The Lion of Farside
Copyright ? 1995 by John Dalmas
This is a work of fiction. All the characters portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Paul Alexander
First printing, July 1995
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
This book is for
Jerry Simmons and Sarge Gerbode
and for the
Spokane Word Weavers
My thanks to (alphabetically) Eileen Brady, Mary Jane Engh, Jim Glass and David Palter, for their perceptive critiques. And most especially to Hank Davis at Baen Books, for a critique which will prove of lasting value to me as a writer.
PART 1: To Waken The Lion
None of my family knew where Aunt Varia really came from. Evansville, we figured—that‟s what she‟d let on. Uncle Will had met her at Salem, at the Washington County Fair, and it was love at first sight, he told me once. For him, anyway. “And at second sight and third,” laughing when he said it. He claimed she was the best wife a man ever had.
Sometimes she seemed a bit peculiar, but of course she wasn‟t the only peculiar one in Washington County. Not even the only peculiar Macurdy. Fact is, she had to be a little strange to have married Will. For one thing, from his eighteenth birthday on, the only time he stuck his nose inside church was for his own wedding. Unless you count his funeral, and I don‟t think he had any nose then. Of course, Ma and Gramma
were the only ones in the family that were really churchy; most of us were semi-churchy.
Plus he‟d get strange notions from time to time. One time Max tells about, before Varia came on the scene, he and Will were helping Dick Fenton butcher steers, and Will caught some hot blood in a tin cup and drank it down like milk. Said it was good for the muscles and glands. Dick said considering how Will didn‟t have any girl friend, his glands weren‟t doing him much good anyway, unless he was servicing the livestock.
Strong as the Macurdies are, especially Will, we had a reputation as easy going, which no doubt was why Dick figured he could get away with saying that. But just then Will took another notion: He punched Dick right between the eyes, which also broke his nose.
But whenever the family gathered on a holiday, or Ma and Gramma would be feeding a harvest crew, Aunt Varia would be in Ma‟s big kitchen, or sometimes Julie‟s in later years, helping do the things women do when a big feed is getting fixed. Fact is, Gramma and Ma both said Varia was a magician in the kitchen. And she was always easy to get along with. When folks were gathered around the table or in the sitting room, Varia would sit there not saying much. Not shy; only quiet and watchful. She‟d just sit there, the really really pretty one, listening and smiling.
She had two smiles, actually. The usual one was purely friendly and cheerful, but the other one, which I‟d only see now and then, seemed kind of spooky to me. As if she knew things other people didn‟t, and sometimes I wondered what they might be.
I wasn‟t the only one. I remember Ma saying once she wondered what Varia thought about behind those peculiar eyes. Not the Bible, she‟d bet; Aunt Varia didn‟t go to church any more‟n Will did. She did read a lot of books, though. Library books about history and science, Will said. I remember once he laughed and said that if he died, she could go off to Bloomington and be a professor, after all she‟d read. He told me she‟d even read Darwin‟s book on evolution, but not to tell Ma or
Gramma or he‟d kill me.
Another thing about Varia—she wore her hair long. Not braided, but in two bunches like a pair of shiny copper-red horses‟ tails, only kind
of out to the sides. That was a time when women hardly ever wore their hair long. Some old ladies Gramma‟s age let theirs grow long, but they tied it up back of their head in a bun. Ma wished she‟d wear it different; the way it was showed her ears, which were kind of pointy. I always thought it looked pretty, though I didn‟t say so, and her ears went with her eyes just fine.
When I was young, I always thought that what was oddest about Aunt Varia was how she‟d laugh, now and then, when no one else did. I remember once we had a new preacher over for supper, and he was standing up saying the blessing when Varia laughed like that. First thing he did was look down to see if his pants were unbuttoned or anything. Most of us saw him look, and Frank and me laughed. Couldn‟t help it. Threw the reverend
off his prayer so bad, he just sort of limped on through to the amen. A lot quicker than he might have, which was fine by Frank and me.
Varia was still pretty young then. I mean actually, in years.
But what folks noticed first about her was her eyes. She had two, just like the rest of us, but they were different. Big and leaf green—leaf
green!—and tilted up at the outside corners. Made her look foreign. She was a pretty woman though, the prettiest around, and those eyes were part of it. They suited her just right, as if any other color or size or shape would have spoiled her looks.
Along with her eyes, her build was what caught the eye most, even among women I think. A little slim, maybe, for some tastes, but not where it counted. When I was thirteen, fourteen years old, sometimes I‟d get a hard-on when I looked at her. Whenever I did, she‟d look at me and laugh, as if she knew. That killed it every time.
