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Chance Down the Mountain (2018)

Chance Down the Mountain (2018)

©2002, 2018 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2018). Chance down the mountain. In press, Brandons, MS: Foundations, LLC.

In 1834, fourteen-year-old Chance Early is forced to leave his home in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. Before his return he will have survived a duel, a steamboat explosion, and the Battle for San Antonio, and acquired a slave who refuses to be freed.


I’m happy to say this novel has been accepted for publication by Foundations, LLC.

About Chance Down the Mountain

I was born in Asheville, North Carolina and lived there several times. I love all the ranges of the Blue Ridge, including the Black Mountains, where the Early family settled as part of the great migration down the spines of the mountain from Pennsylvania.

The Black Mountains are isolated and rugged now and were rugged and even more isolated in the 1830s. I set my novel in that decade because the land was still wild, yet quickly becoming settled.

The settings and events in the novel are described as accurately as possible. In most cases I was able to verify place names and and the dates and circumstances of historcial events. I was even able to determine the going price for turkeys in the mid-1820s.

Synopsis (Spoiler Warning!)



Chance Down the Mountain

A Novel by Dallas Denny


It’s June, 1834. The place is Yancey County, North Carolina, high in the Black Mountains. Fourteen-year-old Chance Early has just killed a man, and Sheriff Bob Carvis is at his doorstep. Carvis hasn’t come to arrest Chance, however, but to gently suggest that if Chance ever “had a hankerin’ to see the wide blue sea or a big city or the western mountains” this would be as good a time as any.

Knowing that if he stays, his family with be thrown into violent conflict with the Webb clan, Chance elects to leave his home and “go down the mountain” to the lowlands to make a life for himself.

As he walks, Chance, feeling sorry for himself, is bitterly homesick, reflecting on his home and family. On the second day, however, he meets Doctor Elisha Mitchell, an actual historic personage and explorer of North Carolina’s high peaks. In the few short hours in which they are together, Mitchell exposes Chance to ideas far outside his experience. Mitchell discovers, by accident, that Chance can read; this is a surprise to Chance.

Continuing down the mountain, Chance mulls over the new ideas. When he reaches Asheville he seeks a Baptist preacher and asks for God’s—or at least the Baptists’—position on ice ages and an earth that may be millions of years old. In my favorite passage, he poses his questions and gets the standard Baptist response and manages to enrage the preacher by asking difficult theological questions. It’s at this point in Chance’s journey that his sense of humor, diminished by his recent troubles, begins to reassert itself.

The fall finds Chance in Newport, Tennessee, trying unsuccessfully to hire on as a drover for any of the many herds of livestock or flocks of fowl that are being driven through on the way to the markets of the east. He chances on Rolly Newsome and Tom Long, two frightened and penniless boys alone with a herd of turkeys. Chance hires on as their drover, and the three take the herd east. Along the way, two “desperate men” appropriate the flock, planning to kill the boys. Chance runs away, but returns, and with the help of his great-grandfather’s sabre (taken from a ‘kilt’ British officer in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of King’s Mountain), unhands (literally) one of the bandits and chases away the second. Unfortunately, Rolly is killed in his sleep by a shot from one of the mens’ pistol.

When they reach Asheville, Chance plays social worker with the Dissledorp’s (a farm family he met earlier in his journey), suggesting that Tom, whose father is a “bad drunk,” might find a home with them. In town the next morning, Chance encounters that same bad drunk passed out on the sidewalk. They strike a deal, and Chance buys the Long’s half of the flock, using money he obtained by selling gold nuggets and flakes he had brought with him from his mountain home. Chance then puts a pistol in Long’s face and tells him he’ll kill him if he ever sees him again. Because of Chance’s age, Long is resistant, but by happenstance, one of the bandits walks by and, seeing the pistol, runs away, pleading for his life.

Chance tells Long (untruthfully) the bill of sale he has given Long transfers ownership not only of the turkeys, but of his son Tom. Long demands more money, and Chance provides it. Long says, “He’s worth more than that,” to which Chance replies, “Not accordin’ to you.”

When Chance and Tom and the turkeys arrive in Greenville, the market is depressed and the price down. After trying unsuccessfully to get a fair price, they sell turkeys door-to-door until they’re stopped by an angry merchant in the company of a deputy. The merchant agrees to buy the rest of the flock.

