July 1899

Eighteen-year-old Mary Harley woke up with a start as she lay on her pallet in the loft. Outside, a rooster’s strident crowing jarred against the more melodious twitters and chatters of scores of awakening wild birds. She could hear quails calling ‘Bob-white, Bob-white’ and the pecking of a pileated woodpecker on the tree right outside the cabin.

Although it was early still, the rising mid-summer sun had pierced the grey dawn and sent insidious little shafts of light through tiny cracks and holes in the shingles, dazzling their crude beds and the floorboards with fine intricate designs. The wooden rafters of the roof sloped upwards to a peak in the middle, further confining the limited space where she and her three sisters slept. The trapdoor was open to allow some air to circulate in the cloistered atmosphere, and she could hear her mother already moving about downstairs, and water boiling on the wood-burning stove below for the daily breakfast fare of corn meal mush. A few minutes later came the distinctive sound of her grinding the coffee beans, the fulsome, tantalizing aroma of which wafted up through the floor-opening.

Mary, lying on her straw-tick pallet in her thin sleeveless cotton nightgown, felt a stirring of excitement when she remembered what day it was. She sat bolt upright, pushing aside the colorful goose-feather tick blanket that her mother had made her. She looked over at the rag-covered blonde heads of her younger sisters, Laura and Nellie, who were aged fifteen and fourteen respectively. They were still snuggled up in deep slumber on the pallets opposite her. Even in the gloom, she could see the perspiration gleaming on their faces and dampening their hair.

“ Laura! Nellie!” she whispered, so as not to awaken sixteen-year-old Lona, who was also still fast asleep. Poor Lona wouldn’t be going to the store today. “Time to rise and shine!”

Her two youngest sisters stirred on their pillows, moaning a little before stretching languidly and rubbing their sleepy eyes. But remembrance of what day it was soon took hold, and opening their eyes wide, they sat up, smiling and wrinkling their noses at her. After all, going to the store was a special occasion and one they all looked forward to!

Mary got up and lifted the top of a decrepit old suitcase stored in one corner. It didn’t contain much, just her three dresses, one for special occasions, and the other two for everyday use, and two pairs of bloomers. There was also a pair of shoes near the bottom, but, of course, she only wore those in winter when it was too cold to walk around barefoot like God intended.

She carefully drew out her best dress, which she had pressed last night with a heavy, heated coal-iron. She always wore it to the store and to apple-boiling parties, and whenever Reverend Hubbly, the circuit-preacher, came around to give one of his rare, intermittent services. Maw was particular about cleanliness, and Mary had taken her monthly bath in the big washtub in front of the fire just yesterday afternoon.

Laura and Nellie scrambled out of their thin bedding, and lifted the lid off an old box crate in which they kept their few clothes. The three of them chattered excitedly in subdued tones, as they quickly dressed. Though they tried hard to contain their youthful enthusiasm, their giggles soon succeeded in waking up Lona, as they removed the white rag-strips from each other’s hair. Mary never bothered to put rags in her hair. It was straight and heavy and black as a Red Indian’s, and simply refused to take a curl. Lona opened her eyes and slowly sat up, watching them with a sulky little pout on her pretty heart-shaped face, her blonde hair too, a mess of white rags, despite the fact that she wasn’t going anywhere.

Mary couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. It was awful to be the only girl to be left behind. Usually, Paw allowed two of his girls to accompany him to the store to collect provisions, but last night he had felt in a generous mood because his harvest for “due bills” of exchange at the store was particularly bountiful. Of course, both she and Lona had clamored to be the extra “chosen” one, but Paw said that in all fairness, it had to be the next one on Maw’s “store-cloth” list. It had soon been discovered after a frantic racing to get the cloth which Maw kept in a chest in a corner, that Mary would be the lucky one allowed to accompany her father and two youngest sisters to the store.

There often used to be a squabble amongst the girls about whose turn it was to go, since, depending on the state of Paw’s pocket (which admittedly was usually somewhat strained), he could sometimes be prevailed upon to buy little play-pretties like hair-grips and ribbons. It got so bad that Maw started keeping a record of whose turn it was to go. Like most mountain women, she couldn’t write, but was most accomplished with her needle, so she sewed different colors of embroidery cotton onto a special cloth each time they went, each child being represented by a different color.

