Under a cloudless sky, p.31

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 31


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  “I want her out of here,” Buddy said to the guard. He lowered his voice. “And I want to know who let her in.”

  “I have evidence, too,” Ruby said. “And not just pictures. I have these.” She lifted a foot in the air as far as she could. “I wear these shoes for the women who couldn’t speak of what happened to them there. I wear them for the mothers who went there because they couldn’t feed their children. I wear them for the daughters who walked those stairs and closed the door of their hearts to what happened.”

  Buddy’s face was as red as a teakettle ready to whistle. The room fell silent again until the chairman cleared his throat. He looked troubled as if some tunnel of his life were about to collapse. “I’d like to hear the rest of the story.”

  “Thank you. I’ll cut to the chase. My name is not Ruby Handley. Ruby Handley is buried in a grave on Beulah Mountain. I saw it yesterday. My name is Beatrice Dingess. Some called me Bean. My father was the man accused of starting the massacre at the company store. But that’s not true.”

  Ruby began the story in a flurry, describing it in such detail that even those who were skeptical were drawn in. She could tell by the steady gaze of the security guard that she had the whole room’s attention, though Buddy’s face looked tighter than a drum.

  She told everyone the secret she had promised her mother never to tell. She told about the man who was sent to her mother before she gave birth. She described how she longed to hear the cry of that little baby, but she never did.

  “You have to understand what it was like. The train was about the only thing that came in and out of Beulah Mountain. There wasn’t a way out for people like me. And Ruby Handley came like a ray of sunlight. She planted here and I saw the love of God go to work. I saw a sheltered and frightened girl turn into a loving, giving person. And her daddy was the same. He saw what was going on and he stood up to Coleman the best he could. He wanted to pay a fair wage—he insisted the store lower their prices. And when he discovered what they were doing to the vulnerable women through the Esau scrip, he drew a line.”

  “Everybody knows there was no such thing as Esau scrip,” Buddy said.

  Ruby turned on him. “If that’s what you want to believe, go ahead. Those of us who lived it know it’s true. Those women and girls who wore the shoes from the third floor knew.”

  “Miss Ruby—I mean, Mrs. Freeman, what are you saying about the massacre?” the chairman said. “Are you contending Judson Dingess, your real father, did not kill the men in that room?”

  “I was watching from the dumbwaiter.” She turned to Buddy. “And don’t tell me there wasn’t a dumbwaiter because Ruby and I used to ride it up and down. My daddy came to the door, and yes, he had a gun. He was upset and maybe drunk. As they were going back and forth, it was clear Coleman had wanted to buy out Mr. Handley. Ruby told me he’d never sell. Coleman shot Mr. Handley. I saw it clear as day. From there it was a melee. Shouting and shooting and men falling like dominoes. The gun smoke was thick.”

  Ruby surveyed the room and everyone but Buddy was with her. She described finding her friend mortally wounded and their last words. And how her father carried Ruby down the stairs and into the street.

  “You can think what you want about me. You can judge me for pretending all these years. But I watched the sheriff gun down my father in the road. And for weeks I thought somebody would figure out the truth. But nobody did. Now you have to decide what to do with the truth.”

  Silence filled the room. Finally the female board member leaned forward. “You’re saying that Mr. Coleman was the father of your mother’s baby and he knew that?”

  “Yes, ma’am, he found it out. And as soon as he did, he sent a thug named Saunders to beat her up so she’d miscarry, I guess. But he went too far.”

  “And your father discovered this . . .”

  “After my mother’s death.”

  “How did he find out?” the woman said.

  Ruby paused. “I told my mother’s secret to my best friend. I think she told her father. And when my daddy saw him on the day of the massacre, they exchanged words. I can’t help but think that’s how he knew.”

  She closed her eyes. Someone shifted in a chair but other than that there was no movement.

  “I will not let you impugn the memory of my grandfather,” Buddy said.

  “There was a report written by the sheriff,” Charlotte said from the middle of the room, pulling a folded piece of paper from her purse. “I have the records. Mr. Handley was killed by a gunshot wound in the back. He had no other wounds.”

  She handed the page to the female board member.

  The chairman folded his hands in front of him. “If this story is true, it casts a shameful light on—”

  “It’s not true,” Buddy said. “I’ll sue you for defamation.”

  “Sue me for whatever you want, sonny,” Ruby said. “I don’t have a reason to lie. I have every reason to keep this a secret and I won’t do it any longer.”

  “She’s trying to stop us from moving forward,” Buddy said. “She wants revenge. And these tales of Esau scrip and the third floor have been fully debunked.”

  The female board member pushed back her chair, a look of determination on her face. “What about the baby? The child you say was fathered by Thaddeus Coleman?”

  “I always pictured having a little sister,” Ruby said. “But I was scared she’d get hurt and be cold and hungry like me. So I almost felt relieved when she died before she was even born.”

  “The baby didn’t die,” Charlotte said.

  All eyes turned to Charlotte.

  “What are you talking about?” Ruby said.

  Charlotte looked down, then back at Frances, who nodded for her to continue.

