Standing on Stolen Ground Barbara Westbrook

Standing on Stolen Ground
Barbara Westbrook
Romantic Fiction

To Lila and Ann

Standing on Stolen Ground
Chapter One
Joe lit the lantern as we came into the cabin, and as the light played
over the room, driving back the darkness, I got my first glimpse of what
was to be my new home. The room was small, even by mountain
standards, but it was so sparsely furnished that it didn’t even seem
crowded with the two of us standing in the doorway. The bed sat over
to the left side of the room and was draped with quilts and feather
pillows. There was a small table across the room, next to the fireplace,
with two chairs drawn up to it. A pot-bellied stove stood in one corner,
with a well-used rocking chair beside it. There were two bright rag
rugs on the floor—one by the stove and the other by the bed. The room
smelled of wood smoke and lamp oil, stewing meat and a faint odor of
stale sweat. Like most cabins sealed for the winter, it was close
smelling and a little musty. The windows were glassed, and though
they had not been washed in a while, our reflections swam in the glass
like misty ghosts. The fire was burning low in the fireplace, and the
stove was cold, so there was a chill in the room.
Joe moved over to add a bit more wood to the fire, speaking to me
over his shoulder. “I won’t stir it up much, as it’s so late. Best to go on
to bed—I know you must be tired.”
We had had a very long day—our wedding day– starting out that
morning in the cold dawn and going over the northern Virginia
mountains to Luray to find a preacher there. The preacher at our own
little church down at Sperryville was a circuit preacher, and not due to
be back for another two weeks. Joe wasn’t willing to wait, and so we
had decided to go find one to marry us in Luray, on the other side of the
mountain.
It was hard to believe that so much had happened in just a few short
weeks, since a cold, stormy afternoon when I had answered a knock on
the door to find handsome Joe Jennings standing on our doorstep. He
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had been nervous and edgy, and said he needed to talk to me. I
couldn’t imagine why, but invited him in distractedly, smoothing my
hair and making him welcome to our small cabin. We had known each
other for years—had gone to school with each other in the little
Piedmont school in the holler. His late wife, Annie Nelson, had been
my best friend in the world. I knew that her untimely death, just a few
months ago had left him in a bad spot—a young man alone with a new
baby. But I was completely unprepared for what he did next. Almost
without preamble he had taken my hand in his and asked me to marry
him.
I couldn’t have been more shocked, but the truth was that I had no
other prospects. At the age of twenty nine, I was considered to be an
old maid—my chances at marriage had pretty much passed me by. At
my age, only an older man—a widower with children to take care of—
would ever be likely to make an offer for me. The fact that Joe
Jennings, young, handsome Joe Jennings—was inexplicably sitting in
my parlor, offering me marriage—was hard to take in all at once. He
had stayed to supper and talked to Papa that very night. I know Papa
must have been very surprised and it must have been hard for him, but
he listened carefully to all Joe had to say and then had looked at me just
once. He must have seen what was on my face, because he slowly
nodded his head and shook Joe’s hand, looking hard into his eyes. Like
most of the folks on the mountain, he had heard about the death of
Joe’s young wife, but also like most of the folks on the mountain, he
was a practical man and a private one, who knew the necessity of going
on with life, no matter how hard times were. As a young man he had
lost his first wife to the cramp colic, years before he had married my
mama.
Because of the baby, Susie, Joe and I couldn’t wait long, and so we
had made our plans to go across the mountain to Luray to be married
the last week of November. Joe had made arrangements and borrowed
a car from his brother, and I rode beside him in the front seat, one hand
holding on tight to the armrest of the car door, my eyes wide and trying
to take everything in at once. I had never ridden in a car before, though
I had seen them down in the town. The car was a 1930 Ford, and it flew
around the curves going up over the gap till it liked to have taken my
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breath away. Joe looked so handsome, with one arm resting on the
edge of the window and the other draped casually over the steering
wheel. I think he was pretty excited about driving the car too, but he
tried to act as if he made this trip every other day.
We had arrived in Luray around midday. Earlier we had stopped on
the rise just above town by a sun-splashed rock to eat some bread and
cheese I had packed for the trip. It was freezing cold, despite the sun,
but I was so excited and proud to be going over to Luray with Joe to be
married that I couldn’t eat a bite. I was shivering from the cold and the
excitement. It was by far the most exciting thing that had ever
happened in my whole life, and I found that I couldn’t stop smiling.
Later we had found a preacher at his house, just getting up from his
meal and had asked him to marry us. He had been near-sighted and
called me Delia, but I tried not to mind too much.
I didn’t have the time to sew a real wedding dress, but I had my
mother’s pearl brooch pinned to the collar of my best Sunday dress, and
I stopped in the parlor of the preacher’s house to smooth down my hair
before we started. Joe looked so handsome and solemn as he stood
beside me in the parlor and held my hand. He said his vows to me in a
strong voice, and while he didn’t look in my eyes, he did squeeze my
hand once when my voice began to shake a little. We didn’t have the
mone y for a ring, but it didn’t matter to me, really. Afterward we rode
down through the middle of town and looked in all the store windows
before we headed back up the mountain road. It was the most
wonderful day—the best day of my whole life. .
Later as we made the trip up the mountain to his cabin, I kept
thinking to myself—my name is Delilah Jennings now. Mrs. Joe
Jennings. Every time I would think it I would get a little thrill inside
my stomach and my chest would get tight. It still all seemed like a
dream, and I would wake up soon, and be back in my bed at home.
It had been almost dark by the time we got the car back to Joe’s
brother and walked on up the trail to Joe’s cabin—what had been Joe
and Annie’s cabin—and now Joe and I stood on this threshold of our
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new lives together. It seemed strange to be standing here in Annie’s
place.
I shook off a little chill at the thought and took a deep breath. I
crossed over to where Joe still stooped over the fire to put my hand on
his broad back. He stiffened just a little bit and then turned to smile up
at me.
“Are you tired, Liley? We don’t have to….we can go on to bed if
you want…” He stood up then and turned around, and I laid my
forehead against his chest. “I’m not tired, Joe.”
I don’t know where I found the courage to do it. Up until this time,
I had barely touched Joe, and never so intimately. Since he had asked
me to be his wife, I had only seen him a few times, and he had only
ever given me a few quick hugs, mostly as he arrived or departed. He
had never kissed me, except for a brief, warm touch at my lips when the
preacher pronounced us husband and wife.
My mind flew back to that night when he asked me to marry him.
There by the fireplace in my father’s small cabin, he had suddenly
looked at me with his beautiful blue eyes, gleaming in the dim light.
He had put his hand out and placed it over mine. I had jumped a little,
startled that he had touched me. I had felt a kind of jolt run through me
and I had to catch my breath. My hands were clenched together in my
lap and cold as ice. Joe had his head bent down now as he sat there,
unreasonably holding my hands. My first instinct had been to
nervously pull them back. Surely he could see in the firelight that they
were reddened and rough, and I was a little embarrassed and suddenly
shy.
He smiled a little and raised his head, looking right into my eyes,
“Lila, I have to ask you a question. A very important question. I hope
you’ll give it careful consideration.”
I glanced down at his hand over mine and flushed again. I tried to
smile at him. “Well, surely I will, Joe. What is it? What can I do?”
Joe hesitated for a moment then he took a breath and let it out.
“Well,” he said with a little smile, “you can be my wife. Will you
marry me, Lila?”
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I caught my breath sharply and made to pull away from his hand,
but he held on tight. “Lila, don’t look at me that way; I’m not crazy. I
didn’t mean to scare you, coming out with it like that. I just didn’t
know how to say it any other way than to just come out with it. Can I
explain? Will you let me, please?”
I nodded my head, still feeling stunned and wary, wondering if he
could be playing some kind of cruel joke. He smiled at me and patted
my hand. “Susie has been up the holler with my brother Booten’s
daughter, Bertie. Bertie had a baby around the same time as Susie and
she’s been nursing Susie, since…” He took a breath and tried again.
“Bertie told me Sunday when I was over there that she would start to
wean Susie in another month or two, and I could take the baby home.”
He straightened up suddenly and ran his hands through his hair. “Liley,
what am I going to do with her? I made my promise to Annie before
she passed that I would always keep the baby with me. But I have to
work and there’s nobody I can leave her with—my brothers all have
their own families and they can’t help indefinitely–Lila, I’ll be honest
with you—I just need a wife.”
Joe looked me straight in the eye. “I know this is awful sudden.
But I’d be good to you, and I have my own house and 14 acres up on
the mountain. I know I’ll have to talk to your Pa, but I wanted to speak
to you about it first—to see if you were agreeable. I mean, I know it’s
sudden, just coming over like this….” Still holding my hand tightly, as
if he afraid I would bolt out of the chair if he didn’t hold onto me, he
smiled at me again, that beautiful smile that could charm the devil
himself. “Well, Lila—will you at least think about it?”
I had been looking at his handsome face intently, unbelievingly, as if
he could still start to laugh at any second and tell me it was all just a
joke or a cruel game, but now I shifted my eyes uneasily over to the
fire. Could it be true? Could he really want to marry me? I still felt as
if I were in a dream and couldn’t wake up. I shook my head back and
forth slowly and looked at him. “Why me, Joe? You could have any
girl around here, you must know that….why are you asking me?”
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Joe let go of my hand and stood up restlessly, stretching his hands
toward the fire. After a moment he spoke again.
“Well, Lila, why not you? I mean, Annie thought a lot of you.
And…I don’t need any young girl who doesn’t know how to cook and
clean and take care of things while I’m gone—who doesn’t know how
to care for a baby. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I need
someone sensible, who won’t get a lot of silly notions and be scared up
there on the mountain. Someone who can help me with the baby and
all the things to be done around the house. You know that it can get
kind of lonesome at times, up there when the wind starts to blow down
through the trees.” He smiled a little to himself, still staring down at
the flames. “Annie always loved it up there as much as I do…we used
to sit sometimes after supper and watch the sun settin’ over the ridge,
turning all the mountain orange and red, just like it was on fire… She
was never frightened or lonely.” He was quiet for a moment, seemingly
lost in his memories. He shook his head again, almost angry. “And
Lila, it’s not as if you were spoken for or courting anyone…I mean,
you
are
about thirty now or thereabouts, isn’t that right? Some people
might say an old maid.”
I winced a little, drawing back in my chair, but he didn’t notice, and
hurried on.
“A lot of girls your age have two or three children by now, so I just
sort of figured…well….I thought….” Joe turned to look directly at me.
“You do
want
to get married someday, don’t you Lila?”
I rose to my feet, putting my back to him and crossed over to the
window, my cheeks burning and my thoughts whirling. No mention of
love or wanting me, I thought. I gave myself a mental shake and
thoughts went flying through my head like summer lightning. “Well a’
course he doesn’t love you, you fool, how could he? He needs
somebody to help him with the cooking and cleaning, now Annie’s
gone, and he needs help with raising little Susie. Everybody in the
holler knows you’ve been helping your Papa for years, and it’s not like
anybody else wants you.” A traitorous tear began to slide out of the
corner of my eye and I dashed it away quickly before he could see.
“And this is Joe, I thought to myself. He is all you’ve ever wanted
since you were 10 years old….all you’ve ever wanted….what does it
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matter why or how. This could be my chance—maybe my last chance
for a real life with a husband and family.” My mind was racing, and I
could feel his intent gaze on me from behind.
I spun around to face him before I could change my mind. “I do
want to get married, Joe. Yes, I’ll marry you.” I raised my chin
slightly and gazed across the room at him. “I’ll make you a good wife,
Joe, and I’ll take care of Annie’s baby. And maybe…maybe I can have
some babies of my own…you and me?”
Joe smiled broadly at me, “Well, sure you can. Sure you can.” He
began to shrug out of his coat, relieved now that the question had been
asked and answered and ready to move on to the next step. “I’ll just
wait then, shall I, and talk to your Pa when he comes in.” He clapped
his hands together, rubbing them briskly and sniffed the air. “Maybe I
could have a taste of them beans, too, while I’m waiting, if you have
plenty. All of a sudden, I’ve got a powerful hunger.” He turned his
dazzling smile to me, and my heart skipped a beat.
I looked back at him steadily. “So do I, Joe–so do I.”
So as I stood there now in Joe’s cabin—my new home–with my
hand on his chest, surprised and a little scared at my own boldness, he
hesitated just a moment and then clasped me hard against him and bent
his head to kiss me. I had only been kissed before by one man—Frank
Dodson, who had courted me for a while a few years before. Frank had
never been what you might call romantic and a few quick pecks on the
lips had been the sum total of our romance, if you didn’t count the
times he had tried to slide his hand over on my breast as we sat on the
front porch of an evening with his arm around me. I knew that I wasn’t
exactly ugly. While I didn’t inherit my mother’s beauty, at least I had
her black hair and her big gray-blue eyes. Depending on the light, they
were sometimes smoky and dark, which I thought might make me look
a bit interesting. And I’d wound up with my father’s good solid Scots
bones—definite high cheekbones and a strong, full mouth. It wasn’t a
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Barbara Westbrook
beautiful face, but I guess it was nice enough taken all in all, and the
boys did give me a few sidelong looks most all my life. Still
sometimes after a bath I would stand on a chair and tilt the dresser
mirror so I could see myself and try to decide if a man would like the
way I looked. And though my chest was full and my hips too, my waist
was very small. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have a man
touch me and put his arms around me.
But I never imagined a kiss between a man and a woman could be
like it was when Joe really kissed me that first time. I felt completely
overwhelmed at his closeness—at the sweet, heady smell of him and
the feel of his strength enveloping me. His body was hard against
mine, and at first, his lips were soft and tender, but after a time, his
tongue pressed against my lips ever so gently. I gasped a little,
surprised, and he laughed softly and pressed his tongue gently, but
firmly, inside my mouth, teasing my tongue with his own. My knees
went weak, and I sagged against him, breathless and shaking. He
kissed me for a moment longer as he held me there and then picked me
up in his arms and carried me over to the bed.
I was half swooning when he lay me down, and I thought that this
was what it meant in all the books I had read that talked about dying in
someone’s arms. I never could understand what that meant before, but
now I knew that if I should die then, well, I guess that I would die in his
arms and be happy to do so. He left me for a moment and I was aware
that he was stripping off his shirt and pants. I raised myself up on the
pillow to see him. I don’t know how I had the nerve to be so bold.
Perhaps I should have been scared as I had never seen a man before like
that, but somehow I wasn’t scared at all. I thought he was as beautiful
as sin. Nothing that I had ever imagined a man to be even came close.
He was tall and beautifully made, sleek with muscle and sure in the
way he moved. He knelt beside me on the bed and for the first time
that long day, looked me straight in the eyes. His hands unbuttoned my
dress, and he slipped it off my shoulders. His eyes widened a bit in
surprise as I lay back against the pillows, and he reached out and
cupped my breast with his hand.
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Standing on Stolen Ground
“So beautiful,” he murmured, and his other hand began to pull
against my skirt, eager to have me undressed before him as he was
before me.
Together we pulled at my clothes and he buried his face against my
breasts. I was trembling and amazed, but no longer frightened as he
stroked my body and murmured soft words in my ear. Indeed, I was
excited by the way he reacted to me—the way he kissed me and made
love to me. It was almost as if he loved me, and I would have died for
him in that instant. He placed his large, warm hands under my hips and
pulled me down to him.
“I’ll try not to hurt you, Liley…just lay still now and I’ll be quick.”
With that he thrust himself into me, and the pain shot through me so
that I gasped and moaned and tried to pull away. He held me even
tighter to him, not moving now, just holding me tight around him till
the pain ebbed away a little, and he kissed me on my forehead, soft
little kisses that melted my heart. He began to move slowly in and out
and through the pain I still felt, I began to feel something else too. It
was like a yearning for something I didn’t know what, and I couldn’t
get close enough to him. I felt a slippery feeling between my thighs
and he was moving faster and faster until he was thrusting against me
so hard I thought he would crush me. He was breathing hard and so
was I, and he moaned and pulled me closer and closer to him. My heart
was so full I thought it would burst. I pulled him closer to me, too,
trying somehow to help him, caressing his back and nuzzling my face
against his. It seemed to me that I couldn’t get close enough to him.
His thrusts became quicker and harder and I welcomed them. I wanted
to please him, to make him mine. He groaned and suddenly stiffened,
gasping and pulling me so close I thought my bones would break and
melt into his. I felt a thrill of happiness and fulfillment, because I had
satisfied him. I was finally his wife, and not just in name. All of my
dreams about Joe, which had seemed so impossible just a few weeks
ago, had incredibly come true. Then, just before he subsided against
me, sinking his head down on my breast, he whispered softly in my ear,
“Annie —oh, Annie.”
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I lay still for a moment listening to his harsh breathing in my ear.
“It’s Lila, Joe. It’s me,” I whispered urgently in his ear, but he was
already turning away, falling over beside me on the bed, half asleep
already, the firelight flickering across the strong planes of his face.
Gently, I pulled the quilt up over him and laid my head beside his on
the pillow. I stretched out my hand to lie against his chest.
“I’m Lila…it’s me,” I whispered in the dark.
I lay there for a long time, listening to Joe’s breathing beside me in
the dark. I couldn’t sleep—the strangeness of all that happened so
quickly finally catching up with me. Restlessly, I tossed and turned and
finally gave up and slipped from the bed to stand by the window,
pulling my old sweater over my shoulders.
The snow fell outside the cabin—big, fat snowflakes that tumbled
down fast and hurled themselves against the windows with a high-
pitched moan. It’s such a lonesome sound. It was only the last week
in November, but it had been an early winter this year and the moon
shone down like silver on the small patch of yard outside the cabin.
Tomorrow the skies would most likely be cloudy and sullen, and the
light that somehow managed to filter down through the trees would be
weak and pale as watered down buttermilk. The wind whipped the
trees and swept the icy snow pellets across the yard. The night
shadows had crept up close to the house while the mountain slept
uneasily around us. The cold winds scuttled under the door and slipped
in the windows, chilling me to the bone. I pulled my old sweater closer
around me. What had I gotten myself into? I had married a man who
was still very much in love with his first wife. I supposed that while he
had been making love to me, no matter how much it had meant to me, it
had not meant the same for him at all. Though it was me he held in his
arms, it was Annie he still held in his heart. He had even called me by
her name.
I pressed my forehead against the cool window and my warm breath
clouded the glass as I sighed softly to myself. Since my mama had died
fifteen years before, (in childbirth, having my youngest sister, Ada) I
had been the one Papa relied on to help him with the babies and the
chores. Except for two aunts, themselves burdened with numerous
children, there was no one else, as my mama’s other kin was mostly
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gone and Papa’s folks were all scattered around the area. Most of them
were as poor as we were, so there would have been little help there
either. There was no time for school for me after that, even if we could
have afforded it (books and such came dear in Virginia). But my papa
was an educated man—he had been a teacher for a while up at the
Beech Springs School on the road to Luray—and he always made sure I
wrote something every day so that I wouldn’t forget my letters. It was
about that time that I started keeping a diary to write down my
thoughts. Not that I had very deep, or important thoughts, but I wanted
to be able to remember some of the things I was feeling. Sometimes
the diary seemed like my only outlet, and it was very important to me.
And so, my life went on from day to day.
My father was strict with all of his daughters—there were three of
us—and he never allowed us much freedom. It seemed to get even
worse after Mama died. At church meetings on Sundays, Papa always
made sure we sat close to him and frowned at the sidelong looks the
boys would give us until the boys finally quit and looked away.
It didn’t really matter all that much to me as I had only ever had
eyes for one boy, and he had never really looked at me. He was a little
younger than I was and in love with my friend, Annie Nichols. Annie
was five years younger than I and had been generally thought to be the
prettiest girl in the hollow with long brown hair that hung straight down
her back like a shiny cape, and eyes that were sparkly green. She had
been my friend since third grade in school.
I was too old to be in the third grade, but in the county we lived in,
families had to buy schoolbooks for their children. My family was dirt
poor, even by mountain standards, and they hadn’t been able to buy
books every year. My father had been a teacher at the school for a
while, but the pay was so low he had to take another job working on
one of the big farms in the hollow. He taught us at home, and we
probably learned as much from him as we would have learned at
school, but my mother wanted us to be around the other children. It
was easy to become isolated on the mountain, and she worried about
that a great deal. Still, I often had to stay out of school for a while,
because I didn’t have any books. My younger sisters got to use mine, so
they didn’t have it quite as hard as I did. But as a result of having to
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Barbara Westbrook
wait for my parents to put by a little money for schooling, I was older
than the other children by a good two or three years. I had the
advantage of being small for my age, so I wasn’t much taller than most
of the other children. But the other children knew I was different and
made sure that I was made aware of those differences every day.
I remember that I had to carry hoecake instead of white bread to
school in my lunch pail. It seems such a small thing, but some of the
boys and a few of the girls would laugh and tease me. I used to take
my lunch over behind the school to eat it by myself, but one day little
Annie came over and sat down next to me and started to eat her lunch
beside me. I was too shy to say much to her, but she kept eating and
smiling at me and by the time lunch was over, she was my friend.
Even later, after my mother died and I had to leave school, she would
still talk to me at church before and after services and tell me about
things happening at school and in the community.
By the time she was fifteen, all the boys liked Annie, but she liked
only one of them. His name was Joe Jennings, and he was tall and
broad shouldered and good looking. He was her same age and his hair
was shiny black and curly and he had a way of ducking his head down
when he smiled, and then looking back up at you with a gleam in his
blue eyes. He had a lot of brothers and sisters, all older than he was
and all his family lived up on the mountain or over in the next hollow—
Jennings Hollow, named after his family. I remember watching him sit
with Annie on Sunday mornings in church, her sleek head bending over
the hymn book, and his dark one leaning down to whisper to her now
and then. How I envied her! I would have given anything to be in her
place. There was no way of knowing back then what would happen.
My eyes still welled up just thinking of Annie and I wiped the tears out
of my eyes. Annie would have been about twenty-six now if she had
lived.
At first when I had to leave school, I still had hopes of meeting
someone and getting married.
When I was younger, Frank Dodson, one of the boys I knew from
school, began to come around and even talked to me some about
marriage. But he always had a mean mouth, and I thought it would just
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Standing on Stolen Ground
get worse the older he got. Truth to tell, there was more to it than that.
He was loud and liked to drink the white liquor too much at times, but a
lot of men liked the moonshine, as they sometimes called it, and many
of them made their own brew at home. Some would even sell it. Frank
and his family were well known in the mountains for making corn
liquor and they made some extra money selling it up at Skyland. But it
was even more than all that. It really had to do with what happened up
at Skyland in the summer of 1929.
Skyland belonged to Mr. George Feeman Pollock, and it was a
resort, like a kind of big, hotel up on the top of Thornton Gap. My
papa had told me that Pollock had come to the mountains as a young
man and climbed up Stony Man Mountain. Thinking it was one of the
most beautiful places on earth, he had bought some land and decided to
build a resort hotel so that people could come and see the Shenandoah.
People would come from all over Virginia and Willington and other
places too, he said, just to stay up on the mountain. For the scenery, I
suppose, and the cool mountain air. Of course, those of us who lived
on the mountain had never known anything else, so it was hard for us to
imagine why anyone would come all that way, but Mr. Pollock
believed they would.
Pollock arranged for them to go on nature hikes and overnight
camp-outs. Guests could ride on rented horses up over the mountain
trails, or stay in what they called “rustic” cabins. Pollock built himself
a huge house he called Massanutten Lodge. Like many of the
buildings, it was shingled with big slabs of bark. Many of the local
men worked at the hotel in the stables or the kitchens or on the grounds.
Some would take the visitors on their hikes. The mountain people were
always welcome at Skyland, and many people came to watch on the
weekends when Pollock gave his nightly “entertainments” as he called
them. There were minstrel shows and musicians who came all the way
from Willington. Mr. Pollock himself put on a show handling the big
timber rattlesnakes that people said was something to see.
Frank Dodson worked there for several months, but in the spring of
1929, there had been a thing to happen at the resort that was so
shocking, it had been that had been the talk of the area for months, and
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Barbara Westbrook
soon after many of the men from the mountains—all of whom were
under a cloud of suspicion by the local authorities—left the resort and
never went back to work there again. Frank was one of those men.
It was a terrible murder of a young woman guest at the resort. A
murder so brutal and awful that people still talk of it in whispers even
today. A young woman from Willington, a Miss Sally Bennett, had
come up to Skyline with some of her friends for a long weekend of
hiking and “roughing it” in the mountains. She was a twenty-three year
old secretary at one of the Willington law firms, and from her pictures
in the newspaper, she was quite pretty. She had been at the large
campfire always held on Saturday nights at the resort, and her friends
all said she had seemed to be enjoying herself, with nothing out of the
ordinary going on. She had said goodnight to her friends around ten
o’clock that evening and went to her cabin. The next morning, when
she didn’t show up for breakfast, her friends went inside her cabin and
found her body. She had been terribly beaten and strangled with a
cord. Her poor face, they said, was an awful color to see. Her body
was naked and she was lying just inside the door of the cabin.
But even worse than that, the killer had cut up her body so badly that
some of the grown men there who had grown up hunting and skinning
animals all their lives had gotten sick just looking at it. People
whispered that her stomach had been slashed open with a knife and her
insides had been strewn around the cabin in some kind of a fit or
frenzy. The cabin itself showed no signs of someone breaking in, and
the sheriff and his men decided that she must have known her killer and
let him in.
Mr. Pollock was terribly upset and immediately tried to cover up the
newspaper stories so that the bad publicity wouldn’t harm his hotel.
The Pollocks were wealthy and had powerful ties all the way to
Willington, so it wasn’t long before the newspapers stopped printing
the stories and the talk died down some, or at least was kept quiet and
away from the Pollock’s hearing. Much of the suspicion centered on
the local men who worked at the resort, but no one was ever charged as
there was never enough evidence found.
14

Standing on Stolen Ground
Frank was one of the men under suspicion as he had led Miss
Bennett and her group on a hike that Saturday morning. But as time
passed by and no further evidence was ever found, talk died down and
folks went back to living their everyday lives. Frank was angry and
scared at first and said she probably deserved what she got anyway as
she was just another one of those uppity women from Willington who
thought themselves better than everyone else. It hurt me to hear Frank
say this and I shuddered to think what that poor girl must have gone
through up there at Skyland. I never felt right about Frank after that. I
guess I let him see it too much, because he stopped coming around later
on that year.
The years just seemed to slip by and eventually most everyone I had
grown up with was married and starting a family. It had been just a few
weeks ago, just before my birthday, that I suddenly realized that I had
missed my chance. I was an old maid—I had reached the age when
men would say, so what’s wrong with her anyway that she never got
married? Well, I thought, I guess I was waiting for someone to come
along and find me. Someone wonderful—someone like Joe Jennings—
and he just never did.
I straightened up and rubbed my forehead, which had begun to get
numb with the cold seeping through the windows. Papa said I
daydreamed too much, and it was true, I thought, crossing over to give
the fire in the stove a little stir. I sat down in the little rocking chair by
the fireplace and thought about him and my sisters, feeling a little
homesick. My sister Ada was almost seventeen now and would soon be
leaving school. She was already courting James Cornwell from over
near Woodville. I sometimes wondered what would have happened if I
had been able to continue on with my schooling. Maybe I would have
gotten close to one of the boys and have my own family now, with my
own babies. But then, I wouldn’t be here now, if that had happened. I
wouldn’t be with Joe.
I sat there for a few minutes in the rocking chair by the fireplace
and looked down in the sullen red embers and my thoughts drifted back
15

Barbara Westbrook
to Annie and Joe. They had married when they were about twenty
three years old, and Joe and his brothers built them a little house up the
mountain off Piney Gap. I can still see her on her wedding day, with
flowers in her hair, smiling shyly up at Joe and him looking so proud
and grown up all of a sudden. My heart was so full that day of many
contrasting emotions—happiness and envy, joy and despair.
Now just a little over two years later, and she was in a grave up on
Piney Hill. I had known that she had tried for months to have a child,
and couldn’t. She had had several miscarriages and could never carry a
baby to full term. Then finally she had become pregnant again last
year. I had often seen her at church that last winter, so proud and
happy. She had told me the baby meant everything to her and she
really felt that all would go right this time. Annie had managed to carry
the baby to full term, but she had died just a few weeks after her little
girl, Susie, was born. They said it was from an infection. Everybody
said Joe had been taking it so hard that they didn’t see how he could go
on that way much longer. At Annie’s funeral, I had met his eyes just
once and had to look away. He was so lost and alone, even with all of
us around him, and his family holding onto him on either side.
He still seemed a little lost, I thought, as I glanced back at the bed
where he had begun to mutter restlessly in his sleep. I wasn’t sure if I
would ever be able to really find him. But I had made him a promise
that very day, and I had to try to live up to it. I would be the best wife I
could be, I vowed to myself. And even if he couldn’t love me, at least
he could respect me and we could build some kind of a good life
together. Even though I felt like a thief who had stolen Annie’s place
in this home right now, I knew that I could make Joe happy and be a
good mother to his child—if only he would give me a chance.
Early the next morning, we started out to go and pick up the baby
from Joe’s cousin Bertie, who lived down the Piney Gap Trail in
Jennings Hollow. The Piney Gap Trail is a very old one, left here
originally by Indians who used to live and hunt in these mountains, and
then later traveled by old Stonewall Jackson himself. It was wide and
16

