Under a cloudless sky, p.21

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 21


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  OCTOBER 1, 1933

  Slowly, at the dinner table that night, Ruby told her father what Bean had shared about her mother and Mr. Coleman. As she spoke, her father’s face grew grim. He listened to the words his daughter said, shaking his head and clenching his fists.

  “This is why you’re getting on that train tomorrow, away from all of this,” her father said.

  “I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you.”

  Footsteps on the stairs and the voices of two men.

  “I want you to stay here. Do you understand?” her father said.

  Ruby nodded and folded her linen napkin beside her plate, the food barely touched. Her father walked out the door, pausing and turning toward her. He lifted a finger as if he was going to repeat himself, but he didn’t speak. He closed the door and she heard his footsteps ascend.

  Ruby had always been an obedient, compliant child, but her time with Bean had shown her there were certain things in life you simply couldn’t miss. So she ran toward the dumbwaiter, climbed in, and was lifted to the top floor.

  Around the edge of the door she could see Coleman and another man he called Saunders. The man had a flat, long face and tiny eyes. Ruby had been scared to even look at him the first time she saw him. She realized she and Bean had forgotten to close the drapes on the windows—there was still evening light coming through.

  Her father was at the door, arguing that he needed to talk with Coleman, and finally the man waved Saunders off and told her father to come in.

  Her father walked only a few paces inside, moving to the right so he could see both Coleman and Saunders.

  Coleman tipped his head back and blew smoke from a freshly lit cigar. “And to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit, Jacob?”

  Her father’s voice was shaky when he finally spoke. “I want the goings-on up here to stop. I don’t want you meeting in this room again.”

  Coleman glanced at Saunders. “And what goings-on are you talking about?”

  “You know what I’m talking about. I’ve looked the other way far too long. It’s over. I’m having the locks changed and I want you to tell your men there will be no further activity in this room.”

  Coleman crossed his legs. “Jacob, you know we just have a little fun up here. A man needs to blow off steam every now and then. That’s not how you live your life, and that’s fine. But don’t tell us how to live. What’s gotten a knot in your knickers? Did someone complain?”

  “I will not have you treat defenseless people this way. We agreed early on this mine would be different. We’ll pay the miners fairly and treat their families with respect.”

  “Respect? Is that what this is about?”

  “Yes, respect! And not having their wives and daughters come up here to give favors to you and your men so that they can have enough to eat or shoes to wear.”

  “Jacob, what have you heard?”

  “There’s a woman pregnant because of you. And I won’t be silent. You’ll care for the child, you’ll pay for your indiscretion—”

  “Wait, wait, wait,” Coleman said, standing. “What woman are you talking about?”

  Her father drew closer to the man. “I’ll go to the sheriff.”

  Coleman snickered. “I expect you won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know from experience.”

  “I’ll tell the town. I’ll tell the miners themselves. Do you think they know what their women are forced to do here?”

  Coleman glanced at Saunders, who was reaching inside his jacket for something. Coleman shook his head, then took a draw on his cigar. “Jacob, you take care of the business end of this mine. You take care of that little girl of yours. But you need to stay out of things that aren’t your business.”

  “The miners and their families are my business. And I won’t see them treated this way. This ends now. Right here.”

  “You don’t like the way I do things. I understand that. Let’s come to an understanding. Sell your half to me. I’ll give you a fair price. Then you and your daughter can leave and begin again. Maybe find a nice miner’s widow who needs a strong man like you.”

  “You should be ashamed. Both of you. And if there’s anyone leaving this place, it’ll be you, not me.” Her father backed away from the two and opened the door and left.

  Coleman looked hard at Saunders. “I won’t have some tramp slinging my name through the mud. Who’s pregnant in town?”

  “Half the women in the camp are pregnant. You know that.”

  “What about those who have been up here?”

  Ruby’s heart beat wildly as she heard Saunders say, “That Dingess girl spends time with Handley’s daughter. Her mother’s pregnant, but I don’t remember that she ever came up here.”

  Coleman walked to the window, just out of Ruby’s sight. She heard the floorboards creak as the man swayed. “I want you to pay her a visit.”





  It felt like driving to the end of the world and pressing the accelerator when you neared the cliff. It felt like finding a high priest to collect thirty pieces of silver. It felt like the end.

  Hollis rolled down the window and stuck his arm out. He reached for the radio, then thought better of it. He was partial to talk shows but those tended to raise his blood pressure with their political rancor. No music had ever been written that could calm the storm inside because he felt like he was giving up to a spineless, weaponless enemy with a lot of cash.

  Is that offer still good?

  He couldn’t imagine getting the words past his lips. He could more easily imagine kneeling down at a tree stump and putting his neck flat so Coleman could raise an ax and let it fall.

  I been talking it over with my wife and she thinks . . .

  No, he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t pass it off as Juniper’s idea. That would be cowardly. She would be okay with him blaming her, but he couldn’t be that weak. This had to be his decision.