Fortunately, Maw was quite content to stay home to cope with the extra load. Indeed, she had already done the milking today, a chore assigned to the girls on a weekly rotational basis. And Joe, who had taken over the responsibility of running the small farm since Paw’s accident at the mill, considered visits to the store a waste of valuable time, since Paw had a habit of making a social occasion out of it. Paw had been forced to retire from the Elderberry Hope Logging Camp a few years ago, after a pile of logs had become dislodged and rolled down onto him, crushing his one leg, so that he now walked with a severe limp. The loss of his job at the logging camp had hit the family hard for it was robbed of a cash income. The privileged outings were usually sneered at by young Percy, too, for though he would normally do anything to get out of doing his chores, he was simply too lazy to walk that far. So providing he got his supply of gumballs at the end of it all, he was happy to give it a miss.

Mary knew that though they would not admit it, the main reason her sisters fought so hard to go to the store, was that other than at the brush tabernacle and at apple-butter boilings, which were always heavily chaperoned, it was the only place they could catch a glimpse of not only mountain boys who lived in other hollows, but of valley boys too. They were at an age when boys were on their minds a whole lot! Never was this more obvious than when they attended apple-butter boilings. The custom was that a couple would stir the apple butter in a huge kettle. If the paddle accidentally touched the side, the girl would get a kiss. Well, all she knew was that her sisters were awful good at getting the paddle to touch the side.

Lona sat cross-legged on her straw-tick pallet, her elbows planted on her slim knees and her hands cupping her frowning face, with her cotton nightgown ridden up to her pale thighs, looking so downcast, Mary felt tempted to say that she could go to the store in her place. But visits to the store were rare because of the time and distance involved, and generally only undertaken two or three times a year, and her own eagerness to accompany Paw soon overcame her noble impulse.

She gave her sister a wan apologetic smile as she pulled a hasty bush through her waist-long hair, vowing to herself that she would make it up to her by asking her father to bring her back something extra special from the store. She climbed down the ladder to the darkened room below, closely followed by Laura, and then Nellie. Such was Laura’s eagerness that one of her tough bare feet caught Mary’s fingers on a rung, squashing them.

“ Ouch!” Mary complained, barely having time to move out of the way before Laura landed on the wooden floor beside her. Nellie was in even more of a hurry. When she was only halfway down, she turned on the ladder and jumped down, landing heavily on the floor boards, on bare feet with a loud ungainly thump, her calf-length skirt billowing up around her like a balloon being blown up. At fourteen, there was still a lot of the child in her.

A single candle kerosene lamp burned on the mantel, but it was turned down low and so did not give off much light, but the sunshine struggled valiantly through a window on one side. Though most of it went up the black metal chimney, smoke from the wood-burner was visible in the air. The smell of it was acrid and stung their eyes. Their blonde- haired mother was busy cooking breakfast, but she turned and smiled tenderly at each of them as they went up to kiss her cheek. Back to the top | Order the book

Paw sat at the head of the long wooden table, which just yesterday had been laid out with thousands of dried beans, so that they could separate the white ones from the others. Paw was small of stature, had a full head of curly dark hair, and brown beady eyes that were full of humor and warmth. Despite the constant pain he suffered from his leg, nothing dampened the spirits of William H. Harley for very long. His three arisen daughters lined up to hug him in turn, before taking their seats. Laura compensated for her earlier lack of decorum by taking her seat in a most ladylike manner. Paw beamed at his daughter’s paradoxical ways as he did her childlike impatience.
“ Jest as soon as we’re finished eatin’, we kin be on our way,” he informed his daughters, who nodded eagerly.
Just then the front door opened and in came Joe and Percy, who slept in a small shack that had been built onto the main four-room cabin. Lanky and loose-limbed with adolescence, Joe was a year older than Mary, and a good-looking boy, with a short forehead and solemn brown eyes, topped by heavy black eyebrows. He was dressed in his work clothes, but eight-year-old Percy wore his long white nightgown, his mouth still pursed with the fierce heavy stupor of sleep, his dark hair unruly and dark freckles spread over his cheeks and nose like a rug of peppercorns.

Lona, too, had put on her work clothes and come slowly down the stepladder from the loft. She took her place at the table next to Paw with a heavy exaggerated sigh, sitting with her head lowered. But if she was hoping that Paw would relent and allow her to come too, she was soon to be disappointed. Instead of the sympathy she hoped to achieve with her martyred demeanor, he roared with laughter and tickled her roughly under the chin, a typical teasing that she thoroughly detested.

“ Aw Paw,” she said crossly, turning her head away sharply. “Don’t!”
“ Oh, don’t take on so, child. That thar store will still be standin’ th’ next time I’m ready to git provisions. Now your Maw needs you here, and here is whar ye’ll stay!”

