Synopsis | Excerpt
Now that her beloved mother has died, nine-year-old Ociee Nash is the only girl in the Nash family. Even in the modern times of 1900 it's hard to get good grades, learn good manners, and stay out of trouble on her papa's Mississippi farm. Ociee is always up for adventures with her adoring brothers. Deciding his daring daughter needs a woman's influence, Papa Nash sends Ociee to live with her lovable Aunt Mamie in the big city of Asheville, North Carolina. There Ociee makes some fascinating friends, including one of the Wright brothers, but doesn't give up her adventurous ways.
Hold onto the steering wheel. You can do it. If you let him catch you, you're dead.
Joan Alton Wyckham clamped her sweaty hands tighter around the leather-bound wheel of a small, fast Alfa Romeo meant to glide along European race tracks, not rutted mountain roads. The car lurched wildly. Tree limbs clawed the sleek, red roof. A back wheel spun in the air as she slid around a curve. To her right, the mountainside fell into ravines filled with massive trees and boulders.
"Prove yourself, damn you," she yelled to the car, to herself. The Alfa Romeo was fresh off a ship from Italy, the first and finest and easily most expensive of the models built only three years after the war's end. Joan loved speed and danger. The luxury of her charmed life was no small irony to her. But she had no intention of being dragged back to Asheville by her husband.
Joan shifted into a higher gear and pressed the accelerator. The car roared, slinging mud. Spring rain had gathered in the seams and fractures of the mountain's core and now poured out of exposed rock like burst arteries. Joan grimaced at the sight of a small waterfall ahead. It trickled from a fissure in the rock face on the road's right side then pooled in a wide, sloppy puddle directly in her path.
She stomped the accelerator. If I bog down, all is lost.
The Alfa Romeo plowed into the swamp at full speed. Wings of muddy spray rose on both sides. Joan gasped as the filthy water whipped inside her open window. Coughing, gagging, dragging one hand over her eyes, she downshifted and held on tightly.
The car emerged from the bog and shot up the next hill. A herd of deer leapt from the shoulder greening with blue spring violets up a steep bank of rock and lichen. Joan jerked the wheel to avoid them and cursed when the sports car lurched over the top of a knoll. It hung in mid-air for a second, then careened down the other side. The steering wheel was wrenched from her hands. Her body flew sideways. Her head slammed into the door frame.
She slumped, unconscious, as the car plunged off the road.
* * * *
On a high, flat ridge a mile up Walker Mountain's spring-greened side, Aristotle straightened suddenly. He turned his large head toward the wind, lifted his chin, and stood motionless, dangling a fifty-pound bag of corn from one large hand with no more effort than a woman carries a purse. His hand-forged hoe was propped on his opposite shoulder. The brown furrows of his garden waited beneath his enormous, homemade boots.
What he had heard did not quite make sense. Metal clashing against trees and rocks, the soft, guttural purr of an overwrought engine, then silence. Could someone have wrecked a motor car on the Anna Kim Road? What fool would attempt that road after the spring rains?
"Even the runts are not about being that stupid," he said aloud.
He listened harder as the silence stretched out. Finally, he grunted and shrugged. Let the runts kill themselves. They deserved no compassion on his part. Frowning, Aristotle was just about to hook the hoe's long, curved furrowing blade into the soil again when the sound of another motor rose to him on the wind. Deeper, louder, much more powerful than the first, chugging along the Anna Kim Road in the same direction.
This one must be from a bigger motor car, or even maybe a large truck. Aristotle shoved his floppy leather hat back from his high, bronzed forehead and listened in growing consternation. Two fools in one day, on a road that often went weeks without a single runt traveling it? Two fools driving motors on a dangerous path that still saw more horse riders and mule wagons than automobiles?
I'll have to go and have a look. Damn the runts to hell. This is my mountain they're mucking about.
He hung his corn from the top of a small tree to keep the bears and squirrels out of it, pulled his hat low over his silver eyes, and headed down the mountain along secret paths. He lived so high up on Walker that his way was often shrouded in the white mists of passing clouds. The mountain hid him well. Even his impossibly large shadow, by then over eighty years old, vanished in the laurel.
* * * *
Not dead. Not yet, anyway. Joan could only form that one thought. Light merged into blurry shapes as she blinked. When she tried to move, pain shot through her skull and her right arm, which was bent at an odd angle beneath her. A wave of dizziness made her gag. The car hugged her, crumpled closely around her legs and torso. She was pinned. Joan squinted and saw the driver's door, deeply dented, directly overhead. Her groggy brain couldn't decipher how it had gotten above her head, or why a dark shape filling the twisted window looked so much like the trunk of a large tree. The car was filled with bruised branches. She inhaled the pungent aroma of pine and gagged again.
Suddenly the tree shifted. Pine needles brushed her arm; the smallest branches scratched her neck and face as, somehow, the tree moved itself. The car's twisted carcass began to creak and moan. Joan's heart raced. Falling farther down the mountain. I'm done for, this time.
But the limbs retreated, and the car stayed still. Her blurry vision filled with more light. She heard grunts and long, deep breaths combined with the crush and snap of limbs folding under the tree's moving weight.
Dazed panic took hold. How many men has Coup sent? They've tracked me all the way into this ravine and now they're lifting the tree with their bare hands? There must be far more of them than I expected. They'll drag me back to Asheville. To him.
She fumbled blindly. Gun. Where's my gun? Her hand hit the collapsed dash. Her purse, containing the small pistol, was trapped somewhere underneath. Waves of pain darkened her vision again. She moaned then gritted her teeth. A cry tore from her throat. "I'll fight you, I swear it. I'd rather die here."
Joan froze as a deep, warm breath of human air filled the crumpled car. She struggled to clear her mind, to look up with a defiant expression as Coup Wyckham's men looked down at her. She stared in growing shock at the blurry shape that loomed in the twisted window. Not men, plural. A single man. One single blur, but how could one man's blur be that large? To her dazed senses he was a mixture of soft tans and browns. A swath of his blur tumbled toward her. His hair. It tickled her face. Long hair, coarse like a horse's mane. No white man wore his hair long. Was he one of the local Cherokees, remnants on the great tribe who'd hidden in these wild, deep mountains after the Removal in the 1830's?
She inhaled sharply. He smelled like earth, like corn.
"You won't be dying," he said. "Not if I have some say-so about it." His voice was old-fashioned, its cadence hinting at the old English. More than that, his voice was the deepest, most gentle bass she'd ever heard. Like the soft chime of an immense bell.
Joan slowly raised her good arm. I'm just imagining him as my brain fades. Fresh pain rolled over her. Vertigo made her hand sway. The man's breath rushed across her fingers, quick and hot. She touched his blur. Her palm struck gently along the ridge of his jaw. Her fingers splayed, searching. Her fingertips finally found the edge of his cheekbone. Even with her hand fully spread, she could not completely cover the side of his lower face.
Dying, yes. "Only some kind of sweet angel ... could be so large," she said. Then her strength gave out. Her hand dropped back limply. The darkness closed in. She managed one last whisper to the angel. "Please don't let him find my body. It's mine now. Not his anymore."