Queue "From This Valley" by The Civil Wars
Jack Bondurant swilled another batch of Cricket's homemade shine around a few times in a mason jar, smelling the fumes…and nearly burning his corneas on the unholy mixture. It was awful. If only he could get Forrest and Howard to teach him something. He cast a sideways glance at Cricket, who looked reluctantly at him with still the slightest shred of hope that Jack might find something complimentary to say about it. They were trying a new Cornmeal shine recipe that Cricket swore would eventually develop into something sellable…or at least palatable. Jack shrugged and smiled at Cricket. He felt protective of the other boy.
"Hell, it ain't so bad." He took a tentative sip and grimaced.
The boys were sitting at the edge of the station porch, leaning against opposite posts facing each other. It was one of the best places for enjoying the late summer Virginia sun. Then they heard it. Or perhaps they felt it first, a change in the air. It was Cricket who perked up first, his eyebrows rising and eyes sparkling, but with a quivering lower chin which belied his uncertainty. Cars didn't always sound like that in this part of the piedmont. And it could mean any number of different things. At the very least it hailed the arrival of an interesting visitor. At the most… Jack scrambled to attention to stand with Cricket, who had sprung up to face whatever was coming their way.
"V-12" Jack cooed. "398 cid."
"Whassat mean, Jack?." Cricket chirped. He knew a considerable amount about cars, but a 389 cid was beyond what he was used to working with.
"Faaaast." Jack drawled. "Real Fast."
Roaring up the lane to Blackwater Station, kicking and spitting a fit of dust behind it was a blue Pierce Arrow 1931 Convertible Model 41 with white walled tires. "Oh shit, boy! Wait till you see this here." Jack hopped off of the porch and went towards the pumps. They weren't strictly full service, but Jack was sure whoever was behind the wheel did not know that. And he wasn't sure someone who drove a car like that was used to pumping their own gas. As it pulled up, Jack could hear the purr of the engine and see the gleam of the paint when the sun hit the hood. Something was strange about the car, most notably the fact that the driver was wearing lace driving gloves….and lipstick. A smile peeled across Jack's face and he nudged Cricket as discreetly as he could manage.
"Crick….it's a girl." Cricket grinned. When the car stopped at the pump, the window was open, and the brim of a pretty felt hat peeked out of the window, the driver tipping her head gently so she wouldn't bump it on the window frame. She tipped her eyes to the boys, smiling.
"Hi, y'all!" Cricket nodded, gave a half-wave, and shuffled around the car, feeding gas into the pump and moving around to fill the gas tank. Jack had resisted the urge to hop onto the running board and peek inside at the cream leather interior and wooden dash.
"Hi, Miss." He tipped his hat and then removed it with his left hand to place it against his chest.
"I'm Jack Bondurant, welcome to Blackwater Station."
"Well, Hi Jack Bondurant." She smiled at him and put out a crocheted white lace gloved hand to shake his.
"I'm Alice Ostergaard." Her ghostly pale skin was dotted with freckles across her nose. She made a sheepish face. "Maybe you could help me?"
Jack nodded vigorously. "Sure um…how…how can I help?"
"Well," she sighed and dropped her hand into the passenger's seat, picking up a map. She contorted her lower jaw in confusion. "I'll show you."
She put the map in her lap and went to open her door, but Cricket had joined them now and in a show of gentlemanly grace, he swept in and opened her door for her, and she stepped out in low heeled pumps and a calf length crepe de chine light blue dress. Later, when they were all still trying to sort her out Bertha would quietly breathe into Jack's ear over sandwiches and sarsaparilla that Alice looked like something out of a magazine. She walked around to the hood of the car and spread out the map. Cricket blushed when he realized he was staring at the seams of her stockings as they snaked up the backs of her legs. Soon, he wouldn't see her as a "girl" at all, but something else. Better, perhaps.
"All right," Alice began. "So…we're here….I think." She pointed to the turnoff to Blackwater Station on the map. "Right?" She searched the boys' faces for recognition.
"Um, yeah," Jack said. "Here's where you turned…and this area here is right where we are."
She nodded. "All right, perfect. So I'm trying to get to the McLure house? Which I think is here," she pointed to an area on the other side of the pond at Blackwater Station. Close by. "Red McLure was my grandmamma's brother. He died a few years ago." Along with everyone else, she thought. "At any rate, I'm moving there, but I need to find out where it is first."
Jack's thoughts were moving faster than he could command them. Shit shit shit. What the hell was he supposed to tell this girl? His head was spinning. He couldn't imagine this girl living in that house on it's best day…but now?
"Yeah, yeah, um…we knew ol' Red. Kinda kept to himself a lot…but he's been gone a long time and the house….well I don't think you can live there. It ain't the house it was when he lived there. We had a bad flood last year and the house is in a valley. Damn road was washed out, and there was flooding. I can take you to see it?" He watched her face fall. "But I don't know if it'll help ya. I'm sure you can live there sometime...but somebody's gonna need to do some work on it before then."
She paused. "Well, shit."
She'd given up worrying about profanities. It seemed no one cared anymore, and she'd been raised around it anyway. Truth to tell, she had enjoyed her childhood, traveling out and living in rustic logging camps in western Virginia. Then, home had been Williamsburg, but it took quite a bit of serious involvement on her father's part to be on site making sure everything ran smoothly, so they lived in logging camps any time it wasn't "winter". She walked around the car, leaving her map carelessly on the top of the hood, and plopped down on the running board, resting her chin on her hands and her elbows on her knees. Cricket spoke for the first time
"Where'd you drive from?" He asked.
She sighed "Charlotte."
Even saying the name filled her heart with dread. Only ghosts back there. Her father's, primarily. And the sounds she'd never get out of her head. When he'd come to her with his voice flat and dead and said
"They're taking the house," she'd been upset, but as a Virginian by birth who had spent most of her time there, not heartbroken. Her father's house in Charlotte was his prize, not hers. Bought with timber money and built of stone. And it was just a house. She'd sat there alone for six months after he was gone while the bank's grace period ran out with the clock. His timber company had folded in '29. And since the house was being built by the senior Ostergaard himself, it had been, as had everything else, a work in progress, an homage to perceived perfection. So when the timber company finally folded due to the depression, they held out as long as they had with his vast savings, but keeping up with appearances was paramount. They weren't moving and they weren't changing, seemed his mantra. She bought her big, beautiful car for her birthday and let it sit in the driveway. She had dresses enough for three years even if she wore each one only once.
And then the buying had to stop. Paintings he refused to sell. She donated the paintings to a museum in Richmond. Sent them home. North Carolina had betrayed her. Virginia was home. She would remember her nights packing just as she remembered the crack of the gunshot and the pooling of bright red blood on the white marble floor. She and Lettie sitting at the empty dining room table watching the sun set and not bothering to turn the lights on. Resting over lemonade after hours and hours of packing. And then she had remembered she could escape into the woods back home, somewhere quiet her favorite uncle had lived. Any place was better than Charlotte. Shame, disgrace, regret. If a fast car couldn't take you away from those things, what was it good for? So, there, alone, homeless, she felt a peace she couldn't recall having felt since she was a child.
She looked up at Jack Bondurant, "Is there a hotel around here?"
Queue "The Carnivale Convoy" - Composer Jeff Beal
Jack smiled "If I tell you, will you promise to come back here for dinner? Meet my friends and folks?"
She put out her hand to shake in agreement with his terms. Then she said goodbye to Cricket, to whom she was formally introduced. He checked the oil as a last measure, and they left the side of the hood up so the boys could watch the engine turn over and hear the car start. Then they closed up and left her with specific instructions to the hotel, and more important to Jack, directions back. She smiled on the way down the drive. They couldn't be much younger than she was at twenty-four. As she pulled out of Blackwater Station and was flying down the road, Forrest and Howard glimpsed her behind the wheel of the gleaming car as they passed in the jalopie. While Howard stared openly at her face, Forrest, his view blocked by his brother's big gawking curly head, could only catch a glimpse of her hand, dangling delicately in it's white lace, turning orange in the now fading sunlight, fingers open slightly as the air pushed by the speeding cars rushed past between them.
Alice stood in the fading light of her hotel room, checking her face in the mirror over the dresser. She had sat on the bed to cry for a few minutes, more out of relief than anything else, but she certainly didn't want to give her hosts the impression she'd been crying. She had checked into the hotel after meeting Jack and Cricket but that hadn't been the end of her errands in town. She'd had to be followed like a mother duck by four young boys who worked as porters for the hotel, with dollies, over to the Franklin post office where the postmaster had been happy to see her, or rather, happy to be rid of her, where she'd learned that her trunks had been an inconvenience at best. Then she walked along to a bakery in town where she'd bought pies.
She vaguely remembered from her childhood when her father had brought with him fine Scotch whiskey to his foreman whenever their train would rattle into a new logging camp, as a gesture of beginning a new season of logging, his trust, his friendship, and his hoped-for fealty. But she couldn't exactly purchase liquor, and even if she could, she'd seen crates of shine under a tarp in a truck at Jack's place, and had good reason to think he made it…or at lest knew who had. She'd been hearing rumors about Franklin County since she was small. She couldn't rightly bring something she knew they already had in spades. So she brought back with her boxes tied with strings, inside fresh pies only made that afternoon.
After that she'd locked her door and slept, setting the little alarm clock beside her bed, waking when it chattered its little bell at her at 5:00. She kicked at one of the trunks on her way to the bath, shoving it aside. After her errands and her much needed nap she'd been filled with mixed emotions, seeing her entire life crammed into such a small space made her feel as though she herself were insignificant. She thought somehow that she'd lived long enough and known enough people to not end up alone this way. She thought of all the warm, doughy arms of the female bakers she'd been pressed into as a child in the logging camp cafeterias, and how Lettie had taught her over several seeks to perfect the way she set her hair at night for finger waves. How could she be alone when there had been so many of them once? So she cried. But she'd found herself laughing to herself halfway through for being so silly. Certainly, she was alone, but so many were alone and destitute. At least she'd had a place on the map. A trajectory. A beacon. That was so much more than so many she'd known had left. So she'd wiped her eyes, picked up her train case and clothes, and headed into the bathroom. Now, standing in the mirror in her room she assessed herself. She'd picked a long midnight blue dress mostly because it had been accessible, silk, with fabric that pooled around her feet in waves, scalloped cap sleeves and the back cut out, a line of buttons running from her waist to her calves.
"Oh Christ, you look ridiculous." She hadn't noticed how long the "I" in her Christ, had been, but her Virginia was showing. Her drawl was coming back, replacing her soft cultured Charlotte southern lilt she'd been expected to use there.
Queue "Love is War" - By American Young
So when she arrived at Blackwater Station, and saw Jack and Cricket standing on the porch, she was slightly relieved. Cricket was wearing a nice vest and a freshly starched shirt underneath, and newly mended, crisp pants, and Jack was wearing a beige suit. At least she wouldn't feel so overdressed. It was Jack who scrambled off the porch first to open her door, but Cricket whose hand was extended as Jack moved aside to pull the door with him so she could get out, and which she took. They were both telling her all about the station and how they served food and drinks, too, and how Jack's father's father had built the place, and how he lived there with his two brothers. Halfway up to the porch, she remembered the pies, and Jack retrieved them.
"Forrest! Howard!" he called. Howard Bondurant stepped away from his post at the bar where he was leaning and sipping shine. He was supposed to be grilling, but the pork and chicken were finished, and just sitting over the coals out back, waiting to be served. Jack had spoken with his brothers as soon as they pulled up from their visit to the stills that afternoon, starting his relation of the tale before the truck had even come to a stop, referencing the girl in the car he was sure they must have seen on their way in. He explained to an expressionless Forrest and a befuddled Howard why he'd invited a stranger over for dinner.
"Well, she's nice. And pretty, real pretty. But also, she's Red McLure's niece 'er some such. That old coot let that old house go to shit. She's wantin' to fix it all up and move in there, Lord knows why. Probably 'count of the depression. We got a still right on the edge of that property, not a stone's throw from that house. I think we should make sure'n git her on our side."
Forrest grunted and brushed past Jack on his way in the house and Howard shrugged and went to follow him in, punching Jack on the bicep "What's Bertha gon' think of that, huh kid?"
Jack glowered "It ain't like that! She's interesting, is all. I woulda invited Bertha if I thought her daddy'd let her come!"
Howard started at him in the doorway of the station with a puzzled look on his face which told his brother "Easy. Teasing."
Neither of Jack's brothers had seemed interested in what he was telling them, but he did notice with a note of satisfaction that Forrest had gone upstairs to change, and Howard had put on a new shirt which he actually tucked in. Jack felt a stab of pride. He thought maybe he could impress his brothers with such a fine guest in the house. And maybe he would. And here was their guest, Howard suspected, from the infernal racket his brother was making towards the front of the house. He reluctantly called "Forrest," in the direction of his brother's office, setting down his shine and making his way to the door. When he got there, Howard, for once, understood what Jack had been going on about.
On Cricket's arm was a well dressed, well endowed, ivory skinned southern belle, with finger waved hair that could have been anywhere from red to gold to brown at any time, in different light. Beautiful, he suspected. Or at least he thought she might be. Her head was tipped down to look at her feet as her left hand raised her hem so she could step on the first step. He felt Forrest join him and took that as his cue to actually exit the station and greet the person on the porch.
Jack had his hat on a pair of white boxes tied with string and was standing with his chest puffed out, enough to make Howard want to cuff him on the head, pretty girl or not. "Howard and Forrest Bondurant, may I present" Jack got a kick out of that, he'd heard a slick actor in a talkie say "may I present" and thought he'd gotten the usage right "Alice Ostergaard."
She lifted her head after stepping up and fixing her dress, and her eyes flicked over both boys, a warm, friendly smile on her lips. All right, Jack, thought Howard, you did one good. She had what Danny would call "Meat on them bones," and her face was what their momma would have called "Pretty as a picture." Enormous brown eyes, long eyelashes and porcelain skin, a plump little mouth, freckles, and, since she seemed to be wearing her expression blankly on her face, Howard thought, an open heart. Howard heard Forrest grumble his assent behind him. But it was the kind of sound he didn't want to hear his brother make, as he imagined it would be more appropriate in intimate surroundings. Cricket was grinning like a fool. Howard Bondurant was feeling pretty confident on his own, thinking himself the most composed man in the situation for the first time in a….for the first time. He resisted the urge to look around at the three men around him and say something, but he didn't want to embarrass the boys or anger Forrest. He was hungry. He just wanted to eat.
He was the first to put his hand out "I'm Howard," he said.
"Hi" she said, smiling, gently taking her right arm from Cricket's to shake his.
"And my brother Forrest," Jack said. She smiled and put her hand out to take his. He took it and squeezed ever so gently, and she thought she felt something in her melt, which couldn't be, because she was still standing straight up.
"Hello, Forrest," she said.
He grumbled "H'lo." Cricket took her arm again, protectively. There was something about her Cricket liked. She never stared at his limp, or even seemed to notice, even walking so close. Everyone else always noticed. Except the Bondurant boys, which was part of why he liked them all so much.
"After you," Howard said, and she and Cricket went through the doorway as Jack fell in step behind and Howard and Forrest waited to watch her walk. There was a moment of tension between the brothers when they both went to fill the same doorway, but Howard stepped back to let Forrest through as always. Maggie came out of the kitchen holding a bowl of mashed potatoes. She smiled and looked Alice over when the younger girl came in.
"I'm Maggie Beauford" she said, reaching across the table.
There was a moment between the girls, as there often is. A sense of "I know what you are," as people sometimes think they can neatly package each other. The ruined socialite and the feather dancer. A sizing up. Two girls in the woods can be best friends or bitter enemies.
But Alice's face broke open with a big smile and she reached across the table "Alice Ostergaard," and the tension was gone.
"Nice to have another girl around here," Maggie said, as she headed back to the kitchen with Howard to see how his grilling was coming along.
"Oh!" Alice said, and turned to Jack, looking at the boxes. "I brought pie….well, I bought pie. I'm sorry…" she looked with embarrassment around the room and then laughed at herself, encouraging the others to do the same, which Jack and Cricket did. "No kitchen yet."
Maggie grinned. "That's perfect. Howard started picking at the blackberry squares already."
They sat around the table, Alice between Cricket and Forrest, Maggie Between Jack and Howard, Howard beside Forrest and Jack beside Cricket. While they ate, only Maggie, Jack and Cricket asked questions. Howard was eating and staring at the pies on the plates Maggie had set them in on the counter. Forrest was quiet with grunts and mumbles throw in between, and a quiet countenance that Alice would come to know him for. They were awake until quite late, after midnight, talking through dessert and moonshine, which Alice and Maggie declined. Howard noticed Forrest was awake far later than he usually was. He himself was usually the last one awake, sometimes with Jack, and sometimes not. Howard smiled at himself when he was sure his mouth was hidden behind his shine jar. Forrest had never cared if company or customers were still at the station, he would have been in bed at least an hour and half before now. They listened, interested, as Alice spoke candidly about her father, and the timber business, growing up between the wilds of western Virginia and Williamsburg, how her father had died, what happened to the money, and the house, and the horses they loved which they'd had to sell, and her mamma, who had died in a logging camp along with half the workers when the flu came through. She told of why she'd chosen this place
"When I was small, and we'd be in the camps, the men would drink shine at night, especially on Sundays, and Saturday night. Most logging camps only take Sundays off, but my daddy wanted all of Sunday and half of Saturday for the people who worked for him. He thought rested workers made better workers, and he didn't come from where he got to, so he appreciated work. Anyways, they'd always be talking about Franklin like it was some sort of magical place. I didn't understand until later why they were so keen on this place, even if they'd never been here. I found out when I was older that my momma's uncle lived here. So when it came time to leave Charlotte, and I knew I had a house free and clear out here in the quiet and wild, I packed. And here I am. So tomorrow I go to the registry of deeds and have it transferred to my name."
Howard had a thought "Hey, Forrest, how 'bout you take Miss Alice out to see Old Red's place tomorrow?"
Forrest snapped his thick neck around to look at his brother. "Me n' Cricket are already takin' her," Jack said. "Already told her we would."
Forrest then slowly moved his head around and stared at Jack, and grunted.
He turned to Alice "Maybe it's time you and Maggie be gettin' back home." If Forrest felt the need to say everything he thought, he'd say it was late and they were both unfamiliar with the roads, he'd tell her people drank shine and then got in their cars and didn't think about what might happen, and he'd say that the ATU officers around, no matter how they dressed, weren't exactly gentlemen. When both girls rose, Jack offered to pick up, and Cricket said he'd help. Howard was helping himself to another piece of pie. Maggie bustled around, gathering her things. Then Forrest walked them out to the porch.
Maggie hopped into her car and waved "Bye Forrest, bye Alice!"
Queue "Speakeasy Kiss" - Composer James Newton Howard
Alice waved and then called her goodbyes to the boys inside. She teetered a little bit in her heels on the steps, holding her dress up so she wouldn't step on the hem and go tumbling into the dirt. She couldn't see it, but Forrest's arm was out behind her, a protective shadow circling her waist a foot away from her skin, there in case she fell. She made her way to the car, and as she opened the door, Forrest, lumbering behind her, held onto it as she gracefully gathered herself into the driver's seat, nodding for him to close it. He shut the door and only then realized part of her dress was caught in it.
"Um…" he said. "
Oh!" she cried. She laughed. "I'm so clumsy sometimes."
Forrest opened the door and she went to reach for the fabric, but he gently gathered the deep blue silk of her hem in his calloused, rough hands, rubbing it between his fingers before tucking it into the car with her.
"Thank you. Well, I suppose I may see you tomorrow. Jack and Cricket are taking me out in the woods once I have them switch the deed."
Forrest nodded. "Tomorrow" he said.
He sat up on the porch long after that, staring out into the yard, until he pulled himself up and stocked into the station, locking the door behind him. He checked his office to be sure everything was in order, then lumbered upstairs. He rolled into his bed on the floor, sighing and grunting to himself. He turned and looked at the small nightstand he had beside his bed, at the photo of his parents before the boys and their sisters were born. "Hm," he said to himself, and rolled over to sleep. When Alice clattered up the steps in the hotel, she had a smile on her face, a smile she'd worn all night. Slipping out of her dress and after changing into her nightgown, she sat on the bed and put the dress on a hanger to go in her closet, running her fingers over the little bit of dust on the hem from where she'd gotten it caught. She smiled to herself and tumbled into bed, falling into the kind of sleep she'd had as a child.
Queue The Band Perry - "Pioneer"
Alice headed into Rocky Mount the next morning to meet with a stout, puffy little magistrate, scuffling around a paper-cluttered office in his pinstripe suit, strawberry jam on his white shirt, almost hidden by his tie. She liked him. He called her "Miss" at the beginning of their meeting, but by the end she was referred to exclusively as "Dear Child," which she liked, having heard it so often elsewhere. Growing up around adults, most away from home and their own families, she was accustomed to being fussed over by older people. She had had to present to him several different documents, her uncle's death certificate he had on file since it occurred in Franklin County, but he needed her grandmother's as his next of kin, then her mother's, and proof of who she was and where she was born. She last presented a photo of herself when she was little at a family get together in the mountains, sitting between Red McLure and her father. He made her swear before witnesses (his secretary and that of another public employee) that to the best of her knowledge, she was the most eligible descendant to inherit the property, and knew of no others who could contest her claim. It was then that the new deed to the property bordering the Bondurant's was written up in her name, signed and witnessed. She sat on the bed in her hotel, changed out of her light blue and gray suit, sitting in her pantalets and chemise. She still had her white lace gloves on, and she carefully placed the deed in front of her on the bed, staring at it for just a moment, breathing in a long breath and sighing out some of her worries. She'd have to take a safety deposit box at the bank, which she hadn't yet visited, to be sure the deed was stored properly, and all the other legal documents she'd had to tote along with her. She unpinned the little fascinator she'd worn in her hair and stripped of her gloves, heading to the telephone in her bedroom. She asked the operator to connect her with Blackwater Station, and when Howard's voice sleepily droned "Blackwater Station" into the receiver, she looked at the clock. It was eleven thirty in the morning. Given the amount of shine she'd seen him consume the night before, she figured that would be about right.
He'd just woken up. "Hello, this is Alice Ostergaard calling, is this Howard?"
"Is Jack close by? He and Cricket were supposed to take me to see my uncle's house."
She hadn't made plans with Cricket and Jack the night before because she hadn't an idea of how long the deed business would take altogether and wouldn't want to keep them waiting. She had told them she would ring when she returned.
"Jack? Yeah, he's right here." Howard said as he held the phone up and away from Jack's aggressive hands attempting to wrest it from him, finally relinquishing it when he realized there was no sense in teasing him.
"Hello, this is Jack Bondurant" he crooned into the phone.
"Hi Jack! Would you and Cricket mind taking me to see the house? You said you knew a quick path through the woods?"