Standing on Stolen Ground
well traveled both by wagon and by foot. Many people in the
mountains walked everywhere they went, or rode a horse, as need be,
as some of the roads through the gaps were too steep to be navigated by
car or even by a horse and wagon. Most folks thought nothing of
walking for five or more miles. It was just the way that most people
got around. People said that some of the fields in the western part of
the mountains were so steep that the fields could only be plowed by
hooking up to another man or boy, instead of to a horse or mule. A
horse would have too much sense to try to climb some of those hills,
my Papa said.
A gap is traditionally a pass through the high mountains. Piney Gap
Trail meandered along the Piney Gap and went across the mountain–
across the gap—on one side down to the small village of Sperryville,
which boasted a post office, some dry goods stores and Estes Mill. On
the other side, it led down into the Broad Hollow, as it was called,
where many of Joe’s family lived. There were many Jennings in the
mountains, along Broad Hollow and further on, along Jennings Hollow.
The Jennings, it was said, were among the first families to settle in
Rappahannock County.
Along the trails, several families, mostly Woodwards, Atkins,
Dodsons and Jennings had built their homes. Along the way you could
always tell when you were getting close to a house from the stone
fences built along the trail and from the cleared land. It was strange to
be walking in a deep forest one minute and then turn a bend in the trail
and come out into the cleared land. Farmers up on the mountain mostly
cleared by burning or by deadening the trees. Deadening the trees was
done by cutting the bark off a tree all the way around. Water couldn’t
travel up the tree and the tree would then die. Later, when the tree was
dead, a farmer could easily take it down. A lot of land was cleared in
this way.
Most of the families in this area were just small farmers—just
growing enough for their families to live on mostly. The houses were
of varying shapes and sizes, but most were simple, basic and built to
last. A few families had built larger homes, with two stories, like the
ones Joe’s brothers had helped him build. These were narrow houses,
17

Barbara Westbrook
with only one or two rooms on the main floor and a bedroom or loft
upstairs. Most all the families had brought fruit trees and vines with
them when they made their homes, and the land here, though poor and
rocky for farming, was filled with apple trees, cherry trees and grape
arbors.
In recent years on the mountain, there had been a blight of the
beautiful chestnut trees and it was so sad to see them stripped and
laying on the ground all around. The blight had been killing trees for
many months now and some areas were almost stripped bare on the
mountainside. But mostly the mountains were beautiful and it was
good to be out in the fresh, cold air. Joe glanced over his shoulder at
me from time to time as if to make sure I was following close behind. I
still felt a little tender and tired from the night before and we were
being very polite and just a little distant to each other, the easy intimacy
of the night having left as quickly as the morning had come.
I had awakened from a dreamless sleep early that morning as the
sun was coming up. Joe placed a hand on my shoulder. “Time to get
moving, Liley. I’d like to get to Bertie and Jim’s early.” We hurried
through a quick breakfast of leftover cheese and bread from the day
before, and Willed it down with cold buttermilk from the spring house.
Joe was in a hurry to get started, and the morning was cold and clear
with the sun shining down through the trees and glinting off the icy
patches on the trail like bright glass. We were on foot again, having left
the car at Joe’s brother Will’s house when we started back up the
mountain the evening before. There were no roads up where we lived
and Joe himself had no horse or wagon, making most of his journeys on
foot. He had grown up in these mountains and knew the trails like the
back of his hand.
I came up beside Joe to walk next to him in the now widening trail.
“Will the baby be sad to leave Bertie?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe so, but it can’t be helped. I’ve
tried to visit her as much as I could over these months, so that she
would know me. She’s a good baby,” he assured me. “Bertie will help
you with anything you need to know.”
18

Standing on Stolen Ground
“I’m not worried, Joe. You know I took care of my youngest sister,
Ada, after Mama passed, and I expect it will all come back to me. I
like babies.” I smiled up at him and then glanced away as I noticed his
close regard. I still felt shy and awkward around him. I saw that he
had noticed me walking a little stiffly and, embarrassed, I spoke again
quickly before he could say anything.
“How old was the baby when Annie…Susie would have been
about a month old, wouldn’t she?”
We had come to a fork in the trail and Joe stopped for a moment and
nodded toward a large outcropping of rock on the side of the trail. He
didn’t answer me for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, and I
wondered if I should have mentioned Annie to him.
“Let’s rest just a minute,” he said, and settling on the largest rock,
motioned for me to take a seat beside him. The sun was fully out now
and the morning air still smelled fresh and damp from the night dew. I
thought for a moment he wasn’t going to answer my question at all, but
then he turned to look at me very solemnly and said, “You know, I saw
Annie after she died—there at the foot of our bed, leaning over the
baby’s cradle.”
Startled, I stared up at him, not quite understanding what he was
telling me. Despite the sun I felt a chill. “Saw her?” I whispered.
“You mean her…her spirit?” For some reason, it didn’t feel right to
say the word “ghost” or “haint” even though I was thinking it.
Still holding my eyes, he nodded. “Yes—my kinfolk said I was
dreaming, but I knew I was awake. It was the night after…after she
was laid in the ground. Susie was just a month old and before she died,
Annie kept crying over her and worrying. She knew that she wouldn’t
be getting well. Just before she died, she got hold of my hand and
made me promise to take care of Susie—to find a way to keep her with
me. She cried right up till the moment she closed her eyes for the last
time, so worried about the baby and hating to leave her and me. The
tracks of her tears were still on her face when the women came in to
19

Barbara Westbrook
Will and lay out her body,” Joe looked down, took a deep breath, and
then let it out in a sigh.
“You know we buried her two days later.” He looked at me again.
“I remember seeing you at the funeral, so you’ll probably remember
that. Anyway, later that night, everyone had gone back home except
for Bertie and her husband, Jim. I had given them and their baby the
bed, and just made a pallet for myself by the fireplace. Susie was in her
cradle there by the foot of the bed, and I wanted to be close in case she
needed anything. It was late, and even as tired and sick at heart as I
was, I couldn’t rest, thinking about Annie laying up there in the
graveyard all alone. I was tossing and turning, trying to find some
comfort on the floor, when I heard the baby make a little noise. I raised
up, meaning to go over to her if need be, and…there stood Annie…
bending down over the baby.” He paused and looked off down the
trail, his lips pressed together tight, like he was fighting back some
strong emotion.
He sighed. “She was so pretty, standing there in a pool of
moonlight coming in from the window, and wearing the dress we laid
her out in, with her long, brown hair hanging down her back. You
know Annie always had long, slim fingers and I could see them
flashing in the moonlight, pale and white. She was fixing the covers on
the baby’s bed. I must have called out to her—I wasn’t scared—
because it was Annie, after all, and I was glad to see her…she raised
her head then and looked right at me for the longest time…never
speaking…never smiling…it was a hard look she gave me, Lila, almost
as if she hated me…and then she just faded away.”
I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as he talked, but I
instinctively reached out and touched his hand. “She loved you and the
baby very much,” I told him softly.
“She never smiled at me,” he repeated, “or reached out her hand to
me—nothing except to look at me so long and hard. She knew, you
see, that Bertie and Jim would be leaving with Susie come first light.
She knew I had broken my promise to her.”
20

Standing on Stolen Ground
“Oh no, you had no choice, Joe”, I said, hurriedly. “Susie had to
nurse. You did the best you knew to take care of her. Annie would
have known that. She would have understood.”
He shook his head at that. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I did let
her down. I should have found a way. And we both knew it,” he said,
and then after another minute, stood up and reached his hand out to pull
me to my feet. “We’d best be going, if you’re ready,” he said. “I want
to pick up the baby and try to get back home before dark. It comes
early this time of year on the mountain.”
I jumped to my feet and followed him down the trail, the chill in the
air coming not only from the weather. I was unable to resist a quick
look over my shoulder at the trail behind us. There were deep shadows
in the trees behind the rock where we had been sitting, but I didn’t look
too deeply into them, halfway afraid of what I might see.
Chapter Four
We made it to Bertie’s house by mid-morning. Bertie and her
husband, James Jennings, lived at the foot of the mountain in Broad
Hollow, in a pretty little white house they had built there. Bertie was
the daughter of Joe’s brother, Booten Jennings. Joe was the youngest
son of a large family, and there was more than 23 years age difference
between Joe and his oldest brother, Henderson. Bertie was the
daughter of Gabriel Booten Jennings (known in the family as “Boot”)
who was, himself, 19 years older than Joe, so that, even though Bertie
was Joe’s niece, they were still around the same age. I remembered
Bertie as being two years behind me in school. She was a shy girl, as I
remembered, short and plump with soft, brown hair and pretty hazel
eyes. She had married one of her many second or third cousins. The
Jennings family was quite large, and the many families made
connections between them that were varied and complicated. Bertie
and Jim had two children of their own, so it must have been a struggle
for them to care for Joe’s daughter as well, but the Jennings family was
very close and generous, and not helping out if you could was never
even considered.
21

Barbara Westbrook
As we walked into the yard, Bertie came to the door to meet us,
wiping her hands on her apron, her face flushed from the heat of the
stove.
“Come on in and rest a spell,” she called out to us, “Jim’s in the
field, but dinner’s almost ready, so he’ll be home soon. Pa told Jim
you’d be by today, so I fried up some chicken. There’s fresh water
there by the door, Joe, so get yourself a dipperful.” She nodded at me,
shyly and smiled a little. “Lila, how are you? Pa said you and Joe got
married yesterday. That’s real nice.”
She moved back from the door and motioned us inside. Joe stopped
on the porch to offer me a dipperful of water. It was cold and sweet
from the well and I drank it down quickly and smiled my thanks to him.
We went inside the house, where the smell of fried chicken and
cornbread was strong and hot, making my mouth water. We had been
on the trail since early that morning, and it was good to sit down in the
warm kitchen and rest. I looked over to a nearby corner where little
Susie and her baby cousins were established on a well-worn quilt.
They were all staring at us solemnly—visitors being an uncommon but
interesting sight. Little Susie had a wooden spoon in her hand that she
had been chewing on from the looks of it, as her little gums were about
to sprout a first tooth. She was big for her age, with curly brown hair
and big blue eyes like her father’s. Joe reached down to scoop her up,
and she looked back and forth between us uncertainly.
“This is your new mother, Susie,” Joe told her. “Give her a kiss.”
He held the baby out toward me, and she strained away, whimpering a
little, clearly unwilling and scared.
“Stop it Joe,” I told him. “You’re scaring her.” He looked at me in
surprise, but pulled her back against him. She had her head on his
shoulder, and ignoring him, I tickled her little feet gently until she
began to giggle. She put her head up and looked at me and I made a
little face and rolled my eyes and smiled at her. She giggled again and
then put out her chubby little arms to me. I took her in my arms and sat
down at the table with her, showing her how to bang her spoon against
the wooden table. Soon she was playing happily and I looked up to see
22

Standing on Stolen Ground
Bertie and Joe staring at me with twin expressions of surprise on their
faces.
“I do have three younger sisters at home, you know,” I said with a
smile. “And I love babies.”
Bertie smiled at me and came around to softly tousle Susie’s hair. “I’ll
miss her, but I’m pleased to know she’s going to good hands.” She
looked back at Joe, “Looks like you picked a good wife for yourself,
Brother.” She said, using the nickname that most of his older brothers
and sisters called him by. “Now sit down and tell me about your
wedding.”
She crossed over to the stove, looking back at us expectantly. Joe
shrugged slightly as he sat down across from me.
“Nothing much to tell,” he said, reaching out to play with Susie and
her spoon. “Just a wasted work day.”
I felt myself flinch slightly and Bertie glanced at me quickly.
“Brother, what a thing to say!” She smiled at me sympathetically and
despite her intended kindness I felt my face flush hotly.
“Oh, Liley knows what I mean—she’s not sentimental, are you,
Liley?” he said, still playing with Susie and not looking at me.
“Well, I don’t rightly know if I am or not. But I don’t believe I’d
have called it a ‘wasted day’.” I said as I stood up, handing the baby to
Joe and moving over to busy myself at the stove with Bertie. “But it’s
all right.” I looked at Bertie. “It was a very nice day for me, Bertie.
The nicest I ever had. Let me help you, please,” I said to her.
She looked at me closely for a moment and I knew that she saw
what I was feeling on my face, for she patted my arm and said, “Why
sure you can, and I’d be obliged to you. Just help me make the gravy
and I’ll mash the potatoes.” She turned back to the stove, flashing Joe a
dark look, but I had already seen the pity on her face when she looked
at me. I stood there at the stove, spoon in hand, with my eyes fixed on
the bubbling pan, feeling more lonesome than I ever had in my life,
while at the same time I felt an anger bubbling up inside of me like the
gravy in the pan.
23

Barbara Westbrook
Although I knew that ours was not a love match, he had still hurt
me with his offhand remark to his cousin. To say that our wedding day
had been a waste was like a slap in the face for me, and to do so in front
of his family was an extra hurt and embarrassment. I struggled to get
my feelings under control and chat with Bertie about friends and
neighbors while Joe went outside to call for Bertie’s husband, Jim.
Bertie finished laying the plates on the table, as I pulled the pans off
the stove and set them on the sideboard to cool. She sat down with a
tired sigh and looked at me. “Lila, Joe’s a good man and he’ll make
you a good husband,” she said.
“I know that.” I replied softly, sitting down at the table with her
while we waited for the men to come in.
“He’s had a hard time since Annie’s passing,” she said, shaking her
head slowly back and forth. “I know that you’ll know about that too.
It’s just that it will take him a little time to come around.” She hesitated
and looked toward the door. We could hear the men stomping the mud
off their boots on the front porch.
She put her hand over mine and smiled at me. “Just don’t take to
heart some of the things he might say. You know how men are. I
know it’s hard, but he’ll get over it soon, and things will be fine.
You’ll see.”
The men came in the door then, filling up the room with loud talk
and soon crowded around the table to eat, while Bertie and I pulled up
chairs to feed the children. They had been deep in conversation as they
entered and Bertie’s husband, Jim, had nodded and smiled at me a little
distractedly as they sat down at the table and continued their talk. Jim
was about thirty years old, shorter than Joe, but stout and strong. He
had a worried look on his broad face as he continued the conversation
with Joe that he had started outside.
24

Standing on Stolen Ground
“I’ll tell you, Joe, I’m real worried. The government men have been
over to talk to Mack Lane about selling out, and he run them off with a
shotgun. It’s going to make him a lot of trouble, but I can’t fault him. I
know that I’m not going anywhere, no matter what the government
says. Where would I go? Why would I want to move off land that has
belonged to my family for as long as anybody remembers?” He banged
his hand down on the table, his cheeks beginning to flush bright red. “I
tell you, I won’t do it!” Bertie laid her hand on his arm, and he shook it
off, but glanced at the children who were beginning to look alarmed,
and took a deep, shaky breath, trying to calm himself.
Joe shook his head. “Jim, it won’t happen. I know a lot of folks are
selling out, but they won’t make the rest of us leave. They can’t do
that. They’ve got no claim to this land. There’s no way they can force
us off our own land, no matter what they try to pay us…not if we say we
won’t sell. My brother is going up to Front Royal to a meeting called
by this Carson fellow, with the Shanandoah Park Association to see
what he has to say. But they have no right to come in here and tell us
we have to sell. It just won’t happen,” he said doggedly.
“Is this about the Skyline Drive they’re building, Joe?” I asked him,
becoming curious as Jim seemed to be getting more and more excited
again. “I’ve heard my Pa talk about it, and folks at church meetin’. But
who is Mack Lane? Can they
make
him sell his land?”
Joe turned to look at me. “Nothing to worry about, Lila. Some
crazy politicians up in Willington are trying to say that they need the
land around here in the Blue Ridge to form some kind of national park
for the rich folks. It’s been talked about for years, but nobody really
took them serious about it. Now they’ve got themselves a ‘park
association’, they call it. The governor is behind it, too, and they’ve
been holding meetings and going around trying to get people to sell out.
Mack Lane Jennings—he’s my first cousin, you know, Eliza’s son.
He’s been pretty outspoken against it, along with a lot of other folks.
Anyway, the government is finding out that some don’t want to sell!
Or that they’re like Mack Lane, and downright refuse to sell! People
25

Barbara Westbrook
are beginning to get worked up over it. Jim’s a little worried that there
will be trouble out of it yet.”
“There’s already been trouble, Brother,” Jim said. “Do you know of
Melancthon Cliser up in the Beahm community? You know, through
Thornton Gap, up at the top of the mountain on the road to Luray? He
runs a little gas station and diner up there. Had a seven room house
right next door with indoor plumbing and electricity they generated
right there at the site. The sheriff and his men come and arrested him
yesterday.”
“What?” Joe said, startled. “Arrested him?!”
Jim shook his head. “Yeah…put him in the car with handcuffs on, I
heard. They said he put up quite a fight—took four deputies to put the
cuffs on him!”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Joe said, his eyes widening in disbelief.
“Brother!” Bertie said reprovingly, looking at the children. “Ya’ll
calm down, please.”
Jim spoke with a mouthful of cornbread, ignoring his wife. “Locked
up the house and store, too, and left his wife and his dog sitting on the
front porch. Sealed it up so they couldn’t go back inside!”
Joe shook his head in disbelief. “How can they do that? Cliser said
he’d never sell!
.
Jim looked at us across the chicken leg he had begun to gnaw on
and said, “Hell, he didn’t sell! They took him down to Luray to the
Circuit Court judge who signed the eviction papers. Seems that now
they have found themselves a way around the little hold-up of our not
wanting to sell. They’ve come up with this idea of eminent domain or
some such and are telling people we have no choice. They say the land
all really belongs to the government, not to us. They just been kind
enough to let us live on it and pay for it all these years. But it still
26

Standing on Stolen Ground
belongs to them if they decide they want it. They say we have to take
their damnable money and get out. They offered Cliser $4500 for his
house and store and all of it. I for one will see them all in hell before I
go anywhere!”
“Jim,” Bertie admonished again. “The children! I don’t like that
kind of language in my house.” Her daughter, Nancy, had begun to
whimper a little at the loud voices, and Susie, sitting in my lap and still
chewing solemnly on the wooden spoon, had begun to look a bit
worried and leaned back into my arms more securely.
“Will they make us sell, too?” I asked quietly.
Joe looked around at me as if he had almost forgotten my presence.
He shook his head. “No, Liley, I told you, it’s nothing to worry
about. It’ll all get straightened out. This is our own government. They
wouldn’t steal land from their own citizens. And that’s what it would
amount to, it seems to me. It would be like me coming into Jim and
Bertie’s house here and seeing something I wanted and telling them
they were going to sell it to me—no matter what they thought about the
idea. And if they refused enough, I’d just knock them down and take it
anyway. That’s thieving, it seems to me. We’ve lived in these
mountains for well over a hundred years. We have proper deeds to our
land—bought and paid for! They’d never take our homes just to make
a park for rich folks in Willington,” he smiled me and then turned back
to Jim.
Jim shook his head. “Well, that may have been what old
Melancthon Cliser thought, too, Brother, but they damn sure did it. The
man that told me about it said old Cliser was singing the Star Spangled
Banner, standing right there with the handcuffs on as they hauled him
away.”
“Oh, the poor man,” I said softly. “What will his wife do? Will
they let him out of jail?”
27

