Pretty Quiet Around Here
“It’s actually been pretty quiet here these past few years,” Jerry said.
I watched him take a long drag, keeping his hand flat across his face with the Winston sticking out between his fingers. When he pulled the hand away, his mouth stayed hidden behind unbridled moustache, just a hint of red. The smoke rolled out slowly.
“You say that like you’re surprised,” I said. “It wasn’t always like that?”
His eyes remained lost in their distant gaze to the hills, to the darkness of forests surrounding the farm. He seemed to be perpetually struggling between focusing on a task before him and the distraction of scanning the farm’s perimeter.
“Lemme show you around,” he said.
He showed me the two tractors and implements, the inoculation records of the herd, everything but the farmhouse. “Later,” he said. “The woman’s sleeping.”
He led me to a pickup with a wooden flatbed, fifteen or twenty years old. The back bumper was bare of a license plate, and I figured he never took it off the farm. He had mounted a snowplow on the front. “Truck’s part of the deal,” he said, “with the other equipment. We’ll go over the list in the kitchen when we get back.”
Jerry took the truck up a gravelly, rutty road. From atop that steep hill we could get a view of the whole thing. The hill stood on the southeast corner of the property. We came out of the bush on a grassy crest, facing north. Below us spread the farmhouse and the barn and the other outbuildings. The barn floor was raised up about four-five feet. A ramp of earth rose up to its big door for the tractor. Beside the barn, a few cows grazed. The farmhouse was stone and looked a hundred years old. A couple of rooms had been added on and that looked newer. A warm glow lit one of the windows.
I looked to Jerry, but once again, his eyes were looking beyond the barn and farmhouse, beyond and above them, up to the green foothills. I tried to see what he was looking at. Two other farms were visible, off in the wild hills, plots cleared out of the woods far from any road.
The closest farm to Jerry’s lay higher, disappearing up into the dark valley, only partly visible between the great greened lumps. “What can you tell me about that place,” I asked, “your closest neighbor?”
“That’s the Colby place. No one there anymore,” he said. Then, anticipating my question, he added, “Too high up: Early snow came and wiped out their livestock. No one’d buy it when they cleared out.”
Rocks poking upward crowned the great worn mountains on the left.
“What are those crags called?”
“Dientes del lobo.”
“Yeah – they settled here first. Burned everything when they left.” He turned his attention again from the heights and waved his arm out toward the farm, remembering that he was up here to showcase the property.
“There’s two parcels of land, a lower eighty acres where the buildings are, open all year. In the hills, there’s the upper 920 for summer grazing. That’ll close down, sometimes second week of December, sometimes not till after Christmas, but I wouldn’t keep the cattle up there that long. It might open up again middle of February, but don’t bring the herd up there till mid-March. And don’t’ ever be up there yourself after dark.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“What? Someone got a still up there?” I waited a pause for him to respond, but he remained silent. “Not a meth lab? No? Mountain lions?”
He finally muttered, “Sumpin’ like that.”
A noise came from below and both of us looked down. A shiny blue Ford f150 with all the extra lights and chrome tore into his yard. A rusty Landrover and an SUV followed close behind. Whoever they were, they were in a hurry.
He threw the cigarette aside. “Time to meet the neighbors,” he said.
We got back in the truck.
On the way down, he started talking. “Something’s up: They wouldn’t a come if something weren’t up. The little one with the fancy truck’ll do the talking. That’s Skinny Jack Hancock. He ain’t skinny.”
I was familiar with the custom. If a guy was six-six they’d call him Shorty.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“Ain’t no way a knowin’” he answered, but I began to suspect he had his notions.
As soon as we got out of the truck, I saw which one he meant. The three of them stood in front of the barn ramp with Skinny Jack in front and the other two looking nervous on either side of him. Skinny Jack wore a leather vest over his bulging belly. A heavy chain looped between his belt and an unseen wallet. He had a grim set to his mouth as if he hadn’t smiled in years.
“Tell yer friend to wait in the house,” he said.
“This here’s Timmy Matthews,” Jerry explained. “He’s here to look over the land. Maybe make an offer.”
This took a second to settle in.
“So you’re selling out,” one of the sidekicks said.
“I mean to,” Jerry said.
Skinny Jack waved the other farmer down with an inconsequential motion of his hand. “No one can blame ya,” he said. “You took as much as any of us.” Skinny Jack looked at me now for the first time. “I guess he better hear now what the trouble is. Got a right to know: Bob’s girl is missing.”
“Who’s Bob?” I asked.
