Sunday, August 3, 2014

First Shot (31)

Blow caught up with Andrew Salzwedel at Leigh's Stables, where some reenactors were rehearsing to field an honor guard at Newt Gunther's funeral. Many times Blow had driven past the white rail fence stretching at least a quarter mile along the highway, but this was only the second time he'd entered the gate.
He was in high school the first time. The occasion, a homecoming hayride party during which he'd been smitten by Buddy Leigh's oldest daughter. Her name was Joy, and joy was the word that best described the mood he remembered from that chill night nestled with a couple dozen classmates among the mounds of clean straw in Buddy's horse-drawn wagon. His infatuation went largely unrequited after that heady adventure, however, as Joy's primary romantic interest then involved one of the football players. She and Blow drifted apart, leaving the hayride as merely a pleasant memory, for Blow anyway, and lost track of each other after high school. Blow thought of her now as his truck rolled down the gravel drive to the farm buildings.

He parked next to a row of vehicles alongside the drive where it fanned into an apron in front of an off-white horse barn on the right. Some men were gathered in front of one of the open stalls, and several others tended horses on the grass next to the apron. Blow watched two riders dismount as he himself stepped down from his truck.
The day's crisp cool was hardening into a chill as evening approached with a gray cloud cover masking the horizon-bound sun. The vague familiarity of the farm's setting came to life when Blow inhaled the odor mix of horse, oiled leather, hay and dung. As he neared the others something else clicked his memory into such sharp focus it triggered an adrenalin spurt. Joy Leigh was one of the dismounting riders.
She'd put on weight and changed her hair, but he recognized her instantly. The way she stood, the poise in her carriage, slight tilt of head. Even when she'd been coltish a natural grace was evident. Now, with the strawberry bleached out of her blonde, bobbed hair, figure filled out nicely and a subtle air of experience, she conveyed a sophistication that distanced her from the girl he'd thought he loved on that long-ago magical night. Yet, face to face this moment, the younger Joy reappeared—the freckles, pale blue smiling eyes and wide mouth that played between shy and mischief while she sized him up before speaking.
Hi, Blow,” she said then. Her voice had matured, a tad huskier, but it still warmed him with its friendliness.
Joy,” Blow said, and before another word was uttered by either of them heavy footsteps approached from behind Blow across the gravel.
As Blow started to turn, a rough voice intruded. “I guess you two haven't forgotten each other.”
Buddy Leigh, with whom Blow had little contact over the years, held out a large weathered hand. His calloused grip was strong but polite, although he gave Blow's hand a quick bone-threatening squeeze at the end as if to remind him who still ran the ranch. Leigh was about the same age as Judge Stone, but clearly a different breed of cat. He'd been a rodeo cowboy in his youth and a Marine in Vietnam, where he won several combat medals including the Silver Star. He had a reputation as somebody you didn't want to cross, in a business deal or in a bar, yet he was generally friendly and well liked. Once he'd joined his daughter and Blow, Buddy Leigh did most of the talking.
She'd married the football player, Jason Henning, who was serving his third tour as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, he said. Joy had moved back to the farm with their two children. Both attended one of Leicester County's three middle schools while their mother attended classes at nearby Rappahannock Community College.
I'd like to get my teacher's certificate,” Joy said after Buddy paused to take a breath and stretch his arms.
Their attempt to converse took another hit of turbulence when a young man who looked to be in his teens, wearing a Green Bay Packers cap with the bill pointed backwards, appeared. The youth approached boldly and took the reins of Joy's horse from her hand. The horse stamped one of its front hooves and shook its sorrel head with a ragged snort that ejected twin plumes of steam into the chill.
Joy leaned toward the young man, her face serious. “He's still limping some,” she said, and the teen responded with something in a low voice Blow didn't hear enough of to understand. To that she said, “Thanks, Reggie,” and watched him guide the horse toward the barn, speaking softly and running a hand through its mane.
That's Dad's groom. He's really good with the horses. He loves them, and they can sense that.”
That's a beautiful horse. Is it yours?”
No, that's Banastre. He was Newt's horse. Strained his ankle in all the chaos after the...accident. He's going to be in the funeral, with the honor guard. He'll be riderless. The rest of the legion will be mounted, and a squad of Campbell's Militia will fire a salute.”
You know a lot about this. Are you--”
I'll be riding Rufus, my regular mount.” She was smiling. “You're surprised!”
Yeah, a little.”
You were at the reenactment.”
Yes, but--”
You didn't recognize me?”
You were one of the mounted troops, with Gunther?”
I was right beside him. Some of the blood splattered my tunic.”
My God, I didn't realize. You must've been terrified.”
She laughed. “Nah. I didn't know what had happened until it was over. Then I was just feeling lucky it wasn't me got hit.”
No crying over Gunther?”
She gave Blow a strange look. Stared at the ground a moment, then back up at him. “We try to stay in character. It's part of the reenactment.” She spoke thoughtfully, her voice softer. “Newt...well...” She looked away.
I hear he wasn't so popular.”
After a long pause she said, “You heard right. He was, well, not so easy to like, you know?” Then, “Look, I should be getting in, help Mom get dinner ready. It was good to see you, Blow. We should get together, have a beer, talk about old times.”
Blow nodded. “I'd like that, Joy. I actually came here to find Andrew Salzwedel. Have you seen him?”
She'd already started walking away, but turned back at his question. “He's here. Or was here. I don't think anybody's left yet. Andy's probly with that group over by the barn. Bye, Blow.”
Blow watched a moment as his old heartthrob resumed her walk across the gravel on her way to the house, and then he headed toward the men by the barn.

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