Vacation Special -- Excerpt from "The Witch of Hebron"
The Witch of Hebron is the sequel to World Made By Hand, a story of the post-oil American future. It is set in and around the town of Union Grove, Washington County, New York. The time is several months after the action in the first book, the week before Halloween.
This excerpt concerns Stephen Bullock, the wealthy landowner whose plantation is home to dozens of people whose lives and livelihoods had gone adrift in the collapse of the American economy.
Mr. Bullock Meets the Enemy
The last thing Stephen Bullock did before bedtime, in his capacity as town magistrate, was to sign a warrant directing Doctor Jeremy Copeland to exhume and examine the body of Shawn Watling and report his findings, costs of which, labor included, were to be billed to the town of Union Grove, repayable in up to four dollars silver coin. He gave the folded and sealed document to his chore-man, Roger Lippy, for delivery in person the following morning. Then Stephen Bullock retired to the bedroom upstairs in the large manor house that was the beating heart of his four thousand acre holdings.
The spacious, cheerful bedroom, was wallpapered in a motif that featured pink cabbage roses, with a likewise flowery chintz upholstered wing-chair in one corner. His wife Sophie's dressing table stood between two large light-gathering windows, with curtains that matched the wall-paper. Two nineteenth century landscapes of the upper Hudson Valley by the painter Hastings Lembert (1824 - 93), an ancestor, hung on the wall above a fine early Meiji (1871) tansu chest of drawers in kiriwood and chestnut. Bullock had picked it up forty years ago during his post-college sojourn in Kyoto teaching English.
Sophie sat in bed reading by the light of her bedside electric lamp. Bullock's farm was the only establishment in the vicinity of Union Grove that still enjoyed electricity. It was thanks to a small hydroelectric generator where the Battenkill made one final ten foot leap before it flowed into the Hudson River. It put out fifty kilowatts of power, enough to light the main house, the barns, the workshops, and the cottages his "employees" had constructed for themselves on his property. Finding replacement light bulbs was a problem now that trade had fallen off so sharply. He'd laid in as many as possible during the hoarding times that followed the bombings in Washington and Los Angeles and the fall of the government, but his supply had run down so severely that he'd had to stop giving new ones to his cottagers - they were going back to candles - and light bulbs were not the kind of thing he was equipped to manufacture on the farm, though his workshops did turn out many useful items from glassware to harnesses.
"You look very handsome tonight," Bullock remarked to his wife as he pulled off his blousy linen shirt and unbuttoned his riding trousers. She looked up over her reading glasses with a sly smile. She wore a silk nightgown that merely pretended to contain her abundant bosom. Bullock was observant enough to know that she tended to wear that particular article of clothing when she wanted his attention.
"Are you proposing to entertain me?" she said.
"I'd be honored."
She put down her book, Them, by Joyce Carol Oates, a novel of mid-twentieth century family depravity, and threw back the covers on her husband's side of the bed, patting the mattress to welcome him. He slipped between the cool, clean sheets until he was pressed warmly against the wife he adored. Soon he was kissing the little hollow below her ear where the wisps of silvery hair met her perfumed neck, as familiar a place to him as the wooded glens of his dreams, where he was forever young and on the hunt. She reached and turned out the light. His left hand ranged over the deeply contoured geography of her torso - as perpetually beautiful and interesting to him as the terrain of his own great farm - and she opened herself to him. Their ceremony was well practiced but no less pleasurable for its countless repetitions over the years. If anything, their comfort with each other only added to the pleasure they took together, along with their mutual wonder that they remained avid well into their age. When their ceremony was complete, they lay panting, giggling, and whispering to each other in delight.
"Sleepy, now?" he asked.
"You know how I am," she said. Indeed, the transports of love acted on Sophie Bullock as the most potent soporific. It was a joke between them. Bullock himself always claimed to be re-energized by love-making, as if he had taken a shot of espresso.
"Would you like me to read a bit to you?" he asked.
"Sure," she said. "What have you got, darling?"
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving."
She let out a delighted little yelp.
"Halloween's almost here," he said.
"You love holidays, don't you?"
"They're more important now than in the old days, when there were more distractions."
"Well, you go right ahead, but don't mind me if I slip off to dreamland."
Bullock kissed her damp forehead, reached for the lamp on his night table, and put on his reading glasses.
