Under a cloudless sky, p.7

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 7


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  That last phrase made Hollis flinch.

  Buddy pursed his lips and continued. “I came here in good faith to make you an offer. I know the pull you have with people. They respect you. I’m authorized to offer a bonus for everybody who follows your lead. All you have to do is sign the papers.”

  “I got a question,” Hollis said, taking a step forward. “You mentioned the museum. I hear you gave a bunch of money to it. From your inheritance. Why? Especially with the history of that place.”

  Buddy smiled. “I don’t know what history you’re talking about. The people who worked those mines and made this hollow their home should be celebrated. People like your father. My grandfather. Outsiders will come here and walk back in time.”

  “I’d be careful walking too far back, especially when it comes to your grandfather.”

  “Look, Mr. Beasley, I’m not the evil person you may think I am.”

  Hollis took another step forward. “I know what you’re trying to do. I got a friend who tells me things.”

  “What kind of things would that be?”

  “How you worked yourself into the company. How impressed leadership is with the way you get things done. The board meeting is coming up Saturday where they’re going to vote on you becoming president. Same day as the Company Store grand opening. All the stars are aligning, aren’t they?”

  Buddy rubbed the back of his neck, his face turning red. “I don’t know where you get your information.”

  “It would be the feather in the cap you’re looking for to get the rest of Beulah Mountain, wouldn’t it? Be honest.”

  “Hollis, I’m trying to do the kind thing. I’m trying to treat you how I’d want to be treated. And the truth is, you’re going to lose this mountain.”

  “I’ve lost more than you can ever replace.”

  “Now that was before my time. But from what I heard, the company was fair. Got your granddaughter an education. That doesn’t make up for your loss, of course. I’m sorry about your son.”

  Hollis spit on the ground.

  Buddy leaned against the Jeep again and crossed his legs in front of him. “Let me put it to you square. How much are the taxes on this property?”

  “Too much. I’m sure you know the figure.”

  “I heard the county raised the assessment. That means the property value is going up. That’s good news for you.”

  “Not if I want to stay, it’s not. I know you have people in the assessor’s office in your back pocket.”

  Buddy frowned. “Here’s the deal. If you stay and everybody around you sells, your property’s not worth dog manure. If you get behind on the taxes, the government will take the land. Either way you lose. It doesn’t have to end that way. I’m here as a friend. You and I are from the same stock. I know what you’re going through.”

  “You and I aren’t even from the same herd. Or species.”

  “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

  Hollis shook his head. “I can’t figure out whether you want this land for the coal or the view. Maybe you want to move our kin from their graves and build a big castle, like your daddy did before he lost his shirt.”

  Buddy took a step toward Hollis. When Cooper stood and gave a low growl, Buddy stopped and put his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t figure you’d listen, but I had to try. I’m not your enemy. I’m the good guy here. Think about it. There’s more than a dozen families we’ve made an offer to. I’ll give you $10,000 per family that follows you if you’ll sign.”

  “Hollis?” Juniper said from the doorway.

  “Afternoon, ma’am,” Buddy said, tipping his baseball hat.

  “Hollis, that’s a lot of money,” Juniper said through the screen.

  “You’re right about that, ma’am,” Buddy said.

  Hollis had taken Juniper with him to buy a truck from a dealer in Charleston and told her to keep quiet while he negotiated. It was the last time he ever took her with him while he dickered and he got the same feeling now.

  “I’ll tell you what,” Buddy said, putting his chest out like he was about to toss hundred-dollar bills from the top of the Company Store. “I’ll give you an extra $50,000 right now. On top of the asking price and the ten grand apiece. I got the papers in the glove compartment.”

  For a minute Hollis tried to calculate the money Coleman was tossing his way. It was a large sum in addition to the offer he’d already been given. The extra money would solve some of Hollis’s problems and relieve a lot of headaches. Pay bills that were stacked on the kitchen counter. It would give him and Juniper a fresh start.

  “You ought to take it, Hollis,” Juniper said, her voice gentle as a summer breeze.

  Buddy turned and opened the door of the Jeep.

  “Don’t bother with the contract,” Hollis said.

  “Hollis,” Juniper said, but he threw a hand in the air. She slammed the door and Hollis wondered how she got the strength to do it.

  Buddy turned, a cloud passing over his face. “So you’re going to do this the hard way? You ought to listen to your wife.”

  Hollis pointed at the Jeep. “Get in your shiny car and leave.”

  Buddy started the engine and it purred as he backed up in the gravel and headed down the hill. He stopped and rolled down his window. “Talk it over with her. She deserves better.”

  Hollis wanted to say something snippy. Wanted to give him a comeback that would put him in his place. Instead he kept quiet and wondered how he would get the resolve needed to keep his land.





  Ruby stewed the rest of the morning about her children. When she was sure they had gone, she went to the front room and saw they had taken her car key but left the fob that opened the doors and the trunk and had the panic button she was told to use if anybody broke in the house.

  Frances had left a note under the fob that said, We love you, Mama. Call me. I’ll be at Jerry and Laurie’s.