  He thought of what Juniper had said about waiting for a crisis, and mulled over some of the big decisions he’d made to see if her words fit, and they did. He’d never bought a truck or any other vehicle except for when one had died by the side of the road. Any medical or dental problem had to be life-threatening for him to act. And when his favorite dog, Boone, had aged what seemed like years in a few months, Hollis wouldn’t spend the money to take him to the vet. By the time the crisis came, the dog wasn’t able to move. So Hollis carried him to the top of the mountain and gently laid him in a hole he had dug and put the dog’s favorite quilt over him before he pulled the trigger. And he had wept, wondering if he could have made it a little easier for both of them if he’d acted sooner.

  That was the thing about endings. He had never been through a good one in his life and he wasn’t holding his breath for one now. He thought of his son and the bile rose. He hadn’t cried at the funeral. Hadn’t shed a tear in the time between then and now. Some things you don’t explain, you just live through.

  Though he had strayed from the church, Hollis had always believed in the sovereignty of God, even if he defined it differently than some. His version was the same as Eli, the priest, in the book of 1 Samuel. When the man heard news about the coming judgment on his family, Eli had basically said, “He’s God. And God’s going to do what God’s going to do.” Juniper called that the Hollis paraphrase. God had plans to take the bad and good and work them out however he liked. Hollis’s take on Romans 8:28 said God works everything together for the good of those who follow him, but along with the good he’ll leave you with a lot of questions and a whole lot of hurt and a fatherless granddaughter. That was Hollis’s problem with God’s sovereignty: he created a beautiful place like Beulah Mountain and then created a man like Buddy C
oleman to level it.

  He wound his way along the paved road that led to the CCE parking lot and stared at the building. Redbrick and tinted windows and two flags out front in the middle of a flower patch. Red, white, and blue and the state flag of West Virginia flying beside it. Why they needed two flagpoles, Hollis couldn’t figure. And why not three? One for the US flag, one for the West Virginia coat of arms, and the third for the face of Buddy Coleman. And maybe that’s what it would be someday. A silhouette of the man just like the POW/MIA flag.

  Everything looked pristine and patriotic. Behind the building, on the side of the mountain with trees cleared, big enough to be seen from the road, stood a billboard with white letters on a black background: Proud to Be a West Virginia Coal Miner.

  Hollis walked into the building and a security guard asked him to sign his name. The man was in his thirties and looked a little like Daniel. His name tag said Charles Moore.

  “Who you here to see?”

  “Coleman,” Hollis said.

  The man raised his eyebrows. “You got an appointment?”

  “No. But I reckon he’ll see me.”

  “He’s a busy man, Mr. . . .” He paused as he studied the signature on the page.

  “Hollis Beasley. Tell him I’m here.”

  Hollis wandered to a waiting room that had coffee brewing and a big-screen TV. Some daytime talk show was on and the people on TV were yelling and hollering at each other. When the chair throwing started, he walked out the door.

  “Tell him I’m outside,” Hollis said to the guard on the way out.

  A few minutes later the door opened and out walked the man himself in a WVU shirt and jeans and squeaky boots. When Hollis looked at him, he was just wiping the I-told-you-so smile off his face. His hair was perfect and Hollis wondered who he’d hired to come to his office to cut it. Surely he didn’t go to a salon.

  Buddy stuck out a hand and smiled. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Beasley. Why don’t you come inside? Get some coffee. Unless you want something stronger. I can set you up with that, too.” He gave a knowing wink.

  “I like it out here with the flags. The TV shows make me nervous.”

  Buddy took a deep breath of mountain air. “All right, let’s talk here.”

  Hollis thought of the lines he had rehearsed on the drive. None of them felt right. Finally he took a run at it and said, “I’ve been thinking more about your offer.”

  “Have you now?” Buddy said, eyebrows raised.

  “I suppose you still got the papers.”

  Buddy winced. “Yeah, about that. You see, the statute of limitations ran out on my offer. In fact, that meeting you called actually helped get more people over here. So thank you, even though you weren’t trying to help.”

  “You don’t have to do this,” Hollis said, lowering his voice. “Kick a man when he’s down.”

  Buddy studied his fingernails, which looked pretty close-cropped, and Hollis wondered if a man with a salon haircut would also get a manicure. And if so, what was the world coming to?

  Buddy crossed his arms and tilted his head toward the mountain. “I can see this was hard. I don’t envy you. You’re kicking yourself for waiting. So you’re right, you don’t need me kicking you, too. What pushed you over the edge?”

  “Reality, I guess. The writing on the wall.”

  “Never made sense to me why you would hang on like that.”

  “You’re from another generation. People here before us had nothing but the land. No investments. No 401(k). But if you had land, you had a chance. You could farm it. Hunt on it. The land was life. And part of me wonders if we’re heading back to those times again.”

  “I think those days are gone,” Buddy said.

  “Maybe so. But once you get that in your blood, it’s hard to get out.”

  Buddy nodded and spit on the parking lot asphalt. “I understand. It makes sense. So I can’t offer the same terms, but I’ll be fair.”

  “Fair?” Hollis said. “There’s nothing fair about any of this.”

  “Generous is probably the better word.” He took a radio from his belt and clicked it. “Stephanie, I need you to find the Beasley contract.”