Barbara Westbrook
“Yes, Liley,’ Joe said, patting my hand absently. “I told you I’d
take care of things, so don’t worry so. Now then Jim, we’re upsetting
the women. Let’s talk about more pleasant things before Bertie here
has a fit. Tell me, when have you seen your Pa? I heard tell he was
feeling poorly.”
“But what about the Cliser’s things? Their furniture and such,” I
interrupted, ignoring Joe’s reproving look.
Jim looked up at me. “The CCC boys took all their stuff out to the
road and set it beside the highway. Some of the CCC recruits guarded
the Cliser’s belongings overnight, I heard, but come next morning, Mrs.
Cliser said her antique loom that belonged to her mama was missing,
and they ruined some of their things taking it all outside.” Jim shook
his head. “Hell of a thing to happen to a man who’s worked hard all his
life.”
Joe looked thoughtful. “I wouldn’t have thought something like it
could happen in America.”
Everyone fell silent for a while as we chewed on more than just
Bertie’s good food. I think we were all a little apprehensive that
afternoon, thinking of what might be coming all too soon. Despite Jim
and Joe’s brave words, it was frightening to think of deputies coming to
haul you away in front of your family. At that point in time, some of
the families like ours were still hoping that the Park Service would just
take the land right around the Skyline Drive, and leave the rest of us in
peace.
“Well, here’s a change of subject for you,” Jim said after a few
moments. “Did ya’ll hear about that Abrams girl over in Madison?
The one they found with her throat cut?”
“What? Oh, how awful!” Bertie exclaimed.
“Yeah, apparently, she’d been seeing some man from the crew up on
the mountain—least that’s what her sisters told the sheriff. Probably
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Standing on Stolen Ground
some of them northern boys from Pennsylvania they got up there. I
hear tell they’re all wild as bucks.” Jim continued to eat heartily, but I
felt my own stomach churning even more with this terrible talk.
“Said her throat was cut ear to ear,” Jim continued, warming to his
subject now. “Some other things was done to her too, they say, things I
can’t talk about in this company. Things that bring to mind what
happened to that Willington woman up at Skyland a few years ago, but
I guess I’d better hush up,” He winced and smiled as Bertie kicked his
leg and looked toward the children.
“Well, I don’t want to hear about it,” Bertie said quickly. “Poor
girl,” she shook her head sadly, as she wiped off her little Nancy’s face.
“Surely we can find some pleasant things to talk about this afternoon.”
She shot Jim a look, and he shrugged good naturedly.
“Just trying to tell ya’ll some of the news,” he said with a smile. “I
like to keep posted on the latest news, myself. The sheriff hasn’t made
any arrests, they say. Just like that other time at Skyland. They can’t
prove anything. The man she was seeing had an alibi, so that’s that.
They’re still looking for whoever did it, but…” his voice trailed off
and he turned to Joe and whispered loudly, “I’ll tell you the rest when
we get away from all these women.”
Joe laughed, and eventually the talk turned to general things, but I
paid little attention. Joe and Jim still looked a little worried and upset,
despite their talk. And despite Joe’s assurances, I was nervous and
worried, not only about ourselves, but about my Pa and the girls as
well. Oh, not about the killing of that poor girl—that was terrible
enough, but at the time that seemed far removed from me and my
family. I had so much else to worry about now. If the government
forced us off our land, where would we all go? What would we do?
My Papa had built his house with his own hands and while it wasn’t a
grand house like some in the town of Luray and Flint Hill, it was a two-
story home, comfortable and well built. It was all we had, really, as no
one in the mountains had any real money. Barter was the common
means of trade here, as it had been for a century or more, and only
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Barbara Westbrook
when goods were taken down to market did anyone have real money in
hand. It was winter now and cash crops were a long time away. If we
were to be turned out of our land now or in the spring, we would be
penniless. What would become of us all?
These thoughts continued to trouble my mind as we turned toward
home and our long walk back up the mountain. We had left Bertie and
Jim shortly after dinner, after Bertie had gathered up all of the baby’s
belongings and said farewell to little Susie with tears and little pats. “I
know you’ll be good to her,” she told me, wiping a tear from her cheek.
She hugged me briefly and whispered to me, “And remember what I
said about Joe. Give it time. Liley, and he’ll come around, you’ll see.”
And then with a quick squeeze of my hand for luck, she waved her
goodbyes to us as we started back up the long trail for home.
Chapter Five
The snows were late and held off until the first week in February,
stealing in during the night and transforming the world up on our
mountain. Every needle in the tall, blue spruce behind the house was
iced and glittering, and fringes of ice dripped off the cabin eaves like
frosting on a gingerbread house. The air had the strange muffled sound
it acquires whenever the snow is on the ground, and the front steps
were slippery and treacherous as I stepped out gingerly into the new
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Standing on Stolen Ground
morning. The sky was still filled with dark, low clouds and my breath
froze on the air I breathed. The air was thin, but sweet by contrast to
the close cabin. I had left Joe and the baby bundled up asleep in the
cabin, as it was very early—just after first light.
The snow was not very deep, but some of it fell into my shoes as I
stepped carefully across the yard to gather some eggs for breakfast.
The kitchen was a separate building adjacent to the house, and I was in
the habit of arising early to gather eggs and fresh water and to go down
to the spring house to get some milk for the baby to have it ready for
her when she awoke. Joe had already taken in some wood the night
before in anticipation of the snow during the night, so that once I
gathered my supplies, I would be ready to prepare the meal. As I
walked down to the spring, I thought about how our lives had slipped
into a daily routine over the past few weeks.
My days were spent in chores and taking care of the baby, and as
had always been the case for women in these mountains, there were
many daily chores to attend to. We had our own beehives that Joe
carefully tended, and thus I had wax to boil and candles to dip. We
used the candles only on occasion, using mostly lamps, but it was nice
to have candles on hand in case the lamp oil ran out, and the bees made
the wax plentiful and always at hand. There was cleaning and cooking
to do and diapers to Will! The damp, cold weather made laundry an
even greater task, and with diapers constantly in use, there were usually
diapers hung up on every available surface in the room.
Joe attended to the livestock we had, which admittedly was not a lot
as yet. We had two cows, a mule and some fat, ornery pigs and their
piglets, along with a few chickens. The outbuilding was a crude
shelter, no more than a large, open-fronted lean-to, really. The cows
and the mule shared quarters here, while the pigpen was downwind of
the house, near the stream. Joe had just built his pigpen and the pigs
were still not used to it. Joe, like other families on the mountain, had
until recently let his pigs run wild to forage for themselves, just
notching the pig’s ears to show who they belonged to. When some of
the Dodson’s claimed one of his pigs as their own last year, Joe decided
he needed to build some pens. Joe kept his beehives away from the
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Barbara Westbrook
house up near the woods on the far field. The chickens had a little
chicken house out back of the house, but rarely seemed to lay their eggs
in it. They roamed around freely, staying mostly in the cleared yard
around the house and laying their eggs in the usually predictable places
I was searching now.
In the wintertime, once chores were attended to, Joe usually went
out to check his traps or cut wood. If we needed meat, he would spend
some time hunting, usually squirrel or rabbit, with an occasional deer.
In the afternoons, while Susie napped, I occupied my time with sewing
and mending—not my favorite chore, but one that always seemed to
need attention. When Joe came in, I would lay it aside and go in to
prepare supper. As the winter drew in on us, we lay down soon after
supper, and arose at daybreak, matching our daily rhythm to that of the
sunlight and the forest around us.
Once I had put Susie down in her cradle, I would slip into the
featherbed next to Joe and most every night he would turn to me, and
we would make love there in the glow of the firelight. He had never
called me by Annie’s name after that first night, and I felt like this time
we shared in the early evenings was the only time we were really
close—the only time I could share his feelings, if just for a little while.
Our lovemaking was passionate and intense, like a flood that swept us
both along on a raging tide. Afterwards, as Joe slept, I would curl my
body close to his and hold on tight until I fell asleep. But sometimes,
as the fire burned down to just a glow and the shadows lengthened
around the room, I would search the far corners with my eyes, thinking
of the story Joe had told me about Annie’s ghost. Was she hiding there
in the gloom, watching me taking her place with her husband? Envying
me the life that had been taken from her too soon? Or was she lying in
the cemetery on Piney Hill, dreaming of this life she once had? Such a
thin curtain separated us from each other, I thought. She had once, not
long ago, lain here in this same bed with this same man. Now I had
taken her place in his bed, if not in his heart.
Life could be perilous and short for a woman in these mountains, as
so many died in childbirth. My own mother had met such a fate. There
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Standing on Stolen Ground
was any number of things that could take your life during pregnancy.
Many men in the mountains had numerous wives because of so many
deaths in childbirth. Death could come from infection, or blood loss, or
even shock. Most women I knew dreaded the experience, even though
they naturally longed for babies–healthy babies, because even if a
woman survived the birth, often the babies did not survive. I shuddered
at the thought for I had suspected for some few days now that I was to
have a baby myself.
When I missed my first period, I thought that maybe it was because
of the changes I had been experiencing and the stress of starting a new
marriage and taking care of my own home and family. But when I
missed the second month, I knew that I might be pregnant. Then just a
few mornings before, I felt sick at my stomach just looking at the eggs I
was cooking Joe for breakfast, and I knew. I wanted to be happy, and I
was, but I still felt a little thrill of fear every time I thought about what
could lay in store for me.
The midwife in our area was a good one, and that gave me some
peace of mind. Old Jenny had been helping women to birth their babies
for over twenty years in our mountains. And even though that gave me
some confidence, I was pretty old to start having babies, I thought. Just
about the age my mother had been. I had been keeping the secret even
from Joe until I was sure, and I didn’t want him to know that I was a
little scared. Having Joe’s baby would be the most wonderful thing in
the world to me, but I couldn’t stop the terrible thought that I might
soon sleep beside Annie on Piney Hill. Then would another woman
take my place beside Joe as I had taken Annie’s?
I had stopped on the way to the spring, lost in my thoughts, and I
was becoming chilled as I stood there. I smiled a little to think how my
Pa would scold me for daydreaming and “lollygagging” as he would
call it.
I continued on down the path to the little wooden shed built out over
the spring, known to us here as a spring house. It was where those of
us who were lucky enough to have a spring running through their land
stored items like milk and butter, or anything we wanted to keep cool.
Though it was not really a necessity in the wintertime, it was a godsend
to be able to be close to a spring in the hot, humid summer days. I
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Barbara Westbrook
retrieved the small bucket of milk and hurried back up to the kitchen to
stoke the fire and get breakfast started.
Later that day, I put Susie down for an afternoon nap and walked out
to the woodpile where Joe was splitting firewood. I had made some
meat pies that morning, and brought him one now, along with a jug of
milk. He looked up to see me coming down the path and smiled,
resting for a moment, and placed one foot on the big logs and leaned on
his axe
“You must’ve heard my stomach growling all the way up at the
house,” he laughed.
I smiled back at him, loving the look of him, with his dark hair falling
over his face, and his blue eyes dancing at me. “I thought you might be
hungry by now—and tired,” I said to him and held out the little basket I
had carried the food in. “Sit and rest a bit, Joe. You’ve been out here
most of the morning.”
He stretched and smiled at me, cocking his dark head toward the
woods. I followed and he led me up a short pathway into the trees,
leading up to our overlook over Stony Man Mountain to the southeast.
The little trail wound to and fro, nearly level, until it began to turn
sharply uphill and ended at a huge rock outcropping on the slope that
overlooked the valley below. Coming up the pathway, it was woods all
around, and then suddenly the trees opened up to display a beautiful
vista. Below us spread ridges and valleys, so full of mist on this day
that the hollows were filled with what looked like smoke. The trees
below were covered with the glistening snow, turning the valleys into a
fairyland and the familiar landscape below was beautiful, but now alien
and strange. I knew that this was one of Joe’s favorite places, where he
came to be alone and look out over the valley. His love for this outlook
was the reason he had chosen this spot for his home, and he had once
told me that this was the place that had given him the most peace after
Annie had died.
“Here,” he said, motioning me to a place beside him on the huge flat
rock. “I’ll rest and eat right here. I’ve cleared us a place to sit,” he
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Standing on Stolen Ground
said, sweeping away a little patch of snow that was clinging to the rock.
It was chilly for me, but I knew the work he had been doing had heated
him, so I pulled my warm, woolen coat closer around me and sat down
beside him, feeling a little thrill inside that he had invited me to this
spot to be with him as he ate. I unwrapped the food in the basket and
spread it out on the cleared rock, and Joe ate hungrily, Willing down
the still-warm beef pie with the jug of cold milk.
“Isn’t this the most beautiful sight you ever saw?” he said, smiling
down at me as he chewed his food. “No matter how many times I see it
I never get tired of it. How could anybody expect me to walk away
from this? It’s crazy,” he shook his head slowly from side to side,
looking far away in his thoughts.
“Are you talking about the government men?” I asked. He nodded
shortly and I went on. “I still don’t understand, Joe. How can they take
it away from you…us? I mean, if you decide not to sell it to them. Can
they make us go anyway?”
He turned his head to look at me sharply. “I’ll never leave here,
Liley. This is my land, and my pa’s before that, and his before that.
Our family’s been right here as long as anybody can remember. The
Jennings family were some of the first families to come to these
mountains.” He looked back out over the beautiful valley below.
“According to what Will says, they’re trying to buy all the land they
can right now. And some are willing to sell. No doubt it is a hard life
up here on the mountain and some are ready to take the money and
leave. But Will says they’re offering only a portion of what the land is
worth, trying to get themselves a bargain, even if a man wanted to sell,
it’s still a cheat. They offered a fellow just two dollars an acre over in
Page County, saying the land didn’t have any farming value. Never
mind the value it might have to the park itself! I just feel like they’re a
bunch of thieves, trying to cheat us out of our rights because they think
we’re just dumb, backwoods folk that don’t know any better. Will says
that right now they’re still talking and trying to buy land, but pretty
soon they’ll stop asking and just start taking.” He looked back at me
again., his face strong and determined. “I’ll fight for what’s mine,
Liley. No matter what the cost.”
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Barbara Westbrook
A chill ran through me hearing him talk like that, but I put my hand
out to his and looked back up at him.
“There could be a lot of trouble,” I said quietly.
He nodded grimly. “You can count on it.” he said, and with one
more long look at the valley below, he rose up and pulled me to my feet
to stand beside him. “But it’s nothing for you to fret about, Liley. I’ll
take care of everything. I don’t want you worryin’ about it.” He
smiled at me. “Now it’s time I got back to work,” he said and reached
down to pull me to my feet and give me a quick kiss. I slipped my
hands around his neck and held on tightly though, pulling his head
down to mine and easing my tongue softly into his mouth, the way he
had taught me during our long lovemaking in the evenings. A little
surprised, he stiffened just a bit and then he pulled me closer into his
arms, and deepened the kiss, meeting my tongue with his own and
pushing his hardness against the front of my skirt.
“I really need to get back to work,” he murmured against my lips as
he began to pull my skirt up and push his hand inside my underclothes.
His hand slipped between my thighs and he began to rub me gently
back and forth. My knees went weak and I gasped and sagged against
him. He laughed softly into my hair. “Oh, you like that, hmm?” I
pushed myself against his hand impatiently and couldn’t help the little
whimper that escaped me. He unfastened the buttons on his pants and
motioned to me to pull off my underpants. He watched me with a
sultry, impatient look on his face while I slipped out of them
awkwardly, stumbling a bit in my haste. Then suddenly he picked me
up in his arms and in one quick motion, he pulled me up to face him, as
he sat back down on the rock, and setting me on his lap with my skirts
up around my legs, so that my nakedness was against his thighs. I was
breathing so hard I could barely catch my breath, but he just smiled into
my eyes. He put his hands around my waist then and settled me closer
until I was on top of him and I gasped as he pushed himself deep inside
me. I buried my flushed face against the cool folds of his shirt, holding
on for dear life and slid my hands inside around his waist and then
lower, feeling the curves of his buttocks, smooth and hard as he
bunched his muscles, moving against me.
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Standing on Stolen Ground
“Sweetheart…” he murmured against my mouth, and I thrilled at the
rare endearment. The air was cold and thick around us, but the sky was
clear and brilliant blue. Heart hammering, I could only hold on as he
moved me slowly up and down over him until I was crying and gasping
his name. Then with a shudder we both climaxed together, and I
sagged against him, beyond any coherent thought. It took a long time
for me to catch my breath, and I sat there for what seemed an eternity,
shuddering each time he moved ever so slightly, still inside me, until I
finally sank down into sleep for a moment laying there against his
shoulder, wrapped in his warmth.
I awoke to him gently shaking me, as he eased me off him and onto
the rock beside us.
“Lila? Wake up, now and straighten yourself.” He had begun to get
up and was buttoning his pants as he rose, while I lay there half
swooning still on the rock beside him. I felt awkward and messy and
struggled to get hold of myself again. I reached for my underpants and
pulled them on self-consciously as he stood over me watching.
“Best go on back and check on Susie, now,” he said reprovingly as I
scrambled to my feet. As usual, he seemed to be almost a different
person, almost a stranger, and one who didn’t quite approve of me, as
soon as we finished making love.
“Yes, Joe, I’m sorry…I’ll hurry…” I said as I scrambled down off
the rock and back down the path to the house. I almost felt ashamed, as
if I had been caught doing something wrong or foolish. I felt his eyes
on me all down the path as I hurried back to the cabin.
Chapter Six
The sun was out on the trail down the mountain, though the early
spring breeze still held a hint of winter. I was on horseback, going
down to the little town of Sperryville to Estes Mill. I was a little
nervous as this was my first trip down alone on our horse to buy flour
at the mill. A few weeks after we married, Joe had bought the horse
from his brother Henderson, but it was mostly Joe who rode him or
worked him. He was a big black gelding and seemed gentle enough
whenever I had been around him, but I was still a bit nervous as I
started down the trail that morning, the horse’s powerful muscles
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Barbara Westbrook
bunching beneath me as he stepped effortlessly down the gap, my
slight weight not bothering him in the least. The horse’s name was
Caesar and aside from one long glance back at me with his big,
yellowed eyes and a twitch of his ears when I first mounted, he seemed
to pay me no mind at all, so I began to relax and enjoy the morning.
The day was chilly but glorious, with sunlight dappling the ground
as it shone down through the trees, promising more warmth as the day
went on. The smell of fresh morning dew hung heavy in the air. I was
alone as Joe had taken Susie with him that morning on a visit to his
brother Will’s house. Will, short for Willington, was one of the older
brothers, and a prosperous farmer who owned a good deal of land down
in Jennings Holler. He had been keeping Joe informed about what was
going on with the park they all kept talking about, as Will attended
some of the hearings and meetings going on in town. Will, according
to what Joe had told me, was involved with a group calling themselves
the Landowner’s Protective Association, and had been urging Joe to
join them in their meetings. From what I could understand, it was a
group of landowners who were trying to fight against what the
government men were trying to do with the land. Joe always came
back from a visit to Will acting distracted and looking angry and
worried, but when I tried to talk to him about it, he would change the
subject or tell me it was nothing for me to worry about.
So I tried to put the worry out of my mind as I rode down the trail
and began to plan what I would do when I got to town. Along with the
flour and coffee I needed to buy, I wanted to look at some soft yarn at
the dry goods store. I knew for sure now that I was expecting a child,
and I wanted to start knitting some sweaters and booties and little
clothes for the baby. I smiled to think of the baby, still not quite
believing it was real and put my hand protectively over my stomach,
which had begun to swell ever so slightly, though most people still
wouldn’t know yet that I was expecting.
I had told Joe only two weeks before and he had smiled at the news,
his eyes warm and happy. It was in the early evening and we were in
bed, the firelight playing over my bare skin as held me. I had waited
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Standing on Stolen Ground
till I was sure before telling him, as I always felt closer to him in the
evenings, and I had chosen this time to tell my news. He had reached
out then and touched my stomach possessively, rubbing his big, warm
hand over my skin, and smiling sweetly into my eyes. “Maybe a boy
this time,” he whispered, and then he moved his hand lower between
my legs and began to caress me, while he moved his lips over my
breasts and slowly teased them with his warm tongue. As always, I
was immediately lost in his lovemaking and held him fiercely to me,
beyond words or thought as he moved his body over mine.
Lost in my memories, I suddenly became aware of voices up ahead
of me on the trail. Caesar threw his head up a little and snorted,
catching the scent of whoever was ahead. I tightened my grip in the
reins and moved on carefully, not really apprehensive, but curious as to
who was on the trail this morning. I knew most everybody in the holler
and the mountain, so I was looking forward to neighborly greetings as
we stepped into the clearing ahead. But I pulled back abruptly on the
reins in surprise as I saw that it was a group of strange men on the trail
before me.
They were young, mostly in their late teens or early twenties and
were all wearing work clothes and carrying shovels and picks. A few
of them were smoking cigarettes. Some were sitting on some fallen
logs next to the trail while the others stood around talking in low
voices. There were about eight of them and they were all now looking
right at me and Caesar as we came into the clearing. My heart began to
race and I felt my face flush as they continued to look at me, some of
them beginning to smile and poke each other. Strangers were an
uncommon sight on the mountain, and I had led a very sheltered life up
until this time, hardly ever having spoken to a man who was not my
close kin or neighbor. So many strange young men looking at me was
startling to me and I was fearful of them. I ducked my head down and
clucked to Caesar to make him move on, but one of the men who had
been sitting on the log stood up of a sudden and stepped forward,
catching the reins in his hand. He was tall and lean with dirty blonde
hair and a straggly moustache, but he was smiling at me with what
seemed like a friendly look on his face.
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Barbara Westbrook
“Whoa, now, missy. Not so fast. Why don’t you git down and sit
with us a spell, and tell us what a pretty thang like you is doing up here
on this mountain all alone.” His voice was high-pitched and he had a
strange, flat sounding accent, though it still seemed to be kind of a
country accent, it was definitely not one from around these mountains.
He had a cigarette in one hand and held my reins with the other. The
other boys and men all laughed quietly at what he had said, and a few
of the others stood up and came a little closer.
“I live here,” I said, pulling at the rein in his hand.
“Well now,” he said over his shoulder to the others, “a real live
mountain gal, boys! First one I’ve seen without a passel of menfolk
around her. And a pretty one too! Well, git down, little girl and talk to
us some. Show us a little hillbilly hospitality.” He moved his hand to
my leg and I gasped aloud, jerking back in shock.
“Let go of her!” a loud, commanding voice came from behind us on
the trail and the blonde man dropped his hand and stepped back.
Coming down the trail toward us was a tall man who looked to be in his
twenties, with dark hair and eyes. His handsome face was flushed and
angry and he was wearing a dark green uniform of some kind. His eyes
were flashing as he walked up to the blonde man and got right up in his
face. “Riley, you idiot!” he yelled at the blonde man. “What the hell
do you think you’re doing!” His voice was different from theirs and
sounded deeper and more educated. The man he called Riley blushed
bright red and looked like he wanted to say something, but one of his
friends pulled on his arm and he stepped back off the trail, muttering
something under his breath, but looking away. The man in the uniform
quickly turned to me and said, “Are you all right, Mamn’?”
I shook my head, looking down, my heart racing and unable to meet
his eyes. “Please accept my apologies, Miss” he said quietly. “I assure
you we mean you no harm. These are some members of the Civilian
Conservation Corps, working in this area. I am Carson Anderson, and
I’m sorry to say I am in charge of this group today. Normally these are
good boys, but they’ve been away from home for a few weeks now and
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Standing on Stolen Ground
missing their womenfolk. Apparently missing their manners too!
That’s not meant as an excuse for bothering you, Miss, but when they
see a pretty young lady like yourself…..well, I’m sorry if they scared
you, but again, they meant you no real harm, I can assure you.”
I had seen the look in the man Riley’s eye and I was not so
convinced as Mr. Anderson was of their good will, but I nodded and
pulled on the reins he now held in his hands, eager to be on my way
and away from them.
He quickly handed them up to me and as I took them from him, he
widened his eyes in surprise. “Why you really were frightened, weren’t
you? Your hands are shaking like a leaf.”
I kept my head averted, wishing to be on my way and away from
these strange men with their odd sounding voices. “Please let me go on
my way.” I said softly, making as if to ride on down the trail.
“Miss, please…wait just one minute.” He turned to the men still
watching us and raised his voice. “Go on back to work, all of you.
That’s enough loafing around for one day!” The boys got to their feet
mostly good naturedly and started back up the trail. One or two of
them tipped their hats to me as they passed me by and had the good
manners to look slightly embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. The
man Riley looked at me as he passed too, but not with embarrassment
or shame. He had a calculating, bold look in his eyes as he looked me
up and down. He saw Mr. Anderson watching him and he looked
away, but not before I had seen something mean and spiteful on his
face. Mr. Anderson stood there quietly until they were out of sight, and
then turned back to look up at me. “May I ask your name, Miss?”
“My name is Lila Jennings,” I told him. “And it’s Mrs. Jennings.”
“Well, Mrs. Jennings, I have to apologize again for my men scaring
you that way. As I said, these boys are from the CCC—the Civilian
Conservation Corps—and they’re helping to build the Skyline Drive to
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Barbara Westbrook
the park. Most of them are just young boys, away from home for the
first time, and there’s no harm in them.
They get thirty dollars a month and have to send twenty-five of it
back home to their families. But as you probably well know, some of
the people in this area are not too happy about us being here, and if
word should get out that you or any other lady up here was bothered—
well, it could be a very serious situation. I wouldn’t want any of your
people to be hurt.” Mr. Anderson looked very worried, his brown eyes
sincere and troubled in his face.
“I won’t say anything to my husband, Mr. Anderson, or to my
father, or to any of my male kinfolk, because I would not like to be the
cause of you and some of your men to be killed,” I said. “because if
you ‘bothered’ me, you most surely would be.”
His eyebrows rose up almost comically, as I pulled on the reins and
urged Caesar forward down the trail. I felt his eyes on my back as I
rode through the clearing, and I thought maybe I shouldn’t have teased
him. I pulled up to look back over my shoulder at him. He was gazing
after me with an admiring look on his face as he watched my hips sway
with the horses’ movement, and he glanced up to look in my eyes and
tip his hat to me with a rueful grin. I gave him a cold stare, changing
my mind about the teasing and clucked my tongue softly to Caesar as
we rode out of the clearing into the shadows that were lengthening on
the trail ahead.
Chapter Seven
Sperryville was little more than a mill and a post office, with a few
stores along the little main street of the village. Estes mill was just
outside town, and after I had bought my flour and meal from the mill, I
climbed back on Caesar and headed him toward the main street, intent
on finding some yarn for crocheting, but careful to keep to the side of
the narrow road to avoid Caesar being spooked by the occasional old
car or truck that might come by as we got closer to the heart of town.
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Standing on Stolen Ground
As I walked Caesar past the post office, Nancy Nichols came out on
the porch and called to me. Nancy was a cousin to Annie, and I had not
seen her since Annie’s funeral nearly eight months ago. She was a little
older than Annie and had thick, straight brown hair hanging down her
back like Annie had often worn her hair. Nancy was not quite as pretty
as Annie had been, but she was still very attractive and knew herself to
be. We had never been friends, but when Annie was alive we had
always tried to be cordial to one another. She was waving to me and
gesturing to me to come to speak to her, and so I dismounted from
Caesar, tied him up by the steps leading up to the post office and
climbed up to greet her.
“Well, Lila, I was wondering when I might see you again! You
haven’t been to church services lately when Joe has come. Everyone
has been asking after you.” She looked at me closely with a little smile
playing around her lips. “You haven’t been sick, have you, Lila? You
look a little pale.”
“I’m fine, Nancy.” I told her. “I’m sure Joe must have told
everyone that I’ve been staying home with Susie the past couple of
weeks. She’s been teething and has had a cold. We don’t like to take
her too far from home and get her chilled in the bad weather.”
“Yes, I believe he did mention that to me when I asked him last
week. So sweet of you to care for Annie’s child so carefully—the good
Lord knows how much Annie—and Joe– wanted that baby! And now
to think….” She fumbled in her purse for a handkerchief and dabbed at
her eyes. “Well, at least Susie’s cold gives Joe a chance to visit
Annie’s grave alone and have some time to himself. Poor Joe—he’s
still just not over Annie, is he? I doubt he ever will be.”
“Joe misses Annie very much, Nancy. I miss her too. She was a good
friend and she died much too young.” I said. “I think about her often.”
Nancy raised one eyebrow and looked at me. “I’ll bet you do, Lila.
It’s not as if such a great deal of time has passed since her death. She’s
hardly cold in the ground yet, and you’ve already taken her place. I
43

Barbara Westbrook
guess in some ways, it was all very fortunate for you—after all, we all
thought of you as just an old maid who’d never find a husband.”
She tucked her handkerchief back into her purse and started down
the steps with a twitch of her skirt. When she reached the bottom step,
she turned back to look up at me. “I see that Joe wasted no time in
getting a child with you.”
Startled, I looked down at myself to see my sweater had fallen
open, and there was a definite swelling beneath the waist of my skirt. I
placed my hand over it protectively and she smiled a mean little smile
at me. I was reminded all of a sudden that she was one of the children
who used to make fun and laugh at me in the schoolyard.
“It doesn’t matter how many children you give him, you know,” she
said quietly. “He’ll always love Annie more than he could ever love
you. She’ll always be there between you.”
Stung by her cruelty, I looked down at her and shook my head.
“Nancy, I must have offended you in some way I never knew.
There could be no other reason for you to be so hurtful to me.”
Her cheeks blushed bright pink and she raised her chin. “I’m sorry if
I have been cruel, but no one else will tell you how much time Joe
spends at the cemetery, just sitting by her grave and grieving.
Everyone speaks of it, Lila, everyone!”
“Well, since everyone speaks of it, Nancy, what makes you think I
don’t already know?” I turned on my heel abruptly, breathing hard, and
walked into the post office, leaving her there on the street. I had no
business in the post office, but I couldn’t stand to hear her another
minute and felt I had to get away. My chest felt tight; my eyes burned
with unshed tears. I stood inside the little front room lined with letter
boxes and leaned my head against the cool glass front of the nearest
box, my heart beating fast in my chest. The morning, which had started
so full of bright promise had turned dark and treacherous. The truth
was that I didn’t know Joe had been spending so much time at the
graveyard. He had never mentioned it to me, nor had anyone else, not
that I had seen many of our neighbors in the few months since our
marriage. I had been busy settling in my new life and busy taking on
44

Standing on Stolen Ground
the full time responsibility of a young baby. I hadn’t even been to
church in more than three weeks, or been to see my own family in all
that time.
What did his visits to the cemetery mean? He had seemed content
enough the past few weeks—busy with work and our life on the
mountain. It was true we never talked much about anything other than
our daily lives, and often he would fall into bed so tired at night that he
went to sleep almost at once. But then at times, he would first turn to
me in bed and hold me close. Those were the good times for me—the
best times. He seemed to be contented enough during the day. Was
mere contentment enough for him after what he had had with Annie?
Was
I
enough for him? Would I
ever
be enough for him? These
thoughts went flying through my mind as I stood there and I felt hot
tears begin to slide down my cheeks and the back of my throat burned
with those as yet unshed. I straightened up quickly as I heard the door
open and someone come in, and I hurried past them without looking up,
out onto the front porch, relieved to see that Nancy was gone. Not
wanting to see anyone now and eager to be back at home, I decided to
wait until later to buy my yarn and quickly untied my horse and swung
up into the saddle, turning his head toward home.
Up above Estes Mill, the trail narrowed and became steeper and I
urged Caesar to move faster to gain the shady sanctuary of the trees. I
thought I could hear someone coming along behind me, so I nudged
him with my heels to go even faster, not wanting to meet anyone and
hoping to get ahead of them on the trail. The horse broke into a trot and
we moved quickly into the shadowy coolness, when he suddenly threw
up his head with a loud snort and reared back on his hind legs. I held
on for dear life as he screamed and reared, pawing the air with his
hooves and I was scrabbling for a grip on anything at all, mane, saddle,
reins–when a branch whipped up and hit me in the face and I was flung
backward, flying off onto a tangle of brush, struggling for breath,
shocked and confused. I heard someone shouting my name and I shook
my head, trying to clear my hair out of my eyes.
45

Barbara Westbrook
Suddenly there was someone beside me, pulling me up into strong
arms and lifting me out of the brush to stand me back on my feet. “My
God! Mrs. Jennings, are you all right? Can you stand up?” a voice said
next to my ear.
I pushed my hair, which had somehow come completely unpinned,
back out of my face and looked straight into the alarmed brown eyes of
Carson Anderson. “I think so,” I replied cautiously, taking stock. I had
bruises here and there, skinned elbows and a stinging sensation along
my cheek where the branch had slapped me, but otherwise, I thought I
might be all right. Then alarmingly I thought of the baby and my hands
went immediately to my stomach, and I cried out, “Oh no!”
Mr. Alexander blanched and held onto me tighter, “What is it? Are
you going to faint? Are you hurt somewhere?” he asked me anxiously.
I stood very still, holding up my hand for him to stop, waiting for
some terrible cramping to start, or blood to suddenly gush from my
nether regions, but nothing happened. “No, I think it’s all right,” I said
hesitantly, as my knees began to feel wobbly. “Maybe I’d better sit
down, though. Just for a minute.”
“Of course,” he said quickly and eased me over to a nearby fallen
log as carefully as if I were made of old china . “Sit here and rest a
moment.”
He sat down solicitously beside me and we sat quietly for just a
minute, me still trying to catch my breath and concentrating intently on
any internal warning signs that might signal trouble with the baby.
Finding none, I began to relax and sagged with relief, only to discover
to my dismay that my head was beginning to swim and everything
around me began to be rimmed with darkness.
“What is it?” he said. “Are you going to faint?”
“I do not faint, Mr. Anderson.” I said, and fell back insensible into
his arms.
46

Standing on Stolen Ground
I must have awakened only minutes later, but I found myself
stretched out along the trail, Mr. Anderson’s coat jacket under my
head. He had unbuttoned my collar and was now pressing his canteen
to my lips, trying to give me water, and managing to spill it copiously
over my neck and chest. I sputtered and coughed and came fully
awake.
“Mr. Anderson, please!” I said, trying to breathe. “You’re drowning
me!”
He flushed, but pulled the canteen away and sat on his heels looking
down at me. “You gave me quite a fright, Mrs. Jennings”.
“I scared myself, as well”, I said, raising myself up on one elbow. I
held my other hand up to my head. “Please help me up, Mr.
Anderson.”
Once again, he pulled me to my feet and carefully helped me over to
the fallen log. Caesar was standing peacefully by the log as well,
munching on grass and looking innocently at me.
“What on earth got into that horse?” I asked irritably. “He could
have killed me.”
“Yes, indeed, the way you went flying through the air!” he said,
handing me down to sit on the log.
“It was a snake—that big one over there”, he pointed to the end of
the log, and I nearly jumped into his lap. There were plenty of snakes
on the mountain, and of course, I’d seen them all my life, but that
didn’t mean I liked them any better.
“What snake?” I cried, looking wildly in that direction.
“No, it’s all right,” he patted my arm reassuringly. “The snake is
dead. Your horse killed him—trampled him.”
47

Barbara Westbrook
“Thank goodness!” I shuddered. “You have no idea how much I
hate snakes. Some boys chased me with a black snake when I was a
little girl and told me they were going to wrap it around my neck! I’ve
had a horror of snakes ever since.”
Mr. Anderson smiled at me, and I noticed his teeth were very white
and straight. “And what happened then?” he asked.
“With the boys and the black snake? Well, I got away and hid in the
outhouse behind the school for about an hour.” I smiled up at him.
“Come to think of it, maybe the snake would have been better.” He
laughed aloud and I thought that he was very handsome. Not so
handsome as Joe, but very easy to look at all the same.
“I love to listen to you speak,” he said. “Your accent.” he explained
when I looked at him in puzzlement.
“What’s wrong with the way I speak?” I asked, wondering if he was
making fun of me.
“No, it’s charming, really!” he said. “It’s just very different from
Willington. ‘in the oot-hoose for a-boot an hour’”, he repeated. “It
sounds almost Scottish.”
“Well, my father is a Scotsman, but I don’t think I talk any different
from anyone else around here, though you and those men from the CC
whatever do sound strange to me as well. Where was that man Riley
from, for instance?” I asked.
“Riley? Oh, I think he’s from Pennsylvania, actually. Up around
the coal mines. A lot of my boys are from up that way, as well as from
the south—places like Georgia and Alabama.” he replied. “They don’t
always get along too well—the southern boys and the boys from the
mines. Anyway, Riley’s a long way from home. The president’s New
Deal program gave him and the other boys a job here in Virginia. They
can send money home to their families and they tell me their families
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Standing on Stolen Ground
really count on that money coming in. It’s a good deal for the country
too. These boys are building a lot of roads and parks all over the
country.”
“Spoken like a true politician.” I laughed. “’A good deal for the
country’—that’s true only if you actually want these roads and parks on
your land. And there’s a lot of folks around here that don’t think that
President Hoover is considering what they want at all. Not so long as
he gets his own private road to his own private ‘Camp’ up on the
Skyline Drive.”
I had been brushing the mud from my skirts as I talked, and I turned
now to see him looking at me in astonishment. “You know about the
controversy over the President…about the President’s camp?” he asked
wonderingly.
At the look on my face, he flushed and said, “I’m sorry, but we’ve
been told you people are very isolated here and just kind of live in your
own world. I guess most of us thought you were…well, not interested
in the outside world, or politics or….”
I stood up quickly, shaking out my dress and advanced to my horse,
still standing there by the log, placidly chewing on some tender grass. I
jerked up the reins and turned to face him. “You thought that we are
ignorant and backwards, and that it would be all right to steal the land
from people like us because we didn’t deserve beautiful land like this
anyway! Mr. Anderson, I may not have a lot of education myself, but
my father did and his father before him. And they taught me a lot of
things, because I know to keep my mouth shut and my mind open. My
husband and his brothers are some of the smartest men I know. We
have schools here, Mr. Anderson, and churches. We go into town to
buy our goods and lo and behold, we sometimes look at newspapers
and vote in elections. Our life here is probably very little different than
anybody’s life anywhere in Virginia. No, we don’t have electricity up
here, because it isn’t available to us. The power company hasn’t run
any poles up these hills. Most of the other rural families in Virginia
don’t have electricity yet either, but does anybody ever mention that?
49

Barbara Westbrook
We ride horses or walk where we need to go because there aren’t many
roads on the mountain other than the ones you’re building now. Some
of us may be poor, but most of our people are decent and good and just
want to be left alone to raise their families and live their lives in peace.”
I whirled around to put my foot in the stirrup, when I felt his hand on
my arm.
“Please, Mrs. Jennings, wait just a moment,” he pleaded. “I seem to
keep putting my foot in my mouth every time I speak to you. I didn’t
mean to offend you, really. I’m so sorry. I followed you down the
mountain earlier to apologize but you seemed to be upset when you
came out of the post office. You brushed right past me and didn’t even
see me. So I was trying to catch up with you…. Can we start over
again?”
I turned back to look at him and nodded stiffly. “All right, Mr.
Anderson. Since you ask me like that, I do accept your apology.” I
held out my hand to him and he looked a bit surprised but took it in his
firm grip almost at once and gravely shook my hand. His hand was big
and warm and engulfed my much smaller hand. I pulled away quickly
and put my foot in the stirrup again, pulling up onto Caesar’s back. I
looked down into his eyes once more. “”Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.”
“Mrs. Jennings, wait one moment, please!” he said.
I turned back to look at him. “Yes?” I answered patiently.
“Mrs. Jennings, if you need me for anything, or if I can be of any
service…well, we’ll be working for another month or so up at the
Panorama, above Sperryville,” he told me. “I want you to feel free to
send me a message or come to see me, if you need…anything.”
“Right now I need to get home. I thank you for your help.” I pulled
on Caesar’s reins, turning his head toward the summit and pressed my
heels into his soft sides just a little, hoping he would put on a little
speed and not ruin my grand exit. With a surprised grunt, Caesar
50

