Turning once again to my original question I ask Levi his reason for being out here. “Where do you have camp set up?”
“Camp? Oh, you mean where is my hunting gear? Well, I’m not out here to hunt on this particular trip Tooley; my apologies once again Joseph. I’m out here on my final journey, my final expedition into the great forest. You see Joseph I came out to die this evening. Every man knows when it’s his time, and my time is now. How about you? Have you seen your time coming down the road because like I said every man sees it coming but not all recognize it.”
Half believing him and half laughing I shake my head no and tell him my time has done came and passed, “I’m living on borrowed time, have been for some years now.”
“I know the feeling; I know the feeling. Just don’t forget who you borrowed it from when the final curtain does fall Tooley.” He said with a cough and then wiped his brow.
“I said to stop calling me Tooley; my name is Joseph, there’s only one man I let get away with calling me Tooley and you old man are not him. And besides, if you know so much about my family, you should have known that Jacob had a son that went by that very name.” I blurted out with a little more exuberance than I attended but for someone to know so much about your family’s history and not call you by your name is damn irritating.
“You’ll have to forgive me with that one sonny it’s nothing personal it’s the way of the forest to call a man by his last name, Tooley’s what I called your dad, and you look so much like him it’s scary. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you two were twins.” Again the slow cough and the wiping of his brow but this time they bore a gesture of wanting some more 88 to clear things out.
I handed Levi the jug and took a few puffs off my pipe watching as the smoke twirled and swayed its way out from under my porch and into the open air. Just then I fixed upon the sound of a few of the dogs, and it seemed they were finished with their chase and heading back in this direction. I was now wondering how Top would greet our new guest. If Levi has been around my cabin, Top would surely recognize him. “I think I hear the pack heading back our way Levi. If you’ve never been here before like you say, the dogs will let me know.”
“I see you still don’t believe me. Well, let the dogs come as they may and let them be judge and jury. I’m used to being judged by all that I come in contact with, but nearly all of them end up seeing things my way.”
As we sat in silence listening to the sounds of the pack moving and making their way through the woods, moving closer and closer to my cabin we passed the jug of 88 back and forth as if to give us a reason not to speak. What did I have to say anyway? I hadn’t brought up the note yet because of no particular reason other than the fear that Levi had written it and gutlessly posted it to my door in which case I was looking at a dead man. Could I pull the trigger? Could I follow my emotions to that point of no return? Could I shoot the Devil before me?
How does one shoot the Devil anyway?
With Top leading the way, the dogs swung around the front right corner of my cabin and came to a complete halt as they saw Levi Meed sitting on the porch. With most of the dogs locking eyes with him Top glanced my direction and slowly headed off to the edge of my ‘front yard’ and sat quietly by the tree line looking on at the two of us. After a few minutes, the other dogs followed his lead, and soon enough I was looking at the line of dogs, fourteen animals long, setting, backs to the trees and staring, just staring. After a few seconds, I realized that the dogs had become not only strangely lined up they were blocking the trail that leads away from my cabin. Were they keeping Levi in, keeping something out, or maybe holding us both within? Top just sat there looking in no particular mood other than calm and determined, and the other dogs followed his lead, even more so than usual.
“Well sonny, did you get your answer?” Levi broke the silence.
Leaning a little forward in my oaken chair, I rubbed my eyes and looked through the opening of my jug down into the whiskey swishing around in its cage of glass. Did I get my answer? Thinking to myself I thought no but I did get a few more questions that I couldn’t decide were worth asking. Did Levi know these dogs of ‘mine’ from the expanse of the forest? Why were the dogs lined up like a firing squad at the ready? And, most of all, who were they aiming at?
“No.” I finally answered and pulled that cowardly note out of my pocket and handed it to Levi.
His frail, wrinkled hand brushed mine as he took it and looked it over. “What is this?”
“I found it posted to my door yesterday.”
Levi, squinting and cocking his head slightly asked, “What is it supposed to mean?”
“It could mean your end right here right now.”
“So you think I wrote this and somehow got into your cabin and left your father’s hat on your chair?”
My hands clenched my rifle squeezing tight from the mistake just made by Levi. “I never said I found the hat on my chair.”
Levi stood slowly, “Ah, I see what you mean.” As he began to walk towards the head of the trail, I raised my rifle, and the dogs rose to their feet.
“Stop and turn around Levi Meed so I can see your eyes and ask you one last question.”