"In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson," he began reading aloud, "at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town-"
Bullock stopped reading at the apprehension of strange noises emanating from somewhere in the house, something banging, a dull thud, a squeak. The old house was alive in its own way, always heaving and groaning with the weather and the seasons. And there were the two servants who lived in the house, Lilah the cook and Jenny the housekeeper, who sometimes moved about downstairs late at night, getting something from the kitchen or the library.
But then Bullock heard a commotion on the stairs. He flung his book aside just as three figures crashed through the bedroom door and stopped in their tracks, apparently dazzled by the electric light. Bullock knew at once what they were. The three figures - bearded, bundled in close-fitting clothing, like soldiers, with trousers tucked into the boot-tops, yet not in any discernable uniform - gaped in awe at what they had discovered, and not just the finery of the room. Sophie Bullock, shocked into waking, had been prepared for a moment like this by her husband, and by her own intelligence. She sat up in bed beside her husband and drew the bedclothes above her bosom. The Bullocks and the intruders stared squarely at one another in steely resolve during that interminable instant before one of them spoke.
"I've been expecting something like you for a long time," Bullock said.
"That's nice," said the tallest one, who wore a leather helmet leaking coyote fur, with an eagle crudely embroidered on a patch at the forehead. "It'll save us all a lot of bother. Just take us to where the gold is."
"What makes you think there is any?"
"Oh, come on. How could there not be in a place like this?"
While Bullock sized up the trio, he heard a scream from below, and assumed it came from Jenny or Lilah.
"If you harm any of my people, you'll pay," he said.
"You're not calling the shots here just now," said the apparent leader, who brandished a very large revolver. He used its long barrel as a pointer, gesturing to reinforce his instructions. "Get out of the rack, Mr. Big."
Bullock threw back the sheets and sprang to the floor with an athleticism that surprised the intruders as much as his state of complete nakedness.
"Check out the missus," said another of the intruders, shorter and younger than the first. He wielded a sawed-off pump shotgun and sported a head-rag that had once been a small American flag. A spray of blonde hair leaked out from under it. "Nice looking for an older gal."
Sophie Bullock didn't flinch.
The muffled screams continued from below.
The third member of the trio, black-haired and broadly-built, with a tight-cropped beard and no visible weapon, approached the bed and seized the end of the blankets. Sophie resisted, but the burly man succeeded in yanking them off. She threw her arms across her bosom against the inadequacy of her nightgown.
"You come with me," the leader told Bullock.
"I'm not leaving my wife alone with your gorillas."
As though to emphasize the obvious, the shorter one unzipped his fly.
"These here boys are gentlemen," the leader said. "They just need some mothering."
The screams from downstairs had become sobs.
"Can I put my pants on?" Bullock said.
The dark-bearded hulk fingered Sophie Bullock's silk nightgown. She issued a strangled cry of distress, while trying desperately to maintain her composure. The nightgown came away with a ripping sound. Sophie drew up her thigh in a posture of protection. Bullock calmly went to the wing chair in the corner where he had deposited his riding breeches. He pulled them on and fastened the buttons, keeping his eyes on the tall one in the leather helmet with the eagle on it. Then he reached casually beside the curtained window and pulled a braided cord, which set off a blaring electric klaxon on the roof.
"What the hell?" the dark-haired hulk said. The three intruders all shared a troubled glance. In that distracted instant, Bullock reached into a bronze umbrella stand beside the wing chair and withdrew from a sharkskin scabbard the twenty-six inch long katana, or samurai sword, that had been another of his acquisitions during his Japanese sojourn. The rigorous training he had undergone in those years returned to him unfailingly. He wheeled around and swung the weapon at the one who had been issuing instructions. The motion was so fluid and exact that for a moment, a mere red line appeared between the man's beard and his shoulders. But then his legs wobbled and his body collapsed in a heap on the rug, while bright arterial blood gushed out of the stump of his neck and his detached head, still in its leather helmet, bounced on the floor and rolled up against the chest of drawers. The young, flag-headed accomplice barely had time to goggle at the spectacle before Bullock delivered a thrust of the sword cleanly through the young man's sternum, sectioning the heart from top to bottom and separating its owner from his life so efficiently that his brain was able to behold his own death for several seconds before he too crashed to the floor. The third one had the presence of mind to lunge for his companion's sawed-off shotgun, but he also presented the back of his neck so perfectly to Bullock that a minimum of effort was required to remove his head. The eyes could be seen rolling in the head as it became lodged between the legs of the dressing table.
