The lives of pioneers.
I was overseas at the time, fighting in France, but I read about the accident in a newspaper clipping Kay sent me. She sent me any mention of Giles County in the Roanoke paper. That war was one of the only times in my life I've been out of the state, and I ate up any word about home.
By the time Doctor Minnick recuperated, there were younger men to fill his shoes. He was the last of the Minnick line, a widower close to seventy when he took up farming like his father and the rest of his people had done. He spent his evenings alone in his parlor or on his porch reading and listening to the radio. For years he'd been one of three doctors in all of Giles County, Virginia, the only one in that northwest corner. Doctor Minnick wasn't perfect. He'd lost plenty, but he was better, more dedicated and self-sacrificing, than any we've got now. He'd brought a lot to the world, including yours truly.
Toward his end, the doctor began selling off property, but of course, the population was shrinking, not growing, and he wasn't finding many takers. One of the doctor's properties went to Claude and Marcella Gunderman, who were in their early twenties and just married. The place they'd bought was a little farm about two miles from Doctor Minnick's own house. This was in 1961, not long before the doctor passed away, and the little place had stood abandoned for many years and developed a noticeable lean. The house had two stories, big rooms, and a good kitchen pump. Inside a month, the Gundermans had painted the house a creamy yellow, bought new furniture, put flowers and plants around the place. They were pretty far back in the hills, isolated and overgrown, their lives very much like the lives of the pioneers who first settled this area.
One afternoon that summer, Doctor Minnick opened the door and found Claude Gunderman standing on his porch, hat in hand. It would be a week or so yet before the Gundermans' phone was installed, Claude said, and he wanted to use the doctor's phone to call his folks and say they wouldn't be coming for Sunday dinner. He said he would pay for the call but the doctor refused to even quote him a price. Then, not a half hour after Claude had finished calling and said goodbye, Doctor Minnick wandered into his barn and saw that his mare was gone, the gate to her stall was standing open.
Doctor Minnick set out in his surplus jeep, studying the cleared fields and hillsides for the mare. Before dark, he drove to the top of Fork Mountain, along fire trails, into a clearing by the bluffs. He cut off his engine, stood on the bluffs, held his hat above his eyes and looked across the valley at the farther mountain range lining the West Virginia border.
He was restless all that night, sometimes walking outside to call the mare. In the morning, he telephoned the Giles County Sheriff's Department and asked them to send somebody out. That somebody was me. I was forty-two years old and had been a deputy for fifteen years. I remember it being humid for early June, the air buzzing with jarflies, both sides of the road thick with trees half lost in mile-a-minute vine, the ground a sea of poison ivy and poison oak. The doctor came out on his porch to greet me. He was stooped since the last time I'd seen him, and the workshirt he wore was stained and moth eaten. He led me to his parlor at the back of the house where the air was thick with dust and kerosene, sat back in a big leather chair that swallowed up his frame, chewed a toothpick while he mumbled his tale to me. On the wall behind him hung his diploma from the University of Virginia, so old it looked like a stained doily. While he talked, I shook my head.
"You don't think they had something to do with it?" I said when he was finished.
"I was sitting back here reading when he knocked on the door," Doctor Minnick said. "If somebody came for the mare while I was reading, I would've heard."
"Maybe," I said.
"We're out of the brush here," he said proudly. "We're out in the open where it's quiet as a tomb. I see and hear everything for miles."
I shook my head.
"Your mare skittish?" I said. "She ever get out or walk off?"
He shook his head. It was the first case of horse stealing I'd heard since becoming a deputy, and it rang like something in western movies I'd watched as a kid, but he'd started me wondering about the Gundermans. They'd come over the mountains from Franklin County, and I knew nothing about them except Claude wanted to start a farm on some bottomland, and the doctor's price had been good. But why steal a horse from your closest neighbor in a corner of the county where everybody knew everybody, and after you were the last person in the neighbor's house?
"I don't know," I said.
He pressed his hands together in front of his face and closed his eyes like he was getting sick and tired of talking to an idiot, but was too proud and polite to say so.
"I'll find out what I can," I said. "I'll talk to the Gundermans. Maybe they've seen her."
When I stood up, he kept his chair a moment longer, rubbing his face with his hands as though he was wiping it clean of spider webs.
The Gundermans had fixed up the house quite a bit, like I'd heard, but it was back about a thousand yards off the main road, into the brush. Poison ivy, vines, and bushes had grown in around the trees on both sides of the dirt driveway, which had bad potholes and some big rocks they ought to have cleared. It was like a jungle going back there, but Claude had cut a lot of it away from the house. As I drove up, he was at the edge of what he'd made into their yard, whacking at the brush. Claude was shirtless, his suspenders dangling at his sides, a couple of ugly poison ivy splotches covered with calamine lotion on his back. The steady buzz of insects was particularly loud, and it was turning into one hell of a hot day. There was sweat on his face, and I could feel it on mine. He stuck the machete in the ground, wiped his hands on his pants and shook hands with me.
