Saturday, 11 January 2020 12:30

Yet a Youth By Eleanor Glewwe

“And he said unto Jether his firstborn, Up, and slay them. But the youth drew not his sword: for he feared, because he was yet a youth.”

Judges 8:20

 

Yet a Youth by Eleanor GlewweAbsalom Seaver stood between his sister Susannah and his brother Lemuel while, on either side of them, the little ones leaned against the burnished pine of the next pew, weary of the service. The church hummed with the voices of Seavers, Glasses, and Gustafssons intoning a funeral hymn. Overhead, great beams, like the ribs of a whale that had swallowed them all, seemed to shudder with the grief that clogged the room.

The final verse ended like a boulder coming to rest at the bottom of a ravine. At once, the minister, a dithering husk of a Glass and a cousin of the departed, began the prayer. Absalom listened for as long as he could stand it as Rev. Glass rasped his way from the churning of the Jordan to the light of heaven. Hadn’t he heard this very prayer before? It had been hardly three months since the last funeral. He glanced at Susannah, who stood with eyelids devoutly lowered. She had been crying a little, but he knew it was more from the fear and the horror than from grief. They hadn’t known Charlie Glass, particularly. He’d been one of those men Absalom had always tried to steer clear of. It was pretty certain he’d had a hand in the barn burning the week before.

Out in the churchyard, the families milled about among the gravestones, a number of which were barely weathered. Absalom waited with Lemuel and Susannah, who was trying to keep the little ones quiet. He could hear angry muttering coming from the knot of farmers gathered near a sprawling oak. Their voices rose as their curses went from coarse to foul. 

“Oh, please, this is hallowed ground,” said the minister, flitting up to his restive congregants. “Remember, ‘A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein—’”

 “Enough,” said Gideon Seaver. Absalom straightened at the sound of his father’s voice, and all those nearby fell silent.

“Enough of words,” Gideon went on. “Tonight, you are welcome at my inn, where the food and drink are plentiful. But we may not rest. Recall the scriptures…” Here he paused again, and Absalom felt a chill underneath his starched shirt. “‘I have pursued mine enemies, and destroyed them; and turned not again until I had consumed them.’” A murmur of admiration and agreement spread through the churchyard. Absalom shivered, but he couldn’t help feeling proud of his father’s command of the Bible, which left the minister himself looking like a bleating fool.

#

That evening in the Seavers’ inn, men from the interwoven families gathered around the fireplace, downing their ale with immense gravity. Absalom hung back at the fringe of their circle, watching Susannah carry cold meats from the kitchen to the hearth. Part of him wanted to be up in the loft with his brothers, whom Mama had already sent to bed, but he was also drawn to the men’s words, especially his father’s, repellent though they sometimes were. Anyway, he didn’t have the right to go up and sleep. Gideon Seaver would notice the moment he slunk away.

It was late when Mama came to stoke the fire one last time and Susannah began clearing the empty cups. Absalom watched his mother bend over the glowing logs, her temples gleaming, her apron stained with kitchen juices. Then the womenfolk withdrew, and his father called him over to the fire, where the men were abusing Charlie Glass’s killers and all Thorns in general.

“It’s time to talk of what’s to be done. We’ll be avenged,” Gideon Seaver said just after Absalom sat down next to an Engberg cousin of Mama’s. “We know who killed Charlie.”

A rumble of assent filled the tavern. Absalom shuddered.

“Frank and Abel Thorn,” said the innkeeper. “And don’t forget where their fields came from, and whose they were before they seized them. That’s Gustafsson land—”

“We remember,” burst out an impatient Seaver cousin. “Which night will we go?”

“And who will go?”

Absalom, lulled by the warmth of the fire, didn’t hear who his father was selecting to join him in the revenge party until he said, “And my son.”

He froze. There was a brief silence, and then one of the farmers said, “Your eldest? He’s still a boy.”

“He’s sixteen,” said the innkeeper, turning to stare at his son. “It’s time. You’ll soon be a man. You’ll come with us.”

