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Authors: Rita Mae Brown

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BOOK: Riding Shotgun
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Cig put her hands on her knees, ready to stand up and wiggle her toes in her boots. “If I could only figure out how to keep my feet warm without extra heavy socks.”

“Tried those space-age insoles?”

“I’ve tried everything. My toes ache from the cold.”

“Scorn pain. Either it goes away or you do.” Grace quoted Seneca. “Laura seems fine. ‘

“Yeah.” Cig was noncommittal.

“This isn’t the end of the world.”

“Am I acting as though it is?”

“Don’t get dramatic.”

“Just because I raised my voice a hair doesn’t mean I’m getting dramatic.”

“Don’t pull one of your turtle numbers either—close up your shell. I can’t stand it when you get like that.”

Cig tapped the horn handle of her hunting whip against her boot. “I’m not shutting down, I’m not in a huff, I’m not going to suffer the vapors,” she sarcastically replied. “But I am going to get to the meet on time and things will work out however they work out. So shut up and come on.” She paused. “You’re always fishing.”

“I am not,” came the stout defense. “I don’t want you to be laid low by some emotional boomerang.”

“Come on, Grace. Nothing’s going to lay me low.” Cig gave Grace a light whap.

“Shotgun,” Grace called to Hunter and Laura as they opened the truck door. Riding shotgun was Grace’s favorite
place, and she had precedence over her niece and nephew who also wanted the passenger seat.

As the two sisters walked to the rig, a casual observer would be struck by how similar yet dissimilar they were. Cig was an imposing woman of Junoesque proportions. Her clean features, strong body, and lustrous eyes would mark her out as stunning in a European country, but American men liked their women less powerful and majestic. Grace, more to their taste, markedly resembled her older sister facially: even features, great teeth, beautiful eyes. Smaller of stature, Grace was more huggable. Grace derived her sense of importance from male attention so she carefully rehearsed those tricks so obvious to other women, so beguiling to men. When Grace spoke to a man she dropped one of her shoulders just a tad so he would appear even larger, she smaller. She turned her face up toward his, light shining in her eyes, all rapt attention. Her eyebrows danced up and down with his every intonation. She leaned forward toward him in a posture of invitation and supplication. Her voice lilted upwards as though each sentence ended in an unconscious question that only he, that repository of all strength and wisdom, could answer. They fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Cig loathed choreographed femininity. She said she didn’t want a man in her life if she had to lie to him no matter how silent the lie. So she spoke directly to a man, gaze level into his own. No inflections upward She stood square and spoke her mind, usually diplomatically. The results were predictable. Men respected Cig. They liked her even if they were sometimes half-afraid of her. They lusted after Grace.

People who had not known the sisters as girls often wondered aloud, out of hearing range, of course, how Cig Deyhle had captivated handsome John Blackwood with the adorable Grace around. Those who had grown up with them or watched them grow up eagerly told the tale.

Cig, a junior at the College of William and Mary, met John Blackwood when he moved to the area to join the law firm of Marker, Gunderson and Shay… and to escape a
vituperative ex-wife still raging in Baltimore. Cig came home for Thanksgiving, and everyone agreed it was love at first sight for her. Grace, a freshman at William and Mary, was visiting a friend’s house that Thanksgiving. By the time she did meet Blackie, at Christmas, he was intrigued by Cig, and for whatever reason the seventeen years between them seemed a far greater gap than the fifteen years between Blackie and Cig. Even so, everyone was sure that if Blackie had met Grace first everything would have come out differently.

As it was, Grace met William Von Hugel, an intern at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, after she graduated from college and moved to the big city. A far more judicious choice as it turned out than Grace’s sister’s handsome husband, will found a job in central Virginia so he and his bride could move back to her home. Grace found she liked New York in smaller doses than 365 days a year.

The worry over Blackie’s infidelities, plus the hard physical labor took their toll on Cig. Lines creased her face. A bit of gray appeared around her temples, making her look more imposing than she felt. Grace, on the other hand, took full advantage of her husband’s profession, going to doctor friends for a nip and a tuck whenever she felt she wasn’t perfect enough. She looked pretty perfect all right.

