaces, the only true measure of the young man's ambitions. The intervale meadow was greening nicely but the hillside pasture was barely halfway cleared, no more than five acres of stumps with slash piles still heaped, not burned over the winter as they should have been. There was a log barn smaller than the house but snug and well-built. Beside it was a small lot barricaded with a tight fence of upright poles. Inside that was a small log pigpen but there were no swine and Blood guessed this had been built for a future that would never be. With the stream yards away there was no spring dug. All in all it was a gloomy place and even cleared of mourning detritus it was not the spot Blood would have hoped for, if he'd hoped for anything specific which he had not: other than by the road which it was and close enough to the mill to be easily incorporated into the rounds and needs of the people. Potter was willing to lose money and most of that he took in a note and Blood was willing to let him, thinking that however the man looked back on this place it would only be grievous anyway and it was not Blood's job to alleviate that even if he was inclined. Which he was not.

But at the last minute, seated at the year-old table hand-worked to love's smoothness, writing out the note for the balance agreed upon, Blood did pause and offer ten more dollars in coin for direct and immediate occupancy, furnishings intact. And so midafternoon Potter hiked south along the road with a rucksack of clothes and what other few items he held dear. Blood had not remained in the house to watch Potter pack but under pretense inspected the barn.

"It idn't much of a house." She stood barefoot on the rough plank floor, sunlight coming skewed through the open door.

Blood said, "It'll do fine. It's got the center chimney, that's the main thing. I can partition off this downstairs and build a counter in one half to set up a store. The rest of it, we make do for living quarters. For now, we just see how it goes."

"That upstairs's nothing but a loft. I work up there, anybody down below will hear every little thing."

Blood went to the door and stood looking out. Then said, "We'll go slow. Get everything set up right."

"I'm awful hungry."

He turned to her. Then drew out the leather pouch he wore around his neck under his blouse and dug and handed her a silver piece from it. "What you do, is walk back up to the mill. Tell Mister Chase I came to terms with young Potter. Ask if we could buy some meal and meat to get us started. Then, whatever he says, make sure you tell him I'd be happy if he was to come for a dram at his convenience. Be polite. If he's got no provender I can likely walk out and find us something, fish or game. All right?"

She nodded. Stood a moment and then went around him and out the door. He called from the doorway before she was out of the mud yard.


She turned.

"Be modest. Don't be bold with him or no other man might be hanging around the mill. Keep your eyes down. To yourself. And if you should meet his woman don't let her pry. You're an orphan girl here to help Mister Blood with his store. My ward. That's all. Do you understand?"

"I ain't in no hurry to whore."

Blood said, "I need to take measure of this country. Cipher the people here. Learn who's who. That's how it works, a new place."

"I'm ignorant," she said. "But I ain't stupid Mister Blood. Long as you keep telling me what you want of me, best as I can, that's what I'll do."

"Sally," he said.

The entire journey lay heavy on him as he stood looking down at her. Not just the cart trek. But along with everything else were the two hogsheads of rum that word was already spreading of and that he needed to get inside before night came down. It was late afternoon and they would come off the cart hard and harder up into the house. If the goddamn door was wide enough for them. Which, one way or another, it would be.

"What is it," she asked.

"Nothing," he said. Then added, "Take the dog with you. I believe he'll serve to discourage anybody gets rude with you."

"I can take care of myself."

"No," he said. "Take the dog. And wear your shawl."

"It ain't cold out."

Blood sighed. "It could be, the time you head back."

She went to the cart setting askew in the yard and dug out her shawl and notwithstanding the afternoon warmth spread it over her shoulders and closed the ends over her breasts. She looked back at Blood. "Is that better?"

Tired, he spoke without thinking. "You're too goddamn pretty for this place."

She tilted her head and looked at him. "I thought that was the idea."

He scowled and shook his head. "Go on. Get us some food if you can."

She walked out to the road, Luther beside her as if he'd heard and understood everything said. At the road edge where it was driest she turned and tramped up toward the mill. For a long moment, Blood stood and watched her go.

He had to knock both door jambs out to get the hogsheads through and then he got the rest of his stores off the cart and piled everything in one far corner and holding an axehead in his hand he used it to hammer the jambs back into place. It was a rough job but would hold the door. There was a twig broom and he used it to sweep the ceilings and walls and then the floor. What he really wanted was to heat water and scrub everything with lye soap and he would've done it if he'd had a brush or lye soap either one. He wanted to rid the house of its mourning, to wash out the young wife and dead infant, the months of the young man's grief, the long winter nights of whiskey-tears and the short days of interminable hours. All the remorse and what-ifs that clung to the place like shipwrecks at the bottom of a harbor, unseen but there certain as the tidewater washed over them. And it would happen, Blood knew. Not this afternoon or evening but over the days, with building the place into a store and letting it fill with new humanity, all the complexions and tonalities of the living. For a house was nothing but the structure its inhabitants erected within the walls. Everything came before passed away. Except in the minds of the living. Those certain rooms remained forever.

