The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Book of Memories

By Raymond Hill © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

The old gentleman placed his handwritten book on the dresser. He had shared his memories with grandsons and granddaughters, rich men and poor. When there was a question, he was there to answer it. Even though a publisher would never set the type on his manuscript, he had written all the answers in his Book of Memories. His old views might not be worth much to anyone, but to him they were everything.

A light knock came on Luke's door, "Grandpa, you awake?"

"Yeah," Luke responded.

"Breakfast is ready. You want to eat before it gets cold?"

"I'll be right there," he answered.

Luke slipped on a faded pair of overalls, and slowly walked to the kitchen where his granddaughter and great-grandson were already seated.

"Grandpa, you going to watch me rake hay today? It's my first."

"Sure, Johnney. I wouldn't miss that for anything. You know that reminds me of the first time that I ever raked hay. I used..."

"Now, paw," his granddaughter interrupted. "We don't have time for stories this morning. Johnney's got to help his dad mend the fence before the hay dries off."

"Well, I guess my stories are outdated anyway."

"It's not that, Paw; it's just that you need to eat and get your rest. Bobby said he'd come and get you in the truck when the hay's ready.

"I think I'll get back and get some rest. Takes a lot of energy to watch a young man like you rake hay," Luke remarked, as he rubbed his bony face.

"Paw, is that all you're going to eat?"

"You know Marge, since that doctor took half my stomach out, I can't eat much."

"I know, but you usually eat more than this."

"Guess I'm not too hungry this morning."

"Okay then, I'll wake you when Bobby gets here."

Luke got up and walked slowly back to his room. He picked up a cane, and slipped out the back door into the cool foggy morning. He took short steps and stopped to rest frequently.

Looking up, he tried to see his destination, but the thick moisture blocked his view. When he approached the entrance to the family cemetery he walked across the newly cut grass to a large headstone with his name on it.

Sitting down in the damp grass, Luke closed his eyes.

He napped longer than he meant to, because when he awoke, the fog was gone. He had hoped to be halfway up the slope before the eager sun came up over the horizon to dry and heat up the summer's day. Without the cool moisture in the air, climbing would be more difficult. Looking up he could see the large gray rock, framed in green, extending out into space. To him it looked like a picture on a well circulated calendar.

He pulled a shiny watch from his pocket and glanced at it. Replacing it, he helped his weather beaten body to its feet and continued toward the nearby trees, and the trail leading up the ridge to the giant stone.

When he entered the thick underbrush, he could recall a time in his life when he could run up the sloped mountain and climb the steep bank leading to its flat top. Now his weak old legs shook and ached when they took on the light weight of his frail body. His mind raced ahead, up the path, around every curve, over every hump and stepping stone. But it had been thirty years since he had traveled this once well used trace.

Luke could tell by the limbs that grew across his path that only wild animals used it. Kids today had wheels to ride. They had no desire to go tramping and roaming over his beloved mountain. As he walked, he broke every twig out of his way, like the gang used to do when they were young and full of life.

As the sun slipped higher, he continued, inching his way up, pushing with his cane and pulling with his free hand.

Luke paused to rest his weak legs and let his heart slow its pounding in his chest. It was too early to give up; he had another hundred yards to go before reaching his destiny.

The old man looked at the steep bank. It was only ten feet to the level that led to his resting point. Once again he pulled out his watch. Twelve o'clock. He had one hour before Johnney started his exciting day.

The steps Luke and his friend Vic had dug some seventy years ago had vanished. He felt old, old as Methuselah. It seemed he had outlived everybody except Enoch and Elijah. The memories he held were too outdated to be of any interest to anyone. There was no one left to share them with.

Luke mostly crawled up the leafy bank, pulling by bushes and roots that grew out of the soft earth. After reaching the top he sat down and looked one more time at the two-acre flat that held so many memories. This is where the last few would come from. Immediately they came flooding back. A fight between white men and Indians, and the secret to victory was the element of surprise. The Indians had won the right to set the pace of today's battle.

"Vic, you hide behind that big tree," Luke whispered. They'll be coming up the north ridge. I'll take that rotten log over there."

"Okay, but be careful, there might be three of them."

Luke and Vic were armed with hickory bows and stick weeds. The white men that were trying to take the flat would be Jack and Rob Sand, and maybe Rue Black. They would be armed with anything that resembled a gun. When the crouching started, there were only two in the dry brush. The pair had split up, and were taking different trails to the top. Luke pointed in the direction he would shoot.

Rob was the first one to show up. Raising from his cover, Luke fired, and the white man went down rolling, twisting, and screaming in the dry leaves. The weed had hit him in the left eye and broken off. Blood and water covered his cheek.

"We've got to get him home," Luke cried in horror.

