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by Rhiannon Neeley
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Inspired by a true story. If your husband left to help a friend and didn't return, only to be declared dead a few weeks later, would you have the strength to carry on? Elijah Sawyer disappears in 1922 leaving his wife, Martha, to scratch out a living with their two daughters and a bit of flat land on Yellow Mountain in the hills of Kentucky. Martha's world is shattered, but she is a strong southern woman with children to raise. She must endure. Her strength is tested over and over again, and all the while she doesn't know that Elijah is actually still alive. So comes the story of love and laughter, sacrifice and struggle as Martha builds a life with her new husband, Nero, only to have it shaken when the man she has always loved and always will--Elijah--returns from the dead eight years after he disappeared from Yellow Mountain.
eBook Publisher: Vinspire Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: September 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [368 KB]
Reading time: 256-359 min.
This tale of simple mountain folk will be fondly remembered by this reader. I am absolutely convinced that Rhiannon Neeley has given readers something quite special in sharing a part of her family's' past. Her words are sincere and honest; at the conclusion I was moved to tears. Do not miss Yellow Mountain. ~Fallen Angel Reviews
April 20, 1922
The night was dark, velvet black. Fireflies twinkled in the trees, tiny stars flashing brightly against the darkness as if God had drawn down the heavens for a blanket over Yellow Mountain. Crickets sang a chickety-chirp, hidden in the shadows except for their song, which was the under-flowing melody to an owl's ever-so-often haunting 'whooo'. Quiet night music moved through the valley. The mountains huddled close to hear.
Martha Sawyer shifted under the covers, rolling over to face the bedroom window. With tired eyes, she gazed out into the night. The bed felt too big to her. She missed Elijah's long-legged body fitted up against her back and his light snore lulling her to sleep. It was always a trial to fall asleep when he was gone. Thank goodness it was only for a few days. He'd be home soon enough. She slipped her hand between her cheek and the coolness of the feather pillow. It had been a strange day. Strange enough to cause her worry. Martha breathed in the damp chill of the misty air filtering in through the open window. The crickets sang their song, every scrape of their ratchety legs sharpening the edge of her loneliness. She tried to settle down, but the day's events played themselves over again in her mind.
Morning had dawned hazy, the mist from the night before not willing to let go of the flat land, tendrils wispily grasping at the ground as the rising sun coaxed it slowly up the mountain. When Martha rose from the bed, she shivered. The chill would soon wear off, she knew. Quickly, she put on her blue flowered cotton dress and headed for the kitchen. Cornbread was baking in the old wood stove before the sun broke free of the mountaintop. Her day had begun. As was her way, she didn't dawdle. The girls would wake first, almost always up at the crack of dawn. Soon after that, Elijah.
The aroma of fresh cornbread baking filled the kitchen as she headed out the back door for the well. She drew up the tin of milk she had dropped down the well the previous night. The chill of the well water kept it from curdling and made the milk cold and fresh for the morning. Better than keeping it in the icebox since there was no ice this time of year. They could not afford to buy it from the iceman, instead getting their ice from the creek when the weather was cold enough for it to freeze over. Just as she returned from the well with the milk, Vinie padded into the kitchen.
"Mama," the curly topped four-year-old said. She rubbed her eyes with pudgy fists. "I'm hungry."
Martha set the tin of milk on the worn wooden table which almost took over the kitchen and turned to the oven. "Sit down there at the table, Baby. It'll be a minute." She tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear and with the edges of her apron, pulled the pan of sweet smelling cornbread from the oven. She placed it on the counter top to cool and gathered the ingredients for fried eggs.
Vinie scooted a chair out from the table, the chair legs scraping across the worn wooden floor. She climbed up and wiggled into the chair. "I want some bread an' milk."
"Hold your horses." Martha dipped lard into the cast iron skillet heating on the stovetop. It plopped with a growling sizzle. "The cornbread has to cool a might or you'll burn your mouth."
"Gracie's up," Vinie announced.