"Yes, yes, of course. Come right over!"
She changed into a pair of tweed riding pants and a beige crepe de chine blouse, buttons of green, with three quarter sleeves. When she inserted her boot hooks and pulled on her brown field boots she could smell the dirt from the stables, and felt a little tug in her heart. She thought of her father, who had always had a bit of a hitch in his step since having polio as a child, and how he liked that most of the surveying in logging camps was done on horseback. It was always faster and easier to cover ground that way, lame (human) leg or not, especially over uneven terrain that had been logged out and scraped up. It could take loggers an hour or more to climb up to a cutting copse, slightly less to climb down. In order to visit more than four of such copses in a given day, horses were the best choice. They'd never spoken about it, but she often imagined her father loved horses so much because he thought they made his disability less pronounced. Despite his good standing in business and in the community, few things allowed him to feel and appear physically comparable to other men. On four legs, he was always more equal than on two. She brushed out her finger waves, tucked her keys into a small sachet purse which she put in her pocket, and tucked the deed into a little leather envelope. She'd lock it under the car seat in the little lock box that was held there. She rounded the top of stairs at the end of the hallway, heading down to the bustling epicenter of the little hotel, it's front desk. There was someone standing at the front desk, condescending to the manager. She couldn't hear what he said, but she could tell by his tone what his attitude was. She never liked the words "rube" or "hick," and from the sound of his voice and the way that he stood like he was standing in a pile of dirty hay in his fancy, albeit, she noted, ridiculous outfit, she could tell he was the kind of person who classified people this way. His voice, she noted, was nasally, and clipped. She almost giggled to herself, examining the hells of his shiny shoes and his pin stripe pants, already rimmed with red clay on the hems. She skipped down the last few stairs and ducked out around a pair of men carrying a steamer trunk into the lobby. She thought about Lettie, how she always used to say that part of having style was dressing appropriately. She shivered as she walked around to her car. The sweet, cool fall air had come in with the clouds that had rolled over the sky that morning. Now the sky above her was just a dull, mild bone color, and she suspected they should just wait for more rain. Reluctantly, she turned and went back into the hotel, taking the porch steps quickly, intending just to run inside and get a riding coat, or a sweater. But the man at the counter had just finished his business and was tucking something into the pocket of his coat. Before she could put her riding boot on the first step of the carpeted staircase, he had turned to her. She doubted she'd ever seen anyone alive use that much hair oil, even in Charlotte.
"Going riding?" he quipped. She smiled, but kept her mouth tight and closed.
"Something like that." Something felt wrong to her. Instead of heading up the stairs, she brushed past him as quickly as she could, heading towards the dining room. She knew that he knew she had changed her intended course, and she knew he knew she knew it. She made her way to a little end table in the dining room used for breakfast, and straight to a bowl of fruit. She felt the feeling one only feels when they know someone else's eyes are on them. Carefully, deliberately, she placed one large apple into the pocket of her pants, as through toting it as a reward for a special animal, and turning, she rubbed the other off on her pant leg and steeled herself to walk past the guest. As she walked by, she bit, hard, tearing off a chunk of fruit and nosily crunching on it. She was an expert in being just unladylike enough to deter unwanted attention.
"You're not from here," he said after her, as she fooled with the sticky door handle. She turned and smiled her best fake cotillion smile.
"No." She kept her back to the door and pushed through it.
"Not always!" She gave him her most charming smile. "Good afternoon!"
When she was able to turn away from the hotel and go towards where she had parked her Pierce Arrow, she hurried more than she would have liked to admit to herself, and when she sat on the envelope with the deed inside she'd stuffed in her back pocket she was grateful it had been covered up. Then she started the car and roared away, kicking clods of dried mud behind her tires. She noticed that as she moved further and further away from the hotel, the more comfort she felt. When she finally pulled into Blackwater Station, she breathed a sigh of relief, and sat in the car a moment, catching her breath for a reason she couldn't have told if she'd been asked. Before long, Cricket and Jack had appeared, and the three crossed from beside the pumps where the chickens liked to pick fights with each other, over to the small pond, taking a nearly invisible trail which ran beside it. She never would have noticed it if they had not lead her this way. This further affirmed her belief that the Bondurant men were involved in moonshining, where it was so important to acquire the skill of being able to expertly conceal paths and buildings and hiding places.
"Those your riding boots?" Cricket asked, as the three bushwhacked through the overgrown hedges.
"They were!" She said. "Now, I suspect they're my snake boots."
"Well, we do see 'em" Jack said. Alice shuddered a little bit. That was one thing she hadn't missed in Charlotte, or in Williamsburg when she and her father were hope from the logging camps. They didn't call the animal known as a "Timber Rattlesnake," by that name because they were desert dwellers. Often displaced by logging operations, it was common for there to be rewards offered (by her father in particular) for these animals, who could cause quite a bit of trouble if they decided to strike. By the time she was thirteen, she had learned the "shoot first, scream later" technique taught her by a particularly rugged female logger, larger than many of the men, who had been a local legend to the camps for many years until she finally retired to the coast. They made their way through the woods, cutting their own path where necessary from the one that already existed. When they finally had reached the house, she was almost unsure that it had ever been one. The more she stared, the more nervous Jack and Cricket seemed to get. But as she looked at the small two floor log cabin, she could imagine the way the roof had sloped once, the way the glass had looked with light behind it in the middle of the night, and how the porch would look covered in drifts of sideways blowing snow.
"Can we go inside?" She looked back and forth between the boys. "You think it's safe?"
And so the three gingerly took the steps, one step at a time, each person at a time. It was actually a very adequate house for one person, or a small family. Thankfully, the foundation was made of smooth river stone, and, she thought, would make a nice cool fruit cellar in the fall. Though the wood was rotted through the first floor after the flooding that the boys had described to her, the rocks had not washed away, though she could see where the road in to the property had. She was making mental notations of what had to be taken out, gutted and replaced, and how long it would take, and how expensive. She still had some money left. Her father had started a very small fund for her that the stock market crash wasn't able to touch, mostly because it had been in gold that he had kept in a safe, but she certainly was no longer anywhere near as comfortable as she had been, and that, of course, would not last forever. She was testing the strength of the seal on the windows, when she came to a small writing desk. On it was a small photograph from the early 1900s, a mountain family all lined up on a ridge for a tintype. She smiled, holding the small frame in her hands. In the front row, the only child, was her mother, at maybe three years old, standing on Alice's grandmother's lap.
"Whatcha got there?" Jack asked. She passed him the photo and gestured towards the tiny toddler in the front.
"It's my mother." She placed it back on the desk, a promise to herself that she would be back, that there was no need to take it with her. When they left, collecting brambles and twigs on their clothes as they walked, and emerged to climb up the hill to Blackwater Station from the entrance to the path, she realized that despite how long they had been gone, though they had spent a few hours in the woods, it may only take five to ten minutes to reach her house from Blackwater Station, a helpful distance if she ever needed sugar or coffee.
"Wait," Jack said softly, and they hid in the copse of trees beside the pond. There were a few cars lined up in front of the station that were now pulling away. Jack recognized one of them as belonging to Deputies Richards & Abshire, but the others he could not place. When the yard had been cleared, they walked Alice to her car, speaking with her for a few minutes while she waited for the car to warm up. It had grown colder without any of them seeming to notice. As the two boys waved down the lane until they could no longer make out the Pierce Arrow, Forrest stood inside with Maggie, fuming over his encounter with Rakes. Innocent of what had transpired, but figuring that someone had probably wanted an introduction in order to purchase more shine, Jack didn't think anything of it. He assumed, like most things, that while he would be the last to know, he would find out eventually. When Jack went inside to ask Maggie to heat up some cider for he and Cricket, he heard Forrest and Howard speaking in Forrest's office, talking low. Maggie put the cider on, waiting for the kettle full of mulling spices to whistle, taking out mugs for two. If there was one thing Maggie was, she was tight lipped. She wouldn't warn the two eldest that she knew their little brother was listening. When he carefully positioned himself outside Forrest's office to overhear their conversation, he was hurt by what he heard. Howard was pacing, while Forrest sat, he could tell that much by the sounds of their voices.
"Think about it, Forrest, she shows up here, and then that motherfucker comes outta whatever perfume shop he crawled out of, tryin' to shake us down. What're the odds she comes rollin' up to this very station the day before Wardell comes in here talkin' about fee this fee that? I think they was countin' on us tellin' em where to take it. I'd count 'em real smart to know that in advance and plan for it. I ain't sayin I think so, I'm just saying we'd be stupid not to consider for half a second that maybe she's their man…er…woman."
Queue Composer Jeff Beal - "Fix Up Dora Mae"
Forrest nodded and grunted. Jack was so bewildered that he made himself visible in the doorway, his brow furrowed and the line of his mouth revealing that he was troubled. He looked at both of his brothers, and before he could be scolded, said
"If you can even think that about her, you don't even deserve to know her."
"Do you, Jack?" Howard asked. He only meant for the question to inspire his brother to think, but he was angered nonetheless. He spun on his heels and picked up the tray of mugs Maggie had wordlessly prepared for him, stalking out of the station, and composing himself before sitting for a drink with his friend.
Alice stood on the small balcony outside her room at the hotel, leaning over with her elbows on the railing. She wasn't even sure she was supposed to be out there; she'd had to climb through the window to get outside. She thought as long as no one told her to do otherwise, she'd sit for a time and enjoy the smells of the fall evening, watching the lights go on in Rocky Mount and the people shuffling to and fro as the night came on. She stood flat on one foot and balanced the other on the tip of her riding boot, rocking it lazily back and forth; fine red clay sifting off the soles. The air had grown colder over the past few weeks, she'd noticed. She had been parking her car at the Bondurant's filling station, and hiking the few minutes into the woods to work on her uncle's house, taking out rotted furniture and burning it in the piles of dead leaves she was starting to amass. She had started by raking piles of leaves that had already begun their slow process of decay, and setting them on fire next to the small pond, which grew into a task of burning anything she thought she couldn't use that was safe to burn. Her main objective was to remove whatever wasn't salvageable from the house before the winter came on and she couldn't do any work on it whatsoever. She hoped to at least protect the structure over the winter so it would not incur any more damage before she was able to call in workers in the spring.
Queue Composer Jeff Beale - "Stom's Coming"
She looked around and noticed something strange. Some of the windows in the hotel were open, but most had their shades drawn, and behind the other windows, it was dark, or the guests were sitting at their desks writing, or reading, unpacking or preparing to make their way downstairs for dinner. Such was not the case in one particular window. Normally, Alice wouldn't have been staring into someone else's private space other than to run her eyes over the windows in a surveying process, but her eyes caught on another pair of eyes, staring back at her. It was the strange man, the one she had seen at first at the hotel desk, and afterward in passing downtown. A prohi, by the looks of him. They'd encountered their fair share of them when she was young. One of the things which made a career of working long hours in the logging business was the ability to unwind at the end of an exhausting week, and white lightening was a common enough recreational choice for the loggers, which made the logging sites common enough targets for prohis. Her father had been of the opinion that what a man does with his own liver is his own business, so long as it did not interfere with other facets of his life, so he had tried to protect his camps as much as possible from searches and seizures, a stance the prohis resented with vengeful vehemence.
Alice was staring at the man long enough to forget that she was staring, though it hadn't mattered much. He had not averted his gaze in some time. Typically, when caught staring, for whatever reason, it had been her experience that none other than the most emboldened men would have retained their affixed countenance once being noticed. She also had the experience that those who kept staring were generally not to be trifled with, and that avoidance of men of this type was the wisest course of action in those situations. This one was no exception. Despite his well oiled hair and his fierce, icy gaze he gave her the impression he was looking at her like a predator looks at prey, instead of the way one human would look at another, and she shivered despite the warm sweater she'd put on over her blouse. He was sitting in his window shining one of his shoes as he stared, though he never looked at it, just continued with the same repetitive, continuous motion long enough for Alice to be startled into thinking it was vulgar, the motions he was making as he stared at her like that. And with no shame! She shuddered and couldn't resist the urge to shoot him a nasty look, mimicking the 'You should be ashamed of yourself,' reaction she'd seen given by other women. Then, gracefully, and rendering least amount of enticement she could muster in her movements, she climbed back into her bedroom and shut her window with a deafening slam. Then her heartbeat quickened and she looked up, suddenly alert and terrified. She ran to her door and with a sigh of relief realized she'd locked it. She sunk down against the door, raising her knees up to her chest and hugging them closely to her. She sat there like that for some time, and had been lulled into relaxation when she heard a sound. She could have sworn she heard footsteps on the carpet outside her room, steps which ceased outside the door for what seemed like ages before turning back the way they came and repeating their receding sounds in reverse of how they had sounded on their approach. That night, with the lights off and the window closed, and her desk chair propped at an angle up against the handle of her door, she managed only a fitful sleep, dreaming of a black train and a small deer trapped on a train trestle.
Queue: Kate Rusby - "Planets"
Alice pulled into the lot at Blackwater Station, her engine roaring, her exhaust brushing aside stray leaves as she breezed in. She parked on the side, as she usually did, looked back and forth at the deserted parking lot, and wrapped the Colt M1911 semi-automatic in the scarf she'd hidden it under. She'd dug it out of one of her trunks the night after the strange encounter with her hotel neighbor only one week ago, and it had been with her ever since. An even more disturbing sight had shocked her the day before, and she was anxious to speak to someone about it. She got out of the car in her regular uniform of field boots and tweed pants, shivering in her blouse and heavy cardigan in the morning mist. She kept the gun tucked into the handkerchief and tucked it up underneath her sweater, against her back in the waist of her pants. She scuffed up the steps to the station, and entered hesitantly. It was just after 9:00, generally Maggie had breakfast ready just before 7, and after 8:30 there was a lull in diners before lunch. No one was directly inside, though she could hear shuffling and muted voices from Forrest's office, and gentle clanging and banging sounds from the food storage room.
"Maggie?" she called softly.
The older girl came busting around the corner with a cigarette in her mouth, a sack full of sugar in her left arm. "Hi, Alice, Mornin'. I just made coffee." It was Alice's custom to sit and have coffee and biscuits with Maggie and talk for a while between Maggie's shuffling before heading out to clean out her uncle's house. Usually she was far busier than today because Alice was generally earlier than she'd been this morning. But she'd had trouble sleeping in the hotel, even with the window locked and the desk chair propped up under the doorknob, and the Colt on the nightstand within arm's reach.
With a grumble, Forrest rose from his desk in his office and picked up his brown ceramic coffee mug, headed to the kitchen to freshen it up. He had learned to move quietly despite his size and strength, and wound up in the doorway, gazing quietly at the two women in intimate consort.
While Maggie poured them both a pot of fresh coffee and took biscuits out of the small oven behind her, Alice lowered her voice and leaned toward her. "May I ask you something?"
Maggie nodded " 'f course," she said, puffing out and dragging again on her Camel.
"All right, well," she proceeded to point to different places on the wooden countertop to illustrate her point. "Your room is here, and I'm here on this corner….who stays….here? He's a strange man, smells like lilac cologne and looks like a prohi? Uses more oil in his hair than the Union Pacific does on their railcars?" She pointed to the room belonging to the mysterious, frightening man. Maggie snorted with laughter at the reference, and then made a disapproving grunting sound, probably something she'd picked up from Forrest, Alice suspected.
"Charley Rakes," Maggie said, suddenly becoming serious. She had to steady her hand which was pouring the canvas sack of sugar into a tin on the back counter by the stove. "He's been causing a lot of trouble around here."
Alice noted how long she'd drawn out the 'lot' to emphasize, and Alice suddenly felt cold worms writhing in her stomach despite the piping heat of the fresh coffee. She'd thought the reason she hadn't seen Jack around was because he was trying to covertly contact the girl he was always talking about, the pretty mandolin player, Bertha. But what if this were part of the trouble Maggie was talking about. Surely they would have told her if something had happened to him? Jack himself still lay huddled in his bed by this time, looking at his scrapbook he'd been putting together, wincing every time his swollen, bruised face touched his pillow the wrong way. He had begged Forrest, Maggie and Howard not to tell Alice what happened with Rakes at Cricket's house, and for once, they relented, although Forrest and Howard thought he could do with some embarrassment.
"What sort of….trouble?" She asked. Forrest strode into the kitchen then, moving behind the counter, and Maggie turned away, both girls suddenly shy at having been caught talking. Alice decided not to pressure her for an answer, but instead to keep speaking, to tell Maggie what she had seen, and if this Rakes truly was trouble for the Bondurant boys, Forrest might as well hear it.
"Something happened yesterday." Alice said.
Forrest put the coffee pot down—hard, and Maggie jumped and looked over at him.
Forrest replied but all Alice could make out was "…happened?"
She looked back and forth between the two as she told the story.
"I came back to the hotel yesterday afternoon, around sundown, and when I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, a girl bumped into me. It wouldn't have seemed strange, except she was crying and trembling. Her hair was a mess, and her clothes were…." she was shy mentioning this in front of Forrest "awry. She didn't look injured, I've seen people injured, she was just…. frightened."
She paused, hoping that she'd conveyed the fact that something about the girl's fear had frightened her even more than the fear in the comfort women she'd seen with actual bruises in the timber camps.
"And then I saw…" she gestured towards Maggie "This 'Charley Rakes' standing in his doorway watching her go, and I know, I know she'd been in there. And then a few nights ago…"
Having seen him move only slowly and deliberately before this point, Forrest moved more quickly than Alice imagined he could, from the back corner of the counter to three feet beside Alice, and she felt a pleasant warmth spread through her belly as he approached, growing as he got closer, which caught her completely by surprise.
Queue: Kate Rusby - "You Belong to Me"
"Eyeah?" he asked, staring with intensity at her.
"Well, I was outside on the small little balcony outside my window, and I turned in the direction of the rest of the hotel and happened to see him in his window…staring. And he didn't…stop. But he knew I saw him staring. I looked right at him. I haven't slept through the night since." She looked down, embarrassed, hoping that they would catch the sentiment that she'd felt it vulgar without having to explicitly say so. Forrest slammed down his mug, harder than he'd wanted to, and started to walk out. But he paused, and turned, his big shape turning to face Alice straight on from the doorway.
"They're looking for stills in the woods. You, out there, alone….I don' like it."
It was the most she'd heard him speak. She liked the fact that he'd been open with her about the stills, even though she'd known they were there. She smiled at him. He didn't like it. He didn't like how it made him feel, out of control.
"Well…"she drew the M1911 from the back of her pants and held it out beside her safely. She turned it sideways so he could see what it was. "I'm a pretty good shot." She dropped the ammo out to show him the magazine and re-clicked it into position, and pulled the slide back and repositioned it as well to show Forrest she knew how to use it. "You don't really run around a logging camp with anything less than a .357, but I prefer a .45. Besides," she looked outside towards the short path by the pond that lead to her new house, and back at Forrest, suggesting the short distance between her house and Blackwater Station "With you-y'all…here, I didn't think I was alone."
She smiled at him again and her words and her expression pulled at him like twin strings on his heart. He grunted and stalked back off to the office. She turned back to Maggie and shrugged again, re-positioning the gun in it's spot against her back.
"I can hit a knot in a tree at 30 yards!" Both girls erupted in peels of laughter, talking until nearly 10, by which time Alice scrambled off into the woods, and Maggie began table setup for lunch, smiling at how the timber baron's daughter had teased protective warmth from the unmovable mountain, Forrest Bondurant.
Alice sat on one of the steps of her great uncle's house that hadn't rotted out…yet. She had her picnic basket beside her, some apples and a sandwich and crackers inside, and a bottle of opened root beer next to her on the step. She planned to read some of the mail she'd received, that she could answer later. As she snacked in the late morning sunshine, she shivered slightly when a cool breeze blew dried leaves cross her tiny yard. She admired the pile of refuse and debris that she had cleaned off the porch and swept out of the first floor that morning, and looked at her handiwork on the first floor windows, which now sparkled in the light of the autumn sun, instead of reflecting nothing at all through their thick film of dust. She watched, bemusedly as Howard made his way through the woods yet again with a bucket, muttering and cursing angrily to himself and heading towards the still that bordered her property. She glanced over at her sealed up well that sat to the side of her porch. She had tried to push the large granite well cover off by herself, but had received only resistance and a pitiful grinding noise for her efforts. The cover had not budged. She knew she'd need fresh water of her own. Jack had been kind enough to let her fill the bucket she had at their pump, and that had been enough to clean the windows, but she'd need more if she intended to clean the whole house up. She took a deep breath and called out to Howard. Perhaps he'd agree to a sort of trade.
"You know, shine tastes better when you make it with well water."
He stopped, and stayed turned to the side in the direction he'd been traveling, but she knew he was listening to her. She called out again, her sweet southern voice ringing like bells off the trees and the hills around them
"I've seen you walk back and forth today about seven times filling that bucket from the creek. You must've been at it two hours already."
He stopped and put the bucket down and turned over to her.
"Yeah? And just whadda you suggest? Creek's the closest draw spot from here, and it'd be five hours if I had to pump it up at the station."
"I have a well." She pointed to the covered up stack of granite rocks a few yards away. "Help me get the lid off and dump the stale water out and you can pump all you want. That still you think you're hiding can't be more than 50 paces from here."
He sighed again, and put his bucket down, stomping through the brush with a crackling, crashing sound. He looked at the well and then walked around it, putting pressure on several different spots. Before he put any work into it, Howard needed to be sure moving the stone wasn't going to crumble the entire well altogether.
"We'd need a winch and a stand and a bucket."
Alice nodded and stood, walking over to him. "They're inside. Uncle Red made sure the well would be covered, and manageable if any of us wanted to move in." She laughed. "I've seen the winch and the stand. We could use a new rope and a deeper bucket, however."
"This is gon' take all day." Howard grumbled.
Alice grinned and clapped her hands together "So you'll help me?" she looked up at him expectantly.
Queue "Till It Runs Dry" - Holly Williams
Fifteen minutes later, Alice had her sleeves rolled up and gloves on her hands, shifting a makeshift wedge made from a piece of flint under one side of the well cover. Little by little they shifted the well cover over, and as Cricket and Jack made their way into the woods, they witnessed Howard and Alice shoving the giant well cover with great enough effort to –finally- send it tumbling and rolling down the hill, coming to rest on it's side with a –thwack!- in a wet, muddy ditch near where the pond and the creek met. Howard chuckled and took his hat off, rubbing sweat off his brow. Alice sighed and with hands on her hips puffed a breath of air up towards her forehead, trying to clear stray wisps of hair away that had come loose. She had abandoned rolling and pinning her hair to make it appear shorter in the style; now she wore it long to the side with a ribbon tying it all together in what Lettie had called a pony's tail. Alice and Howard's eyes suddenly met with great seriousness as they turned in tandem towards the well and gazed into it.
