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On October twelfth, silhouetted against a bloodred sunset, a cloaked figure carrying a scythe was seen by three people. A gray fox also observed the reaper.
A stiff breeze kicked up from the west, sending a sudden swirl of fallen, golden leaves spiraling upward. When they fell to earth the figure was gone.
"Did you see that?" Jane Arnold, known as "Sister Jane," asked.
"See what?" the rugged man next to her replied.
"On Hangman's Ridge, I swear I saw the Grim Reaper." She pointed to her left, the deep green ridge rising softly from the meadows, a lone, massive tree commanding the middle of it.
"Sister"--Shaker Crown put his hands on his hips, shaking his head--"dipping into the flask again."
"Balls." She smiled at him.
It was an alluring smile and one that still carried a sensual message to men that even her seventy years couldn't erase.
"No, ma'am, I didn't see anything. Tell you what I do see. Fontaine Buruss hasn't kept his word."
"Damn him." Jane briskly walked along the grassy farm path to a three-board fence up ahead.
A coop, a jump resembling a chicken coop, was smashed to pieces.
"Lucky no cows are out." Shaker took off his lad's cap, running his fingers through his auburn curls. "Fontaine." He shrugged. No other words were necessary.
"There are days when I think I'm a candidate for sainthood," she said, laughing.
Shaker put his arm around her small waist. "You know, boss, I say that to myself every day."
"Devil." She hugged him in return. "Well, let's stop the gap. Come back tomorrow morning and fix it right." She glanced toward the west. "Much as I love fall, I mourn the fading light."
"Yes ma'am." He vaulted over the splintered wood, heading for a dense forest at the edge of the pasture.
Within minutes Shaker returned, dragging a tree branch with a diameter the size of a strong man's forearm.
Jane put her hand on the fence post and swung over the destroyed jump, both feet up in the air at once. She'd broken a few bones over the years, felt the arthritis, but a life of hard physical labor kept her young. If she'd wanted to vault the coop like Shaker, a man thirty years her junior, she could have.
"Bullhead." She chided him because he didn't ask for help and the tree branch, blown down in yesterday's storm, was still heavy with sap.
The two kicked out the broken boards in the coop, placed them in the middle, then maneuvered the tree branch over the top of the coop.
"That will hold them tonight. Glad it's your fence line." He rubbed the sap off his hands.
"Me, too. Otherwise we'd be out here until midnight. Feels like a storm coming up, too."
"Yesterday's was bad enough."
"It's been strange weather."
"You say that every year."
"No, I don't," she contradicted him as they turned for home.
They'd parked the farm truck at the edge of Hangman's Ridge. With the wind in their faces picking up, the truck seemed far away. Once inside the old GMC, Sister shivered.
"Someone walked over my grave."
Shaker gave her a sharp look. "Don't say that."
"It's an expression."
"I don't like it."
She burrowed down in her seat as he drove. She wanted to say more about whatever she'd seen on the top of Hangman's Ridge but thought she'd better shut up. They pulled into the kennel just as a weary Doug Kinser walked in, a gorgeous hound trailing behind him.
"Archie!" Sister's voice carried reproach as she stepped out of the truck.
"That's not like Arch." Shaker stared hard at Archie, who stared sweetly back.
"Good work, Doug," Sister complimented the young man, a man so incredibly beautiful that Zeus would have made him a cupbearer on Mount Olympus.
As Douglas led Archie, the hound, to the male side of the kennel, he said, "Sitting in front of a fox den. He wouldn't budge. He was pretty funny. He knows to come when he's called, but it's hard to fault a hound who hunts and dens his fox."
Sister walked over to Archie, one of her favorites. "Arch, did you try to dig that fox out?"
"No. I was waiting him out," a determined Archie answered.
"Softhearted women ruin good packs of hounds," Sha- ker said.
"So do hard-hearted men. Especially bullheaded ones. Good night."
"Night, boss." Shaker tipped his cap to her as she set off on the half-mile walk to her house. He knew better than to offer her a ride. He walked into the central section of the foxhound kennel, the feeding room. The housing for the hounds was built around this square and neatly divided in half by a concrete wall. Males to the left. Bitches to the right. Outbuildings off this core kennel housed sick hounds, segregated for their own good. Another building was the nursery, a place for bitches or gyps, as they were known, to birth and raise their puppies.
"Where was he this time?"
"Sitting down on the other side of Hangman's Ridge. Just sitting there looking up at the hanging tree."
"On the ridge or at the bottom?"
"At the bottom."
"See any tracks?"
"See anything on the ridge?"
"Uh"--Doug lowered his eyes, a brief flash of embarrassment--"yeah. Someone up there with an old scythe over their shoulder. Couldn't see their face. Had on a cloak, kind of, with a hood."
"Well--like the drawings, I guess. I called Archie to me and bent down to check him over and when I stood up, whoever it was was gone."
