Authors: Rita Mae Brown
“Dear God.” She gasped as she freed one foot.
“One more.” He encouraged her and she did pull her foot out of the boot, pressing her lips together so she wouldn’t scream.
“Will I ever walk again?”
He put his arms around her. “I don’t know, but I know you’ll ride again. You get the rest of those cold, wet things off. I’ll start the shower. All you have to do is step inside. I’ll have your Constant Comment ready when you step out.”
“Weren’t we smart to bring the electric teapot?” She gingerly stepped to the bathroom as he preceded her.
Feeling had returned to her frozen feet and they hurt like hell.
Once cleaned up, wrapped in her heavy robe, she sat on a ladderback chair across from him.
Gray scanned the room. “I admire Shaker design, don’t you?”
“I do. It reminds me that I have too much stuff. Whenever we come here, I feel cleansed.”
Holding the heavy mug in her hands felt restorative as did a sip. Tea always lifted Sister’s spirits as did the sight of a horse, hound, or Gray.
“Funny, how we remember the old tales, isn’t it? I mean the stories about freezing fogs.”
“I wouldn’t disbelieve them and you were lucky to get through that pogonip, those damn winds. What in the hell were you doing out there?”
“I told you. We whipped in on the left side and within five minutes,
“Actually, it was pretty much that way in the field, too. I don’t remember anything quite like it.” He took a sip of his own tea. “I’m looking forward to the dinner at Walnut Hall. I’ve never been inside.”
“It’s fabulous. But then everything that Meg and Alan Leavitt do is pretty fabulous,” she said, referring to the owners of Walnut Hall.
Meg Jewitt was the aunt of the new, young Joint Master, Justin Sautter, about whom O.J. was thrilled. Well, she should be. Young people bring with them energy, new ideas, and physical strength.
“I remember a pogonip when I was in grade school,” said Gray. “The teacher wouldn’t let us walk home. Took forever for our parents to fetch us and, of course, my mother had to go on about unhappy spirits being released during a pogonip.” He paused. “And you know, it was February first like today.”
Sister sipped again. “Do you believe that stuff about unhappy spirits?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
In a sense, they were about to encounter one.
Nestled in Gray’s big-ass Land Cruiser, Sister felt warm at last.
The SUV’s heater was a godsend. He exited the drive from Shaker Village, turning right.
“It’s more scenic if you turn left,” Sister offered.
“Takes longer, too.” His iron-gray military mustache curved up at one end as he teased her, “You know, I could install a steering wheel on your side.”
She turned to face him, as always admiring his handsome profile. “You say.”
He laughed. “So, I do. The sun won’t set until five-thirty. I love the light. I mean, winter has its beauty but sometimes the darkness gets me. We now have an hour’s more light than on December twenty-first. Never seems to bother you.”
“Doesn’t. How do people live without the seasons? That would get me. I’d go stark raving mad. I measure time, even emotion, by those shifts.”
“Mmm.” He paused for a moment, then turned another right
onto one of Kentucky’s highways. “Boy, this state has done a lot of work on the roads.”
“Yes, it has. They have a good governor in Beshears and they have had some good ones before. Some real stinkers, too.”
“It’s the legislature that’s the problem.” Gray, a retired accountant from a high-powered firm in D.C., kept up with financial incentives and disincentives in government. Although he’d made a career as a tax lawyer of impeccable repute, he knew only too well how the system could be gamed from either end.
“Right now we Virginians can’t really hold our heads up either. Hopefully, McAuliffe will prove more rigorously honest than the governor before him, who I thought was pretty good until the stories came out about accepting money, a watch, etc., for favors. So very foolish.” She noticed a huge sycamore in the middle of a field that meant water was nearby. “What is it about old trees that call to one?”
“That’s one of the things I liked about the Harry Potter movies; the trees talked and moved. Well, all that started long before that, remember the story about Apollo chasing Daphne? Just as Apollo grabbed her, Daphne called to her Mother Earth, who snatched her out of Apollo’s arms, putting a laurel tree in Daphne’s place. Apollo created a laurel wreath to console himself. Somehow the laurel wreath was used ever after to crown victors in the real Olympics. It was used for artistic contests, too. I’d love to see that now. You know, current Olympians crowned with laurel leaves, the Wimbledon winner, the winner of the golf U.S. Open, that sort of thing. There’s something beautiful about it.”
