As we pulled out of the cemetery, I peered at the lowering sky. “It’s going to snow,” I said to my mother, who sat in the passenger seat.
“Probably. It snows a lot up here.”
“Maybe we should just head back to DC.
Skip going back to the home place.” I had just settled into a decent job with a
good law firm, and was in no position to take a few unexpected days off because
I got caught in a blizzard up in the West Virginia hills.
Mother turned her thin face toward me
and frowned. “That would be rude, son. The aunts have been cooking for hours.
We can just grab a quick bite and then leave. But we have to put in an
With a sigh, I pulled my shiny Lincoln
Navigator in behind a cousin’s battered pickup and joined the ragged line
snaking forward on the gravel road. On that road, the “shiny” part didn’t last
“I know it doesn’t make sense, but I didn’t
think my grandfather would ever die.” Mother lifted a tissue to her carefully
made-up eyes and dabbed. “He was such a strong old cuss.”
“What did he die of?” I asked. Since he
was in his nineties, his death hadn’t come as a big surprise to me.
“They said a heart attack, but I find
that hard to believe. He always had such a strong heart. I wouldn’t be
surprised if somebody didn’t give him some help with dying.”
We rode along in silence. My mother
had left the hills years ago, just after I was born, and moved to Washington.
She got a job, but money was always tight, and I’d be sent back to stay at the
home place every summer until I was old enough to get a job.
When I went to college, then law
school, I stopped going up there at all. Maybe it was just that I was an
insecure kid, or that I didn’t have a father, but I never did feel like I fit
in. It had been years since either one of us had been up here.
But the funeral of her
grandfather—Great Pawpaw, everybody called him—was something my mother didn’t
feel we could miss.
When we got to the home place, a huge
rambling structure with innumerable entrances and porches, I left the Navigator
down the driveway a bit so it wouldn’t get parked in. As we walked up the front
steps, the enticing aromas of roasting meat and baking pies reached us.
In the kitchen, sturdy women had
donned flowered aprons over their black funeral dresses and were bustling
around, putting the finishing touches on an elaborate feast. Next to them, my
slender mother, wearing a sleek blue suit and modest jewelry, gave the
appearance of a bright song bird among crows.
The food was laid out on a huge table
in the front room. An aunt shoved plates in our hands.
“Enjoy,” she said.
“Watch what you eat,” Mother hissed
under her breath. “It’s all fried in lard. Even the vegetables.”
As I stood near the window, holding the
overflowing plate and looking anxiously out at the dark sky, my cousin Seth sidled
up next to me. He carried a jelly glass half-filled with a dark amber liquid.
He gestured toward my plate. “That all
you gonna eat?” he said. “Or are you waiting for the desserts to be set out?”
Seth was a year older than me. In
those long summer months when I used to come up, he’d been delegated with the
task of keeping an eye on me. He’d been a lenient overseer, and we’d gotten into
our share of difficulties. To this day, the scar on my right thigh twinged
whenever I heard his voice.
“Good to see you, Seth,” I said, not
“Been a while.” He raised the glass
toward me and said, “You want some? It’s good stuff. There’s plenty in the jugs
on the back porch.”
Moonshine. “No thanks,” I said. “It’s
a long drive back. I don’t want to be drinking.”
He nodded and took a swig.
“Were you there when Great PawPaw
died?” I asked.
“There?” Seth grinned, showing stained
crooked teeth through his scraggly beard. “Nah. Nobody was there. He was up at
his still, back yonder in the mountains. They found him face down in the
Seth picked at his teeth with his
thumb nail and tried to explain. Everybody figured that Great PawPaw’d been
sampling the wares from his still a bit too much and fallen. The body had to be
hauled down the mountain on a mule, no easy task since by that time rigor
mortis had set in and, even though the flesh was soft and skin kind of
sloughing off, the joints were stiff. Maybe because he’d been dead for a while
and smelled a bit ripe, the mule, latest in a long succession of various-colored
creatures named Blue, wasn’t happy about having the body loaded on his back. It
had been a rough trip.
