It was a Tuesday when Red came over. I was sitting on the front porch just watching the day when his niece’s sporty little Datsun came pulling in off county road 437 and made the climb up my old rut drive. She babied it up nice and easy like and parked behind my ’67 Oldsmobile, a car that hasn’t moved for three years now.
Well, his kids were pretty upset at first, but when they realized he was just taken silent and could still talk and still say what he thought and still think mostly straight, they just kind of backed off. I guess mostly he’s just been ruminating on something or other that they wouldn’t understand anyways ever since he had that stroke.
Anyhow, there he was, leaning on his niece’s arm and shuffling up my lawn with his oak cane helping support his leg on the side away from Denise. I just studied on him, wondering what must be bringing him out in his condition. There wasn’t no point in telling him hello till he got up to the porch and found a seat. Hell, the rate he was going it seemed like it would take five or ten minutes to cover that twenty odd yards.
So naturally, I got up out of my own seat and hitched one of the late wife’s old cane armchairs over next to the swing where I’d been sitting and watching over the last quarter inch of growing that the grass had done. Well, he got there eventually, I helped him the last mite of the way once on the porch and sent Denise inside for the lemonade. I told her to help herself to whatever she could find that seemed fitting for a young woman like herself and she just laughed. Said nobody hadn’t called her young in a long time.
Red just sat in his seat, staring out across my vista without speaking while we listened to her through the screen door. His hands shook, I noticed, and his face was all slack and turkey waddle, his eye whites gone yellow and sick. I hadn’t seen him but once after his stroke and probably I was right not to bother him. Man needs some time after something like that.
Anyway, we sat drinking lemonade after Denise came back and she told me about her son making the grade in college. Gonna be a lawyer one day. Maybe. I didn’t say nothing to her but I never did expect that boy to amount to much, kind of wondered whether he was gonna make it past his freshman year over to Miami University.
After about fifteen minutes of her prattle and my gee hawing, Red laid his hand on Denise’s wrist and when she turned around to him, he just stared at her for a moment. When she asked what he wanted he just told her maybe she ought to run back to town and send one of her teenage boys out to get him sometime around after supper. Well, she didn’t want to at first but he was done talking and when she turned to me for support, I just held my hands up and shook my head.
“I s’pose you remember the day Johnny died.” He finally said.
I nodded my head. Sure I remembered it. We’d all been down to the Greathouse Tree on Johnny’s dad’s farm. Johnny, Red, and myself were geared up and ready to cut that sumbitch down when Johnny bought it. It wasn’t exactly right of us to fell that old giant and we knew it.
That old sycamore is the area’s one claim to fame, but not something I suppose many people would know about. Hell, I didn’t know about it till I moved out here and even when I learned of it I had to go to the library and read up on it some before I really knew what it was. According to the county archives, that was the tree where Chief Logan tied off Jacob Greathouse’s guts and made him walk them out in a circle till he died. It said when he was found it looked like he had kept going so long he didn’t die till his stomach pulled out through the cut in his belly. Not that I felt bad for the man.
He was supposed to be a trapper and I guess he was. Back in them days when trappers and lumber surveyors were the first ones going out to map the wilderness, he was one of the biggest and meanest sons of bitches there was. I read that he come across a few Delaware women and their young down on The Big Sandy and beat them to death with his rifle, swinging it like an axe and cracking their skulls open. I suppose they were some kin to Logan, maybe not though. Could be he just didn’t take well to seeing women and children killed.
Well anyhow, that’s probably all somebody would need to know on that story to guess why the Historical Preservation Society got an order from the state declaring the tree a landmark. I can’t see myself how a person would be able to tell whether that was really the right tree or not, but its got the state’s seal of approval.
“Yeah I remember.” I said. “What about it?”
“I been thinking on it. Thinking on Johnny and what I seen that day.” I set back in my swing, looked him over hard and turned my head to spit my disgust over the porch rail into the lilac bushes growing up alongside where we sat.
“Remember what happened to Johnny?” He asked.
“Of course I would. I was there wasn’t I?”
