Bent Creek by Marlene Mitchell

In the heart of Appalachia, just a few miles before you cross the Tennessee border, there used to be a small town called Bent Creek, Kentucky. Bent Creek was nestled in the shadow of Big Black Mountain where the tall pines and cascading streams meandered through the 
Bent Creek
Bent Creek by Marlene Mitchell

foothills and hollows. It was a coal-mining town that started way back in the eighteen hundreds in a rugged swathe of America. It wasn’t much of a town, just two rows of old wooden buildings on a line of railroad tracks leading to the Five Star Mine. If you blink, you would probably pass right on through.

When the mine first opened for business, the mountain men and farmers who lived in the valleys and hollows grabbed their picks and went to work in the underground caverns. They toiled every day at the backbreaking work of digging the black gold that would keep most of the country running. Each day the rail cars would pull into the newly formed town to carry the coal to the cities far away from Bent Creek— to places that the miners who dug the coal would never see and most never knew about.

To the poor people living in the foothills of Black Mountain the mine and the company store was pretty much their life. They were the poorest of the poor, their lives shackled to the mine for their meager existence.

In the spring of 1939 the laborers at the Five Star Mining Company went on strike. The working conditions in the mine had become deplorable. Each time the miners descended into the shafts they knew that there was a good chance they would not be going home that night. In the two previous years, eleven miners had died and scores injured when the ceilings of the underground caverns collapsed.

For the first time in over a hundred years the noise from the mine was silent when the miners put down their picks and filed out of the tunnels. There were no morning whistles and the constant pounding of the jackhammers digging into the earth ceased. The trains passed right on through Bent Creek without stopping to pick up their usual load of coal.

At first the miners were not concerned about the strike. They assumed that it would be short lived and their demands met. The country was still climbing out of a great depression and talk of war loomed on the horizon. The mining company officials said they were only holding on by the fringe and their profit margin was shrinking. They could not afford to fix every mineshaft in the area.

As the strike continued into the summer and then lingered on into fall, the families living in the backwoods just south of Bent Creek knew they were in dire trouble with the winter quickly approaching. Some moved away and sought out relatives to help them. Others just packed up their cars and wagons and took off to anywhere they could find work. Even though the mines in Lynch, Kentucky, just twenty miles away from Bent Creek, were prospering there was no work to be had for the strikers. The unspoken word among the managers at the Lynch mines was that they were not to hire those men that were responsible for closing the Bent Creek mines. After only one year there were less than twenty families living in the hollows around the dying town.

The mining company store had closed when the supplies were depleted. Mabry’s one-room store with few items to purchase and the livery stable were the only two places left in Bent Creek to buy staples. Unlike the company store that traded pay vouchers for merchandise, Mabry’s only took cash or bartered for needed products. When all the eggs, chickens and pigs were traded for staples, the only way to survive was to go back to hunting for wildlife to stave off starvation. Others took to trapping for animal pelts and making illegal moonshine back in the hills beyond the eyes of the law.

After the mine closed the only reminder that it ever existed was the few miles of rusty track and a faded sign in front of the entrance that read “No Trespassing.” Bent Creek had been a small red line that led to a blue dot on the map of Kentucky. Now time had erased its existence.

On the porch of Mabry’s store three old men sit in rockers telling stories about the old days. “Life ain’t never been no picnic in the holler and it’s a whole lot worse since the mine closed. In the spring the rain swells all them thar cricks and at times ya can’t even git tah yer house. The water comes down off them mountains faster than ya kin run. Everythang is turned tah mud. Then summer comes and everythang is damp and hot and if’n ya stand still long nuf mildew will creep right up yer leg. Then ya got them ticks and skeeters that won’t leave ya be. If’n ya make it through fall without dyin from the chill ya got the winter on yer back. The cold jest gets in yer bones and more sickness sets in. I lost a couply toes a few yars back. Froze right off. Food is always on yer mind. Food, tobaccy and a good old slug of moonshine.”

“Now if’n ya ast me whar Bent Creek is, I’d have tah ponder on that fer a minute. Ya go down this heah road fer a spell then through the kivered bridge. Turn by the old gristmill and ya’ll be thar in no time. Don’t go pokin’ round in them hollers lessen ya got kin or friends livin’ thar. Ya could jest git shot. They don’t cotton tah strangers nosen in thar business.”

Chapter 1

Roy Riley was a coal miner, just like his father and grandfather. It had been a way of life for his family for almost a hundred years. Uneducated and poor, they accepted their fate. Go to work in the mines or starve.

Most of the Riley men had married young and had large families. The same was true of Roy. He took Ida Mae Edel for his wife when he was eighteen years old. In less than six years, six children were born to a woman who was barely out of her teens.

When they married, Roy and Ida Mae moved in with his parents, Abe and Cladda. Cladda and Ida Mae worked from the moment Roy and Abe left for the mine until they came home in the evening. There was wash to be done, a garden to be weeded and always food to be cooked. It was tough work for a young girl. When Ida Mae began popping out a baby every year, Abe said that Roy and Ida Mae had to move. Getting the neighbors together, a house was built about a mile down the road from Abe’s cabin. It was far from Ida Mae’s dream house—just a square box made out of rough wood with four rooms and a front porch. A privy was built around back along with a chicken coop. Friends and neighbors donated what they could. They were given a rough-hewn kitchen table with two benches, a couple of iron beds and a wood stove. With homemade quilts and bedding, some old pots and pans, a few mismatched dishes and three forks, Ida Mae set up housekeeping for her family.

Just like all the young people who lived in the hills and worked in the mines they dreamed of one day having enough money to live comfortably. They soon realized their future was sealed and the twenty-two dollars a week Roy made in the mine could barely support their growing family. Each week there was not even enough money left over to buy a box of nails or a roll of tarpaper to fix the leaky roof.

Even though Ida Mae discovered early on that Roy had a lazy streak running through him she never gave up hoping that someday he would get up off the porch and work on the house or at least cut wood. It never happened. After working all day in the mine, Roy said he didn’t expect to have to do anything else but drink a few swills of moonshine and play his banjo.

The first child born to Roy and Ida Mae was named William Roy, although everyone called him Willie. He was born just nine months and four days after Roy and Ida Mae married. The next year Ida Mae gave birth to Paul Ronald and then came Benjamin Willis. It was the birth of the twins the following year that wreaked havoc on her body. She suffered in labor for almost two days before Rachael Joy and Jesse Roy were born. Lack of good nourishment and the loss of blood kept her in bed for almost a week. She got up just long enough to feed and change the babies. Ida Mae knew that having more children would surely take her life. She prayed long and hard to the Lord that she would have no more babies, but it happened again.

When Emma Jane was born two years later, Ida Mae lay close to death for almost a week. Unable to find help for her, Roy went to one of the crew bosses at the mine named Jimmy and asked for his help. Jimmy and his wife came to the Riley house. A few minutes later, Roy carried Ida Mae, wrapped in a blanket out to Jimmy’s car. The children were told that she was going to the hospital, but would be home soon.

Grandma Cladda stayed with the children while Roy was working in the mines. Ida Mae returned two weeks later still looking pale and drawn. That was the last of the babies for the Riley family.

Chapter 2

Most of the Riley kids were not much different from the rest of those living in the backwoods hollows. Just a bunch of rowdy, ragtag kids who occasionally went to school, played outside, helped with the chores and tried to make sure they got enough to eat.

Willie was a funny, cheerful little kid. He followed Roy around like a hound dog puppy. Willie thought his pa was the smartest man he knew, which of course made Roy feel real proud. Willie would do most anything Roy asked him to do, including the chores that Ida Mae said Roy should be doing. Willie didn’t mind. As long as he could sit with his pa each evening and whittle or learn to play the banjo, he was happy.

Paul, the second oldest of the Riley children delighted in taunting and teasing the younger children until they cried. He would devise ways to get out of doing chores or find ways to make the others do them for him. Ida Mae said that Paul had a mean streak running through his body and he was always the one to get the switch to his backside first.

Ben, only eleven months younger, was just the opposite. He was soft spoken and kind and the target of Paul’s constant teasing. He was by far the most obedient of the Riley children.

Jesse was the quiet one. He stuttered terribly as a young child and seldom spoke. He had a hard time figuring out most things. His father said that he thought Jesse was a little dense in the head.

Then there was Rachael, Jesse’s twin sister. Rachael was full of ambition and ideas. She was the one who could figure out most of the problems in the household. Rachael was the only one who could read and write well enough to take care of her father’s paperwork. Strong-willed and defiant, Rachael was sure she was never meant to live in Harlan County and, from early on, she knew that someday she would leave for good.