Absalom’s throat was almost too parched to reply. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes, sir.”

#

He woke to the sound of shouting in the dining room below and realized he had overslept. Blinking clearness into his eyes, he scrambled to get dressed. What would the innkeeper say about chores still undone by midmorning? He raced to the stairs but then paused at the top, listening even though he knew it was wrong.

“What’s this nonsense?” he heard Mama shout. When had she last raised her voice like that to his father? “He’s not a man! How can you think he’s a man?”

“He’s sixteen,” the innkeeper said. “If he isn’t a man now, he ought to be, and this—”

“Has he so much as slaughtered a pig? Has he?” There was the ringing crash of a ladle against a pot. “And don’t tell me you’re not counting on blood! I know what your aim is, and let me tell you, Gideon Seaver, you take all the revenge you like, but don’t drag my children into it!”

Unwilling to overhear anymore, Absalom thundered down the rest of the stairs and burst into the dining room. The innkeeper’s harsh reproof didn’t come. Instead, Gideon seemed to be looking him over the way he did a newcomer to the tavern, gauging his qualities. Mama appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“And you, Axel, what were you thinking saying yes to your father?” she said, her tone scornful. Only she ever called him by the Swedish version of his name. “I thought I raised you better than that.”

Just then, Susannah brushed past Absalom, carrying the eggs from the henhouse. Absalom hadn’t heard her coming, but he didn’t miss the smear of tears on her cheeks. His heart sank, and he hastened out of the inn to begin his chores.

It wasn’t till after dinner that he had a chance to talk properly to his sister. They had finally escaped and were hanging over the fence of the pigsty, where no one would disturb them.

“Ab, what did he say to you last night?” she asked. “He’s going to take you with him to kill the Thorn brothers, to avenge Charlie Glass?”

“I—” There was a knot in his throat, a burr, and he could hardly breathe, never mind speak. Susannah put it so bluntly.

“He is,” she moaned. “Ab, don’t go!”

 “I have to,” he said, swallowing heroically.

“What’s gotten into you?” She was holding back her tears, and it gave Absalom an overwhelming desire to cry himself. But he couldn’t. It was for the women to weep, and for the men to nurse their silent rage and draw it out and forge their plans around the crackling fire.

“Nothing,” he said tremulously. “I can’t see any way out. Show it to me, Susannah.”

“Tell him you won’t go.”

“I can’t. How can I?”

She seized his arm. “If you fell ill…if you were hurt…”

“No. I can’t, Susannah.”

“You can’t go, Ab! God help us!”

He looked at her. They were both shaking. “I promise it will be all right. I won’t do it.” He took a breath and uttered the words he couldn’t have uttered to anyone else on earth. “You know I can’t do it. There will be so many men, I won’t have to… You’ll see, I’ll stay away.”

“But you’ll be there. And what if he… But you’ll be there.”

“I can’t get out of it.” He was almost pleading. “I promise you it will be all right.”

She shook her head. “There’ll be another funeral.”

“But not for us.”

She turned violently away from him. “We are so wretched. Someday…”

“Hush, Susannah,” said Absalom. “Remember what I promised.”

“I hope you’re right. I hope to God you’re right.”

“Don’t cry. Don’t.”

#

Gideon Seaver made no secret of having chosen his firstborn for the revenge party, making Absalom the uneasy target of his younger brothers’ renewed attention. Lemuel was half in awe, half envious, and Gabe was enraptured by the idea of his eldest brother facing the Thorns. “Like David and Goliath!” he would say, promptly tumbling on the floor or the grass locked in combat with invisible enemies. Whenever Susannah caught them carrying on thusly, she scolded them savagely, but only when the innkeeper was out of earshot.

The day came at last, and he was almost glad when it did, because it meant that at least the waiting was over. Halfway through the morning, Gideon Seaver went into town and took his sons.

