A man arrived on our land, with two dead hogs on the bed of his Model A truck. My brother Henry called me from the doorway. With mud on his boots, he knew well not to track across our rugs. I slipped on my green cardigan, tucked my necklace into my blouse, and approached the front porch, to welcome the man.
“Miss Brown?” The man stood with his hat in hand and the bed of his Ford facing the porch. The rains from the evening before had settled into a morning mist, distorting the lenses of my glasses with cold beads.
“Laura Lee will do,” I said. “Twenty is still a bit young for ‘Miss.’ And you are?”
“Carter Smith. Peggy Smith’s cousin. Just back from Germany.” He offered his hand; I shook it.
“She still down in Quinnimont?” Henry asked.
“She’s set in her ways,” Carter said. “Lord knows she can afford to leave West Virginia.”
I stuck my hand back in my sweater pocket. “What can we do for you, Carter?”
He had thinning blond hair, bluish gray eyes, and cheeks that blushed in the crisp air. Handsome and big, probably a scootch above thirty. He survived the Nazis – give him credit for that. “I need God’s help. And Cousin Peggy said the Brown family has the ear of God.” He pointed toward the dead hogs in the truck. “But first I gotta fill the collection plate.”
I walked toward the cleaned hogs and stuck my hand in the slit of one pig’s chest cavity. “Coffee?”
He smiled. “Thank you.”
With their boots by the door, I served coffee and pound cake to Henry and Carter in the living room. Long ago, our family decided to keep the affairs of friends and kin separate from those seeking assistance. Those in need come in the morning, everyone else, in the afternoon or early evening.
After thanking me for the cake and coffee, those in need usually spend time studying the portraits of family going back 70 years. All the same, I’m not here to recall ancestry; I’m here to listen. Henry, a few weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday, sat and observed.
“I wanna thank you both for taking time outta your day to see me,” Carter said. “Things are a bit tough for my family; I have a wife, son, and another kid on the way. I tried working in the mines for a couple of months, but since I got back … I can’t go down the shafts without reliving everything I’d care to forget from the war.
“But what’s worse is even if I had the nerve to work the mines, the coal towns are drying up. Back in my granddaddy’s day, on the New River Gorge, there was a coal town every half-mile. Now most of ‘em are abandoned.”
I sipped the coffee and provided the occasional nod to show some visual sympathy. I cradled the tin cup in my hands, warming them. I didn’t respond.
“So moving to another town would be expensive. I got buddies working the steel mills in Pennsylvania, but again, I need cash for a fresh start. Everybody deserves a second chance, right?”
I took another sip of coffee. Henry tapped a cigarette from his pack and lit it with his Zippo. He offered one to Carter, who refused. I heard the clasp of the lighter’s metal casing.
I stared at Carter. He continued, “I can’t ask Peggy for the money. She’s got her own problems being a widow and all. Just don’t seem right to impose.”
I cleared my throat. “Carter, what did Peggy tell you about me?”
His mouth crept open, a pink fleshy hole, but above his nose, his eyes were calculating, fierce.
“That you were the source, and a donation of animals would be appreciated. That’s all she would tell me. She refused to say more. She gotta a lot of cash from you, for a family who don’t look more well off than most in this region.”
I swirled my spoon in my cup. “But you insisted that she tell you where the money came from.”
The pink hole became a parapet. With his other hand, he covered the fist forming on his lap. As if that would hide his anger from me.
“I brought the hogs from my farm. I was told to give something. Then you would help.”
Henry laughed and coughed between puffs of smoke. I couldn’t help but chuckle as well.
“I ain’t come here to be mocked.” Carter stood.
“Well, you set yourself up for it. One, you’re not a farmer, let alone a hog farmer, or you would’ve mentioned that sooner. I couldn’t even smell a hint of pig shit on your boots. Two, those hogs were too clean and their bellies were cold. You bought those from a slaughterhouse. Three, when I shook your hand I didn’t feel two-months worth of coal mining on your palms. Not a callus, nor a blister. Four, if you’re a husband, where’s your wedding ring. In these parts, a married girl expects a ring on her husband, even if it’s a band from a dime store. You even have children?”