Mary saw Lona clamp her mouth on a hot retort. What Paw said was law and they all knew better than to bad-mouth him. Lona lapsed into a stony silence as their mother dished out steaming corn meal mush into their metal plates with a ladle. When she reach-ed Lona, she murmured something to her and Lona nodded. Two jugs stood on the table, one with milk, the other with cream. Mary felt her appetite rising as she poured milk over her porridge and spooned a liberal helping of thick cream over it, while the others also helped themselves. Then Paw called for silence with a grating of his throat, bowed his head and gave thanks to the Lord for providing their sustenance. Maw had cooked them all a special treat for after the mush because of the long journey that faced them. Buckwheat fritter-bread pancakes, mouth-wateringly hot, which they ate covered in butter and homemade sorghum. Percy consumed his so fast that he gave a big belch afterwards. This earned him a quiet rebuke from Maw, but it had all the others in fits of irrepressible laughter.

After the scrumptious treat, they all followed Paw, slowly dragging his bad leg behind him, outside to the barn, where Sarah, the mule, was stabled. Paw and Joe strapped the sacks of dried beans, chestnuts, walnuts, dried apples, and live chickens in coots, to the saddle. Joe led the mule out, and helped his father climb astride her. Maw gave Mary two baskets, one containing lumps of cheese, thick slices of “journey bread” made from corn mush and smothered with butter and sorghum molasses, and honey-dew cookies, for nibbling on the way, and the other, eggs, for exchange at the store. Laura and Nellie also were given baskets of eggs to carry.
As they set off, Mary turned to look at those remaining behind, who had assembled on the porch to wave them goodbye. Maw stood with her hands on the shoulders of Lona and Percy, while Joe hovered protectively, slightly behind his mother. Maw’s washtub of pink and white petunias stood beside the front door, and to the side of it, there was a profusion of small pink climbing roses trailing up several of the supporting porch poles, while honeysuckle crept up one end pole, and sweet peas climbed up a light-wire fencing tacked to the side of the cabin wall in multi-colored profusion. A crab-apple tree stood beside it.

It was seven miles to the nearest store at Fletcher, and they left the sturdy log cabin at Harley Hollow, and went down part of their 4-acre truck plot, which ran down alongside the Elderberry Hope Logging Camp, close to Devil’s Ditch. As they approached the camp the smell of woodchips, sawdust, oil and pine met their nostrils. Work at the camp started early, and already pairs of lumberjacks were manually sawing giant logs, while others were loading logs onto wagons to be pulled by a team of horses, which already stood in harness, impatiently stamping their hoofs and whishing their tails. The loggers, mainly healthy strong young mountain men, worked in pitch-blackened overalls, and wore hats and large caps. Although it was so early in the day, it was hot and a few of them had removed their shirts, their bare sweaty upper chests and arms tanned and muscular from the manual labor they performed. (Most mountain folk were lean from all the climbing they did.)

The lumberjacks, along with a kitchen crew, lived in a long bunkhouse next to a messhall, and there were stables for about forty horses behind the camp. The timbering crew were divided into four teams: one team to cut trees up the side of the mountain, another team to drive a team of horses pulling the trunks down to the camp, another team sawed the logs and the last team loaded them onto the wagons, to be sent to the sawmill at Fletcher to be sawed into lumber. Paw had been part of the loading crew.

Some of the loggers doffed their hats or caps at them, while others more audacious of nature, wolf-whistled and waved as they went by. Mary sneaked a sidelong glance in their direction, but she did not have the same friendly spontaneity of her sisters, who responded with smiles and cheerful waves. In fact, she hated going past the logging camp (except for being able to see the horses – she adored horses, even the somewhat runty specimens that comprised most of the company horses at the logging camp). She always made sure she walked with the mule shielding her from the lumberjacks’ unwanted attention. Though he guarded over the honor of his daughters with a sharp eye, Paw didn’t mind the whistles and the waves too much, because he still knew the majority of the men who worked there.

Bar the logging trails, mountain roads were practically non-existent, and the journey down the steep, winding, often treacherous paths had to be taken on foot or on horseback or, as in Paw’s case, on a mule. As they left the logging camp behind, they met logging wagons drawn by a team of horses piled with cut timber and bark, moving slowly up the narrow mountain trail to the logging camp, while wagons drawn by teams of horses piled with logs traveled down the trail to the sawmill at Fletcher, to be cut into lumber. They also came across wagons drawn by four sturdy well-kept mules loaded with bark, traveling up the trail on the long trek to the tannery at Elkton. Each spring, when the sap of the chestnuts began to rise, the barking season, which lasted six weeks, would begin. The barks would be peeled off with a spud bar by about sixty men. Such was the bounty that it entailed taking two wagon-loads of bark a week to the tannery for a full year. This provided mountain men with a good cash income, but Mary hated the barking season. It was so sad to see the mighty chestnuts stripped of their bark. They looked so undignified somehow; as if they’d been stripped of their attire and now stood rudely naked.

