In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I would write of one of my favorite, yet most gruesome stories. It is gruesome in my memory because it was traumatic to witness. However, I have found that as I have moved farther and farther way from the world of country living, it is the simple premise that makes most of my audience squirm. Thus, let me begin with a quick note that the rules of land as described herein are built on traditions and notions of protecting your livelihood. Over the years I have been conflicted deeply with these “rules” but as age brings conservatism, I find myself more open to accepting that it is, and will be “just the way things are.” I do not write this as an opener for debate about animal rights and cruelty or any version of urban defined country ignorance. It is story, true as to my memory, and I shall leave it at that.
The precise date is of little significance and as of far less recollection. That being said, I can say with certain surety that it was October. West Virginia in October is a vibrantly dismal place. Summer tries with all its might to shine in with warmth and vitality, but fall winds have much disregard for such flowery things. Skies are briskly blue and vacant but for the wisps of cirrus clouds. The mountains are splashed with vibrancy in all shades of oranges, yellows and reds. The scent of wood fires twinges the nose and lingers on you clothes. Puffs of smoke lazily drift from chimney tops. The cold air perks your senses in a way that even the last drums of woodpecker's diligent work land upon your ear with a more intense clarity and brilliance. There is a majesty in the landscape that inspires you soul, and yet in the same flicker of imagination, a looming, ever present darkness marches on the days. With each day, the night nudges a little closer, the chill stings a little deeper, as October descends into November and fall transforms into winter. It is this whirl of color and cold that paints my memory of that day.
We were at home on our farm, our large dome snuggled up against the strip of a shady oaks and maples. There was a scurry of preparation around the house. John, my father, had been chopping wood, putting on the storm windows, while Hayes, my mother was finishing up the last batches of canned jams. It was not a desperate motion or any tirade of necessity. Quite simply it was the basic polar opposite of spring cleaning, a steady chore of packing things in and bundling up the home. Now I cannot, for the life of me, figure the precise year and therefore my age on this day. I assume that Jud and I were old enough to play amongst ourselves yet young enough to have avoided the treacheries of school bus rides in pitch black mornings, because we had a role in the events to come. I remember being outside with my brother playing in the grass. My mom was inside the kitchen doing some October task (although for some reason the smell of spicy plum jam keeps creeping into my mind as I write). My dad had gone to work early in the morning and it was just the three of us, my mother, my brother and I.
It was mid afternoon, and the day was still full of sunshine, when the phone rang. On the phone was our neighbor, Andy Sharp, from several farms over, (or two mountains over, or “down the road” depending on your own concepts of neighbors). It seemed that our dogs had been running his sheep, chasing them for fun, a ancient reminder of their wolfie ancestry. He had warned us before, but this time they had gotten a ewe, and there was much concern because his prize ram was also out to pasture. He told my mom that he had shot the black one, our sweet and kind of stupid lab mix, Inky. However, he said that the yellow one Sammy, a golden retriever mutt, had gotten away and that we were going to have to do something about it. My mother was not entirely convinced of the rationale behind this concept, but she knew in her heart that this was the way of the land. Andy's sheep were a matter of livelihood, a matter of pride and a matter of property. She also knew that the economic consequences of loving and protecting a bandit sheep killer. Usually, my dad dealt with these unpleasantries, but my mom in swoon of compassion decided that she would help my dad deal with the problem. She knew what had to be done, as awful as it made her heart feel. And so, with shaky reluctance my Mother dug through the closet to get my dad's 30.6 (thirty ought six) rifle and clambered out the front door.
From the perspective of my brother and I, this was only a tense flicker in our day of GI Joe men and wooden blocks. I am sure we sensed a heavy mood as mom called for Sammy, but his wagging tale and pure joy of hearing his name washed away any childish feeling of doom or terror. Thinking about it now, I am sure that his playful arrival was only an added torture to my mom's determination to do what she was trying to convince herself was right. And so in this tumultuous scene of dreaded inevitability, my mother tied a rope to Sammy's collar and explained to me that she was taking Sammy up on top and to watch after Juddie. She kissed me on the forehead and with that my mom took off walking into the color splashed background to our October day. As she began her hike, I remember seeing my mother cry walking away, her tears shimmering orange and blue on her cheek, and I knew that something was not right with this day.