The man buttoned his coat and cocked his fedora to the side. “You’re pretty smart. Clever as hell.”
“Clever as I need to be.”
“If you’re so clever, what’s gonna keep me from knocking out your kid brother and ransacking this house to find your cash?”
I nodded to Henry, who offers an ear-splitting whistle. From the basement, four hunting dogs rush up the stairs. Carter must have been familiar with the sound of hounds because he ran from the living room, without his boots, and jumped in his truck as quickly as he could. Swerving and scattering mud and gravel, he sped away from our land.
I stood with Henry on the porch. The hounds returned to us to receive our praise and strokes around the ears.
“Pig farmer who’s afraid of the mines,” Henry said.
“I know.” I smiled and checked my pocket watch. “Hailey’s late.”
“Naw, look,” Henry said.
A little girl hurried along the road.
Hailey had devoured the three strips of bacon and two eggs over-easy. While she was sopping up the splayed yoke with the remaining half of her biscuit, I laid a couple more strips of smoked bacon on her plate. She was a growing kid and the wiriest-eight-year old I’ve ever met. She’d burn it all off by supper.
I stood against the sink and sipped my third cup of coffee. I watched the strands of sandy hair drift over her face. She always claimed to take a bath before coming over, but I could still see the smudges and crusts of some other meal still stuck to the sides of her mouth. Yeah, she’d rebel a bit when I insisted on her taking another bath, but deep down, I didn’t think she minded too much.
“How’s your ma?”
“She good. Found work cleaning the post office. She say it keep her busy about four or five hours a day. It’s good work.”
I rotated the tin cup; the remaining sips formed a brown crescent at the bottom. “Don’t forget to remind your ma that I can help if she needs it.”
“She says she don’t need it,” Hailey almost blurted the declaration, and whispered the rest. “She can feed us just fine.”
I sighed and set the cup aside. “I’m sure she can, sweetie. I meant no harm.”
She gulped her milk with a satisfied exhale and raised her sleeve to wipe her mouth.
“Napkins in this house. Thank you.”
She stopped and crawled her fingers to the cloth on her lap and dragged it across her lower face.
“Good girl. The Sweeneys will be here soon for the pickup and drop off. Then we got a family coming in around eleven; they’re in the worst sort of way. Go upstairs and wash. I got a few kettles already heated in the tub.
“Aw, Laura Lee!”
“Scootch. You look squalid and tangled as it is. Don’t you wanna look clean and presentable for Jim?”
She grinned and buried her face in her napkin. “Don’t say nothing.”
“I won’t. He has no idea you fancy him. Now go. Clean clothes are on my bed.”
Hailey rushed upstairs.
I washed the dishes in the sink with water from the pump outside. I could have installed running water in this house ages ago. Hot water, at that. Would have cost a small fortune to get it around these mountains; would probably draw attention as well. So we stuck with the pumps. Still practical, still functional, and discreet.
The grayish Plymouth pulled up to the front of the house. Jim honked the horn and appeared tolerant of the mud. Henry set a few collapsed cardboard boxes before Kate’s door. He helped her from the vehicle as well. Kate said something beyond my ears. Whatever it was, my kid brother blushed like a rose.
I stood at the screen door. Jim, with his open topcoat, reached into the back of the car to retrieve a locked briefcase and a suitcase. I could see the butt of his pistol, shining in his shoulder holster. The three approached the top of the stairs. I tossed Henry and Jim a couple of rags, and eyed their muddy shoes. Henry always offered to clean Kate’s shoes as well.
“Long drive?” I asked.
“We’re accustomed to it,” Jim said. “Roads are a bit icy though.”
I brewed a new pot of coffee and offered sandwiches.
“Okay, whadaya have for us this month?” Jim said.