Four scared boys scrambled down the mountain side. That evening the bows went into the fire and a belt went around the backs of Luke, Vic, and Jack. That was the last battle ever fought over the flat. The Sand family wouldn't take on the whole financial burden; it was split three ways.

One memory brought back another. This time Luke was climbing the slope in a six inch snow. A new family had moved in on the other side of the mountain. He had seen the new girl in Sunday School that morning and couldn't get her out his mind. When Luke peeked down at the house below, she and her little sister was building a snowman out in the front yard. He was careful not to slip in the still, white water, as he eased down the other side and hid behind a fence row covered with honeysuckle. Only then could he feast his eyes on the beautiful Delta Silver. Everything was going fine until her little sister spotted him behind the greenery that was mingled with white soft flakes. She panicked and started jumping up and down, screaming. Delta ran to her side and saw the peeping Tom, who also panicked. Like a wild animal, Luke bolted from his hideaway and raced wildly back up the mountain.

Half way up the mountain Luke stopped to catch his breath, and let his legs stop their trembling. Looking back, he saw a man emerge out of the house and load a shotgun. When the large man advanced toward the fence row there was only one thing left to do, and that was run, run, run.

Luke ran up, over the top, and down the other side. When he got home, he sat down in front of the fireplace and started rubbing his hands together. "Cold out there, Mom."

"Why are you breathing so hard?" his mother asked.

"I ran from the flat down here."


"You'll see in a few minutes."

Luke's dad came from the kitchen and sat down. "Luke, you came down the road like a wildcat was after you."

"It was worse than that, Pap. It's a man with a gun."

"A man with a gun! What's he after you for?" his dad asked.

While Luke was strutting, trying to tell his story, a knock came at the door. In a few steps, Luke's dad opened it up. There stood the huge man, holding the biggest weapon Luke had ever seen.

"Can I help you?" Mr. Cleaver asked.

"Yeah. Somebody just came across the mountain. The tracks lead to your door. I want to talk to the one that made them tracks."

"Luke come here," his dad ordered. "What did this someone do?"

"Scared my little girl half to death, that's what he did."

As Luke eased slowly toward the door, his dad seized him by the arm an pulled him up to face the hairy faced man. "Son, you been across the mountain?"

"Yeah," Luke answered.

"What was you doing over there?" his dad demanded to know.

If memory serves Luke right, he cleared his throat, wiped the sticky sweat from his forehead, and tried to control his cracking voice. "I-I went to see the new girl that was in Sunday School this morning."

"Why didn't you come on up in the yard instead of hiding like a thief?" the giant of a man asked.

"I don't know." Luke answered.

"Well, next time come out where everybody can see you. By the way, I'm Roman Silver. Me, my wife, and two daughters just moved in the empty house across the mountain."

"I'm Ned Cleaver. This is Luke, and my wife. Won't you come in and have a cup of coffee?"

"No, no, I've got to get back and tell my family that wasn't a wild man"

"Luke you tell Mr. Silver you're sorry and it won't happen again."

Luke looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry Mr. Silver, and tell your daughter I didn't mean to scare her."

"No need in climbing that mountain. I'll take you home." Luke's dad said, as he removed a belt that hung idle on the wall.

Luke chuckled to himself as he scratched through the dry leaves and looked at the black earth beneath. Up to the day his wife died, she teased him for having to take a licking for sneaking across the mountain and hiding in the thicket, trying to get a better look at Delta Silver. If it wasn't for the whipping he got that day, that memory might forever be lost. The old mountain held its sad events also. One that he recalled had to do with an old chestnut tree that once lived beneath the huge rock, and Victory Jordan.

It was suggested at Sunday School to have a picnic on the flat. There was plenty of room for the kids to play, and spread a dinner on the ground.

At the time Joyce, Delta's sister, was dating Vic. That weekend the pastor's son came in from up north and attended the picnic. Joyce was attracted to the handsome stranger. She paid no attention to Vic, even though she was wearing his engagement ring.

When the two disappeared after lunch, Vic came over to where Luke and Delta were sitting on the rock keeping the young children chased from its edge.

"Delta, what's got into Joyce? She hasn't even glanced at me today."

"I don't know Vic. I've never seen her act like this before."

"Well, when they get back I'm going to have me a little talk with that handsome stranger."

"He's not a total stranger. His dad seems to be a good man," Delta said.

"Just because he's a preacher's son, that don't mean nothing," Vic said, picking up a stick and throwing it over the mountain angrily. "Well, when they get back I'm going to mess up that pretty boy's face."

"Now Vic," Luke interrupted, "this is a Sunday School gathering, not a boxing match."

"I don't care, I'm going to do it anyway."

