Serpent Daughter – Snippet 40

Iron Andy Calhoun was famous well beyond Appalachee, and Youngstown was basically Appalachee, anyway.

“Mr. Andrew is indeed here,” the hostess said. “He has already reserved your room, which is number eight, upstairs. His room is number nine.” She handed him a key.

“Is he in?”

“I believe so.”

“Thank you.”

Cal climbed the stairs, rifle in one hand and small carpetbag in the other. Was it his imagination, or did Big Ears watch him climb? All four men in the parlor looked like frontier types, with muddy boots or moccasins, long knives, and pistols.

At the top of the stairs, Cal reached a carpeted landing. He could see the numbers 7, 8, and 9 nailed to doors down one side of the hall and 10, 11, and 12 on the opposite side, but before moving any farther, he quickly loaded his rifle. He listened as he did, and heard the creaking of boards in the parlor below, and then a whistle out in the street.

Might be nothing.

He took the lariat from his carpetbag and set the bag aside. Tying the lariat to his belt where it would be ready to use, he took the tomahawk into his right hand, and then tapped with his knuckle on door number nine.

He was going to feel silly if his grandpa opened it.

But there was no answer.

Cal moved silently to door number eight. This was his room, and he looked long and hard at the iron key. Did he trust the room?

At the end of the hall was a large window, pushed open to admit the evening breeze. Below, the street was a wash of muddy yellow and black, and the wraparound balcony Cal was hoping to see was not there.

That left door number seven. Cal knocked with a knuckle and listened; silence.

He was going to feel silly if he was wrong, and he was going to owe the innkeeper, but he felt he had no choice. Cal wrapped the doorknob to number seven in a spare shirt, and then smashed the doorknob off in one blow. The noise of the wood splintering wasn’t too loud, and the shirt muffled the sound of metal striking metal. Cal pulled off the ruined doorknob and pushed the door open.

Room seven had no guest. There were a bed and a dresser and a wardrobe, a mirror and a washbasin.

And a door to the balcony outside.

Cal unlocked this door and eased onto the balcony. The timbers below his feet were settled, and didn’t creak, as he crept to his right, along the balcony, past the windows from room seven to the windows where number eight began.

There he stopped and let his eyesight adjust to the light. He kept his gaze from the lights below and focused on the windows to rooms eight and nine, both of which were dark. When he could see well enough to see the grain of the wood in the window frames, he peeked into room eight.

Three men stood with their backs to the balcony. One stood to either side of the door, looking at the door, each man holding a long knife. A third man stood with his back to Cal and his arms crossed; Cal saw the butts of two pistols poking out of his coat pockets. Cal tried the handle of the door that connected room eight and the balcony, and it turned.

This was an ambush.

Most likely, his grandpa wasn’t here at all. But Cal felt a deep sense of foreboding in his gut, so he slipped past room eight and peeked into room nine.

At first, he thought it was empty. But after a few moments of peering, his eyes adjusted further, and he saw two bodies, each lying on one of the two beds in the room.

He wrapped the handle of this door and knocked it off, holding back a terrible flood of emotion. His worst fears came true, and in one heartrending moment, Calvin Calhoun’s life was turned upside down. On one bed lay his grandpa; on the other was his cousin Caleb. Both men were still and cold, multiple bullet holes in their chests and stomachs.

A paper lay pinned to Andy Calhoun’s linsey-woolsey shirt. Pulling away the pin, Cal brought the paper up to the window so he could puzzle out the words by the light of the street below. He found he recognized what was written there: As holder of the proxy of Andrew Calhoun, and at his direction, I hereby offer the following motions of impeachment.

It was the beginning of a speech Cal had given, his first to the Electoral Assembly, and the one in which he’d presented the motion to remove Thomas Penn from office. This sheet was the reprinting of it in a news-paper.

Thomas Penn. Penn had tricked Cal into coming out to Youngstown, and he must have tricked Iron Andy, too. But how?

And to what end? To blame Cal for his grandfather’s death? It seemed unlikely anyone would believe that. But maybe Iron Andy’s death would warn other Electors away from the impeachment.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Cal mumbled over his grandpa and his cousin. But since those words weren’t in the Bible, and he wanted to say something that was, he added, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

By the time he finished, he found there were tears running down his cheeks. “Thou art with me, Grandpa. Thy rod and thy staff. In the presence of my enemies. Lord hates a man as lets an injustice stand.”

In the silence that followed, he thought he heard his grandfather say, Amen.

Cal stepped quietly onto the balcony, beside one of the windows, reckoned the distances, and formulated his plan. Taking his rifle in his left hand and his tomahawk in his right, Cal raised the war ax and smashed the window.

As the three men turned, Cal threw the ax. His judgment and his aim were true, and the blade struck the man with the two pistols right between the eyes, splitting open his skull. Cal then raised the rifle and fired into the center of a second man’s chest.

Bang! Cal’s target staggered and fell.

Cal being tall, he could almost step right through the windows. He swung one leg up over the sill, bringing his rifle up to parry the cudgel that came swinging for his head. Cal deflected the club, though he heard a loud snap! as he did so — he might have smashed the hammer from his weapon.

Swinging his other leg up, Cal eased forward into the room, and pushed the man with the cudgel back. Stooping, he plucked a pistol from the pocket of the dead man, and as Cudgel came bounding back for a second attack, Cal let him have a bullet in the stomach. Bang!

Shouting downstairs meant that Cal had little time. The two men he’d shot were both wounded and whimpering. He would have liked to hang all three men, like the criminals they were, with his lariat. Instead, he retrieved his ax.

Both men tried to plead with him, but Cal didn’t hear their words. He heard a rushing noise in his ears like the wind of judgment, or like a river running over the rapids, and with swift, efficient motions, he cut off both their heads.

He heard banging and cursing at the door. Picking up the dead pistoleer’s second weapon, Cal fired it through the wood, and was rewarding with more cursing.

He left the rifle; he could get another. Running quietly as he could down the balcony, he found the end that stood above a muddy alley, away from the main street. With quick, sure motions, he let himself down, then ran off into Youngstown, leaving shouts of dismay and cussing behind.

The town watch was soon rushing through the streets, but Cal climbed the town wall and headed south. He’d go back to Philadelphia, but first there was something he had to do in Nashville.