"I been chasing a missing mare all morning," I said, "and I've worked up a terrible thirst. I passed your road and thought I might gain a glass of lemonade by paying a social visit."
I followed Claude to the porch where his shirt was draped across a metal chair. He put on his shirt and buttoned it. We went inside the house, and he called out to Marcella. I'd only seen her once before, and she struck me as taller than I'd remembered, and as gawky as Claude.
"I been napping," Marcella said apologetically, "trying to anyway." Both of them went into the kitchen and returned in a moment with a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses. Marcella poured each of us a glass of lemonade. I thanked her, and she sat back on the sofa beside Claude.
"Like I said," I started, "I been tracking a horse, Doctor Minnick's mare. She got loose yesterday afternoon. You seen anything of her?"
"Not a hair," Claude said.
Marcella Gunderman shook her head. They acted about as normal as anybody who happened to have an uninvited deputy sheriff making small talk in their living room.
"You paid a visit to Doctor Minnick yesterday, didn't you?" I said. "You notice anything unusual?"
Claude sat forward. His eyes got big, and his long face lengthened further.
"You don't suspect me for a horse thief?" he said.
"Nobody suspects you," I said. I couldn't help laughing it was so obvious he was innocent. "Where would you hide a horse if you stole it?"
"I guess I could sell it," Claude said.
I apologized for taking up their time and disturbing Marcella's nap. I finished my lemonade, and Claude walked me out to the car. On the way, I asked him how they'd been getting along out there. I asked him if Marcella was napping because she was sick from the heat.
"Neither one of us can sleep," he said, "because of the sounds out here, constant noise, insects and animals in the brush." Standing in the driveway, beside the bumper of my car, he looked off into the seemingly endless thicket of vines and branches he'd been fighting when I drove up.
"Some nights we hear screeching like somebody dying," he said. "I go out with the flashlight and search the brush with my machete. I walk down to the road and try to hack my way back across the property. I never find anything."
"You're fighting that mess day and night," I said.
"I grew up in Conway," Claude said. "I never knew a woods could make so much noise."
I drove back to the courthouse in Pearisburg. R. L. Jennings, who stayed on duty at the jail and took calls most nights, handed me the clipboard roster to check out and asked me what was up with Doctor Minnick.
"Missing his damn mare," I said.
"I didn't know the good doctor still kept a mare," R. L. said.
At the time, I didn't say any more about it, especially the part about the Gundermans, because I didn't want to start any rumors about Doctor Minnick.
Kay had supper on the table when I got home. Bobby, our boy, had gone away to college the year before, and our suppertime had been hard for both of us. I had gotten in the habit of telling Kay what I was working on, and she tried to guess how it would end. The real endings were always simpler than the ones we dreamed up, disappointing and usually sad, and I sometimes wondered whether the storytelling was such a good idea. So many nights, after I related the way someone was found guilty of setting his own house on fire or beating up his wife and threatening her to keep quiet, we sat across the table with our heads bent down, but by the next night Kay wanted to hear what was new, to know what I knew, and I was ready to tell her.
That night we were both really wondering about Bobby, worrying about him and about us. I asked her when I came in if he'd called, and when she said he hadn't I let it drop for a while. I told her my doubts about the doctor's story, and she said she thought it sounded farfetched, too.
"He's getting old and suspicious," she said.
"He's been old as long as I've known him," I said.
"Maybe he didn't have a horse in the first place," Kay said. "Maybe the story will end with him coming to his senses and realizing he hasn't had a horse in twenty-five years. How do you think it's going to end?"
"I think she'll walk back," I said. "One day Doctor Minnick will open up his door and find her eating grass in the front yard."
I shook my head. I could see Bobby sitting at the table, as he often did at night after we'd cleared the supper dishes, going over his math problems. He liked doing them the same way he'd liked taking engines apart and working on radios. The whole time he'd be embarrassed and afraid I'd make some joke about how seriously he studied when I'd never been more proud of anything in my life.
"What's wrong with coming back?" I said. I couldn't stay away from it any longer.
"I don't know." She closed her eyes and rubbed her face. "He just don't want to."
I shook my head. "We ain't asking him to give up college, just spend three months back here. I can't imagine how he wouldn't."
"I can't imagine it either," she said.
"Maybe he'll call tomorrow," I said.