The way he looked at me, almost smiling but not quite getting the corners of his mouth turned up, froze me in my chair. Something ran up the back of my neck, not really a shiver, but something that made the hairs stand on edge. He just shook his head at me.
“I suspect you would know. Thing is, it ain’t a thing a man would ever really talk about in his life is it?”
Now I was a little more than jittery. I was mad because there had been a lot of speculation around town after Johnny had died and it had taken years for it to die out with the population. Hell, it’s why I moved out of town into the country where I didn’t have to see folks looking at me every day.
“So what the hell does that mean?” Now he did smile, and it wasn’t evil, in fact, there was no malice in him whatsoever. He held his hand out. Be easy.
“Sorry Jim. I should have knowed better than to say it like that. I remember what you went through. Hell didn’t we both go through the same shit?”
“So what do you mean then?” I asked.
“Say it takes a lonely place for a ghost to haunt.”
Something shifted back there in my thoughts, back where I keep all the odds and ends. Hair stood out on my arms and for just a second I thought I might get angry enough to do some fool thing like strike Red across the mouth. He was watching me. Probably he knew something about what I was thinking because he shifted away from me, arms trembling. He wasn’t scared though, just attentive.
“You know what I’m speaking on?” He asked. I looked away from him then and reached into the front pocket of my bib overalls and laughed. I hadn’t smoked for three years, not since I’d had that bypass surgery back in seventy-four.
“Here Jim.” When I turned my face around he was shaking a Winston out of a crumpled pack.
“I thought you couldn’t smoke no more.”
“Bah! You seen me?” And we both laughed at that.
Maybe our kids wouldn’t think it was funny, him with his stroke a few months back and still smoking, me sitting there laughing as he struck a blue-tip with his thumb and lit my cigarette. But hell, what do they know about living (buddy I said LIVING) that last Saturday of August. Only for us, me and Red, it wasn’t school bells on Monday. It was harps.
So we sat there smoking and staring down over Hutchison’s field and thinking our own thoughts while we sipped lemonade and didn’t talk. After a bit, I got up and went in the house to make coffee.
When I came back out Red had dozed off so I let him be. The wind was blowing off the top of Deercreek ridge to our west and it felt good in the July heat. Out in the scrub in front of the house a rabbit sat chewing the greens and I watched him a while.
Soon enough my thoughts went ticking back to fifty-six and that night with Red and Johnny over on Hutchison’s farm. Only back then it wasn’t Hutchison that owned it, it was Johnny’s dad, and I suppose we had a right to be there.
What killed Johnny Derks started back in 1954. That was when the State Historical Preservation Society filed with the Statehouse to begin holding an annual frontier convention and reenactment weekend at the Greathouse Tree.
Seems one of their own had won some renown for a paper he wrote on Jacob Greathouse and his explorations. In honor of the National Historical Society’s award he received, they thought it only fitting to reward him with a convention based off his research.
He offered to sign papers that would allow them an easement to develop a drive to the site. And for the use of the acreage for their camping and parking and vending if they would pay him the losses.
Well, now, I don’t really understand exactly why that wasn’t so agreeable to them. Sure they would pay him, the same every year, inflation considered. But what they offered, he had said many nights down at the River Room Pub, wasn’t worth half the yield of that acreage.
So he hadn’t signed papers with them. Well, you would have thought that would be the end of that but it wasn’t. It seems they thought he was trying to rook them and that being not much more than an ignorant farmer, they figured they’d just kind of jump over his head and go get orders from the county.
Well, his was about the oldest family in the area and regardless of what the society thought of Matthew Derks, his name carried weight at the county courthouse. So the papers were denied and they got sent packing.
Everybody in town thought it was over until they came back in October that year. It seems there were a lot of college professors and some state politicians that belonged to that group and they had friends. Now Derks had friends too, some in fairly high places in the county, but that didn’t mean squat when the governor showed up at the courthouse.
There in front of everybody, he issued an order that the event would be held starting the following year in June and that due to the disagreeable nature of Derks’ position in the matter, he would receive no compensation for the first two years.