Chance accepts his wages from Tom, but refuses to let Tom reimburse him for buying the flock. In a prophetic moment, Chance allows Tom to pay him the twenty dollars he paid Tom’s father for him, saying, “I took it, as the last thing I wanted was to own a man.” Tom departs for Asheville and a life with the Dissledorps, and Chance, who has a vague notion of going to sea, takes a stage to Charleston. His appearance offends a Savannah matron, who, when he introduces himself, calls him mountain trash; this amuses fellow passenger Vance Chambers, who waits to see Chance’s response.

Chance, who has been building his vocabulary, thanks to a dictionary given him by Dr. Mitchell, mimics the woman’s low-country speech, saying, “Today, the Lord be thanked, we are all, mountain trash and cracker trash alike, Americans, and we should be thankful for it.”

When the stage arrives in Columbia, the matron, claiming that Chance has committed an offense against her honor, provokes a man named Raddison Pressley, who threatens to have his slave, Lloyd, trash him. Vance prevents this by showing a gun, and suggests that Raddison and Chance settle the matter like gentlemen. Raddison declines to duel and offers a half-hearted apology.

After a muddy trip to Charleston, Vance takes Chance to see the ocean. Later, to pass the time, they watch a slave auction. Raddison had threatened to sell Lloyd, and sure enough, Lloyd is on the block. Due to misadventure, Chance buys a grievously wounded Lloyd for only five dollars; he makes the purchase only so he can get Lloyd medical help. To everyone’s surprise, Lloyd recovers.

When Lloyd is able to walk, Chance tries to free him, but Lloyd refuses to be manumitted in the unhealthy social environment of Charleston. He also refuses to walk with Chance to a free state, saying “Massa Raddison, least he let me ride up on top the coach.”

Vance, who was once a riverboat pilot, suggests they ride a packet boat to New Orleans and journey up the river by riverboat; this would allow Chance to free Lloyd in Indiana or Illinois. They take the packet, with Chance, who is now low on funds, paying his passage by serving as cook. In New Orleans, Chance takes a job as pilot of the Magnolia, and soon the three are steaming upriver. Unfortunately, there is a disaster (brought about by steamboat racing), and Chance finds himself in the river. He finds Lloyd, but there’s no sign of Vance.

Faced with the prospect of walking to Illinois, Lloyd decides he would prefer to ride to Texas, and he and Chance throw in with Routier and Constantine, two mountain men.

In San Antonio, Chance is confronted by Gus Webb, who has followed him for months, and in the fight that ensues, Gus is blinded. Chance, conscience-stricken, seeks out a priest, who talks to him of redemption and contrition. Chance, figuring he can buy redemption, arranges room and board for Gus and writes Gus’ family, asking them to come get him.

When they reach New Mexico (then a part of Mexico, where slavery is illegal), Chance formally emancipates Lloyd, who immediately knocks Chance from his horse, saying, “Ain’t personal, but you was my massa, and shouldn’t no man own no other man. I just give you somethin’ to remind you of it.”

Chance arrives back in San Antonio in December, 1935, to find the city under occupied by Mexican General Cos and 1500 troops and besieged by an army of Texans. Chance fights with the Texans and Cos is defeated.

Chance finds Gus Webb still in San Antonio. In a true act of redemption, he takes the disabled Gus all the way back to Yancey County, where, facing death, he confronts the Webb family.

Chapter 1

 Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 1


When I got to the house the day after I killed Joe Webb, I was hungry and feeling sorry for myself, for I had laid out in the woods all night getting cold and wet and feeling miserable. I could see word of what I had done was out, for Sheriff Bob Carvis was sitting on the front porch of the cabin. He was come to arrest me, I was certain. He was marking time, waiting for me to show, making pleasantries with Ma and Meemaw Hope and my sister Jessie, Jessie with a baby on each hip. I was hungry and thirsty and it made my mouth water to see the jug they were passing around— it would be soft cider, as Ma frowned upon the use of alcohol. They were all nipping at the jug and spitting into a clay crock with a big crack in it. The sides of the jug were stained dark brown with tobacco liquor.

