The muffled rumble of far-off thunder pulled Jesse Surratt from sleep. Storms were something he paid attention to, even when they were only a distant whispery threat. Eastern Kentucky flash floods could turn narrow creeks into bridge-breaking torrents.
Casey, Jesse's three-year-old German shepherd, dropped from the bed, shook herself and walked to the doorway. Before going further the dog looked over her shoulder, waiting for Jesse to follow. He swung his feet to the floor and sat up.
He aimed a remote control at the television before following Casey outside into early morning chill. Through the screen door he listened as a woman on The Weather Channel described overnight tornadoes in Iowa. Raising his eyes toward a dark sky that ought to have been silvery with dawn, he took a deep breath. The air smelled wet and heavy, and another low growl of thunder, distant but powerful, grumbled across the sky.
When Casey trotted back to the porch, Jesse opened the door for her and followed the dog into the kitchen. He loaded a percolator with coffee and cold water, then filled a bowl with dry food for the dog. While she ate Jesse turned back to the living room. Leaning against the door jamb he lit a cigarette and watched names of eastern Kentucky counties scroll across the screen, places where a flood watch was in effect.
Hawkes County was not among them, but in a moment the woman was back, pointing to her map and a band of hard rain she promised would be over most of Kentucky by mid-morning. Jesse listened until the coffee was ready, even when she stopped talking about Kentucky and went back to the Iowa tornadoes. Then he switched to a news channel and watched the usual horror through two cups.
A little after seven Jesse pulled on a short sleeved shirt and faded khaki pants. He carried a third cup of coffee to the back porch, with a bowl of cat food. Rufus, a half-wild tom cat who mostly lived in the barn, loudly demanded his rations the moment the door opened.
Jesse put the cat food on a table, beyond the reach of Casey, who'd slipped out of the house as well. Sipping coffee, Jesse watched Rufus eat, looking for fresh scratches, missing clumps of hair or other new wounds that might call for a round of amateur doctoring. There were no new marks. Jesse wondered if Rufus had fought well or not at all. Perhaps the cat was getting too old to face down other males every night.
Lighting another cigarette, Jesse pulled a pair of knee high rubber boots over heavy socks. He was in no hurry to leave the quiet of the porch. Exhaling smoke gray as the sky, he sipped from his cup and watched a robin hop across the yard, cocking its head from side to side as it scanned the ground for a worm or insect.
Everything Jesse could see from the porch belonged to him. His property boundaries were marked by the ridge line beyond the barn and hilltops to the east and west. It was the farm he'd grown up on, one hundred and sixty acres. Twenty of them were good flat ground. The rest were steep, rocky, and heavily forested.
The house and barn were at the northern edge of the level part of the farm, Appalachian hills rising on three sides. An unpaved road passed in front of the house. Fifty yards further north, U.S. 60 twisted its way through Hawkes County.
Jesse's father had made the farm support a family of five, raising a money crop of burley tobacco on the flat ground. In those days, the hillsides fed three milk cows and four or five heifers raised for beef. Jesse didn't have to grow tobacco, and kept only one beef calf. He stayed busy nonetheless.
Jesse could still smell rain, but the sky seemed clearer. He decided to wait another ten minutes. If the storm didn't break by then he'd go to the barn and begin a day's work.
Jesse Surratt's life was a cycle of rising early and working hard enough to sufficiently exhaust himself that sleep came easily. He hadn't planned to end his years alone on the farm he'd been anxious to leave as a boy. Sometimes he could almost laugh about the enormous circle of his life. He wasn't complaining.
When Jesse was seventeen, in a place called Clark's Hill, a man named Tom Johnson showed Jesse the world was not a safe place, taught him the meaning of shame, fear and humiliation. As soon as he was old enough, Jesse joined the Navy, carrying the guilt and shame Johnson gave him, with no expectation he'd ever lay it down.
After Jesse left Hawkes County, the hated memories were leavened by marvelously bright spots of time where sometimes he even forgot for a while what happened at Clark's Hill. There had been no such bright spots for a long time, long enough he'd stopped looking for them.
When his cigarette smoldered to within a half inch of the filter, Jesse flipped it into the yard, stood up and walked away from the house. He was a big man, his stride naturally long, and he covered the forty yards to the barn quickly.
Jesse Surratt looked like he might have clung all his life to a family farm. An untrimmed, graying beard, and hair that had not been cut for weeks belied the fact he'd spent twenty three years in the short haired, smooth faced environs of the U.S. Navy. He'd been around the world, seen places and people his seventeen-year-old self could not have imagined.