"Maybe he will, but he's already told you his decision. He's going to stay up there and work and be near his studies."
"Up there," I said. "He could work just as easy here."
The next day I visited a few farmers out Doctor Minnick's way, but nobody had seen his missing mare. I stopped off to tell the doctor my disappointing news around three or four in the afternoon, and the farmhouse was quiet, the windows dark. I thought maybe he was napping, but the minute I slammed the door, he was out on the porch like he'd been watching for me all morning.
"I ain't found out anything about that mare," I said. "Ain't nobody seen her."
"You talk to the Gundermans?" he said.
"Ain't nothing wrong with them but insects and weeds," I said.
Doctor Minnick shook his head and squinted into the sun.
"Maybe your mare'll walk back," I said. "We'll keep our eyes peeled."
"Maybe," he said, "and maybe she's caught in the brush somewheres dying of thirst."
I was relieved to hear him accept such a possibility.
"Okay," I said. "If I hear anything, I'll let you know. If you hear or see anything, I'd appreciate you letting me know."
I waved at Doctor Minnick as I was getting in the car.
That day turned out to be a long one. As I was making my way back, another deputy called me in on a wreck at a bridge near Hodge's Chapel. A drunk driver had careened off the bridge, hit a rock, and flown through his windshield, all the way across the creek headfirst into the concrete bridge support on the other side. It was one of the worst I'd seen, on par with some things I'd seen in the war. The guy's body lay mangled up in the creek, with not much left of his head, and his brains were spread all over the concrete, a huge blood streak drooling from the brains to the water. It was another sweltering afternoon with skies that could have come right off a postcard. In that stream, you could see the fishing traps of the Cherokee who lived here hundreds or maybe even thousands of years before the white settlers came. The traps were walls made of stone that forced the fish to swim into a box at the narrow apex of the walls. I remember taking Bobby to look at the traps when he was a little boy, and I'm sure I was thinking about that the day I saw the wreck, Bobby being so much on my mind at the time. That whole section of 460 was one of my favorite stretches of road, near the marker where a British fort had been. In about 1755, there was a French and Indian attack near that very spot, and the white settlers from all over the county came to hide in the fort. They had to surrender, though, and the men were burned alive, the women and children marched out to Ohio. Maybe the spot was haunted. On that day, the mess that guy had made of himself started me thinking the whole damn county was haunted. The smarter, better young people were leaving the county in droves, leaving only their ghosts behind, and I pretty much figured my boy was going to be one of them.
When I came in, Kay said she'd talked to Bobby and he'd found some roofing work for the summer, so it looked like everything was settled. Over supper I told her about my visit to the doctor, but there wasn't anything to tell.
"There was a bad wreck at Hodge's Chapel," I said.
"A man was killed."
Kay had a habit of laying her hands flat down on the table when she heard bad news. She had beautiful hands, long and thin. Even when she was middle aged her hands were pink in places like a girl's.
"Anybody we know?"
I shook my head.
"Some insurance salesman from Roanoke."
She shook her head and clicked her tongue. I saw every inch of the accident, the kind of thing I wouldn't ever want to tell Kay and hoped she never had to see. I hoped Bobby never had to see anything like that although most men see something of it at one time or another. I hoped he'd never have to go and be in a war like I was although in the end he had to do just that.
That night I had one of my bad nightmares when all my nervousness came back to me. I hadn't had one in a couple of years, and I'd gotten to the point where I almost never thought of them, and when I did, I would shrug and feel lucky. In this one I was riding in a jeep, hightailing it down a bumpy, rocky road, with silent explosions rocking us and spraying us with dirt that fell like snowflakes. I held onto my helmet and hollered for the driver to slow the hell down or he'd get us killed, but the thing I remember being the most afraid of was the driver himself, that he would turn his head and look over at me because I was sure he was going to be the guy from the wreck, kind of like the headless horseman, only a half headless driver. I don't remember if he turned around or not. I woke up all out of breath and sweating my balls off. The whole bed was soaking wet. I thought for a minute I'd wet the bed it was so bad, and then I knew what had happened. Kay already knew. We had to get up, and Kay changed the sheets while I stood there wringing my hands and telling her about the dream.
"It's over, sweetheart," she said, "please relax."
But I was having trouble relaxing. After Kay had gone to sleep, I went in the living room, sat in a chair and drank a glass of bourbon. I kept thinking of the way those dreams would come on me so suddenly, how they dredged up shit I'd prefer not to think about anymore.