When they saw me, Ma and Jessie smiled and waved; Bob tilted his head and looked at me in that way he had. Bob was sheriff of our newly-created county, a big man, a good six-foot-five and weighing enough that it would take two strong men to lift him. And it was all bone and muscle, too.

I knew I wasn’t in Bob’s good graces due to the incident with the chickens. That had happened three years before, in 1831, when I was just eleven. Bob had forgiven me, but he never let me forget it, which is precisely why he made a good sheriff; he remembered and kept track of every troublemaker in Yancy County, even troublemakers-in-training. In his mind, I was sure, I was Chance Early the boy chicken rustler, no good from the get-go. I was certain he had come to arrest me and lock me up because of what had happened the night before. I was equally sure that following the arrest I would be tried and convicted and hung for man-killing.

I had been doing some thinking while I was lying out in the woods, and had come to the conclusion that for the peace of the community and the good of my mortal soul, I might as well turn myself in and make peace with the Lord and take my hanging like a man.

I looked past the cabin to the misty blue lines of the Black Mountains, range upon range piled upon one another, each higher than the last, fading into the distance. They were as peaceful and beautiful as I was not. Then I walked over and leaned the long barrel of my Kentucky rifle against the chopping stump and stepped up onto the rickety porch and plunked down in the rocking chair I’d carved and caned the same year I borrowed Bob’s chickens. My stomach rumbled as I caught the scent of bacon and biscuits. “Morning, Bob,” I said. “Howdy, Ma. Hello, Jessie, Meemaw.”

It didn’t take long for Bob to work his way around to the point of his visit. It was about the Webb boys after all, but not about last night’s tiff with them; Bob was behind in his news. He had come all the way up from Burnsville not to arrest me, but to warn me that Mark and Joe Webb had been bragging to anyone who would listen that they were going to kill me.

This was on account of I had whipped their brother Augustus in a fair fight in the dirt in front of Penland’s Dry Goods. I’d been picking up a basket for Ma— flour and salt and sugar and tea and coffee and a packet of sewing needles and a bolt of gingham and a handful of horehound candy sticks for the babies. We Earlies provide most everything else for ourselves. As I was standing there at the counter watching Penland’s man Mayfair Ricker tally up the bill, that no account Augustus Webb had just for cussedness come up to me and yanked the top button from my shirt. Gus was a good forty pounds heavier than me and two inches taller, and I guess it made him think I would just stand there and take it. When he reached for a second button, I hit him between the eyes with the heel of my hand as hard as I could, then I dragged him outside while he was dazed. When he came to himself, I gave him a thrashing while his pretty sister Carlene watched. I was well-grown for my age, tall and lanky— I got my growth early like most of the Early men— but I had no notion I could whip Augustus Webb, who had a good five years on me.

“Joe and Mark say you jumped Gus from behind,” Bob said, pushing his forelock to one side with his palm. He accepted the cider jug Ma was proffering. “They say they’ll take your life for it. They will, too, if you don’t watch out. Those Webbs are mean as snakes.”

What Sheriff Carvis didn’t know was that the Webb boys, all three of them, had jumped me the night before as I was skylarking my way home along Sang Branch. My head had been filled with thoughts of their sister Carlene, and I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. I knew I was in trouble when Mark, the oldest, stepped out of the rhododendrons in front of me. I knew Joe or Gus, or both, wouldn’t be far off. Mark was carrying a big old D-handle pig sticker, and he wiggled it in my direction. I figured he was there to draw my attention while one of his brothers shot me or stuck me or knocked my brains out from behind.

I’d been on the lookout for squirrels, so my rifle was loaded and primed. I swung it down from my shoulder and thumbed back the hammer and shot Mark right in his middle. Before he could fall I spun around, and there was Gus, almost on top of me. I could see bruises on his face from our earlier scrap. I thumped him upside the head with the stock of my rifle, as hard as I could.

As Gus fell backward, Joe stepped around him and flailed at me with a knife, slashing my arm. He backed off, expecting me to draw my own blade.

Instead, I bent down in the creek bed and picked up a smooth round stone as big as I could close my fingers around and flung it at him, as hard as I could. Joe tried to dodge, but it caught him on the temple and he dropped where he stood. Augustus, who had regained his feet, lit out, no doubt to fetch every Webb in Yancey County. In a short time, I knew, I would have a dozen or more of his kinfolk to deal with, and they would be out for black murder, because Joe— well, I reckon I’d hit him harder than I had meant to with that rock, for when I checked him he had quit breathing.