When all three lay dead on the floor, except for the residual twitching of their shocked nervous systems, Bullock wrested the revolver from the dead leader's hand, grabbed the sawed-off shotgun off the floor, and hurried out of the room. Sophie remained naked on the bed above the fallen, bleeding intruders, her screams subsumed in the noise of the klaxon, which had succeeded in summoning the men from Bullock's village up the hill. They now swarmed around the house, barns, and workshops of Bullock's manor in the rain, rounding up nine other intruders at gunpoint in the electric floodlights which were part of the alarm system that tripped when Bullock had pulled the chord.
Bullock, shirtless and bloody in the stark glare of the floodlights, ordered the captured invaders to be locked in the enormous cold-storage locker that his grandfather had installed in one of the barns in 1965 for preserving his apple crop. Others attended to Jenny Ferris, the housekeeper, on the first floor of the big house, where she lay battered and misused, while Sophie Bullock, now dressed in her gardening denims, supervised the removal of the bodies from her bedroom and the mopping up of the blood that had spilled from their worthless hearts.
* * *
Around sunrise the day after his home was invaded, Stephen Bullock decided to hang the rest of the intruders. He drew up a warrant of execution for the nine men at his breakfast and determined, before hanging them, to interrogate whoever was next in command after the three he had killed in his bedroom.
A little after seven in the morning, he entered the old apple storage cooler where the men were held. He went in alone. Five of his own men, well armed, remained outside the cooler. The captives inside recoiled at the light of the candle-lantern when Bullock entered. They all shivered visibly in one corner of the large chamber, where they huddled together in hobbles with their hands tied behind their backs. The room stank of animal wastes and fear.
"Three of your men are dead," Bullock told them. "I suppose you've figured out who they are by now. Who among you has the authority to speak for the rest of this gang?"
The men swapped glances at each other.
"Don't be shy," Bullock added.
"We don't have no official ranks, if that's what you mean," said one, a large man with a shaved head, perhaps thirty years old.
"It seems you speak for the rest."
"Just for now" the shaved-head man said.
"Okay, I nominate you spokesman. And second it. All in favor? Aye. See, you're elected. Get up and come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"You're going to have breakfast with me and we're going to talk."
The man got up off his haunches and glanced back at his companions. He was rangy, gaunt, and hollow-eyed but obviously very strong. The tendons in his neck stood out like wires.
"Come," Bullock said.
The man shuffled in his hobbles, which only allowed him to take tiny steps. Bullock and his five men, armed with rifles and pistols, walked him to the manse. The clear morning was already blooming into a spectacularly warm Indian summer day with many stimulating aromas in the air: fresh cut hay, burning brush, sorghum boiling down to syrup at Bullock's new cane mill on the river, cornbread baking. Bullock led his prisoner into a sunny conservatory wing of the house and directed the man to have a seat at a glass-topped table. The cords that bound his hands behind his back were removed, though the hobbles on his ankles remained.
Bullock's chore-man, Roger Lippy, a Chrysler dealer in the old times, laid a stiff white cloth on the table and set it with silver tableware and damask napkins rolled into silver rings. Bullock held up a sterling silver fork and examined it in a shaft of sunlight.
"Too bad you didn't get to rob the place," Bullock said. "We have a lot of nice things here."
The prisoner didn't reply.
Roger Lippy stood by the table with a tray at his side.
"What would you like for breakfast?" Bullock asked the prisoner.
"You're gonna give me breakfast?"
"Aren't you hungry?"
"Okay, I'll order for you. Roger, tell Lilah to make this fellow a four egg omelet with some of that Duanesburg chedder, bacon and sausage, hash-browns and cornbread with the blackberry preserves."
"I'll just have tea," Bullock said. "Tea for you?" he asked the prisoner, who just grunted. "It's real black China tea," Bullock added. "None of that fruity herbal crap. It'll give you a real lift. Go on, give yourself a break."
"Okay," the prisoner said. Roger Lippy left them. Bullock's other men took up positions sitting or standing outside the conservatory, on display but out of earshot. Sparrows flitted in and out of the room through the ventilation louvers.
