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The Bone Fiddle

Chapter Text

Prologue (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the first paragraph . . . well, for the whole thing really)

In the eastern part of the great North American continent, there lies a dense and rugged chain of mountains, which for many years served as a barrier against the advance of the westward landgrab. From western Pennsylvania to northern Georgia, from western Virginia to central Tennessee, from the Allegheny to the Kanawha to the Chattahoochie, is a region of ceaseless hills and ridges and perpetually shaded valleys.

The Appalachian mountain range is one of the oldest in the world. It was once higher than the Himalayas are now; only millions of years of erosion have brought it down to its current modest height. Before the current era of our point in continental drift, it was one with the Black Mountains of Wales and the Scottish Highlands. Politically speaking, the United States is a former British colony – but if one takes a very long view, the British Isles are stray bits of detritus from the mega-continent that once shared the same hills.

In North America, the Appalachian Mountains are dark and bloody ground.

 

Arthel County, West Virginia, November 1973:

Dusk came on early in the hills at this time of year. Up at the top of the valley, the edge of the stern, unbroken ridge, with its trees mostly bare and looking from a distance like bristly hairs on the back of a boar, swallowed up the pale sun in no time. So the Logan brothers, Mikey and Donnie Ray, and their friend Bill Harwood, straggled along through the dense woods and out into the brown meadow as quickly as they could with their field-dressed prey bobbing along behind them on a crude deer sled. The young buck wasn't done bleeding out, and left a trail of blood. There was also a leak in the canvas bag that Bill used to carry the heart and the liver.

The shadows were long, and starting to fade completely, back in the reaches of the cool grey woods. It was still a ways off to the deer blind and their crude campsite. But at least the weather was cold enough that the bit of ice they'd brought should hold out. The ice was for the beer – the deer would be fine in the cold creek overnight.

Mikey, the youngest, nearly jumped out of his skin when the chorus of whip-poor-wills started. Sign of death, that was the death-messenger's call. Never mind that they trilled their repetitive piping all night every night, so if that old saying was true, there'd have been nobody left alive for years. Still. They were summer birds. It was out of season. Donnie Ray laughed, "Still scared of the dark?"

Mikey flipped him off, with a hand still caked in deer's blood. The rifle slung over his shoulder bumped against his hip and he couldn't help but glance around him, into the deepening sky. A gunshot echoed in the distance, bouncing off the cliff edges overhead. "Reckon those guys could hit anything in this light?"

Bill shrugged. "Maybe they ain't huntin' deer."

"Shit, don't say that."

Donnie Ray laughed harshly. "My little brother's been jumpy lately. They been reportin' on those murders too much and he just eats it up. He thinks he's gonna be next."

Bill pulled a little bit harder on the ropes of the drag as the chill grew around them and the twilight deepened. "Thought it's all been girls so far."

"Latest one was a boy," Mikey said defensively. "All tore up. On the radio they said they think it was a horse and a truck 'at ripped him apart. Found an arm at one end of the field and a leg at the other."

"Lord have mercy."

"He's out here somewhere. Cain't be too far away. You know there's crazy people out here. Could be anyone."

"Well no," said Bill, trying to be a voice of reason. "Couldn't be just anyone, 'cause everyone ain't crazy as a shithouse rat."

"Well, some people are."

The sounds of brown leaves crunching underfoot let them know they were close to their camp, which they'd set up near an old hunting blind left over from last year as a helpful landmark, though the rotted canvas wasn't much use anymore. Behind it, the creek burbled and splashed, scraping against the frosty mud at its banks. Bill decided at last he was going to have to break out the flashlight to find the camping lantern, and he was looking forward to that cold can of beer with his name on it. When they got the fire lit, they'd see about some supper. He happened to swing the beam of light up to the edge of the blind and the hickory tree it rested on – and that was a mistake.

Hung in the lowest branches was a bizarre contraption made of bone. Bill felt a dizziness in his head as he came up to it, the Logan brothers surrounding him and starting to murmur, because there was no way in hell that thing had been there when they set up camp that morning. And that dizziness got worse and started to make a roaring sound in his ears, because he was a farmer and a hunter and he'd seen a lot of different kinds of bones in his 26 years, and these weren't deer or pig or cow or turkey, but he thought he was starting to figure out what they were.

There was a breastbone. And a slender armbone attached to it. And there was hair strung across it, stretched taut as a bowstring. And there was a long, slim bone in the branches beside it, strung with fine golden hair that caught the flashlight and glistened. Wasn't horsehair.

