Tuesday, Oct. 1
In the hour before dusk, sun whitewashed the sycamore branches arching above Copperhead Lane. The Hughes River fell fast and free in a tango with the road’s turns. A sprinting cold front refreshed the hollow, trumpeting autumn’s first frost.
The brunette driving a battered BMW sped out of Fairleigh’s drive and downshifted into the first of the S-curves that gave the gravelly stretch of road its name.
Tip Tyler followed in his pick-up with its cargo of produce, windows down, grill blanketed by mud from the sedan. The Dodgers-Cardinals playoff game faded in and out on the tinny speakers of the Studebaker ½-ton, but the home team was up, 3-2, top of the third.
In this part of rural Virginia, old pickups were common. Vintage German sedans were rare as celibate priests. Tip’s sister Ting, the Beemer’s owner, considered the old four-door so essential to a matriarch’s life that she’d kept it well past 200,000 miles. Ting Tyler had imported the 5-Series back to Rappahannock County after a rent-to-buy tour of Germany in ‘93. At first, it was the town car she used to visit her horsey friends in Middleburg. Since then she’d driven it across every rutted trail at Fairleigh, the Tylers’ 200-acre riverfront spread in the county’s southernmost corner. These days it took her to the weekly Culpeper farmer’s market, bushels of her renowned organic beets in the trunk.
A more customary vehicle for a Piedmont matriarch might be a tree-hugger’s green Subaru or a soccer mom’s Honda Pilot. The ride of choice for most locals living up every hollow would be a rusted red pickup.
She’d dubbed it Silver Cloud. Beneath its gap-toothed front hung a red and white Virginia tag: Farm Use.
Tip trailed, the pickup’s shocks creaking with each swerve.
But the driver ahead, home long enough to drop her backpack, had been antsy in his presence.
Her awkward silences on the 78-minute ride home from Dulles that afternoon had removed all doubt about where he stood with her. With them. Maybe it was as she’d said: She loathed northern Virginia’s suburban sprawl; couldn’t wait to be back amid Blue Ridge rock and pine. Loved sunset. But he knew. No one to blame but himself.
So here she was joyriding up ahead, destination Red Oak Mountain. Both drivers crested a knoll offering a westerly view, close-in hillocks lushly green. Their more distant brethren rose bluish-gray, a chromatic tribute to the preserved union’s contestants.
The smell of fresh manure wafted into the truck’s cab as they passed Fairleigh’s last pasture on the left, occupied by three dozen Black Angus and their knock-kneed offspring.
“Bases jammed with Dodger Blue,” droned Mike Shannon, the Card’s longtime radio voice. Tip remembered him as hometown rookie back in ’62. “Full count on Ramirez.”
He saw Silver Cloud hug Copperhead’s precarious edge, clearing a path for an oncoming tractor hauling bales on a flatbed. Tip slowed and raised two fingers to Pump Zeigler, chugging to his pasture back up the road. Once Tip was clear, the lead car was already out of sight.
He’d spotted her outside of Arrivals, carrying only the backpack. He saw how she’d aged.
He dropped the visor for a look in the mirror, left hand at 12 o’clock, instinct comparing the fresh reminder of her features with his. Same hazel eyes, though his were getting on rheumy. She had the olive complexion of her great-grandma Esperanza, Taz Tyler’s California treasure. Had her mother’s freckled nose, thank goodness. His own was reddened by hours in the orchard sunshine.
He flipped the visor up as he passed the Hannah Run Meeting House, branches of its majestic Founder’s Oak clearing the green tin roof. Too late, Tip waved to Pastor Cletus Mahan riding a mower around the grass carpeting the stucco home of local Baptists since 1762.
Tip spotted the Beemer again and snuck a peek over his shoulder. Blackie had settled between the apples and the beets, nose quivering, tail keeping its own time. She was part Labrador retriever, part breeder’s lie; sooty black but for the tattletale white paws. His Labradoubt. He’d christened her Arkansas Black after the heritage apple blended in his artisanal brandy.
The sanctifying cirrus promised a classic sunset over the heights of Shenandoah National Park. By dinnertime, there would be no color, no light but for a flicker or three, leaving Rappahannock cloaked in pitch black. When folks ‘round here sung the county’s praises, they ticked off: No interstates, no fast-food chains, no supermarkets. Oh, and that midnight shroud. Our prized asset.
The BMW zipped into the last hairpin before Sharp Rock Road and disappeared.
Screech of metal. Shatter of glass.
Tip’s stomach seized.
The grinding receded into a sickening last crunch as he rounded the bend.
“GodDAMN! Not again!”
He braked hard, apples flying, as he spotted the white tail staring from the road. Startled look as always; wide-eyed, haughty. But … a tic, a tremor. Blackie leapt out of the truck bed in full pursuit as the fawn bounded to the opposite bank.
In the tangle of roadside brush, Tip saw the dusky doe, prone. Its red-stained forelegs stretched to 11 o’clock; hind legs twisted at 5. A second fawn; motionless. No match for steel belts.
Purple, he thought. The deer. Purple deer?
The jagged oak trunk showed the path of the sedan’s disappearance. Tip jerked the door open.
“Strike three! Slider, inside corner!”
He peered below. A hundred yards on, the car rested roof down in the pebbled riverbed, mangled grill facing him. Water swirled in the windows.
He scrabbled down the bank.
Where’s my daughter?
“MARLEY!!” he boomed. “MARLEY TYLER!! Talk to me!”