“You think about things that would never occur to me.” He loved that about Sister most times.
On a few occasions, it became tedious.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Gray, we’ve got the Chetwynds and the Bancrofts coming to this. Those families once raced against
Meg’s grandfather, when everyone raced harness horses. There were a few Thoroughbreds at the farm, too.”
“I thought L.V. Harkness was a Standardbred man through and through,” Gray remarked.
“He was, and Meg and Alan still are. Every now and then I think Mr. Harkness slipped in a Thoroughbred but in those days, the turn of the last century and before, sulky racing was the thing. Think of Dan Patch,” she continued. “As big a star as later Secretariat was.” She wrapped her arms around herself, beaming. “How it pleases me to be driving through Kentucky knowing the last winner of the Triple Crown, one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever, was bred in Virginia.”
“I’d keep that to myself tonight.”
“I will.” She frowned for a moment. “Harness racing ought to prove to all of us not to take anything for granted. You and I could live to see the fraying of flat racing.”
“Don’t you think it already is?”
“Yes, but there’s hope for it being reversed. It comes down to three things, honey: visionary leadership, unimpeachable training practices, and slots.”
“Well, that’s another subject we’d best not get on tonight. Too close to home. Don’t get Mercer on it.” He mentioned his cousin, who did business in Kentucky and elsewhere as a bloodline/breeding consultant. Gray’s mother and Mercer’s mother were sisters.
It was a sore subject since the Kentucky legislature repeatedly voted down, always with a terrific fight, not to allow other forms of gambling at the racetracks. As to good treatment of horses by trainers, the issue was made more difficult as each state had different drug rules. Barn practices, cleanliness, proper food, and so forth proved far less difficult to monitor than drugs.
Many members of Woodford Hounds made their living through breeding, selling, and racing Thoroughbreds. Phil Chetwynd,
one of The Jefferson Hunt’s members, had kept up his family tradition and stayed in the Thoroughbred business, which was small in Virginia compared to Kentucky. The Chetwynds, four generations’ worth, were kept afloat financially through their stallions. People still vanned mares from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and even Kentucky to breed to Broad Creek Stables stallions, each of whom carried impeccable blood.
“For Kentuckians, the frustration has to be wild. All anyone needs to do is cross the Ohio River into Indiana and walk onto a riverboat.” Sister shook her head.
“As an accountant, I have mixed feelings about gambling.”
“Gray, I don’t. No one puts a gun to someone’s head and says you will wager away your salaries. And face it, there is a thrill.”
“There is no thrill to bankruptcy.”
“You’ve got me there, but really, do you think we can protect people from themselves?”
“No. On the other hand, we don’t have to enshrine foolishness.”
“You are so right. That’s why we elect it.”
He laughed. “Now I know you’re warmed up.”
“Slow down. No, I’m not backseat driving but we’re only twenty minutes from Walnut Hall and we don’t want to be the first ones at the do.” She thought for a moment and reconsidered. “Oh, don’t slow down. Having a few moments with Meg and Alan, Justin and Libby, too, surely they’ll be there early, that’s a treat. They are so literate. I love being around people who read.”
“It’s always an elite, you know. Throughout history. One can know how to read but not exercise the ability. Now people look at their phones, their iPads, their computers.”
“Useful stuff but makes you passive.” She announced this with conviction, absentmindedly fingering the pearls at her throat. God forbid a Southern lady be without her pearls.
“I understand how film and TV makes one passive but I’m not so sure about the other stuff.”
“Okay. When you read a book, it’s just you, a white piece of paper with black marks on it. You know what the black marks mean but they explode in images in your head. So you and I can read the same passage from
but your whale looks different from mine. We use our imaginations. When the image is preselected as it is in electronic media, you are looking at someone else’s whale. I mean, some of the electronic books even have moving images.”
“Ah.” A few moments passed. “You’re certainly philosophical.”
“The near-death experience in the pogonip. Crystallized my mind.”