"Up!" Baby Gracie chimed in, toddling into the kitchen, bright eyed and smiling.
Martha scooped the two-year old up and settled her on her hip as she deftly cracked two eggs into the sizzling lard, one handed. With the eggs for Elijah's breakfast cooking, she got two bowls from the cabinet and placed one in front of Vinie and the other at Gracie's place at the table. She swung Gracie into the highchair and tied her in it with one of Elijah's old belts so she wouldn't fall out. The highchair had lacked a tray since she had received it as a hand-me-down from her sister Mandie. But it didn't matter. Gracie enjoyed being pulled up to the table to eat with the rest of them. Martha scooted the highchair up against the table, Gracie grinning up at her. Martha gave her cheek a pinch and moved on.
In full swing now, Martha cut the cornbread into cakes and put a piece into each of the girls' bowls. After sprinkling sugar over the bread from the cup she kept it in on the table, she poured the icy milk over the cornbread, making it into a sweet-tasting, belly-filling mush. She handed each girl a spoon and turned back to the eggs, flipping them expertly without breaking the yolks. Elijah didn't like his yolks broken and Martha did her best to please him. He was a hard-working man and he deserved a good breakfast.
Turning to reach for a plate for the eggs, Martha startled. "Goodness, Lige. You scared me out of my wits."
Elijah, Lige to everyone who was close to him, stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching her.
"Your eggs are ready." Martha slid them onto the plate and set it on the table. She then poured his coffee from the pot that had been warming on the stove. When she turned to set the cup beside his plate, she stopped.
Lige still stood in the doorway, his gaze focused on the girls as they ate their bread and milk. His clear blue eyes held a wistful look. Like he was in some other place, not there in the kitchen.
"Lige," Martha said softly. "Somethin' wrong?"
He blinked and ran a long-fingered hand through his wavy blond hair. Martha loved that golden hair of his. Silky soft to the touch, it glowed with the sunlight when he was out working the field. When Elijah Sawyer stood in the sunlight, his long lean body with the golden hair and crisp blue eyes took her breath. Still, after five years of marriage, he could make her heart feel like it wanted to jump right out of her breast.
It felt like that now, beating against her breastbone like a hammer. The way he stood with a look of something not quite right on his face. That look was making Martha a touch nervous. It felt as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
"Daddy, come eat wif' us," Vinie said, breaking the spell.
Lige stepped into the kitchen. "I think I'll just do that," he said. He pulled out his chair and sat down. He reached over and tugged one of Gracie's blond curls. "Mornin' Gracie."
Gracie grinned around a mouthful of cornbread.
Martha smoothed her apron with a trembling hand and set his coffee in front of him.
Lige caught her wrist as she started to turn away, wrapping his fingers all the way around it. She stopped and met his eyes with her own. "Thanks," he said, squeezing her wrist.
Martha looked deep into his eyes for a moment, wondering. He had never thanked her before. A wisp of a shiver ran up her spine.
He tilted his head. "Are you cold?" he asked, releasing her wrist.
Martha hesitated, disguising the tremor in her hands by smoothing her apron down over her cotton dress again. "No. No. Just felt a goose walk over my grave is all," she said finally. "Eat your eggs before they get cold." She turned away and poured the water she had brought in from the well into the sink to wash the breakfast dishes. She couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right. Lige was not acting himself. He wasn't the kind of man to just stand and stare like he had when he had come down from the bedroom upstairs. And he had never thanked her for making breakfast. That was her job as his wife, after all.
The sun was up full now over the top of the mountain and the animals were coming to life out in the yard. Martha was going to have to get busy and get the girls dressed for the day, feed the chickens and get the cow milked before she started on the household chores. She swished her hand through the soapy water in the sink and turned toward the table only to catch Lige watching her, his coffee cup held halfway to his lips. "Have I got my housedress on backwards?" she asked as she took the girls' empty bowls and wiped their faces with a cloth.