I nodded to Hailey, who stepped forward with two small sacks. One contained a hundred rough, un-cut diamonds, gem quality. Fine and rare … at least rare elsewhere in the world. Quite abundant on my family’s side of the mountain. In other countries, for every ten diamonds removed from the ground, about two are gem quality. The others are mostly yellow hue, with a bit of Nitrogen. Not here. The sack contained white diamonds, a few brown and pink stones as well. Every few months, we even present a red, green, or blue diamond. Those are the most rare.
Kate retrieved her eyepiece magnifying glass and held it in place with her brow and cheek. She rolled the rough stones between her fingers and asked for a bit more light. We had electric lines, a minor luxury, so I turned on the lamps. “Thanks,” she whispered. She then weighed several of the stones with a small scale. “Wonderful. We can offer more, since you have a green stone, here.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
Hailey opened the other small sack, to reveal a fistful of gold nuggets, about the size of misshapen creek pebbles. Kate weighed those too.
“Oh, those are nice. About twenty ounces of gold, I can offer you $1,818.82?”
“Yeah, that sounds fair,” I said.
Jim lit his pipe and opened the suitcase with his keychain. He proceeded to remove stacks of singles, fives, tens, twenties, and one hundred dollar bills. Crisp and bound, as if straight from the U.S. Treasury Dept. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had conducted this exchange so often with Jim and Kate’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather over the decades that it would have been an insult to count the cash. But occasionally we did, for the sake of business.
Henry placed the stacks of money in a pile of satchels, to deposit in one of several industrial safes in the basement. Jim recommended the William Walton, Iron & Steel Merchant Burnley safes. Imported from the UK, Jim’s family swore by their reliability.
The Sweeneys and Browns, Irish and English, came over in the 1870s. We lived in these hills together; we had kin who died together in the mines, beaten in strikes, and started anew with baby girls and boys. When my kinfolk learned about the land they had acquired, and God’s gift, we had trusted the Sweeneys to find diamond and gold merchants in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, Newark, Cleveland, and Montreal. Reliable cutters who would chisel and polish our stones and ask no questions, but everyone wondered.
We just never told. The cutters trusted the Sweeneys to purchase on their behalf and the Sweeneys in turn provided them top quality gems and gold. So much so that the jewelers of major cities asked us to hold off on product from time to time to cultivate demand. We had surplus cash; we could wait. We diversified our clients, to avoid drawing attention and flooding regional markets with jewels.
With gangs, highwaymen, and organized crime, the Sweeneys learned the importance of traveling armed. Sweeneys and Browns had fought in every major war after the Civil War; we could hold our own. Jim had the good fortune to make it back from the most recent conflict; my older brother Daniel wasn’t as lucky. His portrait is just above the mantel, next to Mamma and Pa.
We also avoided drawing attention to ourselves because we didn’t use excavation equipment: no railcars, no tracks, no bulldozers, no drills, no large-scale pumped water, and no tunnels. Just fine, rough, uncut diamonds, and small gold nuggets.
“We got a family in need coming in a few minutes,” I said. “You two haven’t watched the passing in a while. Care to stay?”
Jim gnawed at the tip of his pipe. “Seems a bit personal imposing on moments involving God’s gift. We’ll pass this time, but let’s have dinner soon.”
“Yeah, it has been a while,” Kate added. She stored and locked the stones and pebbles in the briefcase. She then began disassembling the portable scale. She hesitated a bit. “Hon, I saw Albert in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh?” I held myself, a little. Like how a person braces themselves before getting smacked in the face.
“Yeah, he was with a girl,” Kate said. “Kinda living it up. Painting the town red and all.”
Albert was a good man. Still is. However, my family didn’t think he had the resolve for our kind of work. Our mission, really. He accused me of not trusting him. I loved him. Still do. But love and trust are a shoe and foot that don’t always fit. Soon after I experienced a couple of physical tragedies, he left, and I maintained my duty. To this land. To God’s gift. To my family. To Hailey. And to the people on both sides of the mountain.
“He made a choice,” I said. “Me too. I got no ill will toward Al. I wish him the best.”
