A mystery follows an intellectual protagonist who puts together clues to solve a crime after it’s been committed, and a thriller details the prevention of a crime before it has been committed. Continue reading
A mystery follows an intellectual protagonist who puts together clues to solve a crime after it’s been committed, and a thriller details the prevention of a crime before it has been committed. Continue reading
For a healthy, fully functioning thriller, try some literary vitamin C. Dose your book with these five Cs and it will stand strong, chest out, ready to give your reader a run for the money. Continue reading
With shuffling on either side of us, Walter fires a few shots into the air, and the silence returns, and with the trail opening up in front of us and the taller trees leaning in around our group of three the distance to William, is made in record time.
From my vantage point in the rear of the group, I see Walter drop his gear and run up to where his brother’s body still lays; motionless and solemn. He quickly pulls off William’s hat and checks for the fatal wound and then examines the knife that rests securely in the chest of his brother. Luke takes a few more steps further and watches intently as his investigative skills kick in.
“Do you recognize this knife, Joseph?”
“I can’t say that I do Walter.” Is all that I can get out before Luke pulls his hat off and rubs his scalp as if he knows the answer.
“I do,” Luke says to my amazement.
“Whose is it?” comes from Walter like fire from a pit.
Luke, placing his hat back on and taking a few steps again says blankly and strangely calm that the knife is Caleb’s. “I made it for him a few years back as a Christmas gift.”
“If this is Caleb’s knife Luke what in the hell is it doing in my brother’s chest?”
“You know I can’t answer that Walter I can’t imagine that it was placed there by Caleb, someone must have stolen it.” He says with the look of a hopeful child about to jump from a higher place he has ever tried before.
Just then, a rustle of leaves behind me sent Luke into action with pistol drawn and cocked pointing it directly at me but a little off to the left it seems. Without even turning I know who it is.
“Damn it, Joseph; this isn’t the time to be rustling around out of know where?” Luke gets out as he lowers his pistol and slowly pulls the trigger while easing the tension off the hammer.
“I saw you three headin’ out of town and figured something must be wrong so I thought I would come to take a look see and try and help, although I must admit I was wasn’t expecting anything like this.” Gesturing toward William’s body.
Looking at Orville look over William’s body the realness of the moment finally hits me. Four men are looking down upon a dead body that was used as a signpost for my eyes alone. It was me that brought this upon William and brought these four men to this very spot even if they don’t know it yet. Should I let loose the information about the note on William’s body, the message on my door, the hat in my chair, and now this package from Elizabeth? Did the killer expect me to go to Walter and then Luke? Did he intend for me to bury the body and not speak a word of this to anyone? Was he trying to draw attention to Caleb? Any way one looks at it I’m still at that crossroads and the rope tied to the stake is getting tighter.
“Well, between all of us we can manage to get William back into town and rested in the ground before nightfall.” Walter was beginning to look a little out of sorts with himself and who could blame him. As he was moving William’s body off of the tree, he was propped against I could tell something caught his eye, and I was instantly fearful of what it was.
“Tell me, Joseph, what haven’t you told me about finding William?” Asked Walter as he pulled a small sliver of paper from where the knife entered his brother’s chest. “There was a note wasn’t there? What did it say, Joseph?” His eyes were boring a hole through the air between us. A look most men only see right before their departure from this world.
Hesitantly I pulled the note out of my shirt pocket and unfolded it and handed it to Walter. I could see his eyes reading and rereading the warning that graced the small piece of paper. No emotion expressed itself on his face; he merely looked up at me with a confused look. “Stop looking for what…..” His voice trailed off. He stood silent for what seemed like forever and then crumpled the small piece of paper and threw it at my feet. “My brother died because of you! Because you can’t stop looking for your father!”
The words stung harder than what I thought they would. Maybe because they were right or perhaps because my actions had led to an innocent man’s death. Either way, all I could do was nod my head and turn away. As I did, I noticed Top sitting by a tree no more than twenty feet away; watching, overlooking just in case I needed his help. Turning back to Walter and the others, I tell them a tale of mysterious notes and long lost objects that belonged to my father and have recently come into my possession. I could tell that Walter was at a crossroads of his own by the look in his eyes: blame me or help me. Either way, my truth was out, and it felt damn good to get it out of the constraints of my head.
He watches as the group passes by not knowing they are being studied like an impossible mystery. He cannot believe that Joseph let loose the secrets he was supposed to keep. A break in his plan had presented itself. Wondering how this new development would affect what he had thought was coming to an end, he turned and disappeared into the forest leaving the three to figure out the unique situation that had enveloped them.
As Elizabeth sits on my chair, she looks around at her surroundings and takes notice of the four lone men sitting at different tables, each taking their glances in her direction, each taking note. She tells herself she’s okay and that she did the right thing by bringing the box to Hapsburg as instructed by her recently deceased father, Ernest. Looking back now she feels the strangeness of her father’s last wish and how he wouldn’t talk about the contents of the box but only that it needed to be delivered to one Joseph Tooley, so the secrets long kept could be brought to life. What secrets? She has asked herself that over and over ever since leaving Ogilvie, a few weeks ago. And now that she is here this Joseph doesn’t even seem all too interested in whatever was in the box or if he has even opened it yet. Her thoughts are quieted by the recollection of her father’s final words to her. They seemed to ring louder and louder the more she thought about them. A brother, a brother she never knew. Why had her father kept the secret for his death bed? What would this brother have to say about all of this? Does he even know for himself? She realizes she has no proof other than her father’s words.
Her father, the preacher of their town, had never shown any signs of holding any secrets from anyone no matter how small a secret could be. He was a pillar in the community and would still be with them if he hadn’t died so suddenly. She can again see his eyes watering up as he lay in bed coughing and trying to explain his wishes of getting that particular box to a man she had never heard her father mention before. How quickly life can turn upside down, she thinks to herself just as a gunshot rings out in what sounds like the building right next door.
“God damn it, Luke, what are you going to do about this!” Walter has just fired his brother’s pistol into the ceiling and is irate at Lukes lack of urgency with the situation. “Tell him what you told me, Joseph, just tell him and let him figure out if this could be a suicide.”
Standing there I’m thinking that either Walter is doing one hell of an acting job, or he honestly had nothing to do with his brother’s death and the note that was left behind for me to find. Snapping back to the present, I give Luke my story and leave out the note because I’m not ready just yet to let Luke in on what has been going on around my cabin.
With the story out and Luke doing his best to calm Walter down I ask if they will need me to go with them to the body. And then the thought strikes me, was the bullet in William’s temple from his gun or another? I never thought to check the revolver for its contents, if a shot had been fired from it. For the moment, I keep this train of expedition to myself and wonder in silence.
“Hell yes, you’re coming with us Joseph, as far as I know, you shot William and have this all planned out to make it look like something that it isn’t,” Luke says stepping towards me. Doing his best impression of an authority figure he falls so short of his target it almost makes me smile a little.
Stunned at being accused of having anything to do with this I take two steps toward Luke and am now inches from his face trying my best not to lay him out right then and there. “Why would I have shot William Luke? Give me one god damn good reason why?”
“Well for starters it’s no mystery that you enjoy a drink now and then, and secondly you parade yourself around out there in the Jacobs Pass as if you own the whole damn area. Who’s to say you didn’t like someone getting too close to you little hide-a-way?”
And with that Luke is flat on his back and reaching for his pistol. But, mine is out just as quick, and here we are looking down the barrel of each other’s guns and not knowing what to do next. Then finally Walter steps in between us and says that I would have had nothing to do with his brother’s death although be it strange that he met his end so close to my cabin. With that Luke stands and shakes his head but still has his pistol out; so mine stays out as well.
“Why am I the one that has to have the coolest head right now?” Walter asks. “It’s my brother that has been murdered. It’s my family that has just become smaller.”
With Walter taking control of the situation by heading for the door and leaving no doubts that he is going to get his brother, Luke and I both stare at each other as if to say this isn’t between us it’s between Walter and William. And with that, we put our pistols away and follow out the door as Walter is heading into the tavern. Walking as only a man who has recently lost a brother can walk. What that looks like I can’t describe, but believe me if you have seen it you would instantly know it.
Once inside I see Elizabeth quietly stand and look my way. I head her way and explain the circumstances and ask her if she can wait for me once William’s body is brought back into town. She hesitantly agrees and grabs her bag. Pausing she says she’s only staying because she is curious as to what the box held inside and what those contents meant to her father. I assure her that the curiosity is mutual and that I would return as soon as I could.
After grabbing a few things from the back room, Walter emerges from behind the bar and hits the door of the tavern with a little more pressure than needed but less than what one would expect. With Luke following close behind I take one last glance over my shoulder at Elizabeth and try to give her an assuring grin but nothing of the sort came across my face I’m sure.
Outside and on the trail and moving in the direction of the waiting William, we pass the cemetery gate where Orville is standing and watching as we pass. As we get to the first bend in the trail, I look back to see him following along knowing that something is up. Orville, always there to lend a hand when a hand is needed.
Trailing behind Luke and Walter, I notice Luke swinging his head back and forth as if he thinks we are being watched, already on the job of catching the bad guy. A culprit that is out there somewhere either running or hiding. Luke, for all his annoyances, is the exact round peg for the circular hole of the sheriff. People, especially me, may not like him, but he does take his job to heart and does his best to uphold the law. A few steps ahead of him I see Walter looking down at the ground as he moves forward, he’s the only other person who knows about my mark on the trail that gives the location of the path off to the right that leads to my cabin. That’s how he knew he could make Elizabeth’s delivery last night and right now it’s how he knows where to find his brother. He hits the mark and off into the brush he goes searching for the trailhead and the dogs instantly begin to bark. Letting all around know that they know.
Completely stunned and out of breath I push myself up against a tree facing the corpse before me. Who? Why? There is no doubt that the letter is meant for my eyes. No doubt the way it was sent is intended to scare me off, meant to persuade me onto a different route, a stop sign firmly planted into the road of life. Yet, the note points to another. Another who can bring light to the dark. Why would anyone leave open the door of understanding? Why at the same time closing another in such a final gesture? After gathering my thoughts, I try to imagine how this scene has come to be. Which was first: the knife or a gunshot? It’s almost as if William shot himself and the knifed in letter came only by happenstance, a chance encounter. But, maybe I’m supposed to think this and what happened carries a much more sinister tone. Perhaps the game that has been unraveling over the past few days has just now indeed begun. The note, the hat, the glasses, and ring have all been maddening, to say the least, but they also been relatively harmless. Now, however, the game has turned deadly, and William has paid the ultimate price for it.
Gripping the bark of the tree, I pull myself to my feet and step closer to the lifeless body before me. With an eerie calm, I place my hand on Williams arm—ice cold. He’s been dead for some time now.
Walter must have seen him on his way back last night; there’s no way he could have missed William even in the dark.
A sudden jolt of electricity hits my nerve endings. Could Walter be responsible? But why would he kill his brother just to send me a message? Why would Walter kill anyone, especially his only brother? This message makes its point quite clear, much more transparent than my last cowardly placed note. Though this one is much less secretive and cryptic, it is much more disturbing, to say the least. Who would consider the task of killing just to send me a message? Why William—did he know something about my father? If so, what could be so damning? Why are my father’s whereabouts so crucial as to motivate a murder?
Pulling the note loose from the knife and William’s chest I look it over once again and place it folded into my shirt pocket. The crimson stained message tucked away for later discussion with the right minds and the right eyes. After a quick look around, I decide to relieve William of his pistol to give to Walter for proof of what is laying before me; his dead brother. Death in knowing, death in giving, and death inevitable.
Stepping back to take in the scene once and for all, there lays a man who just yesterday was moving through life, not without cares because we all have our own, with a purpose. His boots, covered in crusted forest dirt. His jeans, crumpled from a body that has rested for far too long; his shirt and open jacket stained with death. William’s face is the definition of stillness. With eyes that are slightly closed and looking carelessly into the forest across the trail, I slowly slide his tattered brown hat back down over his face so he can hold off the sun for one more day.
Placing William’s pistol within the confines of my coat jacket I ease myself around the outstretched legs and head for town as a falling leaf lands on William’s lap as if the forest is already staking its claim.
Lumbering my way through the winding trail, the thought off William weighs heavy on my mind. I never got my chance to ask him about my first mysterious letter, the one bravely and cowardly posted on my cabin door. I guess with his death now upon me he must not have been the one to leave it, but then again maybe a partner in crime has turned against poor William to keep him silent. Perhaps William was headed out to my place last night to come clean, and someone got to him before he could disclose his actions. This thought swings my mind back to Walter’ s visit last night and how he should have seen William’s body along the trail if he followed the path that is. Maybe I shouldn’t jump to any concrete ideas just yet; maybe I should just let this play out and see where and who it leads to, but to whom it leads is beyond my comprehension.
As I walk along, I began to wonder who the ‘other one’ that the note mentioned. Why was there another one at all? Is the writer of the message trying save his own guilt by adding other conspirators? What if there was a plot against my father? The thought of my father being tracked like an animal through the forest like a scared animal brings anger to my face that I didn’t think possible. Will the prospect of finding him alive begin to fall further and further from my hopes? No! I will not let my expectations be buried deep with my mind. Giving up had never been an option before, and I will not allow it to become an option today.
As the horse trail opens up in front of me, I watch as the dirt and leaves and twigs pass on by my feet in a slow parade of nothingness. I can feel the mystery tightening around me like a fevered blanket that won’t let its grip grow any weaker no matter how hard the struggle. Could I be on the brink of something new, something treacherous? My state of mind tells me my father is close, but my feelings have their doubts. It’s as if the crossroads have me tied to a stake and the rope is unbreakable, and the directions available are flirting with me as if to sway me, each in their distinctive way.
With my mind drifting I barely notice that I’m passing the cemetery and the sway of its sign as it pulls on its hinges with all of its might. Trying in vain to break free of its binds and free fall to a more natural state of being. I wish I could experience that free fall. I hope I could break loose.
Lost in thought, I’m startled by Orville, who has somehow snuck up just behind me. I’m usually more aware of my surroundings to let such a thing happen.
“Good morning Tooley.”
Turning slowly around I find him looking over my shoulder as if another is creeping up behind. I take a glance back and return my gaze to his eyes. “I have had better days Orville. What brings you out into the world so early?”
“Oh, I couldn’t sleep last night. My mind wouldn’t stop racing. Thought I would get an early start on the cemeteries needs. You sure everything is ok? You look a little lost in thought.”
“Let’s just say that the forest presented me with a turn that I hadn’t expected.”
“Well, these things seem to happen to all of us when it is completely unexpected. I’ve had my fair share of surprises through the course of my life. Some eventual fade away but others never leave your side. I guess it depends on which instances one chooses to keep close and which ones to drop to the side. Either way, a memory is forged. But, as I’m sure you’re aware of, there are actions that can be taken to wash away even the most potent of experiences.” He says.