Though it was neutral ground, Absalom always felt jittery when he came to town and saw so many Seavers sauntering down the street without so much as glancing at the Hartells passing them in the other direction, so many Gustafssons and Engbergs proudly looking past the Thorns, who didn’t even seem aware of there being anyone else on the street. While the innkeeper handled his business in the emporium, Absalom stood outside keeping an eye on his brothers.

He was looking the other way when someone hailed him, and he turned to see Micah Seaver, a distant cousin of his father’s, approaching him from up the street.

“Morning, sir,” he said, unease gliding around his insides like a snake.

“It’s been some time since I’ve seen you,” said Micah. “You’ve grown, Absalom. Your brothers too.” He spoke in an easy, almost gentle, way. Absalom guessed he hadn’t heard about Gideon Seaver’s revenge party. 

“I expect so, sir,” he said stiffly. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.” Micah seemed to be waiting, and Absalom wondered with a sick feeling whether the next polite thing to do was ask after his wife. Only, Micah Seaver was married to Dina Hartell. A Hartell! They’d had to go to the city to find a minister who would marry them, and then they’d settled in an out of the way cottage where they received few visitors. It was probably for the best.

Absalom was sure Mama would have asked after Mrs. Seaver anyway, but before he could coax the words from his throat, Micah spoke again. “Truth be told, you’re about grown, Ab.”

Absalom almost winced to hear his cousin address him with such familiarity. He didn’t like the sound of this remark, either. Being grown was like being a man, and being a man meant being capable of killing one’s neighbors. One’s enemies, but one’s neighbors all the same.  

“Well, you take care, then. All of you young men.” Micah Seaver’s voice was warm, but Absalom caught something like a warning in his parting gaze.

“Who’s he, Ab?” said Gabe plaintively when Micah Seaver had turned the corner.

“A cousin,” said Absalom. “A friend.”

“A friend?” said Lemuel. “Papa says he’s dead to the family. You shouldn’t even be talking to him.”

“He’s a good man,” Absalom said, immediately angry with himself for not having spoken more sharply. Still, he did wonder. What had Micah Seaver gone and married a Hartell for? Hartells had done terrible things to Seavers. Seavers had done terrible things to Hartells too, but the innkeeper would say that those had only been to pay back the Hartells. An eye for an eye. And what could a Seaver and a Hartell have in common? How could they live under the same roof, let alone be in love? How could they bear such a marriage, when there was no church they could attend together for miles around, when no family would welcome them for Christmas?

#

That night, the men gathered at the inn, but outside, because Mama adamantly refused to allow them to gather around the fire for a drink before they went on their way. Absalom could imagine his brothers and sisters crowded around the upstairs window, trying to catch a glimpse of him. He could picture Susannah, kneeling with her arms around little Amy and Gabe, murmuring psalms. The image made him tremble, and he stiffened his muscles to hide it.

They set out under a clear sky. The stars glimmered pitilessly, but thankfully there was no moon. Besides the innkeeper, there were perhaps half a dozen other men, Seavers and Glasses. Gideon Seaver knew that the Thorn brothers had gotten wind of the party coming after them, so he led them straight into the open land that lay beyond the principal Thorn fields. It was a bit of a march, but Absalom was grateful for it. Walking himself weary was better than thinking about the expedition itself. Every time one of the shotgun barrels glinted in the starlight, he felt his stomach turn over. The gleam of murderous metal, crafted by men, struck him as more chilling than the shining eyes of a wolf emerging from a thicket. He himself had no weapon for now, but he knew how to shoot. Gideon Seaver had made sure of that.

As he followed his kinsmen, Absalom thought of Susannah, no doubt sitting up at home, perhaps with Mama. They would not sleep tonight. He felt sick for them and for their fear.They stumbled upon the Thorns sooner than expected. There was a scuffling in the copse ahead, then dead leaves flew and saplings whipped and snapped as the Seavers and Glasses stampeded through the woods. Absalom heard terrible oaths and recognized the voices of Frank and Abel Thorn.

