Chapter 6: In the ravine
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
The ravine is the one that runs to the west of the town, separating it from the hills on the other side. The Interstate bridges it, but otherwise there’s no way across it by car within twenty miles of town. Some of the newer developments on the south side of the Interstate run almost right up to the edge, but north of the Interstate there’s two miles of mostly vacant land between the town and the ravine.
There is one old road just north of the center of Farnham that goes out to the edge, but it’s unpaved for three-quarters of the distance and isn’t used by much of anyone except hikers. Supposedly there was once a bridge across the ravine at that point, and there are traces of a road on the other side, but it must have been a long time ago. And the road peters out in the hills. No one knows why anyone would have made a road out there.
Mac took Doc and me out in his cruiser, with Doc riding up front. Doc was there to serve as medical examiner and coroner. Me? I was there as deputy sheriff officially, and possibly for my ability to raise ghosts.
Yes, deputy sheriff is my third job. You see, Mac used to have a problem. Anytime he had to arrest a woman of any age, he had to round up a female volunteer to check her over, or find himself possibly the subject of some sort of sexual harassment lawsuit. And there were enough working girls plying their trade in town that this was a constant problem.
Well, a few months after I started working here as a waitress, a drunk customer got too free with his hands, my nightfeathers broke out of their glove, and he ended up having to be shipped to the nearest hospital with broken bones and “lacerations of unknown origin,” as Doc termed them. That’s how Doc and Mac found out about my hand, and it gave Mac two ideas. He managed to convince Nick to switch me from being a waitress to being a bartender, by pointing out that it would be better for McNaughten’s if I were helping to shut down fights rather than being the cause of them. And he hired me as a part-time, on-call deputy sheriff.
So we drove out on the old ravine road. I’d never been out this way, myself. So I was taken by surprise by the one house sitting by itself about a mile out of town. It was a one-story ranch house that was in need of a paint job, and the grounds were just scrub. No car in sight, nor a garage. “Who lives there?” I asked.
Doc Helen said, “Catherine Wise. I should look in on her on our way back.”
“Who?” I thought I knew almost everybody in town over twenty-one.
“Crazy Cathy,” Mac chimed in.
“Oh.” Crazy Cathy I knew, just hadn’t known Wise was her surname. She was the town’s enigma. She wasn’t quite sane, she wasn’t quite poor, when you talked to her she made sense about 25% of the time, and she was always sick with something. She came into McNaughten’s twice a month like clockwork, once for dinner, once to drink as much beer as she could hold, so she couldn’t have been completely nuts.
She was one of Doc’s patients. I’d asked Doc about her once. Doc replied, “Let’s just say that when they deinstitutionalized the mentally ill a few decades back, some didn’t adapt well and there wasn’t anyone to help them. Crazy Cathy’s one of those who didn’t adapt. And she’s not really crazy, she’s just . . . well, I can’t say more without violating her privacy, so let’s leave it at that.”
As we passed her house, I had to say to myself: that is what I’d expect Crazy Cathy’s house to look like. There wasn’t anything else on the road until we got to the parking area by its end. This was nothing more than a bare area devoid of vegetation that hikers’ cars had made over the years. There was one car there, with a tanned couple, probably in their late twenties, standing there in hiking gear and shorts. They were clearly day-trippers given the size of their packs.
Mac stepped out, walked over to the couple with Doc and me trailing behind. “I’m Sheriff Jason MacGregor. You the people who called me up about a body in the ravine?”
Usually it’s the guy who speaks for a couple. Not this time. The woman was the one who spoke up. “Yes, we are. The body’s down at the bottom, maybe fifty yards to the right of where the trail comes out.”
Mac asked, “You want to come with me and show me?”
At that, she got an uncomfortable look on her face. So did the guy. In fact, he’d been wearing one from the first. She replied, “We’d rather not, if it’s all the same with you. You can’t miss it. And we didn’t disturb it or anything. We just saw . . . well, you’ll see.”
Mac grunted, waved for us to come along, and we headed to the trailhead at the lip of the ravine. I got almost all the way there and came to a standstill. I looked around, thought about what I was seeing, and shuddered.