The general family consensus was that
Great Pawpaw’d already dodged a few appointments with his maker and had died
happy, doing what he loved best. Distilling moonshine. They’d miss him, but it was
more in the natural order of God’s world than a tragedy.
I asked, “Was it a heart attack? Or
did he drown?”
“Old Doc Richards, he put heart attack
on the papers. Said it was about time for the old coot to go anyhow, and putting
down heart attack wouldn’t cause no problems whatever the reason. What’d it
matter? Dead is dead.”
Remembering my mother’s suspicions, I
asked, “Do you think it was a heart attack?”
“Nah.” Seth scratched his chin through
his beard and cocked a bushy eyebrow. “Everybody says he prob’ly drank hisself
to death. Or just got drunk and maybe fell and drownded. Or froze. The nights
were pretty cold.”
“Do you think somebody could have
“Nah. What would anybody want to do
“Well, he owned a lot of property. Who
Seth looked at me strangely. “You haven’t
Looking into the depths of his glass
as if expecting to find an answer there, Seth said, “They’re gonna read the
will out after we all have supper. You gonna stay for that?”
Great PawPaw had a will? And somebody
was going to read it? I stifled my amazement. “Not unless Mom wants to stay. I
don’t think she’s expecting to inherit anything.”
“Don’t know much about what’s left to
the womenfolk. Can’t imagine he’d had much any of ‘em would want, and they
usually work that out among theyselves. Uncle Sebastian gets title to the home
place and all. But…” He took a chug of the dark liquid and glanced around. Leaning
close to me, he said, “Unless I’m sorely mistaken, he did leave you the family
That was a surprise.
I remembered the deer camp—it was a
rambling log structure they called “the cabin” on about 120 wooded acres.
With all the other men in the family,
why would he leave it to me? I didn’t hunt.
“You’re the new owner,” Seth said,
“but I hope you don’t mind. The boys already done made this year’s plans.” If
cleaning guns and trading tall tales about past misadventures could be
considered planning. “First two weeks in December. We was figuring we’d go
ahead, if’n you don’t object. Great Pawpaw would’ve wanted that. Maybe you can
come this year.”
“Certainly.” I was pleased that they
were inviting me, although maybe since I would be the new owner, they felt they
had no choice. I cast my mind over the workload waiting back at the office. Even
with careful planning, I couldn’t take two weeks off. “I won’t be able to make
it until the second week, though.”
Seth shrugged. “I s’pose that’s what
happens when you work for wages.” He peered into his now-empty glass. “Might be
hard to find a decent buck by then. They all blend in pretty well anyhow, and
by then they’ll be wary critters.”
I didn’t really want to kill a deer. “Mostly
I want to take pictures. And I’m looking forward to a good male bonding
“Well, now.” Seth paused. “I’m not
sure about anybody else, and maybe it’s none of my business, but you prob’ly
ought to consider bringing your own male to bond with. We’d welcome any friend
I felt myself blush. “Not like that.”
“OK.” He sounded doubtful. “I’ll let
the boys know, just in case. Somebody might be interested.”
The weather held off, so Mother and I
stayed for the reading of the will. Seth had been right. I was the new owner of
the deer camp.
On the way home, I said to Mother,
“Maybe this is Great PawPaw’s way of including me in the family traditions.”
She snorted. “They’re a bunch of
crooks. I don’t know what they’re up to, but they wouldn’t just let Great
Pawpaw give you the deer camp.”
As the sun went down, an icy snow
began falling, making the unlit roads treacherous. I was glad I had four-wheel
The second Friday of December, I left my
office at noon. I’d stocked up on warm clothing and a new sleeping bag. The
back of the Navigator was packed with cases of beer—I figured a fresh supply
would go a long way toward endearing me to my cousins—and groceries.