  “You mean the acreage on Beulah Mountain?” a female voice responded.

  “That’s the one.”

  Hollis looked at the mountain behind him, unable to see much of the beauty for the turmoil inside his soul.

  “Bring it to Charlie at the door and he’ll run it outside.”


  They stood together with nothing but the whistling wind between them and the sound of trucks on the state route in the distance.

  “You’re doing a good thing for your family, Hollis. I know how hard it is to let go.”

  Hollis wanted to push back and fight. Instead, he focused on what was most important. “What happens to my people?”

  “You mean the cemetery?”

  Hollis nodded.

  “We could move them. We’d even pay to have a new—”

  “You’re not moving them.”

  Buddy nodded. “All right. Well, it’s not like we haven’t done this before. We’ve got a man who can engineer it so we save the graves and the copse of trees. And there’ll be a road that winds around and takes you there. It’ll be peaceful. Pretty. You’ll see.”

  “I’ve seen what you’ve done to the other mountains around here. And I wouldn’t call it pretty.”

  “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it, Hollis? The point is, we’ll preserve things and keep them intact. We’ll do the work and then put everything back like it was. Just like we’re doing with the Company Store. Have you seen the inside yet?”

  “You asked me that before.”

  The security guard walked toward them with a limp and Hollis wondered if the man had been a miner hurt on the job. Or maybe Buddy had put him here as payback to some landowner. What Hollis wouldn’t give if his son had lived and taken a job like this where he could visit him instead of speaking to a stone and never getting a response. If they had moved from the mountain, Daniel wouldn’t have lost his life. That made Hollis think about God again and he didn’t want to. In fact, no time seemed convenient to be thinking that way.

  Buddy took the papers and looked them over, then handed them to Hollis as the guard limped back to the building. “Everything should be up-to-date with what we’re offering. I can go over the basics.”

  “I can read.”

  Hollis flipped the pages of wherefores and henceforths and party of the first and second part. It seemed like Hebrew or Greek. He studied the different clauses and came upon a monetary figure. He held the contract up, pointing to that spot. “Is that the offer?”

  Buddy nodded.

  It was considerably less than what he’d been offered before. He would have fought, but the amount wasn’t the thing stuck in his craw. There was something else and he couldn’t put a finger on it.

  “How long would we have to get off the mountain?” Hollis said, the words coming out of his mouth before he had a chance to consider them.

  “We’ll work with you. We want to make it as easy as we can. If you want, we could write into the contract some moving help. I haven’t done that for anybody else, but for you, I’d be happy to.”

  Moving mountains. There was a Bible passage about that. Something Jesus had said. He’d heard about mustard seeds and mountains all his life. And here he was standing beside a shrimp who moved mountains and dug the goody out from inside them and covered it over, acting like he’d done the world a favor.

  “It’s helpful for me to do this in stages,” Hollis said. “Coming here was a big step.”

  “I’m sure it was. A hard one.”

  “Let me take this home. Maybe ask advice from Homer Sowards.”

  “He’s been handling things for several owners. He’s a good man.”

  That made Hollis wonder if he should go to Homer. If Buddy thought he was a good man, perhaps he wasn’t. He flipped
to the last page, where the signature line was empty, and he wondered what Juniper would do if he brought the contract home unsigned. What kind of crisis would it take to get him to sign?

  “Is the figure holding you back?” Buddy said. “You didn’t drive all the way here to take some papers to a lawyer. I can tell you want to sign.”

  “I had made up my mind to do exactly that,” Hollis said.

  “Then why don’t we see if we can’t agree? Everybody can win.”

  “There’s only one person who wins from this deal and you know it.”

  Buddy sidled closer to Hollis and lowered his voice. “Let’s go to my office. I can bump that number up. I don’t want you to go away from here dissatisfied. I want you to get everything that’s coming to you.”

  Hollis weighed the man’s words and recalled a similar conversation he’d had with a used-car salesman who kept going back to his boss every time Hollis threw out a number. It was negotiation. And Hollis didn’t like it.

  “We don’t need to go to your office for you to bump the number.”

  “True. I have the power to offer a fair and equitable price. Let me have that.”

  Hollis handed him the paper and Coleman crossed out the number and wrote a new one above it and initialed it. “Does that look better?”

  Hollis looked at it and thought that it didn’t matter if the number had fifty zeros behind it. It wouldn’t be enough. And what he had said to the people in the meeting came back to him. “Is there anything in this life that would make you draw a line in the sand and say, ‘You can come this far but you can’t come no farther’?”

  “What’s your cutoff?” Hollis said. “When do you need my answer?”

  “I think I’ve moved toward you enough that you can answer right now, don’t you think?”

  Buddy was the kind of man who would sit in a deer stand and wait all day. He had learned the art of patience. But Hollis could tell there was a certain fear and expectation in his answer, so he just stared at him.

  “But if you need more time, maybe get a second opinion on the technical parts of the sale, I understand. Let’s say tomorrow by noon. I’ll be over at the retreat center—you know where that is?”


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