"Well, nothin' dead, in 'ere far as I can see." Howard said.
"Whats goin' on?" Asked a breathless Jack. He and Cricket had hurried the rest of the way when they saw Alice in the woods.
"Cleaning the well out!" Alice called, her voice echoing down the expanse of darkness as she peered down at the water. "Howard was pretending I'd never heard of moonshine until I told him it was here."
Howard scowled and retrieved his bucket from where it was on the porch. While he'd decided what to do about moving the stone, Alice had found rope and retrieved Howard's second bucket and attached a length to each bucket handle. Together, the two started to empty water in a ditch near where the muddy bank met the pond. When Cricket and Jack realized they could be of use instead of a nuisance, Jack offered to run back to Blackwater Station, and returned quickly with buckets. The four hauled water for the next few hours, each bucket yielding cleaner water than the last. Howard sighed and brushed his hand over his brow as his pocket watch ticked 2:00.
"All right. We let it sit a few days, then do it again. Be sure it's clean. Jack, why dontcha come on and help me with the rest of this water. Gotta feed the still an' I'm sure Forrest been wonderin' where the hell I am."
Jack grimaced but nodded at his brother. Cricket nodded and put his hands in his pockets. "I should go help with the dishes 'fore everyone gits here fer suppertime." Howard had already walked off into the woods, and Cricket made his way off with a wave. "Jack! Let's go!" Howard yelled from the woods.
"Oh!" Jack looked at Alice and smiled "Are you comin' to the barn dance next week?"
"Well, if I'm invited. When next week?"
She nodded. "I will."
That afternoon, after a bit more work in the house, Alice decided she'd return to the hotel and have her dinner brought upstairs so she could write to Lettie and retire early. As she was leaning over on the steps, packing up her items in her picnic basket, she heard some rustling sounds behind her. Expecting a deer, she froze, but the more she listened, the more she realized from the sounds that it couldn't be. Standing up and placing her hands on her hips, she turned slightly over her shoulder and said
"Jack, Howard will tan your hide if you don't help him fini-"
She paused when something deep in her gut told her it wasn't Jack Bondurant behind her. She turned her head a bit more and saw in her periphery the prohi from her hotel. Out here, looking for stills. And her gun on the table inside, where she'd placed it to keep it from getting wet as she hauled the water.
"And who might you be?" he purred.
At five o'clock in the evening, a soft crackling sound could be heard in the dimly lit bedroom of the timber tycoon's daughter, as a pair of soft, brown hands with impeccably clean fingernails gently put a vinyl record in place and set the phonograph needle down.
Queue Billie Holiday - "Easy to Love"
Outside, the light was fading in the mountains, and workers were shuffling back to camp to shower off and get a good hot meal in the canteen, maybe some drinks of moonshine outside on the back porch, maybe the comfort of a girl who had come to the logging camp to make money providing just that to the woodcutters.
A piano, soft trumpet music and the tempo of a band's music filled the room, followed shortly thereafter by the voice of Billie Holiday. Alice groaned, and pulled her left foot, which had been sticking out of her bedcovers, back underneath the warm darkness of the blankets. Lettie puttered around the room, slowly turning on lights to slowly phase Alice into a state where she was agreeable to waking. She closed the curtain, just to be sure, and lit the last lamp, the one by Alice's bedside table.
"Come on, you got to get up now! Guests comin' for drinks in 45 minutes. Heard the train whistle already."
Alice groaned again in reply. She had long ago learned to sleep through the train whistles that heralded new visitors to a logging camp, a train sometimes the only way to get in or out, and certainly the best way to move timber down from the mountains.
"Don't make me snatch that pillow right out from under your face."
Alice groaned a third time and sat up, patting the pin curl clips holding her rolled finger waves in her hair, starting to fuss with them. Lettie swatted at her hand gently, and slid out of bed, her silk nightgown riding up as she stretched up and yawned. Lettie left for a moment and Alice plopped back down on the bed, yawning again. Lettie returned with Alice's long, slinky bias cut silk dress. It was a soft golden yellow, elegant and flattering, but Alice wasn't in the mood to wear it. She wanted to sleep. She'd been up since before dawn with her father, riding the trails to the different cutting sites. Lettie hung the dress on the back of the door and came back to her, gently guiding her arm so she'd stand and sit at her vanity.
"You got to go to dinner with your daddy now. I know you don' like to. I know you'd rather be up here, readin', or down in the canteen listening to music, or walkin' in the woods, but you gotta help your papa now, and he always say: 'Investors respond to three things: an organized camp, Canadian Whiskey, and charmin hosts.'"
Alice smiled, Lettie had always been especially good at mimicking her father's voice and expressions.
She huffed out air, plopped down and stared in the mirror. Lettie began pulling each of the pins out gently, and Alice leaned over beside the vanity to change the record, selecting something entirely different.
Queue Bessie Smith - "Sugar in My Bowl"
As the two sat together, Lettie pulling pins and Alice unenthusiastically applying makeup, the younger started singing along to her the sassy song coming out of the crackling speaker of the victrola: "Whassamatta hot papa come on and save your momma's soul, 'cause I need a little sugar in my bowl."
"What you know about 'sugar in my bowl?' Close your mouth. You need rouge."
Alice laughed. Lettie always had perspective. She let the other woman gently powder a bit of light pink blush on her face. She stood and changed into her undergarments and then let Lettie help her shimmy into her gown. As she slipped into her shoes, Lettie went to her armoire and shuffled around. Alice made her way to the mirror and looked at her reflection, checking the shape of her hair. As usual, it was perfect. Without Lettie she'd probably always look like she'd been sleeping in the pig pen with the hogs. She held out her arm for Lettie to place a tennis bracelet on it, and ducked when she needed to fasten Alice's diamond choker. Alice sighed again, looking at herself.
"I hate that I have to fuss. I thought we were safe in the woods."
Lettie laughed, that the child thought she needed protection from having to dress up but not from all of the things Lettie herself hated about the woods. She was always counting the days until they returned to Williamsburg, and later, to Charlotte. Alice sighed and looked down. Lettie moved around her and looked at her, gently taking her chin in her right hand.
"You listen here. I know you ain't fond of this, but you gotta go. And your papa's counting on you being pleasant. With me, you ain't got to be anyone different." Alice smiled; she loved it when Lettie said that.
"But not everybody's gonna feel about you how I do. The world, out there, it's not something you can predict. With them, when you got to prove somethin', when you got to protect yourself, you use that charm your daddy talks about. It'll get you everywhere. Just close your eyes, and turn it on. They'll never know what's inside."
Charley Rakes enjoyed being on assignment. He loved his job as Special Deputy, but much of his free time in Chicago was compromised by the lack of circles he was able to run in. Well respected, he nevertheless found himself restricted to socializing with only those Chicagoans who were friendly to prohibition agents, and so many of those he wished to sidle up to were professionally quite friendly but their personal approach to him wasn't the kind to afford him entree into their world, besotted as it was with illegal liquor. And the women in Chicago. Expensive and time consuming to find one he'd be willing to couple with. Liquor and jazz had tainted most of the young ladies he'd otherwise be interested in, and the rest he'd found boring, lacking a certain fire he knew he needed to keep him interested.
Enter this luscious little specimen. The one he'd been observing at the hotel. As if the Pierce Arrow weren't enough to demonstrate her taste (even Mason Wardell had turned his head when he heard her drive past one afternoon), he had watched her at breakfast in her fitted riding pants and bias cut day dresses and pretty wool suits breezing around that glamourless hotel, lighting it up like a still fire. Lighting him up. From his vantage point in the woods, once he'd come upon her, he watched her exchange pleasantries with those awful Bondurant boys. Too kind, too sweet. He could break her of that. Make her blink those wide brown eyes at him, make her lips tremble. His three piece suit started to feel warm on him. He stalked through he woods and approached her from behind, calling out to her.
"And who might you be?"
Alice knew who was behind her. Charley Rakes. The man Maggie had told her about, the one from the hotel. Very, very slowly, she started to turn until she faced him.
"I find it hard to believe that there is anyone a Special Deputy with the ATU doesn't know. Especially in a place like this." She stood there, raising her eyebrows. Rakes was holding a double barreled shotgun, and he had a revolver with a pearl handle in his belt loop. He scoffed, and broke apart the barrel, resting it on his left arm so he could put out his right hand, both to be friendly and to show her he didn't mean to shoot her.
"I'm Charley Rakes, I'm from Chicago." Alice put her hand out and shook, politely, but quickly. Softest gloves she'd ever seen on a man. Not soft and thick like her father's kidskin, more like thin rubber. Something about it was strange to her.
"I'm Alice. Ostergaard."
"And just what might you be doing out here?" He asked, looking her up and down. She immediately turned away, not without a wrinkle of her nose to show what she thought about the once-over, and started moving around, trying to pick up her things and put them in her picnic basket as quickly as possible so that she could head back to Blackwater Station.
"Fixing my uncle's house. " She wasn't going to give him any more information than he absolutely had to have, but neither did she want to alienate him so much that she made him angry. She had a habit of that as well.
Rakes looked at the house, and it was his turn to wrinkle his nose.
"I saw you at the hotel. You've got the Pierce-Arrow. Beautiful car." He was following behind her, and when she finally turned around, she was alarmed by how close he was to her, but attempted to show no emotion.
"Thank You." She tucked her arm through her picnic basket and stood to face him.
"Lots of beautiful things in Franklin since you got here."
"Well, I came just in time. The leaves are changing. The colors are certainly beautiful this time of year." Alice said, smiling, and tried to walk down the path past him but he stood in front of her and she stopped short.
"I have to ask you some questions." He said. "Shouldn't be but a moment," he lifted his right hand up and flicked his wrist and his fingers to show it wouldn't take much time.
"I haven't really the time right now, but I'm sure I can make an appointment at the Sheriff's office if you think there is anything I can be of help with." She assumed it was because she was friends with Jack and his brothers that he wanted to try to squeeze information out of her. She was just concerned about what else he might try to squeeze in the process.
He stepped close to her and stood a foot away. "I can arrest you if you interfere with a federal investigation."
Alice looked at him incredulously "And how, exactly, is my shoddy attempt at repair work a interference with the federal government?"
Rakes' face went cold. "You have a smart mouth."
Alice smiled without opening her mouth. "I take no responsibility. My brain does all the work."
He laughed, angrily. "You're not getting out of these woods until you tell me about the Bondurants and their little operation."
With the basket still looped through her forearm, she crossed both arms across her chest. "And why would I know anything about that?"
"You're friendly with them." The way he said 'friendly' sounded as though he had tasted something bitter as he formed the word with his tongue.
"And?" She raised her eyebrows.
"And you're going to be friendly with me!" he snapped.
He leaned closer and she turned her head away, but she could feel his dark eyes on her delicate neck. Now, he frightened her. No, he had been frightening her, but now she was petrified. Her heart was beating quickly. Thoughts of a familiar, handsome, grumpy face, scratchy wool, grunts and nods, and the smells of liquor and soap and coffee and cigars crossed her mind, and she realized the only thing she wanted in that moment was Forrest.
No time to howl like she'd heard Howard do when the prohis came around. Only one thing left. Charm. She quickly calculated her distance to Blackwater Station. That was all she needed, to get there, and everything would be all right. She could see it through the trees from here. She thought Rakes would probably have a hard time running in those fancy shoes. And she had the advantage in her riding boots. Her gun was still on the table inside. Charm truly was her only option. She heard Lettie's voice in her mind "Turn it on." She raised her eyes, opened her mouth slightly and fluttered her eyelashes ever so delicately. "Am I?"
Rakes' face relaxed. He put his hand out to suggest that she tell him whatever she was going to tell him.
She smiled her most convincing smile, hoping it would come off without evidence of her teeth chattering
"Follow me," she said, smiling. She put down her picnic basket. "I could see smoke rising from the hills over here a day or so ago," she pointed and went down to where a large pool of mud had formed during her cleanout of the well that afternoon with Howard, Jack & Cricket. "See? In between the trees there?"
Rakes squinted, but shook his head.
"Well, maybe they aren't tending it today. At any rate, you should check there." He stood near the mud, gingerly walking around it and staring out over the pond attempting to see the fictional still she was attempting to point out.
"I see nothing." Her mistake was that she turned to go back up the hill, and that was when Rakes grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him, far too close to him, her back to the woods, Rakes' back to the pond. "You have to give me more than that." Alice's heart hammered in her chest and she laughed softly, moving her hand gently towards his chest, and he stiffened until she gently pinched his lapel
"Well, actually, I was going to compliment your tailor," she said, batting her eyelashes and gagging inside. Her mind was racing and she was trying to remember the fights she'd seen in the camps. Trying to recall the times she'd seen a smaller person take the advantage. She had it.
"Were you?" He asked
"Mmm-hmm," she said, pursing her lips. "In fact," here she put her other hand up and took his other lapel in her hand, "I've been thinking that for some time. And you know what else?" She carefully stepped towards him and pressed herself in close, stepping her left leg between his feet, keeping her face relaxed though she wanted to scream. As she did this, he was distracted, just as she hoped, and she hooked her ankle around his foot without him noticing, feigning interest in whispering in his ear. But she didn't. She shoved Charley Rakes as hard as she could off the muddy embankment of the pond, tripping him over her boot just as she'd hoped. She didn't watch him fall, she only heard the splash. She had turned to run before that. But before she ran, she summoned every bit of breath inside her and shouted "Forrest!" as loud as she could, taking off through the woods in the direction of Blackwater Station.
Then she was tearing through the woods as quickly as she could, thinking only of the big mountain of a man she wanted to hide behind.
Forrest had been seated in his office, adding up sales in his ledger. No one else, not Maggie at the counter, nor Cricket washing dishes, heard his name being called through the trees, but he heard something, and he knew. He felt it, right where he thought later that his heart must be. Before he could even think to do so, he had jumped up from his desk chair, sending it hurling backwards across the room, and, stocking out, pulled his gun from the back of his pants as he burst through the door onto the porch. That's when he heard it again. "Forrest!" Her voice. Her. His heart swelled again and he panicked. Forrest Bondurant never raised his voice, but in spite of himself, he shouted "Alice!"
Queue Rosi Golan ft. Johnny McDaid - "Give Up the Ghost"
Alice tore through the woods, branches whipping at her face, unruly tree roots threatening to trip her as she flew by and over them. She waved her arms out in from of her to move aside branches in the way, avoiding the path she thought the prohi would take. She couldn't hear Rakes behind her, but she knew she'd have the advantage, not having to climb up out of the mud, for one. Second, she assumed his shiny dress shoes under his spats weren't such that she could imagine they'd have good traction. She would have laughed at the thought of him trying to climb out of the muck if she weren't so frightened. She could hear Forrest shouting for her. A sudden sharp pain stung her cheek as a branch cut into her skin, but she barely noticed. Because now she could see him. She was finally through the branches and on the red clay soil of Blackwater Station. He could see her too, she recognized. His big shoulders dropped a little in a sigh of relief when he saw her. She appeared to be all right He was striding towards her, his brass knuckles glinting against the reflection of the high afternoon sun as he clenched them around his fingers, his gun in his left hand. She kept her eyes on him, her mark, as she hustled towards the station. She was growing closer when she tripped over a stray log in her path and went down on her hands and knees in the dirt. Dizzy, she stared at the ground, fighting back tears. Forrest could see that she looked all right, as long as that fall hadn't hurt her. Except for that scrape on her cheek. He tucked his gun away and put the knuckles in his pocket...momentarily. He squatted down and put out his hands for her to hold.
"You awright?" He asked, sternly. She sniffled and looked up at him with wide, brown, watery eyes. Stray soft wavy curls had pulled free from the ribbon in her hair and fallen into her face. She sat back on her haunches and took his hands and met his eyes, a strange rushing feeling filling her belly and rushing up to her throat, like when her father had taken her to Atlantic City and she'd ridden the roller coaster for the first time. For his part, Forrest noticed an uncomfortable warming sensation deep in his stomach, like the time he'd had a glass of expensive scotch whiskey, only this time he felt like he'd had the whole bottle.
"The fuck's goin on?" Howard yelled, stomping through the woods towards she and Forrest. A guilty look passed over his face and he muttered a "sorry" when he noticed Alice was present. Jack crashed through the woods, bumbling after his older brother and nearly tripping himself. Unceremoniously, and with a great amount of strength, Forrest pulled Alice up to her feet, and she wiped her face, blood coming away on the back of her hand. All three stared at her, out of breath, and she noticed Cricket and Maggie on the porch. She glanced behind her again and her tears slipped free from where she'd been stubbornly keeping them.
"Well?" Jack said, wheezing. He leaned over, breathing heavily with his hands on his shins.
Alice took a deep breath and regained her posture.
"Rakes. He-" saw Forrest's eyes narrow and his entire forehead crinkle. "He came after me in the woods. He didn't….do anything…but I was afraid he would. He asked about y'all and then when I claimed not to know anything, he wouldn't let me leave."
Howard muttered "Asshole" and Jack said "Sumbitch."
But Forrest was silent.
"So…" she spoke slowly and deliberately. "I pretended to have….intentions which I do NOT" she emphasized this element in particular…so I could trick him into….." she suddenly realized what trouble she probably had caused "….into being tripped into the pond. Then I ran. I don't know if he was behind me."
"You threw Rakes in the pond?" Cricket yelled from the porch, a silly grin on his face.
"Jesus Christ, Cricket, shut up!" Howard shouted, spitting onto the ground disapprovingly.
"I think he may have just been trying to scare me, but I couldn't be sure he wouldn't….I just didn't have my gun is all. It was in the house. I carried that gun in camp in case I had to fire warning shots. There were bears and mountain lions, but oily prohis….I never thought….." She realized she was shaking.
Forrest was checking the bullets in his revolver. "Howard?" he asked.
"I'll get the shotgun." He said.
"No, wait." Alice said. "I don't want you going out there, but I'm sure I can't stop you, so I'm coming with you."
"No." Forrest said.
"But-" Alice started.
"No." Forrest said again. "You go on in the station with Maggie and Jack."
Alice paced the porch at Blackwater Station for the thirty minutes until they came back. Howard was carrying her picnic basket out in front of him with a look of awkward disgust. Forrest's eyes were narrowed, his face stony and unreadable.
"Gone." He said to no one in particular as he went inside, Howard following behind. If he were a man of more words, he would have told Alice that they had searched for that son of a bitch everywhere but all they saw were muddy tracks leading from the embankment, leading straight to the main road, and a set of car tracks suggested he, or one of his local lapdogs had sped away, afraid. He would tell her he was glad she was safe, and that he'd do anything if he thought he could keep her there, with him...safe. But he hoped she just knew that it wasn't over, that Rakes would pay for what he'd done. Howard put Alice's picnic basket on the bar, and she noticed for the first time that there was a group of light blue flowers that didn't bloom that time of year, sitting on top of the basket. Where could they have come from?
"Looks like he left these." Howard said.
"Any idea what it means?" Jack asked.
"Means he ain't finished." Howard said. Forrest slammed a cupboard he had gone into to get some witchazel for Alice's cut. And he slammed it hard.
Queue Jillete Johnson - "Torpedo"
"I know what it is." Alice moved towards it. She gingerly picked up the little blue bell shaped flowers.
"They're Virginia Bluebells. He's telling me I picked a side. Well, good. Cricket? Let me see that jar you've been working on?"
Wordlessly, from behind the counter, Cricket handed her a jar of moonshine he'd been slowly sipping at for two days. It was his own batch, and strong. Alice stalked out into the yard and threw the flowers dismissively on the ground, dousing them in shine before striking a match from a box in her pocket and throwing it onto the pile, incinerating the bouquet in a rush of fire. Tears slipped down her face. Tears of relief, mostly. Forrest watched her from the window, his eyes narrowed and his heart throbbing.
Alice crushed the burnt flowers under the heel of her boot, and walked swiftly back towards the station, carrying Cricket's jar. She thought she'd seen Forrest's big, protective shape looming in the window, but only Jack, Cricket and Maggie were inside. Maggie gestured towards a glass bottle, and a small washcloth neatly folded beside it.
"Forrest brought this. So you can wash up and fix that." She puffed on her cigarette and gestured to Alice's cut. Alice smiled as best she could manage, wordlessly replaced the lid on the jar and returned it to Cricket, who nodded at her. She scooped up the bottle and the towel and headed for the washroom.
Queue Composer Jeff Beale - "Rita Sue & Jonesy"
Forrest sat in his office chair, brooding. He wanted more than he could explain or describe even to himself. He'd always been content here, at home. Taking care of his brothers and building a business he was proud of had fulfilled him and sustained him thus far. He hadn't imagined there was anything he'd ever want that he couldn't earn or make. Forrest had admired attractive women before. It wasn't as if he'd never seen a pretty face. But his feelings now he would have thought unfathomable before. And he'd never not been in control. When she came up those steps in that long, blue dress that hugged her figure like bark on a tree he'd felt a stirring in the expected places, but he hadn't expected the awakening he'd felt when her wide, warm eyes looked into his and he closed his big hand around hers. Something inside him twisted and tightened, ached and throbbed. And when he touched the hem of her dress that first night when he walked her to her car he had the childish thought that he could hold on and pull her inside and keep her at Blackwater Station, no words, no questions. To claim her as his own. He refused to think about those things now. About how he'd overheard her laughing at Jack's impression of Howard, her voice ringing like sweet bells in his ears. And how she'd come back to the station one day and sat at the counter with Maggie, telling the older girl how she knew she must be home somehow now that she had red clay under her fingernails again. About the way he couldn't keep her from his mind when he lay down at night, and how he'd linger before going upstairs after they'd closed on the nights she'd stay for dinner because her sweet perfume might linger and he could breathe it in, expanding his big chest and filling his lungs. He stood and walked quietly to the door of the washroom, meaning to knock and ask if she was all right. But he could hear her inside, soft little sobs and gasps and he thought she must be crying. He couldn't move. He stood, listening. He reached his hand out and placed his fingertips against the door, for no reason other than he thought he should. Then he lumbered quietly away and locked himself in his office again.
Alice puffed out her breath and stared into the mirror, examining her face to be sure she didn't look too much of a mess. She had taken her hair down and splashed her face with water, then carefully daubed witch hazel onto her cut and wiped off the rest of her slightly dusty face.
Composed, she opened the door and stepped out into the station.
"Staying for dinner?" Maggie called. It was nearly four in the afternoon already, and the Bondurant boys sometimes liked eating early, especially since it was getting darker earlier. Particularly on nights when Howard was going to be checking stills with Danny.
"Not tonight." Alice said.
"You gonna be all right?" Howard asked. He was standing rather close to Maggie behind the counter as she cooked, leaning against the back counter and drinking. Forrest, who sat quietly at one of the tables, scowled to himself that he hadn't had the chance to ask first.