  “I’m grateful to CCE for my scholarship. You helped me learn how to dig for the truth. There were things about the massacre that troubled me. I went to see Miss Ruby . . . I mean, Miss Bean.”

  “I’ve been called Ruby most of my life. I don’t see a need to change now.”

  Charlotte smiled. “All right, Miss Ruby.”

  “This is ludicrous,” Buddy said, standing. “I won’t listen any longer—and I would urge the board to clear the room so we can get back to business.”

  “Let her talk,” Ruby said.

  Buddy pursed his lips and stared at the board members. When he didn’t get a response, he spoke in hushed tones with the nearest guard.

  “Go ahead,” the chairman said to Charlotte.

  Charlotte turned to Ruby. “The midwife—you said you remember her?”

  “Tilly,” Ruby said.

  “Tilly Mae Farrel. She was an older woman who lived in the camp and helped pregnant women. She died in 1952. I tracked down her family for . . . for a story I was working on. They’re scattered across the country. Her granddaughter, Eunice, said Tilly lived with her family until she passed. I spoke with Eunice last week. She said her grandmother had a lot of stories. She said it would have made a good book.

  “There was one story Tilly Mae told over and over because she was proud. She said she saved a baby’s life once. The mother had been beaten and the child’s life was in danger. So she whisked it off in the night. She gave the child to a woman who couldn’t have children. She said she was in church the day that baby was dedicated.”

  “The baby lived?” Ruby said, whispering into the microphone.

  “The truth affects everything,” Charlotte said, smiling. “It’ll take away your inheritance, but it will also give you a family you never knew you had.” She looked back at Hollis. “It was a baby boy.”

  Ruby stared at him and suddenly saw a flash of her mother. His height and stocky build were from someone else, but his eyes had the same kindness she had seen in her mother’s.

  “Hollis?” Ruby said.

  Hollis stepped forward haltingly, out of place in the room. He stared at Charlotte with a confused look or maybe it was anger. Ruby couldn’t take her eyes off him. He walked to the lectern and o
nly glanced at her. Then he reached out and grabbed the big envelope and looked at Buddy Coleman. “I’ve changed my mind.”

  “You can’t do that,” Buddy said.

  “Watch me,” Hollis said, and he walked out of the room.





  Hollis walked into the house and tossed the contract on the coffee table. He heard Juniper rustling in the kitchen.

  “Is it over?” she said.

  Hollis waited for her to walk into the room. When she saw his face, she said, “Hollis, what have you done now?”

  “Juniper, sit down. I got something to tell you.”

  She closed her eyes and muttered something. Juniper had only cursed a handful of times in her life that he knew of. One was when they were driving on an icy interstate near Nitro. Another was when she gave birth to Daniel. She’d cussed a blue streak, the nurse said, and Hollis was glad he hadn’t been there to hear it.

  “Do you trust me?” Hollis said.

  “What kind of question is that?”

  “I mean it. I need to know if you trust me or not.”

  “Of course I do. Unless you—” She saw the envelope on the coffee table. “Hollis, don’t tell me you didn’t sign it.”

  “I did sign it, but I took it back.”

  “Why would you do a fool thing like that?”

  “You know that thing you said to me about making decisions? That it takes a crisis? Well, you were right. It takes a lot to get me to move on something. And I’ve decided this is where we ought to stay. I don’t want to move. And if you want to know the truth, I don’t think you do, either.”

  Juniper’s eyes wandered across his face. “They’re going to dig all around us. I’m going to get sicker.”

  “I don’t think they’re going to dig.”

  “Why in the world not? Coleman has every deed within five miles.”

  “After what I just saw at the board meeting—”

  “You were at the board meeting? What are you talking about, Hollis?”

  He tried to explain it all to her, what he had heard from Ruby, how the midwife had saved his life, and how he’d seen the sister he never knew he had and that he wasn’t sure he wanted. But he got ahead of himself and Juniper stopped him several times asking clarifying questions.

  “That Ruby woman is your sister?” Juniper said. “How can that be?”

  He tried again but got mixed up when he explained the part about the girls dressing in each other’s clothes. It was too complicated.

  “And you walked out of there without talking with her?”

  He slumped into a chair. “I couldn’t take it all in. It says something about me that’s ugly. I’ve never wanted to know about my kin because I had a mom and dad who loved me and that was enough. And now this whole thing stirs up a hornet’s nest inside and I don’t know what to do with it.”

  She walked toward him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hollis, you are who you are. This story don’t make no difference about what’s in your heart.”

  “I’m half Coleman. How can you say it makes no difference?”

  “Because it don’t. I don’t care if you got the devil’s DNA. You got a choice in how to live. And what to do with what you know.”

  She rubbed his shoulders with both bony hands and it felt good. He relaxed a little and let go of some of the upset feeling in his stomach.

  “What I don’t understand is how this is going to change things about the mining and the sale of the land around here.”

  “Maybe it won’t,” Hollis said. “Maybe it’ll go on like they planned. But I think something happened in that room today. I could see it on their faces. The board and the others there. Word of this gets out and the company will have to deal with it in the press. Something tells me we got another chance here.”