Not that it was a mean laugh. There wasn‟t any meanness to Varia at all.
I said earlier that she had to have been strange to marry Uncle Will. As a farmer, Will was seriously short on judgement, though otherwise he seemed reasonably smart. He‟d take a notion to do the darnedest things. His place was right next to ours, with his northeast forty up against our northwest forty, and right in the middle of the two forties was a thirty-acre clay pocket too heavy and wet for growing anything but hay. So that‟s what we‟d always used it for, a hay meadow. Anyway, this one spring day I was fixing fence and saw Will out there plowing his half of it, turning over that nice stand of grass. His team had all it could do to pull the moldboard through it.
Naturally I was curious, so I went over and asked how come he was plowing it. “Gonna plant potatoes,” he told me. Potatoes in clay! Was it anyone else, I‟d have thought he was fooling. What he ended up with
was a worn-out team, busted up harness, and twelve acres of ground that, when the top dried out, was like a cobblestone pavement. Afterward, when he tried harrowing it, the disks just hopped along the top. I was only fourteen at the time, but I sure as heck knew better‟n to do something like that. When Pa saw it, he just shook his head. So far as I know, he never said anything to Will about it. Wouldn‟t have done
But if Will was a little short sometimes between the ears, he made up for it further down. The Macurdy men were well known for their strength, but Will was almost surely the strongest man in Washington County, and fast-moving. He could outwork most two men. Even if he didn‟t have hair on his chest, or any whiskers beyond a little peach fuzz. That was typical of Macurdy men, too, and a little embarrassing when I was a teenager.
Anyway he got so he did a lot of work off the farm, which was just as well, considering the kind of farming decisions he sometimes made. Most of his land he rented to Pa, and didn‟t keep much stock to tend to. A few pigs, a couple of cows that Varia milked, and a team of horses he used logging. He worked for the barrel works a lot of the time, logging white oak cooperage, and cutting up the tops for the Barlow brothers‟ brick kiln.
And it wasn‟t just Will‟s muscles that were big. The Bible says you mustn‟t show yourself nekkit to folks, but we all figured that rule
didn‟t hold down by the Sycamore Bend. That‟s where us boys used to swim. And Harley Burton used to have easily the biggest one of all the kids that swam there. (Course, I was only nine, ten years old then. By the time I turned fourteen, and seemed likely to beat him out, Harley was off to France in the Army, helping teach the Kaiser a lesson.) Anyway, when I was about ten, I mentioned to Pa how big Harley‟s was, and Pa said he‟d be surprised if Harley‟s was near as big as Will‟s. Said there
was someone like that in every generation of Macurdies, but Will had outdone himself. After that I was always a little curious to see what Will had, but of course I never did.
Will was the youngest of three boys, Pa being the oldest. (The Macurdies had always been cursed with what folks around there considered small families; I‟d find out more about that later.) I was a little kid five years old when he married Varia. Will was about twenty-five at the time. Even then, I wondered why such a pretty girl would marry someone strange as Will. Some months later she got with child, and when she was supposedly about five months along, Will took her into town. She‟d take the train to Evansville, she said, to get cared for and midwifed by her gramma on her mama‟s side. Some folks thought that was
an insult to the Macurdy clan, and to Doc Simmons, and it seemed awful soon, only five months along. But Will was content, so no one in the family said anything. Us Macurdies have always been easy going; let
looking for was pictures: family photos. Not of the Macurdy family, but hers! Seemed to me there ought to be some, and I wanted to see what they looked like. Wanted to see so bad, my chest felt all tight.
I didn‟t find any on the walls, so I started looking through dresser drawers and closet shelves for albums, or maybe boxes that might have pictures in them. Not mussing anything up; what I surely didn‟t want
was for Varia to know. And when I didn‟t find anything downstairs, I went up in the attic.
The first thing my eyes hit on up there was a chest. Unlocked. I opened it, and right on top was this big brown envelope that I knew had to have pictures in it. I went over by the window with it, and took out what was inside.
On top was what looked like a letter, a letter I couldn‟t have read if I‟d stood there all week. Could have been Chinese for all of me. Under it was pictures, snapshots. And if I hadn‟t thought before that
Varia was peculiar, the pictures would have done it for me.
They were of children. The first showed four little boys alike as twins—looking a bit like Will, but with Varia‟s tilty eyes. The next was of five little girls, like twins again, and there wasn‟t any question who the mother was: Varia. In fact there was five—litters, I guess you
could call them, the youngest of them looking about two years old. And written under each child, real small, was what might have been a name.