Standing on Stolen Ground
surged ahead and we rode up the path toward home. I felt Mr.
Anderson’s eyes on us until we were out of sight.
Later that evening, when we sat down to supper, Joe asked me about
my trip down the mountain. “Did you get yourself the yarn at the
store?” he asked, not really looking at me as he sopped up the gravy on
his plate with his biscuit.
“No, they didn’t have anything I wanted,” I lied, not really wanting
to tell him about seeing his former sister-in-law and how she had upset
me. “I’ll go back another time.”
“And the ride down the mountain? Did you have any problems?” he
asked, already losing interest in such womanly things as yarn for a
baby’s clothes.
“Well, I did see some of those men who are working on the Skyland
Drive,” I said trying to be casual. “They were on the trail as I went
down.”
He stopped eating and looked at me. “And?” he asked. “Did they
bother you?”
“Oh, no, not really,” I said, dabbing at the baby’s face with a cloth.
“Not really,” he said. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, you know,” I smiled blithely, as if it didn’t matter at all. “They
were just trying to be friendly. One of them wanted me to get down
and talk, but I just kept going.”
“Get down and talk,” Joe said in a flat sounding voice.
“Yes, Joe. And you know you don’t have to repeat everything I
say,” I added nervously, avoiding his gaze. “There was really nothing
to it.”
“Stay away from them, Lila,” he said, his voice very firm. “I don’t
want you going anywhere near them from now on. If you see them on
the trail like that, stop and go another way, or wait for them to go on.
Just stay away from them.” He reached over and put his hand on my
chin, turning my face to make me look into his eyes. “Is that clear?”
“Sure, Joe. It’s clear. But I don’t think they would hurt me. You
know, I can take care of myself,” I replied.
Joe snorted and rolled his eyes, dropping his hand. “Take care of
yourself against a group of men—or even one man, for that matter.
Lila, don’t be foolish. Do as I say, now, and don’t argue with me,” Joe
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Barbara Westbrook
stood up. “I don’t trust any of those outsiders, Lila, and neither should
you. You know they still haven’t found whoever killed that Jane
Abrams, from over in Madison County. I wouldn’t be surprised if
some of them didn’t have something to do with it.”
He walked over to the fireplace and poked at it before turning around to
look at me. “Besides, if anybody is going to ‘talk’ to you, it’s going to
be me.” He smiled at me and gave me a slow look up and down, so
that I felt my heart do a little flip and I got a familiar tingle that made
me squirm a little in m y seat.
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, straightening up and stepping
toward me. “I think I might need to give you a good ‘talking to’ just as
soon as we put Susie to bed.”
Chapter Eight
In another month, I was definitely showing my expectant state and I
spent as much time as I could in the slow summer evenings before dark
happily crocheting little bibs and gowns with the yarn Joe had brought
home to me, my mind turned inward in those peaceful moments,
thinking about my baby. Joe had not yet come in for the evening and I
was sitting on the bench outside the cabin, the scents of phlox and
columbine flowing around me, mixed with the cool damp air from the
stream. I was a little tired from the long day and my back was aching a
bit, but my needles were clicking busily as Susie played with her little
dolly, wrapping it up in a bit of yarn I had given her and singing softly
to herself. Joe had been working on his brother’s land down in the
holler, but this evening he was later coming home than usual, and I put
my needles down in my lap and began to wonder what was keeping
him.
The thought crossed my mind that he might be visiting Annie’s
grave on this warm summer evening, down on Piney Hill. Since my trip
down the mountain to the mill, when I had spoken with Annie’s cousin,
it had been hard for me to put Joe’s feelings for Annie out of my mind.
I knew that he still missed her and cared for her. That was only natural,
and I couldn’t fault him for his feelings. What concerned me most,
especially in light of our new baby, was that I also knew that he didn’t
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Standing on Stolen Ground
have those same feelings for me. Oh, we had a close physical
relationship, but that’s all I felt it was. He always wanted my body, and
or that I was grateful, but I wanted him to want me, too. Me, the person
that I was inside.
When I was a little girl, there was a time of bad drought that all but
destroyed the apples that year. Apple picking was a job that many
relied on, including my family. With no apples, and the lack of rain
destroying many of the other crops in the area, my father had no job.
We had very little in the house to eat, and I had seen the look in my
father’s eyes and sometimes pretended not to be hungry at suppertime,
giving my share to my baby sisters. One night after I had gone to bed, I
heard a strange, choking noise below and started downstairs to see what
was going on. I remember seeing my father sitting at the table, his head
in his hands, his shoulders heaving. I stood in the doorway watching
him and feeling very scared and miserable, wanting to go to him, but
not knowing what to do, when I felt my mother slip past me and cross
over to the table where he sat. She put her arms around him and spoke
to him so gently I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw my
father begin to slowly nod his head after a time and then turn suddenly
and bury his face against her waist, while she stroked the back of his
head and murmured to him.
She bent over and began to kiss him until he finally stopped
crying and let her help him up. That’s when I slipped back into the
stairwell and went back up to my bed, knowing that everything would
be all right. And I never forgot what it was like to look at an ordinary,
middle-aged couple and be able to feel from across the room the power
of their love for each other. So I knew what real love was, and I knew
that I didn’t have it.
It was not that Joe wasn’t kind to me. He was. He never raised his
voice or spoke harshly to me, and he was always a pleasant companion
and treated me fairly. I just didn’t feel that he loved me. Not the kind
of love my mother and father had for each other. And not the kind of
love I know he had felt for Annie.
Our lovemaking was wonderful to me and I think, to him as well.
But I also knew that Joe was a healthy young man in the prime of his
life. I sometimes wondered if he was making love to
me,
or just letting
out his feelings
on someone who was there and convenient.
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Barbara Westbrook
He had never again called me by Annie’s name after that first night,
but I knew that he often had troubling dreams as he moaned and tossed
about in his sleep at night. One night he had awakened me with his
thrashing around and as I lay there, patting his arm soothingly, he
suddenly sat up and with his eyes wide open, he seemed to stare at
something at the foot of our bed. It gave me a terrible chill and I
grabbed his arm and spoke his name urgently. He finally looked at me
sort of wonderingly and then let me pull him back down beside me. The
next morning when I asked him about it, he seemed irritated and
claimed he didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t say anything
more about it, but I was very afraid that I knew what he had seen, at
least in his imagination, at the foot of our bed.
So I knew that Annie was still very much on his mind and in his
dreams. Of course I had known from the beginning that ours was not a
love match, but more a marriage of convenience for him. Still I had
hoped that he would come to love me just a little, and I still had hope
that after our baby was born, and as time went by he would begin to
forget some about what he had shared with Annie and be happy about
our new life together. At the same time I knew I was foolish to hope he
could put her out of his mind. She had been so beautiful and good. I
must have been a pale comparison to her.
The light was beginning to fail so I stretched and started to stand up
and take Susie inside when I heard a strange wailing sound coming
from the deep woods behind the cabin. It wasn’t loud, but had such an
eerie quality in the dim evening light that I felt my heart begin to race
and Susie whimpered and grabbed me around the leg, holding on
tightly. The crying came again, this time sounding even closer to the
cabin and I scooped Susie into my arms and hurried up the steps, not
quite closing the door but peering around it, a little alarmed, but curious
to see what was causing the strangely mournful sound. I had heard a
sound something like it only one time before in my life, ten years
before when my mother had died after giving birth to my youngest
sister, Mollie.
My mother’s family were Irish and very superstitious. I remember
my mother telling us stories of fairies and will-o-the-wisps and other
haints around the fireside in the evenings, and I remember she also told
us of the banshees, a type of fairy woman who came to certain families
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Standing on Stolen Ground
to foretell of a coming death of a family member. The night my mother
died, my aunt Eileen, her sister, was sitting up with her quietly in the
candlelight. My mother had given birth to my sister Ada earlier that
day and had had a very hard time. I still remember hearing my mother
scream as my father paced outside the cabin and the women ran back
and forth from the well carrying water and looking frightened and
worried. Finally the screaming had stopped and they had brought out
Ada, tiny and red-faced, to my father and placed her in his arms. But
the silence that followed had been even worse.
On the night she died, my father had finally gone to sleep, exhausted
with grief, and my aunt and I were alone with her, sitting by her
bedside. Her face was stark white and haggard against the pillow, and
her eyes were hollowed out with deep shadows, her breathing ragged
and soft in the silence of the room. I wanted to sleep, but was afraid to
leave her, afraid that if I took my eyes off her, she would die and leave
me, and so I sat beside her, holding her hand, feeling the warmth slowly
draining away from it.
Suddenly, from outside the cabin, there came a high-pitched wailing
sound, a keening cry that seemed to go on and on in the stillness of the
night.
My aunt gasped and straightened up in her chair, crossing herself.
“Sweet Mary,” she whispered. “It’s the banshee!”
Chill bumps were standing up all over my body and I squeezed my
mother’s hand tightly and began to cry as the sound slowly faded away.
My aunt quickly looked down at my mother who had begun to make a
harsh rasping sound deep in her throat.
“Go get your father, child,” she said to me urgently, and I ran to
shake him awake, knowing as I did so that it was already too late, and
that my mother was gone.
I stood in my own threshold now, listening, as the eerie wailing
sound slowly died, my heart beating quickly in my chest. I had begun
to hear some low voices now as well, when suddenly out of the woods
and down from the trail leading to our overlook came a little group of
people, pulling a small cart heaped with clothing and what looked to be
household goods. It was a man and woman and two small children, and
as they stepped further into our yard, I recognized them. It was the
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Barbara Westbrook
Harris family who lived along the ridge where the new roads were
being built, up on what they were calling the Skyline Drive.
James Quincy Harris was a small landowner, like us, who lived on
the high ridge about five miles along the trail from our house over by
Mary’s Rock, west of the Panorama. This was high in the mountains,
and very close to where they were building the new road they called the
Skyline. He and his wife, Abby had a small house– e ven smaller than
our own–I had seen the family some times at church meetings and
knew them a little to speak to, but they were a quiet family who usually
kept to themselves at meeting. I had thought they had four children,
two girls and two small boys, though only two children were with them
now, the little girls, very thin and walking slowly behind the cart pulled
by their father. They were holding the hands of their mother and
seemed to be actually almost pulling her along, though she was not
resisting so much as seeming to drag her feet, her head lowered to her
chest. As I stepped out to greet them, I heard her crying softly, a thin,
reedy sound that raised the fine hairs on the back of my neck. Thinking
she might be ill, I hurriedly came down the steps to speak to them.
“How do, Miz Jennings.” Mr. Harris nodded solemnly to me. He
put down the handles of the wagon and sighed tiredly, pulling out a
large handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping his brow. “Would
your husband be to home?”
“Why, no, Mr. Harris, I’m sorry, he’s not home yet this evening.” I
explained to him. “Is there anything I can help you with?” I asked
nervously, looking around him to his wife. “Is your wife sick? Can I
be of any help her?”
He looked back at her sadly and shook his head. “Yes’m, you might
say she is sick, but I don’t know if anyone can help, though I do thank
you.” He looked back at me. “I was trying to get down the mountain
before dark came on, but I didn’t make it. Would your husband mind if
we stayed in one of the outbuildings for the night, do you think? I
wouldn’t want to try going down in the dark with these young’uns, and
Abby doing so poorly.”
“Oh, Mr. Harris, no, you must come into the house!” I exclaimed.
“We can always make room for our neighbors—I’ll lay down some
pallets for the girls, and we have the room upstairs for you and your
wife.
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Standing on Stolen Ground
I turned around and gathered up Susie who had been clinging to my
legs and bustled into the house, motioning for them to follow. I was
very curious as to why they were on the trail at this time of evening and
what was wrong with Abby Harris, but I thought it would be rude of me
to ask questions, so I busied myself in getting them settled around the
fireplace. Mrs. Harris sat down heavily in the chair where her husband
placed her, still not looking up, her hair hanging down into her face.
The two children’s faces were smudged with dirt and they sagged
down in front of the fireplace next to their mother looking totally worn
out.
I looked at Mr. Harris, who was standing by his wife’s chair
seemingly nervous and edgy.
“I think we must be imposing on your good nature, Mrs. Jennings, but I
am very grateful to you. I don’t think Abby could have gone on much
farther.” He placed his hand on her shoulder, but she still didn’t
respond in any way. I began to think she had fallen asleep when she
suddenly began to moan again, a rising keening sound that sounded
quite loud in the small cabin and made Susie start to whimper and grab
me around the legs again.
“Hush now, Abby.” He crooned to her softly, bending over to grasp
her arm. “Hush, dear, please, you’re scaring the children.”
I looked at him with some alarm evident on my face and he
motioned with his head for me to follow him back out to the front steps.
Once outside, he sat down heavily on the bottom step, exhaustion
written on his every feature, and I sank down beside him, holding Susie
in my lap.
“Where are your other children, Mr. Harris?” I asked him softly.
He looked out into the woods, almost completely dark now and his
eyes filled with tears. “Dead, Mrs. Jennings. Dead, two weeks past.”
“Oh no!” I cried out, shocked and disbelieving. “What happened to
them, Mr. Harris?” I leaned forward and clasped his hand. “I’m so
sorry! We had not heard!”
“No, I have not been down to tell anyone yet. Just the near
neighbors know, a’ course, ” he explained. “It was such a shock, you
see, and Abby took it so hard—“ his voice broke a bit and he looked
down at my hand, still holding his. “She hasn’t been the same since it
happened, crying and taking on till she made herself sick with it, and
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Barbara Westbrook
now, with having to leave them and all, I think she may have truly lost
her mind.” His eyes full of pain and grief, he looked at me sadly. “I
buried them myself, buried them by the big spruce tree by the house,”
he explained. “We wanted them close by us.”
I squeezed his hand, unable to say anything that seemed adequate.
“They drowned, you see, playing down by the stream. Jessie was
my oldest boy—he was six years old—and he knew not to wade in the
stream when the water was up. He was a smart boy; he was gonna be
seven year old next month.” He shook his head sadly. “It had to be
Noah that he went after. Noah was two, you see, and he might have
gone in the water, even though we told them not to. Noah was always
high-spirited and full of mischief.” His voice broke suddenly and he
shook his head and then sighed. “They were good boys, though. Good
boys.”
He looked back up at me. “Abby stayed there with them after I
buried them and wouldn’t leave. In spite of everything I said to her,
she wrapped herself up in a quilt and sat there with them for two days,
crying and calling their names. I finally had to pick her up and carry
her back in the cabin—she had caught a chill and she’s been sick ever
since. Both in body and mind, I guess.” He sighed again, and wiped
unconsciously at the drop of moisture that had formed at the end of his
nose. “And then yesterday, the sheriff came.”
“The sheriff?” I said, surprised.
“Yes, Howard Travers, the sheriff of Page County.” He said. “He
come with a paper that said we had to get out. Said he was there to put
us out and we had to go.”
“What?” I asked incredulously. “What do you mean, Mr. Harris?
Why would he say that?”
“It’s the park service. They’ve taken my land. They come to tell us
over a year ago, but I didn’t have no place to go. Besides the money
they was going to give us wasn’t very much—not near enough to my
way of thinking, just four dollars an acre!” he shook his head. “Not
enough to make a start somewhere else. Some of the others on the ridge
said they was going to fight it, so I thought I would fight it too. But I
never heard nothing else much about it, and then yesterday, the sheriff
come.” He sounded almost surprised as he said it, as if he still couldn’t
take it all in. “I just didn’t have the strength to fight it any more and I
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Standing on Stolen Ground
told them we’d take the money and pack up and go. But Abby just
went crazy when I told her—started screaming and crying that she
couldn’t leave her boys there all alone. It was the hardest thing I ever
had to do to leave them too, but what choice did I have?” He spread his
palms and looked up at me with tears brimming in his poor red rimmed
eyes. He cleared his throat. “Finally, she just went limp and started
that hollerin’ you heard. She won’t talk to me or the girls– won’t say
nothing—just cries and hollers.”
I was shocked and sickened by what I had heard. I reached over and
squeezed his hand once more and said, “Don’t talk about it any more
for a while. Just you sit here and rest a bit. I’ll go and fix you all
something to eat.”
I stood up. “Joe will be here any minute, and he’ll know what to
do.”
I carried Susie into the kitchen, leaving him alone on the front steps
and began to reheat some of the stew I had made earlier for our supper.
I felt nervous and scared and kept glancing out the window, hoping Joe
would come soon and wondering what could be keeping him. Through
the wall, I could hear the wailing crying start up again and thought
about how I had been scared earlier, thinking at the time that it might
be one of the banshees my mother’s family believed in—the fairy
women whose coming foretold of tragedy and death to come. It may
not have been a banshee that I heard, but I feared that something else
had come into our home, far more dangerous to me and to my family
than ghosts could ever be.
For months now since our marriage, I had heard Joe and his family
talk about this Park Association and the park service. We all knew that
they were all in our area, building a road called the Skyline Drive
along some of the highest ridges in the Shenandoah. There was a lot of
talk about what a marvel it was and a great engineering feat. I had also
heard from Bertie’s husband, Jim, that the government was still not
satisfied with what land they had taken and wanted still more. I had
seen that some of the men were angry and uneasy about this, but Joe
also stubbornly refused to discuss it with me, instead reassuring me that
it was a minor problem and that he would “take care of it.” When I
would persist in my questions, he would admonish me not to worry—
that it was his responsibility. And now this terrible trouble had come to
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Barbara Westbrook
people I knew—to my neighbors, who lived only a short distance from
us. A cold feeling of dread overtook me and I determined to talk to Joe
that very evening. I had to find out what we were facing. I pulled off
my apron and walked to the open door of the kitchen and stood there
looking across the clearing, waiting for my husband to come home.
Chapter Nine
Joe and Mr. Harris were sitting at my kitchen table over a jug of
whiskey. Joe had poured Mr. Harris a cup and was now sitting across
from him, nodding his head solemnly and listening to him tell his story
one more time. I had finished Willing up after supper and was feeling
worn out. After Joe had come in and been filled in on what was
happening, he had taken charge of Mr. Harris, who was some kin to
him through his Mama’s side, I thought, and I had gone in to see if I
could be of any help to poor Mrs. Harris. After giving them some
supper I fixed the girls a pallet by the fireplace and then gave them
some warm water to Will up in and managed to get them into bed.
They were so tired, poor things, that they were asleep by the time their
heads hit the pillow. Mrs. Harris was not so easy to manage, but I did
get her to eat a few bites of stew and covered her with a blanket when
her head nodded down further on her chest and I knew she was finally
asleep. At least that terrible crying sound had ceased for a little while,
and the poor creature was at rest for a few hours. I had decided to let
the Harris’ have our front room downstairs and had already made up
the upstairs bed for us. Susie was in that bed now, sound asleep after
so much excitement.
Mr. Harris’ whiskey cup was empty and he placed it carefully on the
table in front of him, ignoring Joe’s gesture toward the bottle. “They
gave me leave to carry away what I could.” He said to Joe. “Abby was
in no way to help me, and the girls are too little to help much. They
had their hands full with their mother at any rate. So I gathered up
what I could and put it all in my little cart. I had to leave most of our
things. They put everything out on the ground and told me I could
come back to get it when I could. You could see that the sheriff and his
men felt bad about it, but they couldn’t do nothing—just stood and
watched and talked quiet among themselves. I was hoping you might
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Standing on Stolen Ground
go back with me to fetch some of our furniture and household goods,
Joe.” He angled a look over at Joe and took a deep, shaky breath.
“Then I watched them as they sealed up my doors and windows, and
we went on down the trail, Abby crying and looking back, taking on
something awful.”
Joe took Mr. Harris’s hand and covered it with his own. “Of course
I’ll go back up there with you–I’m so sorry for your boys, John. And
for all that happened after.” He said softly. “You must give Abby some
time. It’s a terrible loss for you both. Just give her some time.”
“Yes, give it time,” he said, pulling his hand free and rising to his
feet. His head kept bobbing slightly, nodding in agreement, his eyes
vague and troubled. “I should go in to Abby now.” He turned to me.
“Is she…?”
“She’s resting some now, in the chair by the fireplace.” I said.
“Maybe you could get her to lie down for a while.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “I appreciate your help, Miz Jennings, and you,
Joe. I don’t know what we’d have done….” He looked back at me. “I
thank ye for the supper, ma’am,” he said, and walked slowly out of the
kitchen and down the steps.
I sat down beside Joe at the table, rubbing the small of my back and
sighing with fatigue. He glanced over at me. “Have you gotten a
notice to leave, too, Joe?” I asked him. “Mr. Harris said he got his
notice months ago. They must be about our closest neighbors on the
ridge. What are you not telling me?”
He looked up at me sharply, his blue eyes bright with anger, and
slammed his hand down on the table. “I told you I won’t leave this
land, Liley! No matter what kind of papers they send or how many
men they send out to try to run me off! I’ll die first, but not before I
take a few of them with me!”
“Joe that kind of talk is crazy!” I told him fiercely, reaching out for
his hand. “No land is worth your life! You can’t fight the whole
government—what’s wrong with you?”
He pulled his hand away and looked at me angrily. “This is
mine,
damn it! Legally deeded to me! This is where I’ve dreamed of
building a house since I was just a kid. Annie and I would come up
here when we were little kids and plan where we’d put the house and
what it would look like. This house is where I brought her as a new
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Barbara Westbrook
bride and carried her over the threshold for the first time. This house is
where my daughter was born and where I held my wife in my arms as
she died! I built memories here, Liley and a life with my family.”
“And now that wife is dead, Joe, and hanging onto this house won’t
ever bring her back.” I said quietly. He glared at me, but I kept on. “I
have some memories here too. You may remember that I came here as
a new bride just a few months ago myself! And I have dreams too, Joe.
But they’re no good without you. Letting the government men shoot
you won’t make Annie live again!”
He jumped to his feet and made as if to leave the room, but I
grabbed his arm and held him there.
“And what of your daughter? And this baby? If you won’t think of
yourself, or me, at least think of them! You can’t fight against the law,
Joe! You can’t leave me alone to raise your children! You can’t!”
He tried to shrug away from me, but I held on tight and made him
look at me. “Promise me, Joe! If they come here for us, you’ve got to
promise me you won’t fight them. If we have to make a new start
somewhere else, we can do it. We’re young and we have our family—
please, Joe!” He gave me a burning look and pulled away, glaring
down at me, looking almost as if he hated me.
“You just won’t try to understand, will you, Liley? You don’t know
anything about me!” He turned his back on me and went to the door.
Just before he went off down the steps and into the yard, he turned his
head and gave me one parting shot over his shoulder, one that went
straight to the heart. “Annie always knew what I was feeling. She
always knew the right thing to say.”
I sank back into the chair and buried my face in my arms on the
table. I was sick at heart and scared of what was going to happen. The
promises Joe had refused to give me, as well as the remark about Annie
hung in the air as thick and dark as molasses, and I felt like wailing and
crying as loud as poor Mrs. Harris, but I didn’t think it would do me
any good. I knew in my head that a lot of what he said was the whiskey
talking, but that didn’t make my heart feel any better. After another
couple of minutes, I wearily got to my feet and blew out the lantern. I
meant to go next door and lay down next to Susie and hold her little
body next to mine, breathing in her soft baby scent, gathering what
comfort I could on this cheerless night, but once I got outside, the cool
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Standing on Stolen Ground
night breeze felt like a balm against my skin. The cabin inside was
stuffy and hot. I felt so tired and sticky and uncomfortable. I knew I’d
never be able to get to sleep like this, so I decided on a whim to walk
down to the creek and Will away some of what I felt in the cold steam.
The stream was whispering and sparkling in the moonlight. I pulled
my dress up over my head and knelt down beside the stream to splash
the cool water up over my face and arms. Suddenly I felt warm hands
go around me to cup my breasts. I gasped and turned around to see Joe
kneeling behind me, looking straight at me with a smile and a burning
gleam in his eyes. Without saying a word, he pulled me around to face
him, burying his face in my hair, his big hands squeezing me so tightly
I could barely breathe. He began to rub his hands down over my body
as he kissed me on my neck, his breath warm and smelling strong of
whiskey in the warm summer evening. Still angry and hurt, I tried to
pull away, knowing that the whiskey was telling him that he needed
my body, but he held onto me effortlessly and began to pull me
downwards with him as he sank down onto the grassy bank. “Joe,” I
said breathlessly, “No! We have people here…somebody might see…”
“Let them,” he whispered. He began to pull at my underclothes
until he had me naked and trembling beneath him. He put his hand
between my legs and began to rub me slowly until I began to moan and
cry out. Then he laughed and stifled my cries with his mouth,
murmuring incomprehensible things to me as his fingers worked faster
and faster. It didn’t matter to me anymore that he had angered and hurt
me with his comments earlier. I wanted him so much. I pushed my
hand into his pants and found his hardness. He gasped against my
mouth and groaned, pulling his pants down and then moving over on
top of me and surging into me. He began to move faster and faster and
I welcomed it, once again following him wherever he wanted to take
me.
Afterward we lay side by side on the bank, the soft summer night
wrapping around us. I turned toward him and slipped my leg over his,
rubbing my hand against his chest. Eyes closed, he smiled and put his
hand over mine.
“Let’s not fuss so much, Joe. I can’t stand it,” I said softly.
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Barbara Westbrook
“Making up is not too bad, though,” he said sleepily, still smiling.
He turned his head to look at me. “In fact, I think we might need to
make up a little more.”
“Joe, I’m serious,” I said. “I hate to fight with you, but you treat me
like I’m a child, sometimes.”
He closed his eyes again and lay there on his back, softly stroking my
hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, Lila,” he said, “with what I
said about Annie. I know it must be hard for you to understand what’s
so special about this little piece of land. But I’ve been planning my
life here since I was just a kid. This place has always been my dream,
Lila. I can’t let it go.” He looked at me again and then without
warning, turned toward me and suddenly flipped me onto my back,
moving on top of me again and nudging my knees open with his leg.
“And by the way, I have no intention of treating you like a child,
sweetheart,” he smiled wickedly down at me. “But you’re a stubborn
girl….” My legs had fallen open as he moved on top of me, and
suddenly I was gasping as he moved his head down between my thighs
and placed his mouth above the wetness there. Instinctively, I tried to
close my legs, but he wouldn’t let me. “Oh no, you don’t,” he said
softly. “I need to teach you a few things.”
Chapter Ten
The next morning dawned gray and overcast, the air smelling of
summer rain. Joe had left early that morning to go down the hollow to
get Jim and Bertie’s wagon and mules to go back up to the Harris’
homestead to get what belongings they could and bring them down the
mountain. The Harris’ had kin in Amissville that they could go to until
they could relocate, and we had hopes that getting her own things back
and being around her own people might help Abby Harris. Joe made
good time and was back by mid-morning, bringing Jim and Bertie and
their girls along with him.
Bertie bustled in, bright as a new penny, and brimming with
patience and competence, something that we all had need of, and I was
very glad to see her. We set in right away to make some willow tea for
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Abby Harris to try to calm her nerves, and Bertie got out her Bible and
sat with her and spoke to her in a low, soothing voice that brought tears
to Abby’s eyes, but normal tears and not the wild, hysterical crying of
the night before. The night’s rest had certainly seemed to help her
already and after feeding her and her daughters a good breakfast, I left
them in Bertie’s care while I tended to chores. When I left the house,
Bertie and Mrs Harris were praying together, and I thought that was a
very good start to her healing.
After feeding the chickens and milking the cow, I poured the milk
up into a small bucket for Susie’s immediate use and another to take
down to the spring house to keep cool. As I walked the path down to
the spring, I noticed two deer drinking from the other side, about ten
yards upstream from me. I stopped on the path and stayed very still,
watching them. They both looked up at me, showing no alarm at my
presence. In the shadow of the trees, they were the same soft gray of
the rocks and trees, little more than shadows themselves, but each line
of their bodies etched with perfect delicacy. They were so beautiful, it
was almost as if I were imagining them, so still and silent in the
dimness of the trees. Then in the blink of an eye they were gone, so
fast I might have believed I was imagining them after all had it not been
for the dark imprint of their hooves on the bank.
I could see well enough why Joe did not want to leave these
mountains and their beauty. There was a wildness and a freedom here
that couldn’t be found anywhere else. I had lived in the hollows, in the
shadow of the mountains all my life, and still I felt the pull the Blue
Ridge had on your heart and your mind. If Joe had to leave–Joe who
had spent his whole life in these mountains, I was afraid of what would
happen, of what it might mean to him—and to us.
I remember my father telling me of his family, the Bruices, who
came over from Scotland after the Battle of Culloden to escape the
tyranny and the cruelty of the victorious English soldiers. These exiled
highlanders settled in the mountains and the river valleys of Georgia,
Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, seizing the risky chance of a
new life in the New World, hoping to find the peace they craved in
these wild and beautiful mountains of the Blue Ridge, instinctively
seeking a place most like their abandoned home. Many of them came
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Barbara Westbrook
as indentured servants to work on the big plantation houses of Virginia,
hard, back-breaking labor in most cases. But they worked hard and
won their freedom and took to the beautiful mountains, to start their
lives anew. And now they were being asked to give it up all over again
and leave their mountain homes, abandoning their family’s gravesites
to be swallowed up by the forest and forgotten. I stood still, eyes
closed, breathing in the damp, sweet air. How much longer would I
walk down this path? How long until the sheriff and his men came for
us to ask us to move on?
I opened my eyes to a dazzle of sun, breaking through the clouds.
The birds were singing and I heard the rustle of small animals in the
woods around me. There was great beauty here in this place, but it was
still only a place. I touched my hand to my stomach, swelling softly
under my skirt. Here was joy–here was the important thing—my baby
along with my love for Joe and Susie. As long as I had these things, I
could be happy anywhere we settled. I would work hard to make us a
home in some other place. But first Joe had to believe in us and realize
what was really irreplaceable. Could I make him see it? Could the
