Authors: Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
VERNIGHT PUBLISHING ®
Copyright© 2016 Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Cover Artist: Jay Aheer
Editor: Audrey Bobak
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Last year, my daughters and I made a journey from Missouri to northern Virginia that took us through Kentucky, West Virginia, and a wide swath of Virginia. It was a first for them but I had traveled these roads before and I knew these places were home to some of our ancestors, our kinfolk. This novel was inspired by that trip, by my family and I dedicate Coal Black Blues to the granny women, the matriarchs and the ancestors. It’s for my great-grandmother, Grandmammy, who raised her brood in those mountains, for my Granny’s grandmother, Amanda, who stayed home on the land while her man went to war, and for all the pioneer women whose spirit survives in me and in my daughters.
COAL BLACK BLUES
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Copyright © 2016
No one spoke as the six pallbearers lifted the casket and carried it to the small cemetery across the road. Their footsteps echoed as the mourners trailed behind, the women’s heels staccato against the pavement. Above, a pair of red-tailed hawks soared and their faint cries drifted to earth. The first vivid fall hues of the hardwood trees contrasted with the green cedar trees surrounding the graveyard. A hint of chill in the wind despite the sunshine confirmed it was mid-October.
Caroline stood beside the open grave, flanked by her cousins, Susan and Sheryl. Their husbands were a few paces behind and their children’s hands were locked tight within their daddies’ grip as they mourned. Caroline lacked a husband to provide support, emotional or otherwise. Dylan, who had recently become her ex, hated the hillbilly portion of her heritage with more passion than he’d ever shown her. Even if they were still married, he wouldn’t have come.
The preacher offered a closing prayer and Miss Trimble, retired schoolteacher and spinster, stepped forward to sing “Amazing Grace” accapella. Her voice gave the traditional hymn power and depth. Before the final note vanished on the wind blowing down the mountain, the men from the American Legion post stepped forward. The poignant strains of “Taps” echoed, then the military detail fired seven shots, three times in rapid succession. Then they removed the flag draping Uncle Jim’s coffin and folded it with brisk efficiency into a triangle. After a whispered conference, one of the men carried it over and thrust it into Susan’s hand.
She accepted it with tearful thanks.
When the funeral ended, people spoke in normal tones instead of hushed whispers. Many headed back to the church parking lot and climbed into their vehicles. Those remaining swarmed forward to offer their condolences. Some spoke to Caroline, but after being gone twenty years except for the occasional holiday or funeral, few knew her. Those who did had either been close to Uncle Jim or recognized her from the Midway Store. Although she hadn’t reopened it for business yet, she would soon. With any luck, the customers would return, but since the store had closed six months ago when her uncle became too ill to run it, Caroline understood there were no guarantees. If people had grown accustomed to buying their gas or snacks out by the interstate, they might continue. Once, though, the Midway Store had been the heart and hub of the small Coaltown community and she intended to make it so again. Coming back here, where she’d once had roots, risked everything she had left to lose.
“Come on, it’s getting colder,” her cousin Susan said. She linked her arm through Caroline’s. “I think everything’s ready for the dinner, so let’s get back to the church.”
Delicious aromas had wafted upward into the sanctuary during the service. Caroline remembered such meals all too well. There would be fried chicken and fish, a dozen salads ranging from pea to potato, casseroles, pies and cakes, homemade breads and hot rolls, and probably crock pots keeping chili and old-fashioned beans warm. Until she’d come back to Coaltown to visit Uncle Jim the first time, Caroline hadn’t enjoyed home-cooked comfort food in years.
Her appetite had waned as Uncle Jim faded faster in recent weeks. From her first trip in mid-June, his condition had deteriorated until he had become a living skeleton. Although a steady stream of well-meaning family members, friends, and neighbors had delivered food on a daily basis, Caroline hadn’t been hungry. Bone-deep weariness dogged her footsteps and she longed to go back to her grandparents’ old house, given to her along with the store by her uncle, to sleep for days. In his final days, she had sat with Jim when he became too feeble to rise from his bed. The hospice people had provided minimal respite, but in the last hours, her cousins had arrived to keep vigil over their father too.
After the meal, after they all gathered one last time, Susan and Sheryl would return home. Susan would go back to teaching middle-school music, her husband to managing a large home-improvement store in Charleston, the state capital. Sheryl would return to Staunton, Virginia where she and her husband ran a small clinic, he as doctor, she as his nurse. Their children, six between the two sisters, would slide back into their routines of school and homework. Jim’s daughters would return once or twice to clear out the house and put it on the market, but after that, Caroline didn’t expect any of them back often if at all once it was done.
Nobody else had wanted the store and seemed glad she agreed to keep the legacy alive. Their great-grandparents had begun the Midway Store after World War I, and their grandparents ran it for decades. Uncle Jim modernized the place and added fuel pumps when he took it over. It became Jim’s Place under his ownership.
Sheryl’s voice cut into her reverie. “Hey, come on you two, we can’t start without you. Food’s gonna get cold and we have to leave in a little while to get back to Staunton before it’s too late.”
“All right,” Susan said.
The sound of an approaching vehicle cut into the quiet. Caroline detached from her cousin. “I’ll be right there. I want to see if that’s someone coming to join us or what.”