Then he'd come home.
The limits of his world extended just so far as the boundaries of the farm, a border he crossed only when necessary. He had acquaintances in Hawkes County, not friends, and the few visitors to the farm were usually lost souls seeking directions to someone else's house. Jesse Surratt worked hard at convincing himself that was what he wanted.
Before July heat made the onerous task unthinkable, he mucked out his mule's stall. By the time the pitchfork scraped concrete floor, the bed of his pickup truck had been filled with manure three times, hauled to one end of his garden plot, near a neat row of Norwegian pines. Gradually, he created a five foot high reeking hillock.
By nine o'clock the sky was clear, and the day warmed quickly. Between loads, the sun dried the outside of the manure pile to the consistency of brick. Outside the barn the stench dissipated quickly.
In October he'd bring the tractor out, rake the fertilizing manure through the rows where he raised vegetables, mixing it deep into the soil. It wasn't easy to coax a garden from ground that was more rock than anything else. From October until April, the manure would restore what summer crops took away from the thin soil.
Of all the jobs his farm demanded, cleaning up after the mule was the one Jesse hated most. If standing in slippery green mule shit, nearly choking in noxious fumes raised by disturbing the filth wasn't bad enough, he had to keep an eye out for the evil tempered Sam. Given opportunity, the mule was apt to stalk close enough to bite, or attempt a kick at the man who fed him.
Jesse still harbored fantasies of riding Sam, especially during hunting season. He imagined himself perched high above the ground, shotgun cradled close, ready to track the erratic flight of grouse, the way his grandfather hunted from his mule. Sam had been purchased from an old man named Ott Stevens, who swore the mule was in his prime, a compliant animal any patient, persistent man could break to the saddle.
A couple of days after Ott brought Sam to the farm, Doc Haney, the best veterinarian in the county came by Jesse's place and announced Sam was at least fifteen years old. It took the vet an hour to get close enough to assess the mule's age. Sam kicked until Jesse got a rope around a hind leg and hoisted one foot off the ground. A mule with only three legs to stand on couldn't kick, but when Doc Haney came within reach, Sam tried to bite.
As they left the barn the vet had asked, "What do you want with an animal like that?"
Jesse said something about putting a saddle on Sam, and the old man laughed out loud.
"Kill the son of a bitch and mount him on wheels," the vet said. "Then you might be able to climb on without getting crippled."
Once in a while Jesse thought about selling Sam, assuming a buyer foolish enough to believe the necessary lies could be found within a hundred miles of Hawkes County.
The mule wouldn't allow any living creature close enough to touch him, compelled the world to maintain distance from hooves and blunt yellow teeth. Yet whenever Jesse's work carried him to Sam's side of the fence, the mule was seldom far off, as though his self-imposed isolation was barely tolerable. If Jesse didn't acknowledge the mule's presence from time to time, Sam was apt to creep close and try to bite, forcing Jesse to notice him.
Jesse believed Sam maintained his wary distance not because it was what he wanted, but because it was all he knew how to do. It was an attitude Jesse understood.
When the stable was clean, Jesse went to the house, shucking his filthy clothes on the back porch before going inside to make a ham sandwich. He took the sandwich and a can of cold beer to the living room, turned the television on and allowed the manic uproar of a game show to fill the room as he settled into his chair.
Picking up a piece of oddly shaped cedar from an end table, he pulled a paring knife from a drawer. Turning the chunk of wood idly in his hand, Jesse tried to visualize another shape emerging from its irregularities. He'd worked on the cedar block several hours, trimming away small bits, but didn't yet know what it would become.
It wasn't important. Carving was another legacy from his grandfather, like the fantasy of hunting from the back of a saddled mule. It was simply a way to busy hands with nothing else to do. The top of the TV set and several shelves were littered with rabbits and squirrels, deer and skunks and groundhogs, all cut from cedar sticks, none over two inches high.
Jesse raised his eyes to the television and watched a grandmother from Salt Lake City win a trip to Las Vegas by guessing retail prices of half a dozen household products. Lowering his hands to his lap, Jesse sleepily wondered what a blue haired old Mormon lady would do in Las Vegas.
As credits rolled on the TV screen he realized he'd wasted the better part of an hour doing nothing. Impatient with self indulgence that threatened to steal hours meant for other things, he put the knife away and reheated a cup of coffee in the kitchen before putting on clean clothes and going back outside.