They ran, of course, but the avengers had flushed out their prey. The Thorns didn’t split up, but their hunters did, the better to surround them and corner them in a ravine just south of the creek that bordered one of their fields. It took much thrashing through the undergrowth and doubling back, but then it all came to an end with startling speed. Gideon Seaver sent two of his men to drive the Thorns down into the heavily wooded ravine, where Absalom and the rest of the party waited crouching behind boulders and the sinister roots of fallen trees.

Frank and Abel Thorn came pelting down the hillside with a deafening crackle of dry leaves, and at the innkeeper’s signal, the Seaver cousins sprang from their hiding places and encircled the brothers. Caught in the threatening ring, they stumbled and fell back, still snapping at their aggressors with contempt and bravado. But Absalom could see their raw terror in the sheen of their foreheads and in their scrabbling fingers. It oozed from the whites of their eyes. It was the terror that left man an animal. Absalom felt as though the hands of ghosts were clutching his innards.

Gideon Seaver stepped forward, a half-rotten tree limb seized from somewhere in the ravine gripped firmly in his hands.

“So, you thought you could outrun us.” Gideon Seaver jabbed the limb into Abel Thorn’s chest. The farmer grunted. “You thought you could get away with bludgeoning Charlie Glass to death.” Another thrust of the branch.

Frank, curled up awkwardly beside his brother and making no move to help him, said in a voice that hardly shook, “Charlie Glass burned down our barn, and he wasn’t alone either. Most likely some of you had a hand in it! Bunch of cowards!”

Without warning, Gideon Seaver swung around and heaved the tree limb into the void. Then he took his shotgun back from one of the cousins and shoved it into Absalom’s hands. Seizing his son by the back of his shirt, he practically threw him into the center of the ring.

“Kill them,” he said.

Absalom’s heart gave a great thud and then stopped entirely. He felt as though he had plunged silently into a pool of water. Nothing around him looked real, he couldn’t hear, and when his arms moved they didn’t feel a part of his body. He could smell sweat, though, and the damp earth under the ravine’s leafy carpet, and the oil on the shotgun’s barrel. He felt more trapped than Frank and Abel Thorn. He couldn’t leave the ring until he had shot them both dead.

The brothers lay still on the ground, their faces waxen and expressionless. The longer he waited, the more Absalom expected to see the fear in their eyes change to contempt for his weakness, but time seemed to have snagged on his indecision.

He felt Gideon Seaver’s gaze on him, heavier than an iron yoke, and the force of that stare compelled him to raise the shotgun and try to take aim. His hands shook so badly he didn’t know where he was pointing. In his imagination, a future memory surfaced in the murk, a memory of arriving home a killer. A murderer, sitting down in the kitchen drinking warm milk with Mama and Susannah. A murderer, slipping into bed next to Lemuel and Gabe. He saw someone else’s memory, two coffins in an unfamiliar church, and an unfamiliar minister leading the mourners in the very same hymn sung at Charlie Glass’s funeral.

Absalom began to lower the shotgun and caught sight of his hands. He thought he could see the twig-like sinews standing out on their backs. He looked back at the Thorn farmers, thinking of all that flesh and sinew and blood and bone, miraculously knotted together into living men. Turning slightly, he found himself just two steps from the innkeeper. He staggered forward and thrust the shotgun back into Gideon Seaver’s hands. Swallowing the saliva that kept gathering under his tongue, he retreated into the ring of Seaver cousins. His ears were unstopped, and he could hear his pounding heart again.

The innkeeper strode forward and raised his shotgun. Absalom had just the time to swing his arm over his eyes before the shot rang out across the wilderness. Gideon Seaver exchanged guns with someone and shot again. There were no cries, no gasps, just two explosions one after the other and the crepitating of dead leaves.