I thought Mark might live, because he was hollering and cursing at me. I had to smack him a couple of times before he would sit still and let me bandage him, which I did with pieces I tore from his shirt. I gathered moss and applied it as a poultice to his wound and to my arm; it was a trick I’d learned from my Indian friend Long Dove. I still remember what Mark said: “Damn you, Early, that’s my only shirt. Why the hell don’t you use yours?” I told him I figured I might as well use his, as it already had a hole in it.

As I sat there on the front porch, with Bob looking at my bloody sleeve, I knew I had to tell him what transpired up on Sang Branch. Certain my young life was over, I related the sad story of the shooting and the smiting and the killing of the Webb brothers. “You can take me away now,” I said. “I have confessed.”

Bob looked at me for a long minute, then said, “Chance, I watched you drag Gus out to the street, and I saw you allow him to get his wits about him before you took him apart. It was a fair fight. And I’ll always remember you told the truth when I nabbed you for taking those chickens. Even at that young age, you showed character. There’s no shortage of forty-year-old men who’ll steal chickens and lie when you catch them with feathers in their hair. I expect you’re telling the truth about last night, but that’ll make no difference to those Webbs. They’ll set their whole outfit against you. They’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

“My pa and brothers will make them pay for it,” I said. And they would, too.

Bob chewed on that for a moment. “Yes, they would, and we’d have a feud that would last maybe twenty years and leave dozens of Webb and Early bucks in the bone yard and the women on both sides crying and cussing. Is that what you want?”

I looked down at my worn old boots, the first pair of shoes I had ever owned. “You know it’s not.”

“Well, can you think of any way to avoid it?”

I thought about it for a moment, then said, “You’re not arresting me?”

Bob shook his head.

“Then are you telling me to light out?”

Bob said, “No, I’m just saying.”

“I’m an Early. Nobody’s going to run me off.”

“I’m not running you out of the country, son. I’m just asking if you ever had a hankering to see the wide blue sea or a big city or the far western mountains, is all. If you ever did, this would be as good a time as any. In a year, maybe two, you could come back to Yancey County. But right now, you might as well have a target on your back.

“If you decide to go,” Bob continued, “I might be able to talk sense to Pap Webb, remind him his quarrel is with you and not your people. He won’t want a running war with you Earlies; at least I don’t think he will. He’s a man with some good sense, even if he did raise a bad brood.”

Sheriff Bob did have a point. It all came down to me. “Maybe I would like to see the ocean,” I said, “to see the waves on the water and smell the salt and see if she’s truly as big as they say she is.”

Ma wasn’t saying anything, but there were tears in her eyes, and I reckoned her heart was breaking at the thought of me leaving home. I sat there and rocked, thinking of my brothers and the dozens of cousins and uncles on both the Early and McDermott sides and watching an inchworm make its languorous way up the long barrel of my rifle. If I stayed, how many would die? And how many of my sisters and aunts would suffer because of those deaths? I knew Bob was making sense. If I remained on the mountain, the Webbs would feel honor-bound to kill me, and they would manage it sooner or later. Then my people would be obliged to take a couple of Webbs in retaliation. Before it was over, many of my kin would be dead, and Webbs I had never even met, and for what? What would it accomplish?

“I’ll go, I said, and picked up my hat.

Ma touched my shoulder with her work-worn hand. “You don’t have to go, boy. Neither your Pa’s family nor mine ever ran from a fight. If you stand, we’ll be right alongside you.” She had begun to cry.

While we were talking, assorted members of my family had wandered up. “We’re proud of you for defending yourself, Chance,” my sister Joanna said. And from Clay, Ma’s eldest, “This is your home, younger brother. We’d rather you stay. We’ll fight alongside you.”

“I couldn’t bear the cost,” I said, and my eyes were burning.

Just then, Pa stepped out onto the porch, hitching up his britches. “Ain’t no need for you to go, Chance,” he said. “As your ma said, no Early ever ran from anybody.”

“I’m not scared of all the Webbs in tarnation,” I said.

“Then don’t run,” he said.

“I think I have to,” I said.

