The Farrier’s Tale

        By Tom Word

Charlie Falk shoed horses—and mules.  He was good at it, and his charges were in line, so he earned his share of the quail-plantation trade.  On a six-week rotation, he’d spend a day at a plantation’s barn, trim and fit and nail and crimp, and leave his bill in the tack room.

Charlie had been born and bred in Thomas County, son of a pecan and cotton farmer who’d owned a small pie-shaped piece of the red hills between two Yankee-owned plantations.  When drought and low crop prices forced him to sell, a straw man bought the land for the neighbors, who split it down the middle.  The house where Charlie had been born served now as the manager’s house for one.  If Charlie owned that land today, he’d be a rich man, a thought that crossed Charlie’s mind every time he drove past it in his battered truck with the propane forge and the tools of his trade in the back.

Charlie didn’t resent the rich folks who wintered on the great plantations, not much anyhow.  A student of human nature like his father, Charlie knew they had their share of misery too—their money didn’t insulate them from life’s sorrows.  Charlie took pride in his craftsmanship and his integrity, but not in a bragging way.  He was also blessed with a good sense of humor.

Thomas County was far from a classless society.  In many ways, it was more like Great Britain than like the rest of Georgia.  At the top of the social ladder perched the plantation owners.  Once all Yankees, they now fell into two camps: the old-money descendants of Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, with off-season addresses above the Mason-Dixon line (plus third and fourth addresses in Palm Beach or Maine, Aspen or Sun Valley), and the New Money Boys.  They’d made it big on Wall Street or State Street or in Silicon Valley or Atlanta, with hedge funds or high-tech companies or real estate.  The measure of both sets in Thomas County was not in Units (a Unit being what the New Money Boys called $100 million).  The measure was QPA—quail per acre—and the quality of one’s dogs, pointing and retrieving.

To maintain a plantation’s QPA took know how and money, determination and luck.  Mostly, it took the right land and the right man and plenty of rain.  Some parts of Thomas County naturally produced more quail than others.  The man with the touch (and the torch) to produce good quail numbers, year in and year out, was a rare customer, much admired and much in demand.  Since the plantation owners had formed Tall Timbers and hired Herbert Stoddard, they’d been searching for a magic formula.  Controlled March burning of their long-leaf pine acres and late fall disking of fallow cropland were agreed upon.  Theories on what to plant for quail changed as often as ladies’ hem lengths.  Current theory said natural weeds were enough, but most spread shelled corn or millet as supplemental feed.  And most planted feed patches for quail and dove.

Well below the owner class dwelled the manager class.  Sometimes a manager also served as dog trainer.  The dog man sometimes served as horse trainer or the plantation might hire a separate horse trainer (sometimes the dog trainer’s wife) if the owning family fancied fox hunting or show horses.  The equine stock of a plantation came in several breeds: Tennessee Walkers and Missouri Fox Trotters for quail hunting; thoroughbreds or crosses for fox hunting or show jumping; matched mule teams to pull the hunting wagons; and last but not least, ponies for the grandchildren.  Charlie privately ranked the plantations on the quality of their equine stock and how well they were cared for.

Along side the dog and horse pros was the house staff.  Housekeepers, butlers, cooks, and maids looked after the comforts of the owners and their high-tone guests.  Lately, some hired a chef for the shooting season, one who worked somewhere else exotic in a different high season.  Charlie found this sad, an abandonment of the tradition of Deep South cuisine, cooked in iron skillets by black women whose ancient recipes had never been written, but whose dishes never varied in quality.

Other workers served the plantations, among them grooms and kennel men, gardeners and handymen.  The dog man’s principal helper was the scout.  A second helper served as down-bird spotter and horse holder.  The hunting-wagon driver was typically an old man long in service, called a skinner, who entertained the wagon’s riders with his observations of the hunt.  Beside the skinner rode a retriever, Labrador or spaniel or English cocker, to be released when birds were down.  Guests didn’t have to be reminded to let the retriever pick up the birds after they once heard a rattler’s warning.  Thomas County had lots of big ones.
The plantation’s vendors, Charlie among them, made up another class.  They offered the plantations dogs, horses, mules, farm equipment, fertilizer, seed, feed, hay, chemicals, fencing, predator control, alligator control, poacher control, bug control, and forestry and veterinary services.  
Charlie Falk observed the workings of the plantation culture in amusement, missing none of its sometimes hidden drama.  As a lifelong year-round resident of Thomas County, Charlie classified other residents, full or part-time, as honest or bent, not rich or poor.

         * * *
On a bright May morning, Charlie rolled his rig down the Live Oak lined entrance road of Mossy Swamp Plantation.  In its brick horse barn ten head waited, eight Walkers and a matched pair of mules, all stomping flies.  At three o’clock, he was writing his bill when Frank Foster, Mossy Swamp’s manager, drove up.  After some small talk, Frank said, “Why don’t you write that for twelve head, and we’ll split $200.” Charlie couldn’t believe Frank had so boldly proposed a kickback, and for so little money.  He’d known Foster a year, since his arrival from South Carolina where he’d managed a low-country plantation for an old family that succumbed to a developer’s pitch.  Charlie wasn’t surprised to discover Frank was a crook, only one so petty.  He shook his head slowly and handed Foster his bill for shoeing ten head.

That night Charlie composed a note:

Dear Mr. Slone:
         I am sorry, but I won’t be able to shoe for you in the future.  I appreciate your business over the years.

                Sincerely,

                Charlie Falk

In a week, Charlie got a call on his mobile from James Slone.
“Why are you quitting me after all these years, Charlie?” Slone asked from his office high up at 40 Wall Street.  Charlie’s seconds of hesitation told Slone all he needed to know.  It was followed by a bland but unconvincing excuse about a shortage of time.  When Slone asked if anyone at Mossy Swamp had been rude to him, Charlie assured Slone they had not.