As the Harleys moved down the narrow footpath, Mary luxuriated in the feel of earth beneath her feet and the early-morning sun that was already warm on her body. Everywhere there was the calls of wild birds, the busy humming of bees, and the distant sound of cowbells, as cows were set to grazing. The chickens had settled down in their coops and clucked away contentedly, fluffing out their feathers every now and then. The slopes were tinged palest pink with mountain laurel, wild flowers of every color and hue waved in the breeze-blown bluegrass, and soft, puffy clouds hung in the deep azure sky. There were beautiful vistas of the pristine valley below, while behind them, a series of forested smoky-blue ridges swelled in the distance.

To help pass the time, Paw told stories, all of which they had heard many times before, but never tired of hearing, and when he was done, they sang mountain songs as they wended their way slowly down the slopes.
“ Over, yonder by the valley, the valley so blue,

Over yonder by the valley, you’ll find your love so true…” Back to the top | Order the book

The journey of some seven miles lasted several hours, and they were foot-sore and weary by the time the Fletcher store came into sight. The small clapboard building was raised about two feet off the ground on stilts, and was fronted by a porch on which were several chairs and benches where the old-timer regulars would sit and bide their time, next to a big water barrel.

As their little party approached, Mary could see several horses and mules tied to the hitching post in front. A Penny-Farthing bicycle was leant against the side of the porch, and some small boys were crowded around a horseless carriage parked some way away. One daring little boy in dungarees stood on tip-toe on a running board, peering alternatively into the interior of the automobile and over his shoulder at the store. He had good reason to be nervous for the spoke-wheeled vehicle belonged to Hannibal Hanford, the owner of a large tobacco plantation in the Upper Graves Valley. Hannibal was the area’s most eligible bachelor and posed a splendid upright figure. However, he was stern, bumptious and opinionated, and was not well-liked by the mountain folk, who were usually good judges of character.

His manner was rude and obnoxious, as if he thought wealth gave him the excuse to have bad manners. Like a peacock forever showing off its fine plumage, he loved to display all the trappings of wealth; he owned the finest horses, the most expensive and stylish clothes – indeed, he wore a splendid full-length sable coat well into the warmer months – as well as having the ultimate possession of the impressive gleaming Cambrio automobile.
At first nothing seemed remiss. Several children played hopscotch on the dusty road that led past the store and little Johnny Houston skillfully rolled his hoop around one corner. But when they were about a hundred yards away, Mary suddenly became aware of a harsh unfamiliar repetitive sound emanating from the store. She cocked her head in earnest listening, frowning with concentration to hear above the chatter and laughter of their little group. She was at a loss to identify it. Each loud, lashing sound was followed by chants, whistles and roars of derisive laughter. Obviously alerted by her sudden lapse into silence and the questing expression on her face, her sisters also became aware of it and their words trailed and the laughter died in their throats.
“ Paw, what’s that strange noise?” asked Nellie, her dainty nose wrinkling in a thoughtful frown. Though her feet were dusty, she looked very pretty in her long yellow dress, with her budding breasts beginning to becomingly strain the bodice, her blonde curls tied back with a matching yellow ribbon.

Paw was a bit deaf, and consequently, he was always the last one to hear anything. But as they drew nearer, he couldn’t fail to understand what she was talking about.

“ Cain’t rightly tell, child,” he muttered, his merry, twinkling eyes losing luster for a moment, for the laughter that reached their ears was not happy laughter. Indeed, the barrage of coarse crude cackles and snorting whinnies was cruel, mocking and malicious, and as unfamiliar as the sound of artillery fire might be from a place that usually swelled with merriment and the strains of fiddles and banjoes. Furthermore, it suddenly struck Mary that the old-timers, who usually sat sunning themselves on the porch, were not there.