It didn't happened that day, or ever, since the two didn't show back up. The rumor spread quickly - the preacher's son had kidnapped Joyce Silver, or worse, committed murder and hidden the mangled body somewhere in the surrounding mountains. The law was called, and a search party was formed, but after several days of hard searching, nothing turned up. Two weeks later, Vic got a letter postmarked Detroit, Michigan. It contained the ring and a short note. "Sorry Victor I hope I didn't hurt you. Best of luck in the future. Mrs. Chase Vanderpool."

It turned out that Chase and Joyce had been seeing each other secretly. She met the young man in town and gotten to know him before anyone else got acquainted with him.

Luke and Delta were setting on the porch that Saturday afternoon, when Vic came strolling through the Silver's yard. "Did you know them two had eloped?" he said, shaking his letter at Delta.

"No. We just got our letter today."

Vic was almost in tears when he turned and walked away. Two days later, he was found in the chestnut tree. Somewhere in time, the wind had blown its top out, leaving a dangerous snag, and over the years the weather had honed it to a sharp point.

Luke could see Victor's lifeless body from the rock's edge. He has fallen on the snag, and had it ripped through his young body.

Just the thought caused Luke to open his eyes. He got up, on wobbly legs, and walked to the boulder's edge. He looked down at the place where the old tree stood. In his memory he could hear the flies buzzing in the hot July sun.

All of a sudden he was below, standing among the timber, holding a rope. The man that cut the killer tree tied ropes high on its trunk. He could hear the saw zip back and forth as it sliced through the bark, dried blood, and soft wood. The tree wouldn't fall swiftly and painfully like Vic - instead, it was let down very slowly and gently.

As usual, ugly rumors had flared up - perhaps someone had forced Vic over the edge. But the letter his Mom found demolished all doubts - "Mom, forgive me. I can't live without Joyce Silver." It was told that the note was stained with heartbroken tears.

Luke wondered what kind of love it would take to possess a young man, with his life ahead of him, to take his own body and destroy it like that.

Years later, Chase told Luke that they had to elope. One day under that very rock, a child was conceived before the wedding ceremony had been performed. The old mountain had evened the score. It took one life, and gave another.

Luke shook his tired old gray head as he sat down and leaned against a dead white oak. He had planed to buy this mountain and build a house where he could sit and look out over the peaceful river bend, but he had put it off from one year to the next until it was too late.

Across the water, he could still see where the Slate brothers, Bee and Allen, once lived. The wide tree line from the river to the mountains marked the evidence of a family feud that was taken to court. The judge ordered the two brothers to build a *devil's fence. The sheriff had to measure the field and stayed with the two men until the work was finished.

Trees grew between what people called the work of Satan until they filled the thirty foot space between the two fences the judge had ordered. Then the bushes had mushroomed into twice that distance, each year inching their way out toward the center of the field.

Luke closed his tired eyes. When he heard a voice that startled him, they flew open. The tree was blocking the sun from his back. The valley below looked entirely different. The chestnut that took Victor's life was still there with its weapon pointing toward the sky.

He could see stretches of water shimmering in the sun, flowing peacefully, west, south, then east, making up the bend. The fence rows on his own farm wasn't grown up. Across the river, in the space that separated the Allen brothers' feud, only small bushes grew. Luke grinned to himself. This is the way he remembered his pleasant little community.

"Luke is that you?"

"Who .... who said that?" Luke asked, as he turned.

"It's me, Luke, your wife."

"What are you doing up here Delta?"

"It's the gang— they want to see you. They said you always was the cows tail. They told me you would be up here."

"What gang?" Luke asked.

"Rue, Rob, and Jack. Chase and Joyce is there too. Come on, they're waiting for you."

"Is Vic there?" Luke asked.

"No, Victor's not there."

"I'd like to see Vic."

"I know," his wife said, with a look of sadness in her eyes. "Joyce said she would too, but he's not there."

"The tree's still here. If I cut it down, he can't fall on it."

"It's too late. Victor's gone. He chose a different road than we did. He took his own life."

"Is that what I'm doing?"

"No, Luke, you're giving your life. It's time for you to go."

"I know. It's my fault Victor's gone. He told me what he was going to do if Joyce didn't come back, but I didn't believe him."

"Joyce blamed herself. It was nobody's fault. Vic's mind got all tangled up. He dwelled too long in the past. Like you, Luke. You're trying to live in the past when the future is so much brighter. Vic couldn't see past his troubled present. It's time to go, Luke - they're waiting."

Luke sat up, and for a second his whole life passed before his eyes. He lay back on the huge stone that held so many memories. As the blue sky turned gray, then black, his eyes closed forever.

*Devil's fence - Two fences that separate property when the land owners can't agree on the same line.