by James Matthew Lee Wilson
Long into August, Willem McArthur walked the firm, determined gait of a young man intent on beating the afternoon rain.
He’d been down this mountain road once before, half his life ago when at the age of ten, he’d ridden with his pa down the valley corridor to fetch his withering Grandmother from the train station. Thereafter, young Willem had often dreamt of a return trip to civilization; perhaps to pick up a great aunt or some other distant kin traveling by rail to pay their last respects to Gran Jo. But a decade later, Josephine McArthur had proven near immortal in her years, and accordingly, the road, as well as the world beyond, had remained known yet unexplored folds at the tapestry’s edge.
Willem wiped the oppressive heat from his brow and tugged at his collar. Above, the sky hung an unbroken slate of blue, unblemished in its terrible beauty save for the scorched spot through which the white-hot brilliance of the sun poured. Somewhere down amongst the long grass and cat-tails, an overgrown creek mocked his obdurate nature. Ignoring the watery call to remove the wool jacket, Willem continued on without mitigating action.
Ahead, a slanted expanse of valley land, equal parts cultivated and wild, cut across the road from left to right in an uneven slope of pine and limestone, all of it falling away from the white-capped peaks at his back with the rustic grace so common to foothills of the region.
The sudden presence of the man on the side of the road startled Willem. Involuntary anger flushed his cheeks, and Willem cursed himself his father’s son.
“My apologies friend,” the stranger called from his perch atop a sandstone shelf. The man’s dark suit must have once been a quality item, but time had faded black to grey. Beneath the jacket, a white shirt, yellowing along the collar was complemented by a loose bowtie, strung haphazardly below the man’s prominent Adam’s apple.
“How do,” Willem answered, his voice level, his eye critical.
“How goes your travels, young master?” The man called, his stubbled cheeks creasing into a grin. His face was long, his cheekbones high. An unkempt ponytail swept long black hair away from his brow, and under a wide-beaked nose, a thin, manicured mustache curled.
Willem regarded the stranger warily for he knew that a man in a suit was nothing to fear yet the context of such a man in the high pass argued that the measured distance between them be maintained.
The man’s smile persisted, and he nodded in acknowledgment of Willem’s silence. “I haven’t seen you down this road before. Are you new to the area?”
“No sir, live back up yonder.”
The stranger’s grin intensified, taking hold of his brown eyes; the pupils large and dark; the whites stark and alive.
“Why you’re John McArthur’s boy? You and your kin live up at the rock farmhouse just west of the river.”
“Yes sir,” Willem answered, his mother’s words returning once again to warn of the highway-men who sometimes wandered these back roads. His father was also leery of the road but for reasons he’d never shared. “You know my daddy, sir?”
“I know your dad well although we’ve never spoken a word.”
This struck Willem odd, yet his father’s infamy almost surely traveled farther than his boots so Willem found no reason to linger on it.
“You from these parts, sir?” he asked, easing his guard.
“I am,” the man confirmed, dismounting the stony ledge. He landed with a nimble step and a scrape against the eroded clay. “In fact,” he continued, “this road is as much mine as any other.”
Willem nodded, neither in agreement nor challenge. “I’m not familiar with this road.”
The man blinked. “Then why are you on it, young squire?”
“Heading down to the train station. Need to catch the first rail north tomorrow.”
“As good a reason as I’ve heard,” the man allowed and then with a deep bow. “I go by the name of Eli Carpenter.”
Rising back to his full height, a head taller than Willem, Eli extended not his right but his left hand. Willem fidgeted to switch his grip on his knapsack.
“Willem, sir. Please to make your acquaintance.”
“And yours Master McArthur.”
With that, Eli motioned Willem to the side of the road and offered him a seat on the nearest rock as if the countryside was his and his alone.
Willem eased himself down, welcoming the cool shade of a nearby pine. He freed his brow from the clamp of his hat and ran a hand through the tawny tangles of his hair.
The man called Eli dusted the adjacent surface and then joined Willem on the rock. “Now young man, what calls you north such that you would set out on this blistering day?”
“My education, sir.”
“Yes sir. I’m en route to the state capital. Been accepted into the University. Classes start a week from today.”
The man’s eyes widened, and after a moment, he nodded as if having both assessed and agreed upon Willem’s situation. “And do tell Master McArthur, what knowledge does the University hold that you desire? Agriculture I suspect…no, perhaps Animal Husbandry?”
Willem paused unsure if the stranger mocked him. “No sir. Finance.”
Eli produced a bottle, its blue glass without marking or label. He took a long drink and then offered the bottle to Willem.
“Thank you kindly, but I don’t partake in spirit.”
Eli’s smile widened. He took another drink and then offered the bottle along with his assurances. “Water from yonder brook.”
Willem accepted the ancient bottle and after detecting no trace of corn-whiskey, tipped the glass to his parched lips. The water splashed cold and pure. He drank deep and desperate, gasping for breath as he passed the bottle back with a nod of thanks.
Eli accepted the bottle and sipped. He looked out at the day with bright eyes and a small smile as if the bend of the grass pleased him.