Martha lifted Gracie down from the highchair. Both girls left the kitchen, their feet flying as they headed back to their bedroom and their dolls. "Well, something must be wrong, what, with the way you keep watching me." She absently cleared the dishes from the table, scraping the scraps from the dishes into a bucket that sat on the floor by the sink before putting them into the soapy water. The bucket would later go to the dog when Martha went out to take care of the animals.
"I'm just..." His voice trailed off.
Martha chanced a look at him.
He was staring down into his coffee cup as if he was hypnotized.
That weird feeling crept up her back again. Something is brewing in that man's mind, that's for sure, she thought. Time to have out with it. "Elijah Sawyer, what are you thinkin'?" she asked, hands on hips.
Slowly, he looked up from his cup, his eyes dark and broody. "I'm just wool-gatherin', I guess." He rose from his chair and drained his coffee in one quick gulp. "I best be gettin' some work done." Then he walked out of the kitchen.
Martha bit her lip. There was something there. In his eyes. What was it?
With a shake of her head, she turned to the dishes. Lige would work out whatever was bothering him. She had her own chores to do and the girls to take care of. She had no time to worry about funny looks or strange ways, no matter how much they bothered her.
Martha went about her chores, Vinie and Gracie following behind her, until dinnertime. The day had grown a moist heat, making her cotton dress stick to her back. But the work didn't bother her. She had grown up in these hills and even though she was just past twenty-three, she knew this was life. You made your way scratching out a living from the flat land you had and let the hills take care of themselves.
The girls giggled as they chased the chickens around the dirt yard, their golden curls shining in the sun. Martha tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. She smiled at the girls scampering around the yard. Their dirty little hands and feet were going to have to be washed before they could eat. She clapped her hands to get their attention. "Who can run the fastest to the house?" she called out across the yard.
Vinie took off like a shot, Gracie's fat little legs pumping hard to catch up. With a laugh, Martha snatched up the hem of her dress and raced for the kitchen door.
"I beat you, Mama," Vinie said from the top step of the back porch. Gracie was just making her way up the steps on hands and knees when Martha reached them. "Beat choo," she said, her dimples dancing on her sun-kissed cheeks.
"My land," Martha said. "You two can run like deers. Now get on inside and let's get you washed up."
After washing the dust from two rambunctious girls, Martha heated up some snap beans and potatoes left over from last night's supper and got the girls started eating. She looked out the kitchen window and caught a glimpse of Lige, just coming out of the barn.
That strange feeling came over her again as she watched him walk toward the house, head down, hands in the pockets of his jeans. Something is troubling that man. He looks like he's heartsick.
Martha fixed him a plate of beans and potatoes and set it on the table. When he came through the door, she put on her best smile. "Chores goin' good for you, Lige?"
He moved to the sink and washed his hands. "Ah, best as can be, I guess." He dried his hands on a towel and sat down at the table. "Got that fence rail fixed. The one out behind the barn."
"Good. Now maybe I won't have to climb half way up the mountain after Bess every time she gets a hankerin' to wander." Martha fixed herself a plate of beans. Bess, the milk cow, had recently taken to butting up against the loose fence rail until she knocked it down. Then the crazy cow would wander into the woods and half way up the mountain. Martha set her plate on the table and grabbed the pan of leftover cornbread from breakfast off the counter before she sat down to eat. Her stomach growled. She hadn't eaten breakfast and the chores had made her that much more hungry.
"Beans," Gracie said, her mouth full of them.
Martha smiled. "Eat your dinner and you can go back outside and play some."
"I'm going on over to Coot Shepherd's after dinner." Lige took a piece of cornbread from the bowl in the middle of the table.
Martha laid down her fork. "Is he ailin'? Can I help?"
"No." He looked up from his plate. "He just needs some help takin' out some stumps, that's all. Nobody is ailin'."
"Well, it's good nobody is sick. I always hate to hear when somebody's sick." Martha picked up her fork and used it to push the food around on her plate. "Can't Coot get his boys to help him with the stumps? His place is all the way over in Magoffin County."
