Today is Sunday, June 25, 2017

The old house in the hills

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Is there something floating, just above the old porch? Is that you God? KEN ETCHISON photo

Nothing much happens in Rutledge. Once the bustling center of a small plantation community, it is now just the decaying remnants of time passing by.

Only the old, general store, itself, weathered and listing, showed signs of life. Rutledge is just a town the wind blows through on its' way somewhere else.

It is here, just in front of the store that the road to the hollow turns off. I parked near the neglected, weed grown cemetery.

I paused as I usually did and tipped my hat to Col. James C. Rutledge 1800-1865, CSA, the late master of the late plantation.

The wind moaned through the naked branches of the huge oaks that shaded the cemetery and skiffs of snow scurried across the frozen ground as I moved on again. It was, for lack of a better word, a bleak day. A winter day. The new special season for private land hunting and the killing of anterless deer only, was a good thing. But I could have asked for better weather. Wonder how many hunters, especially those with full freezers will venture out?

Frozen ground crunched under my heavy boots as I walked the now half-overgrown road into the hollow. From a turn in the road, I caught sight of the roof of the old house. The old house in the hills. She stands at the edge of the grown field, looking out over the hollow. A notch in the hills let the wind whine through her still standing, brick chimney and gush through the paneless windows.

Over a century of summers have bleached her walls. The winters have tossed her shingles and peeled her paint. For many years she has stood silent, alone. Gone are the kids and company that often made her porch ring with laughter and music. Coon hunters say that on a still, cold night, they sometimes hear the plaintive notes of the fiddle and the ring of a banjo. They say only hunters can hear it. I don't know. I never have but strange sounds ride the wings of the wind. That I know. Sometimes, I think maybe God talks to me, here. I hope he does.

The bow rides lightly in my gloved hand. My right hand clutches a pocket hand-warmer as I move past the house.

I think once of the yellow flowers that fight their way above ground in the spring. I think of Col. Jim. I can see him coming home, dressed in tattered grey, limping from the pain of the miniball still in his festering leg. There were probably few deer here then and even less some years later.

The deer, the herd as it is now, is of recent vintage. They are newcomers with less than four decades to their lineage.

The newcomers, these recent arrivals to the late Rutledge Plantation are drawn to the area around the old house. In spring it is the fresh new growth that crowds the fields. In summer the succulent green browse rings the old, field edges. In autumn it is the choice acorns that come from the huge oaks and the opportunity for the does to be seen in the open but fallow fields.

During the rut, they place themselves on display for the bucks that rub the young trees in the wood line and make scrapes under the low branches of the beech trees. In winter, I don't know why the deer come any more than I know why I come. Maybe they come for the grass that stays somewhat green all year.

I'm in the woods behind the house now. My pace slows and I pause often in the lee of big trees. The wind is bitter.
Why am I here today? I don't need to kill anything. In fact, I tell myself, I am not even really hunting. If I were, I'd have my rifle instead of my bow. I'm just out and about. Just visiting a place that died.

Above me in a huge, old cedar, there are the decaying remains of an old treestand. I wonder if a Rutledge built it. Nothing left but part of the board seat.

Still, probably too recent for a Rutledge. They've been gone over 30 years. Good place though. In a beech tree, to my left, is a set of initials-CMR-that would be Mr. Charlie Rutledge, I suppose. I showed them to Jason once and he said Old Charlie must have been a hunter too.

I imagine him hunting here as a boy maybe just a year or so older than Jason. It would be just as the deer started to come back to this part of the state.

No, Charlie has been dead longer than that; mustard gas got him, they say.

Perhaps whoever built the stand was a bowhunter, too. Perhaps he too missed a buck out of that maple. Maybe his broadhead is stuck in that hickory tree with mine. No, the hickory would not have been here then. The tree is less than 20 years old.

I stop at the edge of the woods. Across an abandoned, fallow field, I see movement. A young doe steps from the far tree line. She is joined seconds later by another and then a third doe. They browse half-hearted in the frozen grasses. I could try a stalk but most likely it would fail. Besides, I'm not really hunting.

They look sharply at the remains of the old orchard. Did they see something or did they just imagine a tree full of ripe apples. I've done that.

Suddenly, all three deer look sharply toward the old house. Can they hear the singing or the ring of a banjo? Do they hear children laughing or the slam of the door? What is it about the house that has them worried? What can they know, these newcomers? Do they see something that seems to be floating, just above old tin roofed porch? I think maybe, I do. The lead doe turns and walks stiff-legged back into the trees. The others follow. I notice that I have been holding my breath. Like a jump-started car, I begin to breathe again. What do the deer know that I don't? Why have they come?

I cross the rock fence in a spot fallen down. I think, as I always do of the slaves that built it -- ancestors of Pop, owner now of the old store.

Thoughts of Pop instantly remind me of the big pot of homemade chili he has on the stove. Just 75 cents for a big bowl and all the crackers you want. I wipe my runny nose on the handy, left sleeve of my jacket and circle back toward the old house and the road to the truck. I walk quicker now, almost tasting the chili.

As I crest the hill, near the turn in the road, the wind gusts through the gap in the hills. I stop suddenly. Was it the wind in a treetop or was that a fiddle? I stand a minute.

I can hear the clinking of a chain against the stone gatepost. Or is it the ring of a banjo fighting away the bleakness of a winter day a century ago? Perhaps an old servant playing while the women cooked and the men hunted. There were hunters aplenty then, hunters like me.

But I'm not really hunting today. I'm just out and about. Maybe I just came to hear the music. I'll have to tell Jason about this.

We'll come in the late summer to place his stand in a tree. Maybe the maple. It will be his first year to hunt.

Perhaps he can hear the music of the old house in the hills.

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