- The Dark Country
Burley Coulter is bone-tired, thirsty, hungry, lost, and entirely happy. He has his worries and his griefs, but for the time being they are not on his mind, nor is his workaday life. All that is eight or ten hours behind him, a long time yet ahead of him, and a world away.
He is somewhere, he thinks, way up in the headwaters of Willow Run, far out of his home territory. Since his hounds last treed, at a branchy oak where an upland pasture dropped off to a wooded bluff, he has been walking along a seldom used farm road on the crest of a long ridge. The road has so far led him past a cornfield and a tobacco patch, both sowed in barley, and a big field of grass and clover, mowed early for hay, then pastured, now deserted. That is as much as he knows of where he is.
Except for the ambient glow of the coal-oil lantern he carries in his hand, the night is perfectly dark. It is too late, or too early, for a house light to show, and the sky is thickly clouded. Beside him his shadow stretches on the ground, disappearing before it is complete into the greater darkness. Two hounds walk with him, and he is alert to keep them close; he does not want them to start hunting again.
He, his brother Jarrat, and Jarrat’s son Nathan—mostly just the three of them—had stood at the stripping room benches from early winter until a few days ago, already February of 1948, preparing the previous summer’s tobacco crop for market. The work had been steady, consoling in a way, for it was always there, but it was confining too, and finally they were weary of it, happy to be done. They had gone, the day before, to the warehouse in Hargrave to see the last of it sold.
When he got home, having for a change nothing else to do, [End Page 163] Burley did his chores early, putting out hay for his cattle and his mules, and corn for his hogs. The old house, once he was back in it, felt too empty. As often, now that he was living in it alone, it did not satisfy him. After a bright cold spell the weather had turned cloudy with a warming wind. The snowless frozen ground had thawed on top and grown slick. He did not even bother to build up the fires.
He took off the fairly new work clothes he had worn to the warehouse and put on older ones. He strapped on his longbarreled .22 pistol in its shoulder holster and dropped a few extra cartridges into his pants pocket. He took his everyday felt hat and the hunting coat he wore as a work jacket from their nail by the back door and put them on. Into one pocket of the coat he put a flashlight, and into another, in a paper sack, six cold biscuits made by himself just the way they had been made by his mother and her mother and her mother, except maybe with a little less shortening so they’d be a little more durable. He felt his pants pockets to make sure he had matches and his knife. The knife was a heavy one with the handle worn smooth and pale; it had two blades that were razor sharp and a dull blade that he used for scraping and digging. The knife as much belonged to his sense of himself as either of his thumbs. He shook the lantern beside his ear to make sure it was full of oil. At the edge of the porch he sat down and pulled on and buckled his overshoes. He stood again, picked up the lantern, called the dogs, and headed down into the woods along Katy’s Branch.
Behind him now was not just the old house of weatherboarded logs that he had thought of as empty since the death of his mother, who all his life before had been its presiding genius; the old crop year too was at...