We Sacketts were a mountain folk who ran long on boy children and gun-shooting, but not many of us were traveled men. And that was why I envied the Tinker.
Everybody in the mountains knew the Tinker. He was a wandering man who tinkered with everything that needed fixing. He could repair a clock, sharpen a saw, make a wagon wheel, or shoe a horse.
He wandered up and down the mountains from Virginia to Georgia just a-fixing and a-doing. Along with it, he was a pack peddler.
He carried a pack would have put a crickin a squaw's back, and when he fetched up to my cabin he slung it down and squatted on his heels beside it.
"Tyrel, him an' Orrin, they taken out for the western lands. Looks to me like you're to be the last of the Sacketts of Tennessee."
"I've given thought to the western lands myself, for a man might work his life away in these mountains, and nothing to show for it in the end."
There was a yearning in me to be off the mountain, for I'd lived too long in the high-up hills, knowing every twisty creek to its farthest reaches, and every lightening-struck tree for miles.
Other than my cabin, the only places I knew were the meetinghouse down to the Crossing where folks went of a Sunday, and the schoolhouse at Clinches Creek where we went of a Saturday for trhe dancing and the fighting.
"Tinker," I said, "I've been biding my time until you came along, for come sunup it is in my mind to walk away from the mountains to the western lands. If you've a mind to, I'd like you to come with me."
"I have given it thought, `Lando," he answered me, "but I am a lone man with no liking for company."
"So it is with me. But now it is in my mind to go to the western lands and there become rich with the things of this earth. You have the knack for the doing of things, and I have a knack for trade, and together we might do much that neither could do alone."
"Aye. . . you have a knack for trade, all right. A time or two you even had the better of me."
A time or two he said? Every time. And well he knew it, too, but it was not in me to bring that up.
He took out his pipe and settled to smoke. "You have enemies. Is that why you have chosen to leave at this time?"
"Will Caffrey and his son? They have reason to fear me, and not I to fear them. It was my father's mistake to leave me with Will Caffrey to be reared by him, but pa was not himself from the grief that was on him, and in no condition for straight thinking."
"Caffrey had a good name then," the Tinker said, "although a hard-fisted man and close with money. Only since he became a rich man has he become overbearing.
"And it was the gold I claimed from him at Meeting that made him rich, and not of his earning. He had it from my father to pay for my keep and education."
"You put your mark upon his son."
"He asked it of me. He came at me, a-swinging of his fists."
"They are saying how you faced Will Caffrey at Meeting and him a deacon of the church and all and demanded he return the money your father left with him, and all the interest he had from its use.
"They tell how he flustered and would give you the lie, but all knew how five years ago you ran from his farm and have lived alone in this cabin since, and how, suddenly, after your father left Will Caffrey had money with which to buy farms and cattle.
"You'll not be forgiven this side of the grave, not by Will Caffrey. He is a proud man and you have shamed him at Meeting."
"The money is rightfully mine, Tinker. When he decided my father would not return, he took me from school and put me to work in the fields, and sent his son to school in my place. If it is ememies I have, it is the Caffreys. I know of no others."
He shot me a curious glance, which puzzled me with its content. "Not three tall, mustached men with dark hair and long faces? Three tall men as alike as peas in a pod. . . named Kurbishaw?"
"It was my mother's name."
"They are riding to kill you."
"You saw them where?"
"In the Cherokee towns. They asked questions there."
"The Kurbishaws are my mother's folk. They will surely be coming for other reasons."
"I have heard them say, `We have killed the wolf, now we shall kill the whelp.'"
They had killed the wolf? If by that they meant my father, I did not believe them. My father might have many faults, but lack of shrewdness was not one of them.
Yet he had not returned. . . had they killed him, indeed?
"If they find their way to the Crossing, Caffrey will be quick to tell them where you are." The Tinker turned his yellow eyes straight at me. "Did you never wonder why your pa came to this lonely place with his bride? There's a story told in the lowland towns."
"There was trouble when he married ma. Her family objected to him."
