3.93 STARS



Katie kept mum on their destination, chatting about nothing in particular. They followed the creek toward the river for a bit, not taking the fork up to Hawk’s Peak as he’d feared. He wasn’t sure he could have handled the steep trail. But when they crossed to the other side a bit further along, he grew puzzled.

“You’ll know soon enough,” she answered his unspoken question.

They ducked under a strand of barbed wire, joining an overgrown lane leading into the hollow. It wasn’t until they emerged from the forest a short time later that it made sense. There, nestled between the two ridges, a narrow field of yellowed grasses basked in the afternoon sun. A couple of flatbed wagons were parked askew at the far end, with the horses tied to a collapsed shed. The ruins of a house sat off in the trees behind it. Scott was propped up against a barrel on one of the wagons, strumming his guitar. Strands of “For Me and My Gal” wafted toward them.

Katie issued her warning with a smile. “Now be nice. They’re mostly Scott’s classmates, but a few familiar faces are here as well. Everyone’s been asking about you, even Carole.”

“If Carole Lundy’s here, I’ll be on my best behavior,” he teased, letting her move ahead.

“You’d better be,” she chuckled. “It isn’t Lundy anymore. Tim Campbell up and married her last spring.”

Katie was wise not to have told him of the gathering. But they were here now; he might as well make the best of it. He recognized Scott’s buddies. And sure enough Carole was hanging onto Tim as always. Other classmates from the valley school hovered around them, opening up when he and Katie drew close.

Saying their hellos, he noticed Pete Morrison on his own by the wagons, watching Scott play. Joshua wondered how he was dealing with his brother’s death, but lost the thought as the gang surrounded them.

“I see you’re with Katie,” Chuck Taggart commented a few minutes later, shoving a tin in his direction.

“Yeah, she drug me out here.” Joshua glanced over to where she stood, cup in hand, chatting with the girls.

Chuck smirked. “What would her mother say? Imagine it’d be rather embarrassing for the queen of prohibition.”

“Katie has a mind of her own,” he defended.

“That she does. I rather like her spunk.” Chuck lifted his cup. “To Katie!”

Joshua took a sip. The burn was sharp. “Whoa!”

Chuck’s auburn beard glistened as he laughed. The joker had joined his father’s logging operation after graduation. Years earlier he’d begun supplying moonshine from cousins over in West Virginia. As far as Joshua could tell, the only thing state prohibition had achieved was pushing locals from malt brew to pure grain.

“It does have a bite,” Chuck confessed. “Though I rather like the oakiness. There’s a whole nother keg in a spring up the ridge a ways. Men from the crew are out hunting. We’ll need it if they come. They down it like water.”

“Damn!” Joshua gasped. It had been months since he’d had spirits, and it hadn’t been one eighty proof. He thought of Montmartre as the warmth filled his veins. With a flourish, he swallowed a gulp. Liquid boldness might help the afternoon flow.

“That’s more like it,” Chuck urged, chugging from his own cup.

“So did you set up this little gathering?” Joshua asked.

Chuck nodded, waving as another youth wandered up.

“Why here?”

Chuck shook his cup. “You mean beside the obvious?”

“Yeah . . . beside the obvious.”

“I wanted to check it out. This old farm’s been abandoned near forever. My dad’s trying to purchase it. Well, he and some partners. It’s a huge tract. This is but a sliver.” He lowered his voice. “Not simply for the timber either. If it goes through, they’ll have mineral rights. The seller owns a big chunk of the opposite ridge too, over beyond your place.”

“I know . . . the Garth parcel. The government doesn’t already own it?”

“Nope, though they’d sure like to. Dad caught wind of the opportunity recently. He’s tired of playing small-time while the big logging operations rake in the dough, so he’s joined with some out of state investors. They say they can gin up support for extending the rail line. Heck, they think semi-anthracite coal still has a future in these parts. Damn fools.” He glanced at Joshua. “No offense to your father.”

Joshua shrugged. “Seems to me it’s water under the bridge. He just likes to growl.”

“That’s for damn sure. Still can’t believe he won’t let us log those acres above your place. He cussed us up one side and down the other for even suggestin’ it.” He took another swig. “Ain’t no matter anyhow. Dad’s partners have connections with the governor. They’re convinced they’ll be up and running in a few years. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find something to mine.

“Dad’s steering clear of that. He just wants a foothold. There’s enough timber to keep us busy while they fiddle. Prime too, some of the last virgin forest in these parts. Government can’t touch it if the owner won’t sell.

“I took a little walk last week. Found some real giants up there, older than those oaks above your place.” He motioned at the field. “We aim to start a sawmill here next summer.”

So this was how it started. Joshua studied the ridges on either side, imagining the loss. He followed the fault lines up through the bare trees, thinking of Scott’s gobbler hunt. “I take it the parcel includes the cabin?”

The question stumped Chuck ’til he noted Joshua’s gaze. “Oh, you mean that little stone one in the spruce cradle. I didn’t think anyone knew about that. Then again you’ve been all over these ridges, haven’t you?” He grinned. “Yeah, it’s included. Matter of fact the owner’s father was the man who built it.”

Joshua recalled the etched stone. For Anna. “He lived there alone?”

“Nah, never lived there at all. But my dad remembers him, says he was an odd one, some wealthy bugger from back east. He grew up in these parts, or maybe it was his wife. Not sure which. He showed up in Hadley the year Dad finished school. Mostly kept to himself, but he hired Dad to haul supplies up to the spruces. After that he gave him odd jobs from time to time, though he pretty much built it by hand.

“Dad said the man worked on it nearly a year, straight through the winter. He spent weeks scouring the creek beds, picking out particular stones. When he finished, he vanished quick as he came. Never came back as far as anyone knows.

“He never touched the land. Dad offered to log it. No doubt the larger operations did too. But he held out. When he dropped dead from a stroke earlier this year, I guess the son realized he had quite a chestnut squirreled away up here.”

By then Joshua had located the spruces below the clouds shrouding the peak. The stand was tucked back and easy to miss. “Wonder why he built it?” he mused.

“Crazy with grief, I guess.”

Joshua squinted. “How so?”

“Well, Dad said the man was a quiet one. But one day he kinda broke down. He spilled some sad saga about an accident that killed his wife. Apparently he’d left the son with her sister before scurrying off for Hadley. He told Dad it was the house his wife had always talked about, said he built it for her.” Chuck shook his head. “I suppose he was looking for peace.”

It took a minute for the silence to register. Joshua looked over to find Chuck staring up, somber. The joker had dropped his mask.

The reveal was short-lived. Chuck leaned in close. “The bugger may have been mad, but he paid good money when no one else was hiring.” His eyes twinkled. “Heck, maybe Dad would’ve followed my uncle over to Pendleton County if the work hadn’t gotten him through a lean year.” He toasted his cup toward the ridge and took a final swig.

Joshua lifted his as well. “To Anna,” he whispered. Then he downed the rest of his moonshine, watching the spruces disappear within the sinking clouds.


Other scenes:

Joshua (Opening Scene)

Thanksgiving Morn

Dinner with the Daltons

Heading to Lorraine

Roses along the Seine

First Kill

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