He did as I asked and turned as only an old man can turn. His eyes were fuller of life than during our entire conversation. “What’s your question, Tooley?”
“Why?” was all I could get out as I slid the bolt into its place.
“I could tell you now, but you wouldn’t let yourself believe me. So do what you must and move on with life with my blood on your hands my life forever stuck in your consci….”
I could feel the pressure on the inside of my finger as it squeezed the trigger and the kick of my rifle against my shoulder as Levi Meed dropped to the ground spinning as he went down. Walking over to him, he rolled over onto his back and let out what I hadn’t expected, a slow, quiet laugh. As the blood began to crisscross across the dirt like crimson fingers reaching out for another frame to invade and slowly spreading to his left, I leaned down and asked him once more—“Why?”
Again the low laugh and all he said before his eyes glazed over, “I didn’t leave a note, it was there before I got here. More people know the truth, and you’ve met most of them before this very day, this very moment. They’ve kept their silence because your time is nearer than you think.” His head rolled a little to the side, and he met his maker.
I looked up to see the dogs beginning to disperse, each in their own direction, each in their own way as if what had just happened was what was meant to happen.
I returned to my oaken chair and grabbed my jug and drank for a solid five minutes or so trying to absorb what had just happened. What to do now? What to do next? This old man had no home, if I was to believe that much of what he had said, and was out here to die maybe not by my hands but then maybe again that was his plan all along. Lighting my pipe and fixing my gaze upon the lifeless body lying a few yards away from me I decided I needed to bury the body and keep today’s happenings to myself. Only the dogs and I would ever know that anything had happened on this day, and the dogs would never give up our secret. Not to heaven and maybe even not hell.
After finishing my pipe, I went inside to grab a shovel and return my father’s hat. Walking off to the left of my cabin about fifty yards I began a grave that took nearly an hour to finish and then shoved the head of the shovel into the ground, so the handle was standing straight up I then headed back to retrieve Levi. Coming out of the trees the dogs weren’t anywhere to be seen. I stopped to listen for their barks or running, but nothing presented itself. Glancing over at Levi’s lifeless body, I hung my head and walked in his direction. Grabbing his wrists, I did my best to drag the body across the ground. The weight of even this frail man was surprisingly more than I expected, so I got only to the tree line before I need to catch my breath and my thoughts. What did he mean when he said I had met most of them, all the ones that know? Know what? Looking down at the only man I know of that can answer these questions I feel at a loss as to what I should do next. Should I keep Levi’s death a secret or should I explain my actions in town? With this one question digging into my brain Top returns from the head of the trail and looks upon me with lighted eyes and quickly turns tail and heads back down the path as if to say we’re looking out for any more intruders while I finish my deed.
Grabbing Levi’s wrists once again I pull as hard as I can for as long as I can and just reach the freshly finished grave—my hole in the ground to keep my deeds unknown from the rest of the world, pulling the shovel from its resting spot I begin the hidden task of digging and burying Levi Meed. Two hours later and the old man covered completely with fresh soil I lean against the closest tree and pull my hat off in what little gesture of respect I can muster for the dead. Replacing my hat, I head for my cabin and break the silence of the forest to find most of the dogs lounging around in the shade of the day as if everything went as planned and no worries to be had.
Taking the shovel over to my fire pit and putting it to use once more in cleaning out the ashes of the past week and also to remove any dead man’s dirt from its metal spade that I wish to forget about and move on to replacing it within my cabin. Standing in my doorway, I wipe my brow and cheeks and find a calmness coming over me that not only relaxes my nerves but brightens my outlook. The trail to my father has led me here and here is closer than I’ve ever been before. If Levi was truthful, and why would a man’s last words be a lie, then there are people that need to be talked to immediately and forcefully if necessary. Who to start with? Who do I know that would keep such a secret from me? How could the few people I do converse with keep something so important to me to themselves?
If anyone can give me answers and in a way that will keep me calm, it would have to be Mrs. Beatina. So that’s where it will start, and if I get nothing it’s Orville next, then Walter, then Caleb, and then William even if I have to beat the answers out of him. Leaving my jug on the porch and locking my door I grab my pine walking stick, look up to the sky, and head for town for the second day in a row. This time, though, with much more vigor and determination to get not my usual, but to get something that is much more precious even more so than Walter’s local 88, the truth about my father.