Rachael was also put in charge of taking care of Emma Jane while her mother was busy with the household chores. Rachael was Emma Jane’s protector. Emma Jane was afraid of everything: lightning, thunder, darkness, empty rooms, animals, creepy bugs, the outhouse, and fear that her father would someday die in the coalmine. Being the youngest, Emma Jane’s life was a maze of weaving and dodging to stay out of harm’s way. The phrase, “the chickens are coming, the chickens are coming” sent cold chills up her spine. She would throw the mash—bucket and all, over the fence and run. The big red rooster with his dark, beady eyes and sharp spurs was her nemesis. He watched her and waited for an opening to fly at her face. Her momma said it was just her imagination and that the rooster only did that because he was scared when she screamed, but she knew that rooster—and he was her mortal enemy. She begged Rachael to help her feed the chickens.

The goats wanted to eat the clothes right off Emma Jane’s body and the pigs lowered their heads and made their foreboding grunts when she came around. Yet Rachael was always right beside her with a sturdy stick ready to take them all on.

It was not unusual that an occasional black snake would be found curled up on the porch or, in the winter, the house would take on new inhabitants. The field mice would skitter across the floor looking for any little crumb that had been overlooked. Emma Jane would scream until Rachael chased them out the door or whacked them with a stick.

Rachael was different from the other Riley children in many other ways, too. She was a dreamer. Having mud ball fights and chasing each other was not something she was interested in. She would find a place to sit all alone and pretend she was somewhere else. Combing her long, brown hair and talking to herself convinced the other children that she was touched. Rachael’s imagination was her only companion. It was Ben who came to her rescue when the taunting became too much even for her. Yet, Rachael refused to accept her lot in life from early on. She always knew that someday, somehow she would leave Bent Creek and never come back.

Somewhere around the age of seven or eight she began to realize just how poor she really was. With never enough to eat and homemade clothes to wear she began to take notice of everything around her. Life began to sour around the edges when she got her first glimpse of a Sears-Roebuck catalog. All the clothes and toys jumped out of the pages at her. There was not one feed sack dress in the whole book. She did not even have the five cents it would take to buy a blue ribbon for her hair. She wondered what it would be like to wear shoes that fit and had no holes in them.

Embarrassment began to set in when the mine superintendent brought his family to Bent Creek on Christmas Eve to deliver gift baskets. Rachael watched the smirk on his daughter’s face as Rachael tried to eat her first banana without peeling it. Rachael looked at the girl’s clothes, a brown wool coat with not a button missing and boots made of soft leather. Envy was now another part of Rachael’s world.

Rachael had a way of challenging what people said, even going so far as to confront her daddy. With the Sears-Roebuck catalog laying open on the kitchen table, she shared the precious book with Emma Jane. The girls would ooh and aah over the book. When her father pointed his dirty finger at her and told her to get all the fancy ideas out of her head and just accept her lot in life she really didn’t want to believe him. “It is what it is, Girl, so you might as well git used to it.”

Rachael stood up, her hands on her hips and said, “And what is it really? Thars a whole world outside of Bent Creek and by gosh, I intend tah see some of it.” That remark earned her a slap across her face.

Rachael liked going to school, which really seemed odd to most of the children. It was only a one-room schoolhouse with a raw, wooden floor and a wood stove for heat in the winter. The smaller children were placed at two square tables, while four rows of desks held the rest of the students. Usually most of the rows were empty. Rachael always sat in front so that when her teacher, Mr. Childs, conducted the lessons, she wouldn’t miss anything. She was a star pupil and the only one to cry when the school closed.

If it weren’t for the occasional visit from the state truant officer most of the children in the hollow would never go to school. Missing school for weeks at a time they would only return to the classroom when they were forced to. The majority of the boys quit by the time they were fourteen to go to work.

Her vision of her world was altered when she read books about the big cities across the country. When she read about Florida she decided that is where she wanted to live. The information in her schoolbooks fortified her notion that there was something big and wonderful out there, and it wasn’t Bent Creek.

In fourth grade when she read her writing essay aloud before the class, they snickered and giggled. Who was this stupid girl who thought she would move to Florida and grow oranges in her back yard and pick seashells off the beach? On the way home from school Sammy Joe and some of the other boys from school chased her and yelled after her, “Yer plumb out of yer head, Rachael Riley.”

She stopped and faced them. “I’m not crazy! Yer crazy, Sammy Joe Montgomery. You and yer bunch of backwoods hillbillies who can’t see further than the tip of yer noses. You ain’t got no couth. I reckon ya’ll grow up and work in the mines jest like yer fathers. Ya’ll either be dead or have a case of black lung by the time yer thirty and probably have a bunch of snot nose kids. This dirty town will be yer home till you die.” For a moment there was silence and then they began to laugh.

“Go on run home, Rachael Roach,” Sammy Joe yelled.

“You too, monkey ears,” she yelled back.

Rachael didn’t want to grow old never leaving Bent Creek. She didn’t want to be a hollow-eyed woman with a sad face like her mother and settle for a man with coal embedded under his fingernails and no teeth like her father. That is not what she wanted for herself. She wanted to be anywhere except in Harlan County, Kentucky. She wanted to live in Florida.

At dinner that evening, Paul told his father about Rachael’s paper and that all of the kids were making fun of her. Roy put down his spoon and looked at his daughter, “That true, Rachael? You making up that stupid stuff again?”

“It’s not stupid. Why does everybody think it’s stupid? I read it in a book. People can leave here, you know. They have before and maybe some of them went to Florida.”

“Yeah, and some come back in worse shape than when they left. You best be writin’ bout somethin’ you know fer sure,” her father answered.

“What about you, Momma, wouldn’t you like to go tah Florida? It’s warm all the time. We could make necklaces out of shells.”

“You hush, Rachael. Don’t argy with yer daddy. Eat yer supper and stop that crazy talk.”

Later that evening Rachael sat on the porch with her mother mending socks. “I’m not crazy, Momma. I know ya’ll think I am, but I’m not. Haven’t you ever wanted somethin’ better fer yerself? Wouldn’t it be fun to put on a nice dress and go into Lynch? Maybe have dinner in one of them fancy restaurants like Wendy’s and then go tah the picture show. That’s what I’m gonna do when I grow up.”

“I suppose at one time I thought about it,” Ida Mae said, breaking the thread with her teeth. “But then I got married and I had more to think about than picture shows. I had to worry about keepin’ you kids fed and prayin’ you didn’t get sick. I reckon all them idees left mah head. I jest don’t want you tah be sad when those things don’t happen, Rachael. You jest got tah trust in the Lord tah make thangs right fer yah. If’n it twern’t fer goin tah church every Sunday and readin’ mah bible every night I’d be a lost soul.”

“Don’t seem like the Lord is answerin’ many of yer prayers, Momma. I guess I’m gonna make them happen mahself. You jest wait and see.”

When the announcement was made that the school was closing and the students would be reassigned to a school in Lynch, everyone knew that the children from Bent Creek had just finished the little education they had. None of the families in the hollow were going to travel over twenty miles twice a day to take their kids to school even if they did have to argue with the truant officer.

After Mr. Childs made the announcement on a Friday afternoon, his remark was met with a war whoop from the boys. Laughing and clapping, the children tumbled out the door and headed for home, all except one. Rachael sat at her desk with her head down and cried. “I jest can’t believe that the government don’t care if we git an education. We jest don’t count, do we, Mr. Childs?”

“I don’t know if that’s true, Rachael. It’s just that the county can’t afford to pay my salary and keep the school open when half the time the children aren’t here anyway. You’re a bright girl and my best student and I am sorry that this had to happen to you. Do you think there is anyway your family can let you go to school in Lynch?”

“Shoot, no. They ain’t gonna let me go anywhere cept out back to hang up clothes.”

Mr. Childs sat down on the desk next to her. “I’m sorry to hear that but I hope you keep up with your studies. Life really doesn’t much care what happens to us, Rachael. We have to make it happen on our own. You remember that. Now I have to lock up. You best better run on home.”

She didn’t run. She walked as slow as she could and cried all the way.

After the school closed, one day became just like the next. It was always work, work, and more work. There was never time for fun. She was always being told what to do, getting reprimanded or even worse—getting hit for doing her chores wrong. The way she was treated didn’t make Rachael feel too good about her parents. She wondered if they really loved her. It was quite evident that her father was partial to the boys and Emma Jane was clearly her mother’s favorite. Emma Jane liked to hang on her momma and follow her around.

