The Battle of Walnut Hollow


Chapter Twenty-four

          "You and Pat seem to be hitting it off pretty well, Ira, from what I can tell."
           "Well, I do like her. Your sister is a good person, honest, intelligent, and witty. I enjoy being around her."
           "It's funny you know, since her husband got killed, she never seemed too interested in getting involved again. So, I'm glad to see you two hit it off."
           "I really didn't expect it because in recent years, I haven't been too interested in a relationship either."
           "You see, that’s probably why it happened, neither of you were trying, and so you had that in common from the get-go."
           "Hmm, I never thought of it that way, but you might be right."
           I'm surprised that Julian mentioned the relationship between Patricia and me, but glad he did, since he seems to approve. We're in his truck, driving up a steep, rocky slope winding our way to the mysterious hunting camp that I've been hearing about. I met Julian at his cabin and we drove to the end of Walnut Hollow before turning north on this dirt road.
           "What about you, Julian, you seeing anyone?'
           "Nah, no one can put up with me anymore. They couldn't before, and now I'm even more set in my ways. I've seen a couple women since Denise and I divorced, but it didn't last long."
           "You mentioned that your wife was from Virginia. How did you two meet, if you don't mind me asking."
           "Years back, I used to sell at the farmer's market over in Mars Hill. She came to Mars Hill to teach at the college. I was smitten from the start, and she kept coming to my booth every week. Denise was from Richmond, and kind of a hippie-type, back then.
           She fell in love with the whole area, the mountains, the lore, and I think she figured she found the real McCoy with me. We done all right for a while, had Cody along the way. But I think the things she liked about me in the beginning are the same things she hated about me in the end."
           "Ha ha, I know what you're saying there. That friend of mine that you met, Justine, I think that was true of us. Not hate in the end, but just an acceptance that I'll never change and the knowledge that she couldn't put up with me the way I am."
           "You seem to get along well enough."
           "Oh yeah, we do, but we had some rocky times before we finally came to terms. We love each other, we would do just about anything for each other, but both of us know we can't ever live together. Justine would never move here anyway, under any circumstances."
           "She didn’t like it here?"
           "She thought it was wonderful here. Justine enjoyed her visit very much, but DC is much more her style. To her, coming here was like visiting a foreign country, and she came open minded and ready to make the most of it, but I’m sure she’s happy to be settled back in Washington."
           "That’s hard for me to imagine, living in a place like that."
           "It's hard for me to imagine too. I've lived in cities for short periods of time, and I never felt comfortable. One thing I know for certain, we aren't in a city now. Where are the hell are we? I'm completely turned around here."
           "We crossed the property line a quarter mile back. We're on land that belongs to Jerry Dale's family now, this ridge we’re starting up now is Backbone Mountain, and the hunting camp is right on top. There's a group of us, mostly family, that between us, we have several thousand acres, all told. When we're speaking of the whole thing, we call it The Land. Backbone Mountain is sort of the dividing line right down the middle. Not many people besides us have been back in here for a long time."
           "Goodness, I feel honored then."
           "I wouldn't go that far yet. Wait until you get there and then decide. But everyone did agree on you coming up here, so that says something."
           I do feel honored, however, in a manner similar to how I felt when I was accepted by Mahmud's family and then by his tribe. The reference to Backbone Mountain was the first mention of that name since my question about the militia. While my curiosity has remained unabated since Julian's reaction to my initial query, I haven't broached the subject since then.
           As I mull over it now, I hear a gunshot somewhere up ahead of us, and then another. When Julian doesn't react, I assume it's related to the hunting camp.
           "Is that somebody hunting?"
           "Nah, at least they shouldn't be. Nothing’s in season now. From the sound of it, I guess it's someone sighting in their rifle."