I didn‟t have any doubt at all that they were Will‟s and Varia‟s kids. Twenty-three little Macurdies, except I doubted they thought of themselves that way. Five litters. But Varia‟d gone off pregnant probably eight or nine different times—more than five, anyway. So all
told, it seemed to me she‟d given birth to some forty. Having litters and a short term explained why she‟d started to swell so early, but even so, they couldn‟t have been much bigger than squirrels when they were born. I was amazed they‟d lived. Seemed like with Varia, Will was more fertile than all the Macurdy men since God knew when.
And if all that wasn‟t enough, they were dressed strange, in little coveralls about half snug, like they were tailor-made. Tucked into little black, pull-on boots coming not much above the ankles. Looked like they were dressed for Sunday, but not at the Oak Creek Presbyterian Church. The little girls had Varia‟s long hair, fastened like hers in twin horse tails that hung down over the front of their shoulders. The boys‟ heads were just about shaved, and they stood there at attention like grinning little soldiers. All of them, boys and girls alike, would have their mamma‟s green eyes, I had no doubt, and they looked to be standing in front of a low building with white stone pillars. Didn‟t
look like any studio backdrop, either. Looked real. Those pictures—kids
and building—gave me chill bumps like a plucked turkey.
And there was one other picture, which I took one glance at and covered
up quick as I could. Then I put them all back in the envelope in the same order they‟d been in, and put the envelope back in the chest the way I‟d found it. Closed the lid, and went back downstairs, all of a sudden scared to death that Varia might come back before I got out of there. Because she had a big big secret, and I‟d found it out.
I went right back to spreading manure; didn‟t have the nerve to stay and eat any pie. When I heard the eleven-forty train whistling for the Ramsey Road crossing, I unhitched the team and drove them home. Halfway there, Varia passed me in the Model A. I didn‟t even wave; I was afraid she‟d stop to talk. When she drove by, I could feel those bright green eyes right on me, and it seemed to me she knew what I‟d done, what I‟d found out. My mouth was drier‟n dust. I didn‟t know how I could ever face her again.
That night I dreamt about Varia. I dreamt I was over to plow her garden patch and couldn‟t get the plow in the ground, which was all paved over with brick. Then she came out to me wearing only a shirt, one of Will‟s,
the tails scarcely halfway to her knees, and unbuttoned down far enough at the top, I could see the roundness of her titties. I was sure she wasn‟t wearing anything underneath it. She invited me in for pie. Her tilty green eyes were bigger than ever, and smiling, she asked me what the trouble was. I said I couldn‟t get it in, that it was too hard, meaning the plow and the ground. She laughed and put her fingers on my cheek, and said it couldn‟t ever be too hard. My face got hot as
a depot stove, and somehow we weren‟t in her garden patch anymore, but in my bedroom. And I wasn‟t asleep anymore, it seemed like. Nor was Varia there, really, but only her ghost, so to speak. I could see right through her. But I could still feel where her fingers had touched my cheek.
“Haven‟t you ever wanted to be a daddy, Curtis?” she asked. Her voice was soft when she said it, not at all like a witch.
I swallowed and told her I‟d never thought about it.
“Well then, have you ever wanted to be in bed with a pretty woman?”
I couldn‟t more‟n nod. Frank and me‟d been to see the Linzler sisters a couple times, on their farm outside Salem; they charge two dollars. And I screwed Maudie Hodge a few times in her daddy‟s hayloft. Wearing a French safe, except the first time with Maudie. I didn‟t want to have to marry anyone, surely not Maudie Hodge, and you couldn‟t know but what the Linzler sisters might have the clap, or worse. None of them were really pretty; nowhere near as pretty as Varia. Of course, they didn‟t drop whole litters of strange, smiling little kids, either.
Anyway she took me by the hand and we walked out of the house together, her transparent in the moonlight. And somehow I didn‟t have my pajamas on, but my regular pants and shirt, and my barn boots. Which about
three-quarters decided me I was still dreaming. I‟ve looked back on that night more times than I‟d care to count, and I‟m still not sure.
When we got to her house, another her was waiting on the back porch, this second Varia not transparent at all. She wore what looked like the same shirt, plaid flannel. The first Varia stepped up to the second Varia and they melted right into one another, while I found myself taking off my barn boots. Then, chuckling like she does, she opened the storm door. And the hinge squeaked, making me start like someone waking up.