Henry returned from the basement; he lit another cigarette. Gotta talk to that boy about his smokes. Too much too often. Though I’m not much better with the reefer; it grows like dandelions around our land. I got bushels of it dried in the storage room. Everyone’s got a vice.
Jim and Kate said their goodbyes. Kate kissed Henry on the cheek; though she’s five years older than my brother, she still gave the boy a bit of hope. Jim lifted Hailey in his arms and said, “Goodbye my little lady; take care of these two.” Hailey kissed her Irish love on the brow. Well, it was more like a kiss with her lips and her nose cushioning against his head. Children have a clumsy affection.
With goodbyes and transactions completed, the Sweeneys drove away. Though they had to accommodate another car passing through our lumber and wired gates. A Ford pickup truck. This time driven by a Negro woman, with three black children beside her. They pulled up to the side of the house. Something’s covered in the truck’s bed. More hogs? My heart tells me no.
I turned to Henry and Hailey. “It’s time. Henry, help with what’s in the bed. Hailey, play with the kids; at best, keep ‘em busy. The moment things get emotionally heavy, I’ll need you to take them away: to the tire swing, to the creek, somewhere away from me. Earn your keep – go!”
Henry reached for his coat. Hailey hurried upstairs for hers as well. I opened the exterior door and waved once. More than that would have been inappropriate.
I had prepared roast beef sandwiches with heated gravy and potato salad, leftovers from the night before. I still can’t stop cooking for five people. The kids, two boys around five and six, and a daughter at age ten, could definitely finish a plate. Almost as fast as Haley. They all had milk mustaches by the time they were done eating and drinking.
I looked to Henry and Haley. “Clean the dishes. Keep our guests company. We’re going in the living room to chat.” Before I left the kitchen, I opened a porcelain jug and removed four butterscotch candies, giving them to each of the kids. Henry had his Lucky Strikes.
The mother and I sat next to each other. She snuggled herself in the high-backed winged chair, covered with a pillow and a blanket, while I sat on the sofa.
“Mrs. Rhodes, how may I help you?”
“My husband, the man I shared ten years of my life with, is wrapped in a blanket on your couch. He worked down at the sawmill; I’d see him everyday on my way to school. And on Sundays, he’d be at our church, with his momma right next to him. He loved me. He wasn’t the smartest man; he wasn’t rich. But he was there. When his momma needed him, when his job relied on him, and when I first got in trouble, he was there.
“My momma and daddy could have sent me to my aunt’s home in Dover. But Marlon’s momma told him, and Marlon came to my family. I soon became his wife, and my daughter became his daughter. And ten years later, an accident at the sawmill left him dead and now wrapped on your couch. Even in death, he’s still there.” Mrs. Rhodes stood and approached the couch holding her dead husband. She kissed the blanket where his lips should be. Her hand caressed his bound chest. She kept her back to me.
“I heard through the grapevine that your family got the ear of God on your side. If folks are true and humble, then you can help them. But then I was told you only help white folks. Laura Lee, I’m not a minister, and I’m not a deacon, but if anyone truly has the ear of God on their side, then I’m guessing skin color don’t mean much.” She turned to me. No tears. They had dried up and tapped out hours ago.
“You reckon right, Mrs. Rhodes. The ear of God don’t give a hoot about skin color. We’re all kin in the presence of the Lord.”
She permitted her first semblance of calm. “Then can you help me? I…” she hesitated and pressed her hands against her dress. “I was told to bring alms in the form of flesh that held importance for my family. We never raised livestock. All I have is my husband.”
I approached Mrs. Rhodes and cradled her face in my hands. I could hear the snapping and cracking of the fireplace and the scent of her Woolworth perfume, mingling with the fireplace’s smoke. “He’s all you’ll need. I promise.”