I looked uneasily at the darkening
sky, but if the weather forecasts could be believed, I should only meet rain by
the time I arrived. In the early morning hours, the temperature would fall.
Freezing rain and snow were likely.
Uncle Sebastian’s directions turned
out to be almost useless, filled with references to a left turn at the pasture
with the white mule and right at Granny Duncan’s pumpkin patch. GPS devices
don’t work where roads are nameless and houses have no numbers. Fortunately
Mother remembered the way. She told me that I just needed to make a right at
the water tower in town, turn left at the old coal breaker and take that road
straight up to the camp.
Dusk was falling when I came around
the final turn and saw the sprawling cabin. The rain had stopped for now.
Several pickups and farm trucks in varying stages of disrepair were parked
haphazardly in front. I pulled in behind a gray flatbed truck, making sure to
stay well away from an alarmingly deep ditch next to the road. The scent of
wood smoke hung in the air. I gathered my new sleeping bag—rated for minus twenty
degrees—and the duffel bag and headed up to the cabin.
Rapidly approaching headlights rounded
the bend, heading straight for me. I dropped what I was carrying and leapt back
against a huge tree, expecting to be crushed into it. At the last second, the
headlights swerved toward the side of the road. With a resounding crash, the
vehicle attached to the headlights smashed into the rear quarterpanel of my
dark green Navigator, which skidded away from the impact. Right toward that
deep ditch. I watched as it teetered on the edge for a few seconds before
gently sliding over and out of sight.
My second cousin Rueben climbed out of
the now-stopped truck and peered down into the ditch. “Damn,” he said. “Least
ways, it’s still upright.”
The crash brought a tangle of bearded
men in flannel shirts stumbling out onto the porch and down into the road.
Uncle Sebastian stood stroking his
beard, peering at Rueben. “What’s the hurry, boy?”
“I got me a buck,” Rueben said. “First
one this trip.”
Uncle Sebastian shook his head.
“Didn’t shoot from the road, did you, boy?” he asked. “That ain’t right. Game
warden might get you.”
“No, sir. Didn’t shoot ‘em at all.
Hit’m with the truck.”
Uncle Sebastian nodded. “Messed up
I wasn’t sure whether he meant the
deer or the truck.
Rueben answered, “Nah. Neck broke. I throwed’m
in the back of the truck. Figured we could dress’m out here.”
“You and Billy take’m out back and see
what meat you can save. Trophy buck?”
“Used to be. Damn antlers all busted up. Hit
As Rueben and Billy went to unload the
deer carcass, Uncle Sebastian and I joined the crowd looking down at my
“Need a tractor. With a winch,”
Uncle Sebastian spit tobacco juice
into the ditch. “Don’t got a tractor up here. Might have to wait ‘til the end
of the week, when we get back home. Come back up and haul it out then.”
I stared dismally down the steep slope.
I’d planned to stay the whole week, but I wasn’t thrilled with not having a way
out myself if I changed my mind. Assuming the Navigator was drivable when it
got back upon the road. “Maybe I should just call for Triple A or someone to
come get it out now.”
“Ain’t no phone here,” one of the
young cousins noted.
I reached into my pocket. “I’ve got my
Several of them looked on with
interest. “He got one of them there smart cell phones,” one said. “No wires or
nothing. Call anywhere.”
“Do it work up here?”
I tried it. Sure enough, the screen
flashed “No signal.” I folded the phone and put it back into my pocket and
glanced down at the Navigator. “Too bad. I got some groceries in the back
there,” I said.
Uncle Sebastian looked interested.
“Yeah. And a few cases of beer.”
Uncle Sebastian raised a bushy grey
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He looked around. “Why don’t you go on
in get settled? Seth here’ll show you where Great PawPaw’s room is. We figured
it was yours now anyhow.”