Casey crawled from under the house. The dog had refused to come anywhere near him while Jesse worked in the reeking stable, but now she eagerly romped toward the barn ahead of him. Casey disappeared from sight, only to return again and again, impatient with her master's slow pace.
The rain appeared to have missed Hawkes County altogether. Chest-high corn stalks in the garden could have used the moisture, but the high rolling white clouds displacing the dark stormy ones pleased Jesse. Water wasn't critical to the corn yet.
Jesse took a block of salt from the barn. Even with a rope handle molded into the white cube, forty pounds of salt was an awkward burden. He carried it almost to the top of the ridge that marked the far boundary of his property. As he climbed, Jesse stopped twice to rest, the second time by a plot of high grass, flattened in its center. Deer had bedded there recently.
Once when he was twelve or thirteen, his father took him across Hawkes County, to a cousin's isolated homestead. He wanted Jesse to see where two does had lately crossed a muddy road, so he would know what their tracks looked like. In those days deer were uncommon, hunted almost to extinction in the Blue Ridge.
They were plentiful now, and Jesse kept salt for them near a hill-top pond that provided water for Sam and the meat steer. He rested a third time at the pond's edge, studying the spring-fed pool. Several deer trails converged there, mud near the water pocked by their wedged hoof prints.
In spring Jesse had intended to stock the water with bluegill and catfish, maybe a sizable bass or two his nephews could catch when they came for a week-long visit late in the summer. Getting fish to grow in the pond was an old plan, and he felt vaguely guilty for allowing another season to pass without exploring the possibility further.
When the sun climbed high enough to make him sweat, Jesse stood and walked off the hill. Back at the barn he took a chain saw from his tool crib. A recent wind storm had blown an oak tree to the ground. Earlier in the week Jesse had dragged it near the barn with his tractor. He quickly cut the trunk into short pieces, took the saw back to the tool crib and exchanged it for a maul and steel wedge.
He clumsily missed with his first swing, sent the wedge caroming off toward the barn. Jesse grimaced when the maul's handle struck unyielding oak, transmitting a stinging vibration to his palms. He hadn't used the tools for the better part of a year. It took a few minutes to find a rhythm that didn't feel awkward, to establish a reach that struck the wedge every time he swung the maul over his head. Soon his arms ached and muscles in his back drew tight, but he didn't miss again.
A woodstove heated his house in cold months, and Jesse kept a motorized machine to split wood when he cut serious amounts. Hand tools helped him gauge whether or not his approaching fifty sixth birthday made an appreciable difference in his capacity for manual labor. It did, of course, but there was satisfaction in being able to swing the maul for a few hours without hurting himself. From his mother's people Jesse had inherited broad shoulders, strong arms and a physical endurance that was surprising, even to himself.
In the Navy, Jesse was a Yeoman, a paper pusher seldom lifting anything heavier than a coffee cup. Once he retired to the farm, he worked off his soft belly, discovered after a quarter century of relative sloth he could still work hard, all day, every day. It was good to know he could survive without a gas powered wood splitter, if he had to.
When the fallen oak was split and neatly stacked, Jesse put his tools away and went back to the house. In the kitchen he heated leftovers into a dinner so simple he ate it standing up. He took a beer from the refrigerator and went out the back door, walked the rows of his garden, looking for something else to do.
He pulled a few weeds from the neat rows of corn, but that was all the garden needed in the way of work. An examination of his potato vines showed Jesse'd won his week-long war with an army of small brown beetles, no bigger than a match head, that had invaded the plants a few days before.
Soon he'd spend hours with the garden, picking what he'd grown and canning it for winter, but until then there was little else for him to do there. Nevertheless he spent a couple of hours with a hoe, chopping weeds that weren't even close to the plants.
Near sunset, Jesse went to the front porch and settled into a metal glider. Casey dozed near his feet and after a while Rufus the tom cat came to the porch, leaping into his lap. Jesse scratched the cat's ears and watched flint ridges fade to shadow, swelling dark against a star freckled sky. A full moon rode over the hills like God's own bright balloon.
From the ridge line behind and above the barn came the mosquito buzz of small engines. The previous spring Jesse had sold some timber off his farm, and by night kids with off road motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles sometimes rode the new clearings and logging roads. Jesse let them be, so long as they didn't build fires that could destroy his timber.