When Absalom uncovered his eyes, shivering with dread, he saw Gideon Seaver standing in front of him, the gun still gripped tightly in his hands. In the scant starlight, he could just make out the writhing anger in that face, and the shame buried underneath. Despite his terror, Absalom tried hard to keep his gaze riveted on that furious brow to avoid seeing the bodies beyond. But even in the dark, he couldn’t miss the stains spreading across their shirts, blacker than charred wood. 

Absalom expected his father’s rage to explode. He wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d knocked him to the ground right there. He was steeling himself for the blow when he heard one of the other men, a Glass cousin, say, “Gideon, he’s just a boy.”

Other voices joined in. Gideon expected too much. His son was really only a child.

Absalom couldn’t understand how they could stand there talking about him when there were two corpses lying in the ravine with them.  What would they do with the bodies? Leave them for their kinsmen to find? A fine black mist began to crawl around the edges of his vision, creeping in farther and farther until the ravine was almost completely obscured. He fought to stay conscious and upright while everything faded into a fearful hum.

#

The next morning, when he stumbled downstairs, Mama had a bowl of porridge ready.

“Axel,” she said. “Axel, my son, look at those dark circles under your eyes.”

He let her run her fingers through his mussed hair. They were alone in the tavern room for the moment, but he could hear his brothers and sisters moving about upstairs.

“He told me what happened,” Mama whispered in his ear.

Absalom stiffened, the porridge turning to sludge in his mouth.

“You don’t need to fear.” Now she smoothed his shirt. “He knows it was too soon.” They could hear his siblings’ steps on the stairs already, and Mama bent towards him once more. “He thinks you were just too young, but Axel, Absalom, promise me you won’t ever be like him.”

“I promise, Mama,” he choked out, and then Gabe came bounding into the room, dying to hear about the whole grand adventure.

Mama sent him and Susannah to town soon after breakfast, on some pretext Absalom couldn’t even remember after they had left. The innkeeper knew the trip was unnecessary, a waste of time, but he didn’t stop them from going. He gave his firstborn son such a look as brother and sister turned onto the road, a look of disgust, shame, and resignation.

Absalom took longer strides, desperate to get as far away from home as he could. He knew he didn’t bear all of his father’s ill will. He could see that Gideon Seaver also blamed himself, for having misjudged his son’s readiness. The innkeeper did think he was still a child. 

“Absalom, please don’t walk so fast!”

He slowed for Susannah, though he wanted to run until his muscles were spent. She was watching him anxiously, and he remembered with a start that no one might have told her what had happened.

“Did Mama…?” He couldn’t bear to look at her.

“No, she didn’t say a word. But I didn’t ask. Absalom—”

“I didn’t do it,” he said, his voice almost cracking. “He put the gun in my hands and told me to shoot them both. But I didn’t do it, so he did. I don’t know why, exactly, but I didn’t do it.”

“Thank God!” He looked at her in time to see the relief spread across her face. “Thank God! I prayed all night… Thank God!”

Part of him was glad to see Susannah released for now from the horror, but for the first time, he found her fervor tiresome. How many times did she have to thank God? What did God see but two more men laid before him in a church, with another one of his ministers hovering over them?

He shot them all the same,” he said. “They’re still dead. And I was there.”

He didn’t know what he expected her to do. Maybe start to cry. He didn’t think he could’ve stood that. But Susannah didn’t cry. “Of course I wish no one had been killed, Ab, but I couldn’t have borne it if it had been you. He…he’s already… It’s not the same, Ab, you know it. If you’d done it, you wouldn’t be my same brother today.”

They were coming up to the town now, a clump of houses and stores at the crossroads.

“I can’t tell,” Susannah said hesitantly. “Is he angry with you?”

Absalom shrugged. “The other men said I couldn’t do it because I was too young.”

“Is that why?” she said, still more hesitantly.

“No!” he said, taken aback by his own vehemence. “If I were five years older, I still couldn’t have done it. You don’t know what they looked like, what their eyes were like.”

Susannah dashed to keep up with him. “But he saw them too.”

“I’m different, then,” Absalom said. “I won’t kill a man who hasn’t done anything to me.”