With knowing nod I say, “I am no stranger to washing away memories, but as hard as I have tried, I have been unable to accomplish the task with some of them.” I notice Orville has begun to rub his hand up and down the other arm. If I’m not mistaken, he looks a little nervous. Why would Orville too be worried about this? He always appears the picture of content and relaxation.
“As I said, some never let go of the man no matter how hard the man tries to let go. It’s sad fate to be sure, but life has its way of keeping us all from becoming too pleased.”
Letting his words sink in, the picture of William flashes across my being. “Well, I really should be on my way, Orville.”
“Aren’t you going to say hi to her?”
I almost forgot. Too much is happening right now. I can’t believe I had to be reminded to say hello to my mother. “Of course I am,” I reply and head into the graveyard. After conducting my cemetery of Eden custom I head for the tavern, passing Orville as he enters his sanctuary, but then the thought crosses my mind that maybe I should first let Luke in on my discovery.
Walter should hear it from me, not from Luke. After all, Walter has done it for me, so it is the least I can do.
Stepping up onto the timber planks they creak with a knowing pleasure. It’s a fantastic realization when one hears the world through the world itself as if the story of our lives can be seen as they are being written in the trees, the breeze, the steps, and even the creeks of a few boards beneath our feet. I push my way through the door of the tavern and see Walter standing as usual behind the counter with the larger than life mirror at his back reflecting all that the room has to offer including the new hazy outline of the man at the door which is me. At this time of day, the reflection is nearly empty save for a few men here and there smoking their pipes and drinking their position in life away.
Instead of moving towards my usual seat I make a straight line to the bar and Walter.
“Hey Joseph,” He says not knowing that the weight of the world is about to come crashing down upon him. He’s just standing there going through his everyday rituals behind the bar. It’s a strange but inevitable truth that at times our very beings get slammed so hard by happenings that are entirely out of our hands. There is indeed a case to be made for a person who has no family and no friends. Such a man has no worries about the world side swiping him out of the blue.
Standing there with a blank stare on my face and the mirror giving no signs of interest I slowly pull out Wiliam’s pistol and without saying a word lay it on the counter. With Walter now at the other end of the bar and making his way back towards myself, I see his eyes glance down upon the counter. A look of knowing or a look of unwanted feelings crawls across his face. A face that is now standing directly across from me separated by the whiskey stained wood of the ancient bar. The counter has been dented and scratched by the ever rotation of men and women doing their best to either forgive or forget. Years of abuse by lost patrons trying to beat out a feeling that inevitably drapes every one of them.
“William lost his pistol again huh? Thanks for dropping it by Joseph.”
“He didn’t lose it this time Walter I found it with him.” My eyes lock onto my own reflection behind him. Hoping I can soften the blow that is coming.
“With him? What do you mean with him?” He says unaffected by the words.
Doing my best not to convict before I have some facts, I ask Walter, which way he headed back to town last night after dropping off my package. After telling me his route, there’s no possible way he could have missed his brother’s body lying half off the trail. Wondering just how to tell someone that their brother is dead and being a man of little words I decide to be blunt and to the point with Walter.
“Walter, I found William’s body along the trail to my cabin this morning.” I let the words hit Walter with all the power and force they can muster before I continue. Walter stops wiping the bar and looks up at me with a bit of uncertainty. A look of hearing a blatant lie that seems to attack a man with a hint of truth freezes in his stare.
“ His pistol was in his hand with a single shot lodged in his head.” I continue wondering what was going through Walter’s head. “ Now, this may lead you to think that suicide was the cause, but there was one thing that will destroy that notion. There was a knife plunged into his chest that could have come before the shot, but I just don’t know the answer to that question.” I failed to mention the note thinking that it didn’t matter that much at this given moment.
As Walter raises his hand and places it on William’s pistol, I feel the light touch of someone placing their hand upon my left shoulder. My mind swings around, but my body is in slow motion as my eyes lock with a pair of blue eyes that can only belong to the mysterious gift giver, the mysterious Elizabeth. With so much to say and ask I catch myself motionless in time, locked between two events that are colliding at the speed of light.
“Are you Joseph Tooley?” The soft voice comes ringing into my ears.
“I am, and you must be Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth Tine and I assume you got your package, or you wouldn’t be standing here.” Again the softness of the tones hit like distant church bells flowing across the landscape breaking up as they filter through the trees and valleys. What would such a delicate creature have to do with my father? As I look her over again, I turn to Walter and find him walking back to the other side of the bar. Whirling back, I once again give her a once over.
“I did,” I say once again turning back to Walter trying to read his emotions from a motionless face. As he comes closer to me, I say, “I’m sorry Walter. I haven’t gone to Luke, yet I figured you should hear it from me for no particular reason other than I was the one who came across him and him being so close to my cabin.”
Without a word, Walter grabs his dead brother’s pistol and heads for the tavern door saying not a single word. Sometimes actions speak louder than words but this time neither uttered a syllable. The lack of everything made me wonder at Walter’s response.
Circling back to Elizabeth, I lead her to my usual seat and ask her if she minds waiting a while for me so I can catch up to Walter. She shyly agrees, and I quickly head for the door. Once outside I just catch a glimpse of the sheriff’s door shutting and hurry my way towards it as boots echo off the wooden planks. Reaching for the handle, I brace myself for what may lay beyond this stilted entrance. Life lost; one brother left one brother gone.
I pick up the spectacles and walk across the cold wooden planks and set them on the small round side table. With the glasses facing down, I feel alone in my home. Heading back to my bed I slowly slide back into the pile of clothes that lay on the floor. With the cold autumn floating in the air as if to worn all of the coming winter, my skin begins to warm. With a wanting push, I stand and head for the long lifeless stove.
The cabin seems to breathe with its own life. The characters it plays are whirling together only to let loose its chosen desire at different times of the day. Which character is showing its face this morning? The air seems thick with despair and wanting. The very act of walking within its walls encompasses my body in a misty fog. I feel as if I’m being moved along not of my own will, but will the will of this minor corner of the forest. Do I dare refuse its intentions? Who am I to resist? These walls have seen the best and the worst of throughout the years. They know me better than any man could possibly hope to. Giving in I let the currents guide me through my steps. The closer I get to the other side of my home the further my arrival seems to be. It’s as if my sight is stretching the view as I continue forward. Will my destination ever come? Will the expansion before me continue or will it let me be?
With the metal contraption full of a radiant blaze, I shut its door and open my door to the world as quietly as I can wanting to catch a glimpse of the dogs in their new morning ritual. The door handle cold in my hand I grasp it tightly and ease it open. The hinges creak, and I stop with barely enough open space to get my nose through, rubbing the hinges with my hands in an attempt to warm them up and quiet them down. The world is small at this moment; a door and my wish to catch the dogs in their natural morning way.
Funny how one can make the world such an insignificant place to exist within. Even funnier is how we can convince ourselves of how small it can become in any given amount of time.
I hear the dogs outside once again, a small town of their own. I try the door again, slowly, but with no success. The dogs jump to the sounds of my quiet attempt at catching a glimpse of them. They’re off and running; off to begin their day — another chance to roam the forest with a guided purpose. The cages have not been forgotten, but their memory adds to their pleasure. The pleasure of being free and at ease. Sometimes my envy gets the best of me, and I begin to fantasize that I am one of them. Running along with the pack in the vastness of the forest. Content to spend my days among the others and the creatures of the land. These thoughts rarely continue on for very long, but they are nice reminders of hope.
I step out onto the porch and let the brisk airflow across my exposed skin as the smoking pit to hell is putting forth its last strong efforts to stay alive. The smolder twirls as graceful as the morning fog and blends my view into a watercolor image that is gradually coming into view. As if what I’m seeing is from a distance, a picture of itself taken from far far away. Nature is blending beauty and cruelty as only she can. Opposite intentions of the new day are raging war with each other. A bloody battle that leaves nothing to chance. As the blood spills from both sides, the hue of the morning drifts back and forth from tone to tone. How can anyone not find this morning battle that is thundered every day a beautiful balance of give and take? As for myself, I prefer the fight that occurs at dusk. The fierceness is no less than the morning, but the inevitable outcome is better received. The night is always the vanquisher.
Half hoping the ring won’t be there I raise my hand to my pocket and rub my fingers across the thinning material of my checkered flannel and instantly feal the unmistakable shape of my father’s ring and the inscription it carries. With my finger running around the never-ending circle of the ring I decided that today I will indeed travel into town and meet Elizabeth and do my best to understand why she had possession of my father’s ring and glasses. Stepping back inside I look around and notice nothing new yet the feeling I get from my solitary home is a fresh sensation.
Have I been wasting my life? Have I not lived the path I should have taken? Has my past ruled my present like a heartless king who cares only for his kingdom and cares not for his people? Is rebellion in the air? Will the king’s throne be overturned, and the king himself brought to the gallows to face his fate?
My cabin suddenly seems smaller than usual, and the smell of weathered timber hits my senses with a distasteful aroma. Disgusted and repulsed I grab my hat and my father’s spectacles and then reaching for my walking stick I’m quickly out the door and on the trail heading for town. Too many trips have been taken in too little amount of time. This overexposure to others is beginning to wear thin within my head. I pray I can find the words to speak to Elizabeth because my weekly allowance of conversation is coming to its end. Silence is so many things at once that I’m finding it hard to express its exact nature. Solitude warms itself by clinging to silence and silence embraces solitude like a mothers hug. The two rarely separate from one another, and when they do a man can quickly get lost within himself and the world.
As I hit the bottom of the first hill, I begin to notice that the forest has started it’s changing of colors. The soft woods have, what seems like overnight, let their green go and taken on the yellows, oranges, and reds that accompany this time of year. The unmistakable leaves of the Horse Chestnut have littered the trail with their enormous foliage still bright with a sun-colored yellow. As I continue ahead, the newly fallen leaves crunch and crumble beneath my feet announcing to anything and everything within the forest that I am in their earshot and moving on by without a care. I can hear the dogs moving along each side of the trail as usual yet somehow quieter than myself. Then suddenly nothing, suddenly silence except for my own two feet and the leaves that crunch and crackle beneath my weight. Stopping I look around thinking my black wolf might be back in the area but all I see, and no more than fifty yards ahead and positioned against a tree on the right side of the trail, is a figure of a man — the silhouette of stillness and substance.
Instantly thoughts of Levi Meed jump to mind. A dream come true, a nightmare breathing heavy upon the back of my neck. Standing completely frozen now I listen for the dogs once again; nothing. Taking a few steps forward and letting the crackling leaves make my presence known the figure never moves. Stillness so deep with unforgiveness and dripping with a demeanor of a frozen pond. I stop again, afraid of what I might find. Swallowing my fear and using it as energy to move forward I begin to get a closer look at the deadly still figure. Forty yards, thirty, and now twenty yards away I kick some dirt and leaves in what I now know is in the direction of William. Still no movement. Then I see it. William’s pistol is resting in his right hand that sits half in his lap and half on the ground. Coming closer I can see dried blood frozen in time down the side of his face, and the front of his jacket stained a dark red. Not only has he been shot in the head; there in his chest rests a knife pinning a letter in place.
THE SECRET RESTS WITH ONLY ONE NOW…AND HE IS WHOLLY SILENT…THE PAST WILL REMAIN TRUE…
As I faltered backward and tripped on an exposed root, my mind is locked on the falling leaves as I hit the ground.
The splintering bark showered him as the shot exploded into the tree a mere foot from his head.
“You can’t hide. I know every corner of this forest, and it will be your burying-ground.”
Cresting the hill, he was drawn faster and further from the other. The downward pull gave him enough time to look over his shoulder and see the brim of the others hat as it came into view. “You must let this go! Accept the truth and understand its implication.”
“The truth…I am your truth. I am your death to come.”
With that, the second bullet sprang loose, and a branch to his left crumpled to the ground. Hoping to catch his trailer off guard, he spun around a downed Oak and quickly pulled his trigger. The puff of smoke rose into the air as his chaser was spun around and thrown to the ground. A creeping silence fueled his head as he quickly reloaded while keeping an eye on the other who was now upon one knee reloading as well. “Forgive me for what I have done…forgive and forget.” He was half preaching and half confessing to the one struggling to stand again.
“Your words fall short of anything that could be considered a means to a living man. You must pay for what you have done, and nothing less than death will be your regret. You think your one bullet will do me in?”
With those words still rolling about the trees, they both grabbed aim, and they both fired. The sound was deafening, and then the emptiness of silence crept back once again — the exchanges of words traded for gasping breaths on one end and silent prayers on the other.
The conflict was settled. The victor felt no joy. The remorse carried far beyond the dying man who lay before him. Sadness lay on every footstep from now until his last days. As he walked towards the dying man, he came close to not an enemy, but a once good friend who found out his truth and was unable to keep his motives under control.
“Tell her I loved her dearly. Tell her I did what I thought was right for both of us”, the dying man said choking in a few breaths.
The secret was born.
Unbeknownst to the restless victor, there were eyes watching as the day’s events unfolded. The secret lived beyond the two. The truth had taken on a life of its own. Little did those peering eyes know that they would become caught up in a lifelong lie. A lie that would take many lives, destroy all who came within its grasp, and send a few to the depths of hell itself.
Lifting my jug a few more times I reach for my delivered package. The burlap is rough in my hands and feels as if it has seen better days. Setting the thing in my lap, I open its unsewn end and reach in, the smoothness of paper wrapping is cold to my fingertips as I get a grip on the box inside and pull it out. The brown paper bag wrapping absorbs the light of the fire and is tied with some worn rope string. There is nothing written on any of it sides except for one single word on what I suppose is its top side. In scratched lettering, the word Joseph is written. From its state of rubbing it seems to have been placed there a long time ago, withered like a dry leaf at the end of fall still grasping with all its might to an unforgiving limb. Sitting here I hold the package with both hands as my mind fills with a thousand different possibilities of what could be inside and of why it now is in my possession.
Never has a package been given or sent to me before. Why would one now be sent my way? There is a strange curiosity that accompanies any gift. What is the intention of the giver? What are the expectations of the receiver? Does the act of giving bring the two closer or does it push them apart? I rub my questioning fingers around the edges of the box and wonder what could be worth giving to me. The mystery is an endless journey of the mind, a journey that my mind is all too familiar with.
Slowly pulling on the strings tip the old knot frees itself from its entanglement. The cool brown paper is soon relieved of its duty as well and balled up and tossed into the burning flames. I watch as it heats up and begins to uncrumple itself as if to make one last attempt at preventing the inevitable. First, the edges begin to glow red, and then a few blackened circles appear here and there—the end is near and is coming on quick — finally one last fluttering attempt before it is forever swallowed into the fiery oblivion. The whole is gone yet fluttering up and out a few shards escape and now ride the turbulent heat upwards and soon disappear into the darkness — such a fitting end to what was just shortly before a solid divide between purpose and intended reason.