children and I be enough for him? I was afraid I already knew the
answer. I continued down the path toward the bright stream, sending
up a brief, fierce prayer that I could find the right words to convince
him when the time came.
Late in the afternoon, we heard the rumble of the wagon wheels
coming into our yard. It took only a short time to make room for Mrs.
Harris and the girls on the wagon, and then, along with Bertie and Jim
to see them on the right road to Front Royal, they pulled out onto the
trail to take them down the mountain. Joe and I stood in the yard,
waving after them for a moment and then Joe turned to me, exhaustion
written on every line of his face.
“They were already set to go to work up there on John’s land,
clearing it for the road. All the Conservation Corps and their bosses.”
Joe shook his head in disgust. “A man works his whole life, trying to
build something, and then those bastards tear it down in one day.” He
turned on his heel quickly and walked back into the house, calling over
his shoulder to me. “One of the government bastards even wanted to
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shake our hands and tell us he was sorry for ‘our trouble’—our trouble!
That stupid bastard!”
“Joe,” I said thoughtfully, “What did he say his name was? Do you
remember?”
“His name!” He turned at the door to look at me narrowly. “His
name was Carson Alexander, he said. Why on earth would you want to
know the man’s name? What do you know about those people?”
“Nothing, Joe, I don’t know anything.” I said quickly, instinctively
taking a small step back. “I just met one of the men in town at the post
office a while back and I just wondered if it was the same man, that’s
all.” I looked up at him framed in the doorway and smiled at him.
“I’m sorry, Joe, you must be exhausted and hungry. Let me fix you
some supper right away.” I hurried past him and began to take out my
frying pan and make preparations for cooking, while he still stood in
the doorway looking at me.
“Well,” he said, “do you know this Alexander fellow? Is he the man
you met in town?”
I looked back at him distractedly. “What?” I asked. “Oh, no, that’s
not the same man at all.”
I smiled at him. “Now what do you want for supper?”
Chapter Eleven
Once shortly after we got married, I was cleaning out some of the
dresser drawers in the upstairs bedroom to make room for some of
Susie’s clothes she had outgrown, when I came across some letters tied
up in a little bit of ribbon and stuck under some of the quilts in a bottom
drawer. I took one look at the handwriting with the long spiky letters
and I realized that the letters were from Annie. I wanted to read them
at the same time I just wanted to slide them back under the quilts and
forget about them. I knew that reading them was wrong—like
eavesdropping on a private conversation. But at the same time I
wanted very badly to know what was in them. It was almost the same
as probing a sore tooth with your tongue. You know it will hurt, but
you just have to do it anyway.
I held them up to the light coming in the window. There was no
postmark—these must have been letters she left for him at school or in
some special place they had. There were only a few of them and they
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Barbara Westbrook
must have been written to Joe shortly before they married. When
Annie moved into the house she must have stuck them in this drawer
and forgotten about them, or else Joe had placed them here because he
couldn’t bear to throw them away. They weren’t very long letters,
mostly just about plans to meet each other or silly things that young
girls say to their boys they are courting, but one letter was more
remarkable than the rest.
Dearest Joe—
I can’t tell you how sorry I am. What happened the other night– it
was all my fault. I should never have gone with you alone like that and
let things go so far. I’m sorry I acted so shocked and scared. But I hope
you can understand that when we are together for the first time—in
that
way if you know what I mean—it has to be as husband and wife and in
a holy state—a state of grace. I love you and we will be married soon.
Please don’t ask me again until that day. We have made so many
wonderful plans together. I think so often about how you got down on
one knee to ask me to be your wife and how romantic and wonderful
that moment was. Let’s not spoil anything by rushing. We will have
the rest of our lives together.
Love always,
Your Annie
Of course, sadly the rest of her life had not been that long. I put the
letter down and thought about how Joe had proposed to me. Not on
one knee, and not exactly what I would describe as romantic and
wonderful. It had been quite different for us. Joe had looked at me and
said, “You’re almost an old maid—don’t you
want
to ever get
married?” Not exactly the words every girl dreams of hearing one day.
And then there was our first time together in bed. I certainly hadn’t
acted scared or shocked. I was a little embarrassed now at how eagerly
I had taken him into my arms. Maybe I should have acted more
ladylike and shy. Maybe I should have waited for a state of grace, as
Annie did. Maybe then Joe would have loved me like he loved her.
But those letters showed me something else too. They served to
show me how fundamentally different I was from Annie, even though
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she had been my close friend and we had grown up in the same place
with similar backgrounds. Annie would never have lied to Joe, for
example, about knowing the CCC boss, Carson Alexander. She was
not the kind of person to keep things from her husband or the kind who
would sneak around and try to get more information about the
relocations after Joe had told her firmly that it was none of her business
and to leave it all up to him. Told her in no uncertain terms to “stay
away from those men.” Annie just wasn’t that kind of girl. And I,
apparently, was just that type of girl. Because I had made up my mind
to go and see Carson Alexander and try to find out more about the
removals.
Not that I didn’t feel terribly guilty about lying to Joe, but when Joe
had told me that Carson Alexander was up at the Harris’ land, the first
thought that entered my mind was that I had met this man and that he
had seemed to like me a bit. I might be able to get him to tell me what
the government’s timetable was and who was slated to be the next
family to be forcibly removed. I might even be able to convince him to
help us in some way to help me stall for more time. More time to
convince Joe to leave willingly—to take the money the government
was offering and to start over in a new place. Maybe Joe would feel
differently after the new baby came.
I was so afraid for Joe—afraid of what might happen. I hated the
secrecy, but I didn’t feel confident enough of Joe’s regard for me that I
could overcome his objections to find out more information. He had
told me emphatically that he would handle all of our problems, but I
wanted to share the problems with him. In my own family, my mother
and father had shared everything—every problem and concern. It had
brought them closer together, it seemed to me, and had strengthened
their bond. I didn’t understand Joe’s feelings, but I wanted to
understand. I thought, if only he would let me in—let me get closer to
him—trust me more to understand—then I would feel as if he had
finally accepted me as his true wife and helpmate.
And though I was ashamed, I had to admit, there was another aspect
to my feelings too. No matter how beautiful our home was, it had still
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Barbara Westbrook
once belonged to Annie. This place that Joe said had so much meaning
for him was irrevocably tied to her and to his feelings for her. From
the time he was a little boy, I knew he brought her here and they had
planned how they would one day be together in a home he would build
for them. This place had been their dream—Joe’s and Annie’s. He said
he had carried her over the threshold. Funny how much that hurt—he
had never carried me over that same threshold. I knew that if I had been
a better person and a better friend to Annie it wouldn’t have mattered
so much to me. But I couldn’t deny that it did matter very much. I
would never have asked him to leave this place he loved so much, but
since it seemed fate had set this in our path, I felt that I should reach out
and take this opportunity to make a fresh start—Joe, me, Susie and our
new baby.
So it was that I set out a few mornings later, a long way from a state
of grace, to find Carson Alexander if I could, and to keep it all from Joe
until I could figure out better what to do. I knew that Alexander and the
CCC boys had been up near the Panorama, on the ridge between Luray
and Sperryville just a few days ago, working at the Harris place. With
any luck they might still be in the area, and the Panorama, or Mary’s
Rock, was only a few miles up the trail from us.
Joe and his brother Will had left early that morning to go and check
their traps and try to get some fresh deer meat for the larder. I knew
that they would be gone until early evening, so as soon as I finished my
morning chores I wrapped up some biscuits, along with a few pieces of
ham and some dried apple pies I had made the day before and put it all
in a saddle bag to take with me. I added a jug of sweet apple juice for
Susie and some extra diapers, bundled her onto the saddle in front of
me and headed up the trail.
It was hot already that morning, and even so high up as we were the air
was muggy and still.
The little black flies called no-see-ums were buzzing around us and
Caesar’s ears and tail were flicking and twitching constantly as we
walked. Susie, always a placid, happy child, was glad to be outside and
traveling on the “big horsie”. I could only hope that she would stay in
this same good mood as the day wore on and the sun got even hotter.
We were only going a little more than five miles, but the trail was steep
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Standing on Stolen Ground
and rough going for Caesar and with the baby I didn’t want to urge him
to move very fast. Some of the trails up here were better suited to a
mule, but Caesar should do fine if we moved slowly and took our time.
From time to time along the trail, I could look down and see the misty
hollows below and the wooded ridges climbing steeply on the other
side. Nothing seemed to move in the forest around us and the only
sound was the shuffling of Caesar’s hooves on the trail and the secret
murmurings of the trees over our heads. I was nervous about the
interview ahead of me and also of Joe’s reaction should he discover I
had gone behind his back to talk to Carson Alexander. I only knew that
this was something that I felt I had to do, and for better or worse, I was
set on my path.
It was close to noon before I rode into the clearing at the very top of
Thornton Gap called the Panorama. Apparently, the men working for
the CCC had established a kind of camp here, and had even put up half
a dozen ramshackle huts, spread out along the newly cleared ground
like bits of rubbish strewn across the hillside. A few men were inside
the various huts and came to stand in the doors and look out as we
came into the clearing. They looked at me curiously, but seemed
friendly enough, one or two even tipping their hats to me or nodding
slightly. Then one man stepped out of the shadows in the doorway of
one of the huts and I recognized the man called Riley. He didn’t say
anything…just looked at me with a little hateful kind of a smile on his
face and a calculating look in his eye.
I leaned to one side on the big horse, stretching upwards in the
saddle, looking around for Carson Alexander, and finally to my great
relief I saw him, coming up a side trail from the direction of the Harris’
cabin. As he walked toward me, I glanced back to the hut where I had
seen Riley, but he had slipped back into the shadows of his hut as
silently as he had come out. I don’t know why it made me feel
nervous—the man had said nothing to me—but all the same I was glad
to see Carson Alexander walking towards me.
He looked a little surprised as he came toward me, but took off his
cap and smiled pleasantly at me, his eyes moving quickly down to
where Susie sat, half dozing in front of me in the saddle.
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Barbara Westbrook
“Why, it’s Mrs. Jennings, isn’t it?” he said politely, coming up to
where my horse was standing.
“How are you today? I must say I’m surprised to see you again, though
it’s a pleasure, of course. Is there something I can help you with here?”
“Good day to you, sir. I need to talk to you, Mr. Alexander.
Somewhere private, if possible,” I glanced around at the men still
hovering in the doorways, listening avidly to every word.
He looked back at them and frowned slightly, making one or two of
them turn away and then he smiled back up at me. “Well, I was just
down at one of the cabins we acquired. It’s just a little way down the
trail there if you’d like to come back that way. It’s quiet there and no
one is likely to disturb us.”
“Fine,” I said. “Lead the way.”
He smiled at my tone, but then turned around smartly, motioning for
me to follow and headed back down the trail toward the cabin. It was
only a few yards through the trees to the clearing in front of the Harris’
old cabin.
It was sad to see the home the Harris’ had lived in for so many years
now shuttered, the doors and windows boarded up. The house had
already begun to take on a gray and derelict look and the forest
appeared to be creeping back to take over again and erase any memory
of the people who had once lived here. There was a tall oak tree in the
yard, right near the steps leading up to the front porch and I turned
Caesar’s head in that direction so that I could dismount more easily
with Susie, who was fast asleep against me, her little thumb hooked
securely in her mouth. Carson Alexander held the reins for me as I
eased off the horse with Susie in my arms and then took off his coat
and laid it on a shady patch of the porch.
“Allow me?” he asked as he took Susie from my arms and placed
her on his coat.
He looked back up at me. “A beautiful child. Is she yours?” he asked.
“My stepdaughter” I told him. I straightened up so that he could
take a good look at me. “My own baby is due in the fall.”
He looked quite surprised and an unreadable look passed over his
eyes, but he hooded them quickly and smiled at me politely, gesturing
for me to sit down beside him on the front porch. “What can I do for
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you, Mrs. Jennings? Did you know the people who lived here? Were
they relatives of yours?”
I looked about the little clearing and saw the huge old blue Spruce
tree John Harris had told me about. In this area it was customary to use
flat field stones for the headstone and footstone on graves, and I could
just see the sad little stones sticking up out of the ground there in the
shadows beneath the tree, mute testimony that not all the Harris’ had
been driven out. Two of them were still here, sleeping under the
Spruce tree, peacefully, I hoped. They had been so young–only on the
earth for such a short time—it didn’t seem right that they should be
forgotten there in the shadows, the forest swallowing them up as if they
had never been. I felt a slight shiver down my back and I tore my gaze
away and looked up into Carson Alexander’s soft brown eyes.
“The Harrises were distant relations of my husband, I believe,” I
said. “I didn’t know them all that well, really.”
“It’s a disagreeable job that I have at times, Mrs. Jennings. This one
was particularly bad, I think. The people who lived here had recently
lost their children in an accident, the sheriff told me. The wife was
actually a bit deranged by the loss, he said. She almost couldn’t bear to
leave them. Many of us were affected by her crying and wailing. She
resisted till the last moment.”
“Can you blame her?” I asked quietly.
He looked down at his hands and shook his head. “No, of course
not,” he sighed. “I hate doing this job at times. And what is so odd is
that now, just lately, some of the men are refusing to work here after
dark. They say that they have been seeing….things.”
I glanced back down at the shadows beneath the tree. “What kind of
things? Surely you’re not talking about the children? They were little
more than babies!”
“No, not the children.” He shifted uneasily and looked down at the
tree. “Something in that big tree that…well, that watches and waits. I
know it sounds rather fantastic in the light of day, but at night around a
campfire, it sometimes sounds all too real.” He pointed toward the tree.
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Barbara Westbrook
“You see how the limbs are rather dense and thick. If you walk up
close and look in…well, it’s probably just shadows. But you could
almost swear there’s something in there looking back out at you. It’s
just a feeling of something there…alive. One man who was walking
close by the tree in the late evening stopped to look at the gravesites
and he said something flew out of the tree right at him, screeching right
in his face, for God’s sake. Scared the life out of him!” He laughed
shortly. “My men are a superstitious lot, I’m afraid. It was probably
just an owl of some kind.” He smiled again, but there was such a look
of unease on his face that I wondered suddenly who the man was who
had been walking down near the tree. I suspected it may have been
Carson Alexander himself.
“Mrs. Harris—the wife you’re talking about—she did sit by the tree
for several days after the boys were buried there, according to her
husband,” I told him. “She was very distraught and grief-stricken, and
then to be made to leave her home—and her boys–well, it was terrible
for her.” I shook my head sadly. “But she’s with her family down the
mountain now. They’ll take good care of her. Perhaps your men had
heard the rumors of what happened and are just imagining things.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” he said. “But you didn’t come here this
afternoon to listen to silly ghost stories. What can I do for you, Mrs.
Jennings?” He smiled at me. “I’m always prepared to be of service to
a lovely lady.”
“Mr. Alexander, I need your help.” I looked straight into his eyes.
“My husband and I live very near this cabin, and I fear that we may be
among the next to be forcibly removed.”
He looked at me with surprise. “Haven’t you and your husband taken
the government’s offer to buy your land?”
I shook my head. “No, and my husband still refuses to do it. He
says the money is not enough and any way he resents the idea that the
government is just taking his land away, regardless of what he thinks
about it. He says it’s little more than theft.”
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Carson nodded his head. “Yes, I’ve heard that argument before.
Just a few days ago, as a matter of fact, some hot headed young fellows
came up here to the panorama to help gather the rest of the
homeowner’s furniture and belongings.” He smiled ruefully. “I
thought for a few minutes there that I would have a fight on my hands.
There were two men with Harris that felt just that same way and were
very vocal about it. I tried to tell them that we were just doing our jobs
and had no control over the takeovers, but they were in no mood to
listen to anything I had to say.”
I smiled at him. “Yes, I know. One of those young hotheads was
my husband.”
“Your husband!” he said, startled. “Which one was he?”
“Joe would be the larger of the two—tall with dark hair.” I told him.
“Probably the one who lost his temper.”
“I see,” he said looking hard at me. “And did he send you here
today?”
I laughed. “Hardly! If he knew I was here, he’d be furious, to say
the least. He has told me in no uncertain terms that he will take care of
this situation.”
“And yet here you are,” he said, turning his head to the side to look
at me quizzically.
“Yes, here I am.” I felt a blush staining my cheeks as I turned to
face him. “You must understand that I have to know when they might
be coming to remove us from our land. You’ve seen for yourself how
angry he is about the forced removals. If I can, I’m going to talk Joe
into selling out and relocating to one of the hollows. But as it stands
now, I’m very afraid there’ll be trouble when they come to us. I don’t
want anyone to be hurt—especially my husband.”
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He shook his head. “I don’t know, Mrs. Jennings. I truly do not.
They only tell me where to take my men to work. They don’t give me
any advance information. I think it’s pretty much following the road
construction at this point, but as time goes on, they’ll want everyone
removed. A lot of people have already gone. The park association is
very well established, with a lot of big money backing them. They will
make sure this works for them. There’s no point in resisting—your
husband can’t fight the entire United States government! He’ll only get
himself—or you and the child–very badly hurt.”
I sighed and shook my head. “I know.” I stood up and sighed,
rubbing my back a bit. “Do you know at least in what direction they
are planning to go next? If I could just see how much time we have
left!”
He shook his head. “If I knew I would tell you, but I just don’t have
that information.”
My shoulders slumped as I looked at him, convincing myself that he
was being honest with me. He met my gaze steadily and I could see
that he was telling the truth so far as he knew.
“Well, I thank you for being honest with me at least,” I said, rising
to my feet.
I crossed over to where my horse was tethered and undid the straps
on my saddle bags. “I brought some dinner for me and the baby.
You’re more than welcome to share it with us before we start back
down the trail.”
He smiled at me and I noticed again how white his teeth were and
how very handsome he was.
“That would be wonderful!” he said. “It’s been a long while since I’ve
had a decent meal.”
I was busying myself with laying out the biscuits and ham and
smiled back up at him. “Well, this hardly qualifies as a meal, Mr.
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Alexander, but you are welcome to it. I am rather proud of my dried
apple pies.”
He began to eat hungrily while I went to wake up Susie. I held her
in my lap and fed her pieces of biscuit and apple pie, Willed down by
apple juice I had made myself. Between mouthfuls, Carson Alexander
made many appreciative noises and in just a short while, had eaten
most of my biscuits and all of my apple pies.
“That was a wonderful meal, Mrs. Jennings. Thank you very much
for sharing it with me,” he said, wiping his mouth with his
handkerchief. “You’re an excellent cook.”
I felt my cheeks growing warm and just nodded my head and
smiled, gathering up the food and packing it all away again, while Susie
played on the steps next to us. “Well, it’s just plain fare, but I’m glad
you enjoyed it.” I said.
As I finished packing up and began to tie the bags back on my horse,
I felt Carson Alexander come up behind me and I turned quickly to find
that he was standing close behind me. Surprised, I turned my head up
to look at him and he stepped back so quickly I thought I must have
imagined it, though his face turned a bit red when he saw me looking at
him strangely.
He cleared his throat and said “Mrs. Jennings, I’ve been thinking. I
might be able to find out more about the park service’s plans. I can’t
promise anything, but let me see what I can do. If I find out anything,
how do I get word to you?”
I picked up Susie and stood there thinking for a moment. “I guess
you would have to come to our house, Mr. Alexander, if that wouldn’t
be too much trouble.” I told him. “We live up from Boot Hollow along
the Piney Gap trail, ’bout two miles. With Susie, I don’t get out in the
community a lot, but my husband is not at home much during the days.
At least not until canning time, in another few weeks. It would
probably be best if he didn’t know I came up here to see you. As I said,
he doesn’t like me to meddle into his business affairs, you understand.”
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I blushed again as he turned to look at me. I hurried on. “Until then, it
should be safe enough to come by most any day except for Sundays.” I
smiled up at him. “It would be so kind of you to do that for me. I can’t
tell you how worried I’ve been.”
I clambered up on the back of the horse, and Carson Alexander held
Susie up to me. She had begun to get sleepy again in the heat and fussy
along with it. I needed to get her back home. He walked up to the top
of the trail with me and saw me on my way, and when I looked back he
was still standing there looking after us. Even though the information I
gathered was very small, I was very glad that I had come and felt that I
had made the start of a real friendship with Mr. Alexander. It could be
important later on if Joe refused to see the sense in selling out. At least
I felt that I had taken some action in trying to save my family and
protect my husband. I clicked my tongue to Caesar to get him moving
along and began to sing softly to Susie as the movement of the horse
rocked her to sleep.
Along about dark it began to rain, and when Joe came in a little
later, he was wet and shivering in the cool breeze that had come in
along with the bad weather. As he dried off, he told me that he had
already eaten supper at his brother’s house before starting up the
mountain. I was in my nightgown and almost ready for bed when he
came in. I had Willed my hair earlier that evening and was sitting in
the rocking chair by the bed, combing it dry when he came in the room
without his shirt and almost fell into the chair opposite me, sighing
tiredly.
“There was some bad news today I heard down in the hollow,” he
said, watching me comb my hair and run my fingers through the long
waves, trying to untangle them.
“Really?” I said, concerned, putting down the comb and looking at
him. There had been a good deal of bad news lately, and I listened
almost in dread to what he was going to tell me.
“It’s Abby Harris,” he said quietly. “She hung herself four days
ago, just after she got down the mountain to her kin’s house.” He
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shook his head sadly. “Poor woman—I was afraid she would do
something like that. I don’t know how John can take much more.”
I sat there in stunned disbelief, thinking of what Carson Alexander
had told me about something in the old Spruce tree up by the Harris
house. Something that moved in the shadows and watched and waited
by the boys’ graves–something that flew out and screeched in his face
when he ventured a little too close. Perhaps the children were not alone
up on that hill after all. Perhaps Abby Harris had found a way in the
end not to have to leave her children behind. I shivered violently at the
thought and Joe came over and picked me up to set me in his lap. I was
surprised but pleased and comforted to have him hold me so closely.
This was not something that happened every day. I felt my cheeks
flame as he picked up the comb off the table where I had laid it and
began to pull the comb gently through my hair. I could feel his
warmth through my thin gown and his closeness made it hard for me to
sit still.
“Your hair is pretty,” he said. “so black and curly. I can barely get
this comb through it.”
I flushed and tried to turn my head, embarrassed. I remembered
how sleek and shining Annie’s hair always looked. “I know, my hair is
so coarse. Here, let me…”
He tapped my hand with the comb playfully and turned my head
back around. “It’s not coarse—just thick and curly, like I said. So
different from….sit still now or I won’t be able to finish this,” he said,
pulling me back against him so that I could feel his hardness against my
thighs and the warmth of his chest shimmering against my back. I
pressed close against him, still shivering slightly, and I felt my nipples
growing hard and tight. He put one big hand up under my gown and
slowly brought it around to rest his palm possessively against my
stomach. Instinctively, I opened my thighs and he moved his hand
down to rest there against me, his fingers quickly finding my warmth
and rubbing against it maddeningly until I began to squirm in earnest,
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my head falling back against his shoulder, and I was unable to stop
making little noises deep in my throat.
He laughed softly then and put down the brush. “All right then,” he
said as he picked me up in his arms and carried me over to the bed. He
laid me down and with the same motion flipped the skirt of my
nightgown up onto my chest. The cool night air raised little chill
bumps all over my bare thighs. He looked into my eyes and smiled at
me as his hands moved down to the fastening of his pants. “I did warn
you.”
Much later, we lay tumbled together in the feather mattress, still
entwined, with the sound of rain falling against the roof and Joe’s even
breathing against my ear. Just as I began to drift off to sleep, I thought
once more about Abby Harris and the lonely hillside where her little
boys were buried. Superstitiously, I wondered if it was her tormented,
restless spirit there in the Spruce tree, guarding her children in the
night. Shivering again, I shrank back against Joe’s warmth and finally
fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Chapter Twelve
It was a beautiful, clear day in late summer. It was unusually warm
and I arched my back with a groan as I straightened up and leaned
against the hoe. I had been working in the garden all morning, pulling
and hoeing weeds while Susie sat nearby on the grass with her doll,
crooning and talking to it in her sweet baby language. She looked up at
me with a toothless grin as she rocked her doll in her little arms. Joe
was working down at his brother’s farm again, and Susie and I had
been in the vegetable garden all morning. At first the sunshine had felt
wonderfully warm on my back, but now, midmorning, it was beginning
to feel oppressive and hot.
I could hear the stream nearby gurgling and babbling to itself and
suddenly I didn’t feel like working any more. I threw down the hoe
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and ran over to Susie, scooping her up and whirling her around. I set
her down, still squealing and said “C’mon Susie, let’s go swimming!”
Pulling her by the hand, we walked and skipped together down to the
steam. It was cool and shady there under the trees, the ground covered
in a thick layer of fallen leaves, soft and spongy under our feet. The
shafts of sunlight coming through the trees hit the water like a
scattering of diamonds. I pulled the heavy hair off the back of my neck
and reveled in the cool breeze that fanned my skin. Together we
climbed a little granite ledge, thick with cool, green moss and then
descended down the little path that ran by the stream, following the
water as it wound its way down into a small pool some 50 yards
downstream. It wasn’t very deep—only coming up to my knees, but it
looked cool and fresh in the dappled sunlight with dragonflies hovering
over the water, darting in and out. Drooping branches of mountain
laurel brushed the edges of the pool and created deep shadows around
the edges. The pool was surrounded by laurel and rhododendrons and
the thick branches formed a wall of lush green all around. We stopped
and bent over the pool to drink from our cupped hands, Susie spilling
most of it down her front. She began jumping up and down, ready to
plunge in, so that I had to restrain her laughingly.
“Whoa, baby…just a minute. Don’t ruin your dress, now,” I
cautioned. “Let Mama help you.” I pulled off her little dress, leaving
her in just her underpants, and quickly pulled my own dress over my
head. There was no one around for miles, so I, too, stripped down to
just underpants and then gathered Susie in my arms and stepped into
the water of the pool. I knelt down to stand her on her feet, and the
water came up halfway on her chest. She flung her little arms around
my neck and held on tight and I gathered her up and bounced her up
and down in the water, until she began to lose some of her fear. I
finally got her to let me hold her by the hand as we waded around the
edges of the pool. She had begun to think of me as her mother, and I
couldn’t have loved her any more than if she were my own. She was
such a lovely mixture of Annie and Joe. She had Annie’s shiny,
straight brown hair, but those clear, dark blue eyes were so like Joe’s.
She had his way of looking up at you through those dark lashes and
fixing you with a frank open gaze that melted my heart every time. I
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wanted to do a good job in raising her—I felt I owed that to Annie, as
much as to Joe.
After my mother died, I wanted my father to be happy again, but I
had dreaded the idea of a stepmother. He had never really looked at
anyone else after my mother, though, and that was one reason why he
needed me to quit school and help out. I had seen other friends of mine
deal with stepmothers, and though some of these stepmothers were
sweet and tried to be good to the other children, others were known to
be resentful and made a difference between their own children and the
children of the previous wife. Once at school, a young girl in my class
had been called outside to speak with her stepmother. When she came
back in, unshed tears stood in her eyes, and she bore the print of her
stepmother’s hand on her reddened cheek. Our teacher, Miss Brown,
noticed, but said nothing, although she looked troubled, and the other
students began to poke each other and whisper behind their hands.
Everyone knew this kind of thing happened, but no one spoke out loud
about it, and the abuse quietly went on. When I married Joe, I vowed
never to be like that, and Susie’s sweet nature had made it easy to keep
my promise.
We were having a wonderful time playing when, inexplicably, I
began to feel somehow uneasy. It was more of a feeling than anything
I heard in the dark forest around us. I felt almost as if we were being
watched, and I began to feel unsettled, even though as I looked around I
couldn’t see a thing. Not wanting to alarm Susie, I began to move back
over toward the rocks by the path, looking around uneasily. The
mountain seemed to fall to silence around us, and I began to think of
just how isolated we were here in this secret, green pool. The tall,
lichened trees seemed to draw around us, and I listened for a moment to
the trees as they whispered their secrets to each other. When we
reached the rocky side of the pool, I eased my hips back onto the rocks
and pulled my dress back over my head as quickly as I could, before
dressing Susie. My dress was thin cotton and since I had pulled it on
over my wet body, it didn’t leave much to the imagination. It clung to
every curve of my body and I could see the darkness of my nipples
through the front of the dress. Still, I felt better, more covered up with
it on. I sat as still as possible, straining to hear every sound around us
and trying to peer into the shadows of the trees. Despite the warmth of
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the day, I shivered slightly and pulled Susie closer into my lap.
Slightly chilled, and tired from the wading pool, she snuggled her little
face into my shoulder and closed her eyes. In the way of small
children, she seemed to have the ability to fall almost instantly asleep.
I sat there for another minute, listening to her soft breathing, when I
thought I saw a slight movement in the trees beyond the pool. It was so
subtle, almost a shadow, that I thought I might have just imagined it. I
leaned forward, still dangling my feet in the pool and tried to get a
better look into the shadows beneath the rhododendrons on the other
side of the pool. “Hello?” I whispered softly. “Is someone there?”
I thought the bushes rattled just a little and I shivered again, feeling
a cold chill go over me. “Who’s there?” I demanded, more sharply.
Only silence, in reply. A feeling of wrongness swept over me. I
couldn’t see anyone, but I knew someone was there. I felt it. I slowly
scrambled to my feet, still holding onto Susie and began backing slowly
away down the path. The bushes on the other side of the pool, a bit
closer now, definitely rattled and I drew in a sharp intake of breath and