I gathered my things from the muddy
road where I’d dropped them. One of my cousins had tied a rope to a tree and
was uncoiling it as he prepared to climb down the embankment toward my
Inside the cabin was darker than
outside. A fire burned in a huge stone fireplace, but all the heat seemed to be
going up the chimney. Seth stopped to light a lantern. “No electric.” He
adjusted the flame. “You prob’ly want to keep a lantern with you.”
I hadn’t expected electricity. Or
indoor plumbing. “Thanks, I brought a flashlight.” I had several. And toilet
Seth led me down a long hallway to the
last door. He raised a hand and shoved. It didn’t budge. “Stuck.” He put his
shoulder to it and gave a heave. The entire door fell back, collapsing flat on
the floor beyond.
“There we go.” Seth stepped inside and
lifted the door, leaning it up against the wall.
A raw wind sliced through the room.
Seth held up the lantern. “Looks like Great Pawpaw left the window open. Air it
out, I guess.” He went over to the casement window and reached for the latch.
It came off in his hand. He grabbed for the free-swinging window and tugged.
The window slammed into the frame and smashed, scattering bits of glass and
wood on the floor.
Seth stood back and scratched under
his beard. He kicked most of the debris out of the way with his scuffed boot
and reached out the opening once more. “Shutter,” he said, pulling a solid wood
panel toward the opening and securing it. “Won’t let much light in, but ought
to keep the wind out, at least. It’s gonna get real cold tonight.”
I dumped my duffel and sleeping bag on
the unsteady bed shoved up against a wall. Even in the dim light of the
lantern, I could see dust and feathers rise as a musty smell filled the air.
“Feather bed,” Seth observed. “Don’t
care for the chicken stink myself, but Great Pawpaw always said ain’t nothing
warmer on a cold night than sinking into a good feather bed.”
I dug out my largest flashlight and
followed Seth back down the hallway. We went past the first room we’d entered,
with its big fireplace, and into the kitchen. A wood stove stood in the middle
of one wall. The air was much warmer and smelled of wet wool clothes. And men
who hadn’t washed up in a while.
“Fetch yourself a drink,” Uncle
Sebastian said, nodding toward a row of jugs on a bench against the wall. “We
got your truck, or whatever that thing is, back up on the road. Boys’re
bringing in the beer and groceries.”
I was thoroughly chilled and figured a
drink of the family specialty might do me good. I looked around. “Where are the
glasses?” I asked.
Uncle Sebastian chuckled. “Men don’t
need no glasses. Just grab a jug.”
He stuck a thumb through the handle on
the neck of one of the jugs and swung it up to rest on his shoulder. Wrapping
his lips around the opening, and raising his elbow, he tilted it forward and took
He smacked his lips and handed me the
jug. “Good stuff. Some of Great Pawpaw’s last batch.”
I started to say something about
germs, but decided I would sound like a wuss. Besides, no germ alive would
survive contact with the contents of those jugs.
Swinging it up and resting it on my
shoulder, like I’d seen Uncle Sebastian do, I tilted it up to take a drink. A
huge glug poured into my mouth and down my throat. I couldn’t breathe, but I
managed to cough and choke back the vomit that rose in my throat.
I’ve never drunk any kerosene so I couldn’t
be entirely sure, but it tasted like kerosene smells. I felt a burn all the way
down my esophagus to my stomach. My ears flamed. Tears came to my eyes.
“A man’s drink, huh?” Uncle Sebastian
thumped me on the back.
I glanced behind him and saw half a
dozen bearded smirking faces. I didn’t trust my voice, so I just nodded and
raised the jug again. This time I managed to take only a little sip. It still
From that point on, the rest of the
evening was a bit of a blur. I do remember suspicious questions about the groceries.
“That white stuff, sliced real thin. What was it?”
“Turkey loaf. For sandwiches.”
“Didn’t have no taste atall. Nothing
like the turkey we have.”
“Domesticated turkey, not wild. Did
you try a sandwich?”
