A wind devil swirled upward, sending tiny bits of stone dust glittering in the sunlight.
Even though it was the fourteenth of July, the morning proved breezy and quite pleasant at sixty-one degrees.
The staff and friends of the Jefferson Hunt were walking out hounds. Since it was seven-thirty in the morning, "dedicated friends" was perhaps a more accurate term, Sister thought to herself. The master, Jane Arnold, called Sister by all, walked behind her pack. The huntsman, Shaker Crown, a medium-build fellow, strode in front of the hounds.
Two whippers-in, Doug Kinser and Betty Franklin, flanked either side of the pack, and the dedicated friends, two this morning, tagged behind the master.
This two-mile walk down a crushed gravel road served to exercise hounds and to introduce the young entry, those hounds that would be hunting this fall for the first time, to the ways of the pack. As the summer progressed and the length of the walks became longer, fat melted off the human bodies. People looked healthier, more fit.
It amused Sister that millions of Americans, overweight and overfed, emptied their pockets on one fad diet after another. If they'd only make it a habit to walk out hounds they'd lose the pounds, save their money, and experience the most beautiful time of the day.
On any given morning, Sister saw bluebirds, indigo buntings, goldfinches, cardinals, robins, ravens, and hawks roaring over in search of breakfast-or maybe just a good time.
Rabbits, moles, shrews, even wild little sleek minks rustled in the meadows off the roadside.
Safe in the trees, cicadas, their Winston Churchill eyes surveying all, sang with deafening exuberance.
Clouds of black and yellow butterflies swirled up from the cow patties and horse patties dotting the verdant pastures of After All Farm, the glorious estate of Theodora and Edward Bancroft. Gleaming white fences, painted every two years, divided the pastures, and each fence line boasted a lovely coop or stone jump. Theodora, called Tedi, delighted in designing jumps and set them perfectly. Building the jumps seemed to give the wealthy but directionless woman something like a purpose in life.
As the small group walked briskly past the western pastures of After All, three old pensioners lifted their wise heads. Peppermint, the oldest at thirty-four, had taught two generations of Bancrofts to hunt.
From the other side of the pasture he nickered in acknowledgment of the humans and hounds he knew so well. Behind him Domino and Merry Andrew also stopped munching for a moment. In the background a pristine covered bridge crossed over Snake Creek. Tedi had built it in the heat of one of her architectural enthusiasms back in 1981.
"Hello, old man," Sister called, waving to the gray horse.
"Good to see you, too," Peppermint answered before turning to drink deeply from the creek.
"Good horse never forgets the pack or the master," Shaker called over his shoulder.
"Indeed," Betty Franklin agreed with a smile. She was the happiest she'd ever been in her life. She'd lost twenty-five pounds and felt like a teenager again.
Cora, the head bitch, gaily walked in front, and the young entry following tried to imitate their leader. The second-year hounds acted like the sophomores they were. Truly "wise idiots," they at least knew better than to float out of the pack.
As they walked, the hounds kicked up little puffs of gravel dust. Inquisitive grasshoppers flew tantalizingly close to their black moist noses, darting away in the nick of time.
Raleigh, Sister's devoted Doberman, flattened his ears to block out the din of the hounds. He considered himself hunt staff and if a youngster strayed from the group Raleigh pushed him back in before a human could react. Hounds, like humans, thought the better of getting into an argument with a Doberman.
Dr. Walter Lungrun, young, blond, and athletic, was walking next to Bobby Franklin, who was huffing and puffing.
"Goddamn that Betty," Bobby said, cursing his wife loudly. "Told me if I don't do hound walk and lose fifty pounds she's going to divorce me."
"She won't have to divorce you, you'll die first!" Sister called back to him.
"Probably why she wants you on these morning jaunts, Bobby. She'll inherit your enormous wealth," Walter added, knowing quite well that Bobby and Betty both worked like dogs at Franklin Printing and weren't amassing any great fortune for it.
"You notice I only drag my ass out when I know you're going to be here, Doc. If I grab my chest, you'll know what to do." Bobby winked.
Sister noticed a hound's head come up, drawn by an enticing aroma lifting off the meadows.
"Nellie, settle," Sister quietly said, and Nellie dispelled her brief notion of making a wild break for the rising fox scent.
They walked and chatted for another half mile, then returned home by the route they had come.
At the covered bridge, Shaker noticed Peppermint stretched out by the creekside. Eyes sharp, he turned to face his pack. "Hold up."
The hounds stopped.
"What's up?" Betty asked as she pushed a stray lock of blonde hair off her forehead.
"Walter, go over there and check on Peppermint, will you?" Shaker called back to the physician.
Walter, a former star halfback at Cornell, put one hand on the top rail of the fence and gracefully vaulted over it. He loped to the unmoving horse, who was being watched over by his two old friends.
Walter called to Peppermint. No response. When he reached the aged animal he knelt down and felt Peppermint's neck for a pulse.
"Oh, Pepper, what a good horse you were." He gently patted the dead animal's neck, then rose and recrossed the green meadow back to the waiting group.
He leaned over the fence and simply said, "Gone."
Sister lowered her head for several moments as the news sank in. She'd known this horse for more than three decades. As sad as she was, Tedi would be devastated.
"Shaker, Bobby, take the hounds back to the kennels," she instructed. "Betty and Walter, if you can spare the time, stay with me. We need to bury this fellow before Tedi comes out and finds him. She loved him so." Sister paused. "A last link with Nola."
"And it is July, he'll blow up fast," Shaker said under his breath. Then he called to the hounds in a singsong voice, "Come along."