She knew her father had noticed this too, warning him that all was not well, for he added, “Mebbe I ought to go on ahead and find out what’s a’goin’ on in thar…”

But by now, the curiosity of the two younger girls could not stop their headlong rushing ahead to see what the matter was for themselves. Even as Paw climbed awkwardly off the mule and tied her to the hitching post, patting her fly-pestered shuddering dark-brown flanks (for which he was rewarded with a yellow-toothed nip on the shoulder as he walked past), Laura and Nellie, young and spirited, full of youthful recklessness, disregarded his urgently called cautionary entreaties, and whipped ahead of him and Mary, up the porch steps. She and Paw followed after them as quickly as his dragging leg would allow, but as they entered the store, they were stopped dead in their tracks, as much by the sheer tension in the air, as the unexpected sight that met their eyes. Back to the top | Order the book


Pressed around the sides of the store were agitated little groups of regulars, who were whispering furtively amongst themselves. The women, some from the valley in their neat black button-up boots and handsome dresses and fancy hats, others, obviously highlanders in their simple homemade cotton dresses, frilly cloth bonnets and bare feet, had gathered their children about their skirts like anxious hens fussing with their chicks. Duke Colby, in his grey-and-blue Confederate uniform, a figure almost as familiar at the store as that of Harold Fox, the proprietor, watched the proceedings with a look of incredulous bewilderment on his face. Duke, an old Indian-fighter and adventurer, had never married, and owed his devout allegiance to the lost cause of a free and independent Old South below the Mason Dixon line, and was acting stiff sentry over a little group of mountain women, who peeped anxiously over his shoulder.

The four old-timers, who usually spent their days sunning themselves out on the porch, were noticeable by their apoplectic outrage, which they scarcely managed to contain. Amos Peachey, his grey hair all awry, sucked furiously on an unlit pipe, his cheeks hollowing repeatedly over toothless gums, as he watched the intruders with bulging, faded blue eyes and unmistakable pique. Ernie Waits and Lon Peabody stood with their legs bowed and trembling as they, too, were unwilling witnesses to the un-healthy sport taking place before them. For standing in the middle of the store, in front of the counter, was none other than Hannibal Hanford himself, and gathered menacingly in a loose circle around him was a large group of disagreeable-looking, sour-smelling mountain crackers, with revolvers or Owlshead pistols, stuck in the front of their pants, and their belts hung with knives.
Barefoot and shabbily-dressed, they looked a rough bunch indeed, and it was obvious that they were drunk by their loud uncouth laughter and the foul language that escaped their mouths. Mary got the overwhelming impression of imbecilic grins and rotten teeth. They were not from around these parts, so no doubt they were squatters from some lonely distant hollow, perhaps even the dreaded Claw Mountain area itself.

Anxious to protect his three daughters, Paw made nervous little gestures with his hands, in order to try to hurry them outside again, but teased with curiosity, they stood their ground and stared, open-mouthed. The focal point of the deep consternation that fairly bristled in the crowded store, was one of the crackers, a sun-licked, sullen, good-looking youth with bright-yellow hair. A deep, jagged scar ran the full length of his left cheek, lending him such a dangerous presentiment that Mary felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck the moment her eyes riveted upon him. He stood holding a long leather bullwhip, and even as she watched, he lashed it harshly down on the floorboards just beside Mr. Hanford. Mr. Hanford jumped, blinking his eyes rapidly. It was obvious that the mischief had been going on for some time, for sweat beaded the wealthy lowlander's brow and upper lip. Then at the taunting of the other crackers, who were whistling and chanting and clapping, there began a series of whip lashes which threatened to rain down directly upon his person, but were in actual fact clever feints, which missed him by a hair's breath and had the crowd alternately audibly sucking in their breaths, then sighing with collective relief.

Then the young whip-handler began to show off his finer accomplishments. Now the whip whistled and snapped, darted and cracked, with such speed and skill, it was as if it had a life and volition of its own. It darted back and forth like a serpent's tongue, and caught in the madness of its blur, Mary felt it to be a rightful extension of its handler. For the yellow-haired youth reminded her exactly of a striking snake; except for the rampant whip, he seemed as cold, unmoving and unemotional as a reptile. Indeed, evil seemed to emanate from him, tightening the taut stringy muscles of his bare arm that wielded its fury. The whistling whip snatched the red handkerchief right out of Mr. Hanford's top suit pocket, sent his straw boater flying through the air and spinning like a top across the floorboards. Miraculously, it somehow managed to uncurl his bowtie and whip it from around his neck before it ripped off each of the buttons of his shirt in turn. Then it licked around Mr. Hanford's left earlobe, splitting it and drawing a little bubble of blood, producing a little howl of outrage from the store onlookers.