Well, there was a lot of grumbling and not too many people were pleased. The County Commissioner issued a statement to the effect that he did not recognize the validity of the Governor’s decree and the State be damned!
June came around the following year and here they come. Derks had gone ahead and planted that acreage anyway on the sheriff’s promise that he would keep them fools off his farm. It didn’t matter. When the sheriff and his six deputies turned away the first arrivals at the site and wouldn’t allow them to set up shop there had been phone calls.
The governor showed up again and still the sheriff and his men stayed put. I got to hand it to them, they stuck by their people and God love ‘em, they gave it hell. In the end, however, it was the money and the power that won out.
When the sheriff had laid a restraining hand on the governor’s shoulder all hell broke loose. There were state troopers he had brought with him and they arrested the sheriff. When the deputies tried to intervene with the arrest there was a scuffle and two of them rode along with him, down to their own jail, where they sat for the entire length of the festival before being released without charges brought against them.
It was a hard thing for Matthew to swallow. Not only had he lost the crops under the trampling tires and feet of that crowd, but had seen his friends humiliated trying to stand up for him. I think that probably rankled him most.
All the week of the festival he would just set on his porch at night shaking his head as he stared off toward the woods where you could hear the Indian drums, see the smoke from their fires rising above the trees.
“Seems like a man going to war and fighting for his country ought to mean something.” He would mumble. And I knew what he meant, hell, I’d been kicked around a little by Uncle Sam after number two myself. But, in the end, he bore it out.
Now Johnny, that was a different matter. He never did marry and with his mom passed away in fifty-two, he had come home from college and given up his job as a professor to help his dad work the farm. It wasn’t just an affront to him personally seeing his farm trampled. He was probably more prideful of his dad then old Matt was of him, which is saying quite a bit. And it sure did rankle him to see the old man whipped.
He sat by through the celebration, but only at his old man’s urging. Had it been to him he would have driven their old Silver King right through the middle of that camp and turned it all under with the plow. You could tell it just by looking at his face when he sat out on the porch, closed mouthed and breathing hard through his nose as he grinded his teeth while them drums went on at night.
Well, that week passed and when the society pulled up stakes and after the last of the organizers had left, he went down to the campsite and took stock of the damage. I was with him that day because I worked evenings over at the farm to help make ends and to see the look on his face as he surveyed that trampled down corn you knew what God must have looked like when he broke loose the floodwaters.
It wasn’t five minutes after we got down there in the field truck before we were tearing our way back up the access trail to the equipment barn. Red was doing his inspections on the tractor’s then like he did every Monday, giving this chain some grease, or working the grit out of the gears on the John Deere.
Johnny told him to drop his grease can, hook a hay-wagon to the Deere and head down to the campground. He turned to me and told me to round up a couple cans of gas and three chainsaws and I almost walked out on him then. Only I thought of old Matt just sitting there shaking his head and how whipped he had been and then I got good and angry too.
Red, he was a good hand on the farm but he didn’t have no idea what was going on because he wasn’t really all that bright, so before Johnny and me could get our gear together, he was dropping the hitch on that wagon and easing the tractor down toward the campground.
On the way back down Johnny told me I didn’t have to be a part of it. I guess he had cooled off a little and knew what he was doing was like to end him up in some kind of hot water, but damned if he wasn’t set on doing it anyway. I let him know then and there that I wasn’t backing down and he had turned to me and said even though I’d never hear it, his pop would sure be grateful.
“They say it takes a lonely place for a ghost to haunt.”
That’s what Red had told me. I cast him a quick look, saw he was still dozing and thought on him for a while. He never was none too bright but like most men, the older he got, the more he knew.
I wondered about all the time he spent silent these days. I’d heard the talk, though not much of it, and figured he must have been doing what men do when we can’t do much of nothing else. I suppose he was thinking, ruminating, as we will on the things in his past he never really understood.
“Seen a lot when I had my stroke, Jim. It was like a door opened up and I got to take a peek through, see what was there t’other side of this life. Course I seen a lot too that I already done but didn’t understand.”