"Oh sweet Jesus lord," muttered Mikey, efficiently cursing and praying at once.

"We're not campin' here tonight," said Donnie Ray. "I don't care how far the truck is. I don't care how dark it is. We're gettin' out."

Bill couldn't disagree with that. He had to step a little bit closer just to get a better look at the thing though, and then it hit him just what it was supposed to be.

Some sick fuck had taken some human bones and a girl's long hair, and built a fucking fiddle.

They packed up the deer as best they could in the cold creek and the ice, but all of them knew there wasn't much chance they'd be coming back here soon if they could help it.

Still, Bill found his eyes drawn to the thing and kept looking behind him. It had a horrible sort of appeal. There were musicians in his family, not too far distant. Maybe somebody'd want it.

No, he thought. No, I oughta call the sheriff and report it. He probably would've done it, too, if not for the matter of that speeding ticket from July he still hadn't paid.

***

Chapter 1 - Take Me Home, Country Roads

The old Ford pickup truck made a rattling noise as it hauled itself up the steep grade to the little driveway. It was rusty and drab, but it was solid, and well worth the price of it in the classified ad in the paper. It had already gotten Dr. John Watson a lot further than he'd meant to go.

If John had been in any physical condition for it, he'd have kissed the ground when he'd touched down in the States again. But the ground wasn't kissing him back. And now, driving wasn't fun, with the leg being what it was. When he'd first emerged from Walter Reed and gotten himself a vehicle again, he'd driven six hours out of DC – only to wait four more hours in a gas-station line right outside of Roanoke, still with long miles to go on roads that would only get narrower and steeper and rougher.

This was what he'd come down to, then – an old family home ruined by strip-mining. His useless drunk of a brother hadn't even told him until it was too late to do anything about it, and John found himself staring up at a ruined ravaged hillside shaken by dynamite and choked by dust. Shit, the mountain was barely there anymore. It was like a giant open festering wound, the torn-up treeless ground, the naked, gouged rock being explosively stripped of its deep black seams of coal, and the stagnant pool that had turned colors that no water should ever be. Not so much as a standing burned chimney where the old house had been. One blast of those noises of trucks and backhoes and bulldozers and the roar of explosives was enough to tell John this was no place for a beat-up and prematurely-old veteran who still smelled napalm and burning jungle in his nose every night.

So it was the old family afterthought, then, that couple of acres near Stanger, that they'd never done much with. John thought maybe he'd seen it once – hell, he barely even remembered his old grandparents' place before his father had moved them over to Charleston back in the late 40s. When John did remember that old house, though, it was nice. This benighted patch of high grass and weedy trees, though, with the tiny drafty trailer?

Well, it was alright that it was small. John didn't have much, and he didn't need much, and as long as it didn't have those malarial Mekong mosquitoes, he'd cope. At least at this time of year, all the spiders in the outhouse should be dead; he'd had an incident with some eight-legged monsters at Âmurừng that almost did the Viet Cong's work for them.

So what if the tiny television didn't get any reception to speak of . . . and it had taken a week to get a telephone and it was all party-line . . . and hot water was scarce to come by . . . and the rusty propane tank just outside probably wouldn't make it through a good hard storm? He wasn't being shot at, and he wasn't spending his days alternating between way too much boredom and way too much excitement, which had all too often ended with John hands-deep in a torn bloody mess that had been a good man once – and which despite his best efforts and his medical training honed to second-nature, wasn't ever going to be one again.

Then he'd had his own turn being the bloody mess that someone else was tasked with saving.

***

There was already a wintry wind beginning to rise along the dark tops of the ridge.

John settled down into the narrow steel bed, burrowing into the wool Army blanket and the one homey touch, a second-hand quilt from the Goodwill store.

There wasn't much on the radio. Staticky weather report, chance of snow or sleet in the higher elevations. Country gospel – "When the Stars Begin to Fall." The little yellow lamp cast just enough light on the pages of the novel he wasn't absorbing. John shut off the radio and the lamp and let himself drift. He embraced a pillow and tried to abandon all thought into the sound of the wind whistling along the window caulking.

It might have been seconds later or hours, but noise tore the quiet darkness apart. What sounded like a slow-motion explosion. Gunshots – might have been a quarter mile away, might have been just in his head. And worst of all, a sort of roaring growl that ended in a high ragged shriek like a panther on the prowl or a human in terror.