Doc was behind me. She asked, “Something wrong?”
I looked back at her. In a low voice, I replied, “Yeah. This is where I saw the ghosts last night.”
Doc’s eyes narrowed. She said, “Tell Mac when we get down there. He already knows about last night.”
The trail down, if you ask me, is a trail in name only. There are stretches where you have to grasp for handholds and footholds along a rock face. And I’m afraid of heights, except when I’m flying. It was a nightmare getting down. I hated to think of what it would be like on the way up.
The bottom of the ravine is a dried-up watercourse that runs only in the spring. On the other side, it slopes up steeply into the hills. On this side, there’s a ledge of about five to twenty feet in width between the ravine wall and the watercourse. At least that’s what it was like here. I’ve since learned that the ledge sometimes runs on one side, sometimes on the other.
We’d gone maybe fifty feet when the corpse came into view. I think there’s an instinctive revulsion to death and deformations of the human body, and in its current shape the corpse exhibited both. I couldn’t look at it, even knowing I would have to at some point.
Mac was the first to comment. “Well, that’s the end of Crazy Cathy.” He sounded regretful.
Doc used her clinical tone of voice. “She was dead before she hit bottom, Mac. There’s nothing here that could break up her body like that. I’m going to have to do an autopsy.”
Next thing I knew, Mac was turning me around to look at him. He said to me, “You see Crazy Cathy out when you were out this way, Sanderson?”
I shook my head. But I was uneasy. The way I had explained it to Doc, she had assumed I’d been on foot out this way, because she didn’t know I could fly. Thing is, Cathy could have been out near the ghosts, and I might not have noticed her. So I took refuge in a certainty. “Her house is the nearest one to where I saw the ghosts coming over.”
Mac looked at me curiously, as if I’d said something wrong. Then he shook his head, turned to Doc. “Can you do anything here, or do I need to get a helicopter in here?”
Doc kept to her clinical tones. “Order the helicopter. I’ll do what I can.”
Mac took out his cell phone, only to find that reception was zero in the ravine. He turned to me. “You coming out with me, or staying with the Doc?”
Doc Helen chimed in. “Go on with Mac, no one’s going to bother me here.”
I demurred. “I’ll stick around.”
“Suit yourself,” was all Mac said, before heading back to the trail up the ravine wall.
He’d barely got out of sight when Doc turned to me. She gave me a quizzical stare. Guess it was my day for them. Eventually, she said, “I didn’t think you were up for it, but if you want to try some of your black magic hocus-pocus on Crazy Cathy, I’m not against it.”
My stomach turned just thinking of how that would go. “I thought you were going to do an autopsy.”
She shrugged. “What am I going to report? Massive trauma. I can tell she was dead before someone tossed her down here. Mac will look for clues when he gets up there. But if your ghosts are involved, then maybe we need a ghost to answer our questions.”
Sometimes Doc Helen amazed me. She had seen me raise a ghost from a corpse once, and now to her it was a reasonable approach. Of course, it now meant I had to stand nearer to the corpse to make the process work. It didn’t always.
So I got out of my backpack what I needed: a fine cotton handkerchief, a flask full of Scotland’s finest beverage, and a small bar of sterling silver that fit in my hand. Since it was just the two of us, I stripped off my gloves. The nightfeathers fluttered a bit, much like my nerves. I held the handkerchief in my right hand, and poured some of the scotch on it, enough to have it soak through. I took a swig of it myself, and then started to put the flask back. But Doc Helen stopped me, took it, and had a swig herself. She handed it back to me, saying, “I don’t know about you, Seffie, but this makes me nervous.”
I’d mentioned my old nickname to Doc one night when I was crying on her shoulder. Since then, she’d only used it once or twice when we were being very personal with each other. Somehow, her use of it now and her admitting she was nervous buoyed me up. I wrapped the silver bar in the handkerchief, strode over to the largest part of the corpse, and held the handkerchief tightly in my right hand, while I began the invocation for the raising of the dead.
