Did you see that Hunter’s Moon last week? It was a sight on
earth coming up over the mountain and just as orange as could be. It put me in
mind of the stories they used to tell of Nim Hunter. Scare the britches offen a
body, those ol stories would.
Who was he? Well, I can't rightly say. Folks said as he'd been a wild young man, bad to loafer around. Hunting and playing dice was the two things he cared the most for--allus had him a deep-voiced hound and rambled round the woods night and day. But he died young and was buried over there in Jewell Hill. Still, folks--church-going, Bible-believing folks-- said he sometimes walked the hills, him and his hound, looking for one last game or for someone to take for company in the grave.
Do I believe that? Law, honey, I been in this old world so long and I've seen so many quare things. . . and one of them things was Nim Hunter hisself.
This was the way of it. Hit was some years back when Luther give us a scare with his heart and I had to take him to the hospital. I didn't like to leave Cletus alone so I took him up to Jewell Hill to stay with Dor'thy till I got Luther settled. I was at the hospital overnight for Luther was acting fractious but at last he was resigned to being there and told me to git on home and quit worrying him. Told me to drive slow and watch careful for it was Halloween and folks out our way was bad to pull pranks like cutting down a tree so's it'd fall acrost the road or some such. Law, they was one time I seen a great old recliner setting in the middle of the bridge with a scarecrow laying back in it, jest as natural. . .
So I left the hospital and headed for home. Hit was nigh dark by the time I made the turn for Jewell Hill, rain spitting and the wind slapping leaves against my windshield. And what did I see but Cletus, setting on the steps that lead up to that big white church. He looked like he was talking to someone, and he kept raising up his fist then opening it out like he was throwing something down. But Cletus was bad to talk to himself and play funny games all the time so I didn't think nothing of it.
I pulled the truck up to the side of the road and hollered, "Cletus, come on out of the weather, young un; let's us go home."
He didn't pay me no mind, just went on with whatever game he was playing. I was right aggravated but I knowed it weren't no use hollering again. Cletus could bow up like a mule if you tried to push him. So I clumb outten the truck and went over and sat on the steps by the boy. I was a good bit spryer back then, being only sixty one, as I recall.
"Son, what are you doing?" I asked, putting an arm around him. He was still talking, saying things like "One more," and "My turn," and still doing his hand that a-way.
I hugged him hard. "Cletus!" I said, "let's us go home. I'll cook us up some cornbread and roast some backbone to go with it." Backbone was his favorite--mine too. Sweetest meat on the pig, Luther used to say.
"Bones, Mommy," my boy said, with a kindly wild look on his face. "Nim says I got to roll the bones iffen I want to win my shotgun back. He's got it, see?" and he pointed across the road to a funny little rock house just this side of the graveyard. Seemed like I could see a shadowy something slipping out the door and heading up to the graveyard.
I squinched up my eyes and that shadow begun to look like a tall man, all in black. He was grinning at me and I could see he had Cletus's shotgun over his shoulder. I heard a rustling across the way where the gravestones are and then it seemed like they was a big blue tick hound, nosing about the leaves around the stones.
They was a full moon on the rise, turning everything all around shining silver and making the last leaves on the trees look like they was dancing.
Cletus was acting like he was bewitched, wouldn't stir, just kept playing at his pretend dice game, for that's what I seen it was. But as I watched close, I saw, when he opened his hand, just for an instant I saw what looked like knucklebones, white and gleaming. Just for an instant and then they was gone.
So, thinks I, that's what's going on. Reckon I hadn't ought to be surprised, not on Halloween. Well, I've battled with worse back of this. I reckon I can face this feller.
I left the boy setting there, shaking his hands and throwing them dice--or bones, everwhich they was--and stomped across the road and up the steps to meet the man in black. He was a-setting on one of them tall gravestones. Cletus's shotgun was acrost his knees, and he was running his hand over the stock and kindly smiling to himself. He kindly shimmered in the moonlight and it seemed like I could most see through him. I reckon I should have taken care, but I was tired and hungry and getting wet in the cold blowing mist. So I spoke right sharp.
"That's my boy's shotgun you got there, what me and his daddy give him, and I'll thank you to hand it back. Cletus may look growed but his mind ain't but that of a little child. You got no business gambling with him, whoever you are."
The man stood up and grinned at me and now I didn't see through him; I see right through his black suit to his bones. His face, what had been reasonable good-looking was a white skull, still a-grinning. But that was just for a moment and then he was a man again. He bends down and says, "Good evening, Miss Birdie Gentry. What are you and your boy doing over my way on this night, of all nights?"
Oh, what a great chill run over my body when he called my name like that. But I stood firm. "Ain't none of your business, Mr. Whoever You Are. I want that shotgun."
"Name's Hunter, ma'am, Nimrod Hunter. Hunter by nature and Hunter by name. Your boy lost to me, fair and square. But I gave him another chance. . ." He nodded across the way where Cletus was still going at his game. "Yes, a chance to win his shotgun back. But," and he raised a long white finger that looked to be naught but bone, "if he loses, he'll be bound to come and hunt with me forever."
I stared hard at this Hunter and he stared back, his face blinking back and forth from flesh to bone to flesh again. The moonlight was full on him and, buddy, he was a dreadful sight. To stop from trembling I looked away from him to up the hill where a big old hickory tree was lit up like one thing. Its golden leaves hadn't dropped yet and it shone most like the moon itself. Hit's a sign, I thought. And then I remembered a spell Granny Beck had taught me.
Hickory wood'll protect you. Hit can break a curse. You do it of a full moon . . .
It was like Granny was whispering in my ear and I did like she said while ol' Hunter watched me, still grinning and cherishing that shotgun. I turned my back on him and went to that golden tree. I laid a hand on its strong dark trunk and whispered to it what I wanted. Then I broke off a slender switch from a low branch and began to bend it and twist it whilst I whispered the charm: Nimrod Hunter, as I twist and turn this switch, your power is bound but I am free.
Then, like Granny had said I must do, I laid the twisted switch on the ground and thanked the hickory tree. When I turned back, it was just in time to see the black suit, held up by white bones, crumple down to the ground in a great clatter and disappear. The hound was gone too, though I thought I could hear it baying a ways off.
I picked up the shotgun and made my way back to where my boy was setting in the moonlight, his hands still at last and his face lit up with a sweet smile. "Mommy, I was waiting for you. I want to go home. I'm awful hungry."
So we did. Cletus he didn't remember nothing about Nim Hunter and we was never troubled by him again though Dor'thy swears he still walks of a full moon-
Lord a-mercy, now I like to burnt up the spice cakes. Let me pull them out and once they cool, we'll go a-visiting. No full moon tonight so we needn't worry about ol' Nim.