  Juniper stopped rubbing his shoulders and sat hard in a chair beside him. “Well, I never wanted to pack all of this up anyway. It’ll be easier to die in the middle of it, I reckon.”

  “You’re not going to die. The air’s going to get cleaner. No more dust floating around. You’ll see. I’m going to take you to that doctor Lillian keeps talking about down at the hospital. You and I are going to live out our twilight years and grow closer than we’ve ever been.”

  Juniper blinked hard. “You been drinking?”

  “I’ve never been more sober. And I’ve never had more hope for this mountain. Things are going to change, Juniper. I can feel it.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “I see something I’ve never seen before. I see a change in here.” He pointed to his chest.

  Juniper looked at him and instead of shaking her head like she always did and saying something smart, she got up and held out her arms like a child wanting an embrace. He hugged her and kissed the gray hair on top of her head.




  APRIL 2005

  The day of the reunion was perfect, filled with sunshine and enough breeze to call it pleasant. Frances showed the caterer where to put the food in the Beasley house. Hollis had graded a bigger area for people to park, clearing a few trees and flattening out the uneven ground.

  Jerry and Laurie drove over with the kids and Hollis took them fishing. Jerry and Hollis had struck up a friendship long-distance and they talked about the acreage and how much diesel Hollis’s tractor used and important things like that. Frances was surprised that Laurie actually initiated a conversation with her.

  Though Frances didn’t want it to, her heart fluttered when she saw Wallace’s car coming up the hill. Julia was with him and she waved excitedly. She hopped out, hugged Frances, and disappeared into the house to see her grandmother and to meet Charlotte for the first time.

  “How was the drive?” Frances said when Wallace made it to the house.

  “Good,” he said. “Had time to talk. Look at the scenery. Feels like another country up here. Another world.”

  “It’s pretty close to it,” Frances said.

  “Wouldn’t want to see your mother drive these roads.”

  Frances laughed. “She doesn’t. She’s voluntarily given up her keys. She’s looking forward to seeing you.”

  Frances tried to keep things light. She asked about Wallace’s job and he returned the favor, asking if she had survived the tax season. They both got quiet and stared at the hills.

  “A lot of changes in the last six months, huh?” Wallace said.

  “Mm-hmm. For both of us, I hear.”

  He kicked at the dirt. “Yeah, it didn’t work out with Carolyn.”

  “Is she okay?”

  He shook his head. “She’s got more work to do. We both do.”

  “Well, at least you saw the truth and dealt with it.”

  He looked at the knoll above the house. “How’s Jerry taking all this? The financial end of things?”

  “He swallowed his pride and got some help with the debt. I think admitting the problem was the start.”

  “It always is.” Wallace sat on the wooden steps. “Julia told me Ruby’s not going to lose her estate?”

  “There’s not a lot of precedent for what happened. The board worked things out to keep her and Buddy out of court.”

  “He’s still with the company?”

  “Not as CEO, but yes. I don’t think he’ll ever forgive Mom for speaking up and for what the company decided about Beulah Mountain.”

  “They’re really going to leave this whole area alone?” he said.

  “For the foreseeable future,” she said. “Until somebody else gets in power, probably. But for now it’s safe. Some still want to sell and CCE will honor those contracts, but many are staying. The news about the Company Store, as dark as it is, has attracted a lot of interest.”

  “It sure is a pretty unbelievable story.”
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  Frances smiled. “I think people see their story here. The pain and brokenness. And it helps them make sense of their own. They soak in the horror and the beauty of it.”

  Wallace looked away.

  “What?” Frances said. “You’re thinking something.”

  “We don’t like the pain very much, do we? Feels like death. But maybe things grow better in that kind of soil.”

  Frances reached out a hand. “Come on, I want you to meet Hollis.”




  APRIL 2005

  Ruby had slowed a bit in the last months, but no one could tell she’d had a broken wrist. It had healed completely, except for a knot on the outside, which she said she would use to hang her purse. She’d also felt a sense of healing by attending the trial of Kelly and Liz. She testified to what had happened to her and then appeared at their sentencing hearing to ask the judge to be lenient. She had learned, she said, that people responded better to love than vengeance.

  She sold her house and the land in Kentucky in record time and bought a two-bedroom bungalow in Beulah Mountain near the spot where her family had lived. Hollis picked her up and drove her to her part-time job at the Company Store three days a week. She had become a local celebrity. Everyone who visited had to see her and her shoes.

  Ruby had looked forward to the reunion for months, and seeing Wallace and Frances and Julia together was an answer to prayer. Not that everything was worked out between them, but she felt a sense of hope, and that was all she needed. That’s all anyone needs, she thought, just a little dose of hope.

  Hollis made burgers and hot dogs, and Juniper served some of the best pulled pork anybody had tasted. Ruby noticed a difference in the woman, more color in her cheeks and a livelier step. Hollis mentioned that she had been to a new doctor and Ruby wondered if it was that or just the lack of stress over having to move that had helped her. Maybe it was both.

  Everyone had to try Ruby’s green bean recipe. It was the hit of the picnic and she had to tell the story again of how her life had been saved as a child by those gifts from God.

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