The invocation takes only a few minutes to run through, particularly when you mumble it, like I usually do. But the end I have to enunciate clearly and loudly. “I, Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson, magician proved by trial and practiced necromancer, do hereby summon ye spirits of the dead, to hold converse with me until ye have answered all that I demand of you. Spirits, answer my call.”
By this point, my entire body was shaking, as much due to nerves as magic. The nightfeathers were trembling as they pointed down at the corpse. And it was as if everything stopped for a moment, maybe even two. Nothing moved. You could not even hear the sounds of the insects.
And then everything went wrong.
I would have thought at first that the north road to the ravine would be a good place for teenagers to drink beer and make out (thus leaving litter), but between Crazy Cathy and the possibility of the kids’ sensing ghosts (or at least unsettling things) it may not be the most popular spot for such activities.
Nice suspense in the next-to-last paragraph. I’d like to have seen a bit more of a hint in the very last paragraph of the sort of thing that “went wrong,” though. Just a hint, though.
Wouldn’t be surprised if some teenagers do hang out there, but probably not many. Farnham has no high school, so the kids in grades 9-12 get bused an hour away. They make friends there, and the social life is better than in Farnham. And they aren’t the only ones looking for an isolated spot.
As to more of a hint about what happens next, let’s discuss that after you find out. 😉
Awh, you wicked writer, making us wait for the morrow. I agree with E.J.Barnes: Nice suspense to end on. But, a question on American culture: Does a sheriff equate to a policeman? Only that’s not happened in England since pre-Hastings. A Saxon sheriff was a reeve (lawkeeper/official elected by the shire). A Norman sheriff was a deputy to an earl or count, with chiefly administrative duties which might include a touch of beefy business.
What a sheriff is and does varies greatly from state to state, and popular culture offers yet another twist. Fundamentally, sheriffs are county officials, charged with a combination of administrative duties and keeping order. That we borrowed, mostly, from England. They are usually elected.
Beyond that, it depends on what part of the country you’re in. In some states, sheriffs and their staffs do little more than maintain county jails, keep order in county courtrooms, and hire out as process servers and the like. In other states, they command great patronage, because they carry out a number of county functions, most notably tax collector. The farther west and south you go, the more likely the sheriff and his deputies are responsible for law enforcement inside the county, except for incorporated municipalities, which have their own police force.
Complicating matters, in the Old West of the movies, the chief and often only law enforcement officer is usually called a sheriff, though technically he was or should have been a sheriff’s deputy. I note with amusement that the British cinema adopted this practice in their westerns.
That’s actually Mac’s situation: he’s a sheriff’s deputy, reporting to the sheriff of Decatur County, which includes Farnham. Farnham is way off in the northeast corner of Decatur County, and “you can’t get thar from here,” so, rather than send someone up from the county seat every time there is a crime in Farnham, the sheriff commissioned Mac as his deputy and sent him up there permanently. Since he’s the only law enforcement anyone in Farnham saw, until he hired Sanderson, they all call him “sheriff.”
Incidentally, in Massachusetts, counties are vestigial, and the sheriffs generally manage some county facilities and work as process servers. But the Middlesex County Sheriff has one unusual duty: he officially opens all Harvard University Commencements. The story goes that in the old days, the students were a bit rowdy.
They sound more Saxon than Tudor – yet they ought to have evolved from the Tudor sheriff (or later) because of the time of colonisation. Odd, like they’re a kind of throwback’. I wonder how much influence there was frin other immigrant nationalities.
More likely it was settlement patterns. Weak counties were the rule in New England, strong counties in the south, intermediate in-between. The differences were due both to the different origins of the colonists, and their preferences in settlement patterns. Strong counties formed where settled towns were few, while weak counties formed where most people settled in towns that had central settlements.
After the Revolution, a standard procedure developed of establishing a territorial government according to set rules, and one of the first things most territorial governments did was to divide up the territory into counties, some of which would exist only on paper until the Indians were removed and settlers allowed in. Since the counties were the only local government at first, they generally followed the strong county (“Virginia”) model.