We reloaded Marlon’s body on the bed of the pickup and drove the truck several acres into our land. We stopped the truck a few yards from the bank of a pit filled with viscous soil. The pit had a diameter of 80 feet. A tree line of sycamore hid the pit on the Northwest side; a steep hill of trees formed a canopy that shielded the eastern side of the pit. Raspberry and blackberry bushes grew sporadically around the perimeter of the orifice.
Henry helped Mrs. Rhodes and I carry her husband to the edge of the pit. Upon my recommendations, she removed the blanket covering his nude body. Earlier, we had placed his clothes in a paper bag.
“It’s time for your goodbyes and perhaps a prayer,” I said.
She knelt before her husband and locked her hands together. Her prayer, at the edge of a whisper, was heartfelt. Sincere. Henry and I stood at an appropriate distance, but we never spoke a word. Our heads held low, our eyes closed. For me, I occasionally prayed.
“I’m ready,” Mrs. Rhodes said.
“The soil is a bit moist, so don’t be surprised if it gets all over your shoes,” Henry said. He held the stretcher handles near the head and Mrs. Rhodes and I held the polls near the feet. We walked a third of the way into the circumference and flipped the stretcher into the pit. Marlon Rhodes plopped into the soil.
“Hurry,” I said. We splashed our lower apparel while leaving the muddied orifice with haste. Mrs. Rhodes paid no mind to her splattered dress. She held a clenched hand across her chest.
“Wait,” I said and exhaled. A light drizzle returned.
Sometimes, the bodies sink headfirst; sometimes, the bodies roll on their side and submerge. Marlon Rhodes appeared to drag in an easterly direction; he bid farewell with a crown of bubbles singing his departure.
Mrs. Rhodes’ mouth fell agape. Before she collapsed, I embraced her from behind; she turned to me. “Oh Lord, Jesus!”
“It happened as I said it would. You did a brave act, and your husband would understand.” I walked her back to the truck, and Henry loaded the stretcher.
We returned to the house, where Hailey continued to play marbles with the Rhodes children on the porch. I poured Mrs. Rhodes a cup of tea, and Henry returned from the basement with a sack containing $10,000.
She touched the surface of the bills. Her face formed a pained contraction. “Where is he?”
“In a place where he’ll do others a world a good. Your guilt is normal, but consider this: you have options and possibilities. You don’t need to fear providing for your children. For years to come, your family won’t go hungry, and you’ll have a roof over your heads.”
Her hand trembled the porcelain cup against the saucer. “Thank you, Laura Lee.”
I rose from the couch and hugged her.
An hour after the Rhodes family departed, Hailey and I walked along a path, leading southeast from the house. The dogs would follow us to the point when we’d reach the barn, then they’d return to the house. My family built that barn decades ago. We stored our gardening equipment, tools, and extra firewood there. It was also a marker indicating how close we were to the pool.
Even on a moonless night, we could still find our way. Our bare hands could sense the warmth of the pool, despite the damp February air. Our ears and the bridges of our noses also sensed a slight reverberation that disappeared if we turned away from the path. Hailey called it “the tickle.” But the warmth and vibrations only occurred if you walked a few paces beyond the barn. You knew you were getting closer. Hailey tucked her coat under her arm, and I opened my cardigan. I also carried a large wicker basket that held a canteen of water, a bottle of vinegar, a tin of almonds, towels, two knives, and small leather pouches.
Despite the dusk, a ground-based light shined through the branches, projecting silhouettes of trees. We turned around the bend to see an 80-foot wide pool of brilliant turquoise water. Calm ripples and light twinkled across the surface. The waters cast warm reflections upon our faces, like watching a fireplace in a darkened room. Stone plates lay around the perimeter and the walls of the pool, extending toward depths that plunged beyond my sight.
I always felt this blast of fresh air at the pool. Like eating a mouthful of Peppermint Patties or a smear of Vaporub along the chin. Hailey took so many deep breaths I swore she’d go dizzy.
“If you pass out, I’m leaving you in the grass, knuckle-head.”
“Aw, you’re no fun,” she said. “No fun at all.”
