The Whited Child by Michael Canfield [fantasy]

The Whited Child by Michael Canfield

Bad Pete’s livestock pen fence were down, and not a pig remained. Coyotes done that, but the White Mountains sent them. The mountains were the boss. Coyotes raided the coop too, leaving just one old hen that hardly never laid.

Bad Pete took out his slicing knife and eyeballed that little hen. He curled his beard in a finger. “You best drop an egg or into my stew pot you go, girl.” The hen gulped and squeezed, but it weren’t no good. She didn’t have no egg in her.

She made a mean stew, stringy and lean, but Pete ate every bit of her and sucked the marrow.

He sat up all night in the chill looking at the fire, gnawing a twig, and talking to the White Mountains. The White Mountains didn’t say nothing back. Bad Pete alone of all men was allowed to live in the White Mountains, but he felt they had lately disfavored him.

He sat a day and a night, hunger gnawing strong. Come dawn the third day, a shadow moved on the horizon. It were the idiot boy, meaning white death had touched another town child at last, and Bad Pete was saved.

The one the town folk called the idiot boy come up, looking skinny and dusty as tumbleweed. There weren’t a townsman yet who would come into those White Mountains himself, even to save his kin. The idiot boy did it for a handful of corn—maybe an egg or two, if he struck a good bargain.

The idiot boy took his pet mouse from his pocket and started petting it. When he had to talk to someone, he always did that first.

“There’s a one who caught herself the White,” said the idiot boy.

“How old?” asked Bad Pete.

“Near to my age, I expect.”

“Her kin got pigs?”

The boy frowned. “Ain’t no pigs left this year.”

Bad Pete spat at the smoldering campfire. Town folk were all liars. “They got anything, then?”

The boy looked confused. “Sure! They only the richest and fanciest bunch in town.” He caught himself too late.

“Rich folk. How many goats? And chickens?”

“Not so many.”

“That right? And who’s gonna stand for the Whited child?”

“Got’s herself a grandma who will.”

That’d do. “You tell that rich man it’s three goats and twenty chickens.”

The boy put the mouse away carefully. He placed his hands together. “Ain’t but that many chickens in the whole countryside! No fellow can pay that much for one cure, lest the whole bunch of ’em starve to save a sickling!”

“You tell him that’s the price, if he don’t like it maybe he can perform the cure hisself.”

“I think this fellow just soon let his kin die as hand over all them goats and chickens as you want.”

“Stingy, is he?”

“It’s stingy times, ain’t it?”

“Two goats, fifteen chickens.”

The boy slapped his head, and fell back. “And the sun and the moon besides, I guess. One goat and three chickens. That’s a fair price.”

“A fair price for fixing a child’s got the White on it?”

“He got other’n.”

“Two goats and ten chickens—and good egg-layers too, and get your runty ass away now before I chop you up for dinner.”

The idiot boy grinned. He was missing another tooth since last month. “Ain’t you nor no coyote, nor nothing in these hills fast enough to catch me!” He scattered off down the slope.

Bad Pete hollered. “You tell that rich ’n have the Whited child and the payment here by sundown, or ain’t no deal!”

He stood and his old knees cracked. He chuckled. The idiot boy was worth twenty of them townsmen by Bad Pete’s reckoning.

Just the thought of a mess of eggs and a swallow of goat’s milk whet his appetite. He needed to hit out into the hills and get set for the swap. He had to chop him down a bristlecone, for one thing, and burn it to cinders, and gather milkweed. The swaps didn’t come cheap.

***

The idiot boy got back by sundown. He led his charges like a little caravan: goats with caged chickens strapped on, old granny, and Whited child. Bad Pete got ready. He stood naked, but for belt and slicing knife. He started rubbing the milk weed and ashes over his skin. He rubbed fast. Them White Mountains was rumbling. They was angry now with four human folk on the slopes.

