About the Author
Brad Smith was born and raised in southern Ontario. He has worked as a farmer, signalman, insulator, truck driver, bartender, schoolteacher, maintenance mechanic, roofer, and carpenter. He lives in an eighty-year-old farmhouse near the north shore of Lake Erie. Red Means Run, the first novel in his Virgil Cain series, was named among the Year’s Best Crime Novels by Booklist.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Shoot the Dog ONE
When Virgil Cain came in from baling hay it was three minutes past noon and the phone in the kitchen was ringing. Jake Norsworthy from Woodstock Saddlery was on the line, saying that Virgil’s harness was ready for pickup. Jake couldn’t know it, but with the ten-acre hayfield behind the barn baled and ready to be loaded onto the wagons, his timing couldn’t have been better. Virgil cut a thick slice of roast beef from the night before and laid it between two pieces of bread, slapped on some mustard, and ate in the truck on his way to the saddle shop. The day was hot and growing hotter, a carbon copy to the day before and the day before that. There’d been no rain for nearly a month. The truck had air-conditioning that had undoubtedly worked at one time but not in the years that Virgil had owned the vehicle. He drove with the windows down, his left hand idly keeping beat on the outside mirror to a Kristofferson song from the country radio station.
He’d picked up the old harness at an auction near Rhinebeck a couple of months earlier. He had reluctantly inherited two Percheron draft horses from area vet Mary Nelson last year, and since then he’d been waiting for Mary to find a home for them. In truth, he had pretty much given up on the notion of Mary finding a home for them. The animals had arrived at Virgil’s farm emaciated and sickly, like most of the horses Mary had shown up with over the past several years, and Virgil—with the vet’s help—had nursed them back to health, at which point Mary had confidently predicted that someone would adopt the two, taking them off Virgil’s hands. The two draft horses, a mare and a gelding, each weighed over twelve hundred pounds now, and they were impressive to look at—their coats a gleaming reddish brown, their manes and tails a strawberry blond. They passed their days picking at the grass in Virgil’s pasture field in front of the barn or standing lazily beneath the large sugar maple in the corner, alongside the dozen or so other horses Mary had delivered over the years.
Virgil had recently named the two Bob and Nelly after a team of mules he’d seen Gabby Hayes driving in a movie. He had never bestowed a name on a single animal on the farm in the past—none of the other horses, none of his beef cattle, not even the half-feral barn cats who kept the granary free of rats and mice. But he named the Percherons because he intended to put them to work, and—in Virgil’s mind—the hired help needed to be called something.
He’d found a book at the library in Saugerties that described in considerable detail how to break draft horses to harness. When first dropping the Percherons off, Mary had mentioned that the previous owner had used them in country plowing competitions, when he wasn’t starving them or mistreating them in general. If that was true, then the two animals had forgotten most of what they’d learned. Maybe they had mental blocks regarding that part of their history. Virgil couldn’t blame them if they did.
The book, How to Break Your Horse to Harness, was written by a man named Robert Leroy Smythe and published in 1927. The librarian had offered to do a computer search of the neighboring library branches for Virgil, in the hope of turning up a more modern volume on the subject, but Virgil had declined, reasoning that whatever methods had worked in 1927 were likely to still be effective today. Unless, of course, a person was dealing with some newly developed computerized horse, and there was nothing about Bob or Nelly that suggested this was the case.
The harness he’d bought at the auction was dried out and brittle but mostly salvageable. Virgil had cleaned the leather with saddle soap and then lubricated it with mink oil. The hardware was brass and had shined up nicely. He’d first hitched the animals up singly, walking them around the barnyard, getting them used to stopping and going, and turning one way or the other. Neither seemed at all accustomed to the harness, which may have been different from the setup they were used to, but they did appear to recognize the prompts—“whoa” to stop, “giddyup” to go, and “haw” and “gee” to turn left and right. The author Smythe made note of the fact that in England the commands for turning were reversed. Intending to keep to Ulster County, or at the very least to the confines of North America, Virgil saw no reason to burden Bob and Nelly with that information.
The first time he’d put the horses in tandem, a week ago, Bob had headed left for the water trough just as Nelly was turning right, and Bob’s pole strap snapped in half. Virgil took the complete harness in to Jake Norsworthy that day and told him to replace whatever was needed.
The leather shop was on the west edge of town, a half mile off 212. Virgil walked in to find Jake talking to a young blonde woman who was holding a western saddle in both arms as if it were a newborn lamb. The woman’s long hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore tight jeans and cowboy boots and a T-shirt with a silk screen of Dwight Yoakam across the front.
“Merle Sanders said she came into Kettle & Crock for breakfast this morning and was just as nice as could be,” the woman was saying.
Virgil nodded past the woman to Jake.
“I’ve heard that about her,” Jake said, returning Virgil’s nod.
The young woman hadn’t heard Virgil come in and she turned to see him now, the ponytail whipping around her neck. “Olivia Burns is in town,” she announced.
“I see,” Virgil said.
“The movie actress,” Jake elaborated.
Virgil nodded again, trying to think of something to say that might suggest some interest in the subject on his part. He couldn’t come up with a damn thing. “So my harness is ready?” he asked.