“Didn’t make no sandwich, no. Put it
in the stew. We’re short on meat til that buck Rueben got’s ready.”
“How was it?”
“Don’t know. Them slices just kind of
I did switch over to drinking the beer
eventually, but I was too drunk to have enough sense to skip the stew. Who knew
what was in it besides dissolved turkey loaf? My digestive system rebelled. I
struggled to my feet. “Where’s the outhouse?”
Seth, ever my guide, grabbed a
lantern. I got my flashlight, but didn’t have time to go for my toilet paper. I
hoped they still had a Sears catalog hung on a nail out there. Hadn’t Sears
stopped sending out catalogs years ago? And actually gone out of business?
We headed out the door and into a
full-blown mountain blizzard.
Seth waited outside the outhouse as I
struggled with lowering my pants in the limited space. The seat was shockingly
frigid against my bare behind.
“Best be careful,” Seth hollered
through the door. “Seat’s metal. Your butt can freeze right to it.”
I knew I was going to leave pieces of
skin on that seat.
When I finally ripped myself up and
got my pants almost fastened, I said to Seth, “I think I’ll just turn in now.”
He guided me through a side door and to my room.
My head was spinning. When I tried to
unzip the duffel bag to look for PJs, I dropped it upside down on the floor and
the contents scattered. I just unrolled the sleeping bag, kicked off my boots
and crawled in. During the night, I dreamed that I was the centerpiece at an
ice carving display and that a sculptor kept trying to whittle away at my nose
The next morning, a weak sunlight
shone around the cracks of the shutter. The sleeping bag felt very heavy.
Cautiously, I lifted my aching head. Almost three inches of snow had
accumulated on top of me. I looked across the room. My clothes were strewn on
the floor, covered with snow. I could see daylight around the shingles in the
I struggled out of the sleeping bag.
My clean underwear was frozen to the floor. I would have to wear the same
clothes I had worn yesterday. And slept in. I supposed I wouldn’t stink worse
than anyone else. I had to empty snow out of my boots before I could put them
Coffee was boiling on the stove. It smelled
burnt and tasted dreadful, but caffeine and warmth were welcome.
“Sleep all right?” Uncle Sebastian
“A bit chilly, but I survived.”
He nodded knowingly. “That’s why, when
it gets real cold like this, most of us just bunk here in the kitchen near the
stove.” He gestured toward a few prone forms lined up against the wall. “What
with that male bonding thing, though, we figured you’d be better off in Great Pawpaw’s
room. Sometimes a man needs his privacy.”
I needed to use the outhouse. I opened
the door and stepped onto the back porch.
My eyes were dazzled by sunlight
glinting off brilliant white. Everything was covered with glittering ice, and
that was dusted with snow.
I could never have imagined anything
so stunningly beautiful. Ignoring my aching head, I went back for my camera before
the sun began melting some of the ice.
Once I’d plowed my way to the outhouse,
I walked around the house, filling the camera’s memory card with one incredible
winter wonderland scene after another.
I heard a growling motor sound.
Curious, I stepped around a corner of the house, just as a speeding snowmobile
rounded the same corner from the other direction.
The snowmobile flung me back against a
The last thing I remember was Rueben’s
startled face as he sat open-mouthed on the snowmobile. And Uncle Sebastian
pulling a satellite phone from his pocket, extending its antenna.
I woke up in a hospital bed with a
bearded man hovering over me. My eyes took their own sweet time to focus.
“Broke your shoulder good, you did,”
Uncle Sebastian offered. “And so soon after you got up here. Shame, really.
Didn’t get a chance to hunt atall.”
I tried to sit up, but pain
overwhelmed me and I lay back down. Broke my shoulder? “Didn’t I get hit by a
snowmobile?” I asked.
Uncle Sebastian scratched the beard under
his chin and nodded. “Good thing Rueben had a snowmobile, too. Needed it to get
you to the highway to meet the amb’lance. You was out cold. We called ahead.