Red was looking at me and I know he’d been watching me staring off toward the woods over across the fields on the other side of 437. Seems like old men like us get to know each other and the way his statement had been in line with my thoughts didn’t startle me. I nodded. He was smiling at me again.
“Think the coffee’s done.” He said.
So, naturally I fetched us each a cup and came back out to sit on the porch and drink hot coffee on that hot July afternoon while we shared his bent up Winstons and got to talking on the gritty of why he’d come by.
“So you got to thinking on Johnny.” I said. Red nodded, sipped his coffee.
“So why don’t you just out with it then?”
He just sat there a moment, his hands wrapped around that coffee cup. I watched him staring off into the past, maybe thinking on what he’d seen, maybe thinking on what he wanted to say.
“Thing is, Jim, nobody ever called me bright. Hell, I know better than most folks it’s true. Even my own kids growing up used to just shake their heads when I tried to help ‘em with their homework, used to laugh at me and think they could talk around me when I was standing right there.”
I looked away. There had been times I’d done the same thing. Back then I never really thought he had any clue people had been doing that sort of thing to him.
“It’s alright I suppose.” He commented. “Thing is, maybe a man ain’t got to be all that bright to know how things are.” I opened my mouth but was silenced by his tremoring hand, which he held out toward me.
“See, all I been doing since my stroke is just setting and thinking. Turning stuff over in my mind and looking at it different ways. Been thinking a lot on what folks think they know, what they don’t know about.
“Funny thing. I really do believe what the preacher man always said about there being more on heaven and earth than a man could see. Shit Jim, ain’t that we can’t always see it I don’t think. More likely we just got too much life to see what’s going on around us, what’s walking with us every day, right there, just watching us and wanting what we got. Hating us.”
“What are you talking about old man?”
“Well, I don’t know what you saw when Johnny died. But I know what I seen. And like as not, I been trying twenty one years to keep it pushed away down inside of me.”
I was staring off over the field again, down toward the woods at Hutchison’s. Not looking for it, but just gazing in the direction of the Greathouse Tree. I nodded slowly.
“I ain’t gonna call you wrong Red. Lord knows maybe I wrote you off too quick too many times in my life for not knowing a squat worth knowing, and that’s a painful thing for me to say.” Now he was nodding, looking away from me as he spoke.
“I s’pose that’s more decent than a lot of folks been to me Jim. More honest anyways.”
“So why don’t you tell me what you’re getting at.”
He had turned around and was staring at me, defying me to call him foolish. I didn’t have the mind too though. Right then, it seemed like all his past and all his oafish blunderings didn’t mean a damn, didn’t measure up against the time he’d spent examining his life.
“You just go on now Red. I ain’t gonna have no call to think you unwise.” He smiled at that.
“Well, it’s like this I reckon. Best I can figure is a man gets so busy to living he only knows what’s around him that’s alive. Maybe there’s times when he can see what’s surrounding him but not so much. Maybe as a man gets older, after that first time he sees something of what’s there that usually goes unseen, well…”
He held up his hands and faltered. I did him the kindness of excusing myself for a fresh cup of coffee and took his along. When I came back out with both cups filled and handed him his, he drank a little before continuing.
“Older I get, the less life I got in me. Seems more and more that I ain’t just getting closer to passing on, but like I’m leaking out my life and filling up with death. And I think it must be that being dead, being more dead and less alive, you get your eyes peeled back to what’s out there that ain’t alive like we know alive.”
I nodded. It seemed like he’d been puzzling that over for a while and who was I to disagree. Truth be told, I’d been thinking along the same lines for a while myself. I just hadn’t been able to turn it around and look at it like he had, hadn’t been able to put words to the thoughts. I tried then.
“You know Red, I think there’s a lot to what you’re saying. May be something else. Maybe it ain’t just dying and getting old and closer to going on. Maybe sometimes death’s coming. And maybe…well, maybe it’s like there’s a path cleared and some of them things you’re talking about, what ain’t seen, maybe a body could see then, but not understand.” He took it in then nodded his head.