John woke up in a cold sweat, which was just ridiculous to think about actually happening, but here he was in an unfamiliar, chilly room staring at black and blue shadows with his heart racing. It was better than waking up in the middle of a crossfire in the jungle, but that didn't mean it was any fun either. In fact it was kind of worse because it was supposed to be better.

Even the wind seemed to hold its breath now. It was the kind of silence that fell after a real noise in the world, not a phantom one in a dream.

Fuck.

The little clock said two-fifteen.

When he woke up the next time it was to a gunshot. He pushed down an icy instinctual fear and reminded himself it was well into buck season, and he'd better get used to it. He couldn't so much remember his dream as the all around sense of dread that carried over from it.

The alternative could've been worse, though, and he should count his blessings.

He gave up on sleep, got up and put a sweater over his pajamas and shuffled carefully to the window before fumbling around in the trailer's too unlived-in living space. He bumped into corners and tripped over cleaning supplies he wasn't even sure what to do with in the pre-dawn dimness, breaking the silence as violently as the gunshot had.

It was a dark night, a thick cloak of overcast hiding stars and moon, and a descending fog obscuring any remaining light. There was a cold wet smell in the air underneath the ubiquitous woodsmoke of autumn and winter. That scent carried far; there weren't any other houses visible from John's little yard, but he knew there were others nearby he'd been meaning to explore.

Old ground-in instincts were telling him he ought to investigate. What if someone needed help? What if someone was hurt? It's what doctors do. Other instincts were arguing with that one, pointing out that he had no backup, and he'd just arrived and should be cautious on unfamiliar terrain, possible hostile reaction to meddling, and had he really heard anything at all or was it all in his crazy bombed-out head? Maybe the noise was really happening on the other side of the world and he'd just brought it back with him. And what real use could he be to anyone in crisis now?

Nonetheless, he had his pistol out of its drawer and tucked into his jeans, just in case.

He peered out into the darkness, tried to glimpse a gaggle of hunters emerging from the woods to break up the monotony of the desaturated landscape, but there was nothing. It was so silent out there. It actually looked silent – and it was seeping inside like a physical force, without so much as a hint of icy wind to clack bare branches together.

John sighed to himself, said, "Well," to nobody, and set about organizing the place as best he could without bothering to turn on the single, inefficient light over the stove.

There wasn't much for him to do but unpack, and there wasn't much to unpack, either, so he spent the next few hours organizing what little did need unpacking while the sun rose cautiously in the background. He paused in his work to watch its beams struggle to penetrate the early morning fog, stood there with his mind blank until a solid little epiphany settled somewhere in his chest: John didn't know this area well enough, didn't know how the sun rose or how far the nearest, well anything was, but instead of feeling giddily free, out here alone with so much empty land around him he, felt suffocated by the not knowing.

After his plain, boring possessions were put onto their plain, boring shelves and countertops he rummaged around in the fridge. Of course it was essentially empty, so he ended up eating plain, boring food, too.

The alternative could've been worse. Most people probably enjoyed having simple lives. They wanted them.

He sat down at his table and surveyed his work. The trailer still looked sparse, and the morning light did nothing to warm it up. There was just the table, a few hard wooden chairs, and one rocking chair by the window in the way of furnishings, and John was wondering if it might be a good day to go back to the Goodwill store.

John munched on generic Cheerios without milk and looked outside into the silence again. Even if he could get reception on the television he probably wouldn't want to watch what was on it.

He sipped his coffee slowly and leafed through yesterday's paper from Beckley. Cold weather coming. War was still on. Oil crisis still on. Local boy killed in a wreck on the highway near Bluefield. Mining accident in Raleigh County. Strike down in Kentucky, turning deadly.

He wondered if today's news was going to show any improvement.

He looked outside again, sick of the unchanging view already. The supposedly two lane road he'd conquered on the way up here was more rocks and gravel than your standard dirt road, and it probably dwindled down into nothing in the middle of a field farther up the hill. It was one of those gradual, sort of lumpy hills that couldn't make up its mind about whether to give up on its lofty aspirations and just flatten out.

John heard the crunch of gravel for a good five minutes before a car melted into view out of the still lingering fog. There was just enough light reflecting off the fog to let John see the lights and insignia of the county sheriff's car moving as best it could up the grade. So either the road wasn't a dead end or the sheriff just lived up there – John couldn't quite fathom anything happening in this county more sinister than listening to Black Sabbath.