Lige mopped his plate with the cornbread. "I'll be gone a couple-three days. Coot's gettin' on in years and I offered to help."
She started to get up from the table. "You'll be needin' some clothes packed then."
Lige waved his hand, motioning for her to sit. "I'll take care of it. Eat."
Slowly, she sat back down. This didn't feel right. Not at all. She always packed his clothes for him when he was going to be gone helping someone out. "You sure you have to go?" she asked, pushing her half finished dinner away from her. Her appetite was long gone.
Lige scooted his chair away from the table and rose to his full six-foot-two height. "Word is, if I help him get rid of those stumps, he'll give me one of his shoats. We'll have hams and bacon for the winter."
Lige looked at her across the worn wooden table with a furrow in his brow. "You and the girls'll be all right, won't you?"
She straightened her shoulders. "Of course. You go on and do what you gotta do. We'll get along just fine."
Lige looked at her for a moment longer, then nodded. "All right." He turned and headed upstairs.
Martha looked around the kitchen. The girls were finishing up their dinner. Sunlight streamed through the window, dust motes floating lazily in the warmth. Everything seemed so normal, yet nothing felt right. Lige going off to Magoffin County just came right out of the blue. She took a deep breath. Well, there was work to do. No sense worrying and borrowing trouble.
An hour later, she was hoeing the garden, trying not to uproot the seedlings she had planted. For a time, it weighed on her mind about Lige leaving. It just was so...sudden. He hadn't said anything about running into Coot or how he had heard about him needing help. But then, she thought, men folk did keep their own matters close in at times. Martha swung the hoe, beating the daylights out of a stubborn weed root. The sound of hooves hitting the dirt came from behind her. She straightened and turned, one hand to her back, to see Lige riding Old Ross, their only horse.
"I'll be gettin' on then," he said. "Hope to be there by supper."
Martha nodded. Vinie and Gracie sat digging in the dirt with spoons. "We're helpin' Mama hoe," Vinie said, squinting up at her Daddy.
Lige smiled, though Martha noticed it didn't reach his eyes. "You take care of your Mama while I'm gone," he said.
"I will." Vinie shoved her spoon deep into the dirt.
Lige met Martha's eyes. "I'd best be going."
"Yes." She ran a hand across her forehead.
"Take care." He drew up the reins.
Their eyes locked and held for a moment.
Then, Lige gave Old Ross a nudge with his heel and rode off around the side of the house without a look back.
Martha watched him go, wondering about his frame of mind. Maybe it was just the early spring. Sometimes the change in the weather could make a man antsy, her mother had told her. The spring had taken on the humid feel of June already and it was only just past the middle of April. Brushing her hair back from her face again for the umpteenth time, she did what she could to tuck the stray strands back into the bun at the base of her neck.
Her practiced eyes moved over the garden, checking to see if she should haul some water up from the creek for it. With a quick nod of her head, she decided the ground looked just fine. Thanks to the coolness of the nights and the heaviness of the morning dew, the leaf lettuce was already showing out of the ground. Watering could wait until it needed it. Satisfied with the garden, she shaded her eyes with a hand and looked up the mountain.
The sun was moving on. It looked to be about one o'clock. And there were floors to be scrubbed and linens to change. Tomorrow was laundry day. Best get on in and get the house chores done, she thought.
"Girls," she said to the two playing in the dirt, "let's go see if we can sweep and mop the floors."
"Can I mop, Mama?" Vinie asked, grabbing Gracie's hand to help her up.
"Long as you don't slop too much water 'round," Martha answered, turning toward the house. The girls followed behind her, not forgetting to bring their digging spoons with them.
