wo women, both named Jane, heads down, horses’ heads down, rode into driving sleet. Even their horses had sleet, icy bits stuck to their long eyelashes.
O.J., Jane Winegardner’s nickname for the Other Jane, shouted to the tall older woman riding next to her. “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.”
“So much for the weather report,” said Jane Arnold, generally known as “Sister.” Chin tucked into her white stock tie, collar of her heavy frock coat turned up, she blinked to keep the sleet out of her eyes.
A stone fence appeared up ahead, then disappeared. The two walked their mounts in that direction.
Sister turned toward O.J. “Can’t hear a thing. You think we’d hear the horn.”
“I hope Glen has the hounds up by now,” said O.J., Master of Woodford Hounds, mentioning her huntsman.
When the joint meet started out on Saturday, February 1, low clouds blanketed the Kentucky sky, the temperature at ten in the morning hung at 34°F. The first cast started off hopefully: the Woodford Hounds, named for Woodford County, found a coyote line right off. The Jefferson Hunt, central Virginia, rode right up with the Woodford people, a courtesy extended to them by their host. Eighty people charged up over a hill from the main barn at Shaker Village in Mercer County.
Upon well-groomed horses, the riders in their best hunt gear had little trouble negotiating the hill as the ground remained frozen. So far the two degrees above freezing had no effect. The slipping and sliding would start in perhaps an hour. The cold air felt invigorating, the cry of the hounds exciting.
Like The Jefferson Hunt, Woodford Hounds did not hunt to kill but rather to chase. The Virginia hunt chased more fox than the Kentucky group, who flew across fields on coyotes running straight and fast. Usually the quarry would speed out of the hunt’s territory. Riders would pull up, waiting for huntsman and staff to bring hounds back, often grateful for a breather.
That’s how both Janes thought the day would go: hard runs, retrieving hounds and then casting them again for another fast go. O.J., MFH, along with Robert Lyons and new Joint Master, Justin Sautter, asked Sister Jane to ride with O.J. The two ladies would whip in, which means riding at the edge of the hounds where the huntsman assigned them. This was a bit like playing first base or third. The Masters didn’t expect Sister Jane to really whip in but all knew if she trotted out with O.J., she’d be rewarded with great views of the excellent hound work.
“The girls” were flying along when, within five minutes, a low howl came from the west: an unnerving noise. Neither woman paid much attention, the pace was too good. Sister Jane knew the sound of approaching wind well, as much as her huntable land nestled east, at the foot of the sensuous Blue Ridge Mountains. Sometimes the wind would howl overhead, not touching those below. Other times it cut you to the bone.
A few moments passed after the ominous sound, then trees bowed before the onslaught. The two Masters were hit full in the face. Clouds lowered, bringing an impenetrable freezing fog, what the tribes called a pogonip. The colonists kept the word. Sleet slammed the riders like the palm of a giant open hand. They could neither see nor hear.
O.J. knew this place intimately. She pulled up. She knew where she was when the sleet and fog hit but now had to feel her way, hoping a landmark would appear through the fog.
Turning her wonderful mare around, O.J. had the good sense to head back to the barn. The mare had a better sense of direction than she did.
The two women rode right up on the stone fence.
O.J. hollered, “Sister, if we back up to jump it, we won’t see it until we’re right on it. Let’s walk around to the right. We should come up on a creek. There’s a small hand gate there.”
Slipping, sliding now as the ground sloped down, their horses carefully walked along, keeping their heads low. Finally, they reached the creek and O.J. saw the small gate nearby when a swirl cleared her vision for a moment.
Sister Jane dismounted before O.J. could protest. Once both horses passed through, the older woman closed the gate.
“I’ll hold your horse,” O.J. yelled.
Seeing that her saddle seat was already covered with sleet, Sister thought the better of plopping in the middle of it. Her hands throbbed. She couldn’t feel her feet. “I’ll be warmer walking.” She ran up her stirrup irons, lifted Rickyroo’s reins over his head to walk on his left between both horses. That would shield her a bit from the fierce winds.
She opened her mouth to add something, but in a second it was full of ice bits. Sister Jane loved foxhunting. She loved being a Master but at this exact moment she questioned her sanity. She questioned O.J.’s, too.
Shaker Village in Mercer County, Kentucky, flourished between 1806 and 1923 when Mary Settles, the last Shaker, passed away. Like all Shaker settlements, this one died out due to the fact that Shakers did not believe in sexual congress and therefore no children were born in the villages. People joined the sect with children in tow. Eventually those children became seventy, eighty, a few even ninety years old. Without new recruits, these visually beautiful communities died out. Time passed them by.
Americans lost interest in the spiritual, quiet development fostered by the Shakers. While the lack of sex surely deterred many, another cause for the demise of such an unusual sect was the Industrial Revolution. This force grew and grew, devouring much in its path, most especially the desire to live simply.
