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Wrack and Rune
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
CRONKITE SWOPE, DEMON REPORTER of the Balaclava County Weekly Fane and Pennon, made some more scribbles on his wad of yellow copy paper, then fixed his eyes on his interviewee with that combination of compassionate interest and no-holds-barred determination expected of a rising young journalist. "And to what, Miss Horsefall," he demanded in suave but relentless tones, "do you attribute your longevity?"
Miss Hilda Horsefall sent a stream of tobacco juice a neat five inches to the right of Cronkite's snappy new red and green jogging shoe. "Hell, you birds been askin' me that same dern-fool question ever since I turned a hundred. Can't you think o' nothin' more interestin'? I got bread dough riz an' a floor to scrub an' no time to set here gassin' with little squirts like you."
As Cronkite was at least a head and a half taller than she, the diminutive was clearly intended to put him in his place, which it did. "If you mean how come I lived so long, it's because I never had no dratted fool of a husband to aggravate me into kickin' the bucket. Clean livin' an' high thinkin' an' a slug o' my own homemade damson gin at suppertime's as good an answer as any if you got to write somethin'. It's them vitamins in the gin, see? Blasts open the arteries an' keeps the blood circulatin'. Wouldn't hurt you to try some, sonny. You look kind o' peaked to me. Trouble with you young'uns nowadays, settin' around on your backsides pesterin' folks that's got work to do so's you can dish out tripe for the papers 'stead o' doin' a decent hand's turn yourselves now and then."
Roger Mudd probably had days like this, too. Doggedly, Cronkite pressed for the story behind the story. "You appear to enjoy remarkably robust health, Miss Horsefall, for a lady who's about to celebrate her hundred and fifth birthday. Have you ever been bedridden?"
"That's a fine question to ask a respectable maiden female, ain't it? No, I ain't never been bedridden."
Nevertheless, Miss Horsefall's marsh-hawk eyes grew dreamy with recollection. "O' course there was a few times in Canny Lumpkin's buckboard an' once on a sleigh ride in February. An' let me tell you it ain't all it's cracked up to be at ten below with a gale whistlin' under your petticoats. Canny dern near friz his fly buttons that night, I can tell you. Though if you print a word of it, I'll snatch you bald-headed. Not that I care much now an' I don't s'pose Canny would give a hoot. He's been pushin' up daisies this past forty year an' more. Ayup, that was down by the runestone that night. Canny always had funny notions about that runestone. Canute, his real name was."
"What runestone was this?" Cronkite demanded. "I never heard of any in these parts."
"Prob'ly a dern sight more things you never heard of, neither," said Miss Horsefall. "Though I s'pose I can't blame you for not knowin' about the runestone. I ain't thought of it myself since the Lord knows when. Buried six foot deep under poison ivy an' squirrel briers by now, like as not, an' there it'll stay for all the work that gets done around this farm. Ain't much like what it was when my father was alive, I can tell you. He kept things hummin'. Oh my, yes. Not but what he had seven grown sons an' two hired hands.
"Now there's only Henny an' that poor fool of a Spurge Lumpkin that ain't worth the powder to blow him to hell an' gone. Don't nobody want to do farm work no more. If it wasn't for Professor Ames bringin' them kids over from the college to lend a hand with the plantin' an' harvestin', we might as well fold up an' quit. Now they're all gone for the summer an' here we are, piddlin' along from one day to the next. I'll be spendin' my next birthday in the poorhouse, like as not."
Balaclava County's poorhouse had been torn down some forty-five years ago. In its place was now a block of pleasant little modern apartments for senior citizens. Cronkite thought perhaps he wouldn't try to explain that fact to Miss Horsefall.
"I'd like to get a peek at that runestone," he said. "Darn shame, letting old landmarks get lost like that. The stone may have important historical interest."
"Canny always thought so," Miss Horsefall replied. "Not but what he was kind o' fuzzyheaded some ways. Fun in a buggy, though. You take these here snippers, sonny, an' let's see if we can hack a path to the stone. It's just down over the ridge a piece. I wouldn't mind gettin' a gander at it myself once more for old times' sake."
She handed Cronkite a pair of enormous hedge clippers and walked briskly down the veranda steps, scorning the handrail, which looked to be a good deal more rickety than she was.
"Come around to the side o' the house. You see the tops o' them big old oak trees there behind the swale? Used to be a loggin' road cut through when I was a girl. All grown over now, I s'pose. Can't get Henny to take no interest in keepin' the place up like it ought to be run."
"Henny is your nephew Henry Horsefall, isn't he?" asked Cronkite, who was still making a valiant effort not to let this interview get totally out of hand. "He's about eighty-five, right?"