He burst out laughing as he turned down Newtown Pike. Kentucky Horse Park was at one time part of Walnut Hall. Now Walnut Hall as well as the Sautter house were behind it. Originally the giant property was granted to William Christian in 1777. Christian moved his family near Louisville in 1785 but was soon killed by Indians that same year. The western territories seethed with danger. Over time, as those dangers abated and Christian’s daughter Elizabeth Dickerson persevered, more settlers moved to the lands.
Dickerson sold a section of her land. Down through the nineteenth century it was passed along, being subdivided over time. L.V. Harkness bought the land in 1895 from the estate of Captain Sam Brown who had won the Kentucky Derby in 1884 with his horse, Buchanan. Harkness renamed the place Walnut Hall, owning 2,000 acres.
A late sun drenched the large still-bare trees in pale light, for the skies had cleared and the winds stood still. Just another demonstration of the variability of Kentucky weather.
The manicured grounds exuded a subdued grace.
“What’s going on over there? No one dead, I hope.” Gray knew no person was, for they slowly drove by the oldest horse cemetery in
America, where rested fifty-eight of the greatest of the early Standardbreds. A statue of the horse Gus Axworthy, 1902–1933, announced the lovely final finish line of their lives.
At the edge of this hallowed ground, Sister observed two men working to dislodge a huge shard of engraved slate. The slab had broken over the only Thoroughbred there, Benny Glitters, 1892–1921. A large tree limb could be seen upturned at the side of the large flat tomb marker that covered the entire equine grave. So great was the force of the earlier wind that the branch must have fallen onto the slate with such ferociousness that it drove the broken sharp edge into the grave itself. The odd rise of the temperature after the storm was turning the hard frozen ground into mud.
Arriving at the door to Walnut Hall, Gray handed the keys to the gentleman there to park the cars.
“We aren’t the first.” He took Sister’s arm as he escorted her to the door.
“And it’s six o’clock. If people are that eager to get here you know it will be some party.”
Standing by the door to greet his guests, Alan Leavitt kissed Sister on the cheek, shook hands with Gray. “How good to see you. Sister, you light up every room you enter.” Alan meant that, but as he was a gentleman he wisely knew to flatter the ladies.
People were pushing in behind them. Alan continued greeting guests. Meg was easy to find, you followed the laughter.
The party, in full swing at 6:30
., was the typical foxhunters’ gathering. There were people there of great wealth like Kasmir Barbhaiya, a portly Indian gentleman who had moved to Virginia to be part of The Jefferson Hunt. He’d made a billion dollars plus in pharmaceuticals in his native India. A widower, he was beset by many women who liked his money and therefore liked him. No fool, he trusted that when he did find a person to whom he could give his heart, his late wife would tell him. This he firmly believed and, having told Sister, she believed it, too.
The deepest things in life are not logical.
The elegant rooms filled with Woodford people and Jefferson people. Old silver trophies, continually polished over generations, reflected light, adding their own silver glow. Old and new gossip was rapidly dispensed with so folks could get to the real conversation: horses and hounds.
Walnut Hall represented both accumulated wealth and excellent taste. In a sense, it was like an old European home where generations refined the art of living and in the case of Meg, of giving. Kasmir was another giver.
Mingling among those who had financial great fortune in their lives were those who barely had two nickels to rub together. Apart from those two poles, the bulk of the group watched their pennies, got along, and enjoyed life with what they were able to earn.
Exuberance, love of nature, physical energy counted for more than money. And of course, character counted most of all. Foxhunters, like any group of humans anywhere in the world, provided a rich assortment of the good, the bad, and the plain old rotten to choose from.
O.J. found Sister in the scrum. “Took me two hours to thaw out.”
“I’d still be blue if it weren’t for Gray,” said Sister. “He helped me take my boots off, got me in the shower, then handed me a cup of tea. I think that’s the coldest I have ever been. Then he picked out tonight’s clothing, insisting I wear this cashmere sweater with a wraparound skirt. He said I needed to stay warm.”
Eyes twinkling, O.J. laughed, then said low into Sister’s ear, “Remind me of the connection between the Chetwynds and the Laprades? Didn’t the Laprades work for them since World War One?”