“Okay now. Let’s rehearse how to keep Harleyetta from murder and mayhem.” Cig watched the road as she crawled around a curve, careful not to suddenly shift the weight of the horses in the trailer. She liked to create an agenda on the drive to the fixture, as the meeting place for each hunt was called.

“Keep Binky in the back of the field,” Laura suggested sensibly.

“Harleyetta will run over anyone and everyone, so you might as well let her up front.” Riding near the Master was an honor that should be earned, but Grace believed harmony in the field was more important than protocol.

“If Binky’s sober he’ll stay in the back,” Cig commented.

“Mom, Binky is never sober. And I’m beginning to wonder about Harley,” Hunter said.

“She was sober in grade school.” Grace supplied this information. “That was when she decided to paint the arching eyebrows. She thought if she plucked her eyebrows she’d look better and older. They never grew back.”

“If she’d sober up she’d draw better ones,” Laura noted.

“Binky doesn’t mind.” Hunter shifted his weight.

“Too drunk to notice.” Cig eased down on the clutch and carefully slipped into third. “If sex were banned as a topic of conversation Binky would be struck mute.”

“Is every hunt club as weird as ours?” Laura asked.

“Hunt club? Laura, every group of people in every country around the world
and
in every century has been weird. People are crazy as hell. You might as well learn that lesson now. Just wing nuts.”

“Aunt Grace, where’d you pick up ‘wing nuts’?”

“From you, Laura.”

“Oh.”

“I like ‘doesn’t have both oars in the water’ myself,” Cig chimed in.

“Elevator doesn’t go to the top,” Hunter said.

“Somebody shot the dots off his dice.” Grace sang the phrase.

“A quart low,” Hunter added.

“Fruitcake.” Grace again. “Or how about lost his marbles?”

“Looney Toons.” Cig slowed for a stop then swung wide as she turned right out of the dirt road and onto the blessed macadam. “Listen, you aren’t getting me off the track no matter how hard you try. Hunter, you ride in front of Harleyetta.”

“She’ll run me over, Mom.”

“No, she won’t. You’re bigger and smarter but she will run over people like Roberta on Reebok. She scares the hell out of people.”

“Should have stuck to Harleys.” Grace reached in her vest pocket for a hair net.

“She’s got that burnt metallic orange one,” Laura said. “Same color as her eyebrows.”

“If I had a motorcycle I could cut gas costs.” Hunter tried to lean forward but couldn’t so he flopped back.

“You will drive that ‘8I Toyota truck until it dies.”

“It’s already got over a hundred sixty thousand miles on the speedometer. The day of doom fast approaches.” He sounded like a TV preacher.

“Yeah, well, you’d just better pray that truck lasts until you get to college because there’s no money for another one.”

“What about selling the tractor?”

“Hunter, how do you propose to run a farm without a tractor?”

“The way our illustrious ancestors did it.”

“Our illustrious ancestors didn’t have to pay minimum wage, smart guy,” Cig replied. “Now, just get your butt in front of Harleyetta and
don’t
let her pass you.”

“What about Binky?” Laura elbowed her brother. “He won’t stay in the back, I bet.”

“Binky will fall in next to Roberta and that will keep him happy.”

“Say, you don’t think—?”

“Grace, get a grip. Roberta wouldn’t take up with Binky if he were the last man on earth.”

“Well, to hear Roberta tell it she’s been without male companionship for a long, long time.”

“So have you—to hear you tell it.” Cig smiled too sweetly at Grace who held up her fingers to indicate two points.

Before they could bicker, Muster Meadow came into view and sure enough, Harleyetta was there, along with Roger Davis, scowling by the hound trailer. Must have been a bad night because her eyebrows wiggled and waved, burnt orange, of course.