“Something else Jim. When a man ain’t dwelling with it, ain’t just setting and waiting on it, knowing it’s a certainty…well, I s’pose if he stumbles across something he don’t understand he just kind of naturally finds a way to see around it, like it ain’t there. Time enough passes and maybe he can’t recall he ever been close to something like that at all, leastways not till he starts being aware his number’s coming up. Maybe not even then.”
I was listening to Red, but my mind had gone wandering away back to fifty-six. Down in them woods across the road, the noon sunlight filtering through the leaves of the forest canopy. Johnny and I had passed Red in the truck and were down there at the tree, pulling the cords on the chainsaws while that old John Deere chugged its way through the field after us
.Neither of the saws wanted to start right off. Them old McCulloughs could be like that. There weren’t any primer pumps back in them days so you had to crank ‘em a few times and if you did it too hard, you flooded the motor. Well, I was bent over with my foot on the peg getting ready to give mine one more crank when something moved a dozen yards off and caught my eye.
I was already nervous as it was, what with the stink them Historical Society people had made about not getting their way about camping, and I figured if somebody was to stumble on to us cutting down a bonafide landmark, well, there’d sure be hell to pay. So I stood up and squinted into the thick forest undergrowth for a bit.
Another movement in the woods, off to the right of where I had first seen something, had me looking around and patting down the hairs on the back of my neck. I turned to look at Johnny, bent over his saw, and there was more movement to my right. I spun around and took a step towards it.
When I had moved about thirty yards away from the Greathouse Tree, I stopped. There, ahead of me, were the dim outlines of a man standing with his naked back to me. I ran a hand over my mouth, uncertain of what to do, and took a step forward. His back stiffened, I could see the back of his head more clearly then, noted the long black hair, the way it seemed to catch the sunlight and throw it off in purple glints. Another step and I stopped.
I could hear Red coming into the woods on the Deere now, heard him holler something to Johnny and then the woods was filled with the roar of his chainsaw as he got it going. I turned to look back towards them fellas and when I turned around the man I had followed was gone. Just disappeared, although with all the racket from the tractor and the saw, I can’t say he had done so without a sound.
“You wandering around them woods?” It was Red, breaking into my thoughts again and when I tore my gaze from those woods across the road and looked at him, he was smiling at me, an ugly, old man smile that was all grim acceptance and fear.
“What did you see? I mean when Johnny died.” He passed his trembling hand over his face, looked away and didn’t speak for a moment.
Like I said, I had heard Red hollering to Johnny and the man in the woods had disappeared. Standing there like a stump I thought it through, heard the motor to the Deere stutter itself off then the whine of the saw biting into the tree.
I cast a look towards them, could make out the Deere and Red but not Johnny. I thought of the man in the woods and decided to go give Johnny a heads up. That’s when I heard Red scream for Johnny to look out.
There was a crack followed by a series of snaps and a loud rustling, like an autumn gale tearing through the leaves raked to the burn pile. Johnny screamed and then was cut off. Something crashed to the ground and in the aftermath, the only thing I could really remember hearing was the whine of Johnny’s saw as it lay on the ground idling.
Then Red was bellowing like a bull and yelling Johnny’s name. I came out of one of my boots as I ran towards them. When I made it through the underbrush and came up on the scene I stopped still for a minute just taking it in, my knees getting weak as I saw Johnny’s arm sticking out from under a great limb that had come off the sycamore.
Red was already there, tugging on the fallen limb, screaming for Johnny to answer him. I came up, took hold of the branch with him and we hefted it as high as our knees, staggered forward and drew it up to our stomachs, still going forward. I looked over to Red, saw he was staring up into the tree looking scared and unbelieving.
We had her clear when my foot caught up alongside of Johnny’s leg and I fell, dropping the limb. Red held fast though, took the weight I had let go of and grunted as he heaved it to his chest and pitched it clear.
When it hit the ground I was already kneeling at Johnny’s side, leaning my head to his chest to listen for breathing. Red was backing away from the tree and tripped over us, knocking me flat across Johnny’s chest and that’s when Johnny grabbed my elbow. It was all of a sudden like and it scared me. I’m shamed to say it, but I yelped like a frightened pup before turning to look at his face.