Sister patted Rickyroo on the neck. A ten-year-old Thoroughbred, nearing eleven, he’d learned his job, carrying it out with energy but even this kind fellow had found the going difficult.
“Couldn’t they smell it coming?” O.J.’s mare asked.
“No,” Rickyroo replied. “You have to think for them.”
Another seven miserable minutes and the two lone humans finally made it to the barn. They could just see the outline of the roof. Inside was a much-needed welcoming party, Betty Franklin, Anne “Tootie” Harris, and Ginny Howard.
Although one is not supposed to dismount inside a barn, O.J. couldn’t stand one minute more of that lashing wind outside. Her friend Ginny Howard helped her down, putting O.J.’s hands between her own. Ginny took off her gloves, then rubbed the Master’s hands. The mare stood by patiently, grateful to be inside.
Betty Franklin, Sister’s best friend, quickly untacked Rickyroo for Sister couldn’t uncurl her fingers.
Tootie, a beautiful young woman, who had left Princeton in her freshman year to the horror of her socially conscious Chicago family to work with Sister, came up with a heavy blanket for Rickyroo.
“Honey, before you put that blanket on, rub some Absorbine on his back and down his legs,” said Sister, teeth chattering. “Wet a chamois cloth, make it warm, good and warm. Put that on his back just for a couple of minutes. Then wipe him down and toss the blanket on.”
Tootie spoke to both human and horse: “You must be frozen.”
“Hateful,” came the human’s one-word reply.
“Hateful,” Rickyroo echoed.
Betty took off Sister’s gloves, blew on her hands to rub them as Ginny was doing. “Your hands are cherry red.”
“They throb. The thought of taking my boots off fills me with dread.”
“Gray went back to your room to get things ready for you,” Tootie said.
“That’s a happy thought.” Sister loved her boyfriend for his thoughtfulness. That he was handsome didn’t hurt. She called him her gentleman friend—ever proper Sister.
“Ginny, what happened?” O.J. asked. “It was like a curtain of fog, sleet, and wind dropped.”
“That’s what happened. There was no hope so we turned back, everyone turned back.”
“Did Glen get the hounds up?”
“You bet he did.” Ginny smiled. “They didn’t want to be out either.” Ginny smiled.
“Good.” O.J. breathed relief.
Both Sister and O.J. loved their hounds. Being Masters, they were, in effect, the chief executive officers of their respective hunts. An overwhelming number of chores dropped into their lap but Sister sometimes thought her most important function was to patiently listen.
“Everybody ready?” O.J. asked.
“I haven’t cleaned my tack yet.” Sister wondered if her hands could do it.
Betty, saddle over her forearm, bridle over her shoulder, announced, “I’ll do it in my room. You rest. Don’t forget you need to be at your best at the dinner.”
Sister smiled. “We all need to be at our best. Woodford never does things halfway.”
Both Sister and Tootie, along with many other Jefferson Hunt members, stayed in the Long House at Shaker Village. Each of the original rooms remained as they had been built, though were now guest rooms with a shower and sink. No TV. No radio. Scrubbed wooden floors, chairs hung up on pegs to create more space, a nice bed with blankets, all bore testimony to the pure design of Shakers.
Standing outside the door to their room, Sister knocked, wincing as she did so.
Gray opened the door. “Honey, I’ve been so worried about you.”
Stepping inside, she allowed him to peel her out of her heavy frock soaked at the shoulders. She then wriggled her arms out of her vest. “The storms knocked out my cell phone, plus in that freezing torrent I couldn’t use it anyway.” She inhaled deeply.
“Here, sit in the chair.” He pulled a second one down off the wall for her. “I’ll undo your tie.”
“You’re an angel. There’s no way I could unfasten the pin.”
Gray expertly freed the long titanium pin, a gift from a friend, Garvey Stokes, owner of Aluminum Manufacturers, and also unfastened the two safety pins to hold down the ends of the tie.
She began to fill him in on the adventure. “A pogonip.”
Gray, African American and well versed in the old stories, murmured. “A bad sign.”
“Well, that’s what the Virginia tribes always said.”
“My grandmother, too.” Their eyes met. “Okay, beautiful. Be brave. You have got to get your boots off.” He pulled the big bootjack over for her. They always took a big bootjack when they traveled, just as she always took a heavy down comforter, a real necessity in these rooms without insulation. A few of the Shaker lodgings had horsehair in the walls but the wind rattled the hand-blown glass, finding every crack in the walls.
“Come on. I’ll hold the handle along with you but you need to get your boots off before the warmth makes your legs swell.”
“What warmth?” She felt a wedge of cold air from the window reach her as she stood with one foot on the bootjack the other in the slot where the heel would rest.
He laughed. “Come on. Better a short, sharp pain than a long drawn-out one.”
“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, whammo.”
“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.
From the Hardcover edition.