Rachael tried to believe that her favorite pecan pie her mother made on Sundays or the apples she let the children eat off the tree was her way of showing love. There were no hugs or kisses or special moments to share with her parents. At times when her mother sat mending the already tattered clothing she had to wear, Rachael could see the far away look in her eyes. She was afraid to ask her mother what she was dreaming about. Yet in the winter when the wind blew through the cracks in the cabin and the temperature dipped below freezing, her mother would rise at night and put large stones on the only wood stove in the house. Wrapping them in old material she would place them on her children’s feet to keep their toes warm. Sometimes she would stroke Rachael’s hair, but no words came from her mouth.

When they were alone, Rachael’s curiosity was a sense of irritation to her mother. She didn’t like answering questions about herself. All Rachael knew about her family is that her mother was orphaned at an early age and was raised by an elderly aunt. Everyone said that Grandpa Abe, her father’s pal was a crazy old man. Rachael worried that she took after him when people called her crazy.

Sometimes at night, when the house was dark and everyone was in bed, Rachael would lie awake staring out the window. She wondered what her momma was thinkin’. Was she worried about her children or still wrapped up in her own woes. Thinkin’ she shouldn’t have gotten married so young and had so many babies. Thinkin’ maybe she should be nicer to her kids and maybe sing with them or play games. Maybe even hug them once in a while and tell them she loved them. That’s what you should do when you have kids. And her daddy… was he frettin’ about how he was going to feed all his youngins or how they were gonna get tah school or if they would be able to have shoes to wear when winter came. He should be thinkin’ about those things instead of sittin’ around doin’ nothin’. No, they were probably both jest tired and not thinkin’ much about anything.

Chapter 3

The years passed, one just like the other, eating away at Rachael’s life. Willie, Paul and Ben went to work in the mines as each one turned fifteen. At fourteen, Rachael took a full-time job in Bent Creek working at the Sampler Dry Goods Store. She swept the floors and kept the bolts of material in order. At times she waited on the customers. Even though it was almost a two-mile walk to the store, she did not care. Every Friday she was handed an envelope that contained her two-dollar paycheck. She would hand it to her father and he would give her back fifty cents to spend. She wished she could keep more, but she was glad that she could help the family. She wondered why he never told her thanks.

With the added income from the four children working, life was better for the family. Ida Mae could buy more flour and sugar to make biscuits and Emma Jane and Rachael each got a store-bought coat and a real blanket for their beds. The mining company agreed to let the miners run electric lines from the coalmine to the hollow. The Riley’s had lights! No more foul smelling kerosene lamps or candles on the table. They had lights! And the most wonderful thing that happened was when Rachael’s father brought home a radio. It became the center of the house. Each night the programs would start at six o’clock. Everyone would gather around the brown box and listen to country music programs and serial stories. Rachael was enthralled by the radio. She couldn’t get enough of the outside world, but promptly at eight the radio and the lights were turned off and everyone had to go to bed.

When the last of the spring rains passed and the warm summer days lingered on until eight o’clock, Rachael’s parents would gather with some of the other folks who lived in the hollow for a front-porch party. Most of the junk would be cleared from the yard and candles set out to keep the bugs away. The women would make pies and fresh berries covered in sugar and the men would bring the moonshine. The music came from all sources—a set of spoons, a washboard and a prized fiddle owned by one of the men from the mine. Roy played the banjo with one string missing that he had gotten from his father. The children would run around the yard playing games. It was a short time that took the edge off of everyday living. The liquor flowed as easy as the music and after a few rounds of foot stompin’, Rachael’s daddy would grab Ida Mae by the arm and pull her out into the yard, which had become a makeshift dance floor. He would swing her around until the pins would fall out of her hair and the strands of dark-brown hair would twirl with each turn. Her momma would laugh out loud, something she rarely did.

Breathless, her face aglow with a rosy tint, they would return to the porch and sit next to each other. Rachael liked to see her mother happy.

“She ain’t a bad dancer fer an old woman, is she, Rachael?” her father asked, as Ida Mae began to blush.

“Why do you call her an old woman, Daddy, she ain’t but in her early thirties. Old women are fifty years old or more. Look at her. Momma is real purty with her hair down.”

Roy turned Ida Mae’s face to him. “Dawg gone, yer right. She’s jest as purty as the day I married her. I reckon that’s why we had so many of you youngins’. It’s still hard to keep mah hands off her.”

“Roy Riley, you stop that,” Ida Mae said. “Don’t be tellin’ Rachael bout things she don’t need tah know yet.”

“I reckon she does,” Roy said. She’s done past her fourteenth birthday. Time tah find her a husband.” He roared with laughter, knowing that such talk was always a sore subject with Rachael.

Within a few months with everyone working, Roy was able to buy an old truck. It was the first vehicle he ever owned. He sat behind the wheel of the beat up old truck and grinned from ear to ear. The stuffing was coming out of the seats and the floorboards were rusted, but it had an engine and it could get them to town three times faster than the old mule.

Each morning on the way to the mine, Rachael would jump into the back of the truck, along with Benjamin and Paul. Her father would drop her off in front of the store. Life was the best it had ever been for the Riley family, yet Rachael knew it had to be a lot better for her to stay in Kentucky. The reality of living in a coal-mining town was always with her. Black lung, cave-ins and premature death were always in the conversations of the coal-mining families. Life could change in an instant when the breadwinner of the family was killed in the mines or died from a related illness. It could happen to the Rileys just as well.

Working in the store on a Friday morning, Rachael wiped the sweat from her brow as she unpacked bolts of material and put them on the high shelves. The sound of the sirens interrupted her thoughts. Running to the door she saw thick, black smoke trailing across the sky. Something had gone wrong at the mine. Most everyone stopped what they were doing when the chilling whine of the sirens blared. Men, women and children ran past the store, across the tracks and down the steep grade to the entrance of the mine. Rachael pulled the door shut behind her and hurried along with the others toward the mine. As the crowd gathered, there seemed to be an ominous silence. Another burst of soot and smoke began to escape through the air chambers on the outside of the mine. It was a sign that there was a fire deep below the earth. An hour later, word was passed through the crowd that three men were killed inside one of the shafts as they tried to escape the fire. The cries and wails of those related to the miners hurt everyone deeply.

Ida Mae and Rachael were there each time the sirens went off, waiting just like the others to make sure that their family members were safe. When the men began to appear at the mouth of the tunnel, the wives and children were given a reprieve one more time. Once again the men in the Riley family were saved from the Black Death. This time the mine took three lives.

Three months later a cave-in killed one of Grandpa Abe’s brothers and just a few months later the siren sounded again. This time all of the Riley boys filed out of the mine opening, but there was no sign of Roy. Paul said that his father was working in tunnel sixteen which was further into the mine. It was one of the longest tunnels in the mine. Ben and Paul said when they heard the rumbling and when the siren went off they ran out of the mine as fast as they could. Ida Mae kept asking the men filing out of the tunnel if they had seen her husband. There were only somber-faced men shaking their heads. Afternoon turned to night and night to morning and there was still no word on the fourteen miners still below ground. Someone brought soup and handed a bowl to Ida Mae. She pushed it away. She sat silently on the side of the hill, wrapped in a blanket.

A few hours later word came that the shaft in tunnel sixteen had been cleared and the men were coming up. Everyone stood up, inching closer to the rim of the mine. They watched as the men filed out—coughing and wheezing, their faces black as night. Someone handed the men wet cloths so they could wipe off their faces and be identified. As each man removed his mask of soot there were cries of joy from his family. Roy was the ninth man to come out. Ida Mae ran down the hill and hugged him almost knocking him off his feet. His hands and knees were bleeding and he couldn’t talk. Paul picked him up like a rag doll and carried him to the truck and placed him on a blanket. Ida Mae held his hand all the way home.

After washing in the outside tub, Roy changed his clothes and laid down across the bed. Now was not the time to talk. Ida Mae rubbed salve on his hands and knees and bandaged them with white strips of cloth. She brought him soup and black coffee, but he was too exhausted to eat. He rolled over and spent the night coughing up the soot that was lodged in his lungs.

In the morning the family gathered around him as he sat on the porch eating oatmeal. His voice was hoarse and raspy but he feigned a smile as each of his children filed out the door and sat down beside him.