"I'll be all right." She said. "I won't even be here the next few days. I'm leaving for Lyncburg for a party tonight, and I can stay as long as I like if I feel I have to. Give things time to cool down, maybe."
"You stayin' with friends?" Forrest asked. What he really wanted to ask was if there was someone specific who had invited her, if there was someone specific…escorting her. Their gender was of particular interest to him.
Alice nodded, and carefully placed the washcloth she'd folded up and the witch hazel bottle beside him on the table. "Thank you. My friend's family lives there. I'm supposed to leave tonight for her party."
Forrest grunted. At least this friend was a woman. "You drivin' alone?"
"At night?" Forrest asked.
Alice nodded again.
Forrest grumbled in dissent.
"Here," Alice began. She moved to the counter and asked Maggie for a scrap of paper and a pencil. She wrote "Miss Carrie Willis, Exchange: Rivermont 524" on the paper, and handed it back to Maggie. "Now you all know where to find me." Forrest half rose to escort Alice out, but Jack had started babbling to her about the upcoming barn dance and how she said she'd come with them. As they walked out into the night he heard her say she'd be back by then, and when he turned to go Maggie called to him.
"Aren't you going to have dinner with us?" If he hadn't been so distracted, he might have seen Howard stealthily move his hand away from where it had been gently resting on top of Maggie's free hand.
Forrest grunted and walked into the bathroom, meaning to wash his hands. He stopped, and realized that the blue velvet ribbon Alice had been wearing in her hair had been left behind the faucet. He thought of following her out to her car and returning it before she drove away. But when it took it between his thumb and fingers and rubbed the fabric gently he thought with guilt that he couldn't part with it just yet. He sighed and placed it in the pocket of his cardigan. He had more important things to think about. There were new buyers coming from Chicago that night, and he had to have his wits about him.
At 6:00, Alice arrived in the Rivermont district of Lynchburg, and soon was being whisked into Carrie's house as her car was parked and her things carried to Carrie's upstairs bedroom.
Queue Jillette Johnson - "Flood the Ocean"
They spent the afternoon sipping champagne and lazily dressing piece by piece, letting people hired to know better than they did set their hair. Carrie smoked cigarettes, one after another, and went on about how different things were now that there was no company for her father to work for anymore. How she hadn't had a new dress in eight months, just this one which wasn't even new, just altered after she'd only worn it once. Crying, she told Alice how she'd enrolled in the nursing school and was both sad for her old life, and excited for what could be her new one. She told her of how her father had taken a loan from the bank to host this party as a last ditch effort to try to attract some of the young men in the area towards Carrie, since they'd had to sell their Williamsburg home and move permanently to their family home in with her grandmother. Alice sat next to her on the bench at the end of Carrie's bed, letting Carrie lay with her head on Alice's lap while Alice told her how beautiful the trees were in the mountains in Franklin County, and how the sky looked when the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and how everything she needed was there. Carrie teased Alice for the better part of the few hours they spent alone until she gave up and told her about Forrest, grinning like a fool. Carrie, slightly drunk at only 7:30, laughed. They had always teased each other good-naturedly.
"Forrest? What do they call his brothers, Field and Creek?"
Alice shoved Carrie "Says the girl who had us go all the way to the Governor's mansion in a sleigh in four feet of snow in Williamsburg for a party we weren't even invited to because Ashley BOTTOM was there!"
"He was handsome!" Carrie laughed.
"And far more interested in your cousin Quentin!" Alice cried. She was delighted to be back with old friends she liked. In Charlotte everyone had been so pretentious, but she had grown up along with Carrie, and their circumstances had changed almost in tandem.
Carrie cackled and polished off another flute of Champagne.
Late in the night, halfway between the first rounds of champagne and desserts on the veranda, the phone chattered a loud jingle through the front hall, and Steven, one of the only servants not hired for the evening, went to answer it. Alice, perched on the edge of a pretty wrought iron chair with a fluffy silk pillow tied to it's back, paused for a moment, recalling that she'd given Forrest and the boys the phone exchange for Carrie's house. Carrie rose from the table their little group was seated around on the patio, gliding past twenty or so others moseying around the gardens and the back porch. She had seen Steven standing and waiting politely for her to notice him.
"Miss Carrie?" Stephen said, softly.
"Yes, Steven?" She asked.
"Telephone for Miss Alice."
Carrie nodded. "Thank You Steven. Just a moment." Carrie moved through the crowd again and tapped Alice on her shoulder. "For you, darlin'."
Alice hustled up the stairs in her multi layered gown, her heels clicking across the floors in the house and her heart hammering in her chest as she followed Steven to the telephone. There was no one else who could have known where she was.
"Hello?" she choked, forgetting she was supposed to be composed tonight.
"Alice?" a breathy, female voice gasped desperately.
Alice hesistated. "Maggie?"
Queue Alison Krauss- "You Will Be My Ain True Love"
"Oh thank God." Maggie sighed. "Alice, it's Forrest." She could hear Maggie's voice trembling and she sunk down into the little chair attached to the desk the phone was resting on. "Deal tonight went bad. I'd left for the hotel, but then I had a bad feeling and when I went back I found him with his throat cut. I brought him to the hospital, that's where I am now, but…"
Alice gasped and focused her eyes on Steven waiting in the hall. It was he she would signal to if she thought she was going to faint, and she felt ready to. The hall clock chimed one in the morning. She heard slight commotion, and the phone being moved around, muffled complaints, and then Jack's voice. He sounded like a frightened little boy.
"Alice?" His voice cracked. "Alice, can-can you come back now please? I know you're at a party an-"
"Jack?" Alice asked calmly. "Don't worry. I'm coming. I'm leaving now you just sit tight, but you have to tell me something."
"Okay," Jack choked softly.
"Where is Howard?"
Jack made a frustrated sound. "We can't find 'im. He was 'sposed to be here to help Forrest with this deal an I wasn't here, and Cricket was gone, but when I got back it was dark here, an' the car hood was opened and the phone was ringin' an' it was Maggie an'-"
"Jack?" Alice asked.
"Yeah." He said breathlessly.
"I need to get off the line now so I can come there, all right? You can tell me then." For a moment, Alice was proud of herself. She sounded like Lettie.
"Okay," she heard Jack say. "Okay."
She hung up the phone and found Steven, teetering on her heels. "Steven, would you please bring my coat and have my car brought around? I'm afraid there is trouble at home." She was so distracted she hadn't noticed she had called Blackwater Station 'home'.
The man nodded to her, and disappeared into the kitchen. Alice made her way to the veranda, where Carrie was waiting for her. Her friend turned to face her
"Everything all right?"
Alice shook her head. "I've got to go, I'm sorry."
Carrie took her friend's hands and squeezed. "It's all right. It's late. The party's breaking up anyway. You'll just have to promise you'll come and stay for a proper overnight soon. "
Alice nodded. "I will." Carrie felt her friend's hands trembling in her own.
"Is it mountain man?" Carrie asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Yes. Injured, badly." Alice's lower lip wobbled and her eyes stung with tears.
Carrie escorted her quickly to the door, where Steven placed her coat around her and held out her tiny handbag so she could slip the chain through her gloved hand. Then he opened the doors and Carrie followed her out, shivering now that she was off the unheated patio and without her coat.
Alice turned back to her before heading down the stairs to where a uniformed man was waiting, holding her door open. "I'm sorry, Carrie."
Carrie shook her head. "No. No. You've got your chance. Remember, we always talked about….love? Over the moon, go anywhere do anything love? Not the right husband, or the right address, or the right circles, or all the things we were told we wanted before the world went and fell apart. Go. I've never seen you glow like you did today. I've never seen you scared like I see you now. I think you might've found it. Don't let him slip away."
Alice squeezed Carrie as tight as she could, and held onto her hand for a lingering moment before wordlessly racing down the staircase and being ushered into her car. Then she sped away into the Virginia night, taking the winding roads for Rocky Mount Hospital.
Queue The Civil Wars - "The Devil's Backbone"
The steady, approaching click click click of Vida Moore evening shoes on the linoleum hospital floor awoke Jack from his reverie. It was the first out of the ordinary sound he had heard all night. The soft, hushed voices of nurses and muted squeaking of gurneys passing by had lulled him into unconsciousness. His head had been in his hands, his elbows on his knees, and though he'd hoped to keep vigil all through the night, he was afraid he might have been sleeping, at least for the past few minutes. At first, all he registered apart from the sound of her shoes was yards and yards of fabric. She hustled down the hallway in an emerald colored evening dress, that hugged her shape with soft, shiny silk that squeezed her torso and melted into yards and yards of ruffled, tiered silk organza just below her waist.
Lord have mercy Jack thought. When Forrest gets outa this and wakes up, I hope she's not still wearing that. Invincible only goes so far.
What he'd noticed was the slit up the left side of the dress, from her ankle all the way up to above her knee. Her hem didn't come close to touching the floor, it bobbed happily just above her ankles. If he were female, he probably would have noted that the dress had been cut at the tail end of the 1920s, and that it looked wonderful when in context, but absolutely ridiculous at near three o'clock in the morning in the middle of a rural Virginia hospital.
"Jack!" Alice called, and he snapped out of his weary daydream. She quickly adjusted the white cardigan she'd slipped on when she stopped the car and almost jumped out of the Pierce-Arrow without parking it. She'd shrugged her coat off somewhere between Timberlake and Rustberg, when she got too frustrated with it to drive properly. But she wanted to appear more rather than less demure in case she had to speak with anyone and be taken seriously. Jack hopped to his feet.
She shook her head and sat down beside him on the bench he'd been on, taking one of his hands when he sat down again beside her.
"What happened?" She asked softly.
"I was out tryin' to see if I could see Bertha. Her daddy was having some church bazar tonight to raise money for the new steeple an-"
"Jack?" Alice asked carefully. "What happened to Forrest?"
Jack scrunched his face sheepishly and his young, innocent features looked, for a moment, marred with age.
"He had trouble with somebody. They cut his throat in the parking lot of Blackwater Station."
Alice gasped in horror and her 12 button gloved right hand flew to her mouth. If she had been thinking of herself in the slightest, she would have noticed that she was trembling and quaking, and that she'd grown suddenly cold. Her other hand darted out to take Jack's. Jack nodded and sucked in his bottom lip, trying not to tear up.
"He's in surgery. I was at Burnt Chimney when it happened, and Howard" Jack bit his bottom lip, his eyes flashing with anger, and then took a deep breath.
"Howard was 'sposed to be there at 11 to stand backup with some new buyers. He and Danny were supposed to check stills an' then come back but I donno where the hell he is now. He didn't show. Maggie says it was just her and Cricket and Forrest at lockup. It was her who told me. I got back to the station and everything was dark. The phone was ringin' and it was her. Guess she found out somehow." Jack was too distraught to think critically about how it was that Maggie knew as much as she did about the incident.
"Where is Maggie?" Alice asked.
"She went to see if she could find coffee somewhere."
Alice nodded and squeezed his hand again. "Did they say how long before they know something?"
Jack shook his head. "Shouldn't be much longer. They been in there awhile."
Alice patted Jack's hand and leaned against the bench, tipping her head back against the wall and sighing, staring at the blank white ceiling. The two sat silent and stony faced, looking up hopefully at anyone who seemed to be coming from the direction of one of the few operating rooms. Alice herself felt sick. The rich, decadent food from Carrie's party swirled around in her stomach and churned with her anxiety in the pit of her belly. She hoped it wouldn't all come back up. She started her slow, intentional breathing, meant to calm her, the way Lettie had taught her to do when she was little. She searched desperately for some bit of comfort to cling to. Despite the way she cleaved to the few, precious words mumbled to her from Forrest's pouty mouth each time they spoke, she worried and feared those she felt she couldn't trust. Not that she'd believed he would deceive her. But he was a staunch believer in his own myth. She'd heard plenty of legends before. But she had no faith that stories and their embellishments had the power to shield flesh and bone. If she had learned anything living in logging camps, and from her father, it was that anyone could die. They do. And they will. For Alice it was only ever a question of how long she'd get to keep those precious to her, for they would all inevitably be gone away from her. One way. Or another. And she couldn't bear the thought of Forrest being anywhere other than in his chair in his office, or his rocker on the porch, or at a table in the station, worrying over his log book. He was part of Blackwater Station. And it, in turn, now part of her. It had settled into her and she into it like a child and her mother in each other's arms. Of course, there were other places Alice could picture Forrest, if she'd admit to herself the things she thought about late at night, quiet and sleepy in her bed. But it wasn't time to think of those things now. Alice reached for Jack's hand again. Maggie came trudging up the stairs at the end of the hallway, walking towards the two of them. Alice immediately registered something strange about her, but said nothing. Perhaps Maggie was as worried as Alice was. In a small, meek tone, her coat wrapped around her protectively, Maggie explained that she was going back to the hotel to sleep. She would be back to visit in the morning.
Soon after Maggie left, Alice found herself leaping to her feet after Jack, who had noticed Forrest's surgeon coming down the hall. The man strode towards the both of them, wiping his hands off on a towel, his white, rolled up sleeves tinted pink. Jack fumbled his hat around in his hand, and Alice watched as the doctor's feet seemed to move slower than if they had been stuck in thick, sucking tar. In reality, it was moments before he crossed to the odd looking pair. The doctor took a deep breath.
"Your brother will be fine." He said. A collective sigh fell from the lips of both Alice and Jack. "It's miraculous," the doctor began, shaking his head not in disapproval, but in disbelief. "He should be able to eat, breathe and speak normally in time, though I am going to recommend we keep him overnight the next few nights, and he shouldn't talk for a while. He's anesthetized right now, but we're going to move him into another room soon."
Alice dropped back onto the bench, her knees no longer willing to accommodate her. She hadn't realized how terribly tired she'd been. She barely heard the words between Jack and the doctor, she simply stared ahead at the white walls, numb and light hearted at the same time.
"Alice?" Jack was carefully leaning over her, speaking quietly. "You all right?"
Alice smiled meekly. She realized that the doctor had gone and that Jack had been speaking to her. "Yes. Yes, I am. Now. I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I borrowed Cricket's car to go to Burnt Chimney. It's parked outside. I'm gonna go home now, somebody's gotta tell Howard when he gets back, and I'm gonna try to open the station for gas tomorrow." Jack stood back upright, and puffed out his chest. He suddenly felt less helpless, now that he knew Forrest would be all right. He had a purpose. He would take such good care of the station Forrest would be proud of him when he got home. That's what he would do. "You gonna be all right? You want me to walk you back to the hotel?" Jack asked, his big brown eyes wide and questioning.
"Yes," Alice said. "I think I'll just sit here a moment, before I go back. I had a long drive." She smiled as best she could manage so Jack wouldn't worry after her. He patted her hand and made his way briskly out of the hospital, out into the night to find where he'd parked the car. Alice sat a few minutes and stared at the clock on the wall, watching it tick, tick, tick the seconds by. Then she started to cry. Tears slowly trailing down her cheeks when she blinked, at first, and then a deluge of them spilling onto her dress and her sweater. She sobbed softly, and only composed herself when a young nurse came and knelt beside her.
"Hey, you awlright, doll?" The other girl asked. She had a comforting, homey drawl to her voice. Alice noticed she had a warm, round face. She imagined the girl crouching before her must have offered comfort to many a person on this same bench. Alice smiled and put on her bravest smile, wiping her tears away with the fingertips of her gloves. The other girl looked back and forth in the deserted hallway, as if she were worried another might overhear.
Queue Composer Gabriel Yared - "Ada Plays"
"Are you Alice?" She asked. Alice raised her eyebrows, but kept her expression friendly.
"Yes….how did you know?"
The other girl smiled devilishly.
"Come with me." The two walked along the hallway, staying close to one of the walls, Alice following the nurse's lead. When they reached a darkened room at the end of the hall, she leaned her face in close and whispered.
"He's not really awake, yet, but I changed his dressing just after surgery, and he asked for you. He's very, very groggy, in and out of consciousness, and may not be makin' much sense, but you should be able to see him for just a moment. When you leave, sneak out this service entrance 'round the corner here. It's late, no one else should be checkin' on him tonight."
Alice squeezed the girl's hand and mouthed 'Thank You.' Then quickly she ducked into Forrest's closed hospital room. The only light was from streetlights outside, casting a soft glow over the bed in which his hulking frame lay. When her eyes adjusted, she could see his big chest rise and fall as air filled his lungs. For a moment, she simply stood there, looking at what features of his she could make out in the shadowed light through the window, but she was shaken by sounds outside the door and realized that her time was limited. Cautiously, she approached his bed. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard his deep, grumbling voice warble.
Without hesitation, she carefully picked up a chair from the corner and placed it by his side as soundlessly as she could manage, perching on it for a moment. "Yes," she whispered, leaning close. "I'm here."
"Beautiful Alice." He said. She couldn't tell if he was dreaming, or if he meant to be speaking aloud to her, but her heart fluttered in her chest like it was made of hummingbird wings. His eyes were closed, and his breathing even and slow, and his forehead knitted and relaxed in turn, which suggested to her that he might simply be sleeping off the ether, and having strange dreams. He moved one of his giant paws from where it was folded on his chest, and reached it out towards her. She took it carefully, folding her gloved fingers around his and her thumb under his.
"Forrest," she whispered, leaning in over him, close enough so he could hear her, far enough from him to be considered behaving herself. "Shhhh, Forrest," she soothed. "You're not supposed to be talking yet." He squeezed her hand gently, rubbing her gloved knuckles with his calloused thumb.
"My darlin' Alice." He murmured. Now she knew he must be further under than she thought. It tore at her heart to know she must pull away from his giant, surprisingly gentle hand, but she knew he needed his rest, and she hers.
"I'm going to let you sleep, now, Forrest." She said, softly. "I'll come back in the morning."
"Stay with me, my darlin'" he murmured, his voice a deep rumble.
Alice thought her heart would burst.
"I'm always with you, Forrest." She said. "I'm just going to my room to sleep. You scared me tonight, and I'm all out of sorts." She sighed, and gently brushed her soft, delicate lips against the back of his hand. She knew he'd probably remember none of this, so she didn't mind so much that she'd kissed him the way she had. She felt him let go of her hand reluctantly as she gently pulled away, and with a deep breath she made up her mind to go at that moment, or she never would. She moved the chair carefully back to it's place so as not to implicate her accomplice, the nurse who had seen her in. Then she paused for just a moment by the side of his bed, gently running her fingertips over the veins in the back of his left hand, which was still folded onto his chest. She turned, then, to go, and felt the ghost of Forrest's right hand as it moved faintly across the soft fabric of her dress, the gauzy silk organza rustling through his fingertips.
She cracked the door and finding the coast clear, slipped out of his room and into the hall. Her adrenaline rushing, she snuck out the entrance the nurse had showed her, and wound around the back of the hospital towards her hotel. The car she'd leave parked where it was. For now, all she needed was her warm bed, and the chance to close her eyes in the darkness and hear Forrest's deep voice play over in her mind as she lay bundled up in her nightgown. As she made her way inside, her eyes were only on the lights in the lobby, and the pattern of the rug leading upstairs. She hadn't noticed Special Deputy Rakes, standing in the window in the cover of the darkness of his room, staring at her as she slinked across the road and disappeared beneath him into the building.
Note: I need to thank the wonderful scholar and poet Seamus Heaney for the excerpt from the beginning of Beowulf that you find at the end of this chapter. He is the translator of the bilingual edition that I quoted. Alice's own translation that she would be reading from is an older one that came out in 1922 for accuracy purposes, but I really like Heaney's translation so I'm using that as the text for her to read aloud. I own nothing. The English words are all Heaney's.
Alice felt thunder rumble throughout the hotel, the reverberations of the clap tumbling through the bottoms of her feet. She stepped each of her stocking toes into brown kitten heels, and stared into the full-length stand alone mirror. She hadn't worn this morning dress since Charlotte, but she relished the opportunity to dress like a lady in front of the Bondurant boys, instead of running around the station in riding pants and field boots, looking like she was off to vote for the bizarre, zealous Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. She didn't like that man. Something made her very uneasy about him. Just like Special Deputy Rakes. She smoothed her peach crepe dress, it's double collar folding down four different angular directions as it dipped down in a V-shape from her neck. She shook out the pooled fabric ending just above her ankles, making sure the layers of crepe were falling right. She checked her winged cuffs for crispness and suddenly wished she had dressed for a ride. With a sigh, she stuck her cloche hat on her head, carefully navigating around the curls she'd pinned in a roll to the back of her neck in the style. Then she slipped on a pair of cream colored netted wrist length gloves, picked up her small wicker clutch bag, her pencil, notebook, and Frederick Klaeber translation of Beowulf, and left for her short walk to the hospital.
When Forrest awoke the morning after surgery, he immediately felt a dull, throbbing pain at his throat. He'd spent a miserable few hours since his normal rising time of six o'clock watching a pair of nurses and his doctor fuss over him, walking around the bed, gingerly peeling the gauze away from his wound to apply salve and check the stitching, reminding him every time he started to grumble that he wasn't allowed to talk yet. They had allowed Howard and Jack in to see him that morning, and Jack had been his usual, overly chatty self. Howard, quieter than usual, hadn't apologized to Forrest, but he could tell his older brother had sincere regrets about allowing himself to be otherwise engaged when he was supposed to be back in time to have prevented the carnage the aftermath of which he found himself surrounded by. By near nine they had gone, off on a mission to run the station even half as well as Forrest could when he was home. Howard had to tend all five stills, not to mention see to the rest of the station's business, while Jack would do his best to assess where he was needed, and try to help without getting underfoot. A nurse came to see Forrest, and gave him some medication for his pain, setting up a small glass bottle to drip into his IV, and soon he'd drifted back to sleep. Forrest so infrequently had time for extra hours of sleep, he nearly felt a stab of guilt at returning to rest halfway through what could have been a productive morning, but the seductive lure of rest and the gentle lull in pain offered by the medication caused him little pause.
Queue Composer Jeff Beale - "The Silent Film"
Then he dreamt. He was in the woods near Blackwater Station, searching for a still he knew he'd placed there. Though he knew nearly every inch of those woods, and knew himself to be near home, he did not recognize the path he walked on. He would not have recognized it in waking, for it was only in the dream that it existed. It was warm there, a soft breeze blowing through the trees and whistling above in the hills past rock outcroppings, as the sun moved slowly to set in the west and pull the light lazily past with it, until it disappeared entirely. He was lumbering along the path he knew lead to the still he searched for, but as he got closer to where he imagined it would be, the objective started to feel less and less like a still, though in the dream he knew he was searching for something, and couldn't imagine he'd be looking for anything else. It was then that he heard the soft crackle of a branch breaking underfoot.