The Whited child was just strong enough to walk and she hobbled behind her granny, grabbing onto a bunch of fabric for support. She was Whited bad. Her skin was about the same shade as those blanched mountains at noon day. Her gums were the same, her small eyes nearly dried up in the sockets. Her hair was gone, but for a few rust-colored strands, her finger nails had already cracked off, and she was a bent and hobbled as her granny.

Exhausted from their climb, the granny and the Whited child were too weak to be frightened by Bad Pete, naked and ash-covered, bathed in the setting sun. He’d lost more than one job because folks run screaming into the night when they saw him. Coyotes took them on their own, and Bad Pete got nothing.

Now the sun’s last rays faded, and the coyotes gathered in the brush outside the camp, their eyes reflecting moonlight. Everything was hungry on the slopes.

Bad Pete told the idiot boy take the goats and chickens and pen them up good, then get on home. He didn’t like spectators. The boy obeyed, then disappeared down the hill. The Whited child looked after him, but she bravely kept her place. Her granny clutched hands with her.

Bad Pete growled at the granny. “Only I can do the swap. Only I can save your kin. You understand what you are asking of me? If not, turn you ass around and get off these hills.”

The granny nodded slowly. “Yes, sir,” she said. “I know what I’m asking.” She shook, but she was willing.

“Come on then,” he said. Bad Pete had both the Whited child and her granny kneel. He put a hand on each gal’s head. He petted the gray old hair of the granny to sooth her, and said the words the White Mountains like to hear.

“This here’s Bad Pete talking, I’m a human man, like them that kilt your trees and robbed your ore, and ruled this earth a thousand years ago.”

The wind rose. Coyotes in the brush growled and sniffed the air. The penned goats bleated, and the chickens batted their useless wings. The White Mountains quaked.

“But it ain’t like that any more, you old cuss. You know it, and I know it, so here’s what we’ll do. I’ll swap you this one for that one, and we’ll call it even.”

The wind rose and those old White Mountains howled. Bad Pete leaned down and whispered in the granny’s ear. He took her hand. “You done real good, almost over now.” With the slicing knife, he opened her throat. The coyotes smelled the blood.

Bad Pete swept up the Whited child and lit out for the shed. The child cried and tried to pull away, hands stretched out for her granny.

Coyotes bounded from the dark, tearing at the sacrificed woman. The Whited child wriggled in Bad Pete’s grasp, showing strength he didn’t expect. She broke free and scrambled toward her granny, though the old woman was already being pulled apart by a dozen jaws. Bad Pete turned back to the frenzy after her.

The child clutched her granny’s ankle and pulled. The pack, fixated on their kill barely noticed her—a first.

Bad Pete reached the child. There was nothing left of her granny, and the pack turned for fresh kill. Bad Pete took his slicing knife—he might get a piece of one, but that was all. They were fast, them coyotes.

The pack charged, like one beast, and kept on charging, right past Bad Pete and the child. Bad Pete whirled.

The livestock pen was open. His new goats and chickens were free. The pack, smelling fear, raced after the livestock. The idiot boy, astride the open pen, yelled at Bad Pete, waving him toward the shack. Bad Pete dragged the crying girl child and ran.

The goats were lost, the chickens were lost. He shut himself, the child, and the idiot boy in the shack.

The idiot boy was grinning with excitement. Bad Pete cuffed him. The boy grabbed his ear in shock.

“Them’s my livestock you set loose!” shouted Bad Pete.

“I saved you!”

“And I told you to get on out,” said Bad Pete.

“I’m only watching.”

“It ain’t your concern.” He pushed the crying child into the corner.

“But I saved you!”

“You didn’t save nothing. I’d have outrun that old pack any day. Far as I see, you owe me two goats and ten chickens.”

The idiot boy looked at him as if he’d been betrayed. He ran from the shack. Bad Pete called him back. The idiot boy ignored him. He ran into the darkness.

“You best be fast as you think!” shouted Bad Pete into nothing. Those coyotes would get him sure.