He looked at me hard, as was his way. “You’d be the first Early in memory to back off from a squabble, and maybe ever. You want that name for yourself?”

“I’ll fight them single-handed,” I said. “The whole clan. But when they kill me, will you promise me no Early or McDermott will take revenge?”

“I can’t promise you that, boy. You know we’d have to kill three or four of them.”

“Then I have to go,” I said. “I’m not going to get myself and my family slain when I can keep everybody alive just by going down the mountain.”

“It’s a matter of honor, boy.”

“It’s a matter of foolish pride,” I said.

“The boy has a point, Rans,” said Sheriff Bob.

Pa turned and squirted tobacco juice in the dirt near Bob’s feet. “You stay out of this, Carvis. It’s no affair of yours.”

“It is so far as my being sheriff is concerned,” Bob said. “If you or your boys murder any Webbs, you’ll hang for it, just as the Webb boys will hang should they kill Chance here.”

Ma spoke up, addressing Pa. “It’s a bloody business, Lorenzo. I don’t want the boy to leave home, but if he went away it would keep him safe. And I don’t want to see his brothers and maybe you drawn into it and dead, either.”

Pa lowered his head and shook it slowly. “It’s vexing, Opal, but like I said, it’s a matter of family honor.” He turned toward me and looked me up and down. “You’re grown, or close to it. You can make up your own mind. You do what you think best. But if you leave, don’t you come back. Don’t you ever show your face in these hills again. You’ll be branded a coward and a quitter, and you won’t be welcome in your home land, and not only by the Webbs.”

I turned to go.

Pa continued. “It’s not that I don’t love you, boy. You know I love you. But if you leave, your name won’t mean much around here, so long as there’s a Webb to badmouth you. And there may be the law on you, too.”

“He needn’t fear the law,” Bob said. “It’s pretty much up to me whether to arrest him. It was three on one, and the Webb boys had been talking murder. If it happened like Chance said, it’s unlikely there’ll be charges. Besides, hanging the boy wouldn’t solve the problem; you Earlies wouldn’t take that lying down.”

“Then just a bad name,” Pa said to me. “That’s shame enough. Boy, don’t you came back here again, not so long as there’s a Webb left alive and hating you.”

I was a well-grown fourteen years old and I wasn’t going to cry. “I won’t, Pa, I swear. Not until there’s peace between me and the Webbs.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Pa said.

“Probably not,” I said, and went to get my things.

Scarcely an hour later, my goodbyes said and my stomach full of ham and grits and biscuits, I set off down the mountain. Pa had rubbed salve into the cut on my arm and given me his hunting knife and a water skin. On my back was a home-made knapsack made of canvas, containing some boiled sweet potatoes and what was left of ma’s morning biscuits, It also contained a side of salt meat, a supply of jerked venison, a burlap sack of corn meal tied shut with a length of twine and matching sacks of dried beans and rice, small rawhide packets of salt and sugar and baking powder, every last bit of Ma’s coffee and tea, a tin cup, a beat-up tin pan and a spoon, and flint and steel. I had rolled up the blanket from my bed and tied it on top.

My brother Jefferson had insisted I take his new boots, as mine were badly worn and our feet were more or less the same size. I had in turn insisted that he take my rifle. Pa’s musket had given out years before and my Kentucky shooter was the only firearm the family owned; it was essential both for protection and for bagging varmints like rabbits and squirrels and possums and coons and deer and bear and wild turkeys for the cook pot.

For a weapon, I carried an old army saber. My great-grandpa, for whom I had been named, had been one of the Over Mountain Men in the War for Independence; he had brought it home after the redcoats were defeated at King’s Mountain. He took it from a British officer, who had, he once told me, no further need for it. That meant he was dead, I supposed. The blade had rested for generations on pegs over the mantle, and now it was in use once again, slapping at my side, as bright and sharp as ever, even though the leather of the scabbard was cracked and dry.

Chapter 43

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 43


We caught up with the Indians the next day. Billy Bogartson poked me in the side to get my attention, and when I looked at him, he told me it was a hunting party. They didn’t look like much to me, mostly hair and stink and ponies, but the Rangers were respectful. “Tonkawa,” Billy told me. “Used to be they were a troublesome tribe. Most Comanche still are, but not this bunch. They’re more or less peaceable.” We gave them some beef and tobacco and they went on their way.