There was Alice, ahead of him on the path, in an emerald evening dress he thought he recognized, and he did, as the one she'd worn to Carrie's party, though neither in waking nor sleeping would he have remembered ever having seen it before. Her hair, just as in life, a mess of different colors somewhere between gold, light brown, and red, dependent upon the light, shone as the colors of the fading sun shimmered over it, and Forrest's breath hitched as he realized she'd done nothing to it, only let it spill down her shoulders in soft, unruly waves. She was barefoot, walking in the woods as though it were the most normal of things. And when she saw him, she smiled. In his dreams, Forrest was uninhibited, and, it seemed neither was she. He stalked to her, covering a great deal of ground in only three strides, encircling her waist in his big, sturdy arms.
"My wild girl." He grumbled. He realized then that she seemed an extension of the woods around them. Perfectly at home.
"I've been waiting for you." She said. She placed her hands gently on his shoulders.
"Yeah?" He mumbled.
"Mmmm-hmmm" she assented, wriggling blissfully against him. He even thought she might be teasing him a little, mimicking his mono syllables. Everything in Forrest caught fire.
"You should be careful out here," she purred into his neck.
"I aint scared o'them." He said, his deep voice a defensive protest.
She laughed, a seductive form of one he'd heard before.
"I wasn't talking about them." Somehow, though he knew he'd been holding her tight as can be against him, she managed to wriggle away, and, teasing, scamper off down the path, her flirtatious glance over her shoulder a clear invitation for him to follow. He pushed off his foot in an attempt to go after her, but never let his foot fall.
Queue Paramore - "Hate to See Your Heart Break"
He was awake before it found purchase on the ground, and when he blinked and adjusted his eyes to the surroundings of his hospital room, there she was, sitting there in the wooden chair by his bed, in a pretty little dress, her hands covered in gloves, unlike so many of the women he knew, as she stared down at a hardcover book in her lap. Her ankles, he noticed, were crossed around one another, off to the side, demurely. He wasn't about to move his head or his neck to look down, or his hands, lest she detect his movement in her periphery, but he hoped that their pleasurable, if fictional contact in his dreams hadn't elicited the type of response it usually did when he allowed his mind to stray concerning her. Particularly after dreams of her. And, sometimes, to his embarrassment, he'd awoken in so cumbersome a condition he'd be forced to remain in bed until he had remedied the situation. But she didn't seem to notice he was awake. Perhaps if he had…responded he could lay here until any evidence had gone away. But it was unlikely. He had free license to stare at her straight on without her noticing. She sat, enthralled, her eyes pouring over the pages between her hands, and he thought, not for the first time, that her pretty, round face was the most beautiful thing he'd ever laid eyes on. Then she looked up, as she seemed to feel his eyes on her. She grinned, just for him, and his heart ached.
"You're awake!" she said.
"Whatchu got there?" He grumbled.
"Hey! They said no talking." She gave him a feigned disappointed look, and smiled.
"I will tell you, just don't aggravate that wound." She pointed at him with her finger, making a silly face so he could see she was only partially serious. She located the ribbon she was using for a bookmark and placed it in the page she'd been reading, then she folded the book over and smoothed her gloves over the cover.
"This was my father's. It's called Beowulf. It's a story from England, so old nobody knows who wrote it, but it's set in Scandinavia, where Far was from. Beowulf is a war hero….his whole family is revered, actually…. from what is now Sweden who comes to the aid of the Jutes…Jutland is part of Denmark where my father was from…."
She paused as she thought about her father and the obsession he had with Scandinavian folklore. She hadn't even noticed she'd spoken aloud the Danish word 'Far' that she used for father. Thinking of him was difficult enough without sentimental ruminations over the stories he'd told her as a child. She took a breath.
"Anyway… he comes to the great hall of Heorot in Denmark to kill a monster everyone else has died trying to kill, and there is a dragon, and treasure" she realized how silly the story must be sounding to a sensible, grown man like Forrest.
"…. it's a legend. I thought it was fitting, given the circumstances." She smiled at him. He looked straight ahead, concentrating on remaining expressionless so she wouldn't notice just how moved he was that she thought of him in relation to something she obviously held so dear.
"I haven't read it in five years." She continued. "But I've only been reading the history bit whilst you were asleep, I haven't started the story yet." She stopped and, in her agitation, ran her fingertips gingerly around the edges of the hardcover.
"I was waiting for you to wake up. Maybe I could read aloud? There's plenty of fighting?" She looked at him helplessly, as though she knew how silly the idea was but was hoping he'd take it the way she'd intended, as something she loved that she could share with someone she admired and felt similarly about.
"Well go on'en." Forrest mumbled.
Alice smiled and settled into her seat, opening the book and leafing through until she found where to begin. Her soft voice filled the hospital room, her Virginia accent all the more pronounced since she'd come back, her eyes meeting Forrest's when she happened to look up during an important part of the story.
"So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
There was Sheild Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches,"
Forrest listened and watched her, grateful for an opportunity just to stare at her and listen to her voice, feeling not so guilty as he was certainly paying attention.
"rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far…."
...and so the morning in Rocky Mount passed, melting into legend.
Queue Kate Rusby - "High on a Hill"
In the afternoon, just after Beowulf told of his deeds before the gathering of Jutes, and just shy of the flyting between the Geatish hero and Unferth at the feast in Heorot, Alice looked up and spied a small figure standing apprehensively against the wall opposite Forrest's open door. Recognizing the short little seven year old, she waved to him and beckoned, realizing he could only be there waiting for her. He took his newsboy cap off, holding it in his hands, and nodded at her. She gestured to him, beckoning again with a reassuring smile when she saw him hesitate. He stood up on the balls of his feet and peered into Forrest's hospital room from his place in the hallway, trying to get a peek at the local legend. Then he looked back at her, unsure. She laughed, softly, so as not to embarrass him.
"Max! Come here!" She called, encouragingly. Hesitantly, he crept forward, peering into the room at Forrest, who just stared at him. "Come along now!" Alice called "No reason to be frightened!"
Max looked down at the floor, and giving the bed a wide berth, made his way slowly and carefully around to Alice. He stayed on her right side, far away from Forrest.
"Now," Alice began, catching Max's attention as best she could while he kept his eyes on Forrest in his bed. "I imagine you are here because there is a message for me."
He looked at her and nodded, his chubby face bobbing up and down.
"Colored lady called for you. Etta Louise. She said she's at Chesapeake with Maybelle and there's a phone you can call her at. Said you know the exchange."
Alice smiled at him.
"And well I do. My, that's a wonderful memory you have. No wonder Mr. Kent trusts you." The little boy was employed by the hotel manager to deliver messages and run on small errands. His mother was a housekeeper for the hotel, and when he wasn't at school, he could be found nearby, hoping for an assignment and a bit of coin in his pocket. Though it wasn't all for the money. Max prided himself on being someone who was considered to be trustworthy by children and adults alike, and was happy to take on responsibilities as they arose.
He blushed and then smiled up at her, his little blue eyes sparkling.
"Thank You, Miss Alice."
Forrest watched the little boy with empathy, and momentarily felt a kinship with him. He was as enamored and enthralled of Alice as the child was.
"Now," she said. "I'd like you to turn this way for me because I have someone for you to meet." She watched the little boy's eyes widen, but he dutifully, if slowly, turned towards the hulking figure laying in the bed and, wringing his newsboy cap in his hands, met Forrest's gaze.
"Forrest Bondurant, I'd like you to meet my trusty assistant, Mr. Maxwell Swift."
Forrest nodded to him.
Maxwell said "H-hello, Mr. Bondurant." Behind him, Alice said softly.
"See? He's not so scary….unless of course you're working for the ATU on the side, Max." Alice cast him a contrived suspicious look.
Max gasped. "Go-lee, I'm sure not, Miss Alice!" He protested, quite loudly. Alice laughed, and Forrest chuckled in spite of himself, and in spite of the fact that it hurt to do so.
"Well, then, I suppose there's no conflict of interest." Alice reached under her seat and took out her wicker clutch.
"Let's see…I'm sure there is something in here for Mr. Swift…." Alice made a show of digging around in her bag.
"Do you remember the rules?" She asked, her tone quite serious. Max nodded enthusiastically.
"All right," Alice said. She pulled her hand out of her bag, a silver dollar coin pinched between her gloved thumb and first finger. "This one?"
"Is for my saving jar." He said, putting his hand out obediently. She placed the coin in his hand and he squeezed it for a moment before putting it in his left pocket. Forrest watched with fascination as Alice revealed a part of her personality he'd never considered. Certainly, it had occurred to him before that she'd make a wonderful mother, but he'd never seen his assumption put into practice. The little boy fussed a bit, making sure that the dollar was in his pocket and that the flap covering the opening was down. When he turned back to Alice, she had five shining dimes arranged carefully in her netted gloved palm. "And these?"
"Rock Candy and Marbles!" he exclaimed again, this time with a wide smile that revealed several missing teeth. Alice laughed. "Yes, or however you choose to spend them." She rumpled his hair "All right, off you go."
Max stored the other coins in the opposite pocket, placing each one individually to be sure he didn't miss a one. He stared at Forrest for a few more long moments, committing everything about him to memory so he could tell all of his friends how he'd delivered a message in the Forrest Bondurant's hospital room, and how you could actually see the pink stain of seeping blood on the gauze wrapped around his neck. He was preparing himself to offer accurate answers to the deluge of questions that would be waiting for him in the schoolyard the next morning once word go around. Then, having lingered as long as he dared, he hustled out of the room, turning and waving to Alice on the way out.
"That child has a memory like no one I've ever seen." Alice said to Forrest. She rose, carefully placing Beowulf and her notebook and pencil back on the chair, claiming her spot. "I'm going to the hotel to phone Lettie. She and her sister must be with her cousin in Chesapeake. They don't have a phone where they live, so she'll call when she's by one."
Forrest stared at her with that warm, honest expression on her face, wondering how she could possibly be so flawless in so many ways at once.
"Now, if I leave you here all on your lonesome, do you think you can stay out of trouble for a while?"
Forrest grumbled at her. He thought, abashedly, how he'd like to deliver a playful little swat to her shapely behind in return for that sass. Then he scolded himself for the distraction he'd created. She scrunched up her face and replied with something that sounded quite the same. With a seemingly effortless elegance, she crossed past Forrest's bed and through his door, heading towards the front door of the hospital, towards the hotel.
When Alice left the hotel to return to the hospital that afternoon, she saw Maggie placing a suitcase in the back seat of her old car, parked by the side of the road. She detoured for a moment and crossed over to her, approaching quietly. "Maggie?" she called, coming up behind her.
Maggie visibly jumped. "Oh my God, Alice," She said, turning around with her palm pressed against her chest. "It's you."
Alice made a note of how skittish Maggie seemed and thought that perhaps she wouldn't sneak up on her for a while. "Are you leaving?" She asked. She hated the idea that the only girl she felt she could talk to might be going away.
Maggie shook her head.
"Moving. Forrest and the boys have asked me to live at the station."
Alice suppressed every haughty facial expression her brain signaled to her face to make. Suddenly, her affection for Maggie had soured. She paused. Then she forced herself to smile.
"Oh." Was all she said. She probably should have prepared something less snooty to say before she opened her mouth, but the bad habits of a privileged girl with elitist friends are often difficult to break. She heard Carrie's voice in her head Relocation should make that carousel a little easier to ride. But being mean had never offered her the sustenance it had provided Carrie and the rest of her black hearted little friends. "Well," Alice conceded with as much neutrality as she could muster "I suppose we'll be seeing even more of each other, then."
Maggie nodded, her lips pursed. Alice couldn't tell if she was preoccupied, or if she'd picked up on the frost that had crystalized her demeanor.
"Well, I think they're expecting me at the hospital." She said.
"See you soon," Maggie called halfheartedly. Alice strutted through the thoroughfare towards the hospital and saw herself to Forrest's room, nodding to the nurses who recognized her as the read aloud sentinel by Forrest's bedside. Jack and Howard were in the hallway, talking quietly to each other.
"Hi, Alice." Jack said. Howard said nothing. It occurred to Alice that he could be thinking she blamed him for what happened to Forrest. For his own part, Howard was worried about her response to what Forrest was about to say. She was going to need convincing, and he surely hoped that her pride was such that she could abide acknowledging she needed help.
"Hi, y'all." She said, smiling at both of them. It felt good to let the little colloquialism slide off her tongue, but her thoughts were still preoccupied by what Maggie had told her.
"I think Forst wants to talk to you." Jack sometimes dropped certain syllables in his older brother's name. An endearing trait, Alice thought, like when she'd bastardized her beloved Etta Louise's name by molding it into "Lettie" as a willful two year old. She nodded at them both, and walked cautiously into Forrest's room, none of the confidence she'd had before her talk with Maggie about her any longer. Suddenly she felt stupid for having taken the time to change into another dress. Lettie had mentioned the strange weather during their chat, the spot of snow the night before and now the thunderstorms passing over their counties, and encouraged her to dress warmly. Forrest watched her cross cautiously in front of his bed, giving it nearly as much berth as Max had, sitting hesitantly in her seat, picking up her books and putting them back on her lap. He'd noticed she'd changed into a beautiful cranberry crepe de chine afternoon dress, a matching hat and white netted gloves on her hands. A full fox neck wrap rested over her shoulders. Lettie's assumptions had been right, the afternoon had grown cold, and she'd draped it around her shoulders hoping she could put it on her lap for extra warmth if the hospital were chilly. She sat for a few moments, staring at the book in her hands, waiting. Forrest noticed the silence had become slightly uncomfortable, and then realized how long he must have simply sat there staring. Then he softly said to her
"Alice, can I speak with you?"
"Well I'm sure the doctor will tell you when-" Alice didn't want to interfere with his care, particularly since he was still healing.
Forrest sighed impatiently "I'm able to talk, I'm askin' if you'll let me."
Alice nodded. She couldn't imagine what he wanted to say.
"I want you to come and stay at the station with us. I talked with Jack n' Howard about it 'an we'd feel better if you were safe where we can keep an eye on you. That Rakes aint gon be finished with you. We want you where you'll be protected. When spring come, you'll have a short walk to your cottage."
Alice fumed and bit the inside of her cheek.
"Well," she began, her voice stuffy. "I spoke with Maggie outside, and suddenly that arrangement sounds awfully crowded."
She hated the sound of her voice in that moment, ashamed that she even knew how to cut with her words and with her tone that way. It wasn't the soft, quiet, even timbre the people she'd grown up around used. It was the tone she'd learned from her society friends to express displeasure and position. She hated herself then, but she knew she'd hate herself more if she allowed herself to be misunderstood.
"Aint no call to be like that," Forrest said, with more force and intensity than he had intended.
"Now, Maggie's gon' be stayin in Howard's room, and we want you to take the spare."
"And just where is Howard going to sleep?" Alice asked insolently, not considering the possible answers before she posed the question. Forrest suddenly looked uncomfortable.
"In there." He said.
"Well, if Maggie's going to stay in his room…." Alice started, not realizing where her own sentence was headed.
Forrest sighed. She couldn't possibly be this naïve, smart as a whip like she was. He spoke very slowly and very deliberately.
"Maggie is going to be sharin' Howard's room. With him."
"Oh I-" Alice said softly. She looked down at her lap, profoundly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize."
"Yeah," he grunted, displeased that she'd thought the arrangement had been anything other than it was. That she'd thought he had anyone or anything else on his mind other than she and the curve of her cheek, the sway of her step, the kiss of freckles across her pretty little nose. He thought, kicking himself, that he deserved that reaction, having never expressed to her his mounting affection.
"Well, I'm thoroughly embarrassed."
Queue Jillian Edwards - "Go Together"
She admitted, a relief settling over her as she dropped her guard with Forrest once more. She despised the wall she had felt go up between them when she thought he'd meant something else entirely, both with his invitation to Maggie and to her, though she couldn't be sure what she thought that something was.
"I'm sorry that I assumed….but Forrest?"
"Yeah?" He asked.
"You must know that I can't. That woman, the one I was on the phone with? We paid her an enormous sum just to ride a train car into the woods and come to camp with us. She hates the wilderness, but she will walk here from Chesapeake herself in the rain and snow and murder me with her two bare hands if she found out I was living by myself in a filling station with three single men."
"An' I 'spose that's worse than holed up in some cheap hotel with that sniveling little sap who wants-" Forrest stopped himself. He wanted her to understand, but he didn't want to frighten her. He sincerely believed that Rakes could be dangerous to her if he weren't at her side.
A nurse cleared her throat loudly outside Forrest's room.
"Miss Ostergaard?" She called, from a respectful distance.
Alice turned to her, and the nurse gestured to her right with a sour look on her face intended as a warning for only Alice to see. When Alice shifted her position in the room she saw two men she recognized as Deputies Henry Abshire and Jeff Richards standing at a respectful distance in the hall. She nodded at them, and they came towards her. When they passed into Forrest's frame of vision he noticed how timidly they approached her, as if they were afraid.
"I ain' answerin no questions 'bout this now, Henry!" Forrest called into the hallway. Henry removed his hat and stepped closer, addressing both of them.
"Uh," he began. "I'm sorry Forrest, Miss Ostergaard." He turned to Alice. "We've come to request to speak with you."
"With me?" She asked, placing her hand on her chest to be sure he had been correct.
Henry sighed again. He was terribly reluctant to deliver the message, knowing that Rakes' interest in this poor, beautiful orphaned girl had nothing to do with criminal inquest and all to do with things he, as a father of a daughter, didn't want to think about.
"Special Deputy Rakes is conducting questioning in the library of the hotel."
Alice knew the 'library' he was talking about, a dusty little windowless room stuffed with water damaged books, old magazines, and puzzles missing pieces. She'd seen more agents and sheriff's deputies wandering around the hotel that morning, and suddenly all the hustle and bustle in the lobby made sense. "He'd like to talk with you."
"She aint goin' nowhere." Forrest snapped.
Alice crossed towards the doorway, moving her hands behind her back as she spoke.
"Deputies," she said. "I'm sure you can imagine that I don't go anywhere I don't want to unless absolutely necessary. If Special Deputy Rakes would like to question me, he can do so in the presence of my attorney."
As she spoke, Forrest watched her carefully reach into her little wicker clutch and pull out a small business card, which she handed to Henry. She didn't think it necessary to mention to him that he was an estate attorney, and not well versed in criminal matters. But her intention was only to show resistance and not to have the poor aging man actually summoned to Franklin County. "This is his exchange in Richmond. He can also be reached by telegram." She closed her clutch and sat down on the chair, to indicate further that she had no intentions on moving.
"Now," she said, with such authority that the two sorry lawmen snapped to attention. "I'm going to finish speaking with Mr. Bondurant, and I'll hope to see you under more friendly circumstances another time."
Then she raised her eyebrows at them in a clear communication that they were dismissed. Alice had a bad habit of proving herself wrong. Just when she thought she didn't need the snobbish tyrannical traits that had crept their way into the recesses of her personality, she was proven wrong. When she was satisfied they were sufficiently far enough from the room, she turned back to Forrest.
He stopped her. "I'm gonna put a lock on your door. We got space in the attic for all your things that you can't fit in the room. And the spare has a nice wood stove. I'm havin' Jack clean the flu an' make sure it's workin'."
"Forrest-" Alice started, standing up and moving closer to his bed, stopping just short of the edge, her gloved fingertips resting against the fabric of the bedcovers, though still quite far from his body beneath them.
"Alice-" he said, silencing her. "You go on back to that hotel with Howard now and pack your things."
He saw her open her mouth in the beginnings of protest.
"I ain't askin'." He said with as much commanding firmness as he would allow himself. He felt it was his duty to offer her protection, being as she was all alone in the county, and the attention drawn to her, he felt, partially his fault. If it weren't for their moonshine business and her friendship with them, Rakes wouldn't have any excuse to summon her anywhere. He wrestled with the fact that, given her force of will, forcing protection on her was something he could only do to a certain extent and only for so long before he'd need to be bound with her to expect any authority or providence over her. Before she would yield and accept his affection for and protection over her. And he realized then with concrete clarity that he wanted those things. He had to have her.
Alice sighed. She thought of Rakes in the woods, how he'd come after her, and now, only a day later, was summoning her to a closed room for an indefinite amount of time. They had not addressed the issue of Forrest's attack, since he couldn't speak much yet, but she had her suspicions that rival bootleggers weren't involved. Besides, it would only be temporary. For the winter. Her house could be fixed starting in spring.
"All right." She lifted her finger. "But. I will not take charity. If I am to maintain a respectable appearance…" she paused. Then her voice was all drawl.
"Not that I really give much of a shit anymore." Then she laughed, a relaxed, relieved giggle, and Forrest, in spite of himself, and the pain in his throat, laughed as well. He'd never given much thought to women cursing. He never gave much thought to other women at all. He thought to himself that in fact the person he knew who cursed the most, old Selma, was in fact, a woman. And he was oddly comforted by the fact that Alice felt comfortable enough to use that language with him. She began again.
"If I am going to maintain a respectable appearance, I will move to Blackwater Station, as your tenant, leasing the spare room from you. I will pay for everything I eat, and help where I can."
Forrest nodded. He already knew that his offer of a penny a month would be too low for her, and that they'd end up arguing over prices at another time, but for now he was just happy she'd agreed.
"Go on 'n find Howard, he'll help you load up the truck." He said.
Alice nodded. "Shall I leave Beowulf here?" She gestured towards the book.
"Mmm" he replied. "Would you bring it here for me, please?"
She picked up the book and brought it back, resting it on the side table to his right when he gestured with his head and his hand. "There you are." She said. When she turned to go and find Howard and Jack, Forrest felt compelled to once again clarify something for her in case she was confused. He cleared his throat and said "Alice" so softly she almost didn't hear. She stopped and turned, just before the doorway.
"Ain't nobody else… For me." He said. It wasn't a definitive declaration of intentions, but at least she had more information than she started with.
She beamed at him. "Well I know that….now. I'll see you at the Station tonight, Forrest." Then she walked out into the hallway, grinning like a mad woman and blushing a deep shade of pink.
Queue Jack White - "Wayfaring Stranger"
Johann Ostergaard blew a gentle breath over the wet ink on the letter he'd been writing and rose from his seat. He swept on his suit coat, which had been resting on the back of his chair. He called out into the rest of the small but comfortable timber camp house from the crack in his office door, pausing to look in the small mirror on the wall as he called.
"Etta Louise? Is Alice ready?" He adjusted his collar and stepped out into their living room, his child standing patiently on top of a chair, Lettie buttoning the last few buttons on her little coat.