turned to run back down the path. The path, that had seemed so
welcoming on the way to the pool now seemed slippery and
treacherous as I hurried along, glancing back desperately over my
shoulder. A shadow seemed to detach itself slightly from the trees, so I
shifted Susie up to my shoulder and took off in earnest, awkwardly
climbing down the rocky path. Once I got free of the rocks, I began to
run, clutching Susie to my chest and looking back over my shoulder. I
fancied I heard soft footsteps behind me, but the bank was so covered
with soft grass and moss that it was difficult to tell. I saw the break in
the trees up ahead, signaling the place near our cabin where we had
entered the path, and just as I got to the opening in the trees, a dark
shadow loomed up and blocked our path. My eyes still not adjusted to
the bright sunlight, all I could see was that it was a large man standing
there and reaching out for us. I screamed shrilly and hit out at him,
aiming for his head. It was a full palmed slap that caught him hard
across the cheek bone, and at the same time I jerked away from his
grasp and pulled my arm back for another try. A strong hand reached
out and grabbed my wrist in a band of steel before I could hit him
again.
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“Goddamn, Lila! Are you trying to kill me?” I blinked my eyes
rapidly in the sun and squinted up at Joe standing there, looking hot and
bewildered and cross, with an angry red mark standing out on his
cheek.
“Oh, my God, Joe,” I cried out, almost sobbing with relief. “Oh,
you scared me!” I threw my arms around his waist and hugged him to
me, almost squashing poor little Susie in the process. She squealed and
woke up crying, startled and sweaty in the heat. She saw her Daddy
and reached out to him, twisting away from me to put her chubby arms
around his neck, still squalling loudly.
“Good Lord, Lila, what’s going on?” He pulled Susie into his arms
and jiggled her up and down in his arms, trying to stop her crying. He
stepped back into the sunlight and got a good look at me for the first
time. He looked me up and down, astonishment written all over his
face. Sun-reddened as he was, I couldn’t tell whether he was blushing
with sun or embarrassment. Then I heard his brother, Will chuckling
behind him. “Well, Joe, it looks like you got your hands full here this
afternoon. “ His chuckle turned into a laugh at the furious look on
Joe’s face and he turned his head away discreetly, walking back up the
trail behind him. “I think I’ll just wait over here until you get things
straightened out.”
Now it was my turn to be embarrassed as I looked down at myself.
My dress was clinging to my wet body and displayed me as clearly as if
I had been wearing nothing at all. I had torn my dress, too, in the wild
rush down the trail and the length of my leg gleamed whitely in the
sunlight. With my long hair hanging down my back, and the panicked
look in my eyes, I could only imagine how I must have looked to them.
Grimly holding my gaze, Joe set Susie down for a minute and shrugged
quickly out of his shirt, wrapping it around me, trapping both my arms
inside. He plopped Susie back in my arms and then swept both of us
up. As he strode down the path and into the yard, he passed his brother,
Will, who tipped his head to me gravely, gallantly smothering his
laughter and said, “How are you this morning, Miss Lila?”
“Joe! No, please! I can walk; put me down!” I begged, as he
carried me along. I was mortified and furious at the same time. How
dare he embarrass me so in front of his brother! He marched up the
steps and into the house, dumping me and Susie unceremoniously down
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in the middle of the bed. My chest heaving, I bounced back up to my
feet, balled up my fist and punched him as hard as I could in the
stomach. He let out a surprised woof of breath and caught my hand in
his as I pulled back to hit him again. He dropped my hand and took me
by the shoulder to shake me so hard I felt the teeth rattling in my head.
“Stop it! I’m in no mood for this, Lila! What the hell? If you hit me
one more time, I swear I’ll…I’ll turn you over my knee!” We stood
there, glaring at each other, both of us out of breath and angry, aware of
Susie looking at us wide-eyed from the middle of the bed. Suddenly
running out of steam, I sank weakly back on the bed and covered my
face with my hands, bursting into tears, all of a sudden overcome with
exhaustion. Joe scooped the baby up and put her down in her crib,
before sinking down beside me and patting me awkwardly on my back.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you, Lila, but…but you were standing out
there practically naked…in front of my brother. I had to cover you up
and get you into the house.” I continued to sniff loudly and he pulled
my hands down from my face, and put out a big finger to wipe at the
tears running down my cheek. “Weel…maybe I was a little mad too
about your punching me in the face,” he smiled. “Did I hurt you?”
I shook my head and looked up at him. “No, Joe. Well, maybe my
feelings a little.” I tried to smile. “I can explain, you know. If you’re
interested.”
“Hell yeah, I’m interested,” he drawled. “Every time I find my wife
and child running around wet and naked in the woods, I always like to
hear about it.” He smiled more broadly. “You damn near scared me to
death running up on me like that, not to mention giving old Will a heart
attack—closest he’s come to seeing a good looking woman naked in
years.” He chuckled as he settled back against the pillows. “Go on and
tell me–this ought to be good.”
“Well,” I took a deep breath. “Susie and I had gone for a swim—
down in the little pool. It was hot and I thought it might be a nice break
from the garden work.” I looked up at him, half expecting him to be
mad that I was shirking my chores, but I found him still looking down
at me, expectantly. “So I didn’t think about anybody being around for
miles, so I…I slipped off my dress and Susie’s and we got into the
water.” His eyes narrowed a bit, so I hurried on before he could say
anything. “Except, after a little while, I got this funny feeling, like
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somebody was watching me.” I looked straight at him. “Somebody
was there, Joe. I’m sure of it. I was so scared; I just grabbed Susie up
and ran with her down the path and then…well, I guess you know the
rest.” I trailed off.
“Did you actually see someone, or was it just a ‘feeling’?”
“Well, yes! I mean, no…not exactly, but I’m sure someone was
there, Joe. Hiding in the trees and looking at us.” I grabbed his hand.
“It was awful.” He nodded his head and looked at me.
“Okay, Lila, I’ll have a look. Stay inside and lock the door. I’ll be
right back.” As he got to the door, he turned around and smiled, “And
for God’s sake, put some clothes on, woman.”
“Joe, be careful,” I called out, but he just waved his hand without
looking back and went quickly down the steps.
Shivering, I got up and quickly pulled off my wet, torn dress and
looked at it ruefully. “I guess that’s one for the rag pile, Susie,” I
smiled, but she had already lain back down while Joe and I were talking
and she was sleepily sucking the end of her blanket, almost asleep
again. I checked to make sure she was dry and pulled the blanket over
her. I took another dress out of the drawer, along with some dry under
things and quickly dressed myself. Taking my comb off the bureau and
dragging it through my hair, I tried to rake out some of the tangles. I
stood in front of the window, looking out to see if I could see Joe and
his brother, but the yard was deserted and quiet. I shuddered again as I
looked into the shadowy woods beyond the yard. The feelings I had
experienced were real. I was sure of it. Someone had been watching us
there in the quiet woods.
After a few more minutes I saw Joe and Will emerge back into the
clearing and walk up into the yard, so I rushed to open the door. “Did
you see anything?” I called to them.
Joe shrugged. “Nobody’s there, Lila. We walked all around the
pool and didn’t see a thing. It could have been a deer or a rabbit you
heard.” He held out his hands with his palms raised up. “ If it was
somebody, he’s long gone now. Hard to tell any tracks in that moss by
the pool.” He turned back to Will and they talked quietly in the yard
for a few more minutes, and then Will turned to go down toward the
trail as Joe came back up to the house. He climbed the steps and stood
beside me in the doorway. “We came back to get my saw, and we need
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to get back.” He put his hand against my stomach and rubbed it gently.
“Why don’t you lie down a while and take a little nap?” he said. “You
don’t need to be out there in this heat.” I looked at him uneasily and he
smiled encouragingly. “Go on and lie down now and get some rest.
Lock the door when I leave if it’ll make you feel better. I’ll be home in
a little while.” He kissed the top of my head. “I wouldn’t leave if I
thought there was any danger, Liley.”
I did lock the door after he left and moved back over to the bed to lie
down. It was still almost oppressively hot in the close cabin, but the
truth was that I was feeling almost exhausted, probably a result of being
so scared and upset, running down the path with Susie. I lay there,
listening to Susie’s soft snores and felt myself sinking down into sleep.
My last coherent thought was that Joe was only humoring me. He
didn’t really believe there had been anyone by the pool. I turned
restlessly on the pillows and soon was fast asleep.
The watcher in the woods had hardly been able to believe his good
fortune when she took the little girl by the hand and led her to the pool.
He followed along at a distance and then found a good vantage point to
watch her as she disrobed. Her body that he could see quite clearly
through the thin slip she had on, was even more beautiful than he had
imagined, full breasted, but with a tiny waist, and full hips. As she
dipped down into the pool and her underclothes became almost
transparent, he began to realize that she knew he was there and was
putting on a kind of show for his eyes alone. Her long black hair
reached almost to her waist, and he imagined running his hands through
that hair and then twisting it up to wrap tightly around her neck. He
imagined the look that would be in her eyes as he tightened that thick
rope of hair around her white neck, her dark eyes growing wider and
wider, while he held her body against his own. As he moved closer,
though, she began to play hard to get and left the pool of water to run
back down the trail, looking over her shoulder as if to invite him to
come after her. It was unfortunate that her husband had interrupted
their play so abruptly. He melted back into the forest shadows and
decided it would be better to wait until they could be alone. There
would be another opportunity—he would make sure of that. And in the
meantime, he could wait…and dream.
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Chapter Thirteen
The late summer days passed by quickly with much work to do to get
ready for the coming cold weather, which would come early on the
mountain. My baby was due around the first of November, so I knew
that I should try to get most of my work done well before my lying-in
time. Vegetables and fruits were either dried, which was merely time
consuming or canned and preserved which was backbreaking. Canning
vegetables or preserving fruit was a several day long ordeal that I had
never been fond of, consisting first of picking and gathering the
vegetables and fruits and then Willing, peeling, stringing, and cutting
up in pieces. Next came building a hot fire to get water to boil in a
large iron cauldron in the yard. The vegetables had to be first blanched
and then cold dipped in a separate cauldron. The jars were then salted
and filled with boiling water. Then once the jars were filled, and the
lids clamped on, the jars had to be placed in boiling water again to
simmer for 30 minutes more.
Fruit preserving was similar, except with fruit, a thin syrup had to be
made by first boiling sugar and water and then adding the fruit to be
boiled and simmered in their turn. It was a hot, backbreaking job that
took its toll, and by the end of each day I fell into bed, too tired to
worry about anything except for all I had to do the next day.
Joe was kept busy helping me gather the vegetables and fruit and
then building and stoking the fires all day, which meant a large amount
of time chopping up wood and bringing it to the fire.
As soon as canning and preserving time finished, it seemed it was
almost time to kill hogs to start the drying and curing of our hams and
bacon. Joe was already laying in a supply of salt, sugar and saltpeter to
begin that process. Joe supplemented our hams with deer meat that he
processed and dried himself for jerky. With careful management, and
further supplemented with rabbit and squirrel, along with our dried
onions, nuts, and yams, we could survive and do nicely until spring.
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From time to time I would wonder if we would even be in our home
come the springtime and I would think about the relocations and start to
worry all over again, but we had heard nothing further on the forced
removals and to my knowledge, no one else other than the Harris
family had been affected on our part of the ridge. Actually, most
everyone on our ridge had taken the government money and moved on,
mostly going down into Little Willington or Sperryville or just down
into the hollows to make a new start. There wasn’t enough money to
buy new land mostly, so many of the men were becoming tenant
farmers or working on someone else’s land, trying to eke out a living
by farming and apple picking on the big orchards in the fall. My father
and my sisters were so far all right where they were, as the park had not
been planned for the hollow where they lived as yet. At least that was
one worry off my mind. We had heard tell that some other families had
moved on, going over into West Virginia and starting over again there
as workers on the big apple farms.
Oddly enough, despite the worry, in some ways I was happier than I
had ever been before. Joe was beginning to open up to me more and
more. Although he still refused adamantly to discuss the removals with
me, sometimes at night he would rub my back or put his ear down close
to my belly, laughing over how hard the baby would kick. We would
always end by making love in the firelight no matter how tired we
were. He knew I could never get enough of him and what I did for him
at night seemed to please him more than anything else I could have
done for him during the daylight hours. When we finally lay down to
sleep, sometimes he would wrap himself around my tired body and hug
me to him so tightly that I could scarcely breathe. And so, I passed the
busy days of autumn, worried and fearful, and yet happier in some
ways than I had ever hoped to be.
It was in mid September, late on an afternoon that had been cloudy
yet sticky-hot, when I discovered that the almost idyllic days of
summer were finally coming to an end. I was once again down by the
cauldrons, stirring up some apple butter that was fragrant with the
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pungent, sharp smell that always made me think of the fall of the year,
when I heard a soft call from the nearby woods.
“Mrs. Jennings…Lila,” Carson Alexander’s voice called quietly.
“Are you alone? Is it all right to come into the yard?”
I looked up to where the voice was coming from and saw Carson
Alexander’s blonde head peering out from around a big oak tree. “Mr.
Alexander!” I laughed, straightening up tiredly with a hand to my
back. “Of course, it’s all right. What are you doing hiding up there in
the trees?”
He stepped out with a sheepish grin and came down the rise toward
me. “Well, I wasn’t so sure,” he explained. “Your husband doesn’t
like me too much, you know. And you did say to be careful he wasn’t
at home when I came.” He was wearing his green park service uniform
and cut a very dashing figure as he stepped into the clearing. It had
been several weeks since I had talked to him, and I found that I was
very glad to see him. He was always so friendly and polite, and I
enjoyed hearing his strange, Willingtonian accent. If not for the fact
that our lives were so totally different, I might have picked him out for
one my younger sisters. Strange how I always thought of him as
younger, although he was probably my own age or older. He simply
had a boyish quality that was somehow endearing and charming.
“Joe’s gone down to Sperryville. Left about an hour ago.” I smiled
up at him. “I was just fixing to go back up to the house—Susie’s taking
a nap and I need to check on her—would you like to come up there
with me?” At his nod, I banked the fire and gave the apples a final stir,
covered up the cauldron for them to simmer and led the way up the path
to the house.
“Do you have some news about the park road?” I asked over my
shoulder.
“Yes, I’m afraid I do,” he said rather ominously from behind me. I
turned in surprise to look at him. His brown eyes were dark and
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serious, and he wasn’t smiling. “Let’s wait until we can sit down a
minute and I’ll tell you what I know.”
I nodded shortly and continued on up the trail. The day, which had
seemed so hot and humid a few minutes ago, suddenly seemed to have
a bit of a chill. I walked quick as I could up to the steps and looked in
on Susie, still sleeping peacefully on the bed in the front room. After
easing the door shut, I sat down heavily on the front steps, motioning
for Carson to sit next to me. I was all of sudden very tired and I felt
anxious at what he was about to tell me.
He was holding his cap, twisting it back and forth in his hands, and I
suddenly was very afraid of what he was going to tell me. I focused all
my attention on that cap, crushed in his grip until finally he sighed and
said, “Well, I don’t know a great deal, really. We’re still working up at
the Panorama, near the house where your neighbors lived. They tell us
we’ll probably be there until the first snows come and then we’ll have
to leave for the winter months.”
Surprised, I turned toward him, “You mean you won’t be coming
here then? Do I understand you correctly?”
“Well, not for a few months,” he said. “From what the park
commission says, we’ll leave here at first snow and be back early in the
spring. It looks as though you’ll have a short reprieve, anyway. But
Lila, we
will
be coming back in the spring. Nothing has really changed.
And I’m going to have to leave for months—we won’t see each other
until spring, at least.”
“Yes, but I’ll have a little more time!” I exclaimed softly, not really
hearing all he was saying. “Oh, Carson, you just don’t know how
worried I have been these last few months. I felt like I was all out of
time and I would never be able to talk Joe into leaving before they
came to put us out. And Joe would never just go quietly like poor Mr.
Harris! Something terrible would have happened, I just know it!” I put
my hand on his arm and smiled up at him. “You don’t know how much
this means to me! How can I thank you for coming to tell me!”
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Carson smiled and turned slightly to face me, and then suddenly his
hand was gripping mine. “Would you like me to show you how?” he
said. For a moment I just looked at him blankly, unable to
comprehend what he was saying, and thinking somehow I was
mistaken in his intent. I felt as stunned as if a cute puppy dog had
suddenly turned vicious and was threatening to bite me. My hesitation
was a bit too long, however, as he suddenly bent his head to try to kiss
me. He was aiming square for my mouth, but at the last moment I
regained my senses and turned my head. His lips still brushed the
corner of my mouth, but I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn’t
even react. The kiss had been chaste and brief, the merest touching of
his lips to mine, but the fact that he had done it at all was enough to
bring my blood to a boil.
I jerked my head back and snatched my hand away, shocked and
disbelieving. “What are you doing? I can’t believe this!” I jumped to
my feet and glared down at him. “Have you taken leave of your senses,
Mr. Alexander!”
He looked confused for a moment and jumped up to face me on the
narrow steps, his face and neck a dull red. “But I thought….that is, you
led me to believe…. “ he stuttered in confusion as I stared at him
coldly, unwilling to end his agony of embarrassment.
“I never led you to believe any such thing!” I gestured down at
myself, my swollen stomach now eight months pregnant. “Do I seem
such a temptress to you, Mr. Alexander? Can you really think me such
a harlot that I would try to seduce you while I am heavy with my
husband’s child? And on the occasion of our last meeting, bring along
his other child to watch the entire proceedings? Clearly you have lost
your mind!” He began to back down the steps as I advanced on him,
poking my finger menacingly in his chest with each word.
I was so angry with him that I began to look around the yard for
something to hit him with. The blood was rising in my face and dark
spots began to dance behind my eyes. Failing to find anything within
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easy reach, I doubled my hand into a fist and swung at him as hard as I
could.
He stepped easily out of my reach, but I had swung so hard I lost my
balance and began to fall. He grabbed my arms and hauled me back
upright, slipping his other arm around me and holding on tightly so that
I couldn’t take another swing. I pulled back my leg to kick him, but he
simply blocked my kick by thrusting his leg between my own, trapping
my skirt and effectively wrapping me up with it so that I could barely
move. At this point, we seemed to be at a standoff and both of us
stood, almost nose to nose, looking at each other, out of breath, chests
heaving, red-faced and uncertain as to what to do next.
We might have stood there for several more seconds, trying to find
a way out of the predicament, except for a rustling sound on the trail
behind us followed by a deadly quiet voice that said, “Take your
damned hands off my wife.”
Chapter Fourteen
I had known Joe Jennings my whole life and had seen him, I would
have thought, in every kind of mood and with every type of
expression. I would have thought so—but I would have been wrong.
He was standing on the path behind us about fifteen feet away. He had
not raised his voice when he had spoken earlier, and he still seemed
almost relaxed and at ease standing there. The only indication of his
mood was his face. His lips were pressed tightly together and his skin
was flushed slightly. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes that
flashed dark blue as he stood there glaring at us. Around him there was
an aura almost of violence. Not so much in word or movement, but a
crackling feeling of imminent danger. In that instance I feared not only
for Carson Alexander’s life, but for my own as well.
Carson let go of me as fast as if I were on fire and he tried to step
back, but my skirt was still wrapped around his leg and no amount of
pulling and twisting seemed to be able to release it. All the while Joe
stood there, watching us silently. In an agony of embarrassment and
humiliation, I finally managed to wrest the skirt away from Carson’s
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leg and stumbled back, sitting down hard on the front steps. Finally
free, Carson began to back away toward the outbuildings slowly,
holding out his hands as if he thought Joe would charge him like a mad
bull if he moved too fast, and looking back and forth from me to Joe.
“Mr. Jennings, I know how this must look to you, but I’m sure I can
explain if you’ll just listen…” he said.
“Explain?” Joe asked quietly. “You’re going to explain?”
“Y-Yes,” Carson sputtered, “I think I can…you see, it was not as it
must have looked to you. I mean, I was not…uh…I wasn’t about to…”
“Make love to my wife.” Joe finished for him, again with that quiet,
flat, emotionless voice. I still sat on the steps, fascinated and at the
same time horrified. I was sure I was about to see murder committed,
but I wasn’t at all sure Carson would be the only victim. Joe had
spared not a look for me since the first cold glare, but that had been
enough. My hands were shaking and I felt hot and cold all at the same
time. I felt as if I should say or do something, but I didn’t know what.
Then Joe moved, walking unhurriedly toward me on the steps.
“Lila, go in the house,” he said softly, not looking at me, putting
himself between me and Carson.
“Joe, please,” I said urgently, putting my hand on his arm.
“Lila,” he repeated very patiently, shrugging off my hand, his eyes
still on Carson Alexander. “Get in the house.”
I dared not disobey him, but I was so upset and frustrated, not
knowing what he was planning to do. With one last desperate look at
Carson, I snatched up my skirts and went inside, closing the door
behind me, but keeping my ear pressed to the door on the inside of the
house, straining to hear every word.
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“Would it surprise you to know that I’ve been standing in the
clearing for some time, watching the two of you?” he said. “I saw you
hiding behind the tree as I came home and thought you must be up to
no good. You can imagine how surprised I was when my wife spoke to
you and called you by name.” Joe’s voice was muffled by the door
between us, but I could still tell that his tone was flat and almost
expressionless. He was still standing just outside the door. “I don’t
know how you came to be acquainted with my wife,” he said quietly.
“But make no mistake. I know exactly why you were here and exactly
what you came for. I should kill you for that, and for laying hands on
my wife. But there’s a chance that killing you would only cause me to
hang and –the two of you’re just not worth it.”
Stung by what he had said, but greatly relieved at the same time that
there was to be no bloodshed, I began to breathe a little bit at his words,
and sagged against the door in relief.
“But if you come back around here, ” Joe began again, his voice
deadly quiet. “Then I can promise you that you won’t leave alive.
You may have connections in the government, but the woods are deep
on this mountain, Alexander, and your friends will be of no help to you.
They don’t find folks in the deep graves, you know, only the shallow
ones.”
There was a long pause and I heard Carson say, “I’m completely at
fault. All I can do is apologize, Mr. Jennings—I misunderstood the
situation. I know you’re not interested in my apology, but…I…I’m
sorry.”
I listened intently, straining harder against the wood door, trying to
hear any sound, but there was only silence. Suddenly the door opened
and I nearly fell headlong into Joe’s arms as he stood there on the
threshold. Solemnly, he steadied me and then dropped his hands and
walked into the room, taking a seat by the fireplace. Nervous as a
long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, I followed him into the
room and sat across from him on a little stool by the table, dreading
what he was going to say and yet anxious to have it out in the open.
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“Joe,” I began nervously.
He was staring into the cold fireplace, and held up his hand to stop
me. “Lila, I really don’t trust myself to speak to you right now,” he
said.
“But you have to let me explain….you have to let me tell you..” I
said urgently.
He took a deep breath and let it out explosively. “I said to be quiet!”
he yelled. “There’s nothing you could say that I want to hear at this
particular moment. I’ve just walked up you–on my wife– acting like
a…a…bitch in heat with a goddamned government bastard, and frankly,
it’s taking everything I have not to beat the hell out of you!” He turned
and glared at me, his face mottled and angry.
I stared back at him, my mouth open in shock. Fury choked me. I
wanted to kill him in that moment. No, I wanted him and Carson
Alexander to kill each other in a bloody fight right at my feet so I could
revel in the gore.
“Beat me? Me? How dare you say such a thing!” I shrieked, jumping
to my feet. “A …a…bitch… in heat? You…you…you bastard!”
I launched myself off the stool onto him, intending to rip out his
heart and hurl it into the fireplace. He caught me in his arms easily,
twisting my arms around my body and pulling me back against him so
that I couldn’t move, my feet off the ground and kicking back against
his shins wildly, intent on killing him. He released me almost
immediately and I whirled around, making a serious attempt at
castrating him with my bare hands. He caught my wrists up in his
hands and shook me none too gently.
“Behave yourself, woman!” he fairly growled at me. “What is
wrong with you? Think of the baby if you won’t think of anything else!
You’re going to hurt the baby and yourself if you don’t stop it! Maybe
that wasn’t the right thing to have said…”
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“Maybe?!” I yelled in disbelief.
“Lila, please. Settle down!” he said firmly. “You’re overwrought!”
“I don’t care!” I screamed at him, but I did manage to stop myself
from attacking him again. “How dare you say something like that to
me? How could you?”
He glared right back at me. “I’m sorry for saying it that way, but
what should I have said? I shouldn’t have used those words, I admit.
But telling him your husband was gone and then inviting him up to the
house? You may as well have taken off your clothes right there for
him! And then sitting down all cozy next to him grinning up at him,
batting your eyes and putting your hands all over him. What in hell did
you think you were playing at? What else was the man to think? Of
course he tried to kiss you—I’m just surprised he didn’t do more than
that!” he yelled.
“Has every man on this mountain gone crazy all at once?” I asked
incredulously. “He told me he wanted to talk to me and so I invited
him up to the house so I could hear Susie if she called. I put my
hand—
my hand
—on his arm in a moment of gratitude and the man
threw himself on me!” I shook my head in disbelief. “And by the way,
he did this for reasons I still don’t understand! I’ve been working in the
yard all day; I’m tired; I’m dirty; I’ve been sweating like a pig over the
fire; my hair is falling over my face, and
I’m huge, for heaven’s sake!”
Unable to restrain myself, I balled up my fist and socked him hard on
his arm. “And so I try to defend myself and then you come along and
call me
names! What is wrong with you? Don’t you know anything?”
Suddenly so tired I couldn’t stand up, I sank down onto the chair,
only just realizing that our loud voices had awakened Susie and she was
calling me. I started to get up wearily and go to her, but Joe pushed
past me and started in to her. Picking her up off the bed he bent his
dark head next to hers and held her close. In a few minutes, his soft
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voice had crooned her back to sleep and he laid her gently back in the
covers. He turned to me and motioned me back over to the fireplace.
He looked at me and said in a sad, disillusioned tone, his eyes dark
and troubled, “What’s happened to you, Liley? I never would have
expected this from you, of all people. I’ve never had trouble like this
before. I never before had to worry about leaving my wife alone.” He
continued on doggedly. “Never!”
Wearily I looked up at him. “Oh, because Annie would never have
caused you any worry, isn’t that right? Annie was perfect! You could
trust her!”
“Annie
was
good and sweet,” he said quietly. “She loved me very
much. She loved you, too, Liley, and would never have spoken ill of
you. She’s no longer here to defend herself. One thing is for sure,
though. I could have trusted her with my life.”
He walked outside and closed the door softly behind him and I
dropped my head into my hands, feeling hateful and defeated, my fit of
temper leaving me as suddenly as it had come. Everything he had said
was true. It was true that I had lied to Joe and kept secrets from him. I
had never meant for Carson to become involved with me in that way,
but I could see now that what Joe had said should have been more
obvious to me. I could understand how it might have appeared to
Carson that I was chasing after him, inviting his advances. My
foolishness could have gotten him or Joe killed. Bitter tears dropped
unheeded onto my lap, and I was in an agony of embarrassment and
shame. In my jealousy I had attacked Annie and had been at the point
of almost hating her when she had always been nothing but kindness
itself to me for as long as she had lived. What had happened to me? I
felt so ashamed. Somehow I had to convince Joe that I was sorry for
everything and that he could trust me again. My only hope was that I
hadn’t ruined all that we had been building between us.
Just before dawn I woke up and I was alone, the bed stretching out
empty and cold beside me. There were birds singing in the early dawn
just outside the house, and the notes were sharp and sweet. I glanced
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down at the foot of the bed toward the cradle, but Susie was still
sleeping peacefully, her breathing soft and steady in the quiet cabin.
Joe was sleeping in the loft upstairs, still too angry and hurt to lay
beside me, I supposed. I could only hope his feelings wouldn’t last and
that I could find a way to make him care for me again just a little bit.
I had gone to bed early the night before, unutterably sick and weary,
my back aching and my whole body feeling as sore as if I had been
beaten soundly after all. Joe had awakened me an hour or so later.
Quietly, he had motioned me out of bed and over to the fireplace where
we sat for what seemed like hours going over and over where I had met
Carson Alexander, what I had said to him, why I had gone to see him at
Skyland, why he had come to our house. Over and over as my head
throbbed and my back felt as if it would break in two. The fact that I
had rebuffed Carson’s advances were in my favor, of course, but Joe
was furious that I had disobeyed him and put myself in a position
where I had had to defend myself in the first place. Over and over he
lectured me about what could have happened had he not arrived on the
scene when he did or if Carson, a virtual stranger to us, had decided to
overpower me. Though he never raised his voice to me after that first
time, I could tell how angry and betrayed he felt as well. His eyes were
cold as he looked at me, and finally I could take it no longer and threw
myself down at his feet, sick at heart, crying and begging him to
forgive me. He hesitated only a few seconds and then he sighed and
reached down to pull me back up to my chair, just across from him.
“You’re making yourself ill,” he sighed heavily and looked at me.
“And I’m not helping. We’ll talk later. You need to go to bed now and
try to get some rest for the baby’s sake.” He helped me over to the bed
and settled me under the covers, but pulled his hand back when I
reached for him.
“I’ll be in later,” he said softly. “Go to sleep, now.”
He blew out the lantern next to the bed and stood there in the dark
beside me for a few more moments before turning and going to open
the door to the cabin. I felt the cool night air blowing gently around the
room and as exhaustion finally overtook me completely, I saw him
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silhouetted in the doorway looking up at the night sky, bright with the
new moon, and I felt the hot, salty tears run slowly down my face and
soak into my pillow.
Now in the early morning dawn I slipped from bed and climbed the
dark, inner staircase up to the loft. In the soft half-light coming in the
upstairs windows I could see him lying on his back, his arm thrown
across his forehead, his face relaxed in sleep and his breathing slow and
steady. I was completely overcome with love for him as I watched him
and my knees went weak at the sudden thought that I might have lost
him forever—that he might never forgive me for lying to him and
keeping secrets from him. Tears slipping down my face, I crept over to