And there I was, really on her porch, like I‟d sleepwalked there. I mean really on her porch. No way was this a dream any longer. “You didn‟t eat your pie,” she said softly, and chuckled again. I walked through that door like I was bewitched—I couldn‟t have stayed out any
more than I could have flown by flapping my arms—and she closed it behind
us. Then, in the kitchen, she put her arms around me and kissed me like nothing I ever imagined, and led me by the hand into her bedroom.
“Curtis,” she said softly, “since Will died, you‟re the strongest of the Macurdies, and you‟re smarter than Will. A lot smarter; you have no idea yet how smart, how able. Perhaps you never will. Although your uncle was more intelligent than people gave him credit for, and a nice nice man. I became very fond of him.”
I only about half heard what she was saying, because she was unbuttoning my shirt while she talked. “You‟ll give us fine children,
Curtis. More than fine. They‟ll be pleased about that.” They? I thought. Then she kissed me again, and stepped back and smiled at me. “Will and I did have children, you know. The ones you saw in the pictures this morning.”
I stared at her. She knew all right, just like I figured. Then she stepped around behind me and pulled off my shirt, put her arms around me and unbuckled my belt—and felt around inside while she kissed my back. Now she knew what I didn‟t—how I sized up with Will. I couldn‟t
hardly breathe, and my knees like to have buckled. When she‟d finished undressing me, she shucked out of Will‟s old shirt, and I‟d never seen anything like her. So sweet and pretty, it made my throat hurt just to look. Then she pulled me onto the bed, and after that—no way could
I describe what it was like. Between times, she told me she wanted me to marry her. I told her that‟s what I wanted, too. At least part of me did, no doubt of that, but I wasn‟t so sure about the rest of me, and I guess she knew what I was thinking, because she said there wasn‟t any hurry. Then she chuckled again and said next week would be soon enough, and started wriggling around on top of me and eating my face.
After another hour or so, I washed up and got dressed, and the transparent Varia led me back home. I was worried that someone would see us, but she said there wasn‟t any danger of that. That‟s the first I ever knew of invisibility spells.
The next day I finished off her manure pile, and while I was forking manure that morning, I got to worrying. She hadn‟t aged for more‟n twenty years, while I‟d gone from a bitty little boy to six-foot-one, and
two-twenty-four on the creamery scales with my clothes on. In twenty more years, I‟d be forty-six and she‟d still be twenty. And in forty
years . . . Folks already talked; some were even a little scared of her. That was one reason she didn‟t go into town any more than she needed to. First Will and then ma had done most of Varia‟s shopping in recent years. They even went to the library to get books she wanted.
No doubt about it, being married with her would be somewhat more than just thrashing around on the bed together. And by the light of day, riding behind a team of Belgians spreading cow manure, it seemed to me we needed to talk about that. So when I heard the eleven-forty train whistle, I left my pitchfork there and went up to her house and knocked. She let me in, then cranked up Ma on the phone. Asked if I could stay for lunch and help her eat leftovers before she had to throw them out.
Ma didn‟t answer right away; there was half a minute there I couldn‟t hear her voice. Maybe she wondered if I‟d started doing more at Varia‟s than just work. But she said that‟d be fine. Anyway I sat down at the table, and we began talking while Varia rustled up a meal. I told her what was bothering me, and she just smiled. “We won‟t stay here,” she said.
“Where—Where would we go?” I wasn‟t sure I wanted to hear the answer to that. Because suddenly I wanted to be with Varia the rest of my life, and was scared her answer would be something I couldn‟t live with.
“Where would you like?”
I thought for a minute. “Since the Depression hit last fall,” I reminded her, “lots of folks are out of work. It‟s hard to get a job nowadays.”
“We‟ll get a farm,” she said, reasonable as could be. “Somewhere well away from here; maybe some black land in Illinois.”
I shook my head. “That‟d cost a lot of money. Especially that Illinois black land.”
“Land prices are way down. I talked to them at the bank before I sold
out to your father. And my grandmother‟s got money that belongs to me.”
Her grandmother. I supposed I‟d meet her. I wasn‟t sure I wanted to.
“She looks a lot like me,” Varia said without my asking.
“Just as young?” I was a little scared of what the answer might be.
Varia laughed. “A little older. Maybe twenty-one.” Light danced in
her eyes when she said it. She was so bright and lively, I couldn‟t help thinking she‟d be a wife like no one ever had before, except Will. But still—
“How about when I‟m fifty,” I said, “and you still look twenty?”