6

Harleyetta was her real name. Her father, a Hog devotee and general wild man, christened her himself. At thirty-two, a nurse, she had “bettered herself,” as people say, with her marriage to Binky West. She’d also chunked up; not that she was fat, more square than fat. Good-hearted and impulsive, Harleyetta was not afflicted with tact, but if you told her a secret she made heroic efforts to keep it, since so few people ever confided in her.

Not especially bright, she could be quick on her feet. No one would ever let Harley forget the time in Sunday school—she was ten—when the teacher asked the name of Noah’s wife and she replied, “Joan of Ark.”

Often her wrong answers were more interesting than people’s right ones, and it was that tilted creativity combined with a bubbling energy that had attracted the wealthy, lost Binky West. Marrying Harleyetta, one of his many acts of defiance, could have saved him, except he never let her forget where she came from—he ruined it for both of them.

Cig and Grace waved as Cig pulled the rig around, truck nose outwards. The dirt road into Muster Meadow, an old
farm along the upper James River, was packed hard as brick and was just as red. A pouring rain would eventually soften it up, but they’d had no rain in nearly four weeks.

“Hunter, go help Harleyetta unload. She never can back out Gypsy.” Cig cut the engine.

“Mom, I don’t mind helping her unload but do I really, truly have to ride in front of her?”

“Yes. Come on, honey, a lot of our business comes from the club so when people hunt we need to keep everyone happy.”

“All right,” he grumbled and slid out as soon as Grace vacated her seat.

Foxhunting clubs, being nonprofit, could charge dues and day rates, known’ as capping fees, to offset the costs of the sport. Jefferson Hunt kept those costs low through efficiency, but many clubs had elegant clubhouses, huge kennels filled with hungry hounds, a paid huntsman, and even paid whippers-in—those special outriders selected for skill, sense of direction, and obedience to the Huntsman. Some clubs had annual operating budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even providing mounts for the staff.

People in the club came to Cig for lessons, often bought horses from her, and referred other people, so in a sense the club augmented her business. She scrupulously followed the regulations of the national association, The Master of Foxhounds Association of America, to make certain she didn’t step over the line from nonprofit to profit.

As Hunter performed his good deed, Laura and Grace deftly unloaded the horses, which they had tacked up before loading back at the barn.

Cig walked over to Roger. “Hey, Rog.”

“If we can start at seven thirty on the dot, might be a good day.”

This October had been unusually warm. Cig and Roger liked to start early because when the temperatures rose so did the scent until it wafted over the hounds’ heads. They could no longer smell it, hence no more hunting. Once frosts came, the departure time could be pushed to nine or
even ten in the morning as the frost held the odor close to the ground.

One by one the horse trailers and fancy Imperatore horse boxes rumbled down the farm road. Roberta chugged along in her sturdy Subaru, pulling in next to Cig’s trailer. Dr. Bill Dominquez, hopping a ride with David Wheeler, soon arrived, too. Binky drove up in his brand new tricked-out Dodge Ram half-ton truck, parked next to his wife’s trailer and was bitching before he shut the truck door. Harleyetta ignored him.

The start of a hunt was full of promise and forgotten stock pins; happy greetings between people madly rushing from trailer to trailer to see if anyone had an extra pair of stirrup leathers, pins, gloves,
socks
, hunt caps. Each beginning was different yet somehow the same. All the scurrying and shouting eventually settled into everyone being tacked up, jackets on, boots clean, tails brushed out, flasks filled, and girths checked and double-checked. Finally the last, the slowest, would be mounted—usually Florence Moeser, two years older than God—then the group would gather around the Master.

Today the heel came off Roberta’s right boot. Boarders can be a pain in the ass, and Roberta, a nice enough lady, was no exception. She never could quite pull herself together without assistance.

“I’ll never be able to keep my foot from going through the stirrup. What’ll I do?” she wailed.

“Don’t worry, Miss Ericson, I can fix it.” Hunter reached into the trailer tackroom, yanked out the toolbox, found a hammer and nailed the heel back on. “There. Guess you’ll have to get them resoled.”

BOOK: Riding Shotgun
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