“They did beat Charlie Glass to death,” said Susannah, sounding ill.

“And Charlie Glass was with the men who burned down the Thorns’ barn,” Absalom said grimly. But they had arrived on the main street and could no longer speak of these things.

They passed the cobbler’s porch where several gnarled old men, born in the old country, were trading yarns in Swedish. One of them was the grandfather of Engberg the shoemaker, who was somehow a cousin of Mama’s.

Susannah left Absalom out in the street while she went about Mama’s errands. He had been waiting here just like this, the day before. Yet how different everything was now. It was almost as though he had grown up by failing in the very task intended to make him a man. He felt sure every cluster of farmhands and of women in calico dresses was discussing the murder of the Thorn brothers. A trickle of cold sweat ran down between his shoulder blades. The warm sunshine on the storefronts struck him as sinister. When he closed his eyes, he was looking down the barrel of a shotgun at Abel Thorn. 

“Absalom?”

He opened his eyes with a start. It was Rebecca Sheppard, a distant cousin of theirs. Her bonnet hung down behind her head, and her greenish eyes gazed at Absalom with frank curiosity.

“Morning, Rebecca,” he said, recovering his manners, though his throat felt dry. 

“I heard your father got them last night,” she said eagerly.

Absalom just grunted, though he wanted to rage at her. Got them? Did she know what she was saying? He thought girls had tender hearts. What was wrong with them, if they could cry over a lamb that was too weak to live but not care a whit for the men their fathers and brothers went out and murdered? Rebecca didn’t look so full of hatred as to be unaffected by the killing of two farmers in their prime. Her expression was sweet, innocent. If it wasn’t hatred that made her so callous, what was it?

Rebecca misinterpreted his long silence. “It’s not your fault. I don’t think so. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re only sixteen.”

“What do you mean, I have nothing to be ashamed of?” said Absalom. He was ashamed of having gone with Gideon Seaver, of having held the shotgun at all, of having stood by and hidden his face while Frank and Abel Thorn met their brutal end.

“Well, you’re still young!” Rebecca said, nonplussed.

“I’m old enough to know there was murder done last night,” Absalom said, knowing he sounded too belligerent. What was taking Susannah?

“Murder?” said Rebecca, now looking at him fearfully. “But they killed Charlie Glass.”

He already regretted having said so much. Rebecca really was a very pretty girl. He could see he had upset her, and he didn’t want her to think he was rude and harsh. Before he could say anything else, though, Susannah reappeared. Her wan face lit up at the sight of their cousin, and Absalom had to endure their embrace and brief chat, during which Rebecca kept casting anxious looks his way. When she went on her way, her goodbye to him was almost inaudible.

“Goodness, what did you say to her before I came out?” Susannah said as they headed home. “She kept looking at you as though she thought you would start yelling at any moment.”

“What do you think she asked me about? Anyway, I didn’t shout at her.”

“I imagine you didn’t have to,” Susannah said, sounding weary. “You must have been unkind though. You don’t want to do that, Ab.” She threw him a knowing look.

“I don’t understand it,” he said hurriedly, trying not to blush. “Doesn’t she see anything wrong with what they did?”

“I’m sure she sees something wrong with it,” Susannah said.

“But she doesn’t mind!” Absalom stopped abruptly along the side of the road and looked directly at his sister, whose worried eyes met his. “And you do. Why are you different from her?”

“I don’t know,” Susannah said. “Ab, you’re making me miserable.”

He understood, and they walked the rest of the way home in silence.

#

Later, he and Lemuel had to fetch wood for the tavern room fireplace. His brother kept rearranging logs, delaying their return to the inn, until finally he said, “Why didn’t you do it?” 

“What?”

Undeterred by Absalom’s aggressive tone, Lemuel said, “You really couldn’t do it?”

“Who’ve you been talking to? Did he tell you what happened?”

“He told me enough,” Lemuel said mulishly.

“Come on, you’re dawdling. Hurry up with that wood.”