“It was bad, real bad,” he said, shaking his head. “Coal been a fallin’ all mornin’ from the ceilin’, hittin’ our helmets like hail on a tin roof. We kept askin’ the pit boss if we wuz safe and he kept sayin’ we had nothin’ to worry about. Bout noon we started to hear the rumblin’ a long ways down in the tunnel. Ya hear them sounds all the time, but when it started gettin’ louder and louder we knew we wuz in trouble. Then the soot got thick as black molasses and the lamps started goin’ out. We couldn’t see nothin’ at tall. The lead man told us tah clip our lines tah each other and hold on tah the reins of the mules and follow him out of the tunnel. We could hear the rumble gettin’ louder and it was pourin’ coal. It was catchin’ up with us. Then all hell broke loose and the walls just started comin’ down in big chunks. We was followin’ one behind the other, holdin’ tight tah that rope and then the line stopped and got real taut. The mules went crazy and tried to break loose. They were bawlin’ and heehawin’ all down the line, so we jest unhitched them and let them run on ahead afore they stomped us tah death. We could hear the men at the end of the line screamin’ as they wuz kivered with piles of coal. The lead man yelled to unhook the line, but old Boswork who was behind me didn’t want tah leave them men. He kept pullin’ and pullin’ but he couldn’t get them out. All them at the front of the line was lettin’ go of the rope, so he unclipped his line and we moved forward. When we reached the line of rail carts the coal comin’ off the ceilin’ was fillin’ them cars up faster than ten men shovelin’ all at once.”

Roy stopped and began coughing. He wanted to tell his story. He wanted his family to know why some of the men were left behind. “I member we crawled next to them carts on our hands and knees fer what seemed like hours an hours. Them rails would lead us out if’n’ we was lucky. I’d told mahself that when it finally happened tah me and I was caught down there in a cave-in or a fire I wouldn’t be afeared, but I wuz wrong. I kept thinkin’ bout mah family and that I didn’t want tah die. I jest kept movin’ till we could see the light of the shaft.” Roy stopped and began to sob. Long, anguished sobs that wracked his whole body. “Them was my friends that got left behind. Them wuz good men who didn’t deserve tah die jest because them mine owners won’t spend the money to shore up them tunnels. Good men died today and it could’ve been me.”

He wiped his nose on his sleeve and ate his oatmeal. He was given two days off with pay. By the next Monday he had to swallow his fear and once again go below ground.

The families in Bent Creek were in a panic wondering who would be next. This had been the worst year ever. Three weeks later the unthinkable happened. Another cave-in claimed two more lives. Sammy Joe’s father, Jed Montgomery, and Rachael’s brother, Willie Riley, were caught in a mineshaft elevator and buried under tons of large chunks of coal. Even as the other miners frantically dug with their bare hands to find the men, it was obvious that no one could have survived.

Funerals come quick in the summertime in the hollow. The intense heat and no refrigeration usually resulted in burials the very next day after someone died. It was the same for Willie and Jed. Standing on the grassy knoll covered in white crosses, Rachael held on to her mother as the minister sprinkled dirt on Willie’s coffin, sending him into a black hole for the very last time. Minutes later the scene was repeated a few feet away at Jed’s grave. Among the wailing and soulful cries, Rachael saw Sammy Joe walking away from his father’s grave. She sidled through the small crowd and caught up with him. “I’m sorry about yer pa, Sammy Joe,” she said softly.

“Thanks, I’m sorry about Willie, too,” he replied.

Rachael wiped a tear from her face. “I can’t believe he’s gone. His life ain’t even started and now it’s over. I hear you and yer ma are leavin’ Bent Creek. Is that true?” she asked.

Sammy Joe nodded. “Yep, we’re goin’ to Ohio tah live with mah aunt and uncle. Can’t stay here. We ain’t got no money now and I’ll be damn if I’m gonna go tah work in the mine. I never said it, but I’m like you, Rachael, I’ve always wanted tah leave this place. But not like this, losin’ mah pa and all. I’m almost nineteen, the same age as Willie and now he’s outta here for good.” Rachael could hear the sobs catching in his throat. She turned to leave. “You take care of yerself, monkey ears.”

“You too, Rachael Roach,” he answered.

Inconsolable, Ida Mae had to face the reality that she had given one of her children to the mine. The sadness that engulfed the Riley house lasted for weeks. Roy took to his bed and said he was ailing and wouldn’t come out of the bedroom. Ida Mae, who once bragged that she was probably the only woman in the hollow to raise six children to adulthood and not lose a one of them from sickness or accident, joined the other women who mourned their dead children. The rest of the Riley kids moped around the house and every once in a while one of them would break into tears. They huddled together on the porch giving comfort to each other. The boys especially harbored a fear that they could be the next one to die in the mine.

Afraid and angry the mineworkers decided to ban together and talk to the managers about the unsafe conditions and the constant threats of a cave-in, but they were listened to with deaf ears. The foremen said either go to work or quit, but the miners picked a third option, they went on strike. In the spring of 1939 the men refused to enter the mine and laid down their picks. They stood fast. Over the next few weeks there were meetings, but nothing was accomplished and Fridays came and went without paychecks in their pockets.

Soon the realization hit home that the strike was changing the lives of everyone in Bent Creek drastically. The only income in the Riley family was the money that Rachael was making. With the mine’s company store now closed, the other businesses in town began to follow suit. The lack of money was evident everywhere. She started working as many hours as she could get in the dry goods store. And so her life had taken on a rhythm to a tune she did not like. And it never seemed to get better. They were once again living in extreme poverty.

Chapter 4

Summer had come to the holler bringing the sizzling heat and constant torment of insects biting deep into your skin. Even though the river was just down the road they stayed clear of it. The river’s bank was covered with debris the high water had deposited during the spring floods. Tangled masses of tree branches hugged the muddy shoreline. The undertow was swift and treacherous, along with a good number of water moccasins that occupied the river. The only release the Riley kids found to relieve themselves of the heat was to trek partway up Black Mountain, to an old abandoned quarry that was filled with ice-cold water. After their chores were finished, the four oldest would escape before their mother found something else for them to do. Emma Jane was left behind. She was much too young to go with them and afraid of the quarry from the stories Paul told her about the monsters that lived in the water. Ida Mae watched as her children disappeared into the woods, and wished she could go with them.

By the time they reached the quarry to join the other kids already swimming, their clothes were soaked with sweat. The boys peeled off their overalls and jumped into the water in their underwear. Rachael was forced to swim in her clothes like most of the other girls. Diving off the edge of the quarry into the dark blue pool of water was instant relief. Rachael learned to be a good swimmer after being tormented by her brothers who would drag her out into the deep water and let her go. She screamed and paddled and somehow made it to the bank, while they laughed at her. In time they gave up the game since she could easily make it to shore.

No one was sure how deep the quarry was. Some said as deep as seventy-five or eighty feet. Whatever its depth, the Riley kids made sure that they stayed within reach of the bank and always on the left side of the quarry. That was the rule their father had given them on the first day he brought them up to the deep pool.

“If’n I ever ketch you a swimmin’ over thar,” he said, pointing to the other bank, “I’ll cut me a big switch and beat yer ass all the way home. And I kin sneak up thar whenever I get a hankerin’ to and check on you.” They believed him.

The right side was a ledge of quarry rock that shot straight up into the sky. Over the years sturdy vines and small trees had grown into the crevasses. The branches would sway in the wind like long arms reaching out with a warning for them to stay on their own side of the quarry.

On a hot July day, the Riley kids trudged up the mountain and jumped into the cold water, feeling the gratifying release from the summer’s torment. After a few hours of splashing and playing in the quarry they lay on the huge, gray rock, the warm sun dried their clothes; Rachael rolled over and sat up. “I reckon we should be going home, soon. Momma don’t like us stayin’ up here too long.”

“What fer?” Paul asked. “What we gonna do at home. Taint no food in the house ceptin’ them damn turnips and taters. I’m sick of them.”

Jesse let out a grunt. “Mah belly is so hollow I could play a tune on it. How bout we look around fer some berries or nuts?”

“Damn, nuts or berries. I want food, real food. I want big hunks of meat and bread. Real good bread like Momma used tah make,” Paul added.

“We’ll be gettin’ some of that pretty soon. When we get tah boot camp. They feed you good in the army,” Ben said.

Rachael bolted upright. “Army, what are you talkin’ about, Army?”

“Well, we was gonna wait to tell ya’ll together, but me and Paul is goin’ up tah Lynch tomarra to join up. Thangs ain’t gettin’ no better round here, Rachael,” Ben said.

“Oh, Lordy, Ma is gonna have a fit when she finds out. She still ain’t over losin’ Willie and now with you two leaving, oh, Lordy,” Rachael said shaking her head. “But, I don’t blame you. Leastwise you’ll get away from here.” They walked home in silence. Each one thinking about their own future and the changes coming in their lives.

At the supper table Ben cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve got somethin’ to tell ya’ll. Me and Paul are goin’ up to Lynch tomarra to join the army. They got a man up there that kin sign us up.” Paul continued to stare at his empty plate waiting for his parents to say something.

He was surprised at his father’s reaction. “Don’t says that I blame you one darn bit. You ain’t got nothin’ to hold you here. Leastwise the army will pay you and maybe you kin see yer way clear to send yer ma and me a few dollars.”