As Martha worked with her daughters underfoot, she considered Lige's mood again. She still found it odd he hadn't said anything the day before about going up to Magoffin County. He'd ridden down to town yesterday for the nails to fix the fence rail Bess kept breaking. That's probably where he heard of Coot Shepherd needing the help. And it would be nice to have a hog to raise for butchering in the fall, she thought. They weren't well off, Lord no, but they always had food on the table and that was what counted. And they had this house and a bit of flat land to farm, thanks to Lige's parents parceling them off some from their own.
That was the reason they'd taken this house. Its ground butted up to John and Delia Sawyer's. The house wasn't much. Just an old farmhouse with two bedrooms upstairs, a sitting room and good-sized kitchen down, but it had a solid barn and a bit of paddock. When you added the flat land Lige's father John had let them have, well...they could live off it. It was home to her.
After getting the bed linens stripped and new ones put on, she hauled the armload down to the kitchen. There were only two sets of linens. Martha took special care with them. She had left the girls playing dolls in the sitting room floor. The floors were swept and mopped and all of the laundry was ready for the morning. Time to think about supper.
Martha placed her hands on her hips and looked over her store of food. Since Lige wasn't here, she was thinking about frying up some potato pancakes for the three of them. Maybe put a pie in the oven for after. That would be plenty for her and the girls.
Someone rapped on the kitchen door. "Yoo-hoo." Hattie Coburn stepped inside, a basket over her arm. "Are y'all home?"
"Hattie, what are you doing here?" Martha asked, taking her friend by the hand and leading her to the table. "What do you have in that basket that smells so good?"
Hattie placed the basket on the table and lifted the cloth covering it. Reaching in, she pulled out a pie, its crust golden brown and perfect. "I thought y'all might like a pie for after supper. It's apple." She beamed with pleasure, handing the pie to Martha.
"Hattie Coburn, you must be a witch, readin' my mind like that. I was just thinkin' about bakin' a pie."
Hattie sat down at the table and stretched her legs out in front of her. "I was bakin' up some for my own brood with last year's dried apples and thought y'all might like some. I can't stay long, now. I just wanted to stop by and say how'd you do."
Martha set the pie on the counter. "I can heat up some coffee if you like."
"No. I've got to get on back before the sun sets." She raised her hair up off the back of her neck. "How're the girls?"
"Ornery as ever."
Hattie waved a hand at her. "Those girls are angels and you know it. Now my three boys are another story."
Martha laughed and sat down across from her friend.
"How's Elijah doin'? You keepin' him busy?" Hattie winked at her. "That is one good lookin' man you got there, Martha." She waggled a finger in the air.
Warmth flowed through her at her friend's words. Lige was a good-looking man. Martha had never seen anyone who could hold a candle to him. "He just left a while ago. He's headed over to Coot Shepherd's in Magoffin County for a couple days."
"Somebody's not sick, I hope."
"No. Somethin' about Coot needin' help clearin' some stumps. Lige said he'd be back in a couple days."
Hattie stared at her from across the table.
Martha frowned. "Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Hattie's throat worked for a moment, then she spoke. "He went to Coot's?"
"To clear stumps?"
"Yes, Hattie. That's what I said. What is it?" Martha was getting piqued. "Come on. Spit it out."
Hattie sat up to the table and looked directly into her eyes. "My man Estill went to Coot's last week and cleared those stumps, Martha."
A bitter taste crept into Martha's mouth. She wanted to spit but swallowed it down with an effort. "Well, they prob'bly didn't get all the ones out Coot needed out. Lige wouldn't go off to Magoffin for no reason."
Hattie's eyes shifted away. "That's prob'bly it. There's always more stumps to get rid of." She rose from her chair, hands plucking at her hair. "I'd best get a movin'. The mile to my house can be mighty long in the dark."
Martha rose, too. "Wish you didn't have to run off so soon."
Hattie smiled tightly. "Me, too. But I must."
"Don't forget your basket."
Her friend let out a titter. "I'd forget my head if it wasn't bound onto my neck." She slung the basket over her arm and headed out through the screen door.
"Thanks for the pie, Hattie," Martha called after her.
Hattie waved and went on through the yard toward the road.