“Shhhh!” I got on my knees and began to pray. She followed suit, with a push of the basket to the side so she could kneel next to me. The prayers were never long, never verbalized. Just silent reflection of whom we’ve helped and who still needs us.
A splash upon the surface, and then another. I opened my eyes. In the center of the pool, foam sacs, pewter-colored membranes the size of pumpkins emerged from the deep darkened turquoise, into the light. The sacs always settled in clusters, like marbles in a bowl. They were too delicate and too far to retrieve with a hook or a net.
I stood, unclasped my necklace and gave it to Hailey, who received it with both hands. She carefully placed the necklace in the basket. I then removed my clothing and glasses, and jumped in the water. I never cared much for bathing suits, and the warmth felt wonderful against my body. If Henry were around, I’d get him to swim and insist that he wear his shorts. I’m a free spirit, but my spirit ain’t that free.
“I wanna go!”
“No, last time you broke a sac goofing around; you’re still grounded for two more visits.”
I’m a strong swimmer from years of doing this, so it took little effort to paddle towards the center: five times, two sacs per trip. On an average evening, we’d harvest ten to fifteen sacs. Hailey squatted near the edge, retrieved a membrane, and set it aside. Each foam sac weighed about the same as a beach ball, yet slippery, and glistened colors like the surface of a soap bubble.
I reached the edge of the pool and climbed out, wedging my hands and feet between the stone plates that rose five-feet above the water’s surface. Hailey passed me a towel. While I dried off, she laid in a row the leather sacs we brought. She then unsheathed the knives and set the first membrane on the towel. I was proud of her for taking on her role so diligently. Though she horsed around, Hailey still took this part of the day as seriously as I did. It became her duty. I just hoped her mother saw the good in her, too.
After I redressed, Hailey and I each selected a membrane and began piercing the skins. We heard popping sounds, followed by the hissing of air from the sacs. Each membrane held fleshy chambers and in each of those chambers was rough, unpolished diamonds. Fine gems. We dried the stones and placed them in the leathered sacks. About once a month, we’d discover a pebble or nugget of gold, but not this time. About once or twice a year, we’d find red, blue, or green diamonds, but again not this time. Before leaving, we’d dice the foam membranes into smaller pieces and bury them in the soil next to the thicket of hemp plants that grew abundantly near the pool. After the piercing and sorting, we’d wash our hands in vinegar, and enjoy a snack of almonds and water from the canteen. While I munched the almonds, Hailey would occasionally touch my gold necklace with a green and red diamond housed in the center. I’d smile and stroke her hair.
The clock struck ten. I tucked Hailey in 30 minutes ago. She enjoyed dinner as always and her ma will come ‘round tomorrow to take her to church, and then home for the next few days. Until they’re outta food, and her ma becomes too proud, or humbled, to ask for cash. I don’t have a list of connections to get her a better job. I just have cash, an almost infinite amount of it. Don’t matter. Hailey’s ma is suffering, and some anguish can’t be swabbed just with money.
So I pretend to put her daughter to work, and instead give that girl as much love and meals as possible. Hailey and I took an oath, by spit handshake to never divulge the secrets of my family’s land. And if there’s one thing this reformed tomboy understands, it’s that spit handshakes are as sacred as Jesus’ cat.
I lit some weed and sat in my rocker on the front porch with the dogs. The clouds had cleared and the stars shined, stark and beautiful against the night. Henry dragged a chair nearby and wrapped himself in one of our mother’s quilts. He lit a cigarette.
“We got four interviews lined up for Monday,” he said, while stroking one of the dogs behind the ear. “A father has a need for us –”
I blew a ring of smoke. “Bud Wilson. Right?”
“Yup, he said he could offer a couple of goats; that’s all he has of value. His mother was in an accident.”
“If I believe him, then the goats should do.”
“Shhh,” Henry whispered.
A rustling and snapping of branches emerged from the tree line. I saw a distorted movement near the wired fence, many yards away. Before Henry or I could say a word, our four dogs raced toward the noise. Two shotgun blasts found their target with the death whimper of our family pets. Two dogs managed to flee despite pistol fire; one round zipped through the night and another bullet cracked a wooden post.