Mary was amazed at the transformation in Mr. Hanford. Though his tormentor could not be much older than her brother, Joe, the landowner was held as effectively at bay as a cat of prey by a lion-tamer, as much, Mary was convinced, by the cracker's formidable presence as for fear of an actual lashing. His frame was bent, shoulders hunched and his eyes blinked repeatedly. His mouth lolled open and the spittle dribbled, so that he presented a figure so pathetic, so devoid of nobility, that Mary felt a cringing shame for him. This formerly pompous, strutting man, usually so full of his own smug self-import-ance, had been reduced to a pitiful, cowering creature. As much as she disliked the man, she hated to see this systematic, dreadful humiliation of him. It was quite painful to watch. And as he begged for mercy, sobbing with terror, even though the whip had yet not actually touched him but for that pathetic little nick on his earlobe, something inside Mary snapped.

“ Oh, Mr. Hanford, why don't you do something'!” she burst out, without thinking. “Don't jest stand there! And you, Mister, why don't you go on back to whar you came from. We don't want no bullies around here.”
There was an immediate lull in the uproarious laughter. Ominously, the snarling whip slowed and then stilled completely. The yellow-haired cracker turned slowly to face her, staring at her with malignant pale-yellow eyes that were queerly lighted. Mary felt a little thrall of fear. The atmosphere was thick with jeopardy, and she felt unable to breathe. Her father edged closer to her, his face creased with worry. But everyone else was frozen with inertia. For an unbearably long while there wasn't a sound to be heard, except the distant chatter and laughter of the children playing outside.

“ You!” he said softly, with deceptive gentleness. “What's yer name?”
“ I ... I am Mary Louella Harley!” Mary felt her face redden as the entire store turned astounded eyes on her. “And who might you be?”
“ It don't matter none who I am. What matters is you tried to int'fere with Buchanan justice. Now I don't take kindly t'that.”

Buchanan justice! Mary felt a stirring of alarm. Why, these were those awful Buchanan boys from Claw Mountain, the ones they called the Buckos! Everybody was scared silly of them. Indeed, their reputation for meanness, drunkenness and lawlessness, had swept through the mountains like a blast of odious bad breath. She was scared silly too, now that she knew who they were, but she couldn't possibly let them see that. “Well, Mister ... uh, I am sorry if'n I interfered with yer ... er, justice, but if’n you got some quarrel with Mr. Hanford, why don't you settle it in a decent manner instead of humiliatin' th' poor man so?”

The cracker stared at her incredulously as if he could not believe her temerity, while Mr. Hanford, his hair awry, looked at her with a strange mingling of gratitude and shame. Disheveled and thoroughly humiliated, his cowardice exposed before the very people he had previously treated with such lofty disdain, it seemed he could not prevent the tears that rolled down his cheeks at this unexpected new blow to his dignity. Mary guessed that to have a young mountain woman stand up for him must be hard for him to take, especially since it was well-known that he despised the mountain folk, whom he insisted cut down his timber. He had sent the sheriff to arrest many a suspected culprit. He had never even condescended to greet any of them in the past. Nevertheless, he clearly could not hide the relief that he felt now that there had been a lull in the commotion. But he stood there rooted to the floor, as if afraid to move in case the spotlight should move back to him.

“ Well,” the yellow-haired cracker said shortly. “It jest so happens I ain’t about to waste no more time with this gutless piece of shit, anyhow.”

Only the good Lord knew what would have happened then if the cracker hadn’t spotted Laura and Nellie, who were watching him in mesmerized fascination. Immediately, his attention switched from Mary and the unfortunate Mr. Hanford, as his chilling gaze took in their youthful loveliness. Suddenly, as the other crackers followed his gaze, there was howl of whistles and shouts. Then they whooped and hollered crude remarks.

“ Hey, reckon I’d sure like to git me some a’that!” chortled one of them, a gaunt-looking fellow with brown hair, hitching up his patched brown pants by the suspenders. Back to the top | Order the book

“ Yeah,” leered another, taking off his slouch hat and holding it against his heart. “I’d like t’lick them all over like them is lollipops!”

Despite her sisters pretended disinterest, Mary could tell they were flattered by the little furor they had caused. Indeed, they seemed disappointed when the crackers turned their attention to the store’s merchandise. Puffing at newly-lit cigars nicked from a box from the counter, they tried on ladies’ hats, juggled gumballs scooped from a large open jar on the counter, filched licorice sticks and brazenly stuffed cans of beans and beef into their vests, under the worried eye of Mr. Fox, who stood behind the counter, looking nervous as a cat having to cross a puddle, wringing his hands in distress. One of the crackers, however, didn’t join in their silly antics, and stood leaning against the counter, watching them. He seemed the oldest and of a much more sober bent. Out of the corner of her eye, for she didn’t want to invite his attention, Mary saw that the man was barefoot, clearly marking him as a mountaineer, and unlike the others, who were slight of build, he was big and tall, and strong-looking as an ox, with a handsome black mustache.