From the saddlery he drove to the co-op, where he bought a couple rolls of binder twine, enough to finish the season. The girl working the cash register was maybe sixteen, a high school student no doubt. When she gave Virgil his change she told him that Olivia Burns was in town.
Back at the farm Virgil pulled the hay wagon from the drive shed. Earlier that month he’d removed the steel tongue from the wagon and replaced it with a double whippletree of chain and oak. Taking a couple of nylon leads from a peg on the wall, he walked into the front field to retrieve the two draft horses, and then he led them to the wagon, where he fitted them both with Sweeney collars and the double harness. He hooked them to the hay wagon and when he said giddyup, Bob and Nelly did just that.
Once they were in the hayfield, it took a while to get the timing down, although that was Virgil’s fault as much as the horses’. He was every bit as green at this as they were, and maybe more so. The pace was the tricky thing. The team needed to walk slowly enough that Virgil had time to toss the hay bales onto the wagon without falling behind. The problem came at the end of the field, when the horses turned back toward the barn. Heading for home, they immediately sped up, at one point breaking into a trot. Virgil had to grab the reins and slow them to a walk. Every few minutes he whoa-ed the team and jumped up onto the wagon to build the load. After an hour or so, things fell into a rhythm; by the time the first wagon was full, Bob and Nelly were working fairly well, as if there existed in them some sort of muscle memory from their plowing days. Virgil left that load by the barn, shifted horses and harness to an empty wagon, and went back into the field. The heat was oppressive but there was a breeze from the east that made working tolerable. When the third wagon was loaded, it was nearly suppertime.
As Virgil led the wagon and team around the barn and into the yard, he saw Claire sitting on the side porch of the house, drinking a bottle of beer and watching him with an amused expression on her face, as if Virgil were an eight-year-old who had managed to cobble together a go-cart that actually rolled.
Virgil unhooked the team and led them into the pasture field, where he rubbed them down quickly with a gunnysack and then rewarded them both with a bucket of grain. Claire’s expression remained virtually unchanged as he made his way to the house. She was wearing khaki pants and a white cotton shirt, the sleeves rolled to her elbows. Her dark hair fell loosely to her shoulders. She was tanned and relaxed and looked beautiful. She had a job that could be stressful at times, but Virgil always swore that the tension drained from her the moment she pulled in the driveway.
“What are you smiling at?” he asked.
“Did I do something funny?”
She took a drink of beer. “You and your horses.”
She must have gone into the house and retrieved a beer for him when she saw him coming. She handed it over.
“Diesel fuel for the tractor is expensive,” he said when he’d had a drink. “And it’s about time those nags earned their keep.”
“You forgot to mention your carbon footprint.”
“Or maybe you’re just stuck in the nineteenth century,” Claire said.
“I’ve been stuck in worse places.”
“You certainly have.”
They sat quietly for a time. The sun had reached the treetops to the west but there were still a couple hours of daylight left. Bob and Nelly walked along the fence line to the far corner of the field, where the rest of the orphan herd was grazing. It seemed to Virgil that the two draft horses moved differently now, with an element of pride, now that there was a change in their status on the farm. It had to be his imagination. What would horses know of the dignity of work?
He looked toward the barn, where the three wags of hay were parked. Earlier he’d backed the elevator up to the mow window and mounted the electric motor to the base.
“You feel like a workout?”
She followed his eyes to the wagons. She’d helped him mow bales in the past. “Sure.”
“I’ll cook you a steak afterwards,” he said.
“You got a deal.”
“You want the mow or the wagon?” he asked.
“Nice try,” she said, smiling. “It’s a hundred degrees up there. I’m staying on the wagon.”
It took them an hour and a half to unload the hay. When Virgil came down out of the mow, he was shirtless, his torso drenched, the sweat mixed with dust and chaff. Claire had pulled her hair back in a ponytail before they’d started and her face and neck were streaked with dirt and sweat. She removed the gloves Virgil had given her and laid them on the wagon.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“I could use a shower first. So could you.”
“You want to save some water?”
The shared shower led to the bedroom, and then back to the shower. It was full dark when Virgil grilled the steaks on the porch. Claire found enough stuff in the fridge to make a salad and she cut thick slices of zucchini to cook on the grill with the beef. She opened a bottle of red wine she’d brought with her and they ate outside at the picnic table. The drought had knocked the mosquito population down and the heat had relented slightly when the sun disappeared, so it was nice sitting out on the lawn.
“So how much money did you save today?” Claire asked. “You know—leaving the tractor in the shed?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Virgil replied. “Not much.” He glanced at her, then looked away.
Claire studied his profile in the dim light from the porch lamp. He was aware of her scrutiny, and as always it made him uncomfortable. He didn’t like to be the center of attention, even here, on his own property, alone with a woman he’d been in the shower with an hour ago.
“When are your taxes due?”
“Middle of the month,” he said.
“I can help you with some money.”
“No,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked, even though she’d known the answer before asking.
“Because that’s not the way this works.”
Claire had a drink of wine. “Is everybody from the eighteen hundreds as stubborn as you?”
He smiled at that. “Hand that bottle over, will you?”
She did and watched as he poured. The conversation about money was finished, she knew, whether she liked it or not.
“You weren’t in Woodstock today by chance,” she said.
“I was, actually.”
“Olivia Burns is in town.”
“So I hear,” Virgil said.
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