Martha licked her lips and gazed out across the side yard, the bitter taste still hanging on in the back of her throat. "Lige, what are you up to?"
Now after remembering all the events of the day as she lay in the big empty bed, sleep was no closer than it had been before. She repeated those words again. "Lige, what are you up to?" She had known right from the time he had come downstairs that morning something was amiss. Even the evening before, he had acted a little off, now that she thought about it. The feeling that had been coming on her all day long was with her constant now. She hoped in her heart of hearts he had not been fooling her about the stumps. He had never lied to her before.
Martha pulled the covers close over her shoulder and gazed out of the window at the fireflies, their lights so bright in the dark. The night air was cooling as the time wore on. The crickets slowed their song to a mournful ballad as the chilly mist crept over their shadowy hiding places. The owl's 'whoo' was silent. He had moved on for better pickings. The night was closing down this side of Yellow Mountain.
Martha felt a hot tear escape from her eye and trickle down to the hand tucked under her cheek. She hoped Lige wasn't like the old hoot-owl.
She hoped he hadn't moved on for better pickings.
Lige hated to leave her.
Martha, with those gray-green eyes of hers, looked up at him so trustingly as she stood there in the garden. But he had to leave.
It was either get gone or get shot.
He reined in Old Ross and dismounted. He gave the horse a pat on the neck and started to unsaddle him. It was almost midnight. He and Old Ross were both tired. They had made it around the mountain and a couple of counties over from Knott. There was pasture here, just out of the woods. As good a place as any to bed-down for a few hours.
Finished unsaddling the horse, Lige hobbled him so he could graze, but not too far away. Now he could tend to himself. Good thing he had stocked his saddle pack with some warmer clothes and a thin blanket. There was a chill to the dark that could seep into your bones. He couldn't afford to catch a chill. He wanted to be across the Ohio River in the next couple days and on into Ohio, the state.
It was a deep night, barely a moon to ride with him. Lige did the best he could in the dark without lighting a fire. Never knew who might be close by. He could hear Old Ross pulling up clover nearby, so that wasn't a worry. The rest of the night sounds were deadened by the fog blanketing the ground. Damn, he wished he had a barn or a lean-to to hole up in for the night. But beggars can't be choosers, so he put his blanket down by a vine-covered fence rail and hunkered down.
As he lay looking up at the stars twinkling up high through the fog, he thought about the family. Lord, he hadn't wanted to leave. Martha was a good woman. A good wife. And those two girls of his, there was nothing like them. But he'd had to leave. At least until the gossip died down.
He thought back on yesterday when he had rode down the mountain to town for the fence nails. Soft Shell wasn't a big town. You could stand on one end of town, spit, and it would land on the other side.
He'd gone into the General Store and found Rafe Holcomb, Johnny Butler and Chase Rand leaning on the counter talking to George Partee, the owner of the store. When Lige walked in through the door, they all shut their mouths.
'H'lo, boys," Lige said, making his way through the store to the nail kegs.
Chase and Johnny tipped their hats. George said his hello. But Rafe only shot Lige a look. Rafe Holcomb was no one to mess with. Lige went about his business and purchased what he needed. None of the men said anything until he was at the door, ready to leave.
Metal clicked against metal. The sound of a gun cocking.
Lige froze, one hand on the door knob.
Lige steeled himself. The voice was Rafe's. Without turning around, Lige said, "You got no reason to hold a gun to my back, Rafe. I got no quarrel with you."
"Turn around so's I can see your eyes," Rafe said.
Slowly, he turned to face the man. The pistol was held at Rafe's waist. There was nowhere for Lige to go except to hit the floor. He wouldn't have time to make it out through the door before Rafe got off a shot. He clenched his jaw and looked the other man in the eye. "What's your meanin', Rafe?"
Rafe chewed once, then spat tobacco juice in the spittoon by his foot. He hit it dead on without even looking. "Word has it you was seen talkin' to a stranger t'other day over in Salyersville. Some man dressed up like he was goin' to a funeral."