him and lay down beside him, putting my arm around his waist and
squeezing him tightly. He made a little start of surprise and then
relaxed again as he saw it was me.
He put his arm around me, giving me a little shake and said, “What
are you doing climbing those stairs in the dark? Don’t you know you
could have fallen? He hesitated and then pulled the quilt back with a
sigh, “Get in here and get warm.”
I wriggled under the covers, sniffing loudly and wiping my eyes.
After a moment I drew close to him and put my arm around his waist.
He didn’t pull away, so I became a little bolder and put my hand on
him. “I’m still angry with you,” he said. “That doesn’t change a thing,
you know.” But I felt him hard and warm beneath my hand.
“I know,” I said, and rising up on my knees, I crouched over him,
dropping feverish kisses over his chest and his neck.
He groaned as I reached his ear and suddenly flipped me over on my
back, stretching his naked body over mine, but being careful not to put
his full weight against my stomach. He bent his head then and kissed
me roughly, and I felt the hardness of him against my belly and knew
he wanted me as badly as I wanted him. As he began to move inside
me, I wept with relief and my love for him. At least I could still reach
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him in this way, I thought desperately. That had to count for
something. Didn’t it?
Chapter Fifteen
It was a cold, clear morning in early November. Still early, the air
was damp and cool, but the sun was beginning to shine weakly on the
soggy grass as I picked my way across it with Susie in tow. We were
on our way to the bee hives on the upper end of the little garden plot on
the northern side of the cabin. Joe had been carefully teaching me to
gather the honey from the hives for most of the summer. I was carrying
his old cloth hood and long gloves and once I got to the hives I would
start a small fire with some wood that Joe had stacked uncovered at the
edge of the woods. This wood was almost always purposefully left out
in the damp and produced a good deal of smoke. Once I had the smoke
going well enough to lull the bees in their hives, I could then handle the
combs without any problem, at least in theory, and gather enough
honey for our personal use and to take down to trade at the mill in
town. I already had my jars Willed and drying for the honey as Joe was
planning a trip down to Estes Mill later in the week.
I was moving slowly now that my baby was due any day. Now that
my time was so near, I was huge with my baby. As big as a house! I
had had a very uneventful pregnancy so far with almost no illness at all.
Other than the inconvenience of my size, I was feeling fine, and
anxious to meet the new baby. Susie was toddling along beside me,
always happy to be outside. She was always such a good child,
obedient and sweet. She reminded me more every day of her mother.
I loved her as much as if she were my very own baby. I planned to tell
her one day when she was older about her other mama, and how much
she had loved her too. But for now, we had no plans other than to
enjoy the crisp, autumn sunshine, knowing that soon the days would
grow cold and dreary and we’d spend much of our time confined to the
cabin.
When we arrived at the edge of the field beside the hives, I tied her
by her leading strings to the fence that went around the outer edges of
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the field. I had to put her some hundred yards away, as I wanted to
make sure the bees, if I didn’t tend them correctly, or if for any reason
they decided to swarm, would not go near her. Her leading strings
would help me keep her safe and well away from where I was working
as well as preventing her from wandering while I was busy with the
hives. As I began to build the fire, I glanced over my shoulder at her to
make sure she was still where I put her. She was happily engaged in
pulling down the remains of a dried gourd vine that had grown up over
the fence, laughing with delight as bits of crumbled leaf and vine
showered down on her head. Her round face bore a look of
determination as she carefully wound the withered vines around her rag
dolly. I smiled at her and blew her a kiss as she looked up at me.
I moved away from her to the hive area and began to gather my
wood from the pile. In a few minutes I had filled my arms with enough
wood for a smoky fire, and started back over to the hives. It was then
that I noticed for the first time that one of the hives had been pushed
over and overturned onto the grass, just recently, the dark honey still
pooling onto the ground beneath it. Bits of comb were scattered over
the grass like pieces of torn paper. Puzzled, I dropped the wood to the
ground, straightening up with my hand to the small of my back, trying
to figure out what could have happened. Suddenly, a strange guttural
noise caught my ear and I whirled around to check on Susie. As I
watched in growing horror, she let out a sudden shriek and began to
scream for me. Terrified and feeling as if I were moving in slow
motion, I began to run to her even as my mind began to fully register
what it was I was seeing. A large black bear, squalling loudly, stood on
its hind legs by the fence not ten feet away from where Susie played on
the grass. He was pawing the air, making that terrifying half-growl,
half-squeal, glaring toward where Susie sat helpless on the grass. Susie
was frozen in place and screaming, her hands outstretched to me, her
eyes stretched wide with shock.
All I could think of was getting to her before the bear attacked.
Bears were common on the mountain, but usually they left you alone
and even went out of their way to avoid people. But after seeing the
honey on the ground, I knew that we must have interrupted this bear
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feeding on the honey, and that could have been what made him act the
way he was. All I knew was that he was dangerously close to my little
girl and that she was scared to death. All I could think of was getting
over to where she was. My body was unwieldy and I lumbered across
to her, panting and out of breath before I had gone ten yards.
Amazingly the bear had not yet attacked, but continued to paw the air
wildly and squall at little Susie. The fact that she was tied by her
leading strings to the fence rail may have actually saved her life in
those few moments before I reached her, as the strings caused her to sit
still and not move. Had she begun to run, the bear surely would have
been on her in a moment’s time.
As I came closer, there was a strong smell of ammonia and dirty fur
in the air around us. The bear let out a loud squall of rage and suddenly
lunged toward Susie as she sat there reaching for me, her little mouth a
round O of terror. I must have leaped the last few feet toward her—I
have no memory of running those last steps– and some how threw
myself over her in an agony of fear, my only thought to shield her from
those deadly claws and the dripping maw of its mouth. I landed on top
of her with a loud whuff that knocked away the last gasps of breath
remaining to me. Almost instantly, something hit me in the back with
an impact that drove me into the ground, crushing little Susie beneath
me, and then stepped heavily on the back of my head, driving my face
into the dirt.
I had always heard that bears roared, but this one sounded like a big,
mean hog as it squealed and squalled and thrashed its way around us,
bleating and growling and surely intent on killing us both. There was a
brief moment of silence when all I could hear was my breath coming in
short, ragged gasps. Warily, gasping for breath, I raised my head,
trying to get an idea of where it was and then, horrifyingly, I saw it to
the left of us, only six feet or so away, and it began to charge me again
with another loud growling-squeal, moving faster than I would have
thought possible. I ducked my head down desperately and clung to
Susie as tightly as I could, trying to shield her little body with my own,
no time even to scream. Then it was on me, batting at my head and
back with random blows that ripped at my clothing and at the heavy
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coat I was wearing. The gamey smell of bear piss and dirty fur was
overpowering and it was like being wrapped up in a filthy, hairy
blanket and then being tossed up and down and stomped on. I tried not
to resist at all, knowing that my best defense was to play dead. I willed
myself to endure, as it seemed to go on forever and I began to think that
in another moment or two I wouldn’t just be pretending at playing
dead.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it another moment, it was gone,
leaving me lying bruised and bloody, plastered to the ground, hot and
stinking and not sure if I were alive or dead. I lay there, panting for
breath, stunned and dazed for what seemed like hours, but could only
have been a few minutes. Gradually I became aware of Susie moving
beneath me, shaking and crying and trying to crawl out from
underneath me. Tears of terror and pain streaming down my face, I
managed to roll over to get some of my weight off of her and looked up
at the sky, somehow surprised to see that the sun was still shining
brightly overhead.
I raised myself up shakily on one elbow, the movement making my
head swim crazily and little black dots swarm in front of my face. I
looked around frantically for the bear, but the only sign that he had
even been there was the trampled grass around us. Susie was gibbering
and pulling at me, still scared out of her wits and I started to get up to
comfort her, but I found that I was too shaky to sit up. My back was
burning and something was falling in my eyes. I pushed at it with my
hands and was horrified to see bright red blood staining my palms.
Shaking, but not wanting to alarm Susie any more than she already was,
I managed to turn over and get on my knees. I grasped my stomach in
both hands and rocked back and forth, terrified for my baby. I had been
careful during the attack to keep my stomach turned away, protected, I
thought. But now I began to worry that I might be losing too much
blood. I thought if I moved very slowly, I might be able to make it
back to the house. I tried to get to my feet, but I quickly discovered that
my legs wouldn’t hold me up. The black dots began to swarm in front
of my eyes again and I stopped trying to get up, afraid I would pass out.
I thought then I might be able to crawl back to the house. I desperately
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wanted to get as far away from the hives as I could in case the bear
decided to come back for more, along with another try at me and Susie.
We were a good hundred yards from the house, and after only a few
feet I was worried that I might not be able to make it at all. Joe had
been at the cabin before we left that morning, but I didn’t know if he
would still be there or if he had already left. He might be chopping
wood or doing chores around the cabin, or he might have decided to go
hunting or to go and check his traps. There would be no one else
coming to help. Somehow I had to get Susie out of harm’s way and I
was beginning to be very worried about my own condition as the shock
was beginning to wear off a little. I didn’t have any idea how much
damage had been done to my back, but it felt burning and raw, and I
felt the cold air against my skin. The bear’s claws had ripped my coat
in back to shreds and it was hanging around my shoulders as I moved.
My head was pounding with every movement. I was beginning to feel
very tired and faint. “Susie, baby,” I said softly to her. “Run on back
to the house now as quick as you can and go inside. Mama’s coming,
but I have to rest a minute. You go on and get inside, baby and wait for
Papa.”
It took several more tries to coax her to go on to the house, but
finally she went, looking back at me over her shoulder and crying. I
tried to smile at her and wave a bit. “Go on now, honey, and I’ll be
there in a minute,” I called to her.
I tried to watch her go, but the dots that were swarming in my eyes
got thicker and thicker and I lay my head down in the grass. I thought
then that I was going to die. I began to cry bitter tears for my poor
baby. “I’m sorry, baby,” I whispered. “Forgive me.” I rolled to my
side, curled up around my child and I began to feel what I thought then
was the sleep of death steal over me. Suddenly, the pain began to leave
me, and I began to have the most extraordinary dream.
I dreamed I was walking in a beautiful river bottom in the spring.
The sun was soft and warm on my skin, and the sweet yellow clover
was in bloom. The grass was blowing soft and silky against my bare
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legs. I was following a young girl who was walking ahead of me, and
in a moment I recognized her—it was my dear friend Annie. I began to
weep with joy at seeing her and I ran to catch up with her.
She turned to greet me with a sweet smile and called to me. “You
will have a beautiful baby girl, Lila, just like my Susie. She will be a
pearl beyond measure in your life! Your own little Pearl! But she will
need her mama. And my little Susie needs you too. You’re her mother
now. You have to go back. It is not yet time for you to come with
me.” And she turned and began to walk away from me again.
“Wait, Annie, “ I cried. “Please wait for me.” But try as I might, I
couldn’t catch up to her and she disappeared ahead of me…
I woke up stiff and cold, my body still curled up in a ball. I was
surprised to find that I was still alive and in the world. The dream I had
had been so vivid—so real—I felt as if I had actually been with Annie
in that beautiful meadow. Gathering new strength from my dream, I
tried to straighten up with the idea that I might be able to get back on
my knees again, but I was so weak and tired, my arms felt like ropes
and wouldn’t hold me up. I had no idea how much time might have
passed while I had been lying there. It could have been minutes or
hours. The sun still shone down brightly in my face, so I didn’t think it
had been too long that I had been asleep or unconscious.
I was worried about Susie and afraid that the bear might still decide
to come back. I thought that I might rest for another few minutes and
try again, when I felt a tightening in my stomach. I had had these
tightening feelings like the baby was curling up in a hard ball in my
belly before, but Bertie had told me they were natural feelings, and not
to worry about them. She said it was just my body getting ready for
labor. These hard tightenings had never hurt before—just felt a little
strange and uncomfortable—but this was different. This one hurt me!
It was a like a twisting, hot pain that started down low in my belly and
lower back and then radiated up and out until it just grabbed hold of me
and took my breath away. It was like some giant fist in my stomach
was squeezing, squeezing…
I knew then what was happening. My baby was coming. My poor
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sweet baby was going to come while I lay here in the grass, dirty and
bloody and alone, and stinking of bear piss. It was so unfair. If my
baby came now it would die here along with me, and it never should
have happened. Susie and I had been so happy and carefree just a little
while ago.
It suddenly made me angry and I shouted out, “No!” and tried to get
back up on my knees. I began to crawl toward the house. I could see
the cabin up ahead, not 50 yards away. Then the pain grabbed me
again so hard it knocked the breath out of me. I was gasping and
sweating, but I stayed on my knees, determined to crawl back to the
house and try to get inside before the baby came. Somehow I thought
if I could just get back to the house, I would be all right.
Then, exhausted, I fell onto my side, thinking that I would rest–just
for a little while—when suddenly I heard a shout. I raised my head up
wearily and saw Joe running to me across the field. It occurred to me
that I might be dreaming again, but I heard his voice shouting my
name, coming closer and closer and it sounded all too real. At the same
time, another labor pain gripped me, twisting my insides and feeling as
if it would break my back until I screamed a loud guttural scream, full
of pain and rage and hatred for the bear and the stupid consequence that
had brought me into his path. I screamed as loud as I could, and felt the
cords standing out on my neck. I screamed until it made my head ache.
I knew then that I was going to live just to spite that bear. The thought
made me smile, and I fell back onto the ground, my head pounding, my
lungs out of breath and my poor, battered body totally exhausted, but
still smiling to myself because I knew what Joe would say. “Liley,
what have you got yourself into now!” I closed my eyes and waited for
Joe to come to me. He was coming to save me and our baby, so I
could finally give up the struggle. I closed my eyes and reached out for
the blessed blackness, willing it to overtake me again.
I awoke smack dab in the middle of a labor pain. I remember only
fragments of that day, even now, but some of it I can still close my eyes
and see so clearly. Joe had carried me to the cabin and managed to get
me onto the bed. He was busy stripping the clothes off me to determine
how badly I was injured when the cramping pain hit me again and
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brought me out of my faint. Gasping for breath, I curled up into a ball
around my baby, biting my lip until I tasted blood, and with what little
breath was left to me, I opened my mouth and groaned out a very bad
word.
“Liley!” Joe said urgently. “Listen to me. I don’t have time to go
for help. Do you understand?”
I felt him smoothing the hair off my hot face. “We have to do this
alone, Lila, and I’m not sure what to do.” Even through the haze of
pain, I sensed how scared he sounded, his voice shocked and shaky.
I managed to roll over and straighten out a bit as the pain eased off, and
I looked up at him. He was sitting on the bed next to me, gripping my
hand in his, with little Susie standing next to him, kneading her dress
up with her hands, her dirty little face streaked with tears.
“I don’t know either, ” I managed to say. “But please… get these
stinking clothes off me and get some clean water so I can Will.” I
reached out to Susie. “It’s all right, baby, don’t cry. Mama will be
fine. Papa will take care of us now.”
Joe immediately began to pull the shreds of my dress and shawl
gently off me. It was a great relief to have the stench of the bear off
me. Halfway through, he had to stop and get water to help peel the
dress off my back, where the blood had dried. He had the dress off, and
he was slipping a quilt over me when the next pain hit, and I held onto
his hand, trying to just endure until it began to pass off again. I didn’t
want to holler out again, so I wouldn’t scare poor little Susie any more
than she already was. I should have been frightened. So many women
died in childbirth and after experiencing a good deal less of the beating
than I had endured in my one-sided fight with the bear, but somehow I
was no longer afraid. Annie had told me in my dream that I had to live
to take care of my child and to take care of hers as well. I knew that
somehow I would get through this. I didn’t think it was my time just
yet.
“Joe,” I said, when I found that I could speak again. “We’ll need
some clean sheets to put underneath me on the bed and some twine to
tie off the baby’s cord—I remember that much from my baby sister—
and some warm water to Will the baby.” I looked up at him—he was
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looking very young and frightened standing there by my bed. “I don’t
think it will be too soon. This is my first baby and my water hasn’t
come yet. I think we have some time.” I reached out for his hand as
another pain began to come on me, and I said a quick prayer to God to
help me get through the next hours.
I was still very weak from my experience with the bear, and we had
not yet had time to see how bad my back and head wounds were. Even
though I still had faith from my dream, I also feared that I had very
little strength to spare for the rigors of childbirth.
Sweat poured from my face and Joe sat with me patiently over the
next hours, wiping my face with a damp cloth and speaking sweet
words of encouragement to me. But I was getting so tired, so tired.
When at last the time came to push, I was too exhausted, too weak. I
had not the strength left in me to push. I felt myself just fading away,
slipping back into the same wonderful dream I had had before. I
longed to go back there, where it was peaceful and beautiful, to be with
Annie, but then I heard Joe calling to me, his voice sounding angry and
rough. “Liley, dammit, don’t you die on me!” he said. “Wake up!”
And then I came awake with a choke and I felt my baby’s weight
between my thighs as she fought to gain the light. “Yes, Liley,” Joe
cried. “Wake up—the baby’s coming! Push hard, now, here it comes!”
And then I felt her slide out into the world, the sharp, unbearable pain
ending so suddenly with the sweet release. Joe lifted his daughter and
smacked her on the rump, and my baby girl gave a hearty wail of
indignation. Joe held her up to show me and I fought to stay awake,
but I felt myself slipping back into exhaustion, too weak to fight the
sleep that dragged me down. Just before I closed my eyes to sleep, Joe
placed the baby on my breast, and I saw her sweet face, so beautiful
and so tiny. Tears filled my eyes and I smiled up at Joe. He put his
hand to my cheek. “Sleep now,” he said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
I closed my eyes then and thought to myself, I don’t think I’ve ever
been this tired before.
Chapter Sixteen
The next few days flew by in what still seemed like a dream. As
soon as I woke up that first day, I found that while I had been sleeping,
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Joe had been very busy taking care of all of us. Susie and the baby
were both fine, though Susie was still very shaken up and scared and
spent most of her time cuddling up in the bed next to me and the baby.
Right after the baby was born and settled in a warm blanket by the
fireplace, Joe pulled back the covers and checked out my injuries.
Aside from some very nasty scratches and bruises on my back, and a
big cut on the top of my scalp, I was not as badly hurt as he had first
thought from all the blood, and from the way I looked when he first ran
up to me. The head wound had bled a lot, of course, and the bear had
swiped at my back several times, scratching me and ripping my clothes
to shreds, but miraculously, he had not done me any serious damage,
though I would have some interesting scars. Because I was so close to
my time, and what with the shock and the excitement causing me to go
into labor, I guess I was more scared than hurt. And mad! Even at first
I was still so angry at that bear for what he had done to us, I wanted
Joe to go out and hunt for him that very night.
Joe said that when he had first seen me lying on the grass and heard
that first awful shout of pain and rage I had yelled out, it fairly froze the
marrow in his bones. He expected to find me half killed, and then
when he had seen me lying there in all the blood—well, it had scared
him half to death. And then when he noticed I was somehow smiling—
well, he thought the experience had unhinged my mind altogether. He
told me this as he was putting salve on my back and I could feel his
hand still trembling. I turned my head around to look at him and he
seemed a little embarrassed, ducking his head down and looking up at
me with those blue eyes half mad and half something-else I didn’t
know what.
“Of course, if you hadn’t run over there and scared the bear to death
she never would have attacked you in the first place, “ he admonished.
“Any fool knows that you don’t startle a bear like that, running around
and yelling like a fool.”
“I didn’t yell,” I said, stung by his criticism. “Me scare the bear! I
know I shouldn’t have run like I did, but it scared me bad to see that
bear so close to Susie!”
“Well, you got to start thinking, Liley, instead of just jumping in
where angels fear to tread. This is twice that your intentions almost got
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somebody killed. I’ll swear, I never thought you’d be so much trouble
when I came to get you from your Papa’s house that first night!”
I wanted to argue, but I still didn’t feel up to it, and besides, he was
right, so I just sagged against him and stayed quiet, though he had hurt
my feelings. He put one arm around me gently though and when he
lifted my hair up off my neck, he kissed me there very softly on the
back of my neck. I began to feel a little better.
Later that evening, he gave me the baby and I held her to my breast
to nurse, her little mouth warm and strong as she tugged and pulled at
my breast. It was such a strange, sweet feeling and I was so full of love
for her as I looked down on her that I thought I would burst.
“I want to name her Pearl,” I said, looking up at Joe. “If that’s all
right with you, Joe. I’ve always loved that name, and it suits her,
doesn’t it? Her skin is as milky and soft as one.”
He smiled at us and nodded. “Yes, it does suit her.” He bent down
and kissed her soft cheek, and then straightened back up and yawned.
“I think I’ll join you ladies on the bed, if you don’t mind,” he said,
scooting Susie closer to my side. “Of course, it doesn’t hold a candle
to your adventures, but I’ve had a pretty rough day myself.” Still
smiling, he lay back on the pillow and was asleep in just a few minutes
as the firelight flickered over him.
Chapter Seventeen
The days after Pearl’s birth passed by so fast that I hardly can
credit it even now. It seemed that all I did in those first quiet days was
nurse my sweet baby, there in the warmth of the cabin, and take care of
little Susie. I had time to carefully examine the baby’s every little
finger and toe, and Susie and I would make up little songs to sing as the
three of us sat tucked up together in a warm quilt and rocked in the big
chair by the fireplace. Joe had taken over most of the outside chores
while I recovered from Pearl’s birth, which left me free to take care of
the house and the children. I soon discovered that the baby brought a
lot of extra work. I barely had Susie out of diapers, and now little
Pearl’s diapers took over. It seemed that I was forever changing,
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Willing or trying to dry diapers in the cold, dreary November weather
that had come to the mountain. As a result, once more, diapers were
hung over most every available surface of the front room. But I
couldn’t help but think the extra work was worth it as she was a
beautiful child with curly black hair and the most beautiful blue, deep-
set, intelligent eyes, just like her papa. Her skin was a soft, milky color
and she was a good baby, right from the start. She hardly ever cried,
unless she was very hungry, and when I took her to my breast she
would look up at me with those sweet eyes as if to say thank you.
Oh, I knew I was a fool about her, but she was the first thing I had
ever had in my whole life that was just mine to love—the first one to
ever need me desperately. She was so little and helpless. I doted on
her. Of course, I was crazy about Susie as well, who had always been
such a sweet little girl. With every passing day she grew to look more
and more like her mother. She was becoming more and more a
constant source of remembrance to me—one that was bittersweet. Joe,
on the other hand, doted on Susie. Of course he loved our little Pearl,
but rarely did he sit and hold her as he did with Susie in the evenings.
He said it was because Pearl was so little yet, but I was afraid it might
be something more. Sometimes at night while we sat by the fire and I
held Pearl to my breast to nurse, Joe would sit across from me and rock
Susie quietly, stroking her shiny, brown hair and looking down into her
sleeping face. Even in those moments, which should have been so
warm and pleasant, I was tormented by my thoughts and imaginings. I
would watch them there in the firelight and wonder. Did he look at
Annie’s child and think of the mother? Was he dreaming of her as he
rocked there by the fire? And then I would hate myself for thinking
that way and being so petty.
Physically, I recovered quickly and before long I was back to my old
self again. I began to think of the coming Christmas holidays—Pearl’s
first Christmas—and I was anxious for my father and my sisters to see
the baby. Joe had sent word about the baby, of course, but the weather
had been wet and cold, and my Papa sent word back to us that he had
been working extra hours at his job at the tannery in Luray, but that he
and my sisters would look forward to seeing us at church on the Sunday
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before Christmas if we could make it. It was something to look
forward to, and excitedly, I began to plan a few small gifts to bring with
us.
That Sunday morning before Christmas dawned cold and dreary,
with a north wind whipping through the trees and setting up a moaning
sound that made you want to go back inside and sit by the fire. Instead,
we bundled both girls up tight, wrapped them in warm blankets, and I
held them close to me on the back of the horse as Joe led us down the
mountain trail to Piedmont Church. This would be the first time for
friends and relatives to get a good look at little Pearl, and Susie’s kin on
her mama’s side was also anxious to see Susie as well, as it had been
several weeks since I had been well enough to bring her to church. Joe
could have taken her alone, but she didn’t want to leave me when I was
ailing, and she had been a little sick with a cold. So many children died
on the mountains every winter from pneumonia and flu. I couldn’t risk
my babies when they were already feeling bad. I knew that Annie’s kin
would have something to say about it, but I did what I thought was best
for Susie, as I think Annie would have wanted me to do. I was a little
worried about taking baby Pearl out so soon, especially since she had
kept me up most of the night before, but Joe said he thought it would be
fine if we dressed her warmly. She hadn’t been sick, just seemed to
want some company. As long as I rocked her, she would stare up at me,
solemn and trusting. So I sat with her in the old rocking chair and sang
just about every song I knew until she finally fell asleep way in the
night.
With the continual chores and hard work, especially in the fall
around harvest time, Sundays was often the best time to really visit and
catch up with relatives and friends, and I was most anxious for my Papa
and my sisters to see my little Pearl. I had some small presents to give
them–a new pipe for my Papa and some hard candy and ribbons for the
girls. I knew that Papa and the girls would make over Pearl and tell me
how beautiful she was. I had dressed her in a new white gown I had
made for her myself, and she was wearing a pretty little blue crocheted
hat, booties and sweater that had belonged to Susie. I knew that Annie
had made them for little Susie in those days, not so long ago, while she
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waited for her to be born, not knowing she would have to leave her so
soon. Now that I had my own baby girl, I felt even more sorrow that
Annie had not been able to raise her child as she had wanted to. Pearl’s
wearing the little crocheted outfit felt almost like a blessing from Annie
herself, especially since I still had such vivid memories of the dream
state I had been in the day Pearl had been born.
In order to get to the Piedmont Church from Piney Gap trail, we had
to pass by Joe’s brother Booten’s house. Booten and his wife Ellen
were just coming out to leave for church themselves and insisted that
we ride the short distance with them in their car. Booten was the most
prosperous of Joe’s brothers and being one of the first born, he was also
much older, seeming sometimes more like Joe’s papa than his brother.
Their children were all grown and scattered around the hollows and the
mountain, and Booten and Ellen had a nice, two-story house, right at
the bottom of Piney Gap trail as it turned into Piney Road at the foot of
the mountain. Surrounded by a rock fence he and his boys had made
themselves, the house was nicely furnished, and had store-bought
drapes hanging at all the windows. Ellen was a small, neat woman who
smiled a lot, but never said much the times I’d been around her. She
was good company though–kind of peaceful-like after sitting up with a
new baby most of the night. By contrast, Booten, or “Boot” as everyone
called him, was a tall, gruff man with iron-gray hair and a big, bushy
moustache. He had a big loud voice and he was the kind of man you’d
have hated to get on the wrong side of, but he was always very nice to
me and seemed to be very fond of his younger brother, Joe.
Booten was one of the few people we knew who owned a car. We
had borrowed it the day we were married to go over to Luray, and I had
not been in a car either before or since. Susie’s eyes grew big and she
backed up against my legs when Booten brought the car around to the
front steps where we stood. Joe had told me proudly that it was a 1930
Model A Ford two-door sedan, black and shiny with gray cloth seats
that were plush and comfortable. It was smoking and backfiring a little
as it sat there idling up, and I thought it was one of the grandest things I
had ever seen. I couldn’t help being a little excited that we were going
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to be arriving in style for little Pearl’s first Sunday at Piedmont Church,
and I eagerly climbed inside.
Susie, Ellen, the baby and I were all loaded into the back seat, with
Joe and his brother in the front. Booten turned to look back at Susie,
sitting up in Ellen’s lap.
“Well, what do you think, Little Suze?” Do you like my car?” he
asked.
She shrank back against her Aunt Ellen shyly, but nodded her head
and smiled at him.
He laughed and shifted the car into gear, making a terrible grinding
noise. It didn’t seem to bother him much, though, and we lurched and
bumped out of the yard gathering speed until we bounced onto the dirt
road in front of the house at a breakneck pace, with the car’s springs
squeaking and groaning, and the chickens squawking and running for
their lives ahead of us. I held Pearl tightly in my arms and watched in
growing terror as the trees seem to whiz past us on the road. Boot
certainly drove a lot faster than Joe did, I remember thinking as we
bounced along the road, seeming to hit every bump and pothole. Joe
seemed unworried, though, as he lounged in the seat next to Booten, his
arm draped across the seat, so I tried to relax a bit too and enjoy the
ride. Booten had both hands firmly on the wheel, but instead of turning
the wheel with his wrists, he seemed to use his whole arm and wrench
the car in the direction he wanted it to go. I glanced over at Susie, who
was hanging on tight to her aunt’s coat sleeves. Her eyes had grown
even wider, if possible, and her little mouth was hanging open in
surprised pleasure. She looked over at me and gave me a huge grin.
Ellen still seemed completely unperturbed at the way we were
careening down the little dirt road, simply holding onto the straps above
the door and staring straight ahead, occasionally letting go to straighten
out her hat with one hand, while she kept the other around Susie’s waist
as we veered around one curve after another in the road. I began to
wonder if this was normally how she reacted to danger, or if she had
been nipping at the white liquor before we had arrived.
“We’re a little early, so I’m going to take you girls into town for a
little ride,” Boot hollered at us from the front seat, as he swerved wildly
onto a side road.
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“Don’t you think we should slow down just a bit, Boot?” I asked
nervously, but my words were swallowed up in a harsh, grating noise,
as Boot shifted down into third gear.
Joe glanced back at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Don’t
worry, Liley—Boot here is an expert driver! Self-taught, too, can you