Well, he'll take care of it, John thought, feeling mostly relief and a slight, odd pang of something resembling disappointment.

Oh well. Time to resort to the old home remedies for cold nights and bad dreams: a bit of bourbon, hot water, lemon. No honey in the cabinet, shit, can't remember everything at the store.

Johnny boy, you're gonna go nuts if you can't find some way to be useful.

He was interrupted from nothing by a distant silhouetted figure making its way up the road. He stared at it for way too long before realizing he probably shouldn’t give his neighbors the impression he was a psycho right off the bat, backed away from the window and sat on his threadbare couch instead.

Suddenly there came a tapping at his trailer door.

John's leg twinged when he got back up to answer it, which was annoying because it only bothered him whenever he'd just managed to forget about the pain.

When he opened the door he saw a friendly-faced woman probably in her sixties standing there, juggling two foil-covered pans. "Oh gosh, ma'am, let me help you," he said, reaching instinctively for the plates

"I just wanted to welcome a new neighbor," she said with a shy little smile. The pans were still warm from her stove, and the scent that leaked through the foil was heavenly. They must have kept the chill out as she carried them. They turned out to contain a tuna casserole and a fresh apple pie. "I'm Mrs. Hudson and I live just up the hill a little ways."

John could see already that Mrs. Hudson was the kind of person who could smile a hurricane into submission, and probably had. "Pleasure to meet you."

"I saw your truck outside . . . can't remember the last time I saw one parked up here," she said, smiling him into submission without further ado.

"I'm John. I'm a doctor." What else was he supposed to say? God, it sounded bland to say it like that . . .

"Oh, you're so modest. The sheriff already told me you're a doctor and you were in the Army and you just came home from overseas. Thank you for your service, and..."

"Well, all that's true, ma'am. Did you walk here? Carrying all that?"

"Oh, it's no trouble. Although my doctor says I shouldn't, with my bad hip an' all, but I say we should use what we have until we don't have it anymore."

"That's wise," John nodded, finding himself beaming right back at her.

"You're new around these parts."

"Yes. Kind of. This is my grandparents' land, or it was. I'm just staying here till . . . Well, as long as I have to I guess."

"Well," she beamed. "Looks like I'm the designated welcome wagon! It don't look like much, I know, but Stanger is a good town. Good people." She nodded encouragingly, all earnestness. "Good people."

"Yes, it's nice and quiet." He realized he was making her stand outside on a decidedly inhospitable November morning. "Oh, sorry, uh . . ." John scrambled to step back and make way without wincing too obviously. "Please. Have a seat. I can't thank you enough, you're very kind. Share it with me – I wish I had more to offer but – " he gestured around the little room.

"Ooh, cold in here, isn't it?" Mrs. Hudson said, crossing the threshold. She pulled her shawl tighter around her tiny frame. "Well, it needs a little fixin' up, and that's a fact. I just want you to know, I live right up the hill, and I do love to cook and have company, and I just got me a brand-new washer-dryer from Sears, and any time you need anything or want to visit, you come on by. I have my bridge night with the girls on Tuesday and I go to church of a Sunday morning, but any old time you like . . . "

John grinned. She was awfully infectious. "Well, that's real kind of you, Mrs. Hudson. And if you need anything done around the house, you need stuff carried or driveway shoveled when the snow comes – " The leg will just have to put up with it, John thought defiantly at it. " – I'll be right there for you." He ripped a piece of newspaper off and wrote down his phone number.

"I see you favorin' that leg," she said softly. "Did that happen in the war?"

"Yeah, it sure did."

"It's a damn shame," she said, her mouth a sad line. "Mrs. Turner on Route 68 down yonder, her sister's boy lost a hand. I think she was even grateful for that, 'cause at least most of him came home. Still, it's awful hard. I'm glad you've come home."

"I am too," John said quietly, though he still wasn't sure home was quite the right word.

"So, you said your kin live around here?"

"They used to. My grandparents had a house about ten miles away, but it's gone. I don't have any kin to speak of left, not really."

"Oh, you poor thing. Well then," she said, "we'll just have to make sure you're looked after. It's not good for a young man to live alone, you know."

"Yeah. I mean, no. I mean you're right about that, and I do thank you for extending your hospitality, ma'am." God was this what social interactions were like for him, now? How was he supposed to cope with people more intimidating than Mrs. Hudson, who was apparently a more benevolent version of the nosy neighbor on Bewitched.

