Under a cloudless sky, p.24

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 24


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “Well, after the company was sold and everything shook out, a new one formed. CCE. And now Coleman’s grandson has worked himself into the mix. Buddy’s his name. He’s had his eye on Beulah Mountain. Right there is as close as he’s gotten.”

  “Until now?” Ruby said.

  “The town’s been losing people for years because there’s no jobs. CCE has bought property up and down the ridge. Call it bad luck or pure providence, Coleman is headed our way. And he’s convinced the board that he should be president. I hear they’re supposed to hand him the crown at a ceremony tomorrow. And that means my land is as good as gone. Companies reward people who can get things done.”

  “Why don’t you stand up to him if you want to keep your land?” Ruby picked up the contract. “Tell him to go take a flying leap. Just because everybody else sells doesn’t mean you have to.”

  “You don’t understand.”

  As they drove, Ruby looked out at the beauty of the mountains, and when the road switched back, she saw the encroaching moonscape and it turned her stomach. Hollis hadn’t spoken in a few minutes.

  “What’s your last name?” Ruby said.


  Ruby searched the recesses of her mind—it was easier to locate information from seventy or eighty years earlier than it was to dig up what she’d heard that morning. “I went to church with some Beasleys. Pastor Brace was the man who was there at the time.”

  “He was there a long time,” Hollis said.

  “Talitha was her name, wasn’t it?”

  “Yes, it was. Talitha and Edward. I’m their son.”

  “Is that a fact? Do you still have the little cemetery on top of the hill?”

  “It’s right above the house. You’ve been there?”

  Ruby smiled as memories flooded. “I had a friend that went with me all over those hills. I don’t blame you for wanting to keep it, Hollis.” She closed her eyes and breathed in the mountain air. “So why don’t you say no to Coleman?”

  “My wife, Juniper, isn’t well. And the dust from the digging fills the air and clogs her lungs. She’ll only get worse. The water’s already red as Pharaoh’s Nile.”

  “Sounds like you went to Beulah Mountain Baptist, too.”

  “I did for a time.”

  “But you don’t anymore?”

  “I’ve come to believe that God’s forgot about people like me. He lets life kick you in the teeth and doesn’t do much to stop it.”

  Ruby remembered an old hymn and hummed it quietly. She wanted to say something that would help the man snap out of his spiritual stupor, but she thought better of it. They wound down the mountain and a sign gave the number of miles to Beulah Mountain.

  “I could take you to town if you want. You could call a wrecker from there and get somebody to look at your arm. How’s it feel?”

  “It’s throbbing.”

  Hollis shook his head. “Juniper says I ought to have a first aid kit. If I did, I could give you some aspirin to knock out the pain.”

  “Juniper sounds like a smart woman.”

  “She is. Pretty as a speckled pup, too. Why don’t I take you to our place and you can call your people?”

  “Take me to your place,” Ruby said.





  Hollis parked by the house and Cooper came barking, sniffing at the passenger side. When Ruby got out, he stopped barking and wagged his tail and wouldn’t leave her alone.

  Juniper came outside and grabbed the railing, watching as Hollis helped Ruby to the front steps.

  “I found me a stray,” Hollis said.

  “Where? And what happened?”

  “It’s a long story,” Ruby said, stopping to catch her breath. “You must be Juniper.”

  Juniper nodded and reached out a bony hand to help.

  “Ruby Handley Freeman. Pleased to meet you.”

  Juniper’s mouth dropped open.

  “Be careful. Her arm’s broke,” Hollis said.

  “It is not,” Ruby said. “It’s sprained.”

  “You ought to go to the hospital,” Juniper said.

  “That’s what I told her,” Hollis said.

  “I’m surrounded by worrywarts.” Ruby looked at the hillside like she was viewing heaven. “Help me inside and let me sit a minute.”

  “I’ll get the door.” Juniper held the screen door open while Hollis guided the old woman inside.

  “Could you point me toward the little girls’ room?” Ruby said.

  “It’s the Mountain Dew,” Hollis said, smiling.

  Hollis walked with her down the hallway and let go of her good arm as Ruby went into the bathroom. He wandered back to the kitchen and stood at one of the ladder-back chairs. “She was sitting in a car at the bottom of a gully just off Ten Mile. Somebody left her for dead.”

  “My lands. What people won’t do to each other these days.”

  “I don’t know what would have happened if . . .”

  “If what?”

  “There was a deer family crossing the road. I got out of the truck and heard a horn clear as a bell. It was like a message from heaven. I would never have stopped in that place in a million years.”

  “Do you think we should call the police?”

  “Let’s see what she wants to do. She’s dead set against going to the hospital but that arm looks awful. She doesn’t seem as concerned with justice as I would be.”

  “Did you see Coleman?”

  “Yeah, I got the contract in the truck.”

  “Did you sign it?”

  He stared at her. “Don’t start. You don’t know what it took for me to drive over there with my tail between my legs.”

  “Was he ugly to you?”

  “Not any more than usual. I told him I wanted Homer Sowards to check it.”

  “I’ll bet he was glad to see you.”

