Authors: Marlene Mitchell
By MARLENE MITCHELL
Copyright © 2010 by Marlene Mitchell
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or
portion thereof, in any form. Written permission must be secured
from the publisher to use or reproduce any part of this book, except
for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles. The characters in this novel are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Davis Studio Publishing
P.O. Box 4714
Louisville, KY 40204
Cover photograph by Marlene Mitchell
To my niece, Diane Gibbear and my nephew, Richard Borders.
Two special people that I would love even if we weren’t related.
A Little Bit of History
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 cascad
ing streams meandered through the 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 shack
led to the mine for their meager existence.
In the spring of 1928 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 sup
plies 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 hol
lers lessen ya got kin or friends livin’ thar. Ya could jest git shot. They don’t cotton tah strangers nosen in thar business.”
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 Wil
liam 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.
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.
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. Emm
a 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 lower
ed 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 inter
ested 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.