Lemuel started to stagger towards the inn. “You’re not answering me!”

Absalom glared at his brother. “What do you want me to say?”

“He said you were too young. But everyone’s going to look at us now. Maybe after last night, they’ll look at me and Gabe and think we’ll be like you too…” At his brother’s aghast face, Lemuel’s words slowed to an uneasy trickle. “Couldn’t you…couldn’t you have just shot?”

“You think you could’ve done it? Well, why didn’t you go instead of me then? It seems you’re not too young.” He wanted to lunge at his brother and knock all his logs to the ground, leaving Lemuel stunned and empty-handed. “You think you could’ve looked a man in the face and shot him just like that? Let’s see you do it, Lemuel!”

They had reached the back door of the inn now. Mama thrust her head out, tucking strands of hair loosened from her bun back behind her ears. “Don’t shout at your brother, Axel!”

#

The evening was almost more than he could bear. All the men from the party came back to celebrate over Mama and Susannah’s cooking, and they weren’t alone. Other Seavers and Glasses and Engbergs and still others from farms all over came to join in the revelry, to hear the story, and to congratulate one another. He wished the men who had been there in the ravine would just ignore him, but instead they all came up to him and clapped him on the back, reassuring him, excusing him, and pretending they bore him no ill will. He could hardly stand the touch of their hands, and he had to struggle not to flinch. Always there was that refrain, if not spoken aloud then lurking just under the surface of everything that was said. He was still a boy, he was only sixteen, he still had time. He’d been as brave as could be expected.

That night, unable to sleep, Absalom waited for the house to become utterly quiet. Then he slipped out of bed, down the stairs, and out of the inn. It was a night so different from the previous one, without a mob of armed men to accompany, without a mission of death, and yet Absalom felt more trapped and burdened than ever. He moved away from the inn, unsure of where to go. He didn’t like being alone out in the open, but he didn’t dare approach the thicket at the edge of the road, where starlit shotgun barrels and bone-white eyes were waiting for him.

Hovering near the road, he felt the fragile net that tied down his anguish unravel at last.

He thought his chest and throat were shattering, like thin ice on a March pond, but he couldn’t seem to cry properly. He was too afraid. Not of the innkeeper discovering him doing something so shameful as weeping. No, rather of how near he had come to murder.

While he was trying to choke out his tears, just for some measure of relief, it occurred to him that the Thorns wouldn’t let it rest at this. After the funeral, it would be for the men on the other side to gather around the fire and plan revenge. And if he had been the one to shoot the farmers, he would have been the Thorns’ target. He wiped his eyes and looked up and down the road. They might have come tonight and dragged him from between his sleeping brothers. Susannah was right. Thank God he hadn’t done it.

But was it really enough to make him, or any of them, safe? Gideon Seaver had shot Frank and Abel Thorn, but they could come after him anyway, because he was Gideon’s son, and because he had been there. They could go after anyone, if they didn’t dare attack the family of a man as widely respected and feared as the innkeeper. After all, Gideon Seaver had never yet suffered as a result of any of the murders he had committed.

Absalom’s legs shook under him. His innocence, if it could be called that, was no protection. And he wasn’t too young to die either. No one was too young to die.

The men kept saying it had been too early. He was just a boy. Did they think he would grow out of his revulsion and fear of inflicting death? That he would grow up to be a man who didn’t falter at revenge? He wouldn’t. He couldn’t do it. He was old enough to know at least that.

He wept for the boy he had been and for the man his father wanted him to be, the man he was desperate not to become. “Don’t let me be like them,” he said, looking up at the stars, silver and aloof. “Don’t let me ever be like them.” He didn’t know if he was praying or promising.

#

Miraculously, the days slipped by, and Absalom lived through each one, though he still dwelled constantly on that moonless night. It was the first thing he thought of each morning when he woke from dreams of blood and withered leaves, his heart weighed down with misery.