“Why you want to go away and get yerself kilt in the army?” Ida Mae mumbled.

Paul slammed his fork down on the table. “How we gonna die in the army? Ain’t no war right now. We’re dyin’ a slow death here, Ma. What if the mine doesn’t open? What then? We jest gonna’ sit here and starve to death. This old cabin won’t stand another winter and it’s already July and we don’t have no money. Ain’t no work round here for any of us. Sides they got all kinds of programs in the army to teach you things. Maybe I kin larn a trade that will halp me make a livin’.”

Ida Mae never had an answer for those kinds of questions. She knew there was none.

“Don’t ya worry about that, boys. That mine will be up and runnin’ in a couply months.”

“Yeah and some more kin can get kilt thar,” Paul said. “Jest like Willie.”

That was the wrong thing to say to Roy Riley. He slammed his hand down on the table causing the dishes to rattle and spoons to fall on the floor. “Workin’ in the mine is damn hard work and yeah, we all know it’s dangerous. Willie knew that. Nobody twisted you boys arms tah work thar. Ain’t no call for you tah remind me that I lost mah son. You jest go on off and join the army.” He left the room, slamming the door behind him.

The day after Ben’s announcement the two Riley boys packed up their meager belongings and left on foot to meet up with the others that were going to enlist in the army. Rachael kissed them both and hugged them goodbye. Her mother cried, saying she would probably never see her boys again. Rachael’s father shook their hands and wished them well. He turned and hurried into the house. It was a sad time even though it meant two less mouths to feed and Jesse would have a bed to sleep in. Roy was counting on the money they would be sending him. They were just boys, but they seemed so grown-up today as they walked down the road and away from Bent Creek.

Chapter 5

Rachael opened the door of the truck and slid in next to Jesse. “Thanks fer pickin’ me up,” she said, “You know how I hate walkin’ home when it is almost dark and rainin’ to boot.”

Jesse nodded and struggled to keep the truck in gear as it chugged down the street. “It’s a real toad strangler out there, Rachael. You best enjoy this ride, little sis, cause Pa is sellin’ the truck. He’s got someone comin’ to look at it tonight. He says usin’ the wagon and the mule is as good as the truck and costs a lot less.”

“That is too bad, but I got bad news, too. This was mah last day at the store cause it’s closin’. I only had one customer today and she spent twenty cents. So now, I’m out of a job.” She stared out the window at the gray and white scenery as they passed by the stripped land just above the mine.

“Maybe you could marry Billy Tate. I hear he has a crush on you,” Jesse said, grinning.

“Billy Tate! I hate Billy Tate,” she spewed out. “He’s a slimy little weasel and he gives me the creeps. Anyway I am not gonna git hitched tah Billy or anybody else livin’ in this holler and have a mess of kids and be stuck here. I’m gonna leave soon. I’m gonna go to Florida.”

“Well, Emma Jane is lookin’ round fer a fella. She’s afeared that pa is gonna find somebody fer you and her to marry.”

“Well he can just forget that idée. I ain’t ever had much to say about what goes on in mah life, but I know’d for sure marryin’ Billy Tate will never happen. Beside Emma Jane is only thirteen,” Rachael replied. She’s too young to be even thinkin’ about gettin’ hitched.”

The last turn off the gravel road and into the rutted mud path leading to the house always made Rachael want to close her eyes. How could anyone actually live in this hovel? Half of the front porch was missing since the last storm hit and the yard was strewn with chickens and rusty tools her daddy picked up off the road. Ragged clothes hung on a line strung between two trees. An old billy goat stood beneath the line chewing one of the pant legs. Rachael jumped out of the truck and shooed him away. It didn’t really seem to matter much; the other pant leg was already ragged.

Since the men went on strike her father was always on the porch when Rachael came home from work with her meager pay. He had laid a board over a barrel and sat playing solitaire with a soiled deck of cards that had the three of clubs missing. He would sit for hours just watching the road, waiting for someone to come and tell him that the mine was open again. Today was no different. “See what I mean, Rachael,” Jesse said. “Pa is sittin’ there pretendin’ that every thang is gonna be all right and it ain’t. He should be out startin’ to cut wood for the winter. We’re gonna need a lot of it to keep that drafty, old house warm. I’m plumb tired of doin’ all the outside chores round here.”

Rachael saved her bad news until after supper. The family sat in silence and ate the boiled potatoes and turnips seasoned with a little deer meat. As her father pushed his chair away from the table, Rachael blurted out, “I don’t have a job anymore. The store closed today.”

Her father rubbed his head. “Bad news just keeps pilin’ up in a heap. Truck is bein’ sold tonight. Should give us a little money til the mine opens.”

Around six o’clock two men came to the house and after talking with her father, Roy handed them the keys to the truck and they gave him an envelope. He stood in the yard and watched until the truck was out of his sight. He was despondent that he had to sell it, but nothing hurt the family more than when the radio was sold and soon after that all the electricity was cut off.

Chapter 6

“These people livin’ around here are just plain stupid,” Rachael said, throwing her pad of paper on the kitchen table. “I’m tryin’ tah do some good and they look at me like I got two heads. Alls I wanted was for them tah come tah a meetin’ and hear what I have tah say. They tell me they don’t have time— they don’t have time! That’s a joke. They’re jest sittin’ round waitin’ fer I don’t know what. That’s what I want to know, what are they waitin’ fer? Are they waitin’ fer one of their kids to starve tah death or freeze when winter comes. I reckon that must be it.” She plopped down in the chair, folding her arms over her chest. “Grandpa Abe’s the only one that got any sense. He’s been cuttin’ wood for the last two weeks. He’s got a real big stack goin’ for him, but he’s jest as bullheaded as the rest them. He won’t come to mah meetin’ either.”

“What did you spect them tah do, girl? They ain’t never had no youngin’ goin’ round tryin’ to set up meetins’. Hell, they probably think yer plumb loco.”

“That’s the point, Daddy. If they’d jest listen to me I could have told them what it was all about. We could halp each other this winter. Instead they’s jest sittin’ on their front porches drinkin’ swill and spittin’ in cans. Some need wood; others need food or a new roof like us. Maybe by puttin’ all our resources together we could come up with a good plan.”

“What’s a resource?” Roy asked. “I ain’t got no resource and I don’t tend on buyin’ one.

“Oh forget it,” She stomped off. Talking to herself and kicking clods of dirt from the road, she didn’t even see the figure coming toward her until he said hello.

“Oh, mah gosh, Paul, what are you doing home?” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “It’s only been six weeks, I thought that boot camp lasted eight weeks.”

“Does, for most. I didn’t make it, Rachael. They said I twern’t what they was lookin’ fer. They done sent me home. They said I wasn’t army material, so they gave me five dollars and a bus ticket home.”

“Well, that’s okay, Paul, I’m sure not everyone is cut out to be a soldier.”

“Ben’s still there, Rachael. I seed him right before I left. I’m bigger than him and a lot stronger, too, but the sergeant jest kept a gittin’ on me. Jest cause I couldn’t make it through them trainin’ sessions. I tried reel hard, but they were jest too hard fer me. It’s mah legs, Rachael. I’m plumb bowlegged. I done fell over mah own feet.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m jest a damn failure.”

Rachael put her arms around her brother. “No, yer not, Paul. You’ll be fine. I’m glad tah have you back.”

It didn’t take long for Paul to sense that he was a big disappointment to his father. The words were never spoken out loud, but given out in small doses, like telling Jesse to help Paul with the chores since he might not be able to do them. Also, there would only be Ben’s allotment sent home to help the family.

Ida Mae was happy to have at least one of her boys home safe. She even went so far as to blame herself for Paul’s failure to make it in the army. “I shoulda bound yer legs when you were a youngin’. That’s what that old midwife tole me, but I didn’t do it. It’s all mah fault, Paul.”

Nothing anyone said seemed to help Paul. He took the little money the army had given him and bought tobacco and moonshine. He slept late and spent the rest of the day sitting on the porch drinking from a jug. By evening he usually was too drunk to even make it in the house and spent many a night sleeping in the yard. Other times he would go off with Billy Tate and some of the other boys from the hollow to drink and raise a ruckus. Ida Mae worried constantly about him, but Roy told her to leave him be. He would come around in his own time.

By the end of the summer everyone in the house was totally fed up with Paul. He picked fights with Jesse, told his mother to mind her own business and called Roy a sorry excuse for a father. Even Rachael felt his wrath. When she tried to help him up when he had fallen he pushed her to the ground and cursed her. He became just one more aggravation to compound the already dire situation in the Riley house.

Paul had also taken up with a girl named Nancy who lived in Lynch. She was plump and short and six years older than him. He began spending all of his time with her.