"Objected is a mild word. They objected so much they hired a man to kill him when his brothers-in-law decided against trying it. Your pa killed the man and then lit out for the hills so he would not have to kill her brothers and have their blood between them.
"Or so the story is told. Yet there is a whisper of something else, of something beyond pride of family. There is a tale that they hated your father for a reason before he even met your mother."
We Sacketts had come early to the mountains. Welsh folk we were, Welsh and Irish, and my family had come to America one hundred and fifty years before the Colonies fought for their independence. We settled on the frontier, as it then was, along the flanks of the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains, and there we made ourselves part of the rocky hills and the forests. Pa was the first of our family to run off to the lowlands and return with a bride.
The Kurbishaws made much of themselves and cut a wide swath among the lowland folk, looking down their long noses at us who lived in the hills.
Yet it was no wonder that pa took the eye of the lowland girls, for he was a fine, upstanding man with a colorful way about him, and he cut quite a dash in the lowland towns.
He rode a fine black gelding, his pockets filled with gold washed from a creek the Cherokees showed him, and he dressed with an elegance and a taste for fine tailoring. There was gold from another source, too, and as a child I saw those hoarded coins a time or two.
My father showed me one of them and I loved the dull reflection of the nighttime firelight upon it. "There's more where that came from, laddie, more indeed. One day we shall gather it, you and I."
"Let it lie," ma said. "The earth is a fit place for it."
Such times pa would flash her that bright, quick smile of his and show her that hard light in his black eyes. "I might have told them where it was , had they acted differently about us," he would say; "but if they have it now it shall cost them blood."
How long since I had thought of that story? How long since I had even seen that gold until pa brought it out to turn over to Caffrey for my education and keep?
Her brothers had planned for ma to marry wealth and power, and when she ran off with pa they were furious. Pa and ma would have lived their lives among the lowland folk had the Kurbishaws let them be, but they used their wealth and power to hound them out of Virginia and the Carolinas, until finally they took refuge in the mountain cabin among the peaks.
"If you stay here," the Tinker went on, "they will kill you. These men are fighters and you are not."
My head came up angrily, for he spoke against my pride. "I can fight!"
Impatience was in his voice and attitude when he answered. "You have fought against boys or clumsy men. That is not fighting. Fighting is a skill to be learned."
"And I suppose you know this craft?"
"I know a dozen kinds. How to fight with the fists, the open hand, and Japanese - as well as Cornish-style wrestling. If we travel together, I will teach you."
Teach me ? I bit my tongue on angry words, for my pride was sore hurt that he took me so lightly.
"A man who travels alone must look out for himself."
"You have your knives."
"Aye, but a hand properly used can be as dangerous as a knife." He was silent for a moment, and then added, "And a man is not lynched for what he does with his hands."
We both were still, letting the campfire warm our memories. The Tinker noticed everything. Some of his questions started coming back to mind to puzzle me. Especially about the gold.
Once he asked me if I had any gold money. . . said he could get a lot for gold. So I told him about all our gold going to Will Caffrey, and he got me to draw him a picture of what those gold pieces looked like.
"Your pa," he said, "must have been a traveled man."
"Sacketts haven't taken much to travel," I said, "although we hear tell that a long time ago, before they came over to the Colonies, some of them were sailors."
"Like your pa," he said.
"Pa? If he was a sailor he never said anything about it to me. Nor did ma ever speak of it."
He looked at a knot I had made in a piece of rope. "Good tight knot. Your pa teach you that?"
"Sure -- that's a bowline. He taught me to tie knots before he taught me letters. Two half-hitches, bowline, bowline-on-a-bight, sheep's bend -- all manner of knots."
"Sailor knots," the Tinker said.
Now the Tinker, he sat there smoking, and finally as the fire died down he said, "Daylight be all right for you?"
It was all right, so come daylight we taken off down the mountain for the last time. A lot of me was staying behind, but I guess pa left a lot up there, too.
And then we rounded the last bend in the trail and my mountain was hidden from sight. Before us lay the Crossing, and I had seen the last of the place where I was born.