At last the crackers, tiring of their sport, barged out of the door, to another collective sigh of relief from the onlookers. While her paw went to join a group of old cronies around the pot-bellied stove, Mary, feeling quite shaken by the nerve-wracking experience, pretended to busy herself by looking at the bales of cloth stacked up at the end of the counter till she gained some equilibrium. After a few minutes, she looked up to see, to her considerable disconcertion, that the big man with the mustache was still leaning against the counter and was staring avidly at her. Their eyes met and riveted for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only for a few breathless seconds. Mary felt flustered and confused. His eyes were the most unusual she had seen; a striking turquoise color, more turquoise-green than turquoise-blue, and of such burning luminosity, they seemed to strafe her to cinders right where she stood.

At first she thought she must be mistaken, and that it must be her two sisters he seemed so interested in, for they were so much prettier than her, and younger too, with any number of ardent suitors, while she, just a week off turning nineteen, was practically an old maid. After all, most mountain girls were wed between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. The only man who’d been interested in her up to now was Wiley Holbrook, who was old enough to be her father, smelled of hogs and was constantly sniffing or wiping his nose on his sleeve. Though her mother was always trying to point out Wiley’s good points to her, Mary was unconvinced and horrified when Paw gave him permission to call on her. After a few strained visits, however, he had thankfully lost confidence for she had practically ignored the poor man, not wanting to encourage him.

But no, the big mountain cracker was definitely staring straight at her. Still filled with consternation over the ugly encounter, she glared hotly at him, but as the staring between them seemed to endlessly stretch, it seemed to melt away like butter left in the sun, leaving her feeling as limp as a wet rag inside. Finally, she managed to snatch her eyes away, growing flustered as she felt his eyes still upon her, as heavy as boulders. She felt herself blush and quickly turned away, pretending to be interested in the antics of a pair of small boisterous boys dressed in identical knickerbocker suits and matching golf caps, who were dodging around a barrel of flour, dropping her drawstring purse. It landed on the floorboards, which had all too recently resounded to the hateful tyranny of the whip, with barely a sound. She immediately bent down to retrieve it, but at the same time, the handsome stranger strode over to pick it up. He reached the purse seconds before she did, and as he stood up, their hands touched briefly in passing. The contact was electrifying.

“ You dropped this,” he said gruffly, with a twisted little smile on his face, as if to hide his own disconcertion.
“ Thank you,” she murmured, laying her eyes low. With that, she turned and hurried over to join her sisters who were talking to some girls their own age. They had acted like a bunch of beheaded chickens, running around in demented circles, before settling down and gathering together in a huddle, putting shocked hands over their mouths and drama-tically clasping their breasts, as they breathlessly recounted the incident.

“ Oh, Mary,” said the Aldershot girl as Mary approached them still feeling highly unsettled by her encounter with the stranger. “You are soo-o-o brave! That one with the whip is Eli Buchanan and you must have heard about him a’fore. He’s scary … but real handsome, don’t you think?”

Mary was disgusted with her. Betty Aldershot liked anything that wore pants! All the customers were still talking about the rude impact that the Buckos had made on their somewhat boring lives, and the whole place was seething with antagonism against them. It was obvious to Mary that they had not observed the handsome stranger still standing at one end of the counter and believed that he must have gone outside with the other crackers – if he was with them at all, that was. Then as Mary glanced at him again he suddenly seemed filled with a bloody-minded antagonism, for after giving her a baleful glare, he strode angrily towards the entrance to the horrified gasps of those who had caught sudden sight of him. Mary watched him go with a sense of dismay. As he went out onto the porch she saw him pull out a bottle of moonshine that was hooked into the back of his pants. Opening the lid, he drank deeply from it, before disappearing from view. His departure was the signal for all those still crowded inside the store to stampede to the door to see for themselves what would happen next. A few got wedged in the doorway such was their eagerness to get out on the porch. They were followed by Mary, who was joined by Hannibal Hanford, who couldn’t meet her steadfast gaze or bring himself to thank her. Cowardly fellow! When she got out on the porch, Mary wriggled her way through the crowd to the front and was shocked at the spectacle that met her eyes.