She needed a moment to collect her thoughts and conjure up a little enthusiasm for the meal. Both women nodded. “See you in a minute then,” Susan said as she vanished into the church with her sister.
Caroline drew a deep breath of fresh air, scented with woodsmoke. A mud-splattered pickup careened around the curve with enough speed she thought for a moment that the driver might lose control and tumble down the mountain. Instead, he pulled into the parking lot and stepped out. As soon as his boots touched pavement, her attention focused on him and nothing more.
From the hardhat on his head to the boots that reached his knees, he wore miner’s gear, and from the black streaks across his face, Caroline figured he’d come straight from the mines. Twenty years had passed since she last saw him, but recognition was immediate. She knew those deep-gray eyes gazing her direction and those unruly black curls escaping beneath the hardhat.
“Neil McCullough,” she said when he halted a few feet away. “I thought you left these hills and never looked back.”
She couldn’t resist the jibe although she knew it wasn’t so. His local presence had loomed large even though they hadn’t met again until now.
His lips flexed into a grin, the old one she remembered all too well. “I might not have looked,” he drawled. “But I came back after a few years. You’re the one I thought took off for the city lights and gave up everything hillbilly. I was sorry to hear. I heard, too, you’re planning to stay. Is it true?”
Caroline’s breath caught and refused to release.
Oh, he looked fine, as handsome as ever if a little more world weary than he’d been at eighteen. His voice had deepened, too, but the sound of it echoed with enough familiarity to send a sharp pain through her heart. Caroline nodded as she struggled to make her tone level.
“Yes, I’m opening the store again. Uncle Jim left it to me along with Granny and Papa’s house.”
Neil shot her an inquiring look. “How’d that happen, skipping over Susan and Sheryl?”
Tongues from Coaltown to Charleston must be wagging about her inheritance, but Neil should know Jim Reaburn had been a fair man. “Neither one wanted it,” she told him. “I do.”
His left eyebrow quirked upward in a way she recalled well. “Why? You ain’t been here in a coon’s age, have you?”
Caroline cringed inwardly. What he said was true. “No, not until this summer, I haven’t. I came back to visit Uncle Jim when I found out how sick he was and that he didn’t have long left to live.”
“Sweet,” Neil commented in a tone laced with sarcasm. “So then you just kept coming around until he handed you the store and the old house. I thought your rich lawyer husband taught you to want more valuable things than that.”
“It wasn’t like that,” she said. “And I agree, I should’ve been back long before I came, but I don’t have a husband now.”
Neil’s smug expression faded. Obviously, he hadn’t known about the divorce. “So what are you gonna do? Get the store up and running again, then sell it and that old place to the first buyer so you can fly off to some tropical beach or European castle?”
The bitter words stung, but she lifted her head to respond. “I don’t deserve that, Neil,” she said with quiet dignity. “Dylan liked the high life and fine things, but I never needed such to be happy.”
His gray eyes stared into hers, direct and probing. “So were you?”
Memories of her married life swamped Caroline. The long, lonely hours when Dylan worked late or built a case, the glittering parties where she’d felt out of place and dowdy among the jet-set women, and the way Dylan mocked all she valued. “No,” Caroline said and met his gaze. “I wasn’t. Coming back made me realize where I belonged.”
He frowned and yet she thought she caught a glimmer of something more in his eyes. Neil shrugged. “I guess you’ll find out if that’s so,” he said. “I came to pay my respects to Jim, but I reckon I’m too late.”
“If you mean it, then you’re not. You may have missed the visitation and the funeral, but if your heart’s in the right place, I imagine Uncle Jim would understand. Besides, you stopped by to see him when he was still alive. That matters more.”
Surprise widened his eyes and parted his lips. “I did, but I didn’t figure you knew that.”
“He told me. After my first visit home in June, I came almost every weekend and for a week in September. I’ve been here for the last week, once I knew he wouldn’t last long.”
And had thought maybe Neil would visit, like so many others who wanted to see Jim Reaburn one last time. Her uncle had been too weak to appreciate the visits, but he’d tried to greet the callers, right up until the last few days. “I hadn’t heard he got so bad,” Neil said after a pause. “I’ve been working in the mines. We’ve been shorthanded and there was a cave-in a week ago. No one was hurt, but we’ve been working overtime to dig it all back out. I’m truly sorry.”
For my loss or for not coming to visit, I wonder which or both.
Whatever he intended, he sounded like he meant it. “Thanks, Neil. Come in and eat with us. There’s plenty of food.”
“I’m dirty as sin,” he said. “I ought not.”
Now that his edgy anger seemed tempered, she wished he would stay.
“You’re welcome if you want to, Neil. Nobody will care if you’ve been working.”
He swallowed hard. “I care, but I’m hungry. I’ll come in for a bite if there’s someplace I can wash up first.”
“The closest restrooms are inside the front door,” she said. “And when you’re ready, the dinner is in the fellowship hall downstairs.”
“Then I’ll be there in a little bit,” he said. “Thanks, Carrie.”
No one else had ever called her that. With her emotions already overloaded, she almost cried to hear it again. “I’ll see you there,” she said. Then she walked away, not daring to look back.