"Wrong both ways, sonny. First place he ain't Henry, he's Hengist. Always been Horsefalls named Hengist back since the Lord knows when, though don't ask me why, for I can't tell you. Anyways, Henny was named for my own Uncle Hengist, who was named for his great-uncle that fought with General Herkimer at Oriskany an' got a musket ball where it didn't do him no good which is why he was a great-uncle instead of a great-grandfather in case you was plannin' to write it down. In the second place Henny ain't but eighty-two an' I don't see why he can't do a respectable day's work like a proper man. Henny's always been kind o' puny. Takes after his mother's side o' the fam'ly. She was a Swope from over Lumpkinton way. None o' them Swopes ever did amount to a hill o' beans. I s'pose he's out there now gassin' with Professor Ames instead o' gettin' on with the cultivatin'."
"I saw your nephew and Professor Ames riding the cultivator together as I came by."
Cronkite didn't add that the sight of those two old men side by side in the midst of all that well-tilled acreage had given him an odd sort of lump in his throat. He hadn't been aware Kenny's mother was a Swope. That must mean he himself was somehow connected to the man who'd been named for the man who'd fought with General Herkimer. There had been Swopes around Lumpkinton almost as long as there'd been Horsefalls at Lumpkin Corners. Far from taking umbrage at this slur on his paternal ancestry, Cronkite began to feel a proprietary interest in Miss Hilda and her nephew.
"Are the Swopes related in any way to the Ameses?" he asked hopefully.
It would indeed be something to boast a family connection with the renowned Professor Timothy Ames of Balaclava Agricultural College. To be sure, the Balaclava Busters had wiped up the ring with the Lolloping Lumberjacks of Lumpkin Corners at the Balaclava County Draft Horse Competition two months back, but Cronkite liked to think of himself as a cosmopolite who could rise above petty regional animosities even if he did still harbor a smoldering resentment at the shafting the Lumberjacks had got in the Junior Plowmen's Event. Everybody knew the winner, Hjalmar Olafssen, had been personally coached by Thorkjeld Svenson, college president and Grand Master of the Straight Furrow.
It was strange, now that he thought about it, how many Scandinavian names kept popping up here in this out-of-the-way corner of Massachusetts, generally considered to be Wasp country despite its enclaves of Irish, Italians, French, Armenians, Chinese, and a good many others. Balaclava County was different. Everybody had always known Balaclava County was different, though nobody had ever quite been able to figure out why. There were people in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Middlesex counties who thought you needed a tourist visa to go there and some in Plymouth and Bristol counties who wouldn't have made the trip if you gave them the place, just on general principles.
That runestone—Cronkite thought of the many legends about the Norsemen, of the controversies that had raged about whether the Vikings had actually sailed these stern and rockbound coasts long before Felicia D. Hemans did such an effective public relations job for the Pilgrims. Was it possible—Cronkite had forgotten his question about being related to the Ameses, which in any case Miss Horsefall wasn't answering. He was gazing at that distant oak grove like stout Cortez doing his thing on the peak in Darien, although Cronkite himself was lithe, lissome, and at the moment ready to brave any amount of poison ivy for a look at that alleged runestone. There might be a feature story in it, and even a Cronkite Swope by-line.
Still, he was a considerate and well-brought-up young man. "Are you sure you feel up to showing me the way, Miss Horsefall?" he inquired solicitously.
"Why the hell shouldn't I?" she replied, and set off at a pace that could hardly be called brisk but would still have got her a creditable place or show at the Senior Citizens' Sunday Saunter.
"Do me good. Work up an appetite. Never meant to end my days settin' an' rockin'. See, now we're under the dip o' the hill, we can't see the house. Couldn't be seen from it, neither, if there was anybody home to look. That's how come me an' Canny—land o' Goshen, what's that all-fired caterwaulin'?"
Unearthly sounds echoed over the ridge. Somebody or something was in terrible trouble back in the barnyard. It was a fair way from here, but a legman for even a country weekly knows how to leg it. Leaving Miss Horsefall to follow as best she might, Cronkite Swope took to his new jogging shoes and covered the distance in one minute seventeen and a quarter seconds. It was the best time he'd ever made, but it wasn't good enough. By the time Cronkite got to the barnyard, Spurge Lumpkin was horribly, suddenly, gruesomely dead.
There wasn't a thing Cronkite could do now but reel over to the tansy patch and get rid of the lunch he no longer wanted. He was still heaving when Henny Horsefall and Professor Ames drove in on the tractor, dragging the cultivator behind them.
"For God's sake, don't look," he gasped. "It's—it's—"
The two old men shoved him aside and examined the evidence.
"Mighty Jehu!" Henny Horsefall whispered. "What happened? Must o' been one o' them flyin' saucers with a death ray."
For a wonder, Timothy Ames had his hearing aid switched on. "Death ray, hell," he snorted, making the long hairs sprouting from his nostrils vibrate like antennae. "What was Spurge doing messing around with quicklime?"
"Quicklime?" cried Henny. "I wouldn't have none o' that stuff on my place. Get it wet an' it can burn the hell out of—Christ A'mighty, Tim, you think Spurge—" He shook his head and couldn't say any more.
"What was Spurge supposed to be doing?" Ames asked.