believe it?” he laughed at the look on my face, but he did lean over and
yell something to Booten that I couldn’t quite understand. Booten
nodded his understanding, though, and the car slowed down
imperceptibly. Joe looked back at me with a raised eyebrow and a
shrug, and I tightened my hold on Pearl.
We arrived in the small town of Sperryville almost before we knew
it, and I saw more than one alarmed face poke out of a doorway to see
what was coming down the road. The car was groaning and
complaining as Boot wrestled with the gear shift, the car belching oily
black clouds of smoke each time we backfired. Boot swerved the car at
the last possible minute into the small area in front of the post office.
Stopping so fast that my head banged into the seat ahead of me and
then bounced back, the car shuddered to a stop as Booten pulled up the
handbrake and levered himself out of the car.
“I may as well check the mail while I’m here,” he straightened up
and yelled to Joe over the roar of the motor. “You want to get out with
me?”
Joe nodded, giving me a mischievous look over his shoulder. I
glared back at him, trying to send him a message with my eyes, but he
just laughed again and jumped out of the car to follow Boot inside.
Susie began to chatter to me excitedly, and I had turned to look at her
when I was startled to see none other than Carson Alexander, along
with about three or four of his men, not five feet away, walking toward
the post office. I know that my mouth fell open in surprise, and I felt
my face flame bright red to my hairline. He must have seen me about
the same time as I saw him, because I noticed his face turn a dark and
ugly red color too, and he stumbled a little as he climbed up the first
step onto the porch. He quickly recovered though and looked away,
rushing up the steps, and I bit my lip nervously, hoping that Joe
wouldn’t start anything with him inside. I still felt someone as if
someone were staring at me. Nervously, I turned back to see the CCC
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man called Riley staring at me and grinning. When he saw that he had
caught my eye, he winked broadly at me and laughed, then slouched up
the steps of the post office behind Carson and the others. The man had
always made me feel dirty somehow, and today was no exception. I
turned to see if Ellen had noticed anything, but she still sat staring
serenely ahead, humming to herself in time to the tune of “Shall We
Gather At The River” as she gently patted it out on little Susie’s back.
After what seemed like a very long time, Joe and Boot finally came
out of the post office and got back into the car without any comment.
Joe gave me one long, unreadable look as he got in, and I sat back
quickly in the seat and looked out the window, trying to avoid his eyes.
At least he didn’t look as if he had been in a fight. And if anything had
passed between him and Carson inside the post office, neither he nor
Boot said a word about it all the whole long way back to Piedmont
Church.
Chapter Eightteen
There was an awful cold chill coming in the windows near the back
pew where I sat with little Susie. It seemed to sidle around behind my
back and then jump quick-like down the neck of my dress no matter
which way I turned to get away from it. Shivering, I hitched up my old
coat a little higher on my neck and tried to focus again on what the
preacher was saying. Earlier I had been sitting up near the front with
Joe and his family, nearer to the big pot bellied stove that sat crackling
and popping loudly as the preacher neared the end of his sermon,
shifting into high gear, his voice rising and falling as he hammered
home his point, reminding us all of the devil just a waitin’ to snatch up
the unwary sinner. He was nearing the place in his sermon when he
always called for someone to come on down to the front bench to be
prayed over or to get saved, as the congregation sang just one more
verse of “Just As I Am”. But Susie had started squirming about half
way through the service and then whispered to me that she wanted to
go outside to pee. Since she hadn’t been out of diapers for too long,
and had a desperate and determined look in her eye, I thought I’d better
get her out quick, so I had handed the baby to Joe and hurried her down
the aisle and outside behind the church to the little outhouse.
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Afterward, shivering against the cold, we had slipped back into a pew
near the back so as not to disturb anybody any further. I could see my
father, along with my sisters, a few rows up ahead. His head was
nodding vigorously to what the preacher was saying. I smiled fondly at
the back of his head, and thought to myself that he was looking tired
and run-down. He worked too hard. After the service, he and my
sisters had agreed to come back home with us for Sunday dinner and a
long overdue visit.
After a few more tries at getting folks to come down to get prayed
over, the preacher finally ended the service, and I took Susie’s hand
trying to make my way through the crowd back up to the front of the
church. I could see Joe in the aisle now, still holding the baby and
talking to his brother, when Nancy, Annie’s sister, came up by his side,
smiling and murmuring something in his ear. As his dark head bent
down towards her, I felt a hot rush of anger. I had not forgotten how
hurtful she had been to me outside the post office months ago, and as
she now made a big pretense of admiring Pearl, making cooing sounds
to her that I could hear even over the chatter of people making their
way up the aisle, I felt a powerful feeling swell up inside me. I stood
still where I was, no longer trying to move forward, just holding tightly
onto Susie’s little hand so that she gave out a whimper and pulled
away from me.
“Aunt Nancy,” she cried, catching sight of her, and suddenly
pulling away and pushing past me to run up the aisle and jump into
Nancy’s arms. Nancy bent over to kiss her and smiled up at me, still
standing stiffly by the side of the pew. “Why, hello, Lila. You doing
all right?”
I nodded and walked up the aisle now clear of people and held out
my hands for the baby.
Joe handed her to me with a smile and turned as the preacher spoke to
him from behind us.
Nancy gave me another of her mean little smiles and said softly, “I
was just admiring your new baby girl. I believe she’s got your dark
complexion, though. I do hope she’ll grow out of it, don’t you?”
“I think her complexion is just fine,” I said as evenly as I could. My
blood was boiling up so high I thought it might come bubbling out of
my mouth. “I believe she’ll be every bit as pretty as her sister, Susie,” I
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tried to make my voice as calm as I could. “Though Lord knows not all
sisters are alike. Sometimes, they’re as different as night and day—like
you and Annie.” I saw the quick anger blaze up in her face , and I
should have quit right there, but I spoke again. “Annie was beautiful
and had a temperament to match.”
“But then what have you ever known about beauty, Liley Bruice?”
her voice was low and ugly as she turned on her heel and walked away
from me. I guess she put me back in my place, I thought to myself
ruefully. It was my own fault, too. I guess I shouldn’t have said that
last part to her, especially here in the main aisle of the Piedmont
church. I looked guiltily up at the altar and then turned around to see
my Papa looking at me and shaking his head. He hadn’t been able to
hear our words, but he knew by the look on my face that I was angry
and upset. I moved over to where he and my sisters were standing and
leaned my forehead against his shoulder.
“Oh, Papa,” I sighed. “I’ve missed you so much.”
He patted my shoulder and smiled. “We’ve missed you too, honey.”
He looked over to where Joe still stood with Boot. “Is everything all
right with you?”
Before I could answer, Joe appeared by my side with Susie. “Lila,
I’ll walk on home, so there’ll be room in the car for your Papa and the
girls. I’m going to stop by Jim and Bertie’s on my way home anyway,
to talk over something with Jim, but I should be on home by the time
you have dinner ready.” He shook hands with my Papa again, saying
something to him that I couldn’t hear over the roaring in my ears. As
he walked up the aisle to leave, I noticed Nancy looking at him. She
turned to me with a quirk of her eyebrow on her haughty face before
following her family outside. I actually felt my heart give a sick little
twist and my shoulders slumped in defeat. I knew in my heart that he
was lying to me, and from the smirk on Nancy’s face, she knew it as
well. He was going to the cemetery to be with Annie, and he had lied
to me about where he was going. It was foolish to feel so jealous about
a woman who was dead and gone. I knew it was foolish, and yet I
couldn’t help feeling hurt and betrayed by the lie.
“I wonder if it’s going to snow this afternoon?” my sister’s light
voice startled me out of my dark thoughts. “There’s sure a dampness to
the air,” she said, standing by the door and peering up into the sky.
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“Those clouds look bad too. Did you see the haze over the valley this
morning?”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t notice.” I suddenly realized I was squeezing
the baby too tightly and I slowly followed them up the aisle and out
into the chill dampness of the day.
I got as far as the car with the others before suddenly thrusting the baby
at my oldest sister and turning to my father.
“I have to go with Joe,” I said urgently, and he took a long look at
my face and then just nodded his head.
“We’ll take the babies and go on up to your place,” he said quietly.
“Just come on as soon as you can.” I nodded my gratitude, unable to
look him in the eye, and then turned around before I could change my
mind and set off up the Piney Hill Road towards the cemetery.
Piney Hill Cemetery had always seemed to me to be a still and
lonesome place. It was situated by the road about a half-mile from the
church, but was on a sharp rise so that it was almost hidden there within
the trees that flanked the hillside. A small side road ran up beside it,
just wide enough to allow a wagon to pull in as close to the path
leading up to the gravesites as possible. My mother had been buried
there, and I remember following the men up the little path as they
carried my ma ma to her final rest, watching them slip and slide a little
on the steep path under the weight of the homemade, wooden casket on
their shoulders. I knew that Annie had been buried just up the path and
to the left, below a big boulder rock. Soft white snow lay in patches and
the little flat, gray river rocks used as headstones dotted the ground,
poking up through the dead, fallen leaves and the patches of snow.
Even the birds were quiet on this day as midday approached, and the
tall evergreens edging the hillside stood solemnly around the graveyard
with the chill breeze stirring their branches. They reminded me of tall
soldiers standing at ease, shifting positions and murmuring among
themselves as they stood their somber guard.
As a child, I sometimes accompanied my father when he visited my
mother’s gravesite to clear off the weeds or plant the rosebushes that
she had loved so much in life. While he was working, I would
sometimes sit up on the big boulder rock overlooking the road and
think about the people buried there in the old cemetery. As a child, I
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fancied that they might have conversations as they lay there under the
trees, when no one was around to hear. Maybe late at night they would
drift up out of their resting places like the smoky mists on the mountain
and whisper softly to each other about what their lives had been and the
people they had left behind. I could almost imagine I c ould hear their
whispering as I would close my eyes and listen to the stirring of the
wind in the evergreen trees. Did they drift back to their places as we
visited and wait impatiently for us to leave, I wondered? Or did they
yearn towards us, wishing they could follow us home to the land of the
living, and walk the earth again as in life?
I suppose if I had died having little Pearl, like Annie had died after
having Susie, I might be buried up here. Joe might have buried me next
to Annie, just below the big boulder rock. Maybe that thought should
have been bothersome to me, but somehow it wasn’t. It was quiet and
peaceful there on the hill, with the trees sighing in the wind. Death was
so much a part of the hard life we lived on the mountain. Especially, it
seemed, for a young woman. Having a child was a deadly business,
and though it could bring you great joy, it could also bring the keenest
sorrow. There were many babies buried in this ground, as well as
young mothers. That thought did cause a shiver to run up my spine.
The thought of my baby’s sweet face lying still and silent—it didn’t
bear thinking about. I don’t believe I could have stood it.
As I climbed up the steep path, I looked at the site of Annie’s grave
up at the top of the path, expecting to see Joe kneeling there by her
grave, but there seemed to be no one around. The cemetery was still
and quiet, with no sign of anyone close by. I climbed on up to the top
of the path and stood looking down at the grave. The flowers placed by
the headstone were brown and decaying, and it didn’t look as if anyone
had been there for a while. I stood there for a moment, confused and
feeling a bit ashamed. Joe wasn’t here after all, despite the hateful
things that Nancy had told me. The chill wind blew harder, stirring up
the leaves at my feet, and I pulled my coat around me more closely,
feeling chilled and foolish. I was so jealous of poor Annie, and Joe’s
feelings for her.
I had a sudden longing to fling myself down on the path by Annie’s
grave and pour out all my feelings of shame and hurt. I had always
loved Annie, it was true, but I knew in my heart that I had always been
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envious of her as well. I had been envious of how pretty everybody
said she was and how she had an easy way with people. I had been
envious of the fact that she seemed to have everything she wanted,
from the very first. People just naturally liked her and wanted to be
around her, while I had always had to struggle just to be noticed. My
parents had been grindingly poor, and I was so ashamed of that poverty.
I remember my poor, sweet papa, after Mama died, trying to cut the
hoecake into circles for me so they would look a little more like
biscuits, because I didn’t want the kids to tease me at school. I was
ashamed of being poor, dark, skinny Lila Bruice, who brought hoecake
in her lunch pail and didn’t have any money for books; who didn’t wear
shoes from April to November, because her papa was too poor to buy
them; who was too shy to speak up in school, because she didn’t want
anyone to pay too much attention to her, in case they see that she was
really worthless; who was too plain to ever get a husband, or to ever
have anyone to love her, just for herself. I bent over and quickly
brushed away the dead flowers from Annie’s grave, stifling a little sob,
and then straightened up, looking down at the sad little headstone.
I remember when I was a little girl and the preacher had stood over
my mama’s grave. “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust
thou shall return.”
I felt that in some ways I had dwelt here among the dead myself,
ever since my mama’s passing and maybe even before that–for as long
as I could remember. I had been afraid and ashamed for so long. I had
thought that I loved Joe, but I had never really let him get close to me—
I had never shared my deeper feelings with him. I had never told him
when he said things that hurt me or when I thought he didn’t love me. I
had never given him a chance to tell me what he really felt. I was
afraid to question too much. Like the little girl who had hidden out in
the outhouse, I was afraid to show myself to him, afraid that he would
laugh at me and make fun, or even worse, that he would turn away from
me. I had no desire to feel such deep love, only to have it ripped away
from me, because I was so afraid that he would find out that I wasn’t
enough—wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough.
But my way of hiding had only brought me unhappiness and hurt.
I knew that I had to go back and face him now, and stop living in the
past. I had not been fair to Joe, in a way. I still loved Annie and I
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missed her. Yet I resented him for having the same feelings. Maybe
Annie had been the great love of Joe’s life, and maybe he would never
love me as much as he had loved her. But Annie was gone, and I was
still here. I was his wife now, and it would have to be enough. It
would have to be enough for both of us.
Somehow I had to make him listen to me—to demand that he listen
to me. I had to make him see that our future was not on the mountain,
but was maybe even more uncertain. It was a challenge that we had to
face together. We had made a new family, Joe and I, when we had
gone across the mountain to Sperryville to get married. For better or
worse, that’s what the preacher had said. And for better or worse we
were tied together. We had two children that we had to take care of and
live for. We would have to make a new start, but we had these children,
and we had each other.
I may not have shared in his dreams for the mountain home he had
built, but I was his wife now, and I had to have some part in deciding
how and where we would live with our girls. We had to make a new
dream. I turned around, dashing the tears from my cheeks, intending to
walk back down the path, and on home to confront him, when I was
surprised to see someone walking up the path toward me. I could see
that it was a tall man, wearing a dark coat pulled up around his face for
warmth.
My first thought was that it was Joe, after all, but I saw almost at
once that the man was too slight, too slim to be Joe. I started to pick
my way back down the path, taking a step or two, thinking that it must
be someone coming to visit their loved ones and that I would speak and
then move on down the path around them.
As I drew closer, the man raised his face and looked at me straight
on, and I gave a startled gasp, “Carson Alexander!”
“Hello, Lila,” he said softly. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
I took a few steps backward, feeling awkward and embarrassed.
The last time we had spoken together was when Joe had surprised us
struggling with each other outside the cabin. The memory even now
caused my cheeks to burn, but Carson was staring straight at me, with
no hint of embarrassment on his face.
“Glad to see you?” I said, not understanding. “Carson, what are you
doing here?”
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Barbara Westbrook
He had stopped about halfway up the path, and now he took out a
cigarette, and lit it slowly, looking at me all the while. “Why, I’ve
come to see you, Lila.” He exhaled slowly, “Come to finish a little
business between us. I followed you just now as you came from the
church. I’d been watching outside the church, you see. I saw you
when you came out with the child, and I almost approached you then.”
He chuckled softly. “I really didn’t expect to find you alone like this. I
couldn’t believe my good fortune when you struck off down the road to
the cemetery. I thought you must be coming to meet someone. And
yet here you are—all alone.”
I had never been afraid of Carson before now, but something in his
manner made me uneasy. He didn’t seem like himself, somehow, or at
least the way I had thought him to be. I backed a few steps further up
the path, finding myself standing at the foot of the big boulder that
overlooked the road below. I could go no farther, as the drop off was
quite steep—and almost 100 feet to the road below.
“What business do you have with me, Mr. Alexander, finished or
otherwise?” I raised my chin and spoke to him as strongly as I could,
trying to ignore the weakness I felt crawling up my legs. It was so
lonesome up here, with no nearby houses, and no one around to hear
me if I called. I was beginning to feel very uneasy.
He smiled a little, and I once again thought how handsome he was.
His dark brown hair had fallen over his forehead and he was wearing a
dark coat over his green Park Service uniform. He began to walk
slowly up the path toward me. “You made a fool of me, you know.
You and your loutish husband.”
I felt the hard lines of the boulder at the back of my knees, pressing
against my skirt. “You made a fool of yourself, Carson,” I said sharply.
“I never led you on, nor gave you any reason to think I had feelings for
you.”
“Oh, didn’t you?” he asked softly, continuing to climb towards me
on the path. The cemetery around us was at once deathly still and yet
full of noises. The wind rustled through the leaves in the trees
overhead, making them sigh like lost children. Small half-heard sounds
beyond the path suggested the secret movements of small animals in
the fallen leaves, and all over the graveyard was the deep and
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Standing on Stolen Ground
frightening silence of the dead, sunk in a sleep that must not be broken.
A trickle of cold sweat ran down my spine.
“What do you want?” I said, my voice sounding too loud in this
quiet place.
He stopped a few feet away from me, just beside Annie’s grave. He
was close enough that I could smell his hair oil, sickeningly sweet and
feminine. He threw his cigarette down on the path beside him and
looked straight at me.
“I want to kill you, Lila,” he smiled sweetly as he said this, making
me think I had somehow misunderstood. I stared back at him,
disbelievingly and swallowed hard, feeling the wind bite cold beneath
my coat. I could see now that his eyes had taken on a dreamy look to
them. They were wide open and very green in his white face. “I think I
was going to kill you that day I came to see you, but your husband
showed up.”
I shook my head, not wanting to believe what I was hearing. “No,”
I said numbly. “Carson…no…”
“No?” he took a quick step forward, raising his hand. “Shh…Be
quiet, and don’t try to get me mixed up. You’re just like all the rest of
them. Trying to lead me on and then say
I
was the one who was
confused.” He was standing close enough to me that I could see small
beads of sweat forming just at the edge of his hairline. Without another
word he reached into his coat and drew out a metal case, six inches
long. From one end of the case protruded a white handle. With the
horrible clarity you sometimes have at times of crisis, I noted
everything, from the nick in the edge of the blade as he drew it from the
case, to the sharp scent of pine as he crushed the needles underfoot as
he continued to step toward me.
Unable to back away any further, I sat down hard on the rock behind
me and began scooting up it backwards, keeping my eyes on that
terrible blade as he held it out to me.
“But why?” I whispered, unable to produce a sound any louder.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“You’re like the others,” he said softly, almost seductively, as he
moved closer. “The bitch from Willington—the one from the other
side of the mountain–they thought they could toy with me, lead me on,
too.”
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Barbara Westbrook
“What are you talking about, Carson? What others?” I was half-
crying now, still trying to scramble away from him on the rock, my
coat kept getting caught beneath me under my feet. I was desperate to
keep him talking if I could, anything to keep away from the blade he
held toward me. I felt vulnerable and helpless. There was nowhere to
run. I braced myself to fight, knowing fight was useless.
“The one from Skyland—Sally! She tried to make a fool of me too.
But I–corrected—her.”
He smiled again, a terrible smile because it was so normal, so sweet.
“I used to work at Skyland. Did I tell you? I used to tend bar for old
Pollock during my summer vacations from school. The young
secretaries from Willington came on the weekends. They’d sit out on
their porches and prop their legs up in the air, talking and laughing.
Making you look at them.” He drew the knife up over his head,
looming over me. I felt a large rock under my sweating hand and tried
to close my slippery fingers around it convulsively. It was too big to
get my fingers around it, and they kept slipping off. I tried to jam my
fingers into it and felt my nails tearing, but I scarcely felt the pain, so
intent on the knife in front of me.
“The other one looked a little like you—big blue eyes and black
hair, always rubbing herself against me, teasing me, asking for it.” He
edged closer to me.
“Please, Carson,” I whispered desperately. “Please…”
“Please what?” he was taunting me, his eyes really wide open, the
light dancing in them now.
“That knife won’t make you a man, you know.” I spoke without
thinking, desperate for something to say, and his eyes widened even
further with rage. “Do you use a knife on women because you can’t do
anything else? Is that it?”
He gasped with rage and began to bring the knife down. Suddenly
his arm froze in mid-air and he whirled around.
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Standing on Stolen Ground
“What?” he cried out. “What?”
Relief flooded through me and I thought that someone must have
come up the path behind him. I strained around him to see—but there
was nothing—no one there! Who was he talking to?
Confused, I looked back at Carson. He had taken a step down the
path and now he held the knife out in front of him, as if he were
gesturing at someone on the path.
“Who’s there?” he said. “Come out where I can see you!”
I turned and grabbed the rock in both hands, its heaviness helping to
move me forward to lunge toward him and come down with the rock as
hard as I could on the back of his head. I swung that rock above my
head and down with all my might, not really expecting to hurt him, but
just wanting to fight back while his attention was distracted, in the hope
that I could somehow get away. I felt the sickening crunch as the rock
in my hand made contact with his skull. He screamed in rage and pain
and whirled around, one hand to the back of his head. He fell on top of
me, plunging the knife into my chest just below my neckline. The
blade had slipped in so quickly, I barely felt anything after the first
slash of pain. Inches from my face, he looked straight into my eyes, his
own eyes wide open and very, very blank.
Suddenly he pulled away from me and whirled again as he cried out
weakly, almost desperately, “Who’s there?”
He lunged forward with the knife still in his hand and suddenly he
seemed to lose his balance, his foot sinking into the soft earth of the
grave in front of the rock—Annie’s grave. With a cry of rage, he
wrenched his foot loose and staggered backward, losing his balance.
For a moment he seemed to struggle wildly to right himself and then he
fell backwards hard, his hands flailing, trying to save himself. His head
hit the boulder rock with an awful sound. The knife still sticking up out
of my chest, I managed to raise up on one hand and look at him lying
there, his face turned toward me. He was gasping for breath, his color
changing before my eyes from a florid red to a pasty white. His back
rose and fell with every gasping breath he took. His eyes were open
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Barbara Westbrook
wide and so was his mouth. There was a dreadful deep depression in
the back of his head. The blood flowed sluggishly out of the wound
and began to pool on the ground as I looked at him. I was breathing
hard, almost gasping for breath myself with shock and horror. As I
looked down at him, he gave one last convulsive gasp and never moved
again. I struggled to my feet, and almost passed out at once. My vision
was growing gray at the edges and when I tried to move, my legs felt
numb and didn’t seem to want to cooperate.
I stood swaying for a moment and then sank down on the pathway, a
feeling of lassitude and utter peace stealing over me. The light around
me grew dim. Suddenly I heard a voice calling my name over and over.
“Lila, Lila, God damn you, open your eyes!”
The sense of great peace was lifting me away, carrying me above
the noise of the voice calling to me. Nothing mattered, and there was
no more pain. Someone began shaking me roughly and I opened my
eyes in irritation. Joe’s face was before me, and he was looking me
right in the eyes. “Damn you, Lila!” his voice said from a great
distance. His voice was choked with passion. “Damn you! I swear if
you die on me, I’ll kill you!”
Chapter Nineteen
As I write this down, the years have passed, and those terrible
moments in the cemetery when Carson held me pinned to the rock with
his hatred and his fear seem dim in my memory. Probably I don’t want
to remember the look on his face as he told me he would kill me, but I
have often wondered what he was he saw on the path behind him that
made him hesitate long enough for me to hit him with the rock. In the
strong light of daytime, as I went about my chores and my mind
traveled back to that time, I would think that in his madness, he had
only imagined someone on the path behind him. But sometimes late in
the evenings as I sat on the porch, when the shadows would draw long
over the yard, and the crickets and frogs would begin their calling to
each other, my mind would think of more fanciful things. It was then
that I would wonder if perhaps Carson saw someone or something else
there on the path behind him that day. Perhaps one of those poor girls
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Standing on Stolen Ground
he killed, or maybe even Annie herself, come to help me in my hour of
need as we struggled there by her grave?
For a long time, I was very ill from the knife wound and all the
blood I lost before Joe could get me to the doctor. After a time, when it
was sure that I would recover, I had Joe to tell me everything that had
happened that day. Carson Alexander, Joe had learned, was from
Willington, D.C. from a wealthy family. As a boy he had been in and
out of trouble, and during the summer after he graduated high school,
his father had arranged for him to work up at Skyland Lodge, thinking
the time away from Willington in the fresh mountain air would do him
good and keep him away from trouble. Instead, that summer, whatever
demons were inside him caused him to take the life of the young visitor
to the lodge, Sally Benton, in a most cruel and terrible way.
Perhaps because of his wealthy parents, suspicion had never fallen
on him for her murder, and he went back to Willington, only to return a
few years later as a member of the Park Service—another job his
wealthy father had procured for him. Whether or not he had killed
again was something the sheriff promised to investigate, but once the
demon had been loosed inside him, he was never the same again. After
a time on the mountain he had met the girl from Staunton and had
brutally murdered her as well. Apparently, he had chosen me to be his
next victim after our chance meeting on the mountain, and my visit to
the upper camp. He had come on that day to our cabin when I was
expecting Pearl, intending to kill me. Joe’s early return had prevented
that from happening, but had also set up a terrible rage inside him.
When he had seen me at the post office that Sunday, it had strengthened
that rage, and he had followed me to the church and then on to the
cemetery.
Joe told me that he had indeed not been altogether truthful with me
about going to see Jim and Bertie that afternoon. He had been to see
them, true enough, but on the way home, he had stopped by the
cemetery to visit Annie’s grave and been met with the terrible sight of
me lying insensible on the path with a knife sticking out of my chest
and a dead man at my feet!
One night, as he carefully slipped into bed beside me, careful not to
jar the wound on my chest, he took me tenderly in his arms and drew
me close to him. The fire had burned down low and was only a
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Barbara Westbrook
glowing comfort against the darkness. It was very quiet on the
mountain, with nothing but the sound of Joe’s even breathing beside
my cheek.
“I thought I’d lost you for a time there in the cemetery, you know,”
he whispered in my hair.
I drew his face toward mine and kissed the sweetness of his soft, full
mouth, tasting faintly of tobacco and dried apples. “I love you, Joe,” I
breathed softly to him.
He murmured something soft and low in my hair, his hand reaching
beneath my gown and touching the slipperiness between my legs, the
tender skin of my thighs. His head was no more than a dark blur against
the whiteness of my breasts in the dark room. He moved on top of me,
and I pulled him to me, both of us urgently pressing together. He
brought me again and again to the peaks of passion until at last I twined
my fingers in his hair, pressing him tightly and arching my back and
hips beneath him, urging him on. He yielded to me, and the echo of our
soft cries seemed to die away slowly, ringing in the darkness of the
small cabin.
We lay pressed together, unmoving, his weight a heavy reassurance
to me. He was here with me; he hadn’t told me he loved me, but it was
enough that he was here.
“I have to tell you,” he said at last softly. “I had gone to the
cemetery that day to say goodbye to my old life with Annie.” He rolled
away to lie next to me, his hand still cupping my breast, his big thumb
gently rubbing back and forth. “I know it sounds strange to say it that
way. But Annie and I had been so close—so much in love–since we
were children. We had had so many dreams of a life together. And
then she was gone so quick—almost before we had begun.” I turned
my head on the pillow to look at him and I could just see the gleam of
his eyes.
“Well, Liley, there’s always been something about you. I’d see you
at church sitting with your family and you always seemed so…peaceful
somehow. Sweet and quiet and—undemanding. After Annie died, I
found that I thought about you a lot. I knew I needed someone who
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Standing on Stolen Ground
wouldn’t ask a lot from me. After Annie, I didn’t feel like I had a lot to
give any more. But when I married you—and when…I was with you—
right from the first time—it was so different than with her—so…. I
know she was just a young girl, and brought up in a certain way. I’m
sure I just expected too much from her. But with you….” He rubbed
his hand over my stomach, at a loss to express how he felt. He laughed
a little and looked in my eyes. “I soon found out that you were
anything but peaceful. As a matter of fact, you’re an awful lot of
trouble.” At my gasp of indignation, he smiled and reached over to kiss
me. “When we made love, it was so…I couldn’t get enough of you.
But I felt as if I was doing her wrong, as if I were forgetting her too
soon.” He raised his head and peered at me in the dark, trying to see
my face. “Do you understand what I mean?”
I nodded slowly, so overcome with my love for him that I couldn’t
speak.
“Anyway, that day, at the church, I was feeling so happy, so good
about you and the girls. I thought I’d go by and talk to Annie about it
just one more time—I didn’t think you’d mind, but I didn’t want to
have to explain it with everybody around that day.” He pulled me
closer to him and breathed against my neck. “And then to find you that
way—I thought I’d be alone again.”
“Never, Joe. Not ever, darling.” I kissed his sweet mouth again.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about it,” I smiled at him and rubbed
my cheek against his. “I’ve decided I want to have at least two more
children—a boy for you, of course–we’ll name him Joe, Jr.–and I’d
like to have another little girl. I think we should name her—Annie.”
He nodded his head slowly and raised himself on one elbow to look
down at me.
“What if I should lose you or the children, like I lost Annie. I don’t
think I could stand that again, Lila.”
“You’ll never lose me, Joe. I’ll love you forever….for as long as I
live,” I turned my face to his and said softly against his lips. “And even
longer than that.”
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