What remains in my lap is a withered cigar box of yellows and browns. I don’t recognize the brand; it’s nothing Mrs. Beatina carries in her store. Running my fingers along its edges and letting my mind settle in its chaos of possibilities I reach for my 88 and down some more before the grand revealing takes center stage. I want to ready my mind before the mystery is revealed to my inquisitive eyes. Faded memories of a long-gone time sweep across my mind. A particular Christmas comes into focus. A picture of my mother and father sitting together as they watch me unwrap the last gift still covered in colorful and joyful paper. My little hands fumble to reveal what lies inside. The smile across my lips is almost unbearable. With the prize now firmly grasped, I leap with excitement and run to my parents to show them what is now mine. The imitation rifle rouses thoughts being just like my father. A hunter out in the wild and a new life begins to show itself in my young imagination.
Pulling open the withered box top it seems to contain nothing at all, and then I see them. Flashing like gold in the fires glow are my father’s glasses. Opening the box to its full capacity there also lays his wedding band nestled in the lower left corner. If I had any doubts about the glasses, they were quickly shattered by the ring itself because I know even without looking that on the inside of that ring reads the name, Mary. Sitting stunned and staring directly into the heart of my fire, I feel the warmth of a tear running down my right cheek, curling over my cheek and into the comfort of my beard.
Why? Who is doing this?
I don’t know how much more I can take of this torture—even if somebody out there is truly trying to help me find out what happened to my father, I can’t help but feel I’m being tortured little by little and expertly. Gently closing the box top I cannot bring myself to look at the inside of the ring. For now, for a little while longer, I will have my sanity. Laying the box back on top of the burlap sack, I reach for my jug and stand and grab my poking stick to stir and taunt the gates of hell with my very soul and daring them to open wide and pull me in for no less than eternity.
Stirring the embers and watching as small flames jump here and there, I see that the tip of my poking stick has joined in on the fiery dance. Removing my fiery tool and jabbing the earth to extinguish its pain I leave it standing with its own devices and grab some fuel from my stack and pile log upon log until the fire grows to a height that stands as tall as me. If sanity is leaving then, the gates of hell will be opened to their full extent. Taking another swig and another I spray the last mouthful into the blazing whips of fire, and a fireball ensues that catches even the dogs off guard. As the sphere of fire collapses in upon itself as quickly as it grew I tilt my head back and let out a howl that gives my skin a clammy feel and makes my palms sweat. I hold the howl as long as I can and let it fade easily and naturally. Just as mine has stopped the dogs let loose one after the other with their singular and personal howl as if to say ‘I agree.’ Turning to watch them I let loose again with my own howl, and soon we are all in a chorus of animalistic purity that I’m sure reaches for miles and miles across the hilltops and down through the valleys of Jacob’s pass and beyond for all to hear and for all to wonder at.
I wonder what a person would think if they were in earshot of this earthly choir. The slow rumbling of man and beast would surely send thoughts of fear and wonder across their skin. But why? Shouldn’t these ancient emotions be welcomed as a bridge connecting the present with the distant past of our ancestors? A connection few ever contemplate, but a connection that lives on its own lonely plane of existence nonetheless.
With the merciless chorus now silent and restful I return to my stump and finish off my jug and pick up the box and release the top from the rest of the box and toss it into the welcoming fire and watch, for just a moment, as it tries to fight off its extinction. Grabbing the spectacles from the box, I place them across my nose and wrap each stem around the back of my ears. Opening my eyes, I see the world for the first time as my father did—a world of clarity, a world of hope.
His last image before being separated from these spectacles was, hopefully, a pleasant one. Does the fact that his glasses are now in my possession mean that my father is no longer among the living? God, I hope not. My hope of finding him alive is bending over this very thought. Bend as it may, I will never let it break. How could I? How, after all these years could I give up without any firsthand evidence? These new items that have now become a weight upon my shoulders do not constitute anything that could be considered a fact about my father’s fate.
Looking back at the box I grab the ring and hold it up to my eyes. Turning to let the fires blaze light the inside of the ring I see it clearer than anything I’ve seen before ‘Mary.’ One single word that brings together so many things connects so many thoughts and encircles every ambition.
With my mother’s name slicing across my brain like freshly cut steel, I place the ring in my shirt pocket and giving the dogs one last quiet howl I head for my bed. Placing the empty jug on the floor, I crawl out of my shoes and sliver out of my clothes. Placing my father’s hat on an empty peg next to my hat, I crawl into my bed; the roughness of my blanket brings to mind all the dreams that make me feel better. Hopefully, tonight those dreams will return. Hopefully.
A long slow moan begins my morning. Lasting forever and never reaching the level of aggravation it feels more comforting than the blanket that now cocoons my withered frame. I open my eyes as the howl recedes into a light yelp slash growl, and the ceiling greets me with its splintered calm. The hue in the cabin lets me know the time, no later than six. Should I go into town and meet the surreptitious Elizabeth?
My feet are cold, colder than usual. Strange.
What should I do? What would I say to her?
In an instant, I’m sitting up, and it is decided. Whatever I learn, whatever I find out, I will know more than I know now, and that could be a disastrous thing or gracefully enlightening. My hands rise to rub my face only to find my father’s glasses resting there. With shocking quickness, they’re off my nose and thrown to the end of my bed. Landing in a position where they are looking back at me with reflected stillness, a calm that does not set easily into my head.
Another howl, this time three or four in agreement, accord, and laughing. Not at me but the world, and nothing can stop their pleasure of seeing another morning laugh.
When right is right what more can you say? When comfort stills the mind, the world falls into place, a place for everything and everyone to take on their roles and act out their lot in life in slow but deliberate movements.
You can say whatever you want, what you want to say, but it still doesn’t change the difference from right and wrong. I understand that what is right can and will change from one person to another, and the same goes for wrong. However, when the difference is small, the difference means everything.
I let out a small howl of my own, silently and physically relaxing, a true gift from the universe.
Dry earth, fresh earth. Clinging like life to memory. Water is what I need; there’s water in the whiskey. Stumbling back into my earthen stumped chair, I reach for my jug. The second swig is better than the first and the third better yet. Neither of the three can loosen my mind’s grip on the brown dirt fixed upon my shovels edge. Brown dirt, fresh earth, too fresh to be a coincidence and dark enough to be true. Jumping up I headed for the tree line with a shovel in hand. First to the left and then the right; with a short supposed distance to go I let the shovel drag behind my heavy steps.
Is it there?
What if it is?
As sure as I can be, I’m quickly on the spot where a newly piled mound of upturned earth rests silently in the fading light. How can this possibly be? It was all a dream; a figment of my drunken subconscious. How can this mound be here? Right here where it shouldn’t be but sitting there nonetheless. Feebly I rake the edge of the shovel across the top of the heap of the clumped dirt hoping with all my energy nothing lies beneath the mound.
Vagueness drifted through his mind as he tried to collect his memories. A wanted question was tugging at him from the far reaches of his awareness. How much longer could he keep up this charade? It had been nearly ten years since he had learned of the man’s ultimate fate. He wished he could go back and change everything about that day. A day that edged him into this life he now called his hell. With too many directions facing him at once, he decided that he must confront the doer of the deed that kept one man searching and another decaying in the depths of the forest.
A tired mind will beat itself up at every chance given. Confrontation is what he needs in this moment of indecisiveness. The dreams are becoming more and more inviting. The curtain between reality and its opposite has begun to get pulled back. What will happen when two worlds collide? What will happen when two souls merge? Some may say the unity is either heaven, or it is hell. What do the moments of non-unity mean to those neither residing in heaven nor hell? Purgatory wraps its warmth around my thoughts.
The digging had begun. First one small layer and then another. Little by little the mound grows smaller, and a hole begins to appear in its place. Nothing! The weight of a thousand days had just been wishfully lifted off my tightened shoulders. I stabbed the pit with the tip of the shovel and let it stand on its own. Why had this empty grave been right here where it was in my dream? The world began to spin once again and down I went as if gravity had tripled its pull. I awoke at some point later, and all was dark save for the very edge of the western sky still warm with a blood red hue. I couldn’t have been out for long, yet I can’t be too sure. From behind me, I heard that the dogs had returned, and I noticed that my shovel had fallen from its graceful upright pose. Setting up I brushed my sleeves and reached out for the shovel to help me stand. Looking down once again at the empty grave, I could not help but wonder.
Making my way back towards the gates of hell I brought the flames to life and added more fuel to bring them to a dancing trance. Feeling more than a little confused, I pulled out my pipe and took that first flavorful puff. A few sips of 88 and all seemed to be well. Well, well enough to focus my attention on the here and now as opposed to the then and gone. As the orange-tipped tongues of the flames snapped at the blackened air, I tried to retrace my steps from last night until now. I remember falling asleep in my chair within the cabin with my father’s hat resting softly on my lap. Then the dream ended with my thoughts swirling in my head as if whiskey in a jug and my father’s hat still firmly planted on my lap. Or was it? I’m nearly completely sure it was yet part of me thinks it was resting on the side table. Did I get up in the middle of the night and place it there? If so, where did I go? Could this have been the time frame in which I dug the now empty grave? But why? Has someone been in my yard and creeping into my dreams?
Nonsense! The ghost of Levi Meed doesn’t haunt these parts or any for that matter because I do not believe there even truly is a Levi Meed. But if it wasn’t me who dug that blasted hole then who did? Too many questions and not enough answers to our spread around.
Just then, I heard some scraping coming from the direction of my mystery grave. I jump up quickly and grab one of my lanterns from the cabin and set it to blaze and hurrying quicker and quieter than I thought possible of myself I’m up on the scene in no time. The recently opened grave is now filled, and Top is sitting proudly on top of it.
With the light of the lantern, casting its warm glow across Top’s coat, I stand there amazed and bewildered. His eyes are glowing in the casted shadows and his paws smothered in fresh dirt he blinks once as he gazes at me.
What’s going through his mind at this very moment? What are his actions supposed to communicate to me?
The trees feel as if they’re leaning in to understand what is happening. I catch myself holding my breath as my heart pounds beneath my chest. Thump, thud, thump, thud. Exhaling slightly so as not to disturb the moment I reach my hand out and Top gracefully slips off the mound and into the darkness of the forest. I can still hear his footfalls as I swing the lantern a little closer to the grave and wonder if anything new was now buried there. Willing my mind back towards the fire I fumble my way back out of the trees and onto my open yard where one of Hell’s many doors stands open and welcoming. I begin to see the dancing of eyes around the outer edge of casted light. What are the dogs so nervous about tonight? Keeping their distance and not settling in for a night’s sleep it is as if they’re preparing for something or someone.
Crack! Then silence.
I extinguish my lantern and move in the direction of my front door. With the door already open, I slide through the darkened hole in the wall and grab my pistol out from underneath my bed and hastily head for the front door that is softly lit from the fires glow. Stepping once again through the threshold from in to out and stopping just at the edge of the porch my ears fill with the sounds of silence and the crackling of the fire and simply waiting for the next giveaway.
A rustling along the tree line; the dogs, have caught on to the movement and sounds of something in the distance. The first bark goes out, and the rest follow in unison as the pack emerges from the darkness just long enough to sprint across my yard and on to the trailhead once again disappearing into the night. Merely seconds had passed when I hear Walter’s voice ring out a commanding, “Shut up you damn dogs.”
Feeling a little more at ease with the situation I yell Walter’s name and he in return replied, “Joseph, call off this damn pack of brainless beasts.” With a hint of a grin coming onto my lips, I think to myself how funny it must be to assume I have any control over the dogs. Why does anyone presume they have any control over any animal? Any control over anything for that matter just seems a bit hysterical. The chaos that we slide through everyday reeks of the illusion of pattern and reason. We all fool ourselves into thinking that we have some control over our lives and the situations and creatures that we live among in this world. As Walter grows closer, and I reach for my jug, my smile widens at the thought of control.
With the leaping flames in-between myself and the trailhead I see Walter emerge from the darkness carrying a bag that doesn’t present itself as being too heavy or awkward. He moves with determination towards the fire as the dogs file out of the forest and to the edge of the fires blaze.
“I was hoping you would still be up, kind of figured you would be,” Walter says.
“So what brings you out this far into the dark Walter? Do you come bearing gifts? Another jug of 88”; I know it isn’t just by looking at his burlap bag.
“A gift I can’t say, a package to be sure. I volunteered to bring this out to you and figured I would knock out that task tonight rather than wait till morning. Knowing that you wouldn’t be back in town for a week or so, I promised Elizabeth you would get this as soon as possible.”
Elizabeth? Who is Elizabeth I wonder, and why is she giving me anything at all runs through my now all too clear mind. “Care for a drink?” I ask. “ Who is Elizabeth?”
“You know I don’t drink any more Joseph. And why can’t you get rid of this pack of nuisances that came barreling out of the dark at me?”
“They’re more good than bad Walter. They gave you away quick enough didn’t they?”
“Hmm” is all Walter lets out as he stares at the dancing flames.
After a few moments have passed he circles the blazing ring and hands me a burlap sack that weighs lighter than expected. “What is it?” I ask him.
“Don’t know, a woman comes into my tavern earlier today asking about you wondering where she can find you. Of course, I let her know, but she is leery of making the trip on her own and says she must get this package to you as soon as she can. So, after a few questions of my own to try and get a read on her I tell her that I can get it to you within the next day, and so here I am.”
With my mind becoming even clearer, too clear I pull the cork and down some of Walter’s special brew, reaching out for the burlap bag. I place the bag on the accepting ground beside me and take another swig. “I appreciate the promptness of the delivery,” I tell him and ask about this Elizabeth.
“Oh, nothing special; long brown hair, brown eyes, about five and a half feet tall, and come to think of it she sort of looked a lot like your mother but younger. She carried herself well and didn’t seem too skittish considering her determination in getting you this package in a hurry. I can’t blame her for not wanting to come your way alone, I mean you do sort of have quite the hermits cave so far out here.”
“Where did she come from?” I ask.
“She didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.”
“Is she still in town?”
“She said she would be in town until she knew you had that there package,” Walter replied.
After a few quiet moments, Walter says he must return and that if I wanted to meet Elizabeth, she would be in the tavern first thing in the morning to check on her delivery. I silently give my recognition of the opportunity and nod my head to Walter as he tosses a stick into the fire, says goodbye and turns towards the trailhead. As he does, the dogs all move in unison in the same direction.
“You must do something with these damn dogs.” He says as his silhouette blends back into the darkness of the forests grand divide.
“Yes, something,” I mutter to myself and the flowing flames.
I pulled myself from the floor of the church and stumbled towards the door.
Pistol be damned. Luke be damned. All of them be damned because the damned can’t condemn and pass judgment. I’m passing mine, but it still stands at my side. Turning towards the unyielding crowd behind me the shadowed room grows dark until finally there’s nothing but a pinhole of light and then gravity pulling on my shoulders as if never before.
The darkness is everywhere. I feel as if I’m in the middle of everything and yet nothing is showing itself. But slowly and softly the whisper of a dog’s bark begins in the distant. One at first and then another, bit by bit the echoes of others grow louder and louder until the barking is my entire world and has become all my mind is. I open my eyes to find myself sitting in my chair staring at my long cold stove.