Bad Pete went to the child and tended her. Already, the White was starting to leave. Her cheeks were rosy, and her eyes were a little brighter. In a week, her hair would start coming back in and her nails would grow back, right as rain, though of course, she’d never have young ones of her own. It was part of the price of the swap. She kept hollering for her granny, and he guessed that was a good sign. He tried getting her to take a swallow of water, but she wouldn’t yet. She ought to have some meat too, but thanks to the idiot boy, there weren’t none of that.

***

At dawn, Bad Pete took her down the mountain, back to her kin. She hobbled along slowly, head bowed and silent. Bad Pete never took them down himself, he made the boy come and get them, but he needed to go now and tell the child’s kin to pay again because of what the idiot boy did.

By midday. they approached the outermost houses of the town, and people knew him. Children ran. Dogs barked. By the time they got to the street, a group of townsmen gathered.

The child rushed to a big man, who led the pack and carried a long thrashing rake. Pete remembered him from his youth, when he lived in town himself. Aubrey was his name, miller’s son. He was father to the cured child and he spoke to Bad Pete. “What do you want down here with decent people?”

“Aubrey Miller,” Bad Pete said. “You owe me for this cured child. Two goats and ten chickens.”

“I guess I already paid you, Pete.”

“I guess you didn’t, seeing as I don’t have ‘em.”

“Now everybody knows what happened, we heard it from the idiot. Go on now. Go home.”

“I ain’t leaving till I gets my payment.”

A stone struck his shoulder, tossed from midst the crowd.

The idiot boy showed his face. He had another stone ready. “Go home!” he cried, and hurled it.

A third stone from somebody, a bigger stone, hit Pete’s defending elbow. He spun. Stones rained around him. He ran full out and the town men chased him, laughing.

By and by, they wearied and stopped, all but one. The idiot boy ran after him a piece more, throwing pebbles, shouting and crying. Bad Pete got tired of running, and just walked on, letting the boy’s missiles hit him or miss him, whichever. The boy quit throwing after a while, but kept up crying. He begged Bad Pete to turn around and talk to him. After a spell, the boy gave up and must’ve gone back. Bad Pete didn’t turn around to see.

When he’d climbed back up to his shack, belly empty as ever, he sat down and had a talk with the White Mountains. “You got what you wanted on this deal, now you got to make it up to me. You’re the boss and I know it. I just hope you send the White down on another’n soon. And when you do, the price’ll be high, I tell you what.”

***

Four days later, the idiot boy came up the mountain. Usually, the White only took one child every month or so. This once, the Mountains were looking out for old Pete. He had not eaten in he didn’t know how long. He was too weak to catch even a mouse.

The idiot boy dawdled this time, stumbling along, probably afraid to get another cuffing off Pete, for them rocks he threw. Either that, or…

Bad Pete stood, and then run down toward the idiot. There weren’t a speck of color in his face, nor a hair on his blistered head. Bad Pete grabbed him and looked at his nails. Already cracking. He pushed back the dry lips, and saw gums as white as bone.

Bad Pete shook the idiot boy roughly. He clenched his teeth. “Well, that’s how it is then. What’s you got to say for yourself?”

The boy took the mouse from his pocket. Bad Pete slapped it away. The tiny thing scampered into the underbrush. The idiot tried to run after it, but Bad Pete held him fast. “Boy! Don’t you understand what happening to you? Now who you got to swap for you?”

The idiot didn’t speak and he didn’t have to. There weren’t nobody to swap, he didn’t have kin. Bad Pete turned him around, and was ready to give him a kick in the seat and a push back down the slope, but stopped. This was just such a little nothing of a boy. Couldn’t cause offense to anyone. Then Pete knew.

He broke out into a laugh that echoed across the White Mountains. The Mountains never were going to let him forget who was boss. He’d wished for another Whited child and the Mountains sure gave him one.

He sat down right where he was to do some thinking. The boy wiped his eyes and watched. Bad Pete forgot him after a while, just sitting and thinking.

At midday, Pete opened his eyes. The boy had fainted. “That’s it,” said Pete. “I guess I got a tree to find.”