The crackers were insolently lolling all over the lowlander’s automobile, three of them sitting squashed up inside it at the back, and another two on the front seats. Some of them stood on the running boards, giggling dementedly, rocking the carriage from side to side, so it creaked and complained like a wheezing old man, while others viciously kicked at the bodywork, the solid rubber tires and the spoke wheels. Eli, gloriously unrepentant, lay indolently in the sun on the hood of the automobile, with his back against the windshield and his eyes closed. With all his former menace gone, he might have looked as innocently mischievous as a child had it not been for the pair of Owlshead pistols tucked in his waistband and that incongruous jagged knife scar that ran right the way down his left cheek. The cracker in the driver’s seat was swinging the steering wheel from side to side with a leering grin on his face, while a youngster in the passenger seat, periodically honked the rubber ball of the horn fixed to one side of the windshield, with an astounded look on his slack-jawed face.

Mary’s eyes anxiously searched for the tall one among them, and she was relieved to see that he hadn’t joined the others. He stood on one side with his arms folded, watching them with a disgusted look on his face. She was glad, because the others looked so idiotic, so lacking in wits that she felt a moment of intense shame for them. It was a shameful thing, after all, grown men behaving like unruly children, defiantly daring anyone to stop them from indulging in their careless, malicious play.

Hannibal Hanford appeared at Mary's side and stood watching them too, nervously, trembling, too afraid to even attempt a rescue of his once-shiny automobile now covered in dust and dirt and ruined by the dents caused by scores of well-aimed hard bare heels. She saw his face and couldn't help feeling sorry for the man. What a blow to his pride all this must have been. Mary wondered if he'd ever dare show his face around here again. Nobody she knew liked him and he'd likely be a laughing stock from now on. Oh well, she supposed pride did cometh before a fall, as the saying went!

Then urging the others to follow him with an impatient whip of his arm, scornfully glaring at three children fearfully peering out at him from under the stilted porch and kicking a child's hoop out of his path, the big handsome stranger hit out towards the mountains that reared up in the far distance. The others, one by one, climbed reluctantly out and off the automobile and followed meekly after him. As a final parting insult, however, a few of them picked up rocks and lobbed them back at the ravaged vehicle, grinning, as they struck the windshield, smashing it, and bounced off the already dented chrome- and body-work, before they rambled aimlessly after the big one across the field of waving bluegrass and wildflowers, all fifteen of them ... Back to the top | Order the book

On the long walk back to Claw Mountain, that rose up in the far distance, while his brothers reeled drunkenly around him, roughhousing and giggling like naughty children, Zachary Thomas strode for home troubled by his thoughts and the unfamiliar emotions churning inside him. He could not get the unknown young mountain girl at the store out of his mind. He had found himself totally fascinated by her, struck by the spunky way she had stood up to Eli when nobody else had dared to. Nobody messed with Eli! He had this chilling meanness about him that made everybody, even complete strangers, instantly wary of him. Of course, Eli's anger had been somewhat justified for once. The wealthy low-lander had pulled up in his horseless carriage all high-and mighty and looking down his nose at them, and had rudely pushed young Jamie out of the way to enter the store, as if he was a piece of crud. Jamie had been a long time getting born and as a result was dim-witted. The boy evoked a staunch protectiveness in Eli, especially when he suffered ridicule or contempt from others. Was it stupidity, ignorance or bravery that had made the girl stand up to Eli that way? Her quiet dignity and straight back as she stared at the cloth bales had been almost a relief to him compared to the behavior of the other girls in the store, who had carried on so anyone would think they'd been accosted.

He wondered why the black-haired girl was lingering on in his thoughts so. Some might even consider her plain, when in fact, she was anything but that. She was beguilingly different. Oh, she was not real pretty like the two younger girls who had caught the attention of his brothers, but there was something very compelling about her calm hazel eyes, her clear high forehead, the thick curtain of her straight, shiny black hair that escaped her cloth bonnet. He found her dusky skin and the fine sprinkling of dark freckles on her nose and cheeks appealing too – he thought the milky complexion usually favored by the fairer sex made them seem wishy-washy and weak. Certainly, he had not expected to feel so moved by her.

He shook his head to rid himself of the memory of her turning to look at him and their eyes meeting and holding for much longer than he had intended. Her mouth was clamped with her pent-up indignation, but as the staring between them stretched, it slackened to a soft, bewildered pout. It was then that he felt a churning in his gut, which had refused to go away, despite the fact that they’d left the store, and her, long behind. He raised his eyes to the heavens and gave a huge, tortured sigh, feeling oddly tormented inside. He tried to snap himself out of his present state of sappiness and determinedly stepped up his pace, urging his lagging brothers to keep up with him. They still had a long way to go and it would be dark by the time they finally got home. Back to the top | Order the book