Afterward, I retire downstairs to my room to read a novel or sometimes the verses of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As I turn off the light and snuggle under the quilts, I can hear Daniel and Patience in their room above me talking softly, sometimes laughing. And then silence.

Skip to my Lou, my darlin’.

October 17, 1934

Life has settled down at the Hesters’ now that we have a routine. At 7 A.M. the vet gets up and lights the fire. It’s the sound of the iron poker that wakes me. We rise about 7:30. I can dress myself fine, but I let Becky check my buttons and brush my teeth because I like her to touch me.

After the vet and I tend the animals and while he’s busy straining the milk and Becky is making breakfast, I care for little Danny. He’s an easy child to entertain, a bright little boy, who asks me to draw pictures for him in this sketchbook (my journal).

“Draw a cat,” he orders. “Draw a dog. Draw a house. Draw a tractor.” Simple enough. I would like to teach him his letters but that would require language, and though I have words in my head, I’m missing the connection to my tongue. Only rarely do I utter a sound. Dead men don’t talk and I died the day my wife drove into the river.

Test

“Goddam!” The vet slams the telephone receiver down in its holder and Blum and I look up from the kitchen table where we’ve been finishing our coffee. (The doctor is able to eat on his own now, though sometimes I have to wipe his chin.)

“It’s the Bishop brothers. They have a herd of cattle that needs to be tuberculin tested and want me out there this week.”

“Who’re the Bishop brothers?” I ask.

“You remember them. They’re part of that crowd that jumped Blum and me at the Fourth of July picnic. A hard bunch, stingy with their animals, sour and unfriendly. They used to be in the moonshine business, until the G-men from D.C. shut them down. Five years ago or so, I had a run-in with them when their stallion, Devil, died.” He pulls out a wooden chair and sits back down with us.

“The Bishops waited too long to call about a case of severe colic, and when the beautiful black Arabian died, they blamed his death on me and things got ugly. The three brothers were half drunk and it ended in a knock-down fistfight. I barely got out of there alive. They also dressed up like Klansmen and gave Patience and Bitsy a scare. A rotten crew if there ever was one.”

“Can’t you say no?”

“Nah, I’m the only vet around, and everyone is required by the state of West Virginia to get their herd tested. It’s important. Fifteen years ago, one in twenty cattle had bovine tuberculosis. It was a big economic loss to the farmers, not to mention a threat to human health.”

He reaches for his cup of coffee. “I was wondering when the Bishops would get around to calling me. Dreaded it! On the other hand, they don’t really have a choice and neither do I. I took on the state contract. It’s good cash money.”

“Hey, Isaac, want to come with me?” he says, grinning. “Be my backup in case things get ugly?”

“I could come, too.”

“You?”

“I mean, if a woman was there, they wouldn’t get rough, would they?”

“Probably not. They aren’t that crude. One of them, the oldest, Aran, has a common-law wife. The one I hate is Beef, a violent bastard. . . . I suppose you could help by writing down the test numbers in my ledger. If a cow tests positive, it’s the end of it. It has to be killed right away and then the carcass burned.”

I look at Dr. Blum sitting there in the wooden kitchen chair, staring into space, and imagine he and Daniel getting into another fistfight. “I’d better come.”

The Bishops

Two days later, just as the sun is peeking over the mountains, Daniel, Blum, and I leave Patience with her breakfast on a tray and a pile of toys on her bed for Danny and head in the Model T toward Burnt Town. Hester explains that the little village was built along Crockers Creek a century ago and was completely destroyed by a forest fire, thus the name, Burnt Town.

“No one wanted to build there again. Superstitious, I guess. Too many people died. They say in these hollows, when a fire gets started, it roars up the mountains. The narrow valleys work like chimneys, just suck up the flames.”

I look over the fields as we bump along in the Model T. The countryside is white with frost, our first really hard one, and everything is covered with little ice crystals. In the ditches the goldenrod stalks droop with their white fur, and red maple leaves are rimmed with white. Even the spider webs are covered with miniature beads of ice and shine in the morning light.

Finally, we turn off the main gravel road and bump down a rocky grade, across a branch of Crockers Creek and into a spacious farmyard.

There’s a white farmhouse with a long front porch, a neat fenced-in vegetable garden, and something that looks like a chicken coop to the side. From Daniel’s description of the Bishop brothers, I’d expected something more roughshod.

A dark-haired woman wearing a flour-sack print dress and a heavy green sweater is carrying a basket of potatoes across the yard. She stops to stare, and three hounds, chained to their dog-houses, bark viciously.

“’Bout time you showed up, you old son of a gun,” a stocky farmer on the porch calls out, then grins, saunters over, and reaches out his hand. “How you doin’? Ain’t seen you much lately.” I have a hard time reconciling Hester’s story of the knockdown, drag-out physical fight after the Arabian stallion died with this sociable gent.

“Aran,” Daniel responds with reserve. “I brought Nurse Myers to help with the record keeping, and Dr. Blum, you remember him? He can hold the steers while I do the testing. Are your brothers available to round up the cattle?” He scans the yard and I remember that it’s the one called Beef he most dislikes.

“Yeah.” Aran Bishop motions to our left where a short, thick man wearing hitched-up trousers and a red plaid flannel shirt moves slowly across the plowed field. A green John Deere sits in the distance. “Here comes Beef now.”

The man called Beef strides up to Daniel and, bold as anything, shakes his hand, acting as if nothing has ever happened between them.

“Doc,” he addresses him in a nasal voice. “Thought you were coming yesterday! Had them cows all penned up and you never showed. Let them loose for the night. They’re all up at the back forty now.”

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