"Yes, Papa." Alice replied. Lettie checked her over once again. Heavy white stockings, a fine light blue wool dress and her little navy coat with the beaver fur trim should keep the little one warm on their short ride, she thought. Johann slung his winter coat over his shoulders, and carefully put on his hat and gloves as Lettie fitted little Alice with her mittens and hat. Lettie shrugged herself into her heavy coat and was giving her father nasty looks. Today Alice and her father were not going to be attending their regular Anglican service in the small makeshift chapel that had been conducted on the site of the timber camp. Lettie was going to the Baptist service in the commissary as usual. Johann had made a habit of attempting to make his presence known at some of the smaller church services his workers attended in the mountains, one or two times a month venturing off into the woods, or to another part of camp where workers had gathered for worship, though he and Alice usually divided their time between the Anglican and Baptist services. For his own part, he wasn't particularly concerned with different denominations or sects, he simply went to church because he felt it kept him in good standing with his employees, most of them mountain people for whom faith was paramount. Johann Ostergaard truly wasn't sure how he felt about organized religion, though he believed in God well enough. Lettie was a staunch Baptist, and though she didn't mind the girl's father taking her around to different worship services, and, on general principle, encouraged it, she was not pleased with his intentions on this particular morning. She had warned Alice about those people. Crazy, and that was one of their better qualities. And so little Alice had done her best to hide her sincere enthusiasm that her father was taking her to the Pentecostal church, which was, in actuality, a small one room cabin much like the ones in which the Anglicans worshipped. With a few important differences. Johann held Alice's hand, twice it's normal size in its fur lined mitten, as they crunched through snow. As Johann hoisted the smaller Ostergaard into her place beside him in the two person sleigh they would take through the woods, Lettie cast another angry look over her shoulder.
"You're certain we can't leave you off now?" He called.
"Ain't but four minutes walk. You keep that child far from that business, now." Lettie reminded him, not even bothering to hold his gaze, just shouting up into the snowy hills, still to be heard perfectly. "I mean it. Right next to you."
Johann sighed. "All right."
He turned back to Alice, who had busied herself with tucking the blankets her father kept in the sleigh around her tiny body, leaving enough for him to be warm too. She liked the sleigh. They rarely ever had the chance to use it. When it was cold, the two often returned to Williamsburg for Christmas, and spent a few months there. It was where her mother was now, caring for her ailing sister. The snow this year had come heavy and early, and the sleigh was their easiest mode of transportation under these conditions. In spite of himself, Johann himself started having second thoughts. But he brushed them aside as he clicked to the horse and they started off with a lurch of the sleigh. Alice looked like a tiny queen, bundled in all her finery and blankets, and as they slid past the hills covered in snowy pines they had spared cutting thus far, the landscape took on a strange, fairytale like appearance. He was pleasantly reminded of his childhood in the Danish forest. He already knew where he would sit with her, at a respectful distance, at the back of the church. He knew they wouldn't hand anything over to anyone who wasn't feeling the presence of the spirit, but he had spent enough time in logging camps to know how dangerous this new practice was. They coasted up to the hill and Johann found a place to leave the sleigh and tether their horse, and as he busied himself with settling a warm wool horse blanket on their Morgan, Alice carefully stepped down from the sleigh and steadied herself on the ice crusted snow. Then Johann took her little hand and they made their way to the door of the church. Johann greeted those workers of his who he knew, while Alice waved, and nodded to those he did not know, while Alice smiled shyly at them. The small cabin in which the service took place was warm and inviting, a wood stove burning in the corner of the room. Johann picked a spot at the back of the church, which, admittedly wasn't far from the front. Alice surveyed the room. Against the back wall and behind the humble wooden pulpit was a beautifully carved wooden sign, the letters within it intentionally darkened by fire and enhanced by stain. Probably made by one of his workers, Johann thought. The craftsmanship could only be that of a skilled woodworker. Alice struggled to read the words but was soon able to parse them out
"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." ~ Mark 16:18
She thought nothing of it, and instead watched as some of the women who worked in the kitchen arrived, waving to them, and some of the cutters, some of the sawyers, and a young foreman known for being especially pious, as they filled the small cabin. Then a man in a very austere suit came around and shook the hands of the congregation, while two teenage boys Alice took to be his sons delicately carried six long wooden boxes into the church. Alice recognized Blanche, a kindly woman who baked phenomenal biscuits that Alice was rather fond of, who acknowledged the child with a smile and a nod, walking up between the rows of pews with a crate filled with five jars of clear liquid.
"Papa is that moonshine?" Alice whispered.
"Strychnine" he replied, trying to suppress a chuckle at the notion that Alice was even aware what it looked like. Even though prohibition was six years away, it was still common enough in the mountains, especially in places that had limited access to goods such as liquor, like in these mountains.
"But it's poison!" she whispered, slightly louder.
"Hush now" Johann instructed. "It's beginning. Be respectful, please."
As Alice watched, fascinated, the preacher came to the pulpit, and unlike other services she was used to, he didn't seem to be reading from a paper, only speaking words as they came to him, as he felt them. There then were some short mountain songs about the lord, and then the preacher turned to the two teenage boys, who had seated themselves by the boxes, signaling to them. Then Alice suddenly couldn't understand the words he was speaking, though she had a distinct feeling he was indeed speaking a language of some kind. Her father later would describe it as "tongues," but to Alice it seemed strange, and almost frightening. The air in the room seemed to change and before Alice's eyes the parishioners began to move as though guided by an other-worldliness, and chant, and sing, raising their hands and closing their eyes. They rose to their feet and danced, some hopping up and down with enthusiasm, some swaying side to side in what seemed a trance. Then Alice watched as the preacher leaned down and reached into one of the boxes. When he turned to face the congregation, Alice watched with mixed fascination and horror as she realized the man held in his hands an enormous timber rattlesnake. She was shocked to find he was not the only one. Others gradually approached the young men with the boxes, and slowly the room was filled with worshippers whose arms held copperheads and timber rattlers alike, passing them amongst each other as though they were kittens. Mesmerized, she watched and listened as the room filled with music and dancing and shouts of praise and glorification. She was wracked with shivers as she watched Blanche approach the crate and remove a jar, unscrewing the cap. As the woman put the jar of strychnine to her lips, sipping the liquid as though it were water, Alice waited, and watched. She waited in fear and worry for someone to get bitten, for Blanche and the others who took the poison after she to feel it's effects. She waited, certain that the jostling and the shouting and the emoting she was witnessing would encourage one of the snakes to bite. But nothing happened. The service ended almost as quickly as it began. When they gathered as a congregation to greet each other and share news and conversation, Alice recalled those she'd seen drinking poison and handling snakes, and watched them intently, a newfound respect budding.
Alice searched the hospital hallway until she saw Howard waiting while he leaned his body against a wall, his hands in his pockets. When he saw her, he stood up straight and jerked his head in acknowledgement and looked down at her. Jack was nowhere to be found. Then she recalled he had been sent by Forrest to make sure the wood stove in her new bedroom was in working order.
"Hey. You comin' to stay?" He asked.
"Yes," she said, with a shy smile, the blush Forrest's words to her had brought to her cheeks still lingering.
Howard nodded, content in knowing his brother would be both relieved and pleased. The two made their way to the Rocky Mount hotel.
While Howard stood like a sentry outside her room, Alice went inside to pack up her things. She had kept most of her possessions in their respective trunks, thinking she might as well, as there were things she'd never again need until she was living elsewhere, or simply may not have the occasion to ever need again. Her "packing" consisted of sweeping the contents of her vanity and bathroom into one of her train cases, and haphazardly dumping the contents of the dresser drawers back into one of her trunks. When she was satisfied that everything had been packed, she joined Howard and the porters from the hotel who she had employed. One by one, they carried her things down the hotel stairs. For her own part, she hauled her two large train cases to the Pierce Arrow herself, and had insisted that Howard not be burdened with anything other than driving the truck back home, though he'd tried to offer his assistance, out of a mix of guilt and obligation. When he'd seen the load of "shit" as he described it to Danny, that Alice needed hauled to Blackwater Station, he called the older man and had him bring his old truck, instructing the porters to divide the lot between the two.
Queue Composer Jeff Beale - "Ben Searches the Templar Hall"
As Danny and Howard waited, Alice went to settle her accounts at the desk. Once her room balance was paid, and specific instructions for the distribution of the gratuity she was leaving, Alice decided she needed one last check of her room. She should have told Howard she was going back upstairs.
She arrived in the doorway as the porters were removing her last truck. She stood alone in the sparse, depressing hotel room, surveying the small room. Nothing seemed to have been left behind. She peeked her head into her private bathroom one last time to be sure she hadn't left any trinkets or cosmetics, and was going to head for the door without a second thought when she turned back and realized someone was blocking it.
"And where might you be going?" A frighteningly familiar voice asked. Alice narrowed her eyes at Charley Rakes.
"I'm moving." She quipped. She stood straight and tall, hoping to convince them both that she was not as afraid of him as she was.
"To the Bondurant place." He said, flatly. His eyes were narrow, and angry.
"I trust you received my lawyer's contact information." She said, staring directly at him. "If you find yourself with the need to question me further you can do so in his presence."
He scoffed, and her temper flared, though she controlled her compulsion to react. She was almost paralyzed by her fear, but she knew that if she allowed herself to be ruled by it, everything she was hoping for could be ruined. She would be so close to her Forrest now, and if she backed down in these few moments, she was afraid she'd be overpowered by Rakes, with disastrous consequences, and unable to offer Forrest something she now admitted to herself that she so desperately wanted to in the future. She wasn't going to let Rakes take it away from her, or from Forrest. Come hell or high water. Employee of the Mason Wardell or not. There was nothing she was so frightened of as ruining things with the middle Bondurant brother, and if she had to skin Rakes alive to keep that from happening, she would.
"As if you're stupid enough to think that was why I summoned you. As if you thought that was why I'm here now."
He had been leaning against the doorframe, and he rose to gradually slink closer and closer to her. She noticed he was in only shirtsleeves and his waistcoat and pants. She'd never seen him without a full suit. She also noticed that he was without his customary gloves. Panic quickened in the back of her throat, and she felt her knees begin to quake, but she held herself steady.
Hidden inside the left sleeve of her dress was a very small holster pocket, attached around her forearm with a thin leather strap. No unsuspecting person would know that it was there. She should have been wearing it in the woods yesterday. The reason she'd acquired this particular little weapon was because it was easy to wear on her person, even without sleeves. She could remove the weapon by hastily unbuttoning the mousquetaire wrist opening on her longer twelve, sixteen and twenty one button gloves and pulling it straight out. She pressed her left wrist against her hip for the comforting reassurance of its contact. Inside the tiny holster was a very small, very sharp oyster shucking knife. Used for prying oysters open, Alice had seen Lettie use one for her father's dinner and thought it might be nice to add one to her collection. Her friends in Charlotte were fun, and wild, and while Alice herself always felt on the fringes of the group for not participating in some of the activities they enjoyed, she nonetheless accompanied them to speaks, so she always felt a little better having something sharp on her. She refused to carry a derringer. That would be an insult to her firearm skills. She pinned her little wicker clutch under her right arm and stood up tall.
"And why are you here? Certainly with your skills of detection, which have obviously elevated you to the unique position of special deputy" she was particularly sarcastic as she spoke, drawing out certain words for effect. "You'd be able to discern when a woman is repulsed by you."
Rakes' eyes darkened, but he smiled.
"You little minx," he said, and he moved for her.
It was the hand she saw coming out to encircle her waist that she went for. Rakes never saw the knife until he was cut. One of the advantages of being a woman in a fight, Alice thought, is they never expect you to have anything on you. She had moved her hands together across her chest as if to protect herself from his advance, but instead used her right hand to pull the knife from it's holster. She sliced Rakes from his wrist to his first finger, opening his palm with ease, as the oyster shucker slid into his flesh as though it were butter. He couldn't touch her with either hand, the one incapacitated, the other stuck holding the first in attempt to contain the blood. She walked around him carefully and said, in a very even tone.
"You think because I'm alone you can come after me. But I'm not alone anymore. And don't forget, I still have friends in Richmond. Commonwealth's attorney be damned." She turned on her heel and walked out.
The door to the hotel closed with a deafening slam, and Howard and Danny, parked out front, both looked up. Alice approached, and they saw her toss a handkerchief to the ground, covered in blood. Alarmed, Howard's eyes went wide. "You hurt?" he called, as she walked towards he and Danny.
She shook her head and discreetly showed them the wood handled oyster shucker,
"but Rakes is." She opened the door to the Pierce Arrow and tossed her clutch into the passenger's seat. The knife, now clean , she threw onto the floor.
"He came for me and I cut him," she said. Howard sighed. If Forrest found out he had left her alone even for a second, around Rakes, he'd be in deep. Danny laughed and nodded his head. Good for her, he thought. He'd thought Alice a spoiled brat when first he'd met her, but he had gained respect for her since then, and was growing to like her more and more every day.
"Porters get paid?" She asked Howard.
"Yeah, I gave 'em the money you gave me."
Alice nodded, and stepped up onto the running board of her car. "Good. Let's get the hell out of here."
The men chucked and went to their cars, and before their engines had even turned over, Alice's car had roared to life and was rambling down the red dirt road.
By two thirty in the afternoon at Blackwater station, Alice was certain that Danny, Jack, Cricket and Howard all hated her. They had all made the trip up to her new bedroom several times, two to a trunk, over and over, and now the big hulking boxes all lay haphazardly around her as she tried to decide which things to put where. They had done nothing to communicate to her that they were upset with her, but she assumed they were prickly, because she would have been prickly with anyone who made her carry that amount of luggage upstairs. Alice heard a soft knock at the door. She turned to find Maggie in her doorway, and smiled.
"Alice, can I talk to you?" She asked.
"Of course," Alice said. "Come sit." Alice patted the bed beside her as she rifled through some linens, her legs tucked beneath her on the floor.
It was Maggie who had said "he's got that special look in his eye" with regard to Forrest's obvious appreciation of Alice's presence. She was glad that Alice was here with them, and that she could talk to someone.
"I got something to tell you. I came back here that night. When Forrest was hurt. He thinks he walked but he didn't. I came back because I was on my way back to town and something didn't hit me right. Something one of those….men said. He asked me….where my feathers were."
Alice had stopped shuffling and trained her eyes on Maggie, and now raised an eyebrow at this. Maggie sighed and though she knew they'd all find out eventually, she didn't like talking about what she'd run from.
"I was a dancer, at a club in Chicago. Rakes knew about it. He said something to me in the hallway of the hotel about my act with feathers. The fact that those men knew…that they said something…it can't be coincidence. I think he wanted to give us a hint thinking Forrest would die."
Alice's face hardened and she nodded. Coming after her was one thing, but now his attack on Forrest, which she had suspected, was confirmed. This would not do. Not Forrest, who was not and yet was her Forrest. She thought of something her father had done to a prohi who was looking into his collection of Canadian Whiskey once. It seemed like a good idea. Downstairs, the door opened and the sound of customers could be heard through Alice's open door.
Maggie rose and whispered, "Please don't say anything," before heading for the door to serve them. A serious nod from Alice told Maggie she wouldn't.
Then Alice closed the door and changed into a fresh pair of riding pants, and a white blouse, pulling on her black field boots. She dug out her half chaps, and zipped those on over her field boots. They were made to be worn over her shorter boots to extend the leg, but she had decided she needed more protection. She left her hair swept up. Then she stomped downstairs and stalked through the station, past a worried Maggie and out to her car. She reached into the back seat of the Pierce Arrow and found the picnic basket Rakes had left flowers on. She had emptied it, and it now sat vacant, just as she wanted it. She placed it on the ground. Then she lifted up the front seat of her car and pulled out her baby, wrapped in silk and an old quit, a Remington Model 30 Express .30 Springfield 1906 bolt action rifle. A gift from her father on her 17th birthday. She checked to be sure it was loaded and then slung the strap over her head and one shoulder, carrying it crosswise along her back. Then she went to the barn, found a wooden pitchfork, and went to search for Howard. She went to the still closest to them, near her cabin. As she made her way along the path, Jack walked angrily past her, with a bloody nose, and said nothing, though she had started to say his name to catch his attention. She thought that strange, but she knew enough about brother to brother relationships to know that sometimes arguments resulted in a good punch or two thrown in for good measure. She knew Howard would be somewhere around here. He wasn't at the still hidden by the cabin, so she continued along the path, and found them. Howard and Danny were at a second still, one she hadn't known existed, Howard taking water from the creek, since they had not fully cleaned the well yet. She put down the basket and stared at them until Howard noticed her.
"When are we going to get Forrest from the hospital?" She asked.
"Well," Howard said. "Doctor wants to keep him overnight again. So not 'till tomorrow."
"Well, I have to go to town. I have a message to deliver."
Howard sighed, his shoulders slumping as he dumped some water over the still coils.
"All right, I'll go with you." Forrest had left him specific instructions to accompany Alice if she left. "Where you going with that?" He gestured towards the pitchfork and picnic basket, and the rifle had certainly caught his attention.
"You'll see," Alice called. "I'll meet you on the porch?"
Howard nodded. "Two Hours?"
Alice nodded. "Sounds fine." Then she stocked off back toward the station, heading past Forrest's locked storage hut and up into the hills to find a rocky ridge.
Queue Kari Kimmel - "Black"
One hour and forty five minutes later, Howard, who was sitting on the porch sipping shine, saw Alice coming down the hill with the pitchfork in her left hand, and the picnic basket in the other. She walked with determination and prowess, a swing in her step, her shoulders back and a little mischievous smirk on her face. She stopped by the barn, and gingerly placed the basket on the ground, returned the fork to it's rightful place, then carefully picked the basket up, rocking it back and forth slightly as if to soothe it. Howard was completely perplexed by what he was watching and thought perhaps they had made a bad batch and he was now paying the price. Alice approached him, still swinging the basket gently. She had closed the leather buckle straps on the picnic basket. Tightly. Alice looked around. Something was different.
"Wheres the truck?" She asked.
Howard sighed "Jack took off with it. I think Cricket went with 'im. And I think they got most of the liquor, but I donno because I ain't got a key to the shine house. He musta gone back to the hospital and gotten Forrest's." Inside, Howard was kicking himself for hitting his brother. Perhaps that had set Jack off in some unforseen way.
Alice twisted her mouth up in worry and confusion.
"Forrest is going to skin them both alive." Then she turned to the task at hand. "You ready? We can take my car."
Howard nodded. Alice peeled off the heavy gloves she'd been wearing and reached into her pocket to pulled out her keys, which she held out to him
"Would you like to drive?" She asked. Howard grinned and adjusted his hat on his head, taking another swig of shine and handing the jar to Danny, who was seated on the porch. Alice carefully moved the basket into the floor of the passenger's seat, climbing in around it. Howard sat and pushed the levers to start the car, which roared to life. Before he drove off to Rocky Mount, he turned and looked at Alice.
"All right. What's in it?"
"Rakes sent me a message with this basket, and now I'm going to send one to him. I know he's behind what happened to Forrest. Call it women's intuition." She said, cryptically.
"But what is it?" Howard asked again. He wasn't sure what made her think Rakes was involved, but he certainly wasn't against anything negative happening to Rakes.
Carefully, with the toe of her boot, Alice gave the picnic basket a sharp jolt. Howard heard the unmistakable sound of keratin rattles buzzing inside the little wicker basket. Inside, the forty seven inch satinback timber rattlesnake was sounding his warning.
His eyes went wide, his face slack jawed for a moment, and then he laughed out loud. "Shit girl, you're crazy."
"Thank You." She said. They both chuckled as Howard roared off towards town.
While Jack and Cricket drove through the back roads on their way to meet with Gummy Walsh, Alice and Howard headed for Rocky Mount. With her deadly wicker basket in front of her feet, rattling with the occasional bump in the road, and her Remington Model 30 Express .30 Springfield 1906 carefully placed in the back seat, Alice sat calmly beside Howard, who was testing out the range of the V-12 engine. Over it's roaring, Howard, slightly sloshed as he often was, posed a question.
"So how come you ain't married?" It was a genuine question out of curiosity. He could see how taken Forrest was with her, and assumed there were others who had been taken with her too.
Alice laughed out loud. "What?"
Howard smiled "You heard me. How come you ain't married?"
"The truth? Because I scare most of the men who would have been considered eligible for me. Not to say that they never asked. I just never found one I liked enough, and after '29, they all stopped trying altogether. It made me wonder what they were really after. Also made me glad I never said yes."
Howard nodded in agreement.
"I can see them fancy boys bein' scared of you. They probly though you'd shoot 'em."
"I'm sure I would if I had cause enough!" Alice protested, laughing. Then she grew serious.
Queue Gilian Welch - "Hard Times"
"I only have guns because I liked to target shoot with my father. Clay targets we'd load into the thrower and shoot in the air, and cast iron shooting rack targets, mostly. Paper targets, too. And the occasional shine jar."
She giggled, thinking of the satisfying sound of exploding glass. Then she continued.
"I only carried firearms in camp because cutting up the forest brought bears and lions and coyotes and snakes and wolves out of the bald patches we cut. Looking for food. Or trouble. I'd mostly just fire to scare them if I saw them. My father also wanted me to be able to signal for help if I got lost riding or had an accident. Three shots will do it."
It was a common mountain technique for those in the woods to fire three shots in order to be located by search parties if they were hurt or lost. And the loud sounds helped to discourage scavengers. Black bears could often be found near the commissary refuse pile, trying to steal a hardened lump of unused bacon fat or stale cornbread.
"Sounds like a good man, your father."
"I thought so."
The way Alice emphasized the word 'thought' seemed to sound to Howard that it was not as if she used to think so of him and now that he was gone her thoughts were in the past, but rather that she felt betrayed by him, disillusioned. That she used to think he was a good man, but now she did not. Howard had looked at her differently once he had truly considered how she'd survived her father's suicide. Howard thought of himself, of his battalion sinking to the bottom of the sea while he stayed afloat, and how he'd felt when everything around him had turned to black water teeming with oil afire and soldiers drowning. He still dreamt of them, of cold, salty water awash with hopelessness. He could imagine wanting to leave of one's own accord.
"We all have our demons," was all he said. And she nodded. Alice had met them all in the past year and a half.
"So how'd you learn how to catch a rattlesnake?" He turned to her, as he spoke, and shifted gears as they headed down a hill.
"We had snake handling churches near the camps. Because of the deforestation, there were plenty of rattlers and copperheads. My father offered rewards for dead snakes, because they often bite loggers. But there were plenty of Pentecostal parishioners who would go onto the ridges or down in the valleys to try to catch them alive to use in service. I've seen them do it."
Howard shook his head. "You musta seen some strange things, huh?"
Alice smiled, thinking again of Johann, fondly this time.
"That's why I'm called Alice. After the book, 'Alice in Wonderland.' My father was making preparations to buy his first tract and set up camp when my mother told him I was going to be born. He always said he knew somehow that my life would be an adventure, with all kinds of people to meet and things to see. And I suppose he thought it was a pretty name." She smiled to herself.
"In camp I was called 'Alice in Lumber Land.'" And Howard chuckled at that.
She paused. Howard's words of understanding concerning demons had effected her in some way, and she couldn't push sympathetic thoughts from her mind. For so long she'd only been fiercely angry and defensive concerning Johann.