I look down to find my father’s hat resting in my lap. Screaming its reality loud and clear—it was all a dream, every lucid moment was a dream. No Levi Meed. No shooting. No town lies with a hidden secret. And, still no Jacob. No father.
Sitting up I lay my father’s hat on my side table and rub my eyes. It all seemed so real. So true. I rub my eyes again and wonder if this moment right now is real, am I still dreaming?
The barking of the dogs fades back in as I lumber towards the door and, with no exact intentions, open it with a creak that quiets the dogs, if just a little, and step out onto the front porch. The sun is high in the sky, and my whiskey jug sits empty on the porch. Did I leave it out there? I’m sure I brought it in. It’s not like me to leave those sitting outside. I sit down in my wooden block of a chair and massage my head. Maybe Walters 88 is stronger than usual this time around, I don’t know, maybe.
Suddenly I notice that the dogs are all silent for a change and lying around in no particular fashion except for maybe the silence and their stares. As I look from one dog to the next, I come to Top, and he’s looking at me as if he feels my confusion, my hunger, and my emptiness.
People can sense these things in others that they are around for an extended amount of time.
Why should a dog be any different?
With eyes locked and my mind fully engaged in Top’s knowing stare the other dogs rise and in one quick moment rip the silence open with their barks of life; their barks of joy and head for the trail head and loudly disappear with Top trotting along behind them leaving me to my own thoughts and confusion.
There’s only one way to get rid of confusion—confuse yourself even more.
Standing I headed back inside and unlatched my comfort cabinet of worship and pulled out a jug of Walter’s local. Pulling the cork, I took a long swig and another as a few bubbles rose thru the upturned bottle, floating against the swirling liquid and fighting their way to their undeniable death. Placing the smooth cork back in the jugs mouth I let my arms fall to my side and looking around my cabin of solitude I grabbed my father’s hat and placed it firmly upon my head and once again headed for my wooden throne of a chair on the front porch.
After a few more gulps, my mind begun to slow and the pictures of my dream began to fade back into my consciousness. The pictures induced feelings; the feelings bring tears, and the tears slowly slide away from their source leaving glistening streaks of sorrow and happiness. Do I wish the dream were real? Am I glad that it wasn’t? Somewhere in between I find myself stretched to my breaking point.
All is too much. I want to forget whatever it is that has brought me to this point. I want to forget my father, my mother and most of all myself. So I drink some more, and I head for the fire pit. Open the gates of hell one last time. One final night of solitude with the fireflies of swirling stars. With the sun now creeping closer towards the western tree line, I placed my jug near my stump of a chair and reached for the shovel to dig the ashes of gray out of the caldron of solitude.
Please do not get me wrong, I understand where dreams come from when they happen but it is the ‘why’ that leaves my mind shivering in the corner of some open room. A room where three walls are seen, and the fourth assumed. The floor has its allure of comfort and yet the ceiling seems too low. Was my dream a warning? A posted sign made of carved rickety wood. If so this signpost gave up no arrow of direction, no sense of ease. Nothing but images of a reality unreal.
Reality; this is my mortal enemy. What would one feel if they knew they were immortal? Knowing that time was of no consequence does the mind cease to remember or does it lay heavy the visions of yesterday?
With shovel in hand, I stabbed my first puncture into the ashen gray lock that covers my pit. Flinging the grayness aside, I cannot help but notice the clinging brown on the edges of the metal spade. This is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong.
What is right?
With death comes peace, he kept telling himself. The spring that gives leads to the inevitable fall of life. If it weren’t me then, it would have been no one. Certain situations leave one fighting for forgiveness. My life or his…my judgment or his. Who will pay the ultimate price? The sorrow that prevails is nothing more than regret from earlier times. I forgave myself years ago but can Joseph ever do the same. The shadow once again leaned back against its hollow wall of emptiness and hung there for light to come. If only the light would come.
Leaving the tavern behind I headed for Mrs. Beatina’s ‘Have All.’ Hearing my boots clamor across the uneven planks of pine and oak, I steadied myself to have a conversation with probably the nicest lady I have ever met other than my mom. Pushing on the door and hearing the little brass bell announce my arrival I looked towards the counter only to find young Jessie sitting behind the counter. I asked her if Mrs. Beatina was in and was told that she had to leave town on personal business for a few days, and Jessie asked if she could help me.
Feeling almost relieved to hear the news, I went to a shelf and grabbed some tobacco and paid for it and asked when Mrs. Beatina would be back.
“Two or three days” was the best answer Jessie could give.
I thanked her and headed for the church at the opposite end of town. Walter and William could wait; maybe Caleb would give me some straight answers to the burning question that was bouncing around in my skull. What does everyone seem to know about my father that I do not? Unless, unless Levi’s last words were lies and I was being set up to give myself away with murder and blood on my hands, this could become tricky if I didn’t watch myself and run this gauntlet flawlessly.
Crossing Briggs Street, the only street, and stepping once again up onto the wooden boardwalk I hang a right and see the entrance to the modest church a few doors down. Coming to its entrance, I hesitate to take my questions inside. Out of all the people on my list, I know Caleb will be the most likely to answer me honestly, and it is that honesty that is causing my hesitation. Am I ready for the truth? Will it make things better or worse? The unknown is at least unknown, and that’s not always a bad thing.
Leaning forward into the churches door I find myself engulfed in darkness and dust seen only from the light coming through the three windows on the right wall like solid beams of shifting matter slicing across the single large room. The floor is plain enough with its nail heads exposed, but that is where the plain ends and the majesty begins. The pews, being stained with a darkened oak, and hand carved swirls and flowers inlaid across every inch of their backs and sides and legs. The legs themselves are carved to mimic the legs of lions with such precision one might expect them to stand up and move around. The two rows of six benches sit perfectly aligned and face a centered podium and have been raised above ground level by at least three feet. The podium itself has a brass cross built into the wood, so it’s flush with the wooden surface, and the surface has an artist’s rendition of the hereafter carved seamlessly across the podiums front face and sides. The podium itself flares at the top like a spring tulip in full bloom. Behind the podium resting quietly in the dark and hanging in line with the podium is a large wooden cross. Large enough to not need any décor of its own, its massive size says all that need be and any other adornments would simply fall short of adding to the structure of the symbol.
In the far left corner behind the podium sits the only other door where I’m assuming Caleb is sitting at this very moment reading his good book and preparing for his next climb onto that podium, walking slowly over to the door, I rap the wood with two quick taps of the back of my hand and take a step back. Standing there, I hear the creak of a chair being abandoned and the door handle being turned.
“Hello, Caleb. I need to ask you some questions if you have the time.”
Caleb just stared blankly at me for a few seconds and then quickly said of course, and he walked out of his back room and took a seat in the front pew. “How can I help you today Joseph?”
Caleb was a small man with sandy brown hair that was always neatly cropped. His eyes held a constant look of yearning, a yearning to help others. His black outfit never changed when he was in public, and that was most of the time. His face carried no deceitful characteristics. The skin held tightly to prominent cheekbones and was colored a little too white for my taste. His posture was that of a perfect nature and seemed beaten into him at a young age. Overall Caleb was nothing short of friendliness, too bad he chose this profession.
Wondering how to attack his question in the right way I simply ask, “What do you know about what happened to my father?”
“I never knew your father,” he said looking me dead in the eyes.
“What do you mean you never knew my father? You were one of the few that helped looked for him when he went missing. Why would you help look for someone you didn’t know?” The thought of such an act seemed to fall out of my realm of understanding. I guess that is why people like Caleb end up in such a line of work. My question to Caleb was reason enough to others why someone such as myself didn’t go into the same vocation.
“What I say is true Joseph, I never knew your father, but I did know your son.”
The room got darker and narrower all at the same time. Was Ogden’s magic elixir still swirling in my mind and coming back to mess with my thoughts and hearing?
“I don’t have a son Caleb. I’ve never even married. I’m simply asking what you know about my father’s disappearance. Nothing more; nothing less.”
Caleb took a deep breath and began a story that sounded as made up as the book he preaches from every damn day. In this story he put forth there was a man who started out hunting to make some more money for his family and found that he was extremely good at it, so he quit his job at the mill and began hunting and trapping full time. This man had a son that was never allowed to go with his father out into the forest because the father felt it too dangerous for the young boy until one day he finally took the boy with him on an outing. After a few outings and a few rules laid out for the boy, the boy was finally, to the young kid’s excitement, allowed to go out on his own. On the boys first outing his father wished him luck and patted him on the back and his mom gave him some food rolled in a rag and kissed him goodbye. Little did these parents know that this would be the last time they would ever see their only child, a child that went by the name Joseph Tooley.
“Jacob! Jacob! Are you still with me? Can you hear me, Jacob?”
The world went black as my legs completely gave out. The last word I remember hearing as I was going down was Jacob. The first word I heard coming back was Jacob. Pushing Caleb away from me and scurrying backward against the far wall, I sat stunned and frozen. Absolutely frozen. If what I had been just told to me was true then my entire life for the past ten years has been a lie, a smoke screen, and a mental collapse in every sense of the word. Everyone I’ve come into contact with in those ten years has perpetuated that lie and let me live that lie. Why? Why would they let me fall so far?
Thawing out long enough to reach into my coat pocket and retrieve my pistol I now have it pointed directly at Caleb and screamed that it couldn’t be. “What are you trying to pull Caleb? What’s the point of these lies?”
Not backing away Caleb simply said, “Your name is Jacob Tooley. You were married to Mary Tooley, and you had a son Joseph who went missing ten years ago, and you blamed yourself from the very beginning, so much in fact that you became Joseph and let Jacob die instead.”
“My father is not dead; he is missing!”
“Your son may not be dead, but he is missing Jacob.” Caleb countered.
“Stop calling me Jacob! My name is Joseph! My name is Josep…” and blackness again. This time the light didn’t come back as quick or as bright. And when my eyes did adjust, I found Caleb, Walter, William, Luke, and Ogden all standing around me. I quickly reached for my pistol but found nothing in my jacket pocket but a small vile.
“Looking for this Jacob?” Luke was holding my pistol in his hand.
“You have no right to take my pistol Luke so hand it over.”
“Well let’s see if Caleb wants me to keep you behind bars for pulling a loaded weapon on him in a church of all places.” And now Luke was asking Caleb something that I couldn’t quite make out. While trying to figure out what was going on Caleb’s story came rushing back into my consciousness.
Seeing William, I asked if it was true. “William, what can you tell me about my father’s disappearance?”
The same response came back at me, “I never knew your father, Jacob.”
“ What is this? Why would you all let me go on like this? Why?”
No answer came. No words to comfort. No helping hand to lead the way. No anything. Nothing but me—nothing but them.
Everything at once.
Moving along our trail, my mind wanders back to the black wolf as if he was some omen, some prelude to all of this. Was he warning me? Was he wishing me luck or telling me to turn back at that very moment? Who’s to tell us all the hints and suggestions that pass us by every day? No man, no woman can be expected to understand all the subtleties of their life and take meaning in the smallest of occurrences or even the largest of them. As I mentioned before coincidences are for fools and cowards willing to turn a blind eye to either reason or the obvious. Which one was the black wolf communicating? Could he have known about Levi and his presence so near to my cabin? Was he merely a symbol of the dark things to come and that now had passed?
Before I realized it, I found myself coming to the end of the trail. I’d been walking in such a haze that I didn’t even remember if the dogs had been following me. I must have made good time because the sun seemed nearly in the same part of the sky as when I left. I should have brought my half-empty jug along with me because now my haze was clearing, and that was something I didn’t want. The haze helps me concentrate, helps me see, and helps me believe.
After splitting off from the trail, I hit the main trail and head for town. Only a few steps down the trail I hear the clang and clang of metal coming from behind me. As I turn to await the appearance of the racket coming around the turn, I’m shocked to see a traveling salesman’s cart being pulled by one black horse and the salesman himself riding proudly on the bench seat holding the reins to his well-groomed steed. I step to the side of the trail to let the clamoring contraption pass only to have the man stop right beside me and ask my name.
“Joseph Tooley” I reply.
“Joseph Tooley is it? I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Ogden Meed seller of fine goods and traveler of all parts far and near” he said with an exuberance that caught me off guard.
Not only was this man highly round-up but the last name struck a chord deep within my bones. Meed. Levi Meed. The man buried not far from my cabin, a man whose body was probably still warm with the lifeblood quickly oozing out and into the earth. With my mind retreating to its darkest of hiding places, I can’t catch my breath. The black wolf, the black horse, and the blackness of death so close at my fingertips I feel my legs weaken and stumble a little towards the nearest lean-to.
“Whoa, their Joseph, you ok sonny?”
Sonny? Hadn’t Levi called me that? This salesman, this man perched high in his cart must somehow be related to the man I just shot. Levi was an old man; however, Ogden was maybe no more than ten years older than me. Then the thought hit me—father and son. No, it couldn’t be, it can’t be, and most of all it shouldn’t be. “I’m fine,” I finally get out. “Just the air getting to me I guess,” or lack thereof.
“Well, I got just the thing for that Sonny. If you can spare twenty-five cents, I’ve got the cure for the Wobblies. Not only will it cool you down but it will calm those brain nerves we all have that give us the sweats now and then.” He rambled off in a blur of enthusiasm.
Feeling stunned and caught in a web, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the price to be paid and handed it to the driver of goods. Setting the break on his cart, Ogden stepped down and motioned me to the back of his four-wheeled storefront and swung open the back door and stepped inside. With the sound of rustling first to the left and then further back to the right, he appeared with a medium-sized vial of clear liquid and handed it to me. “This will do you up right sonny just be careful it can be strong on some people. And to help you out a little more, why don’t you step on up and I’ll give you a ride into the next town, Hopesburg I believe they call it.”
“Hapsburg is its name.” Wanting more information from this new stranger, I accepted his invitation for a ride and climbed aboard and sat down looking at my purchase.
“Hapsburg, of course, it is. When you travel as much as I do, the names all seem to blend, and sometimes the mind just seems to rename them for its own pleasure if you get my meaning.”
As he retook his seat and the reigns, I uncorked my vile and took a swig that consumed about half the liquid in the vial. What seemed like poison going down my throat hit my insides like a tree crashing to the ground, and I immediately began coughing.
“Warned you that it hits some people strong but give it a minute and it’ll do its job.”
The clear liquid left in the small bottle shifted from side to side, and as I stared at it, I noticed my skin beginning to cool and my thoughts turning to happier times. “What exactly did I drink?” I asked.
“The first rule of business Sonny, always keep them guessing.” He said with a sly smile that seemed too familiar to me. Could this possibly be the son of a man freshly buried, a man newly dead from my hands? I couldn’t bear to look the man in the eyes for fear of recognition. I took one last swig from the vial, and the memories came flooding in from all directions — good memories of my mom and my dad and a childhood filled with laughter. I needed more of this elixir.