Laying on the front porch, his hat pulled down over his eyes, Paul didn’t hear Grandpa Abe coming, until he was knocked completely over by his grandfather’s swift kick. “What the hell you do that fer? Damm you scart the beejeezus otta me.”

“You don’t cuss at me, Boy. Git off yer lazy ass and come halp me pull some stumps.”

“I ain’t pullin’ no stumps today, it’s too damn hot. Now leave me be.”

Grandpa Abe stepped over him and went into the house. “I heard you out there givin’ it to Paul,” Rachael said dropping another biscuit into the hot grease. “I wish someone could get him movin’. He’s done ate three biscuits already and has been yellin’ for more.”

“I’ll take one o them biscuits, Darlin’. Yer ole grandpa is hungry.” He kissed Rachael on the cheek. He had a gruff nature about himself, but always showed his soft side to her. Whenever he needed something read or written, he would come to her. Grandpa Abe considered himself a real mountain man until he took a job at the mine. He and his wife had nine children and kept food on the table for them. He was a trapper in his younger years, selling pelts to the livery stable in Bent Creek. He made a decent living at it until the mine came along and no one wanted to buy and sell pelts. He had always cursed the day he went to work at the Five Star wishing he would have never stepped foot in the tunnels.

In the past twenty years, Grandpa Abe had buried his wife and eight of his children; leaving only him and Roy as the last of his generation of Rileys. In his whole life he had never been more than twenty-two miles from his home. He said he would have gone further but that’s the spot where the mule died and it was a real long walk home. He lived alone and liked it. He made homemade corn liquor that he drank from a wooden jug he had whittled himself. He liked to play his fiddle and kick up his heels, but time was taking its toll on his old body and it killed his soul to have to ask anyone for help, especially someone like Paul.

When Paul first came home from the army, he constantly complained about being sent home. Grandpa Abe’s only words to him were, “Git over it, Boy. Taint the end of the world.” It didn’t make Paul feel any better.

“What’s yer daddy up tah these days, Rachael,” Grandpa Abe asked, shoving another biscuit in his mouth.

“Same as every day. Jest sittin’ around doin’ nothin’.”

“Well, he better git off his sorry ass and git this place in order fer winter comes. Roof’s got a big hole in it and I don’t see no woodpile.”

Paul called through the open window. “I’m gonna go swimmin’ up at the quarry with some of boys. You want tah come, Rachael?”

Rachael ran her hand over the back of her neck, feeling the raw skin from the heat rash. “Maybe I kin come and jest soak mah feet. You finish off them biscuits, Grandpa. We’ll be back in an hour or so.”

“I’m goin’ too,” Jesse said. “May be the last time fer awhile. I got me a tempry job over at the sawmill. They need extry halp fer a few weeks.”

“Well good fer you little brother. Let’s go,” Paul said sarcastically. He reached under the porch and pulled out a small, brown bottle. He put it to his mouth and took a long drink and shoved it into his overall pocket.

“You kids be careful in that thar quarry,” Grandpa Abe yelled after them.

The quarry was full of the sound of laughter and water splashing as boys jumped off the flat rock into the water. “Where’d all these people come from?” Rachael asked.

“Friends of Billy’s. They come down from Lynch with him. He done vited them up here tah swim. See that girl over thar in that black suit,” Paul said, “That’s mah gal, Nancy. She and me have been doin’ it over thar in the woods fer about two weeks now. I got a good case of poison ivy on mah ass tah prove it.” He let out a loud whoop and jumped into the water.

Rachael watched as Paul swam over to the girl and splashed water on her. She let out a squeal and sat up, her breasts bulging out of her suit. She slid off the rock and joined him in the water, her arms wrapped around his neck. Rachael turned her head; this was too much for her. Climbing down to a lower ledge, Rachael stuck her legs into the water. She was worried about Paul. He had taken several drinks from the bottle before he threw it into the weeds. It was Billy Tate who interrupted her thoughts. “Why ain’t you swimmin’ today, Rachael? The water feels right nice. You got yer monthly?”

“Fer gosh sakes, Billy, you don’t ask girls that! I jest don’t feel like gettin’ mah dress all wet.”

“Yer brother sure has been actin’ crazy like since he come home. I let him drive mah truck last week and he done almost wrecked it. Almost seems like he don’t care whether he lives or dies. Bein’ in no damn army wouldn’t mean that much tah me.”

Billy no sooner had the words out of his mouth than Rachael heard Nancy screaming. She looked up to see Paul on the other side of the quarry climbing up the vine covered rocks. “Oh, mah gosh, what is he doin’?” She cupped her hands around her mouth and called to him, but she knew he couldn’t hear her since all of the boys were clapping and laughing as Paul climbed higher and higher. Finally reaching a sturdy branch, he put his arms around it, and then swung his legs over the top. Sitting on the branch he let out a whoop. “So the army says I ain’t strong. Did ya’ll see that? I’m stronger than most them assholes they got runnin’ around in uniforms. Skinny ass little soldiers with big guns. Watch this.” Paul put one foot on the branch and then the other. Holding on to the ledge, he teetered for a moment and then stood up. Everyone was silent.

Nancy had climbed up the bank and was now standing next to Rachael. She called out to Paul. “You ain’t provin’ anythin’ up thar, Paul. Now you git down fer you kill yerself.”

Without warning, Paul leaned forward and jumped feet first into the water. Several boys still swimming below him yelled out as his body plummeted past them and disappeared under the surface. Rachael let out a gasp and covered her mouth to keep from screaming. How long would it take him tah surface, fifteen seconds, half a minute…surely not any longer than that. How deep did he go? The seconds were ticking by. Where was he? Why wasn’t his head poppin’ up out of the water? And then the scream escaped from her throat. “Paul, Paul, where are you?” She was in the water, swimming out to the middle, diving under the surface along with Jesse and a few other boys. Holding her breath as long as she could, she saw nothing but dark, dark water. Diving below the surface over and over until her lungs were burning like fire and her arms were too weak to hold her on the surface she felt her body sinking deeper into the quarry. Someone’s arms went around her waist and she struggled to free herself. “He’s done gone, Rachael. I ain’t lettin’ you be next.” Jesse pulled her to shore. She was too tired to resist.

The bank was lined with a row of somber boys and sobbing girls and they stood looking into the now calm water as if Paul was going to miraculously appear from beneath the deep. As darkness set upon the quarry, the crowd disbursed leaving Rachael and Jesse to go home and tell their parents that Paul, their oldest son, would not be coming home. Billie Tate put his arm around Nancy and said he would notify the sheriff as soon as he got back to town.

The sheriff called the State Offices and a team of divers was sent to look for Paul’s body. Two days later Rachael waited with her parents on the bank of the quarry as each diver descended into the depths only to return empty handed. Pulling himself out of the water, one of the divers approached the Rileys.

“There’s a large outcropping of rocks on the far side that forms almost cavern-like crevasses. When Paul jumped into the water he must have landed in one of those cracks in the rocks or he may have gotten tangled in the tree roots. I’m sorry we couldn’t find your son, but the water is too deep and too dark.”

Ida Mae collapsed into Roy’s arms and wailed. He could hardly hold her up as she flailed about screaming Paul’s name.

To honor Paul, a white cross was put in the cemetery next to Willie’s grave. Rachael sat down next to the cross. She wondered what his last few minutes of life were like. She wondered if he knew he was going to die as he struggled to free himself from his watery grave or is that what he had planned to do when he climbed onto the rocks. She wondered if that was what he really wanted.

A ‘No Trespassing’ sign was put up on the road leading to the quarry. No one really wanted to go there to swim anyway.

Chapter 7

As the months passed, the leaves on the trees were beginning to wear their fall colors. The sound of the cicadas filled the air during the day and the evenings were becoming a slight bit cooler. It was September and the mine had still not opened. The town of Bent Creek had become desolate except for an occasional truck or wagon that came through to pick up the boards that were falling off the abandoned buildings. They would be used for repair or firewood for the people who still tried to eke out a living until the mine reopened.

It wasn’t long until Mabry’s general store and the livery stable were the only stores left on the dusty street. One small section of Mabry’s was turned into the post office. Each week when Joe Mabry, who was now the postal clerk, went to Lynch to pick up the mail, he would bring home a wagonload of supplies. He brought flour, sugar, salt and coffee, and anything else he could afford that week. He’d mark everything up a few cents and hope that someone would come in that week with enough money to buy a few staples and didn’t ask for credit. Most days he just sat around the pot bellied stove with a few other men who wandered into town to break the silence and loneliness in their own lives. Puffing on their corncob pipes they would still lament over the closing of the mine and contemplate their miserable future. On the days Joe Mabry made his trip to Lynch, Rachael would watch the store in case someone came in to pickup mail or buy something. Joe paid her twenty-five cents and a half-pound of coffee.