“Neighbor,” Jerry said. “Real name’s Baubreaux.”
“What’s this got to do with this farm?”
“Well, that ain’t an easy question to answer,” Skinny Jack said. “Bob and you’ll share some upper graze land if you buy in.”
“Jerry’s already hinted at some trouble up there.”
“Bob’s daughter’s been seein’ Archie, a kid who’s had some run-ins with the Law. Tonight Bob and his wife told her she couldn’t see him no more and she took off all upset.”
There was a pause. I suppose they thought this was sinking in to Jerry alone. It was hitting closer to home than they could have known.
“Maybe Archie came and got her in his car,” Jerry said.
“Nope – Bob found Archie right away. Didn’t know nothing about it. Archie’s scared as anything. Looks like she took off down the road on foot.”
“This late in the year?” exclaimed the sidekick who talked. “What was she thinking?”
“Like I said, she was upset. Bob and Archie’ll be here soon as they figure where we are. Bob’ll want us to help look for her.”
“Well, we gotta,” I said. “That’s what we gotta do, right?”
The four locals looked at each other like they were bouncing balls back and forth with their eyes.
“Long time since there's been trouble,” Jerry said. “Maybe if she kept to the road…”
“Don’t you think that weren’t the first thing Bob tried? He’s been up and down that road. She’s in the forest, sure.”
“What is all this?” I asked. “Why would she be in the forest? What does all this mean?”
“She’s dead, Mr. Matthews. They won’t find her till spring thaw, but she’s dead sure. And any that goes after her will turn up missing too.”
I looked them over. “Y’all think there’s something in the forest. Just what is it you’re afraid of here – werewolves?”
One of the sidekicks Pffed a scoff, “There ain’t no such thing as werewolves, fella!”
The other three looked at him in askance.
Skinny Jack turned to me. “This place has some history...” he began.
Another pickup pulled into the farmyard and the conversation stopped. Out of it stepped a farmer, forty or so, his limp hat hanging over worried eyes. A teen boy followed him, slightly pimply with a Brillo of curls on top. The older man, who I had to assume was Bob/Baubreaux, launched into it without waiting: “I know what you’re gonna say,” he said, “but I know where she’s gone – she’s gone to the old Colby place. If we all went, all together…”
Skinny Jack Hancock turned from the pleading parent as though he were a painting. “It’s not werewolves or goblins or something you can lay your hands on, Mr. Matthews. I done a lot of thinking about it over the years. I think it’s the land itself. The land doesn’t want us here. I’ve hear noises at night outside my place. When I’ve gone outside, I’ve seen this light, a light in the woods. It was calling me. I go outside less and less after dark, especially once we’ve had a frost.”
“Tell me you’re comin’ guys!” Bob pleaded.
Skinny Jack looked at him, briefly but hard as the stony hills. Then he turned to his f150. The sidekicks, seeing their chief leaving, turned to their vehicles as well, leaving Jerry and I to face Baubreaux alone.
“Jerry…” Bob began.
Jerry held up his hand. “I’m packing it out. I’ve had enough.”
A flash of anger crossed Bob’s face, and then he and Archie stalked to his truck with muttering and swearing. They spun up dust and then we were alone. The noise of the vehicles could be heard growing fainter along the road, and then the trucks were swallowed by the forest. I looked over the horizon of forest around us, gazed into the wood of the hills above us.
“You were going to show me the farmhouse,” I said without returning my eyes to him. “You said that there was a list of what was included in the sale.”
Jerry looked at me and there was a pause as he collected himself. For a moment, he couldn’t comprehend that I was still interested.
“Yeh – yeh,” he said and started walking. “We got three apple trees: a Jonathan, a Granny Smith, and a Beacon.”
“Great for cooking, but you’ll have to spray them a lot. We also have raspberries and some gooseberries, down by the ravine.”
“Good,” I said.
“We’re on a well, of course, but there’s no lime or iron in it.”
We stepped up to the farmhouse to meet the wife and to complete the deal. He couldn’t know why I was still interested in the place, and he was evidently content just to sell.
I didn’t tell him I had already been in the neighborhood a great deal. I had spent the night up at the Colby place, had seen the lights. One of them, I knew in my soul, was my girl, my daughter. Her love of the outdoors and her passion for photography led her up there. She never came down. Skinny Jack Hancock had said it was the land itself – maybe. Whatever portal she had stepped through, I knew, somehow, I would find it.
I tore my gaze from the heights and closed the door behind me. I put on the smile to complete the deal, and Jerry’s wife put on some coffee.