“Can I get two dollars’ worth of what’s in this vile?” I asked Ogden. He just smiled and said he only had two bottles left, and they were for a friend in Hapsburg that made the best whiskey around. “Walter’s local 88?” Ogden just smiled and shook his head in confirmation.
As the cart came around the last turn and Hapsburg came into view we almost passed the graveyard before I realized it and told Ogden to let me off here and told him thanks for the ride and that maybe we would meet again at the tavern.
“Hope to see you there,” he said as he continued on.
Passing through the ornate opening of the graveyard I followed the stones like I always do to the one gravestone that meant the most to me, my mothers. I kissed my hand and laid it upon the top of the smooth granite and whispered my new secret to her. If she heard me, I don’t know. If she did she surely hated her son at this moment, I hated myself at this moment but moments change as quickly as the shadows across the ground and my shadow was now headed out of Orville’s Eden towards town. My first interview was to be with Mrs. Beatina, but the tavern was calling too loudly to pass up, so I slipped inside and gave Walter my usual nod, and he looked surprised to see me back so quickly. I noticed that at the end of the bar sat Ogden Meed drinking a whiskey and smiling in the mirror as he noticed me walking to my corner table. Crouching in my usual chair, I wait for Walter to bring me my whiskey and half clean shot glass. Looking around I notice William sitting in the opposite corner seemingly nervous now that I’ve noticed him. His eyes bounce around the room never making any real eye contact with me. Maybe William should be bumped up on my list. As I’m about to get up and walk over to his table, Walter shows up with my whiskey and asks what the special occasion Hapsburg is to be honored with my presence two days in a row.
“Shut up Walter” I snap back and ask him where his brother was yesterday.
Looking surprised at my shortness, “Hell if I know I’m not his mother.”
“Well, if you happen to come across that information I would appreciate,” I tell him.
Walking back behind the bar he stops to talk to Ogden, and I see them exchange the two small bottles and then Ogden rises from his stool and heads my way, taking a seat across from mine he hands me a small bottle of the magic liquid and tells me he was saving this one for himself but can’t help passing up a sale. “It’s all yours Joseph hope you enjoy it.”
I hand my money to him and place the bottle in my jacket pocket next to my pistol; this will come in handy when all of hell is rising up around me. “So, you say your last name is Meed huh?”
“Yep, same as my daddies and his daddy before him.” That smile never stops.
“Where’s your dad at these days? He’s probably all settled in someplace with your mother I bet.” I grimaced hoping for a yes.
“Not by a long shot Joseph. You see my dad went lost a few years ago, and no one that I know of has seen him since. It’s a strange thing him going missing like that out there in those woods considering that’s where he spent most his time.”
My heart sank. My stomach rumbled, and I’m sure I turned white as a ghost. Here I am looking for my very own father who went missing and wondering the whole time if he was dead or alive and this poor soul in front of me is going thru the same thing only the person sitting right in front of him knows exactly where his father, dead father lies. What was it that Levi said—people that you know already have your answers or something to that effect. I felt for this poor soul in front of now. The look Top gave me after taking a swing at him instantly popped into my mind, and I’m sure that very look was on my face.
“What’s the matter Joseph you look like you’ve seen a ghost? I told you to take it easy with that stuff it can really hit some people hard.”
“Yeah, that must be it” I came back with sinking lower in my seat I hated myself for ever losing control with that damn hat and that damn note. Then it struck me, the note. Levi had never given it back to me. Was it lying on my porch at this very moment or did he pocket it?
Slamming a few more shots, I stood and wished Ogden good luck with his travels and headed for the door.
“Hey, Tooley! You were going to pay for those drinks?” Walter screamed obviously still turned off by my shortness with him earlier.
“Sure, why not, don’t I always. I’d like to talk as well with your brother a little later,” I said, and the look in Walter’s eyes quickly went shallow. I noticed his change in mood and stance immediately, and it was yet another instance over the past two days that caught me off guard. What the hell is going on in this town I nearly blurted out?
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.
Wondering what a man will do is a guess at best. Wondering what a man is thinking is surely what magic is built upon. His fingers could still feel the texture of the hat he placed within Joseph’s cabin. He hoped it would bring some sort of hope to him. Just knowing that someone out there knew more than he did should bring solace to the mystery that enveloped the man known as Jacob Tooley. Would the note and hat push the unaware closer to the light? Will just a little prove to be a lot? The night could not leave quickly enough; tomorrow will bring changes. Even if he had to forgo the rest of his years the gift of knowledge would be his saving grace. It would be Joseph’s saving grace.
What seemed like mere minutes of darkened thought I opened my eyes to the sound of those damn dogs commencing their morning ritual of annoyance. Celebrating their new day for God knows what reason being abandoned as they all are it suddenly hits me that my few moments of darkness was actually a night’s sleep in my chair with my father’s hat resting peacefully on my lap. Out of anger or maybe more out of confusion I sling the hat across the room and head for the door to shut the sounds of joy down. Whipping the door open the dogs all run for a bit and then stop, thinking nothing of it as if it’s just another day.
“Shut up you filthy mutts. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up!”
They just stared at me in the wanted silence.
Little do they know, how could they, that today is not only different but forever the beginning of a new Jacob Tooley. Gone for good is the old—desperate men often make such grand announcements to themselves and the world in moments of confusion and my current world is more confused than ever. Giving a half yell half growl to the dogs, I swing around and slam the door shut if it’s a chase they want it’s a chase they’ll get.
Walking over to the fire pit, I grab my poking stick and muttering pointless words I head for the closest dog. With quick attention, Snout’s tail moves from left then right and tenses his stance. Allowing me the pleasure of thinking I’ve caught him off guard he waits to just the right moment and bolts off to the left and is instantly out of reach. Not in the mood to feel defeat I continue on my original course where three more hounds stand poised to play their part, once again gaining ground as quickly as I can my hopes of catching one of them become spoiled by their better-adapted agility and speed.
Stopping, I notice Top sitting and watching the whole show from beside a pine tree. Thinking a new tactic must be used I whistle a slow whistle as I walk towards Top and his tree. Surprisingly he doesn’t move, not even a wag of the tail. As I close the distance between us I find myself on the precipice of a new feeling, a new wonder. I slowly raise my stick and swing as hard as I can, aiming at the beginning of the swing for Top, but connecting only with the pine tree which releases a loud crack as my poking stick shatters into two even pieces. I open my eyes to see Top still sitting motionless by the tree, frozen not with fear but with a soundless grace, and looking me squarely in the eyes as if to say it’s ok.
Top, truly a prisoner that has escaped the clutches of a society that tosses the unwanted aside for reasons known only to the collective unconscious of the ones who move on and leave the past in the past.
I drop the half of stick still in hand and give Top a rub across the brow and turn in either defeat or enlightenment, it’s often hard to tell the two apart at the moment such a thing happens. I can’t help but wonder if Top feels the same way.
I know his look. I’ve given the look myself to certain souls when times were bad.
Why should a dog be any different?
After all, the mind is a mind is a mind no matter what the kind. Emotions, actions, and reactions are seen as coming from the so-called human intelligence, but maybe we overestimate ourselves and place these big brains of ours on too high a pedestal. Is it wrong to do so? Who’s to answer but yet another big brain—sort of like answering your own question: pointless and useless no matter which angle one looks at it?
The chair on my front porch looks more inviting than it ever has before, so I head straight for the carven luxury. Stepping up onto the rough-hewn planks, I slide into the oaken bucket of a seat and stare at the empty distance between me and the forest. The dogs start to move closer once again, no worse for the ware. Have they noticed the change? Have they seen the difference? I know what I must do now, but beyond that, there is nothing more than a black emptiness that I’m sure has always been there yet never till now been acknowledged either by choice or chance.
Standing from my unstable comfort, I unlatch the rustiness and enter my home for the first time in this, my new world; this new life. The room looks unchanged and still far from the same from just a few hours ago. I cross my family rug and reach down to pick up this new hope, this hat. Feeling the smoothness of the leather on my fingertips my mind flashes with pictures to what seems like a far too distant past; my past, my memories in full color and moving faster and faster through the haze of amazement. Once out of my hand and resting on a bedpost the images fade and then disappear. Left standing and not wanting to, I move to a chair and let gravity take over.
The lock had never been messed with. The door had never been opened nor had it shown any damage. How did the mystery man place the hat on my chair? Did he go through the trouble of erasing all indications of his presence? If so, then why leave the note so plain to see? Could there have been two separate intrusions onto my property? Two separate strangers with one task; to bring my missing father even more to the forefront of everything that floats through my mind. Were they working together or one not knowing of the other? What are they trying to tell me and why now? Why not in person instead of these cryptic slaps across the nerves? And most of all, how do they know what they seem to know?
Finishing off the last of my first jug of 88 I rest the bottle in the front left corner of the room and unfasten the doors to my comfort cabinet, retrieving the next jug from its shelf I head for my chair once more and fill my pipe and take two or three large puffs to get the tobacco started. Resting my head back and feeling the warmth of the whiskey flowing down I begin to weigh my options of the next move or if I should even make one.
I could set a tra…
Just then, the dogs erupted into yelps and barks. I could hear the pack racing past the side of my cabin heading south, after what I was bound to find out somehow. Throwing the door open with rifle in hand, I head to the left side of the cabin only to catch a glimpse of the last few dogs leading over the hilltop. Knowing I won’t be able to catch up with them, I return to the porch and rest my rifle against the front wall. Retrieving my pipe and jug, I take a seat on my oaken chair and rest the rifle across my lap. This is the plan—sit and wait for one more bastard to show up at my cabin and end this once and for all one way, or another.
Hearing the dog barks fading farther and farther away I conclude they’re on the trail of a coyote or fox because the distance is widening at an amazing pace. With my attention locked on the dogs, I catch my first glance of movement about seventy yards out into the woods, a slow sliding of an object heading towards the trail I share with the black wolf and all the other creatures of the forest. Not willing to move quite yet I quietly slide the bolt of my rifle into place and switch the safety off. Seeing the distant movement slip behind a patch of pines I briefly lose eye contact with this new intrusion. Coming out from around the pine patch, I realize the movement isn’t welcome because it is obviously an old man struggling to make his way in my direction and coming from the middle of nowhere. I watch as he finally hits the trail and once again disappears into the last dip of the trail.
Raising my rifle and placing a bead on the middle of the trail top that the old man will soon be appearing I lightly finger the trigger and wait. With the crest of this last trail hump a mere thirty-five yards away, I will have an easy shot. Staring down the barrel of my rifle, I see the first bobbing movement of the old man’s head as he stumbles up and into the line of my beaded sights. The man was still looking down when my shot exploded into the dirt just inches in front of his last step forward. Now looking up and leaning a little to the right the old man removed his hat and gave me a wave of confusion mixed with what should have been fear, but seemed more like recognition, and with a quick slide of the bolt and my rifle aligned once again at this strange trespasser I blink my eyes in confusion as the old man continues the last leg of his journey towards my porch.
Wanting like hell to pull the trigger once again and dispatch this unwanted company I let rational thoughts prevail and yell at my new enemy to stop where he is and tell me his business here.
“Tooley, is this any way to greet an old friend?” the man said with an uneasy calmness.
“How do you know my name and what the hell do you want?”
“So it’s true what they been saying all these years.”
Clenching my rifle tighter, “What have they been saying, old man?”
“That you Tooley have been living out here for a long time. Let me reintroduce myself, I’m Levi Meed from places here and there, and I was a friend of your fathers.” Now standing no more than four feet from my front porch and directly in front of me is a man of no less than seventy years of age from my estimation, the thick, deep lines on his pale face carve out every single one of those years with a language only time itself can write or understand. His cloud-white hair is thinning and hanging down in locks that brush his shoulders. His eyes were shining with a knowing, but of what I couldn’t quite place., and with skinny broad shoulders draped over by a ragged wool flannel his height must have been around six feet resting on muddied leather boots that have seen days better than this particular one. As he took one last step forward, I let another shot fly—although it was nowhere near close enough to hit its target the message was clearer than any words could convey.
“Old man you take one more step in this direction and I will have no problem protecting my property with this here rifle.” I quickly got out before he could make any more gains in my direction. “What do you know of my father?”
“Only that he and I were hunting partners of the sort and that he went lost some time ago around these parts and hasn’t been heard of since.” He said this with a wink of the eye as if to tempt me into proving my previous statement.
Tempting the easily tempted is a strange kind of courage. This old man is playing with fire, and he doesn’t even realize he’s standing within a ring of four-foot flames willing and able to strike at any moment.
Then the weight of the situation hit my senses all at once—this is the writer of the note, the bringer of the hat. “How the hell did you get into my cabin?”
The old man looked confused for the first time. “I have never been in your cabin Tooley, in fact; this is my first journey to this part of the woods since just after your dad went missing.”
Doing my best to read him and his ability to tell a lie I can’t say too much other than coincidences are believed by only fools and cowards, and I consider myself neither so I quickly decide that this Levi Meed must have something to do with the mysteries that have come upon my remote cabin, but what role exactly I’ll have to find out.
Feeling more in control than just a few minutes ago I rest my rifle across my lap and take a pull from my pipe and lift my hat a little. “So Levi what brings you this way at this moment in your life?”
“Well Tooley, every man knows there comes a time in his life where he knows that the inevitable is closing in on him and the time for me Mr. Tooley has been drawing near for some time.”
“That was a lot of words that never came close to answering the question I ask,” I said with a little disgust as I took a swig of 88.
“Ah, I see you got some of Walter’s 88. Care to give an old man a sip, the last request for a condemned man.”
Wondering how this guy knows Walter and his 88, I wonder if he once lived in Hapsburg, maybe before I was even born but Walter and I are close to the same age, and for the life of me I can’t remember my dad or Walter ever mentioning a Levi. Testing the waters of trust and deceit I offer my jug to the old man, and he reaches for the medicine.
“So how do you know Walter?”
Wiping his brow with a handkerchief and taking a second swig, “When one’s been around as long as I have you get to know everyone just a little and some more than others.” He said handing my jug back to me in a smoother motion than I thought possible. Something strangely familiar about this man, an uncomfortable awareness is slowly creeping up the back of my neck and making my hands tighten upon my rifle.
“So you’re telling me you have never been in my cabin and haven’t even been to my home?”
“Can’t say I have,” Levi said with a glance around. “Quite the home you’ve got here for yourself.” With a look of seeing something for the second time, Levi’s eyes roamed the outline of the front of my cabin and then rested back on me.
“So are you from Shepherdsville?
Shaking his head a small amount he says he’s never truly settled in one spot for very long or least long enough to say he’s from here or there. “I guess if I had to choose a place to call home I’d have to say the forest has been my resting place for many days and many more nights. The years all seem to blend after a certain age is reached.”
This man’s vagueness isn’t exactly setting well with my mood. Who considers the forest his home? “So you have a cabin out here in these parts?” I asked knowing he didn’t, at least anywhere close to mine.