"I told 'im to get out the hose an' wash the spreader. We was limin' the back field last Monday an' it come on to rain just about the time we got finished. You know how lime cakes in a spreader if you leave it set. Spurge was s'posed to clean it out soon as we got back to the barn, but he left it layin' there all gaumed up till I laid into him about it yesterday afternoon. So he promised faithful he'd tend to the spreader today. Spurge is a good worker, but you got to keep after 'im every minute. His memory's about as long as— Godfrey, Tim, this couldn't of happened. We was usin' plain, ordinary ground limestone, same as always. 'Twouldn't o' done nothin' 'cept cake up if it got wet. Even if he sprayed the hose on it an' it splashed up in 'is face like—like it must o' done—it couldn't o' hurt."
"Maybe it couldn't, but it sure as hell did," said Ames. "Do you suppose if he saw the lime beginning to seethe and smoke, he could have been fool enough to bend over it without shutting off the hose first?"
"Spurge was fool enough to do anything. An' he was a curious sort o' bugger. Always stickin' his nose right up to—yep, that's what he must o' done. Kep' squirtin' to see the bubbles an' got it smack in the—"
Henny couldn't say "face." There wasn't any face left, to speak of.
"Quicklime?" Even in the last extreme of nausea, Cronkite Swope couldn't let pass a chance to ask a question. "Wasn't that the stuff they used to bury criminals in after they were hanged?"
He wished immediately he'd forgone this one. Spurge must have felt as if he'd thrust his face into a lighted blowtorch. Cronkite had nothing left to be sick with, but he tried.
"That's right," Professor Ames replied. "Very hygienic. Nothing left for the rats to gnaw on. Quicklime, because of its property of generating intense heat immediately after it gets wet, is useful in a number of ways. Back in the early days of telegraphy, for instance, they used it to set poles in frozen ground. They'd bust a barrel of lime where the pole was supposed to go, sluice a few buckets of water over it, come back in the morning and there'd be a circle of thawed earth under the lime deep enough to set the pole in. Of course, the men had to be damned careful how they threw the water. I had an uncle who used to be a lineman up in Aroostook County. Face carved up like a pirate's from quicklime burns, and a black patch over one eye. No workmen's compensation in those days, either. Your phone working, Henny?"
"Damn well better be. I paid the bill. Leastways I think I did."
"Come back to the house with me, then. We'll have to call for help."
"Nothin's goin' to help that poor bugger now."
"I know, but we can't leave him like this and nobody'd better touch him till the police have seen what happened. I still don't understand how—God Almighty, here comes your Aunt Hilda."
"Go head 'er off, young fella," Henny told Cronkite. "The Ladies' Aid's plannin' a big wingding for 'er birthday. They'll raise Old Scratch if I let 'er die o' shock an' ruin the party. Hustle 'er back to the house an' call over to the police station. Better see if you can get hold o' Doc Fensterwald, too, just so's we can say we tried."
Glad of an excuse to get away, Cronkite obeyed. The two old men covered Spurge as decently as they could with a tarpaulin, then followed. By the time they got to the house, Miss Hilda had the gin bottle out and the coffeepot on.
Timothy Ames did not like using the telephone because of his deafness, but after the police and the doctor had been duly notified and Henny had got Miss Hilda back to kneading her bread dough and ladling damson gin into Cronkite to settle his stomach, Tim made a call of his own.CHAPTER 2
"AND WHAT IS SO rare as a day in June?" inquired Helen Shandy, assistant librarian for the Buggins Collection.
"A drink on the house in a Scotch saloon," replied Peter Shandy, professor of Agrology and co-developer with Timothy Ames of Brassica napobrassica balaclaviensis, that super rutabaga which has brought fame to the college and wealth to its propagators. "I grant you the point, my own. Now, if ever, come perfect days, with Commencement finished and summer sessions as yet uncommenced. Do you realize I have three whole weeks to goof off in?"
"Big deal! Do you realize I have three whole weeks in which to catalog the Buggins Collection while nobody's hanging around the library pestering me to look up hog statistics?"
"Must you? I'd rather thought we might spend our days in wanton play among the asphodels."
"Don't you get enough wantoning as it is?"
Shandy made a grab for his wife but she eluded him and went on setting petunias. "Unhand me, you ruffian. I want the place looking nice for when Iduna and Daniel get back from their honeymoon. I'm planning to give a tea."
"Hadn't you better make it a potlatch? Iduna and Daniel like their grub, you know."
"Speaking of potlatches, did I tell you we're invited to the Ameses' tomorrow night for dinner?"
"You did not. Who's cooking?"
"Laurie. She's decided to go in for the housewifely virtues."
"Egad and a rousing forsooth. What are we having, fried penguin?"
Professor Ames's only son, Roy, had recently married the former Laurie Jilles, a fellow biologist on an Antarctic expedition. Both had got teaching fellowships at Balaclava and moved in with Tim, to the relief of his neighbors around the Crescent, especially the Shandys, who lived directly opposite. The elderly widower had been far too preoccupied with his work on soils and fertilizers to bother with trivia like clean shirts, balanced meals, and keeping the lawn mowed.
Excerpted from Wrack and Rune by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1982 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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