  Ruby opened the door and came walking down the hall with her left hand on the wall. “I remember this place now. And I remember your mother and father, Hollis. You weren’t around when I was here.” She looked out the window toward the top of the hill. “I need to call my daughter. Let her know I’m okay. And then I’d like to see the cemetery.”

  Juniper handed her the phone and Ruby stared at it. “I have her number written in my address book. It’s in my purse. But I don’t have the purse with me.”

  Hollis offered to call Charlotte. She could look up anything on the Internet. He dialed from the living room extension and got Charlotte’s voice mail, then tracked her down at the newspaper office.

  “I got somebody sitting in my kitchen you’ve been looking for,” Hollis said.

  Charlotte gasped when she heard the name. “Where did you find her? Is she all right?”

  “She’s banged up. I think her arm’s broke.”

  “It’s sprained!” Ruby yelled from the kitchen.

  “Her hearing seems to be all right,” Hollis said. “She can’t remember the number to her daughter and I thought you might find it.”

  “She’s here, Papaw. In Beulah Mountain. Got here late last night looking for her.”

  “Well, it sounds like a convention, doesn’t it?”

  “I’ll bring her up there. Oh, this is wonderful. How did you find her?”

  “I’ll tell you when you get here.”

  When Hollis returned to the kitchen, Ruby and Juniper were in a conversation about cooking that he felt would last a while. He interrupted long enough to say he needed to call the sheriff.

  “I don’t want you to call the sheriff,” Ruby said. “Leave them out of this.”

  “Ma’am, unless I’ve gotten the story wrong, you were robbed and drugged and held against your will and then left in a gully. I’d say the authorities ought to have been called a long time ago.”

  “You don’t understand,” she said. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have trusted those people
. When my children find out, there will be no end to it. They’re going to put me in a home!”

  Hollis scratched his head. “Everybody makes mistakes. But you didn’t deserve what happened. There needs to be an accounting.”

  Ruby frowned and waved her bruised hand. “Go ahead and call. But I don’t know where those people lived.”

  “They’ll figure it out. And don’t worry about your kids—they’re just going to be glad to see you.”

  Hollis called the sheriff’s office and reported the situation and gave the location of the abandoned car. Then he sat on the front porch and leafed through the contract, trying to comprehend the legal jargon. He put it down as a cold shiver went through him. What if he hadn’t stopped? What if he hadn’t looked in that gully or heard the horn or seen the silver glint? What if the deer hadn’t been crossing the road?

  “She wants to go up on the hill,” Juniper said.

  Hollis jumped at her voice, he had been so lost in thought.

  “Sorry to scare you. She wants to go to the cemetery.”

  He put the contract down and nodded. “I’ll drive her.”





  Ruby could tell by the way the truck tires sank that Hollis didn’t normally drive up to the cemetery. He must have felt there was no way she could navigate the uneven ground and the incline in her condition. He put the truck in four-wheel drive and crawled close to the top. A half circle of boulders had been placed there since she had last been here.

  Hollis helped her out of the truck and held her arm as they navigated the boulders and walked to a knoll surrounded by soaring pines. Ruby was out of breath when she reached the first stones. They were so old she couldn’t read the names. She bent down and ran a hand across a moss-covered marker.

  “These are the oldest,” Hollis said, pointing. “My great-great-grandmother died in 1848. And that’s her son, Dooley. He died at the Droop Mountain battle in 1863. I expect you don’t want the history lesson.”

  “There’s a lot of history buried here,” Ruby said. “But there’s more than just your family, right?”

  “Oh yes, ma’am. Some people requested to be buried here. Others weren’t allowed to be buried in town. It’s kind of a misfit cemetery, if you will. You came to the town when you were a girl?”

  “It was a long time ago,” Ruby said. She kept walking, the memories stirring and the tug as strong as a largemouth bass on a line to her heart. As she walked, the weathered stones gave way to ones she could read. She studied each grave she passed and when she made it to the top, she turned, her brow furrowed.

  “Is there somebody in particular you’re looking for?” Hollis said.

  “There was a family I knew. Dingess was their name. Judson and Cora Jean and their daughter. We called her Bean.” Just saying the words felt like a dagger.

  “That’s a family they rejected in town. Because of what happened. They’re right over here.” He walked to a sunken spot at the edge of the cemetery and pointed to three graves with flat stones and no writing. “I’m not sure which one is your friend.”

  Ruby stared at the ground.

  After a moment, Hollis said, “My parents told me that after the massacre the company didn’t want anything to do with the burials. I remember my mama would come out here and bring flowers. There wasn’t nobody else to do it. They didn’t have family that anybody could find.”

  Ruby’s knees gave way and she sank to the ground next to the graves, the pine needles and cones digging into her skin. She heard a sound in the distance like a wounded animal, a heart-wrenching wail that echoed through the hills. And then she realized it was coming from her.

  Hollis knelt and put a hand on her shoulder. When she quieted, he said, “You must have been good friends.”

  “The best,” Ruby said. “‘Greater love has no one than this . . .’” She couldn’t finish the verse. She gathered herself and wiped her face with a wrinkled hand. Hollis gave her a handkerchief.