“No cabin, just what the forest provides me and allows me to obtain.” A smile crossed his lips for just a second as if being proud of this declaration. “Men often have more than they need even when what they need isn’t what they really want. I’ve seen many a man come and go within these trees of solace. Most go than stay. Most need to go to save their sanity. The few that are left tend to see me now and then, but only when they need to.”
Reaching in my pocket and pulling out my tobacco pouch I refill my pipe and get it heated enough to keep the thing going on its own. Taking a few swigs of my own, I clear my throat and ask Levi how he met my father.
“One morning I was out checking my traps and as the early morning fog was lifting I stood from my resting spot against an enormous oak tree and found that across the creek and only about thirty yards in front of me sat a man asleep against a fallen tree, after the shock of seeing another man so far out into these woods, wore off I approached him with enough vigor to make my presence known and a sufficient amount of noise to awaken the stranger. As I reached his side of the creek, he rustled awake and instantly took a bead on me. Of course, I stopped dead in my tracks and with a smile told him how much of a nice change it was to see another soul out this far into the unknown, the unforgiving forest, the core of the fear of darkness that fills the hearts of so many others.” Removing his hat, he continued, “Your dad lowered his weapon and stood to get a better look at me. He then stepped forward and with his hand out, and we shook hands for the first time and began talking. Him about his new endeavor into hunting and trapping and me about life in the woods and all it can offer a wanting rootless lost soul.”
“How can I believe a single word you have spoken? What proof can you offer that any of what you say is anywhere near what is considered the truth and why did you consider my father a ‘lost’ soul?” I mumbled out from underneath my hat as I pulled it lower down on my head. The feeling of numbness was slowly creeping up from my feet and crawling up my legs attempting to take over my entire body as I listened to Levi as his words reverberated in my ears and seeped into my head as if they were worms digging deeper into the soil to find the moisture that is desperately needed for survival. Needless to say, I was becoming more uncomfortable as the minutes inched by as my new unwanted guest’s words sank deeper and deeper creeping like snakes and growling, unlike any animal that considers this world home. Did he have the proof I had asked for? Where would that leave me if he did? Back to the beginning of confusion over the events of the past day, but can I honestly believe he wasn’t the one.
“Let’s just assume we’re all lost and some people never find their way and others even offer a trade for the path to be shown to them—your father was a trading man at heart, I could sense that from the first time I met him.” Levi let loose.
“And what did he trade for his path to be shown?” I asked.
Levi Meed just smiled and said we all trade what we have to trade to get what we want, and a strong wanting and wishing is a powerful thing to behold.
Levi sat on the edge of my porch, now with his back towards me, and began to talk of a young man new to America in the big city of New York and having the feeling of being lost and out of place. A young man from the countryside of eastern England that wanted something better, something different, something of his own and a chance to be his own man, Levi then switched to the story of love between two kids finding each other by chance on a rainy day under an oak tree and never left each other’s side after that moment.
As Levi continued his story, he kept swaying his head slowly from left then right as if looking for something off in the distance of the forest, almost as if he was reading the words from an invisible scroll written in the trees themselves. I lifted my hat a little and grabbed my jug and began to drink gulp after gulp and only then did I notice my eyes had started to water up from the story of my parents as it was being laid out before me, most I knew some I did not. Levi Meed had indeed known my father, but he wasn’t entirely off the hook yet; it could have been him who left the note and the hat.
When Levi finished his story, I stood and offered him my jug and told him I’d be back in a second. Heading inside my cabin, I moved towards the collapsing bookshelf and pulled out my copy of Milton’s exhaustive poem and retrieve the hated note from its pages and pushed it into my pocket. Grabbing my father’s hat, I headed once again towards my porch to rejoin my guest. Stepping outside I noticed Levi has shifted his position on the porch so that he is now leaning against one of the wooden pillars and facing the chair I’ll soon be sitting upon. As I move by him, I drop the hat next to him and ask if he recognizes it.
“Well, if I had to guess I’d say this is your father’s hunting hat. Sure looks like the same one he always had. Where did you find it?”
Retrieving my jug, I settle back into my chair and say, “I didn’t exactly find it, let’s just say it found me.”
“I see, and I think I understand the rifle now,” he put forth with what I swear was another small creak of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “This is what you meant when you asked if had been in your cabin isn’t it?”
Now he’s just playing dumb or coy I thought to myself, “Of course.”
“Stop calling me that. My name is Joseph.”
“My apologies Joseph, I can honestly say I wasn’t the one who placed your father’s hat in your cabin. Now, if you believe me or not is completely up to you but you must ask yourself—what would I have to gain from such an act?” His words fell like stones from the sky as he spoke them, too much weight being carried along with them. Was it just me and my paranoia or was this old man double tapping every word with extra meaning? Playing with me, toying with my obvious over emotional state, there must be a way to get at the truth, and maybe it was staring me right in the face the whole time.
What one wants and what one gets is rarely the same, we all know this yet we still strive for both to be in unison at every step. We can step forth with our right and change the entire day by choosing that first step. But, who is to say that the day we experience is better than the day started with the left. He questioned his thoughts from the very moment that he found himself knowing. People may be friends, or they may be less yet the senses that they experience their lives are their own. Who am I to take that away? Who am I but a servant? What words dare I share? Forgive me for what I know and for those secrets that I am just now letting loose. Forgive me the reasons that are only known to two.
As I sat in my stumped chair gazing at the flames disappearing into the midst of a higher altitude from which they gained their strength, their meaning, and their purpose I wondered at what point I’ll disappear from whatever altitude I started my strength, my purpose, and my meaning.
My strength; I’m quiet, I’m stubborn, I’m curious about the world I inhabit, and most of all I cherish and find the drive in the memories and stories I have of my parents.
My purpose; one and only one—find out what happened to my father.
My life’s meaning; there’s a few, but the first is the same as my purpose. A few others are Local 88 and the way it opens my mind to the possibilities that I would never come close to imagining without it and how it shows me the beauty that this angry world seems to be so occupied with, kind of like an awake dream. But, personally I think life has but one true meaning, and that is to have children to keep families and remembrances moving along down the evolutionary road. However, I never wanted children, so that takes me out of that one true meaning. Any other meaning people give to life is a right they have to make, you can give a life any meaning you want, but it’s merely a personal preference; nothing about it has any grounding in logic, just like mine I suppose.
After watching my fire for a while, I decided it needed some more fuel, an increase in energy to fight off the darkness, it and myself so cherish. As I stood to grab some junk wood off the row of ‘pit’ wood I kept next to my gate to hell the dogs all rustled a little looking up and quickly decided that nothing of their concern was going on, so they just as quickly curled back up on their chosen bed of grass and twigs. Comfort in what nature provides, a miracle of living.
Even Snout barely moved. But Top is up and over to the line of stacked wood looking beyond it into the dark. Although not unusual it catches my interest, given the day’s events. Seeing Top’s massive frame being danced on by the fires mismatch of light and shadow makes him seem almost Olympian in status. He carries his strength with grace befitting such analogies; a good dog in so many ways it’s hard to believe some family actually let him go. However, maybe Top was the prisoner that escaped rather than an innocent child being taught one of life’s many hard lessons. An escaped prisoner he must be I decided and then tossed some more fuel into my pit.
Settling back onto my stump and taking a few swigs of 88 and then refilling my pipe, I observed Top still staring into the blackness beyond the woodpile. Instantly my mind swung to William, Walter’s older brother, and remembers that I didn’t see him in the tavern earlier and that thought attracts the thought of the note on my door.
An arrow nicely placed on a distant target, a one in a thousand chance shot that usually has more to do with luck than any skill. My train of thought at the moment resembles that of a skipping stone tossed across a calm pond, lots of empty open untouched space in between the illusion of connected thoughts, rather than the smooth pattern of an actual train rolling along its tracks.
It couldn’t have been William.
Why would he?
It could have been anyone in town—they all know what happened and most know that I have no reason to live without my desire to find a thread of the world’s forgotten story of my father. Even with my unconnected path it wouldn’t be impossible for a man to find my cabin and place the blur of words upon my door.
Who would go so far out of their way to make such a strange and riddled comment? The thought is an itch buried deep within my brain. A terrible situation to be sure.
Now my mind turns to the note itself. That piece of scrap paper written boldly upon by some bold soul; be it with good intentions or bad.
What is it supposed to mean?
I wonder if it’s a message that someone knows what happened to my father or maybe where he is at this very moment. But, optimism quickly turns to hate and revenge as the thought of whoever wrote those damned words is the man who killed my father.
Thoughts are wicked inventions that overcome their inventor in every crevice of their mind, body, and soul. One should pay close attention to what has benn created and followed by the mind.
I take three large swigs of 88 and light my pipe.
As the fire dies down and the clouds slowly slip between me and the stars I cork what little is left of my jug and place my pipe in my pocket along with its tobacco and head for my door. Sliding from my stump of a chair I lean to the left then the right and let gravity pull me towards the door or maybe it’s just pushing me from another hateful thought that stemmed from a knowing letter posted upon my only door.
Reaching the porch, I stumble through the darkened portal and into my home. Resting the nearly empty jug on the kitchen counter, I pull my pipe and tobacco from its pocket protection and lay it near the jug on what little counter space that is left. Turning in the dark with a knowing that comes only with years of constant companionship with the same environment, I move smoothly in my own clumsy way towards the lantern hanging on its nail in the far back corner of the room. Halfway across the room I pause, knowing I’ll need a match, and lean right to take myself to the shelf above my stove where I paw for the can that holds my wanted match, retrieving two, just in case, I return to my journey to the back corner of the cabin where the lantern rests, waiting to come to life, waiting just to wait for a spark. With a few nimble moves, she’s lit and glowing with the luminescence of a pulling attracting brightness. After setting the lantern down on my chair side table, I turn to better feed my stove than the previous night so it’s warming heat won’t die before I arise from my slumber that is approaching quickly.
Finding the stove well enough full of late night fuel I use my unused second match and bring the cold firewood to the state of dancing flames and close the door just enough to allow some breathing air to enter the monsters mouth. Turning to my chair of comfort with the hopes of finishing Sherlock’s adventure before fading off to sleep I literally see the shock that instantly shoots through my body as before my eyes sits upon my chair a hat that brings back but one rushing memory full and thoroughly complete with the sensations of my life—my father.
Stumbling backward with the grace of one just belted across the chin in a prize fight, I catch myself on the stove and instantly jump forward out of instinct. Now standing numb and frozen, fixated on this new object of amazement I find myself at a crossroads of sorts. Do I retrieve this intrusion and head straight for town at this very moment or do I make no mention of this, my father’s hat and the note that was so cowardly posted to my door?
The intersection is clear, but the crossroads disappear quickly into darkness. Which way to go? Which way to go?
How do I proceed? How can I?
First things first, I break my frozen spell and step lightly forward to get a better look at my father’s hunting hat with a little hope it’s not his but knowing full well that this one is his. Hope can raise its ugly head in the worst and best of times. Grabbing my lantern and swinging it closer to my chair and lying light upon the now dead hopes of mistaken identity I set the light of all back down and grab my father’s hat, crumbling into my chair and staring at the object in my hands. So much love, so much hatred, and so much confusion spinning through my brain and mixing with the whiskey it forces me to close my eyes.
After taking a quick look around, even though I can tell by the dogs relaxed nature that nothing is within earshot of my home, I turn back to my porch and reach for the chain around my neck that holds the key to my locked door.
Fitting the rusted sliver of metal into the worn-out lock it clips open, and I hang it on its latch. Grabbing my bag and walking through the door, I place it next to the sink and begin removing my four jugs and other supplies, for the moment placing the note out of my mind.
The four jugs of Local 88 I immediately placed in my comfort cabinet. The matches go in their tin above the stove, and the candles well placed on the shelf above the sink. My tobacco retires to its burlap sack that sits in the corner next to my bed.
I replace my revolver back into its makeshift leather holster that’s attached to the underside of my bed, for quick grasping if necessary, why you might do so could escape you but then again you might know all too well. I then reach above my bed and retrieve my rifle that rests on the two wooden pegs that rest within the wall. A few shells in my pocket, my pipe, and some tobacco, my tin cup, a jug of Walter’s special and out the door I go.
Heading back into town at a brisk pace the breath of excitement and curiosity escaped his mouth. What will Joseph make of his new news? Will his mind reel from anger until it is overcome by desire? The tired man knew he was doing the right thing and only wished he did not have to play this game of charades to bring the information to light. But, he had been warned for too many years to forget that if he let the truth slip from his lips he would pay dearly. The first card had been played, and now he would stand on the outskirts to see what his next move should be. He would guide Joseph as much as his fear would let him.
Off to the right of my porch is my river rock ringed fire pit, some hardened creek stone, mostly local clay sedimentary rocks that have been broken off by the water and gravity, a powerful combination, I lugged up one long day when the whiskey got me going fairly good. Now this pit is not randomly dug and placed, this opening to that hell fire that produces those swaying beauties of ever changing light, for this pit is nicely situated near a good sized pine stump I left after cutting it’s better half down to use for my cabin, my bed frame to be exact. And after a few rubbings with a chisel in the center and the side that faces the fire pit it makes one heck of a resting spot to enjoy the dancing flames of hell, even though it’s not nearly as comfortable as that moss covered maple tree forty-five minutes into my walk on the wolfs and my path, but still worthy of a long sit.
With the fire going with an encouraging might, I grab my rifle, load it and fill my first full cup of Local 88. Sitting and waiting for the dogs to let me in on anything they hear. They’re not too close, but within the firelight expanse.
With the note in my hand, I read it over and over trying to get its meaning its essence. I’m completely stumped and confused as to what the author intended to mean by his or her words. Why the vagueness of the meaning? If this person knows anything about my father’s whereabouts why not just confront me and reveal their knowledge, unless, they were themselves a conspirator in the disappearance of my father. This thought burns deep and unleashes a flood of possible suspects. Who could it be? Can I trust anyone now, do I dare? Should they all pay, or do I have the patience to weed out the lone perpetrator? Either way someone will pay with their life.
Some of the dogs are comfortably curled up and half asleep, some cleaning themselves the best they can, and Top and Snout sitting closer than all the others stand looking directly into the fire as if in complete, what’s that word again—awe.
It always amazes me how a dog can do what it wants but still keep its surroundings at a comfort level that would keep even God guessing why.
If the ignorant bastard is crazy enough to come back tonight; he’ll die tonight a deliberately painful death as I slowly drain every inch of life from him.
I love a good clear night where I can see the constellations made from scattered suns that we clump together as recognizable shapes that could still be burning bright or could have died millions of years ago and we’re still glimpsing the light it gave off as if watching the past in the present.
Dead light still burning bright. A dead night still turning.
Infinity, that’s a hard one to wrap the mind around. I can look at my fire blazing and remember starting it—its beginning. I will also see it give off its last effort and fade away—its death, but infinity has no beginning, and no end.
Only way I know how to begin to understand infinity—no beginning, no end—is that there’s always a middle. Maybe we think in the middle. I think we live in the middle. Maybe that’s why society is so confused and all mighty in its mirrored image.