I gripped my brother by the shirtsleeve. “Get your hunting riffle and shells, guard the top of the stairs! Anyone who isn’t me, light ‘em up like a Christmas tree!”
“What about you?”
“I’ll handle it; I’ll be fine. You’re the last male in this family, you and Hailey need protecting above all else!”
“But – ”
Another shotgun round splintered the railing of our veranda. I felt the shards of wood.
Henry raced inside and stayed low.
“Stop shooting up my porch!” I stood with my hands raised. “Hold on, now. Nobody needs to die.” I stood and walked down the stairs. That’s when I remembered my diamond necklace not being tucked under my blouse. I thought about reaching for my neck, but decided against it. A sudden movement would startle these gunmen.
“Miss Laura Lee!” said one of the men. “Pleasant night we’re having.” I knew that voice.
He reloaded his shotgun. “At your service.”
Two more men I didn’t know appeared with him. Young men with stern expressions; one packed the other shotgun, the second held a pistol; they’re faces weren’t covered. Oh God.
“How may I help you, Carter?”
“Tell your brother to come downstairs.”
“He won’t be doing that. I’m the only one you’ll need to talk to. Hurt me, he’ll kill you. Kill me, he’ll kill you; use me as hostage, he’ll kill all of us.”
The men assessed each other; someone needed to make a decision.
“I got a another idea: you boys are here for money. Some of it, all of it; I got it. I understand. However, if you kill us, you ain’t gettin’ shit. This land covers hundreds of acres, and we have an armed family friend coming tomorrow to handle business. He has specific orders to kill anyone on our land who isn’t a cop, a government official with papers, or a Brown family member. So you can either waste time trying to use me as a hostage, kill my kin, and scramble around in the dark looking for our fortune, or you can be smart about it, let me take you to the money and you all can get outta here.”
“What’s to stop us from killing you?” Carter said.
“Well pig farmer, the second floor windows are open. My brother knows who you are, and you geniuses forgot to cut the phone lines running in the opposite side of the building.”
Anxiety flushed across Carter’s accomplices. One of them spoke, “Carter, we better – ”
“Shut up!” Carter shoved the guy aside. “You a clever bitch,” he said to me. “What if we had already cut the lines?”
Henry yelled from upstairs, “You didn’t. I called the sheriff already. Told them who you were, Carter. You boys better hurry.”
I lean in a bit, with a disposition of feigned assurance. “Carter, you’re a smart fella. Take the money, get in your truck, wherever you parked it, and get the hell out of these mountains. Once you make it to Ohio, you all will be free men. Wealthy men. Kill us, and the state will be all on your ass.”
Carter straightened his stance. He studied the shotgun in his hands. “This ain’t me.”
“I know. You’re a good man, deep down. All of you are. You boys just made some rash choices.”
Carter’s eyes rose from the weapon to my necklace. He snapped it off. “Take us to the money.”
My disposition tightened. He put his hands on my diamonds. My green and red diamonds. “Give that necklace back to me.”
“Take me to the cash, or I’ll shoot you in the gut, cops or no cops.”
Calmness embraced my heart and mind. “Okay. You’re the top boss, now. Follow me, boys.”
We walked to our family car. “It’s quicker; it’ll take a full 20 minutes by foot.”
Carter nodded. “I’ll drive and you’ll sit up front. My buddy will keep his pistol to the base of your neck; any funny business and you’ll lose your pretty head.”
We drove northwest of the farm, to an open field. To the pit. I told the men to stop short, near the trees and hill that shielded this clearing.
“The money is buried just beyond there. Shovel’s in the trunk.”
“Why not just keep the money in your house?” Carter asked. He walked around the front of the car and opened my door; he held the barrel pointed at my face. My necklace wrapped around his knuckles.
“Cash draws trouble,” I said. “Having it away from my home offers protection.”
“Guess that theory went to shit.”