Two days later, as we were riding along, a brave rose from the tall grass and ran a lance deep into the flank of Routier’s chestnut. The Indian’s face was painted in crazy colors. Routier, who had been riding point, twisted out of the saddle, pulling his rifle from its scabbard as he leapt clear. He shot his man as his horse went down.

There were screams and yells all around. Every man was busy trying to keep himself alive, and that went double for me. A young brave charged at me with his lance raised and I shot him at five yards with my rifle. He stumbled into Junior, his lance still held high, and I grabbed it from his hands and spurred Junior and rode him down.

There was no time to reload, but that lance was a handy weapon from horseback. Just in front of me a brave was hacking at a Ranger with a hatchet, and I got the lance into position and ran him through. Then we were all galloping to get clear and the Indians were sprinting for their ponies. “It’ll take them a while,” said Billy. “The horses couldn’t be too close or we would have seen them or heard them and spoiled their ambush.”

The country was almighty bare, and I would have sworn there was no place an Indian could have hidden, much less a couple of dozen of them. “It don’t take much for a Comanch,” said a young Ranger everyone called Succotash. “Just a little dip or low place in the prairie, or some sagebrush or a rock to hide behind. Sometimes I think they can just go invisible, by willpower. They just appear out of thin air.”

Captain Macon, having made many forays into West Texas, knew the country by heart. He took us straight to a wash just deep enough to get our horses out of the line of fire. We tied them together and lay on the bank and waited for the Comanches to come.

Come they did, and on horseback. Our first volley picked off two or three of them, but they kept right on charging. Those in our party lucky enough to have pistols knocked down a couple more. I just had time for a second shot before they were upon us, and then it was man to man, tooth and nail.

My Comanche was about forty, heavyset, and madder than a nest of hornets. He was all knives and gouges. He seemed disappointed I didn’t just lay down and let him kill me. He slashed at me with his stone knife, cursing at me in Comanche, and I slashed back at him with the big blade Constantine had outfitted me with, calling him every name I knew, and then he screeched at me and latched onto a pony racing by and all of a sudden he was on its back— I’ll never know how he did it so fast— and he reached down with his bare hand and laid it gently on the chest. Then he was hotfooting it along with the rest of them and the Captain was calling roll to see who had been killed or wounded. He told Billy to check the downed Indians and finish any who weren’t dead. Billy took a Ranger named Tate with him. “You be goldurned sure to shoot anything that twitches out there,” Billy told Tate. “Except for me, of course,” and trudged away into the sagebrush, rifle in one hand and Bowie knife in the other. Before long I heard a couple of shots, so I guessed someone had been playing possum.

Billy’s count was six dead Indians. “Comanche, sure enough,” he said, spitting in the dust at his feet. “Long Arm’s band.” One Ranger— it was young Succotash— was dead and another so badly wounded he died minutes later. Routier had an arrow in his arm that had to be dug out.

“Boys, we were lucky,” said Captain Macon. “We’re lucky we had this draw for cover, and lucky there weren’t more of them, and lucky that fool young brave jumped the gun and took the first man in the party instead of waiting till most of us were past like he should have. It could have been worse. We’d best get the graves dug before it gets dark. Routier, how are you feeling?”

“How do you think?” said Routier darkly. “A man who will benefit financially from my death is coming toward me with a big knife to cut off my arm.”

“I ain’t going to cut it off,” said Constantine softly. “Not unless it goes gangrene.”

Later, Macon said to me, “Welcome to Texas.”

“It ain’t what you got here that worries me,” I said, echoing Billy Bogartson, “it’s that you got so much of it.”

He grinned at me. “You done good. Have you ever thought about joining the Rangers?”

It shocked me. “No sir, I haven’t.”

“Well, you look me up if you ever should decide.”

Lloyd had fired his musket. Unlike rifles, muskets have a smooth bore, making it difficult to hit anything, especially something that’s moving and screaming and wielding a knife. Still, Lloyd was sure he had killed his man. “First time in my life I fired on someone,” he said. “I feels free already.”

I said, “If killing someone makes you feel positive, there’s something wrong with you inside.”

He looked at me. “Didn’t say better,” he said. “Said freer.”

“Alright, then,” I said.