But surely where the south had been settled by Spanish, and Mississippi through to Quebec by French, this must have made a difference to whatever system was the overlaid it. Then again, some areas were densely settled by Dutch, by Germans, by Scandinavians, that all must have made a difference. Or did it come too late? C19th maybe.
The Dutch influence in the Hudson Valley did affect land ownership and local governance into the 19th century (leading to the only feudal insurrection in U.S. history, in fact), but the English imposed their system of counties on the state immediately after taking over.
Despite their extensive holdings, actual French colonial settlement was fairly thin outside of Louisiana. Despite efforts by Anglo settlers to “normalize” Louisiana, it still retains some peculiarities, including the use of civil law, not common law, and the subdivision of the state in parishes instead of counties. However, the sheriffs are of the strong county form, with a fair amount of patronage.
The Anglo settlers in the Southwest had little regard for their Hispanic predecessors at the time they took over, and simply imposed the system of government they knew. The same thing happened in Hawaii, despite its existence as an independent kingdom prior to the American pineapple growers taking over.
The German influence in Pennsylvania and New Jersey may have shaped the role of sheriffs and counties at one time, but I have no information on that. They both seem to have ended up with hybrids of the strong/weak sheriff system.
Scandinavian influence in the Upper Midwest came too late to affect county government.
Due to a quirk in the way it was organized, Alaska has no counties and no sheriffs.
Don’t be embarrassed about not knowing most of this; neither do most Americans. (And they should.) People pretty much accept their local governments as is and don’t think much about them, or look into the details. If they move, they’ll briefly marvel that their new home state sure does things weirdly, but that’s about it. This was the sort of topic that interested Victorian-era historians in this country, but almost nobody since.
I admit, like most Brits, to a very shaky comprehension of American history – despite many novels read set in colonial days. I knew of the many other nationalities who ‘set up home’ in the New World. and had assumed each contributed to subsequent developments. I hadn’t realised quite how thorough the British contingent had affected outcomes.
Historical fashions have changed, too. In the 1950s-1970s, there was a great wave of studies talking up the influence of the non-WASP immigrants. However, few came over before the 1840s, and the great wave is between 1880 and 1910. More recently, books such as David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed” have successfully argued for the enduring influence of the four major English pre-Revolutionary colonial cultures.
Enduring indeed. There must have been some strong personalities with deep-rooted beliefs amongst them. If such was the case, it today’s America is testimony indeed.
The last sentence is a great lead in for Chapter 7. I just love chapters with ‘developments.’
I debated on how much to say. Only people reading chapter 7 will tell me if I got it right.
Oh, I wanted to say that I totally identify with the reluctance to climb a steep wall of any kind. I admire those intrepid rock climbing sorts, though cannot quite fathom the brave/foolhardy drive to do it. While living in the Philippines on Clark AFB a boyfriend and I snuck out the side gate and ventured into some vertical cliffs we called’ the palisades.’ From a distance they looked cloaked in the softest green velvet, but climbing was trying to drag oneself upwards in dry dirt pulling at various twigs and growth as you could…which would sometimes pull right out of the ground. At last I reached a pinnacle of sorts but I ended up stradding a narrow ridge with a long drop on either side. I was positioned about 7 feet below the plateau we were seeking. My boyfriend made it to the top no problem but I was frozen on the ridge, afraid to stand or reach my arms up to be pulled to the plateau for fear of falling one way or the other. Ultimately, I did stand and was hoisted safely to the surface. I remember the profound relief only a near death (perceived at least) experience can give! To my utter delight a Filipino gentleman we met pointed out a much tamer path back down. Not sure what he thought of the foolhardy Americans. While it qualifies as the most scared I have ever been; it is also one of my favourite memories.
Not sure Doc or Sanderson will leave with good memories or escape without fear of something far less tangible than a steep climb.
My own fear of heights is limited to places where I feel insecure, with a mountain top fire tower swaying in the wind being a far too common example.
The closest I’ve come to either your experience or that of our protagonist was scaling up the Hudson Palisades in New Jersey. But the story is not as interesting as yours!