           We grind around turn after turn, always uphill, and then the road begins to level off. Daylight is evident on the horizon beyond the tree trunks, a sign that we're at the summit. To the left, a cabin comes into view, nestled into a stand of hemlock trees twenty yards off the main road, and Julian turns into the drive. The structure would hardly be noticeable if it weren't for the vehicles parked outside.
           The cabin is a one-room, plank structure with additions jutting out from each side. A thin plume of smoke curling from the chimney reminds me that we're up high, and it can be cool at this altitude, even in June.
           As we exit the truck, I'm surprised to see several, saddled horses tethered to a hitching post to the right of the building. I'm about to comment on them when two men, carrying rifles and dressed in camouflage clothing, appear from behind the building. One of the men, I recognize as Lamont Greely, and he introduces his companion as Pete Rice, a second cousin whose family has property that borders to the west. Pete appears to be about half my age, tall and lanky with an easy going attitude and a firm handshake. The men inform us that they had been target practicing just before we pulled up.
           Within the cabin, a rich aroma of food hangs in the air, a spicy, meaty fragrance that reminds me that I skipped lunch. That was at Julian’s suggestion because he said that Jerry Dale’s father, Amos, was preparing a pot of venison stew for the occasion.
           I presume that it's Amos Runnion, standing over a wood cook stove as we enter, stirring the contents of a large pot. He's dressed in camouflage as well, and wears a green apron that looks like it could be an army issued garment. He raises a wooden spoon in greeting and informs us that the stew is about ready.
           Two other men are seated at a table in the middle of the room, each with a glass of beer in hand and between them is a mason jar, three quarters filled with a clear liquid. One of the men seems to be about my age and the other much younger, thirties maybe. Both are dressed as the others, in hunting apparel. The older man looks up and grins at Julian.
           "Hey Jules, got some Mountain Dew for you here."
           "Thanks Gus, but I got to pass, I uh, . . . ah, okay, maybe just a taste. I got to be careful. Stomachs been acting up again. You get it over in Wolf Laurel?"
           "Uh huh, only the best for you guys."
           "Tommy ain't here?"
           "No, he got tied up; he'll be by later."
           "All right, good. Say, Ira, this is Augustus Ramsey and his nephew Tim, cousins of mine on my mother's side. They live over in the next hollow.
           Ira's the one who bought the place down on the bend, Your family's old place. Gus is Ben's cousin, Ira. Ira fixed up the store into a wooden bowl shop, Gus. You ought to see it."
           "Nice to meet you, Ira. I've been watching your progress there, as I drive by. I can't see how you can make a living there, selling wooden bowls. Are you sure that's not just a front, and you have a still out back?"
           "No not me, just wooden bowls. I can't say I've ever even tasted moonshine."
           "Well, then you've come to the right place. Before you sit down, Greely, grab some glasses there. Fill one a quarter full with water, if you would."
           I situate myself in a chair that Gus pulls out next to him, while Lamont places several glasses on the table and takes a seat across from me. The glass with water is placed in front of me and Gus fills another glass with an equal measure of the contents from the mason jar.
           "Now, Ira, the best thing to do for your first time is to drink the shine down in one swallow then follow it right away with an equal amount of water."
           "Hey, Gus, don't pull that. Don't believe a word he says, Ira. It's an old trick. The second glass won't be water but more of the same, like throwing gasoline on a fire."
           "Come on, Jules I'd a stopped him."
           "Ha ha, like hell you would have, Gus. We got beer in the fridge. I'll get you one, Ira. Take my advice, just a sip of shine and chase it with a swig of beer."
           The other men join us at the table and are chuckling at what is apparently a common prank. Adhering to Julian's advice, I have my first sip of moonshine, followed by a swallow of Budweiser. The moonshine reminds me of vodka but with faint taste of whiskey. It burns slightly as it goes down and the swallow of cold beer is soothing relief.
           With the second sip, I detect a slight corn taste and my throat is less irritated, I hold off on the beer so that I can more fully appreciate the taste of this local beverage. The alcohol, coursing through my bloodstream, along with the heat of the cook stove, causes me to glow with warmth.

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