He was outside one afternoon fixing a nightstand leg when he heard crunching on the gravel road. He looked up and saw Micah Seaver watching him from the edge of the property. After glancing over his shoulder at the door to the inn, he swallowed and approached his cousin.

“I expect you can guess why I’m here,” Micah said without preamble.

Absalom just shrugged, but he was gladder of his cousin’s visit than he could say. Here was possibly the only man around who didn’t think that he had just been too young to shoot.

“You’re not quite the boy I took you for,” his cousin said, looking much graver than he had that day in town. “I guess I thought Gideon Seaver’s son… I was wrong. Absalom, look at me. You’re even more grown up than I thought.”

He looked up as he was told, hoping the gratitude showed in his eyes. “So…” He cleared his throat. “So you don’t think I was a coward, that I was too young?”

“On the contrary,” Micah Seaver said. “You were brave, Ab.”

He didn’t believe that. He had acted out of fear. Still, out of the fear of what? Looking at Micah, he thought that maybe his cousin was thinking the same thing.

“I can’t stay long,” Micah said. “Your father won’t like seeing me around here. But I came to let you know you’re welcome at Dina’s and my place, always.”

Absalom could do nothing but thank him, though it didn’t feel adequate.

#

He started telling everyone who forgave him his failure that he had not been too young, but the more he insisted he didn’t believe in revenge, the less they listened to him. All were convinced he was trying to bury his shame under a pile of absurd lies. He kept expecting Gideon Seaver to send him out of the tavern room, but his father no longer spoke to him at all. He seemed to be waiting for something from his son, but Absalom didn’t know what he wanted. He wasn’t about to apologize or beg forgiveness.

“It’s no good,” he told Susannah at night, when the rest of the house was asleep and they met in the loft. “The more I say I wasn’t too young, the more they think it’s true. Maybe I should just stop, before they decide I’m as worthless as a boy of twelve.”

Susannah shivered. “Don’t say that. Lemuel’s twelve.”

“He’ll take Lemuel next time.”

“Don’t, Ab.”

“Susannah, it’s the truth. You can’t stop your ears every time I tell you the truth,” he said. He felt a pang of guilt at her hurt expression, but he couldn’t say he was sorry.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said reluctantly. “Ab, maybe you should go away.”

“Go away?” he said, aghast.

“Can you stay here? You know it’ll never end. We’re just waiting for the Thorns to strike back at us. Maybe they’ll even come to the inn. You can’t stay here if you’re determined never to take revenge. Someday something will happen. The Thorns didn’t wrong you, but if one of them harmed one of us…” Now Absalom wanted to implore her to stop, but his jaw wouldn’t budge. “You might do what you think you can’t do now. If you left these parts—”

“Micah Seaver hasn’t left,” he said.

Susannah just shook her head miserably. “I’m going to leave too, if I can. Someday.”

“What? How?”

She turned her face away from him to peer into the empty darkness, as though she could see a different place in it. “There’s only one way he would let me leave the inn. Only one way I could escape from here. But I’m not sure how I’m going to meet a man who doesn’t live around here. Hopefully one will come through town and stay at the inn.”

She couldn’t see Absalom’s horrified look. “Susannah! That can’t be the only way. Don’t be foolish! If you go away, you have to make sure where you’re going is really better than here.”

“Oh, I will,” she said, but he could tell she believed almost any place was.

“Susannah,” he said after a pause, “do you think I didn’t shoot because I was too young?”

“I don’t know,” she said bleakly. “I wasn’t there. But you’ve aged since that night. You have.”

“There’s no way I can show them,” he said. “They’ll never believe me. I just pushed the gun away, Susannah. I gave it to him so he could shoot them. I just pushed the gun away. I should have saved them.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Eleanor Glewwe is the author of the middle grade fantasy novels Sparkers (Viking, 2014) and Wildings (Viking, 2016). Her short fiction has appeared in Cicada and The Society of Misfit Stories. She lives in Iowa, where she teaches linguistics at Grinnell College.