She put a comforting hand on his arm, and on second thought John could actually get used to a maternal figure dropping into his dismal trailer-bound life, from time to time. "Well then. Because you are new in town, you probably don't know about the dance this weekend. You should make an appearance, do you good. People will talk if you don't come, you know, and you wouldn't want that, now would you?"

John raised an eyebrow. "Got a lot of recluses in Stanger, huh?"

"Oh, all sorts will be there," Mrs. Hudson continued brightly. "You really should come down and join in the fun. Look at me and my hip! I can't dance without a lot of fuss, but that's not going to stop me from having a good time. Who knows, you may even meet someone, while you're there."

***

John succumbed easily. Just a day later, he called Mrs. Hudson on the party line, waited for interminable minutes while another conversation wound down – his attention wandered, but at least one voice on the line was compelling (a deep, fast-moving, articulate one, berating some poor conversational partner about how some local fiddler was a soulless mimic, and obviously the fiddle he was trying to sell was stolen, as the bridge was filed for the particular style of double-stopping used by Surry-County-style Tommy Jarrell devotees, whereas the fiddler himself was a G.B. Grayson imitator . . . oh God he never let up).

Finally John decided to just make himself walk up there – no matter how long it took – to see if she needed any help with anything.

His heart started racing when he saw the sheriff's car in her driveway. He reminded himself, C'mon, man, you've seen this car go up and down this road twice in the last 24 hours, odds are damn good the sheriff just lives up that hill.

Mrs. Hudson didn't need help – except with eating her fresh pot of beef and vegetable stew.

"I tried to call . . . " John said.

"Oh honey, it can be so hard to get through sometimes." She shot a chiding glance at the man at her table – the sheriff, obviously. John would guess early forties, graying, pleasant-faced. He rose to shake John's hand.

"Greg Lestrade, a pleasure to meet you, sir."

"Nice to meet you too," John said, a little weakly, though he returned the strong handshake. "John Watson."

"Welcome home," Lestrade said.

"The sheriff was just fillin' me in on the latest about the murders," Mrs. Hudson said, with a wry little smile. "Nothin' he's not allowed to tell, of course."

Sheriff Lestrade cast his eyes towards high heaven and sighed. "Fine welcome back for a vet, talkin' about the murders when he ain't even unpacked yet."

"Murders?" John said.

Lestrade sighed. "Nothin' to worry about for you, John."

She gave him a wink.

"Well, I'd best be heading on," said Lestrade. "Got an errand to run."

"Don't you be coy with me, sir," Mrs. Hudson said. "I know you're goin' up that hill again. There's no shame at all in asking for advice when you need it, not in times like these."

"You never miss a bit of traffic on this road, do you?"

"There ain't very much, so I notice when it happens. Now, you tell him that if he don't come down here for Thanksgiving supper like he promised, I'm gonna call you up and turn him in for runnin' a still. Again."

Lestrade gave a sigh that looked long-suffering. "You want me to tell him . . . that you'll report him . . . to me."

"Well, sure, I think it'd carry more weight comin' from the sheriff, don't you?"

The sheriff laughed. "Prob'ly not to him. Alright, ma'am, but you know I cain't arrest a man for missin' out on your cooking. Put him in the loonybin, maybe. Though there's those that say he belongs there anyway."

Mrs. Hudson's face grew suddenly stern. "I won't hear a word said against him, you know that."

"I sure do. You take care now. And you, sir – John. Welcome again!"

John gave a weak wave, and gratefully took the chair Mrs. Hudson offered.

As soon as the door was closed, Mrs. Hudson served a huge heaping of stew over potatoes, and fixed John with a look. "Well, yes, the murders, I know you want to know. Nothin' very near here, nothin' to worry about for us. And not that many. I mean, you were in the war, so . . . "

"No, it's okay, I don't scare easy."

"Of course not. It's just that there's been so many in every county nearby over the last year or so, and they ain't the usual. Weird ways o' death, weird places. Some of 'em were a mite bit gruesome. So sometimes, even the sheriff thinks he needs some help sometimes."

"Can't hold that against him," John said through a mouthful of gravy, "So where's he goin' then?"

"Well, you know I said we had all kinds," Mrs. Hudson said. "He's goin' to meet up with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, lives up at the very top of our holler. You know, the big house at the end of Route 221 – with the bees?"