To relax, I thought back on my day, cutting out the part about the wreck, and made my way back to Doctor Minnick. Years ago, he rode horseback along the county roads to call on patients. That night I got a picture of him in my mind, much younger, in a hat and atop an old dappled horse, and the scene seemed familiar and settling, but it was from far in the past. Both Kay and R. L. had suggested in an offhand way the possibility that Doctor Minnick hadn't owned a horse in years, and why would the doctor own one now? Maybe he didn't. I had to consider whether out of my own vanity and stubbornness, I'd refused to doubt Doctor Minnick's faculties.
I went back to bed, and gradually I became the rider of the horse, and the clopping along of the hooves, the rhythm of the horse's movements calmed me and helped me sleep.
I had to know for sure about Doctor Minnick, so the next afternoon I pulled over on a grassy shoulder just short of his house and parked in the shade of a Maple. I walked up the road, keeping in the shadows, and when the house came into view I stayed at the edge of the yard.
Some of the outbuildings had collapsed from lack of use. The barn didn't look much better than any of the others. The metal roof was badly rusted. I examined the door, which leaned and was lined with leather hinges, some broken off. I pulled the door back and it just about fell off. The doctor kept three cows that blinked at me in the shade, and I had to wonder how well he was able to care for his animals. The stall was a mess of oats and hay, and the air smelled of dung. There were hoof marks all around the stall, so the mare had been real after all. I examined the door. Anybody, especially Doctor Minnick, could have wandered off without sliding it back all the way, and the mare could have nudged the door open. I've seen a horse work at a latch or a bar, sucking and nudging and nibbling. Horses are smart and they can see what a man does to get a stall open. They can imitate it. Either way, the mare probably got out because the door was not closed all the way. The gate was open and the horse got out. It's the oldest story in the world, the most natural thing to have happened. I thought again of the doctor opening his door one bright morning and finding the mare eating clover in the yard.
Around the stable, the grass and weeds were thick. It had rained, but I found hoof prints leading back of Doctor Minnick's land, down a long slope to the brush line. I followed along the path of broken vines the mare left, crossed a stream drifting out of the mountains. This area was not far from where my grandmother's people had settled after they walked over Cloyd's Mountain. My uncles might have hunted the very same woods. I walked more than two miles through the overgrowth and figured she was long gone. I'd decided to give up the search for the day, and my thoughts were far away when I came upon the groundswell covered by vines, stumbled over it, and faced the short ledge where I teetered above the broken moss covered boards.
The hole wasn't straight enough to be a well. The top of it, the ledge, had been somebody's springhouse, the mouth of a cave where air was cool year round, the hole covered by rotting boards until the mare had busted through them. As I lay beside her, my shoulder burning with pain, I could see light around the edges of the broken boards, maybe twenty feet away, up the steep wall I had tumbled and rolled down. I could feel insects moving inside her. Her legs were broken under her, from the force of her heavy body falling, and her head was turned uncomfortably against the floor. It was cold down there, damp, and she was putrid. Finally the pain in my shoulder eased up enough that I could move, and I stood. Then it was throbbing again. It felt like a hump, and I leaned against the wall I had tumbled down, which was slippery but allowed me to stand at an angle. I tried once to move up the wall but it was too slick and steep, and my shoulder hurt too bad.
I stared up at the hole. Someone would have to find the car, follow my trail into the woods. They might not come until the morning. If it were tomorrow, or even later tonight, Kay would worry, sitting alone at that table, unable to eat, wondering what the ending would be like.
Where was I? I followed my trail down the mountain behind Doctor Minnick's house and through the overgrown woods to the place where I had fallen. Where there was a springhouse, there had been a house, once and maybe now. Where was I? In the dark, all the property lines and the time lines crossed in my mind. Where was the house?
With my eyes closed, I heard an answer, from outside and above. At first, I didn't know what I was hearing or if I was really hearing it, but when I listened, the sound continued, a whisper, the soft slashing of Claude's machete through the brush. I listened. The slashing grew faint when Claude moved away and louder when he returned. When he came closer, I called out, my voice bouncing off the walls around me. The hole above me was turning purple. I was sore as hell, weak and getting hungry, but I was determined not to squat down by the mare. I leaned against the wall, listened, and thought about Kay making dinner. I thought about Bobby, away up there.
"Daddy, I have to make my own way," he told me, and now he was gone from us, away. Sure, he had to make his own way, who was I to stop him, but what did that make us? I sucked in that awful air and held myself upright, hoping they would find me sooner rather than later, that Claude would hurry up and hear me calling as he slashed away at the overgrowth I was buried behind.
RANDOLPH THOMAS's fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, the Hudson Review, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, the Chariton Review, and other journals. A Virginia native, he has an M.F.A. degree from the University of Arkansas, and he currently teaches at Louisiana State University. He has recently completed a novel.