Shaker opened the heavy metal gate, turning Archie into the sleeping area where the other dog hounds, burrowed in straw, raised their heads then lowered them. They'd hunted hard that day and were curled up for the night. "Sister said she saw him, too."
An audible sigh of relief escaped Doug's lips.
"Thought you were hallucinating?" Shaker laughed.
"Was pretty weird."
"Certainly sounds like it. I didn't see a thing. Now I wished I'd seen him or whoever."
"Gave me the creeps."
Shaker glanced around the kennel. Everything was in order. "Let's clean the tack. I hate getting up in the morning to dirty tack."
About a quarter of a mile on the north side of Hangman's Ridge, running parallel to it, was Soldier Road, so named because during the Revolutionary War, the recruits hurried down the road to gather at the town square.
Along that road, at sunset, Fontaine Buruss was driving his sleek Jaguar back into town. He'd conveniently forgotten that he'd promised to repair the coop he'd banged up during the morning's hunt. His mind was focused on meeting a lady for mutual pleasure. If he timed it exactly right, he'd be home in time for dinner.
A cloaked figure, scythe on his shoulder, beckoned to him as he drove along the ridge. With his right hand he waved Fontaine toward him.
Fontaine slowed, then sped up.
When he reached his affairette of the month, the beautiful and much younger Cody Jean Franklin, the first thing he said to her was, "That goddamned Crawford Howard tried to scare me today. First he ran me into a coop on Sister Jane's land"--he paused, remembering he'd not fixed it--"and then the silly ass, dressed as the angel of death, waved me to him from Hangman's Ridge."
"How do you know it was Crawford Howard?"
"Who else would do that? He hates me. What did he think he'd do? Scare me to death?"
"Did you see his face?" Cody sensibly asked.
"No, the hood was over the face but it was Crawford all right. I'd bet my life on it." He started to fume and was ready to say he'd get even with that Yankee son of a bitch but then he noticed the time, considered his purpose in being there. "I brought you a present." He reached into his tweed coat pocket, retrieving two small packages.
She opened the larger package. A Navy SEAL watch with a rubber wristband and a yellow face was inside. "Thank you, Fontaine. I can sure use this." The other package, a tiny glass vial of cocaine, she put on the coffee table.
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. She kissed him back. He knew he'd make dinner right on time.
Carrying a bobwhite in his mouth, Butch, the patriarch of the gray fox clan, crawled into his burrow, dropping the freshly killed ground bird.
He, too, had been by Hangman's Ridge, right along the fence line but in the woods. He'd watched Sister Jane and Shaker. He thought Archie was on the other side of the ridge. He'd observed the usually reliable hound get fixated at the red fox den that morning. In fact, he'd had an enjoyable morning watching the Jefferson Hunt get turned around backward while chasing three different red foxes. Better the reds than himself. He had hunting to do and he'd been out too late that night anyway. He should have been in his den by the time he heard the huntsman's horn. Still, the sight of all those humans bouncing around, falling off puce-faced, was too good to pass up. He sat on a moss-covered boulder by the creek and watched. He saw Fontaine, headed off by Crawford Howard, crash into the jump. Fontaine shook his fist at Crawford, who rode off as though nothing had happened. Then he had the delightful prospect of watching Fontaine, who had no sense of direction, ride around in circles in the forest. He only found the others because the hunt doubled back.
His mate and two half-grown children tore into the bobwhite. He'd eaten so much corn while hunting that he couldn't stomach another bite.
Inky, his black daughter, a wing under her paw, smiled. She was a most unusual creature and not just because of her color. She was smarter than the rest of the family and there were times when that intelligence was unsettling.
"The reds were out in full force today. I suppose they felt it their duty to humiliate the Jefferson Hunt," Butch said, laughing.
"They usually do," his mate, Mary Vey, replied.
"Three hit the ground today. Not a bad day at all. And I saw Death on the way home."
"Someone killed hunting?" Comet, his strong son, asked.
"No, it's been years since that's happened. On Hangman's Ridge, the Reaper stood in the sunset, right by the hanging tree where I suppose he's claimed plenty of men in the past. He wasn't looking my way, so I think I'm safe."
"Anyone else see him?" Comet wondered.
"Sister Jane did. I saw her look straight at him and I expect that tenacious hound, sounded like Archie, on the other side of the ridge saw him, too. Don't know who else if anyone."
"I wonder if she really saw him?" Mary Vey, hearing a rustle at the main entrance, sniffed. The badger from over in the hollow was passing by.
"Oh, she saw him. The question is, did it register? Humans discount anything that doesn't fit into their version of reality," he said. "But Sister, well, I expect Sister really saw him and knows she saw him."
"I wonder if her time has come."
That night as Sister Jane drew the down comforter around her--her cat, Golliwog, on her left side; her Doberman, Raleigh, on her right--she wondered the same thing.
From the Paperback edition.