  The key-taking incident sent her into a tailspin that made her pack up her baking materials and put them in the pantry. Ruby was a believer that everything in life had a purpose and that the hurdles you encountered were there to make you stronger, but at eighty-four she’d stopped jumping hurdles and had crawled under them more often than not. Now, she felt like lying down in front of this one and giving up.

  She couldn’t do that, of course. Not just because of the spunk she still had but because of the bitter resolve she’d felt after listening to Franklin Brown on the radio. After hearing his program twice in the same day, she had known what she’d been putting off and what she needed to do. She had no idea how to do it.

  She’d hoped everything would remain under the rug, but somehow God had taken that rug and hung it on heaven’s clothesline and was whacking it with Gabriel’s horn. The dust filtered down on her and convicted her—a conviction she bore alone because nobody else knew what she knew, except for God. And he seemed to be telling her that it was time.

  She made her supper, some roast turkey she had bought at FoodFair that was a day from expiring and some cheese and lettuce on toasted wheat bread. She gave thanks, remembering how she and Leslie would take turns thanking God together.

  She’d never told her husband the secret. It wasn’t that she didn’t think he would understand or forgive. She just didn’t want to dredge up the past. Nothing good could come from it. So she kept the memories like the locked trunk in the basement. And her children knew nothing. How could she trust kids who would take her keys?

  She had taken her first bite of the sandwich when she heard a tapping at the door. Ruby shook her head and thought about “girding up her loins,” laughing aloud. Her husband would have beaten her to the King James reference and the laugh.

  She expected to see Frances or Jerry, but instead it was a neighbor she barely knew. She struggled to think of his name.

  “Hi, Miss Ruby, it’s Drew from down the ro
ad. Drew Fetty. I know your son, Jerry.”

  “Hello,” she said, keeping the screen door closed. “How is everybody at your house?”

  “Fine, ma’am. Enjoying the fall weather. How are you doing?”

  “I’m well, considering my advanced age. What can I do for you?”

  “Well, I was hoping I could take it for a drive, if that would be all right.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “The car. Maybe Jerry didn’t tell you, but I’m interested in buying it. My daughter’s got her a job in town and she needs something reliable.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Jerry said you were selling it. That you’re not driving anymore. I know how hard that can be because we had to about tear the keys from my daddy’s hands. He passed not long after that.”

  The man would keep rattling like a lawnmower if she didn’t interrupt. “Is that what my son said? That I was selling the car?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I talked with him yesterday. I was interested right off because I know you take good care of it. And it’s probably got low miles. We’re looking for something dependable. She’ll be tickled with whatever I find for her, but this one . . .” He turned and looked at it. “She’ll be over the moon, I think. She’s expecting me to get her some old beater, you know? Something with the fender hanging down. How many miles do you have on it?”

  Ruby ignored the question and grabbed the doorknob behind her. “You’re going to have to come back, Drew.”

  “Is there a problem, ma’am?”

  “I can’t sell it to you. My kids took my keys this morning. You go home and dicker with Jerry later on, all right?”

  “I’m sorry if I jumped the gun. Now that you mention it, Jerry said not to contact you, but I was so excited for my daughter. I apologize.”

  She almost had the door closed when he said, “They didn’t tell you, Miss Ruby? That they were selling your car?”

  “You go on home, Drew.”

  “I didn’t mean to cause trouble, ma’am. I can come back tomorrow. Would that be better?”

  “Talk with Jerry. This is his deal. But wait until tomorrow. Now, I’m not feeling well. I need to go.”

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m real sorry.”

  She shut the door while he muttered something. She couldn’t believe it. They had not only taken her keys, they were selling the car. How long had they been planning this?

  “Think,” Ruby whispered to herself. “You need to think.”

  She tossed her uneaten sandwich out back for the critters and gathered some clothes from her dresser and toiletries from the bathroom. Then she found the cell phone Jerry had given her and placed it in the side pouch of her purse. That would come in handy if she got into a bind. In the pantry she found the lockbox that never locked and retrieved cash in the amount of $1,765. Her kids would have a fit if they knew she had that much cash.

  She counted the money twice and computed how much she’d need for the trip. This amount would be enough and if she needed more . . . She would try not to use her credit card. They could track her with that. She’d seen that on TV, how a man who escaped from prison had stolen a credit card and the authorities tracked him down to a hotel in Florida. Her kids mustn’t know where she was going, and she’d be back before they missed her. Or gone just long enough to scare them for a day or two.

  The more she thought and planned, the more excited she became. It would be like stepping into a time machine and going back to her childhood. But would she have the strength and the will to return? And what memories might stir inside?

  As the sun went down, Ruby stepped onto the porch and watched the orange ball sink lazily into the trees.

  When you rise in the morning, old friend, I’ll meet you on the road.





  Frances Freeman’s heart fell when she saw no car in her mother’s driveway. Through the years her mother would say, “Don’t get your bowels into an uproar.” It meant don’t make a fuss. Don’t think of the worst. But when she opened the unlocked front door and walked inside, she knew something was amiss. She stood in the entryway, her mind racing.