John really wished he'd been able to make that walk, or at least taken the truck up there to see the place where the road dead-ended. Government maps told him the state road petered out just about a half mile above Mrs. Hudson's place, where the terrain began to rise into an unmapped mountain. It didn't surprise him that there'd be an old house there, but he did wonder what kind of person would want to live there.

Mrs. Hudson leaned in and lowered her voice: "He's the kind of person everyone goes to when they have a problem, but no one wants to admit it. I think it's shameful, the way they treat him. He's odd, but he's a good man."

And the mental image John formed came straight from the folktales of his childhood – an old hillbilly conjurer, the mountain man, a shaggy guy with a huge beard and very few teeth, in dirty overalls, with a shotgun perpetually on his arm – and a sort of rare, keen intelligence based on the kind of survival skills that people with cars and running water had long since lost. People like that were rare and hard to find even in the 40s when he was little – but he had met one, once, so he knew they were real. He decided he'd check out that house soon, if he could manage to do it discreetly and without collapsing when his leg gave out.

"So you will be goin' to the dance, then," Mrs. Hudson said, changing the subject deftly back to her latest fixation. "It's quite the place for singles to meet."

John sighed. "May I have the honor of escortin' you?"

She giggled. "Oh no, I have to get up early to cook for the church luncheon. But you bet I'll be askin' you all about it, so you better go, and I'll know if you didn't."

***

When John finally persuaded himself to wake the old truck again up for a trip into town, he turned it to the blacktop state road that intersected the tiny little glorified driveway that Route 221 had become so far from the town's heart. The longer he drove the more he relaxed, although that might've had something to do with the chew he was indulging in.

Stanger, like many other towns like it, had set up its main street along a thin strip of much-coveted and very rare horizontal land. A row of storefronts, a set of railroad tracks that crossed streets imperiously, a few iron bridges that crossed its little river, with all too little gratitude considering that river was the only reason Stanger had any flat land in the first place. Hills rose up sharply from either side, and were dotted with fading woodframe houses rising at crazy angles, connected with each other by steps and concrete earth walls smeared with green moss. From a distance it looked as modestly prosperous as it had once been, but the further into town you got, the more you saw the cracks in the walls, the boards and newspapers on windows of long-shuttered businesses – yeah, back in the 40s and 50s maybe a miner could have bought his girl a little diamond, but there wasn't much call for that these days, with a dwindling and aging population. It was the same all over the coalfields; Stanger was close kin to Hinton and Thurmond and Mullens and War and Oceana and Welch and Pineville and Matewan and Logan, and shared their fading fate.

When you really got close, you could see that many of the houses were leaning and swaybacked, their yards full of the brown skeletons of waist-high weeds.

It wasn't all desolation, of course, the little diner still did a bustling business, and so apparently did the couple of taverns on the outside of town that'd be as busy on Saturday night as the churches would be on Sunday morning. The Goodwill store was in good shape, the Woolworth's, the hunting and camping supply, the beer-and-grocery packette, the auto repair, the little gas-station-cum-restaurant-cum taxidermy shop. A locksmith, a shoe store, a little branch of a bank based in Charleston, the Moose Lodge, the UMWA, of course the ubiquitous VFW, just about the biggest building downtown bar a wall of very old warehouses. There was the sheriff's office, that's where Greg Lestrade would be whenever he wasn't driving up and down John's little road.

Nearest real hospital was probably . . . damn, Beckley, come to think of it, maybe Welch. John couldn't help but notice that. Stanger had some clinics and a dentist, but imagine if someone needed urgent help. You'd call the rescue squad, probably volunteers, and they'd get their ambulance out there as fast as they could, which wouldn't be very fast at all on these roads, especially in the winter. Funny the things you think about when you've been patching people up for years, John thought. The idea would never have occurred to him when he was a kid in these hills, climbing trees and jumping into cricks without the slightest thought of safety. No wonder his father had packed them all off to Charleston the first chance he got, looking for a better place to patch people up.

John had to be careful about the road he was on, headed west – if he let himself, he'd find himself at the ruins of the old Watson place just up the mountain. It really wasn't something he ever thought he needed to see again, but he was bound to pick that scab off sooner or later.

It took some effort to roll down the window and spit the chew out, but that burst of cold air was pleasantly refreshing. Well, alright. So his life here wasn't shaping up the way he imagined it. The very least he supposed he could do is go to that damn dance, and maybe treat himself to a new shirt.

***