Light was just beginning to filter into the green leaves that held up the ceiling of Mickle Smith’s pasture. For as far as one could venture their gaze, there was no color to be found except for the varying shades of Mississippi green. Deep greens shadowing tarragon shades of life fell out across the field until it was only subtle shading differences, leaves and grass, that were noticeable at all. Mostly it was a rolling, slowly waving green canvas named for Mickle Smith who fought hard but died with a traitor’s label on his grave during the Civil War. It was a misunderstanding and his name had carried forward through history without the stigma of his circumstances. His name remained current in Magnolia daily life even after most everyone forgot the man and his struggle.
From where he sat on the stack of river stones, still loading his gun in the open field, Elijah could see the outline of the dog’s body standing fifty yards away. The distance wasn’t unusual, it was a healthy hunting distance, but the dog charged wildly about the trees, and, for John Lander’s blue heeler, that was unheard of. Graham Fitch Jr. tried never to move too quickly at any time of the day or for any reason. Cats could cross his path without response and cars could drive by without causing a chase. It was just his way. Some had gone so far as to try appealing to his herding sense but it seemed as though Graham Fitch was a dog separated from his breeding.
Elijah looked hard at the line of trees in front of Graham but he saw nothing and, try as he may to knock the Vicks out of his nose, Elijah couldn’t smell either. He knew the importance of smell to a man in the woods but his hunting had waned over the years and he’d gotten lax.
Ever since he was a child, there had been talk in town. Stories had floated amongst the elder men about wild cats roaming the backwoods of the rural South. Elijah never wanted to believe them but with a shudder slowly sliding down his spine, he wondered if the dog might have discovered one straying from its path. It would explain the dog’s sudden dive into animation. Elijah was from Magnolia and he’d never come to fear much but a cat was an entirely different set of troubles when compared to the normal run ins with deer and turkey and even moccasins.
With his gun loaded and lifted level with his eye, Elijah held both hands tight, one balanced on the trigger, as he stood up and began a trepid walk over to the dog. His feet moved slowly, methodically stepping lightly through the snakey grass while his trembling courage wondered how he might stand down a panther. He’d never been that type of man who hungered to be proven.
He lifted his eye to gauge the dilemma and he could see the dog’s interest turning from the trees to the ground. His mind eased and his courage stood down at the same time as his shoulders fell because he knew, in terms of his own experience, it couldn’t be a live cat. Not even Graham Fitch Jr. would put nose to the ground in the face of a black panther.
His feet jumped and Elijah quickened his pace, closing the distance between he and Graham. He could feel his chest rise and fall with the heavy breaths such exercise induced. If he was honest, he’d have to admit he was a lot like John’s heeler. He didn’t like to move too quickly at any time of the day either. He liked rest and he liked hunting as long as the hunting was slow paced and leisurely.
Elijah knew something wasn’t right but from where he was standing he could hardly see the outline of the stranger’s face. He brought his eyes to the place where the dog stood trying hard to focus a shape but, covered in grime and a lengthy beard, it didn’t look much like a face at all. Lying in the ground the way it was Elijah could barely tell the browning face from the ruddy dirt.
“What’s it boy?” Elijah asked the dog but John Landers’ Blue Heeler kept rounding the mound snorting and sniffing and on occasion letting out a high pitched, come and help me sort of bark. “Hey ya, Peter Rabbit,” Elijah yelled back over his shoulder. He was still eyeing the face before him, as he carefully sat his gun against the crumbly bark of the oak tree and edged himself closer to the face, “would ya take a look-a- here?”