"My father raised me to take care of myself when he was gone. He was prone to bouts of great sadness sometimes. Perhaps he always knew he'd have to go before his time some day. He heard it from plenty of society women, about how he was raising his 'daughter." Alice grinned for a moment, from ear to ear.
"He used to say," She mimicked her father's thick Danish accent, sprinkled as it was with the southern twang he acquired later in his life.
"'I'm not raising a daughter, I'm raising a Valkyrie.'" She paused for a moment, thinking. He'd loved her. That was the difficult part. He'd abandoned her, and for so long she'd wanted to shut him out. But he'd shaped her, and molded her. Indeed, he'd made her, and ironically, it was he who had prepared her all these years to survive after his own death. And Lettie. She'd have been lost without Lettie.
Howard scrunched up his face. "A what?"
Alice smiled "A Valkyrie. My father treasured the legends of his people. In Norse mythology, they're beautiful women on horseback who ride into combat to decide which men will live in battle, and which will die. Then they escort the heroes to the great mead hall in Valhalla. A place of honor."
Howard nodded. "That sounds about right."
Alice threw Howard a look, intended to show him she thought he was funny, but not that funny. She decided she'd wait to explain what a Huldra was until another time. Her father had named her Alice Huldra Ostergaard with very specific intentions. He was drunk when he chose the specific moniker of 'Huldra," but the sentiment achieved had been intended from the beginning.
Howard was silent for a moment, popping the clutch to switch gears again before asking his third question.
"So when you gonna marry Forrest?"
Alice had to stop for a moment to be sure that Howard had actually asked her the question she thought he had asked her. As she paused, she panicked, feeling the flush rise to her cheeks with a rush so sudden she was sure she would never be able to conceal her embarrassment.
"What?" she asked, as innocently as possible.
"When. Are you. Gonna marry. My brother." He asked, again. This time, he was flat and deadpan, joking with her because he knew she'd heard him.
Alice looked down at her pants, smoothing her hands over the legs, and wringing her leather riding gloves in her hands, busying herself.
"He hasn't asked me to. Why do you ask? I don't even think he..." she was flustered, and she struggled to maintain her composure "...thinks of me that way."
"So you're crazy and blind." Howard said.
Alice looked at him, completely prepared to be slightly insulted. But Howard was grinning at her with an air of mischief that told her he was being charming, not insulting, in his unique Howard way, and she laughed, blushing further and saying nothing.
"Forrest don't say much," he began, quietly. He was serious now, telling her things he thought she needed to know.
"I noticed," she said, smiling to show she had both noticed his proclivity for grunts and grumbled "Mmms" of assent, and that she didn't mind it. Not one bit. She was used to men who liked to pontificate, and was tired, genuinely tired, of hot air.
"…but one day he will." Howard continued. " I think it's worth stickin' around for."
Howard was carefully telling her, in his own way, that he wanted her to stay. And Alice's heart swelled. She had always wanted brothers. And now she knew which ones. And she wanted Forrest, though she couldn't begin to parse out why or how he'd want anything to do with her. Quiet and sensible as he was. She prayed a silent prayer that Howard was right, that some day maybe Forrest would say something definitive. And she wondered how she'd manage to contain herself through the wait. She thought of the funny angle at the back of his hat, where it flipped up, and his smell, of coffee and cigars and the slight woodsy cologne of his aftershave and soap. And him. He smelled like Forrest. She was having all kinds of thoughts. Of burying her face in his big barrel chest, his big tree trunk arms hugging her close, protectively. Of running her fingertips up underneath his cardigan and over his massive shoulders, between the scratchy wool and the soft cotton of his button up shirt. Stop now, she told herself. She always felt uncomfortable and vulnerable, letting her mind wander when she wasn't alone, burrowed and bundled into her bedcovers, waiting for sleep and dreams. She was being silly, she thought. Their closest intimacy had been when he'd held her hands to pick her up when she'd fallen in the dirt. And he was just being gentlemanly. A panic swept through her chest, broiling her insides when she was reminded they'd almost lost him not even twenty four hours ago. She felt sick. She couldn't imagine going without Forrest Bondurant now that she'd found him.
"I'm not going anywhere," Alice said, her voice soft and gentle. Then she perked up, saying "I moved in, didn't I?"
Howard shifted gears again as they crested the last hill and headed down towards Rocky Mount. "Sure did."
Alice saw her opportunity and took it.
"So when you gonna marry Maggie?"
She wasn't expecting an answer, so when Howard simply chuckled and shook his head, she laughed herself. Serves him right for asking me about Forrest, she thought, half seriously. But she was happy they could share some pleasant banter.
They parked the car near the Rocky Mount hospital, and approached the hotel from the service entrance, lurking in the growing darkness until Alice spotted a young man she knew.
"Jonah!" she called. The fourteen year old, who often did odd work with the hotel repair man, perked up. He waved and jogged over.
"Hi Miss Alice," he said, taking off his hat and placing it over his chest.
"Jonah, could you find Max and send him out please?" Alice knew she could trust her little ally.
Jonah nodded to her, and jogged back inside in search of the little boy. Howard lurked in the shadows, watching the picnic basket, which had remained relatively quiet, but for when they had taken it out of the car. Soon, the small shadow of the seven year old appeared on the brick loading dock where deliveries were made, peering around. Alice approached, and waved to him, meeting the child on the stairs.
"Miss Alice. You left." Max said, distressed. Alice leaned down, putting her hands on her knees so she could speak quietly to him.
"I'm renting a room from the Bondurants, near my cottage, Max." She said.
"With all these prohis around, I feel safer there." She smiled at him and looked around, feigning secrecy, "I'm not brave like you."
The little boy flushed.
"Can I help with something?" he asked. He hoped she'd still need him occasionally even if she weren't living in town.
"Yes, in fact." Alice said. "I won't tell you exactly what, so you don't have to lie. First, can you get me a skeleton key? And second, can you keep a secret?"
"I sure can! Both things!" The boy said, grinning. "It's lucky I'm here late. Momma's workin' supper tonight. Her key is in her cleaning apron, not her cooking one. And I can git it. I think."
Alice beamed. "All right. Where's Rakes?" She asked.
Max made a little scrunched up face as if he'd tasted something terrible. Like broccoli, or asparagus, the seven year old's most loathed vegetables.
"Havin' his supper. He smells like old flowers."
"He does indeed. Check to be sure he's still there. I'm going to climb the back staircase to the second floor with Howard there," she gestured to the tall, lean figure standing by the corner of the building.
"Can you meet me with the key, and I'll give it right back when I get where I need to go?"
Max nodded enthusiastically.
Alice took his hand and gently squeezed it.
"Okay. Quick as you can. Whistle for me into the stairwell."
The little boy puffed up his chest and stood up tall, filled with purpose, then scampered away.
Alice and Howard waited for what seemed like hours by the staircase until a tiny whistle finally came from the top of the steps, and they both quickly hustled up the stairs, the basket rattling on Howard's arm.
"Still eatin' with his men." Max said, holding out the key on a string.
Alice nodded, and patted his head.
"Okay." While Howard held the basket out far away from him, Alice rounded the corner and unlocked the door to Rakes' room, and ushered Howard inside, before heading inside herself and giving Max back his key.
"Put this back now. Then meet us out back where the deliveries go." She said. Max nodded again, giving a strange look to Alice and Howard, wondering what kind of crazy antics they could possibly be up to.
"Quick!" Alice whispered.
They looked around Rakes' room. It smelled like lilac cologne and oil used to clean guns. Alice pointed to the bed, and Howard set the basket down on the middle of the bedspread. Then Alice took a pen and scrap of paper from the desk and wrote "Spec. Deputy Rakes" in flowing script on the paper, placing it on the basket, while Howard shuffled around, emptying all Rakes' guns of ammo and stuffing the bullets in his pockets. He would have done more to the room, but he was with a lady, and they had very little time. They looked at each other, nodded wordlessly, and slipped out, rounding the corner at the end of the hall to access the service stairs, taking them two at a time. Both breathing hard, they arrived on the landing below, breathless and triumphant at the bottom of the steps. Then they looked at one another and shared a devilish smile.
Queue Thomas Newman - "Cold Lamb Sandwich"
Then Howard laughed out loud, shaking his head. He followed as Alice went to find Max, who was patiently sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the service dock. She beamed at him, and put a finger to her lips in reminder that he needed to keep her secret. Before he could get up, she hustled over to him and stood eye to eye with him as he sat.
"May I call on you again, Mr. Swift, if I need assistance?" She asked.
"Oh boy, you sure can, miss Alice!"
Max beamed at her, taking off his newsboy cap and bowing his head in deference, showing he was at her service, as always. Howard watched Alice and the small boy from a few yards away, certain that his brother had chosen well, thinking...if he'd ever make his damn move like I told him to.
Alice reached down and unzipped the little silk pocket purse she kept fastened to the belt of her riding pants. "I'm going to miss you, Max." She said.
"Oh…" she paused. "What's this?" She pulled a bill out of the purse.
"Oh Boy, a whole sawbuck!" The little boy shouted.
"Shhh!" Alice said, laughing. "Our secret, remember?" The little boy blanched, believing himself in trouble, and she smiled to reassure him.
"It's all right. I will see you around then?"
He placed the ten-dollar bill in his pocket, then looked up and nodded to her. Then she took his face delicately in her hands and kissed his forehead.
"Goodbye, Mr. Swift. I know I will see you soon." Then the little boy reached out and put his arms around her, hugging her, and she thought she was going to melt.
"You'll tell me if things get hard for you and your momma now? Promise? You won't be too prideful?"
She knew his mother worked extra hours in the hotel making almost nothing, ever since his father had to go work in the coal mines for yet another meager sum, the family struggling with the depression on. She had left a sizable tip for her that afternoon.
She heard little Max whisper "Yes, Miss Alice," and when she broke the hug, he had tears in his eyes.
As she walked away following Howard, she looked back at him and called
"You're a good man, Maxwell Swift! Don't ever let anyone tell you different!"
And she watched him and waved until she and Howard were out of sight, hustling to the Pierce Arrow in the darkness.
Queue Lauren Aquilina - "Wonder"
Alice awoke on her first morning as a resident of Blackwater Station slightly confused. When she and Howard had returned from their errand to deliver Alice’s message to Rakes (known in the years to come as the Franklin County Rattlesnake Maneuver), they had collapsed into their chairs at the table and eaten heartily with Maggie and Danny as soon as they returned. Alice had fallen into bed by 9 o’clock, after digging her giant goose down comforter out of her bedding trunk and tossing it onto the bed. Then she had wriggled into a nightgown, retrieved from yet another trunk, and slipped under the bedcovers, falling almost immediately asleep. She had not had much sleep in the past two days, which had seemed to her to have lasted for ages.
So much had changed since the afternoon in the woods. When she opened her eyes that morning, and felt the familiar warmth of her comforter draped around her, and saw through her barely opened eyes the wooden walls of her new bedroom, she thought for a disorienting moment that the crash and it’s aftermath had all been a terrible dream, and that she was back in camp with her father, Lettie somewhere down the hall, reading before breakfast. But when she rubbed her eyes groggily, she realized where she was, and that she was alone. For now. Howard and Maggie would be awake soon if they weren’t already, Forrest would be coming home today, and Jack and Cricket, hopefully, would be back soon. She tried not to think about all of the possible reasons they could have been gone so long. She dressed, and set about organizing her new space. She unrolled a bearskin rug made from that of a large black bear who had been ambling through the woods in misery, old and sick, one of the first her father had ever shot. Then she carefully unwrapped her trifold mirror and arranged it, and her cosmetics, on the desk opposite her bed, to turn it into a makeshift vanity. She moved as many clothes as could fit into the dresser, and placed some of her books on top. She then scooted her trunk full of photo albums, cameras and other personal artifacts and heirlooms against the end of the bed to create a small bench. She heard the telephone clatter downstairs and had moved to answer it after it rang for a fourth time, but Howard’s big heavy footfalls had sounded outside her door as he stumbled past, and she assumed he’d answered it when she heard it stop ringing. As she sat on the rug, her legs tucked under her as she went through an inventory of one of the trunks, trying to decide which should go in the attic as Forrest had suggested, Howard knocked on the outside of her open door.
“For’st is ready.” He rubbed his curly head, making a face. His pants were wrinkled, and his long johns were visible under the shirt he wore, one tail un-tucked haphazardly in the front. She could tell he had just woken.
“Wanna come with me to get ‘im?”
Alice nodded, and stood. She put on a pair of brown leather t-strap heels and buttoned the matching light blue suit coat over the dress that went beneath it, completing her morning suit. Then she checked to be sure her hair was pinned correctly and put on a little brown felt cloche hat, brown leather gloves, and found her wicker clutch. With a slight measure of sibling like intimacy, when she picked up her coat, intending to drape it over her arm, Howard held his arms out to take it from her, and carefully helped her into it. With an appreciative smile, she walked through the door as he gestured through it, both making their way downstairs and to her car.
Howard would have had to take the Pierce Arrow even if she hadn’t decided to come along, because Jack and Cricket had still not returned with the truck (or the stolen moonshine) yet. But Alice certainly wanted to go. She knew Howard was going to have to tell Forrest about what Rakes had tried to do to her, and what she had done to him in return, and she didn’t want to appear as though she were hiding in shame by not being there in case he were angry with her. Only she and Maggie knew the truth behind her vengeance. When she had cut rakes on the palm, she would have had that be the end of it, but when Maggie had told her that the men from Chicago were most likely Rakes’, her rage had been renewed, and it was then she had caught the snake. She had thought all through dinner the night before about how foolish her impulsive, dangerous little prank could turn out to be. She knew that Howard was still rather stunned by the whole plan, and that he found it rather amusing, but Forrest, as the voice of reason, might have something else to say about it. She hoped he wouldn’t be too angry with her.
When Howard pulled up outside the Rocky Mount hospital, he looked over at Alice before opening his door.
“I gotta tell For’st about Jack and Cricket. And you. Stay here, please. And try, if you can manage, not to kill anyone for fifteen minutes?”
Alice made a playful, if insolent face at him as he hoisted himself out of the driver’s seat and made his way inside. She sat by herself in the car, heated by the new radiator system, redirecting the hot coolant from the engine into the passenger cabin with a fan. She looked in the side mirrors for any sign of Forrest or Howard returning, and soon, though not soon enough for her, their two large shapes, the one taller and lankier, the other shorter and solid muscle, started to move towards the car. Alice grew nervous when she saw Howard settle himself by the back of the car, waiting at a respectful distance. Forrest must have asked for a moment alone with her.
Forrest opened the door to the car, and looked around a bit before he sat down, admiring the wooden dashboard and the creamy leather interior. He’d never paid much attention to the interior of the car before. Other than the woman driving it. He got in beside her, and noticed she was looking even more beautiful than she had in his mind as he had passed the hours before going home in blissful thoughts of her, alone in his hospital bed in the early morning. He had been filled with secret pleasure at the notion that his sweet Alice was cuddled up, warm in bed at the Station, to which he would soon be returning. To her. Where they would both sleep under the same roof. Still not close enough for Forrest, but better than it had yet been. He’d been filled all morning with a silent thrill despite the lingering pain in the gash in his neck. But when his brother had given him the news about Jack and Cricket, and his Alice, his mood had turned to one of anger at his brothers and desperation and anguish over the thought of her being frightened by Rakes again. And almost being…he couldn’t think of that. He’d be compelled to kill Rakes himself, and he couldn’t afford to lose his control if he hoped to emerge victorious from this drawn out battle with the law. He had been desperate to see Alice again, to put eyes on her and see that she was all right. He sighed, putting his hands in the pockets of his cardigan, wondering where to begin. Then he turned to her, shifting his entire upper body to face her head on. Alice shifted her body as well, but folded her hands in her lap and looked down at them, hiding her face in her cloche hat.
Queue Ed Sheeran - "Lego House"
“Alice, look at me.” Forrest grumbled quietly, and she looked up, immediately, able to do nothing other than obey him. A stab of pain registered in his chest, when he saw how frightened and guilty she looked. He hated that he had the ability to scare her. Forrest’s eyes grew soft, and he resisted the urge to reach out and take her hand. He searched her face as he asked in earnest
“He hurt you?”
Alice pursed her lips and shook her head back and forth several times. “No.”
His voice sounded hard and gritty, but it stemmed from the fact that he believed Howard to be at fault for leaving her alone, and he was reminded of his anger at him. He was angry at him for leaving Alice by herself, and for allowing Jack to make off with their main source of income.
Alice kept Forrest’s gaze as long as she could, glancing down at her hands and out the windows, nervous.
“I closed out my accounts at the hotel. Howard was waiting outside for me, and I didn’t tell him I was going back upstairs to be sure I hadn’t left anything. But I did. And Rakes surprised me. He came for me, Forrest, and I keep an oyster shucker on me sometimes. I cut him, not badly,” she emphasized “but enough so he couldn’t touch me. I thought he was going to….and I’m…well…I thought…he.” Alice stopped, realizing she was babbling, and carefully chose her words.
“I was afraid he would compromise my honor. Then I-“ she said the rest in a quick, confessional rush “climbed to the top of the ridge at Smoke Hill and pulled a snake out of it’s den with a pitchfork and put it in his hotel room.”
Forrest sighed, a full, deep breath inhaled and exhaled from within his massive chest. Alice was certain that he was furious with her. His eyes held anger, and his jaw was clenched. He said nothing, and it was then she seemed to fall apart, if only slightly. He watched her lower lip wobble and her eyes fill with tears she was trying so desperately to hide and the word that came to his mind was 'dignified.' To Forrest, she was so completely flawless that he felt paralyzed. He wanted nothing more in that moment than to pull her into his lap and hold her close to him, to shield her from ever feeling pain again, to make her his and never, ever let go. But he was stubborn, and unprepared. He didn’t know how to tell her that he was both frustrated at her for being reckless, and in awe of her for being so brave. He couldn’t explain the swell of pride he’d felt in his heart, mixed with horror, when Howard had told him how she’d come out of the woods with a viper in a picnic basket and delivered it to their greatest enemy. So he said as much as he could manage. He spoke very, very slowly, as was his way, his voice even and low, coming from deep in his chest.
"Maybe I shoulda said it plain yesterday. Maybe I shoulda never left you with Howard, but I'm gonna say it now, and we're not leavin you alone again. You're a survivor. Like us-”
Alice’s chest filled with a warmth that spread from her belly up through her collarbones and tingled down her arms into her fingers, as he spoke. His voice, even when he wasn’t speaking to her, was her favorite sound.
“-even if you don' know it. We know you can fight for yourself when you have to. But we-” he stopped himself. He realized that he had to start being more specific, “-I- don' ever want you to have to. I'm asking...if you'll allow me. From now on, would you let me do your fightin' for you?
Alice nodded, gazing at him with a look of pure adoration and utter relief on her face. And when he saw it, he felt like he’d gotten a swift kick from a mean bull straight to his chest. The look of open affection on her face unhinged him, and when she acquiesced, he felt a stirring of his imagination, allowing himself to quickly imagine all the other ways she might be willing to yield to him.
"Yes, Forrest," she said quietly.
He continued, feeling momentum, speaking more than he could remember speaking at once in a very long time. It wasn’t that Forrest didn’t like to talk, just that he was always able to accurately convey his exact meaning by being succinct. But certain sentiments, he was learning, required more words.
"An’ if for any reason you're ever alone ever again, you do just what you did. You're brave as hell. I just don't want you feelin' like you haveta be. Not anymore."
Alice nodded, tears pooling in her eyes once again. She looked at his handsome, weathered face, and, just as she did every time she looked at him, found her salvation all over again.
"Everyone thinks I’m so self sufficient and…” she screwed up her face before uttering the word to show her distaste for it “independent. But,” her voice quaked “I’m so scared.” She breathed out in short little ragged breaths, trying to control her breathing. When she blinked, two tears ran down her porcelain cheeks, slowly. Forrest was afraid his heart would be torn in two, seeing her sad like this. “I-“ she paused “was scared.” She managed a small smile for him that stole his breath right out of his chest.
“Not anymore. Forrest what can I ever do to repay you-all of you- for being so kind to me?"
He sighed. She had no idea the effect she had on him. He knew it would take him some time to work up the courage to finally say all the things he someday wanted to say.
"Jus' be patient with me, Alice."
She smiled. "Of course." She said. "Always."
He started the car. “One more thing.”
“Yes? She asked, expectantly.
“No more cryin’. Ain’t go to no more.” Alice herself now wanted to say more, but Forrest had already rolled down the window and ordered Howard to get in the car.
When the Pierce Arrow rolled up to Blackwater Station with Forrest at the wheel, Jack and Cricket had still not returned. It was not yet ten o’clock in the morning. Forrest retrieved his coffee mug from its usual location on the shelf behind the counter, and filled it to the brim with black coffee. Then he sat outside with the Beowulf book, and waited for his brother to come home. Alice went upstairs to continue settling into her new bedroom. She had just opened up her trunk full of kitchen supplies she’d wanted to keep from her Charlotte house, when she heard the truck pull up to the station. Sitting on the bearskin rug, she decided immediately that she didn’t want to hear the boys argue, so she scrambled over to the dresser were she’d re-assembled her phonograph, and put a Bessie Smith record on.
Queue Bessie Smith - "Back Water Blues"
Alice heard commotion, and then feet stomping up the stairs. When he heard the music, Jack Bondurant peeked into Alice’s room, knocking on her open door just as Howard had that morning. Alice turned to look at him and smiled in relief to see he was unharmed.
“Hey Alice,” Jack said, grinning. But his happy expression quickly faded into one of worry and disappointment.
“Everything all right?” She asked. She continued digging through her kitchenware trunk, moving around carefully wrapped teacups and saucers to find what she was looking for.
“We sold the whole lot o’liquor to Floyd Banner. All of it. Good price, too. Better than what ol’ For’st gets.” Alice could tell by the way Jack spat out the word Forrest that his brother had probably not given him the respect and thanks he’d hoped for as a result of the transaction. Jack paced slightly in the doorway to Alice’s room, worrying at the wood on the doorframe with his fingernail.
“An’ For’st, he don’ even say good job ‘er nothin’, he treats me like I’m a Goddamn kid.”
“He was probably just upset that you left without saying anything.” Alice said, pulling out the big heavy barrel like contraption she was going to use.
“Even if I had, he wouldn’a let me go! That’s why I had to, I had to prove it all on my own.”
Alice didn’t know what to say, not wishing to take sides, but wanting Jack to feel validated, so she asked a question instead. “So, will this be a permanent arrangement?”
Jack stopped shifting around and looked at her. Finally, someone who was taking him even half seriously.
“Yeah! Floyd Banner said he’d be interested any time we have somethin’ to sell. For’st thought Floyd Banner was the one who cut his throat, but it was Rakes’ men. He gave me the address where to find ‘em, as a gesture o’ goodwill for our partnership.” Jack stood up taller in his boots when he mentioned his new business relationship with the notorious gangster.