Imagine picking up a book and beginning to read the pages half way through; you can guess what happened before and why the characters are doing what they’re doing at that point but just as you begin to understand the book is taken away. No beginning, no ending; just guessing from what little of the middle you’ve learned from those characters. That’s all life is, a random string of guesses rolled into a short amount of time.
What made them who they are?—no beginning.
What will become of them?—no end.
I wish my jug were like that, the no end part at least, although I like the beginning and middle part.
Resting nicely and feeling the whiskey make its way through my system, I feel that welcoming comfort coming on, helping me regain my calm from that dead man’s note.
I can slowly begin to tell that’s it going to be one of those nights where a man reminisces about the time he’s been lucky enough to go through and all the experiences that have been wedged in his mind. One of those nights where time stands still and your mind is in a state of frozen animation. What will my thoughts sculpt tonight in the few hours the burning embers continue on along their sole purpose in this world?
The first memory branches from the pipe in my hand. A well-aged brown piece that has seen a good deal of use ever since it had been carefully crafted. It’s not the best money can buy, however, it’s worth all the money in every bank this country has because I made it for myself out of a single piece of oak—not an easy task with such a hard wood. I even carved a vine design that wraps its way around the stem and onto the bowl itself where a few wilted leaves hold place.
People call all types of objects beautiful, but this pipe is the mold that cast the very word itself. My father would have been proud of such craftsmanship; he would have said I get my artistic tendencies from my mother.
I miss my mother, and I miss my father. I wish I could find him or at least learn what happened to him. As for my mother, at least I can visit her when I choose, a sense of closer and peace.
I remember the first day he took me out hunting, of course, he wouldn’t let me carry a gun, but I got to go none the less. I did get to carry his shotgun for a little while, damn I felt lucky and free.
I think that first trip to the wild was his way of trying to teach me how to stay quiet and keep my eyes and ears aware of anything and everything. But, most of all I think he was teaching me patience, how to sit in one spot and just take in the surroundings. A busy mind misses every opportunity in the wilderness he used to say. He was full of those country wisdoms that most brushed off as nonsense until you would truly give them some thought.
He could put more meaning in five words that most could in five pages. A talent to be sure, a talent that wasn’t passed along to me.
Now, unlike others I can’t say I live only in the present, memories and hopes keep me constantly alive in the past and the future. Maybe you’re like me in that respect, maybe not. But, I can say no matter how you warm-up to such a view you can’t deny that certain experiences have the unique attack of catching you in a way so as to make your whole outlook seem completely out of sync with what you thought you had a grasp on. Even if it that grasp is a nimble one, it’s a grasp; your grasp, my grasp, and nevertheless a faithful calming grasp that lingers on.
My encounter with the wolf has shaken my reality, but not in a dreadful way, but simply a way in which I feel more at one with the forest than ever before. As if I’ve being shown the true nature of Jacobs Pass, its true peacefulness and singleness.
As I glimpse the first sight of my cabin ¬the dogs come rushing around from the right of the porch in full stride and come to a startling halt that fills the surrounding air with dust from their sudden surprise of seeing me. The looks of their body language suggests that they’re sorry for not meeting me when I hit our trail back home. Top raises his head, but his eyes lower; I take this as an apology. He then looks back up at me and begins to stroll towards me as if to let me know that such a thing will never happen again.
I realize from their pace back this way they must have been chasing something that in the direction they came from wasn’t quite fast enough to out run them but clever enough to hold them back if they got too close, they must have decided to give up and come back. I can’t help but wonder what the chased creature could have been.
With my bag finally digging a little too deep into my shoulders, I head for my door and place the thing on the porch. A few clings of glass let me know my arms have become tired and that I should be more careful with my new fill.
The dogs ramble around in a motion I’m sure they understand but comes across as confusion to me. Top’s the closest to me and he’s wagging his tail in what seems like a gesture of a good deed done well. Again, what the deed was I’m unable to understand but his gestures say more than words.
When you’re not around people very often you begin to pick up on animal nuances that fit human reactions or is it human nuances that fit animal reactions, anyway right now Top is beaming with pride.
Then I see it.
And I realize why the dogs weren’t there to meet me on the trail. Now my pistol is out as quick as I can get it out, not pointing in any direction but out anyhow in case the cowardly bastard is still watching, but my mind calms realizing that if the dead soul was anywhere around the dogs would be on a straight line to him.
There, tacked to my door is a note.
Some son-of-a-bitch has been here!
Invaded my space; my solitary world: My home.
Anyone in their right mind could tell from coming across a cabin such as this and it being this far out in the forest that it’s not inhabited by a man that is up for social niceties.
The placement of the note is in itself infuriating but combined with the thought of someone standing on my porch and those words burned into the paper by the hand of someone knowing too much about something that has nothing to do with them causes these lines to smolder deeper into my awareness, deep enough for me to pull the hammer back on my pistol and shoot twice into the air which sends the dogs running a
nd my mind spinning.
If you want to find your father
Stop looking and open your eyes
Ripping the note down and clenching it tight in my hand, I turn again to the forest that now hides a dead man that isn’t yet aware his future has been greatly diminished.
“You are now a dead man!” I yell in no particular direction. “Show yourself! You’re a coward and very stupid my friend. You just shortened your life by many years.”
It’s the same forest that holds my hopes of finding a supposed dead man alive, my father, and now also holds a living man carrying on his shoulders my prospects of killing him.
My grasp on the world has just tightened, tightened more than I’d ever have wished it to, tightened more than I thought it ever could. I catch myself wondering what the black wolf would do, whatever it was I’m sure it would be swift and exact.
The solemn silhouette sits crouched against the back wall of a world worn cabin watching as the sun begins its final descent into blackness of night. Rubbing his head with no comfort of another he sighs at the fading sun and whispers to himself if the long held truth will ever climb its way back into his mouth. The truth can be ruff for people who hold on to their secrets for too long, and this truth is way overdue. He slides through the memory that never leaves his side, be it day or night. Someday he knows that this torturing vision will have to escape and find its way unto the world. How will he know when the time is right? Will he have the courage? Will he pay with the very thing he took away? He rubs his forehead and stands to the sound of popping bones. There isn’t much time left; he thinks to himself. Whatever the outcome it will never be enough to erase the years of regret. Years spent toiling over if what had happened was meant to be as some would say is the reason everything happens. The lonely figure stands and begins to walk back towards his one place of comfort.
Back on Briggs Street I adjust my new weight and keep a careful ear open for the cling of glass on glass. Too much cling could be a bad thing, the loss of a wanting disdain and what some might even call happiness.
With one foot followed by the other, I start my trip back home. As Briggs slowly narrows back into the nameless horse trail that expands back into Briggs Street coming into town I glance upward to the sky, which is my little ritual when beginning a walk of any good distance. I do this for no other reason than to remind myself that no matter what situation I may wander upon, the outcome, be it bad or good, is in the long run as meaningless as a dying tree to the forest it resides in. Simply, everyone and everything is playing such a small role on such an enormous stage that we should harbor no fears for what may come. It’s not that our small roles are pointless, because they’re not, but without the stage those roles wouldn’t exist at all, and that is a calming thought. A thought that holds my attention for just long enough to begin to doubt it, after all the only reality in life that changes is our thoughts about reality itself.
“Headn’ home Tooley?”
Before even turning I know that it’s Orville saying hello without so much as a hi. “Missed you on my way in earlier Orville, you not feeling well?”
“Nah I’m good, just felt like a good day for an afternoon nap. So tell me Tooley did you stop by the grave and give her a kiss?” He asked knowing that I did because I always do; the one good thing in my life that brings a true smile to my lips and a tear to my eyes.
Now you may be wondering why Orville calls me Tooley instead of Joseph. I used to wonder the same thing myself until finally one day I asked why and his reply was: “Well that’s your name isn’t it?” Can’t argue with that logic and win.
“Of course I kissed her Orville,” I answer. “Cemetery’s looking better than ever,” I tell him and he just nods with a smile and rubs the top of his head fixing his thinning hair.
“Well, I’ll see you the next time around Tooley, you be safe out there.” He gives another nod and I to him, and he heads through the iron archway to keep Eden a perfect garden. Somehow the archway seems to close in on Orville as he passes through it as if the world is doing its best to protect him from any unwanted trouble, any unsolicited fever that may encroach upon his paradise.
“Not sure when that will be,” I tell him. “Being safe is merely an illusion Orville. You should know that better than anyone.”
Further, down the trail the thought of not seeing William, Walters’s older brother, in the tavern crosses my mind. If every town has its drunk, then William is Hapsburg’s. William’s a good guy in his peculiar way. He’s one of the few others around these parts that are drawn to the mysteries that whiskey has to offer. Like me, he has an open mind but he lacks the willing soul, so the outcome is very different very different indeed, a difference that breaks a man and his desires. I believe that stems from a childhood of less than favorable circumstances. You see, William and Walters’s father once carried the title of the town drunk before William took it over. I’ve lost the memory of their fathers name at the moment but I do know that he used to strong hand his sons when he would get a little too lost in his drinking and William was always there to deflect most of the abuse from his little brother Walter. William could always deflect the wild side of their father onto himself. A gift that never seems to give much in the way a gift should. It must be an amazing thing to have a brother or sister, a living breathing extension of you and your thoughts, a moving funhouse mirror to reflect common experiences, but I’m sure most lone children feel that way. That feeling of loneliness, self-entertainment, and hard-headedness crawl into the lonely child’s brain at an early age and swiftly grow deep strong roots that never die.
Steadying by my pack yet again, I come across my mark. It’s nothing too noticeable, a small groove in the middle of the trail that I’ve worn into the darkish dirt with the outside of my boot over my separate travels back and forth from town. I don’t aggravate it on every trip, just when I think it’s becoming a little too hidden for my eyes. It always seems that it’s the imperceptible little things that if noticed can lead to unseen treasures. If that’s just dime store philosophy or if it’s reality I can’t say, but I can say it’s true. And isn’t that enough? After all the lies that circle around us on a daily basis the truths seem like beacons in the fog. However, if the truths and the lies ever become entangled and blurred, one can settle in for a life of despair and hopelessness. A fear creeps into the mind and takes over every waking moment. Unfortunately, the fear never leaves.
Coming from town I know this little groove means I’ve got another thirty yards before I veer to the right, leaving the nameless horse path and into the forest where I’ll pick-up on my trail that’ll take me to my porch and my isolated home. The thirty yards reached I turn off and push my way through the underbrush and eventually hit my trail. With just a few steps taken I stop and notice—nothing, nothing at all. Just the way I like it to be. No sounds from the dogs; this is quite unusual as they are almost always waiting for my return. I stand a listen with that intensity that makes one think that it is actually improving one’s sense of hearing and not even the quietest of noises can escape beyond the unnoticeable. Sometimes I catch myself in these trivial poses and can’t help but laugh at how silly I must appear to the better-adapted creatures of the forest watching me from some hidden angle. I look up to see a squirrel looking down upon me with curiosity and what can only be laughter in its eyes. This forest resident knows more about its home than most of us will ever hope to grasp.
Maybe the dogs are on the trail of some fox or coyote that came too close to the packs collective tolerance. Maybe they’re just out exploring. I do that quite often myself.
Why should dogs be any different?
Reaching the final turn on my trail that’s just before the downed maple tree where I plan to take another rest and try some of Walter’s fresh Local 88 I lift my eyes to see something I’ve only seen twice in all my time living out here in Jacobs Pass and never as close as it is to me right now.
Standing no more than twenty-five yards in front of me and frozen as stiff as I have quickly become is a pitch black timber wolf. A full grown male, he must stand just over three feet tall at the shoulders and weigh close to one hundred pounds. I’m not aware of another word in the English language that can best describe both utter terror and infinite beauty simultaneously other than simply awe. I was trapped by this awe. A complex labyrinth that I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to find my way out of, not quite yet anyway. Turning through the mazes winding path, I find myself being lured and pulled faster around each turn.: not hoping to find my way out and overcame with a stillness that can only be known by one looking for something they don’t intend to find. Without consciously doing so my right hand slowly reached inside my left coat panel, and my fingers brushed against the cold wooden handle of my revolver.
Opposite me, as my hand was moving, the wolf’s head lowered a little as if to reply his moves were quicker than any that I may have; a dare from him to take my best shot. There we are, both of us still frozen in the middle of the path, it no longer felt like just my path at this moment, I lowered my hand and just stared at the animal reflection before me. As my hand came out of my jacket empty the wolf’s head rose once again. Knowing I wasn’t going to turn around and head the other way I decided to slip to my right a good four feet or so off the trail and lean against a small poplar tree while keeping my eyes locked on the beauty and potential beast that still remained motionless on the trail with his eyes burning, not with fear, not with anger, but with a strange cunning that comes only from knowing more than your opponent. The eyes are pouring out confidence and calm. So unlike mine, I’m sure mine appear to be at least the confidence part.
Two or three minutes had passed when, just my luck, the sound of those damn dogs came into my ears from a distance that was still a good way away and beyond the distance to my cabin. Still the black beauty never moved. Finally, I decided that now was as good time as ever to take my first taste of Walters’s new batch. Not that I ever felt that my life was in danger but how often will I get a chance to drink with a creature as magnificent as a wolf, a black beauty that seemed to be soaked with confidence and serenity. I quietly slid my bag off my shoulder and pulled one jug from it. Removing the cork with expert silence, I pulled the opening of the jug to my mouth and felt the gentle sting of the warm substance on my lips and the slow warmth it left as it traveled down. With warm confidence flowing through my veins and my mind asking for more I take another pull from the bottle. With the jug back in my lap and a feeling of comfort washing over me the wolf suddenly took a few steps forward, remaining on the trail, and stopped again.
Another sip from my jug and a few more steps forward.
One more sip and this fantastic creature was only four feet from me; me against my tree and it on the trail. The blackness of its coat was the blackness of seclusion and comfort that I often feel when the night has regained its rule over the land.
I wondered at that very moment if that was what this wolf felt constantly, solitude and comfort, forever embodied in its blackness and forever satisfied with its lot in life.
The wolf stopped after a few more steps, and I will swear to any man that it sniffed the air between us and nodded its head as if to say I understand.
An open mind and a willing soul, maybe the wolf had them as well. Maybe he could see a mirrored image before him, a glass portal that few of us get to witness. The world stood still if only for a moment; a moment etched in time so deep that it would never be erased.
After that, he trotted off with a relaxed gallop and all I could do was stand there and watch him as he disappeared around the bend in the trail and out of sight. Pulling another swig from the jug and corking it I placed it back into my sack and stepped onto, what will from now on be called our trail, and headed for home never once looking back and never once thinking the wolf did either.
With the gaze of an eagle, he watched as Joseph and the magnificent creature departed ways. He had almost wished the wolf would have sprung onto its neighbor and finished the whole plan right then and there. But, what fun would there lay in that? He felt it was his duty, his purpose in life to strike the final blow. How could he relinquish that task to any other living creature? The time was coming closer and closer. A few more night falls, and all would come to completion. Let Joseph have his limited days of wondering, his few more days of loneliness.