At home, Rachael and Emma Jane spent their days foraging through the woods looking for anything edible. They gathered nuts and berries and wild garlic. Along with Jesse they harvested the rest of the vegetables from the garden and the fruit from the few remaining trees. Except for a few laying hens and the old rooster, all of the chickens had been eaten. Ida Mae refused to butcher the cow saying milk was more important than meat. Jesse spent his days hunting, bringing home a few rabbits or squirrels each day. And Roy still sat on the porch playing solitaire, letting the rest of the family do all the work. He watched as Jesse and Ida Mae chopped wood and stacked it next to the house. His life seemed to be frozen in time. He was no longer a part of the family, just a bystander with hopes that the mine was still going to open so once again he could provide for his family.

Laying in bed at night along side Emma Jane, Rachael prayed that things would get better for the family. Sometimes they would hug each other and cry and Emma Jane would ask over and over what they were going to do. It was a miserable existence for two teenage girls. Other times they would talk about what they would do if they had money to spend. Emma Jane always had the same wish. “I would buy a car and go into Lynch. I would walk into one of them stores and buy me a whole box of Butterfingers and eat them all and then I’d buy me another box tah take home.” The remembrance of a candy bar she had over three years ago still stuck in her mind. She had nothing else to think about. Rachael’s dreams were more complicated and Emma Jane usually fell asleep while Rachael was talking.

When Rachael heard about an organization in Lynch that would help out people in need, she mentioned it to her father. She never saw him get so mad. He knocked over a chair and pointed his finger at her. “Don’t you ever, and I mean ever, go tellin’ anybody our business. We ain’t starvin’ and I ain’t gonna accept no handouts. I ain’t gonna be beholden tah anybody. You mind yer business little girl and stay outta’ mine.” Why did he call her little girl? She was almost eighteen years old, two years older than her mother when she married.

Two weeks before Christmas, as the icicles formed on the inside walls of the bedrooms and the snow collected on the roof, Jesse returned from Bent Creek with a letter in his hand. It was scribbled in pencil on a smeared envelope. Roy could hardly make out the writing. The letter was postmarked almost two months previous. He handed it to Rachael and she carefully opened it. It was from Ben. In his barely legible script he wrote that he was still in California. When he was given a physical, the doctors found that his eyesight was not good enough to send him overseas. Ben was kept on the base and was going to school to learn how to repair jeeps and tanks.

Ben talked about the electric lights in his barracks that were on all the time and the warm water in the showers. He said that he was fed three times a day. He hoped that everyone was well. The best part was he enclosed a ten-dollar bill, folded in another piece of paper. When Rachael handed it to her father, she could see the tears in his eyes and a smile on his face. She had no idea if he was happy because he got the letter from Ben or that he could go now have a chaw of tobacco that he missed so much.

Because of Ben’s generosity, Ida Mae made sure that each of the children was given something small for Christmas. Rachael received a box of three handkerchiefs trimmed in blue. Emma Jane got a crocheted hat that Ida Mae had made out of new yarn and Jesse was given a pocketknife. Ida Mae made chicken and dumplings and a rhubarb pie. Even Roy seemed happy on Christmas day as he sat by the stove with his pack of tobacco and the six dollars left over from the trip to the store in his pocket. He only wished that his two eldest sons were there to celebrate with them. Grandpa Abe came to the house and brought his jug of corn liquor. Roy got out his banjo and was joined by Jesse playing the fiddle. It was a good Christmas. As it turned out it would be the last one Grandpa Abe ever have.

On New Year’s Eve, Grandpa Abe started celebrating early. By nine o’clock he had already finished one jug of moonshine and by ten he was all-lickered up. By eleven o’clock he had his rifle out and was shooting branches off the trees all around his cabin. He was staggering down the road in his red long johns, waving his gun in the air when two of his friends saw him and took him back home. He was cussing and screaming that the owners of the mine didn’t give a damn that his family needed work. The men put him to bed and left. Sometime after midnight he must have gone outside to go to the privy. He fell head first into the rain barrel. A neighbor from down the road found him two days later. His head was still in the frozen water and the jug of corn liquor lay on the ground next to him. When they pulled him out he had a wreath of ice around his blue face.

Now that Grandpa Abe was gone, Roy decided to move his family into his father’s house. It had one more room than their own, a watertight roof and the porch was still attached to the house. So the day after his funeral, the Riley family packed their belongings in the wagon and drove the mile and a half to their new home—a run-down shanty just a tad bit better than their own.

Most of Grandpa Abe’s things had to be thrown out. They smelled of mildew and were almost too dirty to get clean. Ida Mae and Rachael packed up all the old blankets and bed sheets and took them outside. They swept all the floors and turned the mattresses. They hadn’t brought much with them but within a few days Ida Mae had the cabin looking as decent as she could with her old furniture and newspaper covering the walls.

When Ida Mae found eleven dollars in a Mason jar under the sink she breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t much, but along with Grandpa Abe’s guns that they could sell maybe they could make it to spring.

Moving into Grandpa Abe’s cabin also came with the awareness that for the first time in their lives they had neighbors living just a few hundred feet away from them. The house next to Grandpa Abe had been vacant for sometime before the Haines family moved in. It was little more than a frame with boards nailed on in every direction. In the first few days in their new home, Rachael counted over ten people living in the house next door and there was probably more that she hadn’t seen. They were a rowdy bunch that had covered all the windows with bright colored rugs to keep the cold out. She and Emma Jane were fascinated with the idea that when they were outside in the yard they could hear people singing and sometimes shouting at each other. No one from the Haines family made any move to come over and talk to them and Ida Mae said to leave well enough alone. She didn’t need any company and they were nothing but a band of gypsies. But Emma Jane’s curiosity finally paid off, when after lingering in the yard for over two hours she met Jimmy Dell Haines. He was seventeen and Emma Jane thought he was the cutest boy she had ever seen.

“Rachael you go outside and holler fer Emma Jane. It’s suppertime. I reckon she’s over at the Haines agin,” Ida Mae said.

Rachael stepped outside the door and yelled for her sister. She waited a few minutes and then called again. Rachael had never been in the Haines’ house, but Emma Jane spent most of her free time with them. Emma Jane came running from the run-down barn in the back of the property. Jimmy Dell was right behind her.

“I swear, Emma Jane, straighten yer dress and get the hay out of yer hair. What have you and Jimmy Dell been doin’?”

“Nothin’, jest sittin’ out back talkin’. Don’t tell mama.” She ran ahead of Rachael and bounded up the porch steps.

Rachael positioned her hands on her hips. “You best stay away from mah sister, Jimmy Dell. Mah pap finds you sniffin’ around her he’s likely to knock yer head clean off.”

Jimmy Dell threw his head back and laughed. “I’d like tah git mah hands on you, girl. Whadda ya say me and you go out tah the barn?”

“You best better keep yer distance, Jimmy Dell or I’ll tell mah pa fer sure.” He spit on the ground and walked away.

Roy shoved half a biscuit in his mouth and licked the gravy off his fingers. “Yer mama tells me you been goin’ over tah them gypsies house and she can’t never find ya, Emma Jane. That true?” he asked.

“Tah begin with, I don’t know why you call them gypsies. They ain’t gypsies, thar migrant workers. Thar jest waitin’ fer the tobaccy plantin’ tah begin and then they’ll all be workin’. Sides, I like havin’ friends,” Emma Jane said.

“Migrants, gypsies, same thang. Ain’t no tobaccy plan-tin’ round here til spring. They ain’t got no right squattin’ in that house. Alls they do is drink and raise hell. You stay away from them, ya heer. I don’t want no daughter of mine gettin’ a bad name or somethin’ worse from them people. I ketch you over thar agin I’m gonna whop yer ass.” Roy was done talking and there was no arguing with him. All the kids knew that.

After supper while the girls cleaned up the kitchen, Emma Jane hummed to herself as she put the dishes in the wash pan.

“What are you so happy about? You best be careful messin’ with that Jimmy Dell. He ain’t no kid. He’s been around, if you know what I mean,” Rachael said.

“Them people are fun tah be around. They laugh and play music and have a good time. They don’t sit around moanin’ all the time like everybody in this house. They make the best of a bad time. And besides I really like Jimmy Dell. Why is everybody always bad mouthin’ the Haines?”

“Most everybody around these parts agrees with Pa. They say people like the Haines just roam around and squat where ever they find an empty house. They make thar livin’ by stealin’ and cheatin’ people outta thar money,” Rachael said.