“Finance,” Eli repeated.
Willem nodded. “I figure it as good a trade as any.”
“It is,” Eli agreed. He turned to Willem and with a knowing look, added. “I suspect you wish to be the company man sitting on the opposite side of the desk from your father each fall when he brings harvest to market.”
Willem felt his back go stiff. That very thought, articulated to the word, had powered his exodus from the farm this morning.
“There’s no shame in wanting more than your father,” Eli mused, looking back out at the road, the small smile returning to his lips.
A moment of silence passed between them as the pines, stirred by a cool western breeze, whispered to one another.
“What did your daddy do for a trade?” Willem finally asked.
Eli raised an eyebrow. “Not so long ago, a man had his given name and his trade.”
Willem’s brow furrowed, but a moment later his mind unraveled the riddled words.
“Well sir, I’d say your daddy was a carpenter.”
“Yes,” Eli nodded, the gesture pronounced. “My father worked with wood and fashioned all sorts of items for the rich and poor alike.”
“What’s your trade, if you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Carpenter?”
Eli took another nip from the bottle and then set it at his feet. He turned his head to the left and to the right, each motion joined by the opposite hand which swept phantom dust from the fabric resting on his shoulders. When done he clasped the lapels of his jacket and straightened them with flair.
“I am a tailor.”
“A tailor,” Eli confirmed, his smile not so wide, his demeanor clouding.
Willem averted his eyes, seeking refuge in the road. He felt Eli’s hard stare upon him for a moment longer, and then it was gone.
“Yes Master McArthur,” Eli sighed, his voice once again casual and without care. “A tailor am I.”
“I meant no offense, sir.”
“And I take none,” Eli finished and after a thoughtful breath, added. “Some advice Willem: understand that what a man sets out to become and what the world sets aside for him are two very different things.”
Willem nodded and turned his eyes up toward the blue sky. Back up the road, clouds, dark with moisture, gathered over the western spine of peaks. “I reckon I might catch rain.”
“You purchase your ticket yet?” Eli asked, turning to judge the color of the horizon for himself.
“Then stay the night. No reason to go tramping off into town covered in mud.”
“That’s kind of you, but I have to catch the train in the morning.”
“Nonsense,” Eli stood and stepped out onto the road before pivoting back. “You can wait out the storm at my place, have a bit of supper, and sleep with a roof over your head. In the morning you can set out for the station and catch the afternoon whistle. Only take you a day to get north with ample time to find your seat before classes commence.”
Willem joined Eli out on the road. Away from the pines, he could see the gathering clouds more clearly, their bases spilling down in grey uneven veils to sweep the landscape clean of its color. “Guess it might not hurt to delay a bit. Your place near about?”
Eli raised an arm in the general direction of where they’d been sitting. “I have a cabin back in the woods. Half hour march, no more.”
Willem stood, hat in hand, the weight of his knapsack once again on his shoulders. The breeze blew cool again from the west, smelling of wet earth, tugging at the unkempt strands of his hair.
Eli nodded as if understanding some deep truth about Willem. “You are your father’s son Master McArthur. If it makes the decision more palatable, you can chop some firewood. We’ll call that fair trade for a single night’s room and board.”
Willem’s hesitation waned.
“Perhaps,” Eli interjected, “tonight we can listen to some music, and I can show you how to pull a needle and thread. A good skill for a young man living on his own at the University.”
Willem weighed this and then nodded his agreement. He returned his hat to the perch of his brow, and then followed Eli off the road.
“You got a radio, mister?” Willem asked as they tramped through the underbrush.
Eli turned back, puzzled.
“You mentioned music,” Willem clarified. “I just reckoned you had yourself a radio-box.”
“No radio, Master McArthur. But I do have an old phonograph.”
Not twenty yards in, they reached a path cut down into the underbrush by way of old broken cobblestone.
Leaving the pine-needles and dirt, Eli strode out onto the path. But Willem stopped and glanced back over his shoulder, eyeing the road.
“You coming Master McArthur?”
Willem regarded the man in the suit standing upon the strange stone path.
“I’m sorry Mr. Carpenter, but I think I’ll just chance the rain.”
Grinning, Eli brushed the apology aside. “Now don’t be ridiculous. No reason to risk a storm when shelter is nearby.”
Willem turned sideways, half-facing Eli, half-facing the road. “I thank you kindly, but I’m just going to keep on. I appreciate the words and the water.”
Eli said nothing. Instead, he bowed low, his left hand sweeping out to his side. As if it had always been there, a top-hat appeared, clasped in his left hand. The gesture of pomp complete, Eli straightened to his full height, placed the tall, dark hat atop his head, and then continued on down the path.
Willem watched until Eli Carpenter disappeared into the swaying pines. Then he returned to the road, walking with pace, pulling the wool collar of his jacket high about his neck, readying himself for the wind, for the grit, for the rain.
James Matthew Lee Wilson is an aspiring writer who pursues words and phrases down dusty dirt roads and dark starlit highways. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife and son.