Couldn’t have got through with a truck. Not til we put a plow on something and
cleared the driveway a bit. And we didn’t have a mule. Left old Blue back at
the home place.”
Leaning back against the pillow, I
closed my eyes. I didn’t want to picture how they’d managed to transport me on
a snowmobile. At least it wasn’t on the mule. “Now what?”
“I called your mother. She’s gonna
come up and get you. Take you back to DC. Says you’ll mend better there.”
“How about my stuff?”
“We got some of it here. Your camera and
your phone and some clothes and your flashlight. Rest of it we’ll bring down to
the home place when we come.”
“How about my Navigator?” I looked at
Uncle Sebastian stared into a corner
of the room. “That your truck thing? Bit of a problem there.”
“It’s snowed in?”
“Well, there’s that, too.”
“What do you mean, ‘that, too’?”
“Afraid we didn’t move it far enough
away from that hole when we got it out.”
“It slipped back into the ditch?
Rueben hit it again?” Rueben was good at hitting things.
He stroked his beard. “Not exactly.”
“Well, maybe nobody ever told you, but
all through that area, we got old mine tunnels running underground. Sometimes
they collapse. Specially if they get some weight on top, like a heavy
snowstorm. Or a truck parked there. Or something.”
I closed my eyes again and took a deep
breath. “So my Navigator is in an old mine tunnel?”
“Oh, no. Not in the tunnel. The
top just caves in. Then the ground sinks about five or ten feet.”
“And my Navigator is in a hole five or
ten feet deep? Or deeper than it was at the bottom of the ditch?”
Uncle Sebastian beamed. “You’re one smart
boy. No wonder you make out so good in the city.”
“Can you haul it out again for me?”
“Course we can. After it warms up,
we’ll do just that.”
“Why wait until after it warms up?
Can’t anybody shovel the snow out of the way?”
“Froze in mud almost all the way up
the axles, I’m afraid. Have to wait for that to thaw.”
I looked suspiciously at Uncle
Sebastian. “Tell me the truth. You all knew about the mine tunnels. And that
they can collapse. Is that why Great Pawpaw left the hunting camp to me?”
Uncle Sebastian turned away to peer
out the window at the sun glinting off the piles of snow in the parking lot.
“Well, yeah. Prob’ly. He figured you was the only one with the money to fix what’s
got to be fixed. Tunnels run under the cabin, too. And pay them back taxes.”
“Yeah. Great Pawpaw, he ain’t had the
money to pay them the last few years. Didn’t want the land to move out of the
I took an even deeper breath. It hurt
my sides. “And he figured I’d pay them?”
“He was hoping. Our men folk set real
store by that deer camp. Only way he saw to keep it in the family.”
I sighed. “I didn’t even see any deer
while I was there.”
He chuckled. “Oh, they’re there. Can
be hard to see, though.”
“Was the one that Rueben hit with the truck
the only one anyone got?”
“Yeah. But we really don’t worry too
much about what we get up at camp. Seth’s family, they farm about 500 acres in
the lowland. And they got crop damage permits. We just hunt whenever we need the
meat and tell the game warden it’s on the crop damage permit. Get enough venison
for all winter.”
Mother drove up to get me. I’ve been
staying with her these past few weeks. I need help with almost everything. My
whole side is strapped up to let my broken shoulder blade heal. I can’t drive now
anyhow, so I haven’t decided whether to rent a more practical car or just wait
until I can retrieve the Navigator.
To my great relief, the law firm put
me on disability leave instead of firing me.
The only good thing I could think of that
came out of this were the pictures I’d taken. I wondered if they were as
stunning as I remembered. If the camera wasn’t broken.
My laptop doesn’t have a drive for the
memory card. Last night, Mother took it somewhere and got the pictures printed
up. The scenes were just as amazing as I’d remembered them.
And there, right in the middle of the first one, was a ten-point buck staring back at me.