Dove season approached when Thomas County’s sheriff stopped by Charlie’s house at the end of the day.  They’d known each other since high school and attended the same church.  As Charlie tidied his truck and refilled the wooden box holding shoes in varied sized, the sheriff asked about Charlie’s wife and son.  Then he got down to business. “Have you had any trouble with Frank Foster?”

“Trouble?”

“Has he proposed a kickback to you?”

Charlie found himself between a rock and a hard place.  He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want to get involved either.  If he told the truth, it would just be Foster’s word against his. Charlie stalled in silence; the sheriff responded in kind.  Charlie finally said,
“Bill, the only thing I could say, Frank Foster would deny, and it would just be my word against his.  I can’t help you.”
“You may get a grand jury subpoena,” the sheriff said, not pressing Charlie. Sure enough, in October Charlie found a subpoena tacked to his front door when he got home from a hard day of shoeing.  That night, Charlie called friends who worked as dog and horse trainers on plantations around Thomas County.  Rumors were swirling about Frank Foster, but Charlie’s friends knew nothing concrete about the accusations against him. 

Charlie figured Mr. Slone must have told the sheriff about his resignation as Mossy Swamp’s farrier.  He figured right.  Charlie’s resignation note and their conversation afterward had prompted Slone to have his auditors run a check on Mossy Swamp’s books.  They discovered suspicious invoices for purchases of hay, fuel oil, and gravel. James Slone had known Charlie since, as a teenager, Charlie had mowed grass around Mossy Swamp’s big house.  Slone had been one of the two who had bought the Falk home place from Charlie’s dad.  As a Wall Street banker, Slone had seen his share of dishonesty.  He had correctly detected a warning in Charlie’s voice on the phone.  Charlie wished now he hadn’t written Slone, for he didn’t want to testify, but he couldn’t help relish the prospect of Frank Foster and shady suppliers or their shady help getting what was coming to them.  Like his father, Charlie couldn’t abide a crook.

On Sunday afternoon, Charlie and his twelve-year-old son Trip (for Charles III) fished a bass lake on Old Mill Plantation, the other plantation that had been added to when Charlie’s family farm was sold under threat of foreclosure.  As Charlie and Trip cast among the cypress knees, a green pickup drove up and stopped beside Charlie’s truck parked at the boat ramp.  Charlie couldn’t see the driver, and the truck left in five minutes.

Charlie’s brake petal went to the floor as he approached the highway leaving Old Mill Plantation.  By gearing down and stomping the emergency brake, he managed to stop.  The brake line had been cut.  On his cell phone, Charlie called his wife to come get them and a wrecker to pick up his truck.
Next morning, Charlie was due before the grand jury.  His wife would drop him at the courthouse on her way to the school where she worked as a special ed teacher.  Charlie spotted a dusty green pickup three cars behind them as they drove into Thomasville.  It turned off two blocks before they reached the courthouse.
After his brief testimony, Charlie walked to the garage where his truck had been repaired.  He was due at a plantation south of Thomasville for an afternoon job.  Rather than driving straight to the job, Charlie drove home by way of Old Mill Plantation to pick up his boat and trailer.  At home he added a couple extra items of equipment in his truck.

Charlie picked up a barbecue sandwich at a black church’s roadside pig roast on his drive south.  In his rear-view mirror, he saw again the green pickup, staying well back but obviously following him.  The traffic thinned on the two-lane highway.  Charlie drove five miles under the speed limit, but the green truck kept its distance.  Then on a long straight stretch, the truck barreled to catch him, doing near 100, Charlie figured.
Just before it reached him, Charlie lifted a Remington 1100 from the seat and pointed it across his chest out the window.  Frank Foster saw its muzzle too late.  As he pulled even with Charlie, bent on driving him off the narrow road, the muzzle blast caught him in the right elbow.  He would lose the arm.  A video of his approach would prove the shot was fired in self-defense.  Charlie had mounted the camera on the back of his truck to film his work for study of horse and mule behavior during shoeing, a joint project of Charlie’s and an equine vet-school friend.  Charlie had rigged a remote control to activate the camera from the driver’s seat.

Frank Foster would beat the charges on the gravel, hay, and fuel oil kickbacks.  But he would be convicted of fraud in the sale of timber off Mossy Swamp.  At Charlie’s suggestion, Slone had his lawyer’s investigate a sale of standing timber Slone had arranged based on a cruise made by a consulting forester who was a friend of Charlie’s.  Foster had substituted pages in the copy of the cruise report he’d sent to Mr. Slone for approval of a $100,000 sale to a logger from South Carolina.  (It had seemed odd to Charlie that a logger would come from South Carolina to buy South Georgia timber.)  The logger’s bank records revealed a $50,000 cancelled check to Foster.  Both Foster and the logger went to jail when similar transactions were uncovered in South Carolina.

James Slone and Old Mill Plantation’s owner sold Charlie Falk his family farm for what they’d paid for it.  They first put a conservation easement on it, prohibiting subdivision or commercial development, which suited Charlie fine.  They also extended Charlie a thirty-year mortgage for the purchase price.  Now Charlie’s son Trip will grow up in the same house as Charlie and Charlie’s daddy and granddaddy, a house briefly occupied by Frank Foster.  Charlie’s wife has given up her teaching job—she will train horses and run a riding school for the children and grandchildren of plantation owners, plus a class for special children, the subject of her earlier work.  Daddy was right, honesty is the most important thing, Charlie Falk reflected.