He was shaking bad and when he tried to lift his head he looked like a marionette in a windstorm. I tried to cradle him, take the strain away from his muscles and he shook his head. He opened his mouth like he was going to speak then just coughed, a wet broken wheeze, before closing his eyes and going limp in my arms.
Red, he was standing right there behind me. When I turned around, away from Johnny’s face, he was staring up into the tree. I reached out and grabbed onto his pant leg and pulled at it, but he didn’t look down.
I told him Johnny was dead three times before he looked away from that tree. When he did look away, he held his hand out and jerked me to my feet. After that he bent down, gathered Johnny in his arms and hustled him over to the hay wagon and pitched him on before jumping up on the tractor and lighting out of them woods up to Old Matt’s house.
I was left to just wonder in a stunned stupor over what had just happened. Looking around, I noted the saw marks where Johnny had started his cut, the chainsaws lying on the ground. His was still idling so I shut it off, carried it to the back of the truck and pitched it in. Gathering up my own, I did the same with it before crawling in behind the wheel and heading up to the house after Red.
“Seen something up in that tree.”
I nodded. Thinking back on it just then, remembering how Red had been staring up into the tree, how quiet he had been for weeks afterward, I wasn’t surprised. I was unsettled as all get out by the notion, but not surprised. I took a guess.
“Seen a man up there on that limb before it fell huh?” Red nodded his head, studied me.
“You seen it too?”
“No. Not up in the tree. But I was just thinking on it and funny thing is, I guess I had kind of, forgot about the man I seen in the woods before it happened.” Now Red was leaning forward, them yellow eyes cracked open as far as they would go. I went on.
“Suppose I saw me a Shawnee. Maybe a Delaware. Probably you seen the same thing. Just setting up there, watching the whole thing happen.” Red shook his head.
“Not quite. That ain’t not quite what I seen.”
“Well what then?
”"It was a white man. Big, strong looking fella in a buckskin shirt with a mop of hair and a beefy face. He was all red faced and sweaty. And that ain’t all.” I leaned over toward Red.
“He was up there chopping that limb with a hatchet.”
I settled back in that swing fast. All the air went out of me and, for a second there, all I could see were dots of white in a field of gray. Red was saying something but he sounded like he was on the other end of a tunnel.
“Just set back, I’m fine.”
And he did. We sat there like that, like old men, and didn’t say a thing between us for some time. When the silence finally quit, it was Red that sent it packing.
“Jacob Greathouse murdered Johnny Derks.”
I shook my head, felt myself in that tumbler again and just slumped in my seat. That time I did pass out and when I came to, Red was just setting there, staring down towards them woods.
“Yessir. Said it takes a lonely place for a ghost to haunt. And what lonelier than down in them woods?”
It seemed like he was aware I had woke up. If not, he showed no inclination of answering his own question. I sighed and hefted myself to my feet, felt the ache in my knees as I stood. Holding on to the arm of my chair for support, I looked down at him.
“So why we talking on this?”
“Oh, I don’t rightly guess there’s any real reason.” His shoulders drooped even farther and I hadn’t thought it was possible. He let his scrawny little neck go and then his head was slumped forward. I shook his shoulder.
“Red?” He only slumped forward a little more and I shook him again. He felt loose and heavy.
Nothing. I shook him one more time and then he went tumbling out of that chair and onto the porch floor. I took a step back passed my hand over my face and retook my seat.
Turning my face away from him, I looked back over that road, back down to them woods. Something was moving way down there in the field in front of the woods, through that knee high corn. I stood up and shaded my eyes from the sun a minute, just concentrating on that figure down there.
When it stopped moving away and turned around I saw clearly it was a man, a large man with a barrel chest and an unruly tangle of brown hair on top of his head. He was wearing a buckskin shirt and carrying something. It looked like it could have been a rifle.
He lifted his hand to his brow like I was doing, shading the sun out of his eyes. The wind picked up a bit and that hair started blowing around his head. As I watched, it seemed like the sun went down just on where he was standing, the area around him darkening over from stark sunshine to purple twilight and then gray followed by black. And then…well…he was gone. Just plain gone.
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