  “Mama?” she called.

  The house was silent except for the sound of Frances’s wildly beating heart.

  An intruder. Someone could have broken in. They could still be here now, waiting. Frances had seen enough movies like that to make her swallow hard. But where was the car? She checked the front door. No broken chain or doorjamb. Jerry had taken the keys. On the drive home he had said they should let their mother stew, that she would get used to the idea of living without a car. A person driving her would give her someone to talk to instead of living alone with her baking and the radio. There’d been comical references to hiring Morgan Freeman and changing her name to Miss Daisy, but Frances couldn’t put out of her mind the way her mother had stomped into her bedroom.

  Frances and Jerry had talked about this eventuality. It had been a Herculean task to care for their father, but the family had survived and Ruby had accomplished her mission of letting him die at home. The way she grieved for him afterward made Frances think that her mother would want to move, would choose to be closer to Frances and transition to a new stage of life.

  “Mama? Are you home?” Frances called loudly.

  Dishes sat in the drying rack in the kitchen. Two cakes stood like coconut candles on the table, saran-wrapped. Strange, she thought.

  Frances checked the bedroom, knocking softly as she entered. The curtains were pulled and the room dark. She opened them and saw the bed had been hastily made. A shelf on the wall held knickknacks. Ruby had gone through a period when she collected wooden, pewter, glass, and metal owls. A large owl had occupied the space above the mailbox at the end of the driveway but now only its talons remained after a drive-by baseball bat attack.

  Next she checked the bathrooms and back bedrooms. She returned to the pantry and opened her mother’s cash box. It was empty.

  She picked up the phone and dialed her brother.

  “I’ll be right there,” Jerry said. “Don’t panic. I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

  Telling Frances not to panic, which was her brother’s answer for everything, caused the opposite reaction. She had carried most of the emotion in the family her whole life.

  If someone had broken in, they could have thrown Mama down into the musty basement and stolen her money, then hot-wired her car. But nothing else of value was gone. Why would they leave jewelry and electronics?

  Unwilling to wait—how could she live with herself if her mother was alive downstairs?— Frances turned on the light to the stairwell and inched down the rickety steps. Her father’s old flight jacket hung on a nail and for a moment she could see him in it, walking the property or riding on his lawn mower. The jacket brought back warm memories, but she continued, holding tightly to the rail.

  She found two old refrigerators, a disconnected washer and dryer, an aging hot-water heater leaking around the seal, and two rooms of dusty furniture Goodwill would reject. There was no sign of Ruby.

  “Someone took her,” Frances said when Jerry arrived.

  He rolled his eyes. “Don’t jump to conclusions. She’s making us pay for taking her keys. She’s probably hiding in a closet waiting to jump out and scare us.”

  He made a sweep through the house and joined Frances on the front porch. “You’re right. Not a hide nor hair of her.”

  “You took both sets of keys, right?”

  He nodded, biting his cheek. “But maybe she had another one.” He snapped his fingers. “Remember when she locked her keys in the car? When she was at the beauty shop?”

  “Daddy walked all the way into town.”

  “Yeah, but didn’t she have another set made? She put them in her purse to make sure it never happened again. Remember?”

  Frances stared at him. “She let you take thos
e keys knowing she had a backup. Unless someone stole it last night.”

  “Nobody would steal her car. She’s joyriding to make us miserable.”

  “Her money is gone from the lockbox.”

  “What?” Jerry went pale. “All of it?”

  “There’s not a dollar left. Do you know how much she had?”

  “I never counted it, but there had to be more than a thousand in there. Maybe even a couple.”

  “Two thousand dollars? What was she using it for?”

  “She said she needed it to pay the kid who mows her yard. And the lady who comes to clean every two weeks.”

  Frances sighed. Two more leads in the Ruby mystery.

  “I never let on that I saw her stash, but I did tell her not to keep money lying around the way things are these days,” Jerry said. “Went in one ear and out the other.”

  Frances turned to go inside. “I’m calling the police. Something’s not right.”

  “Hold on. Don’t get the police involved yet.”

  “Why not? Somebody could have conked her in the head like you said yesterday and put her in the trunk.”

  “I’m thinking of her,” Jerry said. “If she took off, which you know she probably did, calling the police and sending the posse out would embarrass her to no end. They’d plaster her face all over the news and she’d never live it down.”

  “Let’s say she took the car and drove into some unfamiliar neighborhood. She might be out there right now trying to get home but can’t find her way. Or she could have had a spell and gotten disoriented. She might be in a ditch.”

  “You know Mama. If she drove into a river, she’d probably keep pushing the gas pedal to get to the other side. And she’d make it.”

  Something about his reaction concerned Frances. Jerry rarely had an opinion about what to do. He followed others like a hungry puppy. She was surprised he didn’t have somebody prompt him to say, “I do,” at his wedding to Laurie. Now he was asserting himself. But she couldn’t argue with his claim that it would be embarrassing for Ruby if the police were called into the search.


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