The Sassafras Three


Chapter 1
The Morning

 

The little old man had lost his hat. You could say he lost it, as has just been said, or you could say his hat was taken from him. Stolen. Both sayings would be true.

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What happened was this: the old man had been sitting on his porch in the morning, the sun on his face, his hat on his head. He was watching buzzards swing around in the sky in circles on their great black wings. He was drinking from a clay cup as big as his head, and would soon light his corncob pipe. Then it came, a hot dusty wind. The wind blew like a demon, hitting the old man’s face, kicking shingles off the roof, rocking his rocking chair. The old man shut his eyes as the hot wind assailed he and his house, and when the wind left, he found his hat had been carried off with it.

“Consarn that wind,” he said. It was his fault he hadn’t grabbed his hat and held it tight on his head. He’d put his hands on the arms of his rocking chair to steady himself while the wind blew. Now the wind was gone, and his hat with it. Nothing remained on the old man’s head but his own scalp and skull. It was a bald scalp at that. Bald as a chicken egg.

So, the old man got up, put his pipe in his pocket, grabbed his cloak from the floor of his porch, and set off after the wind. He could still see it at the end of the road, shoving oak trees aside as it passed. It blew in the shape of a dusty cloud. The buzzards in the sky scattered like flies being swat as the wind hit them. So, the old man went tromping up the road with nothing but the clothes on his back and the corncob in his pocket. He had not even locked his front door.

This is a story about that old man and his bald head. He lived in his house for many years and began his day the same way every morning in those years. He drank charred coffee then smoked his pipe, watching the sun rise and whatever wildlife dared dance on his lawn. There were two giant grey oak trees in the field in front of his house, and oft would the buzzards roost in them and hunt for dead flesh in the morning.

The little old man left all that behind. He didn’t even lock his front door. So he went tromping up the road, following after the wicked wind which had carried off his hat. Just a pipe and a cloak and his bald head, though he would soon find a walking stick on the road. And there was the dust cloud, far ahead of him—his hat somewhere within it, getting plastered with dust, most likely.

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The monstrous cloud of dust and wind looked less like a cloud as he pursued it. Gradually it resembled something more straight up and down, like a castle tower or a giant. So it went for the morning—the dusty wind far off ahead on the road, the little old man walking in pursuit.

“Consarn that wind,” said the old man, not for the final time.

Well, it was a peculiar sort of land in which the old man lived. Mostly farmers and cowherders. Some people called it the west, though it was fairly east of the countries even further west. Still, it was his home, or at least where he lived, and now he was leaving it, for the road went east, and it seemed that wind was sticking to the road.

It was a scratchy sort of country. There were only dry trees and pointy shrubs and flaky red dirt. Not much grass to see. The hills were low and long, not even noticeable in some places. So it was, the ground would scratch you, the animals might scratch you, and the air was so dry and contrary it scratched your throat to breathe it.

There was someone who claimed to be a king of those parts. Not only did he claim, he purported it too. Soon the old man came across a posse of the king’s soldiers. They stood in the road, as a matter of fact. The old man’s eyes were dead set on the wind blowing off as far up the horizon as he could see. He saw the soldiers too, of course, but he paid them no mind, and kept walking as if they weren’t there.

“Hold up now, Pappy,” said one of the soldiers. There were five of them standing on the road. They had iron caps on their heads. They wore iron breastplates and long skinny swords on their belts, and a few had halberds in their hands. Halberds are a sort of spear with an ax-head coming out the side. They look a little fancy but they kill just fine. The soldier who had stopped the old man was standing in his way, in the center of the road, with his hand out. He wore leather gloves.

“To where do you march, Grandpappy?” asked the chief soldier.

“Seeing as I do not have any children, I am not anyone’s grandpappy,” said the old man. He only used a certain amount of words a day; he wasn’t much for idle banter, so after that explanation (and all the consarnings of the wind) he was running low.

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“S’no insult to be called grand, leastways,” said one of the soldiers, a little defensively.

“It’s inaccurate,” said the old man.

“Well any way, you’re on the king’s road,” said the chief soldier.

“Do I owe a tax?” asked the old man. He was no friend of taxation, but if it was money the soldiers were after, he wanted to get down to the point.

“Today you are lucky, grandfather,” said the chief soldier, mayhaps trying to be a bit more respectable. “Keep your money.”

“Why have you stopped me?” the little old man asked.

“To protect you,” said the soldier. “You’re not permitted to go further, not till we’ve made the neighboring lands safe by conquest.”

The old man said nothing now. He’d wasted enough of his words as it was. He leaned forward on his tiptoes to see past the soldiers’ arms. The dusty wind was getting further off in the distance. Almost too small to see. The old man frowned fierce (wouldn’t you?) and the soldiers laughed at his fierce frown.

“You’re plenty tough, Granddad,” said the chief soldier. “Why, I’d give you my sword and let you lead the charge, if I could. Forget my sword, your face is steely enough. But we have our commandments from our king, Regulus Rutherford.”

While the soldiers tittered, the old man took the corncob pipe from his pocket and struck a match.

“Sure, go ahead,” said the chief soldier, giving permission to what the old man was already doing: lighting his pipe. “Our king commanded us, well, he commanded his lords, and they commanded their stewards, you see, and the stewards passed it down to the generals, then to the leftenants, who sent it on to the aide-de-camps, you know, then captains, then to men-at-arms, like myself-ff! Eh heh heh! Ah-kugch!”

The strange noises that the chief soldier was making were, in fact, coughs. For, while he had been explaining the chain of command, the old man had stood staring at him, smoking on that corncob. The soldier talked, and the old man smoked; and he talked, and he smoked. And the old man kept smoking and smoking until a cloud of smoke accrued, and it floated right along into the soldier’s face. Soon all the soldiers were coughing like a sick family. Some had dropped their halberds. They coughed and hacked and shut their eyes. The smoke stung. They couldn’t see. Some of the soldiers took off their iron caps and waved them at the cloud of smoke, fanning it away. When it finally cleared and they had sufficiently rubbed their eyes, each one sniffed and looked about. The old man was vanished, it seemed.

“There he is!” one of the soldiers said. They saw him. He was stomping on down the road, going east. He’d walked right past them while they’d coughed, and off he walked, smaller and smaller, not looking back. The smoke from his pipe trailed behind him like a banner made of spirit.

“Shall we arrest him?” asked one of the soldiers.

“Nay,” said the chief, who was still rubbing his eyes. “We’ll keep our post.” He opened one eye and watched the old man diminish. “That one’s on an errand,” he said.