"What's your name?" Bullock asked.
"What's it matter?"
"It should matter to you. It's your name. You can't defend your honor without defending your name, can you?"
"It's Jason Hammerschield."
"You couldn't have made that up."
"It's my name."
"Where's this gang of yours from?"
"It's not my gang."
"I don't mean you own it. But obviously you're a member."
Roger Lippy brought out a tray with a teapot and two matching cups and saucers. Bullock poured for both of them.
"The cream's from our own dairy and the sugar's made from our own beets, though we're working up a sorghum operation now," Bullock said. "So, Jason, where do you and your associates hail from?"
"Waterbury, Connecticut. We been on the road a while."
"How are things back there in the Nutmeg State?"
"They sucked. Which is how come we took to the road."
"Have you had many adventures?"
"It's a hard life."
"You must not be very good at what you do."
"We're all right. But it's slim pickings out there."
"Then it's extra sad that you messed up here. We're living large. We've got full bellies, electric power, amber waves of grain, groaning orchards, a nice big house, first-rate furnishings."
"I can see."
"Oh, you only see a teensy-weensy bit of what we've got going. Want me to put on some recorded music? I've got it all - classical, Broadway musicals, old Bob Dylan-"
Roger Lippy reappeared with Jason Hammerschield's breakfast, plus a basket of cornbread, a ramekin of butter, and a dish of blackberry jam. The prisoner stared at the steaming plate that was set before him.
"Put on some Debussy, would you Roger? The first preludes."
"Sure thing, sir."
"Go ahead, dig in," Bullock said to his prisoner, who continued to stare darkly at his plate.
"How do I know it's not poison?"
Bullock laughed sincerely. "You moron, if I wanted to kill you, I'd have one of my men shoot you in the head. Go ahead, eat."
Jason Hammerschield looked up at Bullock squinting with dull incomprehension.
"I'll be very cross with you if you just let it sit there," Bullock added.
The prisoner took a tentative forkful of his omelet, then ate more rapidly until he was fairly inhaling the contents of the plate in a fugue of deprivation. He reached into the basket for some cornbread, slathered it with butter, and spooned jam on top.
"What I want to know," Bullock continued, "is whether you are part of some larger horde."
"Some what?" Jason Hammerschield said, spraying cornbread crumbs as he spoke.
"You know, a larger unit of people like yourselves, an army of marauders, scavenging across the land like locusts."
Jason Hammerschield chewed ruminatively.
"No," he said eventually. "We're just who we are. A bunch of guys."
"What do you call your bunch?"
"Really? I'd think you'd sit around the campfire at night memorializing your exploits."
"What our what?"
"Making up stories about yourselves. For your own amusement. Creating a myth for posterity."
"We just fall out and sleep. It's hard living like we do."
"All I can say is you boys are seriously lacking in imagination."
Jason Hammerschield mopped up the last remaining specks of egg, hash browns, and crumbs of bacon with a triangle of cornbread.
"Allow me to suggest a name," Bullock said. "The Nutmeg Boys. Or maybe just The Nutmeggers."
Jason Hammerschield made a face and snorted. "What happens now?" he said, tossing his napkin on his plate.
"Just some legal rigmarole," Bullock said. "Do you boys have a lawyer?"
"Want me to represent you? I'm a member of the bar."
"That don't sound right."
"These are rugged times, admittedly, for the machinery of justice. By a stroke of luck, though, there's a magistrate on the premises."
"Who would that be?"
"Yours truly," Bullock said.
"I see," Jason Hammerschield said. "You the jury, too?"
"Pretty much. I could appoint some of my people, but they'd just do what I tell them. So why bother?"
A green look came over the prisoner as the horizon of his future finally resolved into a featureless landscape of grievous futility. He puffed out his cheeks, his eyes rolled up into his head, and he vomited his breakfast back onto his plate.
"It's been nice chatting with you, Jason, but I have an awful lot to look after here. We're slaughtering some hogs today. It's the season for it."
Bullock left the prisoner staring blankly into the panes of the conservatory walls and went outside to where his men waited.
"Take all these fellows down to the River Road," Bullock told the versatile Dick Lee, "and hang them there at twenty-yard intervals."
The sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, is shipping to booksellers now. Order via AMAZON.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.