Up the hill she trudged to the old dirt road tunneling through the forest and up to the top meadows. I never asked exactly where she stopped, or which tree she chose for the deed and so this scene has always been completely made up in my mind. I can see a lone hawthorne in the midst of a meadowy clearing. I can see a heavy old maple lining the edge of the field. Sometimes I imagine a sturdy sampling in the woods. However, the truth is only known by my mom, Sammy and eventually my dad. Whatever the arbor, whatever the scene, my mother chose a tree. She laid the gun on the ground, safely wrapped in its worn black leather sleeve, a few yards from the tree and walked Sammy to his execution stand where she tied his line to the tree. With emotions high, hands shaking and tears pouring, I always picture a frantic frenzy of knot tying ,and tying and tying, to secure that this moment would soon be over. A few words were spoken, whispered into his ears, Sammy licking the salty stream from my mother's eyes with lapping affection. With each lick, more tears gushed from deep inside my mom's heart, and with a last sweet goodbye, my mother stepped away.
Apprehensive of the prospect of actually following through, my mom walked over to the leather rifle bag and unsheathed the heavy tool. She fumbled around the case to find a bullet, trying to remember all of the safety points she could muster through the cloudy muck of pure abhorrent terror. She planned out her next move and retraced each step with a desperate hope that always accompanies tragic deeds, the hope that something will stop time or rewrite the moment, often known Christianly as a miracle. It is in fact this hope, this prayer, that motivated her to raise the gun to her shoulder, anxiously awaiting the perfect moment for time and cosmos to conspire together and stop the madness. She clung to the belief that the next step would bring chaos shuttering down and end this ill fate. Her arms were shaking, her hands were chilled numb gripping the cold steel with every ounce of strength. Her knees were week and trembling and the knots in her stomach began to throb. Blurry eyed, sopping in tears her view through the scope was muddled and distorted. She struggled to make out Sammy through the cross-hairs and slowly eased the scope closer to her eye. Still laboring to make out a clear image of her furry target, she pulled upon youthful thoughts and memories of binoculars and microscopes as she gently set the scope against her eye. Trembling with agony and predetermined mourn she took a stuttery deep breath, letting it go with flooded emotion and pure, deep rooted pain. She locked her sight on Sammy and with a numb, ghost white finger, she pulled the trigger.
What exactly happened next is a bit of blur in my recollection of the story, and I am sure my mom would say the same. However, one thing was for certain, the drama of this glorious October day failed miserable to end. Despite her careful calculations and aim, my mom had missed her target, a point that would only truly be realized many hours later. You see, in the chaos of the moment, my mom had forgotten one the truest and most shocking facts of the physics of explosives and firearms; a fact known to gunslingers as “kick.” When a large rifle fires a shell full of gun powder driving a bullet with deathly speeds at the target, the opposite force of the explosion acts upon the gun. With the scope so firmly pressed to her eye, the moment that she pulled the trigger, the gun kicked back, forcing the thin metal edge of the scope to carve deep into her face, bruising the bone and leaving a flap skin tangling from just below her eye. Tears were now smeared in blood, and the emotional knots of agony collided with the shear power of overwhelming physical pain.
In a daze, she stumbled her way back through the woods, down the old dirt road and back to the house. When she arrived, my brother and I were ripped with fear. I was convinced that my mom had lost her eye. Her panicked moans only furthered our amaze as scarlet gushes covered her right eye while glassy tears sopped her face. She tried to calm us, but was overcome by the entirety of actual blood gushing pain stirred viciously with the events of the day. And so there we were, three of us lost in the haunting October day, helplessly trying make sense of it all, each in our own way. My mom trying to ponder through the pangs and sting of an open wound. My brother and I trying to decipher visions of reality with naïve and simple minds.
Soon, my dad would arrive home from work. My mother would go to the hospital and get treatment and stitches and I am sure some friendly gun safety scolding. Later that evening my dad would finish the deed with an Ozark steadiness that has always been my image of pure on-call masculinity. Sammy, perhaps the most sick with doom, had still been tied to the tree, left to wrap his canine mind around his morbid predicament. My dad's task was short and poignant, although heavy with the sadness that poor Sammy had to endure such hysterics before his time had come.
Time moved on, and winter reminded us of the coming months, the leaves fell to the forest floor leaving the silvery skeletons of bare trees. A few weeks later, my mom's sixty plus stitches and black eye would be mistaken for a fabulous make up job for Halloween , adding humor the tragedy and reminding us that the moment had passed. From that day, I would carry an aversion to guns that I still hold to this day. My mother realized that some things were better left to others. My brother never really reacted much to the situation and my father saw it as an opportunity to remind his children of the dangers of guns. From time to time, the story is told with lessons to be learned, humor to be found and tragedy to explain. As for the old country code, sheep farming is sparse in the hills these days, left to the few who have time and novelty of mind. Nowadays, coyotes and bears seem to be the greatest danger to the sheep farmer. Still the ways of the mountains and rules that govern remain firm, and thus we always try to keep the dogs at home.