I smiled. “Just beyond there.” I pointed across the pit.
“You lead. No funny stuff.”
The three criminals and I traversed the 80-foot-wide quagmire. The mud clung to our boots with each slogging step.
“Why are we walking through this mess,” one of the men said.
I began chanting in my mind: danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, danger.
“It’d take too long to walk around the entire mud pit,” said Carter. “Hell it’s half the size of a football field.”
Danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, danger.
“This whole idea is idiotic – ”
“Shut up, George, we’re here now!”
“Yeah, but where’s the money?”
Danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, dange –
Thunder punched the ground and we toppled, but before we could reach the earth, the earth reached us. Upward, with our ankles glued into the pit, this unstable dome of mud, turf, and liquid carried us two-dozen-feet high. Sludge and clay bombarded us, like a titan smacking an oceanic puddle. Our feet crested skyward, then our knees, followed by our torsos, our jerked spines, flawing arms, necks, and heads. And just as abruptly, the chaos collapsed into a concave of wind, suction, and violence. Our bodies and screams descended into a cavity of horror.
Just before the catastrophe overwhelmed me, the mud stopped, fastening me against the torrential walls, washing filthy water against my face and body. I had to look downward or drown against the chasm. Carter Smith, the false pig farmer, and his bandits clawed and pleaded for their lives, but those rogues wailed like hogs as they toppled into the abyss, hundreds of feet below.
Plastered against the vast wall and gasping for breath, I noticed my body covered in mud and mucus and held against dark pink ridges with suction cups, like an octopus or squid I once saw in National Geographic. As many as my eyes could see, from my nose, to the chasm across, and below: soft, firm suction cups as large as a dinner plate.
I petted one of the appendages. “Okay. I’m safe. We’re safe.”
A bellowing sound akin to a herd of bull elk echoed from below, and a lake of mud began refilling the chasm. Once the mud reached me, the suction cups passed me upward, one cup after the other, until the mud and I reached surface level. Covered in filth, I rolled several times until my back touched the firm ground. My hands massaged the grass.
“Oh no, my necklace. Dear God, my necklace.” Through blades of grass, I saw Henry and Hailey running toward me. A good boy, through and through, he even brought his rifle.
The following evening, I sat on the shore of the pool. The glowing turquoise waters contrasted against Henry’s lean silhouette, swimming with the last of the foam membranes in his hand. He passed them to me and I began cutting them, even before he climbed from the opening.
I sliced the inner fleshy chambers, and pulled out a slippery but fully functional revolver. Two membranes fastened together yielded a shotgun. Likewise with another large sac that Henry cut apart. He also found belt buckles, a lighter, and some pocket change.
“It’s gotta be in one of these,” he whispered.
I sawed across the bubbles, each popping and hissing. I pulled apart layers of gel and flaps, until I saw blurred twinkles of red and green. I made a small incision and ripped the membrane; the golden necklace that housed the green and red diamonds fell into my hand. I couldn’t stop crying.
Cleaned and rested, Henry and I descended the basement stairs. He walked toward a rack of pistols, shotguns, tommy guns, and an old Browning automatic rifle. Crooks keep coming; we keep getting free weapons.
I opened one of the safes and placed the new supply of diamonds inside. Gold takes a bit longer to form. We’re all golden. Literally. It’s just the trace amounts are so small, like shiny crumbs of love and bright morsels of hate. All courtesy of the pit and the pool: two sides of the same mighty larva that fell from the stars, in a shell of stone, over seventy years ago. A gift from God that’ll bloom someday before the world. We can wait. My family is patient.
Finally I passed by the two cribs that were never used. One built when I was fifteen, the other built when I turned eighteen, with tragedy taking each away and Albert leaving soon after. I touched the red and green diamonds and placed them against my neck once more. My sons. My loves.
I heard a car horn and an engine’s rumble. “It’s time,” I said. “Ready?”
Henry smiled. “Let’s do some good.”
I tucked the necklace into my shirt and followed my brother, upstairs.