The hounds followed after him, though Cora couldn't help a glance over her shoulder at the horse she remembered well.
"Walter, do you mind finding one of Tedi's men? Just ask him to meet us at the bridge with the backhoe. Button his lip. I'll tell Tedi once we've properly buried Peppermint."
Walter jogged across the bridge as Betty and Sister went to the carcass at creek's edge.
Betty knelt down to touch the large shoulder. "What a great one he was. Godspeed, Peppermint. You had a wonderful life."
Sister, with Raleigh at her side, consoled Domino and Merry Andrew before sitting down beside Peppermint. "Jesus, Betty, I'm getting old. I remember Pepper when he was steel gray. He's pure white now." She referred to the fact that gray horses, born dark, lighten in color as they age.
"Remember the time Tedi hit every fence perfectly in the hunter trials? Tedi couldn't find her distance if you gave her measuring tape. But by God, she won the blue ribbon that year. I think it was one of the happiest moments of her life." Betty continued stroking the animal's beautiful gray head. "He did it for her. Pepper didn't much like showing. He liked hunting." Betty smiled, marveling at the capacity of animals to love humans, creatures who so often failed to reciprocate.
"God, I hope we can pull this off before Tedi finds out. I mean, I hope she's not up there in the barn or gardening or something. If she sees the backhoe rumble out of the equipment shed, she'll be curious." Sister plucked a blade of grass, sucking out the sweetness. "Peppermint was the last horse Nola hunted. Tedi is going to be upset."
"That's why you sent Walter-in case the news has to be broken now."
"Yes, I did, didn't I?" Sister grinned, an appealing, girlish grin for a seventy-one-year-old woman, thin as a blade and just as sharp.
"Poor Tedi, not that I wouldn't cry my eyes out if Outlaw died, mind you." Betty referred to her adored and sturdily built horse.
"We all would. Even that asshole Crawford Howard would cry if Czapaka died." Crawford was a rich, blowhard member of the Hunt, and his horse, Czapaka, endured him with only occasional moments of justified rebellion. Sister and Betty had known each other for all of Betty's forty-odd years, so Sister spoke with complete candor to her. Had it been anyone but an old friend she would never have openly criticized Crawford.
"Tedi's such a dear soul," Betty sighed.
"I don't wish inherited wealth on anyone. It's a real curse," Betty declared. "It's one thing to earn a pile of money, it's another to never work for anything at all."
"I agree. I've known very few people who weren't scalded by it in one way or t'other." She pronounced "another" the old Virginia way.
"Tedi has surely had her share of suffering."
"That she has."
They halted their conversation, rising as a large backhoe chugged over the hill, down the farm road, then rattled through the covered bridge. Walter stood behind the driver, Jimmy Chirios, an industrious, cheerful young man only two years in the Bancrofts' employ.
Jimmy cut the motor and looked down at Peppermint. "Just like that?"
"A peaceful death." Sister had to shade her eyes to look up at him in the morning sun.
Walter hopped off the equipment. "Jimmy, we can't bury him here. The creek floods wicked bad every couple of years. Higher ground."
Domino and Merry Andrew, having moved away when the backhoe arrived, now returned to stand near their fallen friend.
"This side of the bridge is anchored on high ground. You wouldn't have to drag him but a hundred yards. Did you bring a chain?" Sister inquired.
"Yep." Jimmy handed the thick chain to Walter, who looped it around Peppermint's hind legs, then snapped the heavy hook around another loop of chain on the back of the big yellow machine.
"Slow," Walter ordered as the two women walked up to what they concluded would be the ideal spot above the abutment.
As Peppermint was dragged to his final resting place, Domino, his bay head bowed, and Merry Andrew, curious as always, followed behind, somewhat obscuring the mark Peppermint's body made. Walter unhitched the chain, then unwrapped it from Peppermint. Jimmy started digging.
The rise, just above the bridge abutment, was a good place. Rain had softened the earth two days earlier, and the clawed jaw of the backhoe easily bit into it. Jimmy rapidly dug out a seven-foot-deep trench, then squared the sides, forming a tidy rectangle. As they were all country people, they knew that animals could smell decay under the earth. A good six feet or more for a grave was mandatory or, sure enough, whatever was buried would be resurrected by scavengers. And much as one might have missed the deceased, one did not wish the return of a hoof or a leg.
"Looks good," Walter hollered through hands cupped to his mouth.
But Jimmy decided the side of the grave closest to the bridge needed more tidying.
He lowered the jaws into the earth. A crumble of rich alluvial deposit rolled down into the bottom as he swung the captured earth over the side of the grave.
"Stop!" Sister cried. She astonished them all by leaping into the grave.
"What the hell are you doing?" Betty said as Walter leaned over the grave. Then he, too, jumped right in.
At the bottom edge of the freshly dug hole, Walter and Sister stared at the whitened bones of what looked like an elbow.
"Human?" Sister asked.
"I think so." Walter carefully brushed away the earth until more bone was revealed. Unable to resist, Betty joined them. Jimmy clambered down from the cab of the backhoe and knelt down at the edge of the gaping hole.
"I can't believe this," Betty gasped.
Walter kept brushing. More arm bones. Then a hand. Definitely human.
The long rays of the morning sun crept into the tomb, causing the royal blue of a huge sapphire flanked by two diamonds to glitter in the light.
"The Hapsburg sapphire," Betty whispered.
"Sweet Jesus." Sister's hands shook as she reached to touch the sapphire, then pulled back.
Copyright © 2002 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.