  “I haven’t let myself think of them for a long time. I’ve tried to forget, you know?”

  “Yes, ma’am, I do.”

  “Seeing their graves and being here . . . I didn’t know it would be this hard.”

  Hollis rubbed his chin. Finally he said, “What kind of people were they?”

  Ruby smiled. “The mother was so kind. She could love a skunk. And she did—the dad wasn’t worth a plugged nickel, at least to most people. When he wasn’t drinking, though, he had a soft side. The family didn’t have anything. Rented a little house from the coal company. Owed more than they ever made. But Bean and her mama had the Lord and each other. I think that’s all a body needs.”

  Her words brought back warm, rich memories. She closed her eyes and saw the kitchen and smelled the cake and heard their voices echoing through the hollow.

  “The thing I liked most was going to church. The songs they sang still stick with me after all these years. Like ‘Dwelling in Beulah Land.’ Do you know that one?”

  “I’m tone-deaf, ma’am. Couldn’t carry a tune if it was strapped to my back. But I enjoy listening to others who know how to sing.”

  Ruby closed her eyes and called the memory to life. Her voice rose, crackling and slow at first, then gained strength as the sound wafted across the graves.

  “Far away the noise of strife upon my ear is falling;

  Then I know the sins of earth beset on every hand;

  Doubt and fear and things of earth in vain to me are calling;

  None of these shall move me from Beulah Land.”

  She sang the chorus all the way through, tears leaking as if she were pouring out an oblation. It was her offering on this mountain she had tried to forget.

  “You all right, ma’am?” Hollis said.

  Ruby nodded.

  “There’s some cars coming up the driveway. We should go back.”





  “Oh, Mama, Mama,” Frances said as she hugged her mother tightly. “I’m so glad you’re safe. So glad we found you.” She pulled back. “What happened? Why did you leave?”

  The look on her mother’s face told her that Ruby wasn’t ready to talk. One look at her arm and Frances knew they needed to get medical attention.

  “We’ll talk about that later,” Ruby said, turning to the man and woman on the steps of the old house. “Thank you for your kindness. I hope we get to meet again.”

  Charlotte introduced Frances to her grandmother and grandfather.

  “You take care of yourself, Miss Ruby,” Juniper said. She was so frail it looked like a strong wind could blow her over.

  Hollis helped Ruby to Frances’s car and spoke briefly about how he had found Ruby and the condition of her car.

  “I don’t know how we could ever repay you for what you’ve done,” Frances said, hugging him.

  Hollis was stiff but managed to return the embrace. “There wasn’t nothing to it.”

  Ruby fell into the passenger seat like a load of bricks dropping from a great height. Charlotte hugged her grandfather and waved at her grandmother and got in her own car and backed out.

  “I’m taking you to the hospital,” Frances said. “Charlotte is going to show us the way. And the sheriff is going to meet us there.”

  Ruby pursed her lips and stared straight ahead. “Do what you’re going to do.”

  The hospital was small and aged, but it was all they needed. Ruby sat impatiently in the waiting room in a plastic chair that squeaked, and when they took her for X-rays, she squirmed and winced as they positioned her arm on the machine. It was all Frances could do not to ply her mother with questions. The X-ray confirmed a broken bone in Ruby’s wrist and Frances shook her head when she saw the pictures. The brittle bone had snapped into a jagged shape and Frances wondered if
it would heal properly.

  Charlotte stayed with them—a bit of a third wheel, but the girl seemed to care. Frances thought she probably wanted to ask Ruby more questions, so she suggested Charlotte stay in the waiting room. When the doctor came to cast Ruby’s wrist, Frances slipped into the corridor.

  She dialed Jerry to give him an update. She had called on the way to Hollis’s house with the triumphal news that their mother had been found, and Jerry sounded relieved, though it was a mystery how her credit card was being used in a town two hours away. Frances cringed when she heard Jerry’s voice, recalling her theory that he had been involved in the disappearance. It wasn’t time to deal with that, but she would need to.

  “What are we ever going to do with her now, Frances? We can’t let her go back to that house. She’ll take off the other way.”

  “One step at a time, Jerry. Let me get her home.”

  “What about her car?”

  “From what Hollis said, I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about her driving it again. It’s back in the woods and might be totaled. For sure it will need work.”

  “I can’t imagine what she was thinking,” Jerry said.

  When Frances hung up, she dialed Julia and left a message. She stared at the phone, wondering if she should call Wallace. Frances didn’t want to hear his voice. And Julia would tell him the news. But something about that felt off, felt cowardly. She hit Dial, then hit End. Wallace was part of the reason for the dull ache in her heart. But the bigger part of her wanted to do the kind thing. She was hitting Dial just as the sheriff walked in and quickly hit End again.

  “This is Sheriff Rayburn,” Charlotte said, introducing him to Frances.

  The man took off his hat and shook her hand. “I’m glad there’s good news about your mother.” He asked if he could see her and Frances led him into the exam room.

  Ruby was in a long conversation with the doctor about her previous maladies and the medication she had refused to take through the years, and the doctor looked dazed at the blizzard of information. When the sheriff walked in, Ruby took control.

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