Sipping beer he thought about making a real drink. If he opened the quart of bourbon stored under the kitchen sink, Jesse Surratt would drink until he was stupidly maudlin, physically and emotionally numb. Weighing his loneliness on an internal scale, he found it wasn't heavy enough to justify opening the whiskey.
Sooner or later it would press much closer. Some evening in the future he would bring out the bottle, drink whiskey and play old phonograph records until sleep overtook him. He'd drink against isolation and conviction his life had been years of waste, capped by the pointless return to the farm.
After his exertions in the stable and at the woodpile though, Jesse didn't need whiskey. He'd doze off easily enough. When he stood to stretch Rufus leaped off his lap, bounded into the night. Jesse envied the cat his simple and limited obligations. "Feed, fight and fuck," he said out loud, feeling foolish, talking where there was only a cat and dog to hear.
"In?" he asked Casey, holding the screen door open. "Or out?" Casey looked away and seemed to ponder her options.
Thinking of youngsters riding expensive toys on the ridge, Jesse made a decision for the dog, who might otherwise have been inclined to visit the trespassers. Casey behaved amiably enough with strangers, but she was awkwardly curious. Investigating in the dark, she could easily get run over by one of the vehicles.
"In," he said, making the word an order, not a question. The big dog padded agreeably into the house, claws clicking on the wooden porch floor until she was through the door, onto living room carpet. Back inside, Jesse left a lamp burning on an end table by the sofa. He always kept a light on until morning, somewhere in his house.
Undressing in the bedroom, he tossed his clothes across a chair, and positioned a fan to keep air moving across his body. Naked, he stretched out on the bed, leaning to the side to reach a pile of magazines and books scattered on the floor. Jesse selected a fairly current "Time" and began to read about Navy ships in the Persian Gulf.
Ten minutes after mashing his cigarette into an ashtray, he was staring dumbly at letters that blurred and ran together like tangled ants. Turning off the bedside light Jesse rolled onto his right side. He thought about the eerie calm he remembered the Gulf. From the deck of a frigate it looked like a flat, endless sheet of blued steel. He fell asleep, seeing it again behind his closed eyes.
Waking sometime later to an impatient whimper from Casey, Jesse lifted his head to peer toward the foot of the bed. The shepherd sat watchfully alert on stiff haunches, ears twitching, body stiff and wary. Casey barked loudly, twice, and the bed lurched as she jumped to the floor and trotted out of the bedroom.
Jesse rolled off the mattress to his feet and followed, not bothering to cover his nakedness. He stepped outside the back door without allowing the dog across the threshold with him. Muscles tensing against shivery night air, he stood without moving, staring up at the ridge, Casey whining behind him.
The moon had moved to hover over the mountain he'd climbed to carry salt to the deer pond. Fog draped the low ground, occupying the shallow valley behind the barn like a lost cloud, but the ridge rose above the gray, austere and sharp against the moon-lit sky. At the tree line, sparks rose from a low fire.
Jesse wondered if it was worth going to the top of the mountain to tell some kids they couldn't have a campfire. It looked like a very small blaze, a misplaced dot of light on the dark mountain, rising sparks winking out long before they fell back to earth.
The fog was chilling, the cold floor on the back porch almost painful against bare feet. Jesse had his mind made up to go back to bed, until someone on the ridge screamed. The cry faded, then rose again, an quavering wail of terror and pain.
"Fuck all Jesus," Jesse muttered and stomped back to his bedroom. He pulled his trousers on and pushed bare feet into work boots, not bothering with socks, buttoning a shirt as he ran back to the porch. Shoving through the screen door he let it slam loudly behind him.
Casey barked a protest at being left behind, and Jesse heard her stout body hit the unlatched door. By the time he reached his truck, the dog was ahead of him, rushing toward the rough road that led to the ridge top. "Casey!" he called.
The shepherd turned back to leap through the truck door Jesse held open. Jesse raced the pickup's engine, hoping whomever was on the ridge would hear and leave before he got to the top of the mountain. He didn't want a confrontation. He only wanted to see the fire put out.
And to know the person who screamed was only playing with noise, as kids would. He needed to know the quavering horror he'd heard was mere imagination.
The truck bounced along the lane to the barn, Casey voicing a complaining whimper when an especially deep rut jarred her off the passenger seat and onto the floor. Jesse stopped by the barn to open a gate, moved the truck through, then had to leave the vehicle again to close it.