The man Blood sat waiting the girl Sally and what she might bring for food as dusk came on that first evening, landed where he hoped to remain as long as fortune turned whatever snarled look she had his way, landed in the far deep reaches of the great northern woods, a place he'd not been driven to by any but himself, as the years passing had drawn him in ever-greater outer rings from where he started.

Blood and Sally supped together on a wheaten loaf that he knew was dear and a piece of brined beef that had already been soaked and slow roasted-the miller's own supper he guessed. And was not happy for it implied debt of some sort. But did not complain to the girl, could not lessen her delight in having been so sharp in her trading. He had fires going in both fireplaces and had dropped the bar on the inside of the door and they ate by the firelight that filled the house with blistering orange tongues of light. Running along and over her face as she tore the soft stewed meat apart with her hands and fed herself, chunks of the bread also. The dog Luther lay silent, unmoving, his head on her near foot. One of his eyes tracking every motion of her hand to her mouth.

"I like that Mister Chase," she said. "The miller. He was kind to me. I didn't care for his wife though. That's a hard worn-down woman, she is. Looked right through me. Like I was taking their last bit of loaf. But he says to me, 'Don't worry about it, dearie.' Said, 'You and that man look like you've a rough bit of trek behind you.' Wasn't after anything but a niceness. I know the difference."

"You leave that miller be."

She looked at him, frustration on her face. "Like I told you, I'm leaving everybody be, less you tell me otherwise. It was you sent me up there. I behaved myself."

"I'm sure of it."

"It ain't going to work good between us, you double-guess everything I already been told once about. I never had no father and ain't looking for one. We're in business together is how I see it-even if there was somewhere to go I wouldn't run off on you, you're the sort would hunt me down and cut me up. Or worse I guess. Although this is one piss-ugly place to choose to set up business. I guess that's the idea. You and me, we're going to be the big show here, idn't that right?"

Blood looked at her. Long enough so she looked away from him. The small tilt of her nose in profile. Her chin just raised, not defiant but making clear she was not scared of him. Which of course she was. Then, Blood still studying her, she raised her hand to her mouth and sucked the meat-grease from her fingers. Afraid and hungry. He wondered what caused him to come to such a land at the spring of the year and not think to find room for more than the single sack of wormy meal, most depleted. Even if the land was full of meat it would be winter-lean. So he paused, his eyes still upon her, pondering if that was the only mistake he'd made. This matter of food was such a simple oversight it worried him. As if some warning of what else he might have missed.

He was tired. He said, "You flap your tongue at me all you want and I'll do my best to bear up under it. But otherwise, the rest of these people here, you keep buttoned up for now. We come up from Portland Maine and anything else, you tell whoever's doing the asking to talk to me. I'm serious as can be. I catch you blabbing on I'll work you over so bad you'll wished I killed you. We can make something out of this place, we watch ourselves sharp to start. You hear me?"

She turned and faced him. Her lips in the firelight grease-stained, fresh as new-cut fruit. She said, "It irks me some to hear you. Ain't you listening to me?"

"You're young. Young forget themselves."

"I ain't that young."

"No. I guess not. But not one of us is ever as smart as we think we are."

She said, "You just speak up, you see me going wrong."

"Don't you back-talk me."

"Idn't there no pleasing you?"

He was quiet then. Sat a time. Considered the gallons of rum just feet away and dismissed the notion. Not now. Not for some time. He wanted to be vigilant as he could be. After a bit he turned to face the girl again. Seated across from him over the lovestruck table, her hands cupping her chin, her face waiting for him, her hair spilling down meager with grease and dirt but pretty around her bright face. She was looking at him with something that might have been affection. Or amusement of some kind. Most likely, he thought, just her paying-attention, ready-to-run face. Practiced and for good reason. He sighed.

He said, "You please me as much as I want pleasing. It's just that what's ahead of us is two three weeks of hard work and tight lips. And after that we'll have this place stitched tight as a mean woman's purse. And those that don't like it can frig themselves in the woods for all I care. That's how it'll be, as long as we step careful at first. It's a lesson in life, one you likely know but maybe never put so many words to it: You let the other feller talk enough and you'll know everything you ever want to know about him. Idn't that right, now?"

"I seen that work."

"I imagine you have. It's like that here, except it's more than one feller. It's the whole place. It's got its own ways and they're going to be somewhat different from what either one of us seen before. So we go easy at first. That's all."

"Let me ask you something."

He wanted to rise. Go outside, walk around studying the sky and the clearing of land. See how things felt. Try and divine if there was any danger working immediate or close. He said, "What is it?"