“That’s stupid. Who around here has anythin’ ta steal? I’m tellin’ you thar migrants,” Emma Jane replied in an angry tone. “Sides, Jimmy Dell thinks I’m cute and I like him.”

“If they ain’t gypsies how come those men go away in thar trucks for a couply days and come back with food. I bet they steal it. They steal from poor folks like us. None of them got jobs,” Rachael said in a commanding tone. “And how come so many of them live in one house? I bet thars neigh on tah fifteen of them squattin’ in that house.”

Emma Jane stomped her foot. “Well, none of us got jobs, so what does that make us? I ain’t gonna argy about this any more. I get real tired of stayin’ in this house every night listenin’ tah mama read the bible. I know it by heart and it sure ain’t done us much good. Daddy sits around waitin’ on the mine tah open and Jesse is off huntin’ all the time or hidin’ from daddy tah keep from doin’ any chores. Least wise the Haines have good food once in a while.” Emma Jane threw down the towel. “Besides it ain’t any of yer call how they make thar money. Quit askin’ me so many questions.” She grabbed her coat off the hook on the wall and went outside slamming the door behind her. Rachael knew where she was going.

Two months later, on a snowy Sunday the Rileys returned from church to find the house the Haines had occupied empty. Emma Jane jumped down from the wagon. A look of surprise crossed her face. The door to the shanty was open and the few remaining panes of glass had been removed from the windows. She ran to the door and peered inside. Only a few pieces of broken furniture remained. Tears welled up in her eyes and she leapt from the porch and hurried to her own house. “Now, what’s gotten into her all of a sudden?” Roy said. “I’m damn glad thar gone. I kin sleep better at night now. I knew’d they wuz gypsies. Thar off and runnin’ agin.”

Emma Jane was lying across her bed when Rachael walked in. Rachael kicked off her shoes and pulled her Sunday dress over her head. Sitting down on the bed, she tugged on her denim pants. “I’m sorry, Emma Jane, I know you liked Jimmy Dell, but that boy was jest plain bad news. You’ll get over him. You kin do much better than him.”

Emma Jane’s head was buried in her pillow. “You don’t understand,” she said in a muffled voice. “Jimmy Dell knew his family was thinkin’ bout leavin’, but he said when his family left he would stay behind and be with me. He lied tah me. God, what am I gonna do? I’m expectin’, Rachael. I done missed mah second monthly and my titties are gettin’ real sore. Pa is gonna kill me when he finds out. I will be yer dead sister, Emma Jane.”

Rachael’s mouth dropped open. “Pregnant. You had done let yerself get pregnant! Damn. Emma Jane, yer so right, Pa is gonna kill you. I didn’t know you and Jimmy Dell were doin’ it. I thought you was just messin’ around.”

Emma Jane sat up and rubbed her nose. “We only did it twice out back in the barn. The first time it hurt real bad and so he talked me into doin’ it agin tah show me it wouldn’t hurt the second time. But it did. He said he loved me a whole lot and that I was his woman. What am I gonna do?”

“You ain’t got a choice, Emma Jane, you have tah tell ma and pa and the sooner the better, if you ask me.”

It took Emma Jane another month before she got the courage to tell her parents. Her stomach was starting to protrude and she got tired of wearing her coat in the house to hide the bump. Her mother cried and her father slapped her across the face. “Now see what you gone and done. Yer gonna bring a bastard child into this family and worse yet a bastard child of a damn gypsy. I’m gonna go after the little sumbitch and make him come back and marry ya proper like. Thang is I ain’t got no idée what direction the Haines went when they left. Maybe I’ll jest call the sheriff and let him deal with them people.”

Emma Jane cried until her eyes were almost swollen shut. She begged her father not to call the law. She said she didn’t want to have a baby. After a few days her father stopped his ranting and resigned himself to the fact that he was going to be a grandpa to his sixteen-year-old daughter’s bastard child.

Chapter 8

Rachael sat by the stove drying a pair of socks she had washed in the sink. It was cold and damp in the house with the rain dripping into four buckets placed on the kitchen floor. Spring was in full force and soon the daffodils and hyacinth that grew along the road would be popping up their sleepy heads. The creek in back of the house would once again be full of crawdads and turtles. It was good not to shiver all the time.

She heard her father and Jesse outside talking loudly. They had just returned from fishing. Her father burst into the room. “Rachael, whars yer ma. I need her right quick! I got news.” He laid a string of six catfish on the table. “Whar is she?”

“She’s out back with Emma Jane. Thar cleanin’ out the cow’s stall. What’s the news, Daddy?”

“Thars some men at the mine. Company men all dressed up in suits and thar’s a whole line of trucks comin’ into town. By cracky, that mine is gonna be fixed and up and runnin’ real soon. Hot damn, I know’d if’n we waited long enough them sumbitches would come round tah our way of thinkin’. Tell yer ma that I’ll be back a fore dark. I got to see fer myself what’s goin’ on.”

It was the first time Rachael had seen her father smile in a long time. Rachael breathed a sigh of relief. If her father went back to work she could leave. There would be enough money coming in to take care of the rest of the family and she could finally tell her parents that she was leaving Bent Creek. She had no idea where she was going, or where she would get the money to get there, but she was leaving. She watched her father go down the road in his rickety, old wagon. She prayed he was right and the mine was going to reopen, even though she knew the dangers.

Roy pulled up in front of the Mabry’s. The road was crammed with trucks and wagons. He shook off his hat and entered the room already crowded with other men from the mine. He nodded to a few he knew and pushed his way closer to the stove. Holding his hands out to warm them, he grinned. “Good news, ain’t it?” he said out loud. A burly man standing next to him spat a wad of tobacco into the spittoon, nearly missing Roy’s foot. “What’s yer beef, Riley? I thought you waz lookin’ forward tah goin’ back tah’ work? Why you so happy that the mine is closin’ for good?”

“Whoa, hold on,” Roy said. “I thought them men were here tah tell us that the mine was gonna open. Why’d they bring all them trucks? Ain’t all that equipment tah fix the shafts?”

“Naw,” the man replied. “Them trucks are takin’ away everythin’ that wuz left behind. The others are here tah come up and give us all our walkin’ papers. The mine is closed for good. Those bastards don’t care one bit that we kin sit up here and starve tah death. I hate them bastards.” There was a loud grumble that filled the room.

When the men from the mining company finally came up to the main street, it was already getting dark and rain was still pelting down. Protected by four of the truck drivers the two men who entered the store tried to explain to the angry crowd that after a thorough inspection they found that the mine was just too dangerous to reopen. It was going to be condemned and dynamited shut the following week. Every man who worked there would get a check for twenty dollars just to show the goodwill of the company. The company men turned and left quickly as a roar of discontent rumbled through the throng.

By nine o’clock that night, Ida Mae was wringing her hands with worry. She paced back and forth across the room, looking out the window and then the door. She was sure that some harm had come to Roy. He would never stay away this long, especially if he had good news. “I know’d somethin’s done gone wrong. Maybe he’s somewhars on the road hurt. Maybe that old mule stepped in a hole in all this rain. I’m gonna go look for him.”

Before anyone could object there were sounds of footsteps on the porch. Ida Mae opened the door and Roy fell in. He reeked of corn liquor and could barely keep his balance. He staggered across the kitchen and plopped down in a chair, muddy water dripping from his boots.

“Roy Riley, whar you been? I swear I been half sick with worry and you come home all lickered up. I wuz jest gettin’ ready tah send the boys out to look fer you.”

Roy held up his hand. “Don’t you go lecturin’ me woman. I had enough lecturin’ for one day. Ain’t no good news. The mine is closed for good. Strike or no strike, them bastards closed it down. So…what do you think of that?” He let out a loud belch. “I guess we better think up somethin’ tah make some money this year. If’n I had enuf money I’d open a sawmill. Yes sir, that’s what I’d do. Can’t do that with the skinny money they be given us for all them years of bustin’ our asses for them. Twenty measly dollars.”

“I’m sure sorry, Roy. Sure sorry,” Ida Mae said.

“I got a little bit of news. Ain’t the best, but anyway, while I wuz in town, Nevers Bains came into the store. He said he wuz lookin’ fer a couply people tah come live over at his house for a while. He wants someone tah stay behind with his wife and halp her out with the chores and keep the varmints away from his livestock. He says he got a whole heap of trouble runnin’ his place and trying tah trap at the same time. Says he’s a lookin fer somebody tah halp him run traps. Me and him made a deal.” He pointed an unsteady finger at Rachael. “I’m gonna send Rachael and Jesse over there tah halp him out. Nevers said he would send me five dollars a week for thar halp. That’s a heap of money right now.”


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