Lige knew right away what he was getting at. Rafe Holcomb ran the biggest moonshine still in Knott County. And a stranger in a suit meant only one thing. Revenuers.
Lige grinned. "You ain't got no call to worry. I haven't seen no strangers. This is the first I been down the mountain in two weeks."
Rafe narrowed his eyes. "You sure? Cause if I see some stranger up my way, I might come lookin' for you."
"You know me better'n that. If there was a stranger on the mountain, I'd be the first to tell you." He waited, tensed to jump if Rafe's finger even twitched on the trigger.
Rafe glanced at Chase and Johnny. Both shrugged. He looked back at Lige. "Go on. Head on out."
Lige raised an eyebrow. "I turn my back, don't you fire."
Rafe gave a 'hmph' and holstered his gun.
"Bye, boys," Lige said with a stiff smile, and headed on out the door. He stowed his purchase and mounted Old Ross. Best be gettin' while the gettin' is good, he thought. Hard tellin' if Rafe won't shoot me just 'cause he's in a foul mood.
Lige didn't like coming down off Yellow Mountain. He saw the looks he got from the townsfolk. The ones who lived down here in the valley thought they were all high and mighty, in his opinion. They looked at him with eyes that said he and his were no more than poor white trash. Well, they could think what they wanted. He'd just stay up on the side of the mountain with the family. They can have their town livin', he thought.
When he approached the fork in the road just outside of town, he heard a car coming. He slowed the horse. If he bore left, he'd be on the road home. If he bore right, he'd head on through the valley. The sound of the car's engine carried closer. He pulled up Old Ross and waited at the fork to see who was coming. There weren't too many folks in these hills who owned a car.
The black car came around the bend in the road and slowed to a stop not far from Lige. A man got out, one he had never seen before, and approached him. The man wore black pants and a crisp white shirt. He could pass for a preacher. "Sir," the man said, "I think I may be lost."
Old Ross shifted his feet and snorted, nervous to be so near a stranger. "Whoa," Lige said lowly.
"My name is James Olden," the man said, closer still. "I work for the Federal Government."
Lige kept his face calm but his heart skipped a beat. "What can I do for you, Mr. Olden?"
Olden looked at the fork in the road. "I'm trying to find my way to Soft Shell, Kentucky. Am I on the right road?"
Lige sized him up. The word that came to mind for the second time today was 'Revenuer'. If he told him the way to Soft Shell, he'd run right into Rafe and the boys. Then, if Olden mentioned he'd talked to him, well, he would be in a world of trouble. "Going to Soft Shell, are you?" Lige asked.
"Yes. I have business there."
"Well, you've come a might too far."
Olden turned and looked back down the way he'd just come and scratched his head. "I have?"
Lige settled back in the saddle. He pointed toward the way Olden had come. "You go on back down the road 'bout ten-fifteen mile and you'll come to a fork. Bear left. Soft Shell's 'bout five mile on past that."
The man shook his head, clearly frustrated. "Thank you. I'll be on my way." He turned back to his car, shoulders hunched.
"Best be hurryin'. These roads can be a might hard to travel of a night," Lige called after him.
Olden waved and got in his car. He made a wide turn, backed up, then got the car going the other direction. The car's engine sounded harsh echoing off of the trees, as he traveled back the direction he had come.
Lige considered the meeting. He had lied to the man about the fork in the road. The fork was a bit more than twenty miles up, then if he took the way he had told him, ten miles after, bearing left, was the town of Hindman. Not Soft Shell. By the time the man made it to Hindman and found out Lige's lie, it would be full dark. It was almost suppertime now and dark came early in these mountains.
"Git up, Ross," Lige said, heading for home. He had better figure out what he was going to do. Olden would be back. And if the man found Rafe's still, Lige would catch the blame.
Then the next time Rafe saw him, he wouldn't stop to ask.
Lige took a deep breath. He was going to have to run off for a time.