"Are we partners here? Or do you figure you own me? How's that going to work?"

He studied her. So goddamn young. Still thinking she could inform her life. He said, "I guess that part's up to you."

"What's that mean?"

He stood and stretched. The hound rose with him, also stretching, a shudder running along the ridge of his spine. Blood looked up at the rough rafters of the loft and back to Sally. He said, "That's enough. It was a hard trek here and I'm worn to a nubbin. And we're not even started yet. What I'm going to do is go out and scout around, make sure I feel comfortable to get some sleep. I'll take the dog with me. What you do is bar the door after me and then stand by it, ready to let me in when I holler. It's another thing for you to recall: However good things are you can always depend on them to turn against you. You follow me?"

"That's a shitty deal."

"I didn't bring you here to pamper you."

"I'm not asking for nothing like that."

"I've got no intention to be cruel to you either, you don't demand it. You shouldn't trouble me with this sort of thing. I got enough to worry over. And I'm not as young as you. I'm a tired man tonight. I get back in I plan to make up a bed one side of the chimney and let that heat seep into my bones. You can sleep the other side of the chimney or up in the loft, I don't care. Either way will be better than anything either of us has had in a while. But right now I want you to stand by the door. I won't be long, so long's there's nothing to trouble me out there. After that, we can sleep and worry about the rest of it tomorrow. All right?"

She sat a long moment and then rose and came around the table and stood near. She was so small and he felt her shaking so close to him. Not a fear but some other pulse. As if she would give him something. She said, "You're a strange man, Mister Blood."

He said, "You're the most recent in a long line to make that cipher. There's no help for it, none wanted nor needed. I am who I am and that's not a matter for human eyes to see or judge. But you mean a kindness, Sally. You're a good girl."

"That's not something I've been called before."

"Like I told you, you can't expect what life will bring."

She nodded. Did not move away from him. He was sweating. It was the first time he'd been warm in weeks. He didn't want to leave it but needed the sudden sharp clarity of the cold one last time for the night. He paused and ran his hand over his face, squeezing the muscles, to try and let his eyes open a little wider. To see more clearly.

"By Jesus," he said, "I feel like I been trampled by an elephant."

She stepped back. Then reached one finger out, a delicate tenuous impact that touched just the tip of her chipped and chewed nail to his skin where his linen blouse opened down from his throat onto his chest. Took her hand away and held it with her other before her breast. She said, "What's a elephant?"

Excerpted from LOST NATION © Copyright 2002 by Jeffrey Lent. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. Hardcover ISBN: 0-87113-843-3

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Lost Nation 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book grabbed hold and didn't let go until the last page. The characters are real , hard, compassionate and crawl into your soul.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i abosolutely love Lost Nation. It's the best book that i've read in the last ten years at least,and that's saying something because before that i was reading kid stuff, literally. i bought my copy at an airport bookstore, knowing nothing about Lent's previous work, and while the contents surprised me at first i became completely enthrawled and appreciative of their genious. i highly recommend this novel and anything else he writes to anyone who'll listen and often thrust the book at them if they don't. it's just that good.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very interesting historical fiction with unusual characters and unanticipated events. I liked the description of the terrain and life style of the times portrayed in the novel. A special offering from Barnes and Noble and worth the price!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jeffrey Lent has given us an account of American history rarely so engrossing and entertaining. His harsh discriptions serve to give greater reality to the rough surroundings of this turbulant setting of the backwoods America. I found it very entertaining and have recommended it to my bookclub of women.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was expecting so much from this book since all the reviews seemed mostly positive. I was sorely disappointed in this book. The basic plot was good but the character development lacked, not to mention the run on sentences. I ALWAYS finsh books I start but it nearly killed me! VERY slow with a horrible ending. Too expensive for a poor read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I can think of a thousand words that describe Mr. Lent's second novel, but dull could never be one of them. I highly recommend this book to any and all who set their wandering eyes on the magnificent imaginings of Mr. Lent's Lost Nation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read 'In the Fall' first,which is Lent's first book;I was so impressed I immediately bought his new release Lost Nation....Very good...'In the Fall' I mailed to my daughter in Dallas and told her she won't put it down until she has finished every page;Lost nation is that good as well..As I read one other review of this book it said'run,don't walk to your nearest bookstore and purchase this book.'I did and what a wonderful book!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jeffrey Lent is truly a fresh voice in American literature. I enjoy his sweeping, descriptive prose and the depth of his characters. Very satisfying. Although they write in different genres, I would compare the poetic nature of Lent's writing to Shade of the Maple by Kirk Martin, whose vivid prose captures the beauty of Robert Frost and Claude Monet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I gave it two stars because I think it was probably a good story, but I just couldn't finish it as it was just too slow moving for me.