He cut a small bristlecone and burned it, like always. Though the idiot was only half-conscious, Bad Pete found the work surprisingly pleasurable with a companion. He chattered on about how the Mountain really feared folks for the way they used to be, and brought down the White on the children of men and women so they would never again get above themselves and overrun the world.

At dusk, he stripped but for the belt and slicing knife, then covered himself in the ash and milkweed like usual.

The White Mountains called the coyotes back.

Bad Pete made the boy sit up. He eyes were glazed and Pete pinched the white cheek to force the boy alert.

“It’s your time,” he said.

He placed his hand—the hand holding the knife—on the boy’s head and started to say the words. “This here’s Bad Pete talking. I’m a human man, with the power of life and death. I got above myself. You sent down the White on this one, so here’s what we’ll do. I’ll swap you fair and square.” He moved his hand over his own head. “A life for a life.” The growls of half a hundred coyotes came from the dark.

“Get up, idiot.” He thumped the boy with the knife hilt. “Leg it, soon as I make this slice.” Bad Pete held the blade against his own throat.

The boy fought himself awake. “NO!”

“Go on,” Pete said, “or them coyotes will eat you too.” He knew the boy wouldn’t want him to when it came right to it. “Didn’t I cuff you once? Do what I say!”

The idiot boy fought him and tried grabbing the knife. The boy just never listened to sense. Okay then. Bad Pete picked him up and carried him toward the shed. He spoke steadily. “Have it your way. We’ll figure something else out, I guess.”

When they reached the shed, he put the boy inside, and before the boy could react, slammed the door shut. He braced it shut with his back. The knife glinted in the firelight. Pete started shaking and just about dropped it and ran, but that wouldn’t fix nothing.

A hundred eyes stared from the dark. He drew the knife lightly across his throat, and closed his eyes.

***

Some days passed and Idiot suspected he’d die, despite Bad Pete giving up his own life for him. The White come off him all right, but there weren’t no livestock in the pens and he weren’t up to hunting. He peeked outside once, to see what they’d left of Bad Pete—nothing, not even bones.

He needed water, and when he couldn’t stand thirst no longer, he staggered out to get it from Bad Pete’s deep well. Pulling up a half-full bucket took all his strength. He scooped water to his mouth, when the growl of the coyote came from behind him.

She was lean and gray, standing a single leap’s distance from his throat. She had a pig’s hindquarter in her mouth, and drool was running off it right down to the ground. When she took a step forward, Idiot took a step back. Her eyes were yellow and full of hate.

With a shake of her head she tossed the hindquarter aside. Idiot figured that was it, she was coming for him, but she just snarled, flipping that long string of drool, and ran off.

The pig’s hindquarter sustained him a while. In a few days, he was strong enough to hunt down a rabbit.

***

The next month, a little one from the town come up the ridge. The boy were about half Idiot’s own size.

This boy was stunned to see Idiot.

“Close your fly catcher, I ain’t a ghost,” said Idiot.

The little one stammered. “I come for Bad Pete.”

“What about him?”

“There’s a Whited child—“

“Then’s me you’re wanting. I’m swapping folks now. Who’s kin is it?” He could do it, from watching Bad Pete.

The little one told him, and Idiot stroked his chin. He didn’t have no beard to mess with, like Bad Pete had, but he expected some whiskers would be coming in by and by.

Idiot knew the kin of the latest Whited one had a mess of hogs and bushels of corn squirreled away here and there.

“You tell him the price is whatever he thinks is fair.”

The little one grinned broadly, thinking he had struck a fine bargain.

“Tell him to think real hard about what is fair. Tell him I don’t want to be in his shoes if these old Hills ain’t pleased.”

The little one’s grin disappeared. He backed away, still watching Idiot. Then he turned and ran.

Idiot took the mouse out of his pocket and stroked it. It had come back the day after the coyote dropped the pig’s hindquarter. “Let them town folk decide for themselves how they get along with these Hills. Let the Hills decide what to do about it.”

The Mountains quaked, reminding him who was boss.

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