Back out on the wooden planks of the store fronts I have but one place to go before heading back home, the tavern to see Walter. Just as I’m about to reach Walter’s that’s when Luke, the sheriff, steps out his door and is now squarely in front of me, but facing the street. Luke is a pain in the ass type of personality—must come with the territory. His clothes neatly hang from his body. A large hat rests upon his head that is pulled down to just above his eyebrows, a look that I find irritating and overhanded. His boots are weather-beaten and loud upon the wood planks. He must have heard my footsteps approaching because he turns to say high as he rubs his eyes. His pale blue eyes settle upon me with a lonesome authoritative glare.
“How goes it Joseph?’
“It goes and it comes.” I say.
“Any trouble out there beyond Jacobs Pa….” and his voice trails off.
He knows Jacob was my dad and Luke isn’t much older than me so he knows how my mom and I got pushed to the outskirts of town and into that shack shanty of a rat hole that killed my mother. He knows my past; he doesn’t know me.
“Any problems at your cabin with anyone?” he finally comes back with.
“Things are as good as one could hope Luke.”
“Take it you’re still out there looking for your dad?”
I take it you’re still an asshole? I think to myself. “Until I find him or what happened to him,” I say. “Well Luke, keep the people safe around here I have to be getting on.”
“You take it easy Joseph and be careful out there. You never know who’s lurking in that forest out there, be it a man or a beast.”
I know Luke is acting his part as sheriff, but I also know it’s just that, an act. He cares as much about me as the wild dogs he shoots on the edge of town ‘to keep the townspeople safe’ he always says but I know better. Hell, half the town does. He’s a sad man who wears his badge proudly, a little too proudly. He has been known to let his title go to his head in situations that he has no business of being involved. Another lonely soul looking for something to hang his hat on I suppose.
His parents had been mill workers their entire lives before they both passed away some years ago. Luke was left to himself for a few years drinking and loosely holding on to his mill job until one day he decided to get his life back together. And where does one get their life back together? Caleb and the church are always waiting for the next poor soul to stumble in with the desire to improve their life and have no way of doing that themselves. I’m sorry, but those people annoy the hell out of me, it’s the ones who have always been a part of something bigger and better, and have the strength to change themselves, that I can muster some respect for.
Finally! The tavern doors are within reach.
The door to Walters is just a door; I always thought it should be one of those old western swinging types but times change. Actually, time continues on its ever constant rate, and it seems that only styles and acceptance change but people, on the other hand, never do. Their faces may change; their histories may change, but the senses and emotions they use to experience their world will never change. Beauty never changes but what is beautiful will always continue its cycle of alteration. Never the less I still wish that the door was one of those old western style doors. I guess that makes me a willing participant in the endless cycle of change and a willing participant in life, but only somewhat one might say.
The smell is always the first to hit me. A rock made of roses. Roses of an acquired taste but roses none the less. The walls are clothed in smoke and the floor a rickety old thing that does its best on a day to day basis. The ceiling is open, and the rafters hang frozen in time, never to budge under the weight they constantly hold. The tables are scattered in random happenstance arrangement. There seems to be no noticeable order within the place at all except maybe for the bar itself. Long and lean, the crafted centerpiece of the entire room sits near the back wall and commands every bit of the attention it receives, beautiful thing to behold indeed. The flickering lanterns do more than their share to keep light and sight within the windowless walls. A pale yellow burns from their glass enclosures.
Then there I am in the midst of smoke and laughter. Conversations long dead but still hanging on. Stories being exaggerated for no rational reason because everyone knows the truth and those who listen intently listen nevertheless. The allure of memories being remembered so they can be forgotten, if only for a while. Senses being heightened and emotions being dulled or the other way around or possibly both—that’s the splendor and the cruelty of the tavern. If heaven and hell were ever to meet, it would take place in an atmosphere like Walters tavern. The good and the bad but mostly the middle of the road, that truce that keeps people crawling back for more and more of the same. A place where good allows evil to roam and evil allows good to reign, where little white lies do their best to outnumber the dark ones, but of course, if only for a while.
I fumble my way into my usual corner table with my back against the wall and the orchestra of humanity playing out in front of me. I run my hand through my beard for no particular reason other than to give me something to do. Walter’s behind the counter vending the needs of all who enter and behind him hangs the largest mirror in Hapsburg reflecting all the emotions that each and every patron wishes to forget about. The mirror is worn around its four corners showing its age to all who notice. Looking into its reflections, I wonder which side of it is the true reality, which man is real, and which room is actually the realm of the living.
With bottles of this and that scattered in no particular way sitting on the back counter just waiting to be turned up then down to release its contents into a glass of happiness, a glass of forgetfulness, and a glass of content. Walter gives me a quick glance and gestures with a finger that he’ll be over in a minute with what he knows I want; a shot glass and a half bottle of whiskey. Comfort in familiarity, familiarity in habit, habit out of necessity. Necessary for god knows what reason. We have to fill time with something I guess.
Walter is the picture of weariness and longing. A longing that permeates his entire being, it controls his gestures; it controls his expressions, and it moves in silence behind his eyes. Walter has been in and out of my life for so many years I can hardly remember a time when his presence wasn’t there. After all, his home brew has led me down many roads of sanity and lucidity. He stands about my height, so our eyes are always level as we move about in our usual dance of understanding. Hell, if it weren’t for his lack of a beard, we could almost pass as brothers, a detail that hasn’t lost it’s power on the people of Hapsburg.
After a little while of going through my mind, I wonder how much of Walter’s specialty I can get back to my cabin with my unexpected new wealth. Finally, he shows up at my table and places my half empty bottle and a half clean shot glass down in front of me. With a quick look around, he sits down on the other chair across from me and turns it a little sideways so he can still see most of the room. He rubs the back of his neck and asks how the cabin’s holding up.
Fine I say and pour my first drink. Words will spill out easier with some liquor in my system as if I’m a fountain fresh with rain water that is working its way over the fountains edges.
“Are the dogs still gathering in greater numbers by the day or have you finally succumb to what I would have done months ago; kill the bastards?”
I could lie to him and say no such thought had ever crossed my mind, but he knows better than that. And, even though those damn dogs have a forever supply of annoying at their disposal I can honestly say I would never hurt any of them and I think they feel the same way as long as we stay out of each other’s way.
I shake my head, “ I can’t say that the situation has reached that point, but each day brings new views on what is circling a man’s life.”
It seems that every time a few more show up a few more go missing, so I guess they keep each other in balance I tell him, sort of like people do.
Why should dogs be any different?
After a quick silence and another shot, I ask him about his Local 88. He says he got a fresh fill ready to go out and asks how much I’m looking to get. Telling him the amount I’m willing to spend and given my hike back home I settle on four jugs. He says that would be fine yet it’s a lot of weight to carry so far. I push the advice aside and ask him if he has it already jugged and corked.
“Of course, who do you take me for; I’m a businessman or as close to one as someone of my disposition can be.” Walter says with a wipe of his brow and an itch of his nose.
Pouring my third drink Walter tells me I can pick up my purchase around back after I’ve finished. Around back because Walter’s Local 88 isn’t for everyone, only for those he considers worth the time it takes for him to make it. Why he considers me one of those I’m not quite sure, but it probably has something to do with my father’s disappearance. At least that’s all I can guess.
“I’ll be around after a few more shots, got to rest my legs a little,” I say.
With my last shot poured and in hand I see Caleb walk in and make a beeline to my table. Caleb’s an alright fellow even though he’s the preacher of Hapsburg. The soul saver for a town that has no soul—a disheartening trail to blaze if you ask me. Such a choice in life must attempt its best to sway people away from the realities of life and fill them with fairytale hopes of paradise, a job that is in my eyes, at best, a lie hidden behind a smile, and at worst, just a lie to fill people with hollow hopes. I keep that thought to myself, of course, because Caleb was one of the few in town that took the time to look for my father all those years ago. I never asked him or anyone for that matter to help me in looking so those who did help I try to remain friendly with.
“In town to get supplies?’ he asks.
That’s the only time I’m in town I tell him.
“You know Joseph if you ever want to talk about anything, anything at all, I’m always here to help if I can. I know the frustration that life has the habit of dishing out.”
“Like a knife grating a chalkboard,” I quietly mutter.
Appreciate it Caleb but I can manage, always have. I tell him. Before he can get too settled in I down my last shot and let him know that I’ve got to be heading back before the darkness wins once again.
“Thanks for the offer Caleb but as you know I have a tendency to work life out on my own.”
I stand and grab my bag and start for the door as Caleb moves on to the next table, on to the next painter of grim dreams that when finished turn into reality.
Once outside I make my way around back where Walter has already set out my four jugs. Smoking his pipe he smiles, and I hand him my money and he offers some thick rags to wrap a couple of the jugs in to keep them from breaking on my way back. I thank him and pack my bag with the next few days of happiness and solitude and shake his weathered hand, a hand that has worked hard to get where it is. With a final nod, I turn and begin my journey home and just as I’m about to turn the corner of the taverns back wall I hear Caleb’s voice mixing with Walter’s. Poor Walter’s the next soul to save, I think to myself.
“Did he mention anything to you about Jacob?”
“No” Walter replied. I just ask him about those dogs, and he wanted to know about my 88. “What about you—you didn’t bring it up did you?”
“No, not directly at least, I just asked why he was in town and that if he ever wanted to talk about anything that I was available anytime. Someone should talk to him.”
“Remember what happened the last time someone tried that?” Walter said. “Poor Edward got one of his teeth knocked out, so feel free to talk to him all you want Caleb. Feel free to be the salt in the wound.”
“He needs to talk to someone. Out there in woods all by himself isn’t healthy. A man could lose his grip on reality. The world could seem like it’s turning against him.”
Coming finally to the first casted shadow of the building on my right I feel my eyelids lower a bit and my mind sharpen. This isn’t intentional; it has become a reflex, somehow shadows casted from manmade objects swing the compass of the mind closer to the sinister as opposed to shadows casted from natural ones. The shadow falls from the tavern that sits nicely at the edge of town for reasons too many to mention, I’m sure the main ones are obvious, the others even more so. As I mentioned before, Walter’s tavern is where I spend most of my time while I’m in town, but at the moment I must meet up with Mrs. Beatina and see what I can get for trade and hopefully have enough left over to gain some money.
Stepping up off the dirt road and onto the wooden boards of connected store fronts I pass Walter’s and the sheriff’s building, nicely placed next to one another. Glancing across the street, I notice Caleb talking to a family I haven’t seen before, a younger couple with the woman holding a baby close to her chest. Caleb, always wearing his preacher getup, looks up and waves a simple wave, and I nod my head. Passing a few more store fronts that mean nothing to me as I reach for the handle of Mrs. Beatina’s Have All and push my way into her store.
“Why hello Joseph what have you got for me this time?”
Ruth Beatina. I’d never dare call her by her first name; respect for one and not that I’m a religious man but if anyone could convince me otherwise it would be Mrs. Beatina. She’s a small lady of about five feet with pulled back brownish-grey hair and can convince the most logical man that there is more meaning in a single sunrise than all the sunsets combined. It has been said that Mrs. Beatina has graced the streets of New York at one time or another where she and her husband ran a small boutique that catered mostly to the stage performers and struggling artists. As the stories go, along with her husband, they made quite a good living in the big city. Living life to the fullest as only lovers can, they spent their days carelessly enjoying one another. The story, unfortunately, comes to a grinding halt one ordinary day at their shop when a young man enters the store and greets Mrs. Beatina with a handshake only to grip her hand tightly and pull her towards him. The man whispers something into her ear just as her husband comes out of the back room and without thinking lunges towards his wife who is crying in fear. The man quickly shoves her aside and fires two shots. Years later she came to Hapsburg and after a while her story came out. However, she has never once mentioned what the man whispered to her. She only says that somethings should never be repeated and that by holding on to them one can find solace.
I smile a little smile and tell her that the fox pelts are in great color, and the beaver are not as good as I’d hoped but nice none the less. I lay my work on the counter and turn to gather the candles, matches, rags, and tobacco I desire. Calculating what Mrs. Beatina will probably offer for the pelts minus my purchases I put back a few candles in the hopes of receiving a bit more money for Walter’s Local 88.
Returning to the counter with my goods I see a look of concern on her face. The look scares me. Will I have to put even more of my things back? When I finally step up to face her, she looks up with a troubled look that quickly flashes to a wide smile that pleases any man that trades with others.
“Do you have more of these fox furs?” she asks.
Only the eighteen I brought with me I tell her. “Why?’
“Honey, these are beautiful and they will sell quickly. There have been a lot of customers asking about fox pelts with autumn setting in and winter on its way.”
Mrs. Beatina is one of those unique women that can fill any conversation with the wisdom of a mother. She can remind the listener of their own mother and the relaxation that belongs to that title. With a tone of voice that cuts through the daily abrasiveness and self-loathing that people carry around inside them even if they don’t realize that they do. A soothing tone that makes you feal at home.
I tell her I have all my traps set and will be checking them in a couple of days and at this time of year, depending on the age of the Fox, all their coats should be similar. I assure her that she is the only person that receives any of my pelts—she knows this but I mention it none the less—and as soon as I have more she will be in possession of them.
I ask her what she’s willing to offer, and the price astounds me. The first shock to the system in a while and damn it feels good. Now I’m not much of a negotiator; I know what my pelts are worth to me, and if you’re not willing to agree then they remain mine. I’m willing to break-even, but that’s as far as my bargaining skills and market game playing goes. Yet, the number Mrs. Beatina released into my ears was excessive beyond any hopes I came in to her with.
“You ok Hun.” She quips.
I tell her that I appreciated the amount but couldn’t accept such a high price for furs that just last year brought me only half of what she was now offering. Fairness works both ways and for Mrs. Beatina even more so. She‘s helped me out so many times when the season wasn’t so kind to me that this is my one chance to return the favor and save her some money and hopefully put some money in her pocket for a change, after all it seems to me that everyone in town is hanging on by a few strands that keep them out of the shacks on the outskirts of town. So I sit my two candles, three boxes of matches, and two pouches of tobacco on the counter and tell her I forgot a few things. I head back and grab the extra candles I had put back and a few more pouches of tobacco and some rags. Returning to the counter, I offer Mrs. Beatina my deal.
I tell her I’ll take three-fourths of what she is offering minus these items and the difference in cash if she will help me out if the hunting and trapping gets bad next year and she lets me pick a few new books out when she gets them. She agrees happily, and I fill out her transaction ticket and fill my sack with my items and my pocket with enough money to buy four or five jugs, not bottles, of Local 88.
“Thanks Hun, for stopping in. Hope to see you soon,” she says and then with a little concern in her voice she turns and says, “You should stop by more often Joseph. A man who spends too much time alone tends to begin seeing the world a little more different than one can handle.”
I turn back to her with a small smile, “Thank you Mrs. Beatina, you have given my next few days a little bit of sunshine that was much unexpected. Thank you again.”
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