He pointed the truck up a rough road left by loggers, shifted into second and mashed the accelerator. The pickup lurched and Casey fell again, yelping her displeasure loudly this time. Jesse felt as though he was moving through the fog at an unbearably slow rate, though his right foot pressed the gas pedal nearly to the floorboard.
A hundred yards higher the fog began to clear. Jesse steered around a curve and came upon Sam the mule, standing defiantly in the middle of road, feet shrouded in gray ground fog, eyes a red glare in the truck's headlights. Jesse pinned the horn button with his palm and didn't slow down.
Jesse was sure the mule brayed a complaint as he leaped out of the way, but the pickup's laboring engine drowned any sound from outside the cab. At the top of the hill he braked and cranked down a window.
Somewhere close, small engines whined to life, and there was a shout: "Ernie, which way is the goddamned road?" Jesse let go a relieved sigh. They knew he was coming, probably heard the horn when he forced Sam out of the road.
"Over here," another voice insisted. "The road's this way." Headlights jerkily illuminated patches of trees on the mountain above Jesse's truck. As the vehicles crossed the ridge line their lights disappeared, but for a while, after the woods were dark, Jesse still heard shouts and revving engines.
He waited until a long, unbroken silence convinced him all the riders were gone before steering the truck further up the steep grade. High school kids, he thought, with a secret case of beer and an adolescent impulse to make scary noises at one another. As soon as their fire was extinguished, he could go home to his warm bed.
The pickup bucked into a clearing and Jesse could only stare, wishing the noise had been pranking high schoolers. Until that moment, buying the farm had seemed an effective retreat from the world, but something bad as any big city horror on the evening news had come to him. On Jesse's side of the barbed wire fence that marked his property line, a female body was tied to a tree. Dead leaves had been raked to within a few feet of the tree and set ablaze.
Jesse shut the engine off and stared stupidly, unable to connect what he saw with reality. When a faint moan penetrated his consciousness, he left the truck and dashed forward, headlamps starkly lighting the way. Kicking the fire away from the tree, Jesse struggled for a long time with the rope.
He was blinded by smoke from the smoldering leaves, his nerveless hands unable to interpret the knots at his fingertips. Cursing, he took a knife from his pocket and began sawing the rope while part of his mind insisted no one degenerate enough to do this would allow their ugly work to be interrupted by the approach of a lone pickup truck.
He stared into endless dark beyond the reach of the truck headlights, and felt the bound hands jerk away from his knife. Looking down he saw a thin stripe of blood where the blade had crossed flesh. Jesse glanced once more at the darkness, wondering if crazed eyes watched from the protective cover of night. He wished he'd brought his shotgun.
When the ropes finally parted, the body collapsed forward, missed falling into the fire only because at the last moment Jesse managed to catch an arm. The woman seemed almost weightless as he carried her to his truck. He pulled his excited dog outside, dragging Casey into the truck bed so he could put the woman in the passenger seat. Before closing the door he stripped off his shirt and covered her.
Driving back down the hill Jesse coughed and choked as he tried to fill his lungs and couldn't pull nearly enough air into them. He knew he was hyperventilating, even as he gasped for breath. Before he reached the foot of the hill he managed to control his breathing and began to shout obscenities out the open window at the evil that had invaded his land.
He shivered as though bitter winter surrounded the truck cab, while his mouth was dry enough he might have been crossing Saharan dunes. At the barn gate, his struggle with the chain lock stretched interminably. Rather than re-fasten it, when the truck was on the other side Jesse only shoved the gate closed and hoped Sam would not test the gap before he got back to it.
He parked the truck as close to the house as he could, a few steps from the back door. Carrying the woman inside, he put her on the living room sofa and turned quickly to the telephone. Jesse mashed out 9-1-1 with a quivering finger, and when an officious voice responded, he demanded an ambulance be sent to his house immediately.
The voice croaking from a scratchy, parched throat didn't sound like his own. When he had given directions to his house twice, Jesse turned back to the sofa and studied the body there.
The shirt had slipped to the side, and the woman moaned, perhaps sensing her nakedness as one hand moved to protectively cup pubic shadow at the juncture of her legs. Jesse covered her with a clean sheet from his bedroom, leaving only a soot smudged face exposed.
Then Jesse Surratt fetched his shotgun and fed five shells into its magazine. He could taste his fear. It was a thin copper bite on his tongue, and he marveled at how quickly routine could be shattered.