Alice’s blood ran cold. “I had thought the very same.”
She said “That it was Rakes, I mean.” She pulled more parts out of the trunk and put them in the bucket. “I suppose they told you what I did.”
Jack shook his head, his mouth slightly open in curiosity. “Why? Whadja do?”
Alice laughed and shook her head.
“Ask Howard. You weren’t the only one who went on a little adventure.”
Jack grinned. “I surely will.” He wanted desperately to know what she was talking about, but he was hoping to go visit Bertha, so he was off to his room to change. “It’s nice havin’ you here, Alice.” Jack said, turning to go.
“It’s nice being here.” She said. “And Jack?” He turned back to her.
“Be nice to Forrest. He loves you, and he’s doing his best.”
Jack nodded his reluctant acceptance of this fact. “Awlright. Well, seeya tonight!”
“Bye!” Alice called into the hall, where Jack had already disappeared.
After he had properly scolded Jack, and tucked the address into the pocket of his cardigan, Forrest headed upstairs. He hadn’t napped since he was five years old, but the medicine he had been given that morning through his IV had made him exhausted and queasy, and he thought he’d lie down for a while. He heard music coming from Alice’s room, and couldn’t resist the urge to check in on her, citing the excuse that he could ask if she had everything she needed. The needle on the phonograph clicked and a new song began.
Queue Bessie Smith “Me and my Gin”
He peered into her room, gazing down at her beautiful profile. She had the trunk at the end of her bed open, and she was kneeling on a bearskin rug she’d apparently set up. She’d taken the suit coat off, and was now in just a light blue wool dress, bias cut, and flattering. With her legs folded under her, he could see the seams on the backs of her stockings, and his imagination followed the stitched line all the way up to places her dress didn’t cover. He thought he could look at her forever. But he broke his concentration to see how her move was coming along. Looking around the room, he noticed that she had made herself at home, much to his satisfaction. His wound itched, he noticed. He also noticed she hadn’t taken note of him. She seemed enthralled by a photo she was holding in her hand. He could see the sterling silver frame from where he stood, but he couldn’t make out the photo. She had another frame and some photo books spread out on the bed. Forrest cleared his throat, with slight discomfort. Alice turned and smiled shyly at him.
He said nothing, and, as if perfectly timed, in the silence Bessie Smith sang the lyrics:
“Any Bootlegger sure is a pal of mine.”
And she laughed out loud. Forrest grunted.
“Got everythin’ you need?” he asked.
Alice nodded. “Yes, thank you. My room is perfect.”
He nodded and pointed to the photograph in her hand.
“Whatchu got there?”
“Oh,” she said softly. “It’s me. With my father.”
She held the picture frame out to him to invite him both to look at it and to come inside, and he hesitated a moment before stepping into Alice’s bedroom, his big footfalls sounding pronounced on the wooden floor. He took the fame from her hands, which were bare for once, and stared at the photo inside. A tall, lean man stood in profile on an odd outcropping of a rock ridge, mountains upon mountains in the background as he pointed with his right finger out into the distance, looking in the direction he pointed. Held carefully against his side, with his arm wrapped around her knees so she could stand tall against him, was a little child, who had her arms around his neck and was leaning into him with her head on his shoulder, her eyes facing the direction he was pointing. He immediately recognized the child as Alice; her face hadn’t changed.
“He was showing me how far our tract of land stretched.” She said. “It was just after we’d arrived in a new camp. The camp photographer took that photo. He saw my father point and told us to stop just like that.” She smiled a little. Forrest didn’t take his eyes from the photograph.
“This is me with Lettie” she offered. She leaned forward, with Forrest watching self-consciously the movements of her body, and reached for one of the other frames on the bed, handing Forrest a second picture, which he traded with her for the other frame. She put the photo of she and her father beside her bed on one of the two nightstands. Forrest smiled. There was a tiny Alice, out on what looked like a porch, around five years old, her mouth covered in something dark, her little hands spread out in front of her, displaying her palms which were also darkened with what looked like the same substance. Around her waist was a pair of arms belonging to Lettie, who was seated behind her. She was an attractive woman, with her hair pulled back into a bun, her chin on Alice’s shoulder, smiling a sheepish smile. On a little table beside her were canning jars, a bowl, and what looked like baskets of fruit. Alice came around to stand beside Forrest, and he could immediately smell her perfume and her soap, closing his eyes for a single moment to breathe in her sweet smell as she spoke.
“Blackberry Jam.” She said. “That’s all I have to say.”
He nodded, and grumbled that he liked blackberry jam himself under his breath. He handed it back to her and she put it on the opposite side of the bed. She made no mention of all of the photo books she’d taken out, nor of the countless other photo books she’d taken the time to make, and the other frames, which were still in the open trunk. Another day, she’d show him.
He pointed to the wooden bucket and it’s accouterments on the floor “Whassat fer?” He asked her.
“Oh!” She said. She went over and knelt like a lady, bending at the knees instead of the waist, picking it up and bringing it close to him. He immediately grasped it from her, seeing that it was heavy. He looked into the bucket and was still confused by all the parts.
“It’s for you,” she said. “It’s an ice cream maker, and the doctor said you couldn’t have sold foods for two days after being discharged, so I thought…” she stopped when she felt like she was babbling again. Forrest’s brow furrowed and he gave her a helpless look, because he didn’t know what to say. All he managed to croak out that she could decipher was
“Thank you….like ice cream.” Then he turned to go. “I’ll carry this downstairs.”
He headed downstairs, wondering to himself how it was that she’d begun thinking of him like that, and how lucky he felt now that she had. Suddenly, he didn’t think he needed a nap. Not if she was going to be in the kitchen later.
Alice passed most of the day rendering her bedroom exactly the way she wanted it. For lunch, she’d had stew with Howard, Forrest and Maggie, Forrest nearly silent for the entire meal. Howard retold the story of Alice and the rattlesnake and Maggie listened, fascinated.
“How come you didn’t get bit?” She asked.
“I never touched the snake,” Alice explained. “I just pulled it from its den and lifted it into the basket. Then I used another stick to shut it, and put a rock on top until I could buckle the straps.”
Maggie laughed, “My God, you must have given him the scare of his life.”
Alice laughed with her. “Well, I hope so! That was the intention.”
Forrest just glowered at Howard for bringing it up again.
Alice retired to her bedroom for her customary afternoon nap, and rose around four o’clock, changing into a silk and wool blended dress of a different hue of blue, bias cut, as were all of her dresses, with big puffy sleeves and a pretty bow closing the keyhole opening in fabric at her neckline. She brushed out her hair, and fastened it back with a little fascinator clip.
Queue Stuart Duncan & Dirk Powell - "Ruby With the Eyes that Sparkle"
Forrest heard her little heels clicking down the stairs, and discreetly moved in his chair to watch her walk into the kitchen to cook with Maggie. Soon he heard laughing and pleasant chatter, as Alice made herself at home in the kitchen and set to work. He heard her talking to Cricket, explaining how to use the ice cream maker, putting the salt and ice around the small metal container at the center of the bucket, which would actually hold the finished product. Then they measured and added the ingredients. While Cricket tirelessly worked the hand crank, Alice set about cooking the other part of Forrest’s dinner. Dessert. Maggie was making everyone else some barbequed chicken, but she had been relieved when she learned Alice was making Forrest something special, as she felt bad leaving him with only peas and mashed potatoes to eat, since the chicken was for now off limits. While Cricket checked the consistency of the ice cream, Alice measured ginger and molasses and sugar, mixing it together with the rest of the mixture. When Forrest rose to go to the bathroom, Alice went into the office and snatched up his coffee mug, rinsing it out in the sink while she waited for the fresh pot of coffee Maggie had just put on to percolate.
Forrest went back in his office, and was only inside a few minutes when he came stomping out, demanding his mug.
“Awlright, who took my mug?”
Howard, who had posted himself at the bar, was watching with an uncertain look on his face, his eyes darting back and forth, waiting to see what would happen. He had learned long ago not to touch that mug.
Alice turned towards him, wiping floured hands on her little apron over her dress. “I did,” She said.
Forrest put his hand out authoritatively. Alice picked up the mug, and poured him a fresh cup, handing it over.
“You must have had that cup in there since lunch, that coffee was cold as ice.” Maggie, Cricket and Howard were all openly staring at them now, watching he exchange. “I was going to wait until you noticed to pour you a fresh one.”
“Thank you.” He said begrudgingly, a stubborn tone to his voice. Then he turned away and grumbled to himself as he walked back to the office. Alice looked around at the other three and smiled.
When they sat down for dinner around six, Forrest scowled through his peas and mashed potatoes, envying the others their additional chicken and biscuits. When Howard had offered to clear for Maggie, Cricket set up the bowls and scooped ice cream for everyone, except Forrest. Alice had gone to the oven, where it was waiting, warm, and retrieved Forrest’s treat. She spooned it out into a bowl for him, dusted it with powdered sugar, and scooped a generous helping of ice cream on top. Then she found a spoon for him, and crossed to the table, placing it down in front of him. Forrest’s eyes went big. He loved gingerbread, and he could tell that was what it was just from the delicious smell. While Maggie poured coffee for everyone, Alice told him
“It’s gingerbread pudding. I notice sometimes you have those gingersnaps? I thought you’d like it.”
Howard, who had stacked the plates rather efficiently, was already digging into his ice cream, and he stared at what Forrest was getting, jealous.
Forrest muttered his thanks nodded at her before he dug in, not saying a word, and barely breathing between bites. With every bite, he snuck looks at Alice, who was happily eating the ice cream she and Cricket had made. Forrest was deeply satisfied, not only at having something to fill his stomach, but at finding out the woman he wanted could cook. The pudding was perfect consistency, and it tasted like heaven. Alice was lucky to have had the opportunity to observe Lettie and the kitchen women in camp cooking, so she’d had a lot to go on for culinary inspiration.
“There more?” Forrest asked, after he had scraped his spoon around the bowl.
Alice smiled and nodded at him. “Yes. In the stove. I can get-”
Forrest got up and moved to the stove faster than she could even get up, filling his bowl again, and heading out to have a cigar on the porch. He had left his coffee mug on the table, so after helping Maggie clear the table and do some of the dishes, she went to look for him, bringing it with a fresh cup.
Forrest sat in the darkness, the embers from his cigar a beacon of light for Alice to follow. He sat with his pudding in his lap, eating more slowly now. She wordlessly placed the coffee on the green table beside him, it’s contents steaming in the cool night air.
“Uhm…” he began, as Alice turned to go back inside.
“Yes?” She asked, shivering in the cool air.
“Me’n Howard, we’re payin’ a visit to those men tonight.”
They had kept the station closed for the day with the exception of the filling station, so they could leave Maggie and Alice locked up together and not worry about further violence on the women while they were gone.
Alice nodded, and went inside without a word. She helped Maggie wash and dry the rest of the dishes, then went upstairs to her room. Sitting on her bed she took out her rifle, the bolt action Remington Model 30 Express .30 Springfield Model 1906 and checked it for bullets. Then she placed it gently across the trunk at the end of the bed. She slipped out of her shoes and sat on her bed, picking up a book to read. She had left the door cracked, so when Howard and Forrest were ready to leave, Howard stood back in the hallway waiting for his brother while Forrest peeked his head into her room, putting his hat on and tucking his gun in the back of his shirt. “Awlright, we goin’ now. Don’ wait up.”
Alice nodded, and then Forrest noticed the gun.
“Whassat, a .22?”
Alice giggled. “No. .30-.06. I’m not 14 anymore.” Then she grew serious. “Just in case. With me and Maggie alone.” Cricket had gone home not long after dinner.
Forrest shook his head in disbelief. There she was reading to herself in the soft light, every bit the lady in her elegance and finery, but with a powerful rifle not six feet away. What a woman, he thought.
Queue Tim Eriksen - "Am I Born to Die?"
When the door closed downstairs, Alice shuddered. She hated that they were leaving, but understood their need for vengeance.
When Jack got home, Alice’s breath caught in her throat, and she moved to the stairwell to hear if it had been Howard and Forrest who had returned, but when she heard Maggie and Jack speaking, the tight, twisting, cold rope that had lay coiled in her stomach since Forrest had gone tightened again. Then she heard him leave, and went back to sit on her bed, worrying. Around eleven, she changed into a long nightgown, after saying goodnight to Maggie who would have waited up, but needed to be awake to serve breakfast in the morning. Over it, she put on a layered seashell pink silk dressing gown, full length, modest, quilted and heavy, and appropriate to be seen in when the boys came home. Then she sat up, and waited. At midnight, she felt she finally exhaled a breath she’d been holding in all night. She heard the truck pull up to the station. Forrest, who was seated in the passenger side, looked up at Alice’s windows when they parked the car, noticing the cracks of light peeking out from the slivers between the sets of curtains. He was miffed that she had stayed up when he’d told her not to, but still touched that she was awake. He didn’t know that she couldn’t have slept if she tried. He and Howard stopped at the sink downstairs to rinse their hands of blood, and Howard went upstairs first, wordlessly heading to his room to be with Maggie. Forrest climbed the stairs not after, and peeked into the glow of Alice’s open bedroom door.
“Alice?” He called softly.
She turned and looked at him, at the blood on his clothes. She breathed a little sigh, looking up at him as she crossed to the doorway. What she said was all she needed to say to make his heart flip in his chest. Her voice was so soft, and gentle, and amorous.
“Eyeah.” He grumbled. “Go sleep now.” He said.
She nodded, and held the door, moving to close it. She looked into his deep green eyes, and then her eyes looked down at his hands, which held another small bowl of pudding.
She smiled at him, and lingered. “Sweet Dreams, Forrest.” She said.
“Night…..” he grumbled, watching her close the door as he turned to go to his room. “…Darlin’” he said under his breath, when he was halfway to his room, and certain she couldn’t hear.
For the next two days, Alice did very little other than leave the Station in the early morning, bringing food with her out to her uncle's cabin, and returning at dusk to fall directly into bed until dawn the next morning. She camped out most of the day there, resolving to get as much work done as she possibly could. She swept, washed, burned more debris, and went through a large wooden chest filled with photos, that she hauled back to the station after her second night of work. The snow from the night of Forrest's attack had melted, and she wanted to clear out as much as she could, and batten down the hatches before the next storm made it's way through. She kept the M1911 on her at all times. She and Forrest barely exchanged two words between them, other than when he offered a cigar box filled with small nails so she could hang whatever she wanted on the walls, which she gratefully accepted.
The day of the dance, which Jack hadn't stopped talking about since he had invited Alice, she rose as late as she would allow herself, around eleven in the morning. Finding the upstairs bathroom unoccupied at such an unlikely time, she spent a rather long time bathing before stealing back to her room after making sure the hallway was clear. Despite the fact that she wore one of the terry cloth drying gowns Lettie had sewn for her out of towel material, and a giant terrycloth dressing gown over it, she still felt incredibly self-conscious, considering neither article qualified as clothing. Forrest and Howard left mid afternoon, so when Alice called downstairs to see if the coast was clear for a snack, Maggie obliged by meeting her by meeting her on the stairs with victuals, since there were people milling about.
When night had come and it was finally time to dress, Alice had to forgo her usual slip, and instead dress in only tap pants and stockings, hooked to their pale pink silk garter belt.
Queue Alberta Hunter- "My Particular Man"
While she sat in her dressing gown by the little vanity she had created for herself, she unpinned the finger waves she'd created by pinning them in a setting pattern in her wet hair after her bath. While her favorite ladies of jazz played on the phonograph, she carefully brushed out the finger waves between her brush and her hand, getting them to fall as she liked them. On her bed lay her dress, a long, velvet bias cut backless gown, the color of a deep red orchid, made for her to her exact measurements, by hand, in Charlotte. Beside it, a pair of off white silk and cotton blended twenty inch twelve button gloves, with a mousquetaire wrist opening. Her black t-strap heels with the peep toe sat on the floor beside the bed. She'd chosen a fascinator for her hair, which sat on the vanity. Her beaver fur capelet that she had chosen to keep warm was hanging on the back of her chair.
She knew she was taking a bit of a risk wearing the dress. She wasn't certain what anyone else would be wearing, and risked looking ridiculous. But she hadn't seen Forrest in two days, it seemed, her being out in the woods most of the time, and the boys busy with planning how they were going to go about building the submarine stills they decided to create to address the new demand for supplies from across the county line, as well as here in Franklin County. So Alice thought she'd dress as if Forrest alone would be at the barn dance.
Forrest and Howard had been busy most of the day. They had collected from the stills, to replenish what had been sold to Floyd Banner, and then left around four o'clock to complete their rounds before bringing the majority of what would be left over to the barn dance to sell. Jack and Cricket were escorting Maggie and Alice to the dance, and they would take turns in shifts helping the men sell the liquor from a discreet corner of the barn.
Alice looked at herself in the mirror. She had powdered her face lightly with a pinkish peach powder, added rosy gold pink lip rouge, and put on mascara. Now she examined her hair, which fell in cascading finger waves down past her shoulders. She picked up her little fascinator, a pretty clip made up of off white feathers, hand made off white fine netting, and crystals meant to accent her hair, and pinned it in behind her left ear to keep her waves pushed back just a bit on that side. Then she sighed, and went to her bed, picking up the dress, which she stepped carefully into. The matching red silk that lined the velvet shimmied against her skin as she adjusted it. Then she buttoned the line of buttons that went up the side of the dress, synching it tighter around her form with each button, and turned to look at herself in the mirrors of the vanity. The dress had an off the shoulder neckline, and two sleeves which capped loosely around her arms, and disappeared into the rest of the garment's structure. The dress came around to cover her sides, modestly, but met in the back only at the bottom in a dip of pooled fabric ending at the small of her back, leaving much of it exposed. It was long, reaching below her toes, with a slight train pooling out behind her, at the back. Her big bust was attractively controlled by the front of the dress, which the dressmaker had made with her figure in mind. She was suddenly very happy that she'd only brought snacks and sandwiches out to the woods with her for the past few days, instead of eating bit meals with the boys and Maggie. There was no denying that what she wore was fashionable, and that it looked nice on her figure, but she still doubted her appearance in it, as she tended to doubt her appearance in general. She carefully put on a pair of delicate art deco drop earrings crusted modestly with tiny diamonds. Sighing, she pulled on her gloves, buttoning up the wrist openings, happy she had these to wear, as they came up just past her elbows, instead of her longer opera gloves she thought were more formal. Once her gloves were buttoned, she put on a very thin white gold bracelet with a bark and leaf motif on the outside and the words "Alice in Lumber Land" engraved on the inside. Then she put on her t-strap shoes and draped her beaver fur capelet around her shoulders and closed the hooks so it covered her down to her waist, and went downstairs to find Jack and Cricket. She met Maggie in the hall.
Maggie looked her over.
"Wow," she said. "Look at you."
Alice, who had never gotten used to taking compliments, grew nervous. "Is it too much?"
Maggie shook her head, tucking her hair behind her ear. She wore a beautiful pale pink dress, cut close to her figure, with a V-neck and a lovely several layered handkerchief skirt. She had left her red wool coat unbuttoned over it, and was wearing a pair of beige heels and lace wrist length gloves. In her hair was a pretty pink headband with beads and jewels encrusted in it. "No. Really, it's lovely."
Alice sighed in relief. "Thank you. I thought I looked ridiculous. You look pretty wonderful, yourself," she said, as the girls walked down the stairs together.
"Thanks," Maggie said, smiling.
Cricket and Jack had assembled downstairs against the counter, Jack in a new suit he'd bought the day before, Cricket in one he'd inherited from a cousin that happened to fit him quite well. Alice saw them both stand up straight and brush themselves off when the girls came near.
She also heard Jack mutter "Goddamn."
"You do got some lucky brothers, Jack." Cricket said, with enough intentional volume in his voice to be overheard.
"What?" Alice asked, laughing, and beginning to blush.
Jack grinned, taking Maggie's arm. "If you donno by now…well," he grinned over at Cricket "You gon' find out!"
Cricket smiled and offered his arm to Alice, who took it gratefully.
"I do not even want to know what y'all are up to." Alice said, smiling to herself.
She lifted up her train with her other hand so they could make their way outside. Jack locked up Blackwater Station while the other three shivered slightly on the porch, and they piled into two cars: Jack and Maggie taking the new Ford he'd purchased the day before, and Cricket and Alice in the Pierce Arrow. They'd decided on this plan before in case the barn dance were raided (as Rakes had stepped up his efforts, and there would be plenty of liquor flowing) and they needed multiple opportunities to escape. They would park in two different areas. When they reached the Pierce Arrow, Alice grinned devilishly at Cricket, raising her eyebrows and handing him the keys from inside one of the many hidden pockets in her capelet. She didn't want to think about the sourpuss she'd probably see on Jack's face when he realized he would be the only one who had not driven Alice's car, but she trusted Cricket implicitly with vehicles, and she thought he might enjoy showing up behind the wheel, what with all of the single young girls who would be in attendance. Cricket's face spilt in two when he grinned. Then they scrambled into the car and were on their way. Before Cricket started the car he looked over at Alice and smiled at her
"You sure look extra pretty tonight, Miss Alice." He said. Then the car growled to life.
"Cricket, how many times do I have to ask you not to call me Miss?" She asked.
"At least a few more." He said. "I'm sure a certain someone is gonna be mighty happy to see you." Then he put the car in gear and they were off.
"Is that what Jack was going on about?" Alice asked, turning on the heater so it would warm them up when the car had warmed.
"We all notice it," Cricket said, bashfully. "Forrest is always just real quiet is all. But um…" Cricket seemed worried for a moment "you do l-like him don't you Mi-Alice?"
Alice looked over at Cricket.
"Between us?" She asked, her voice quiet as she stared ahead at the dirt country roads that lay out before them, and the blonde boy nodded at her. "Very much."
He smiled, and settled into his seat for the drive.
When they arrived at the Edmonson's barn, Alice was a bit more nervous than she had been when they left Blackwater Station. Most of the girls were in pretty patterned shirt dresses. She felt overdressed, until she allowed herself to walk around a bit and see that everyone was dressed differently. The Brethrens (Bertha included) were all dressed in their traditional modest clothing, some of the younger girls were wearing pretty Sunday party dresses, and others were wearing the shorter, tighter dresses and lipstick one might see at a speakeasy. But Alice didn't mind seeming a little overdressed in comparison, since at least she was among many different styles. She hadn't wanted to stick out, was her main concern. But she did, though not in a bad way. The exposed part of her dress was one matter, but her true beauty came from her carriage, the grace with which she carried herself, and the genuine warmth she sent out into the room. She was kind to all the adolescent girls who all came up to her as a group to ask about her dress, friendly to the young mother with the baby who introduced herself as Lila, the daughter of a diner owner who bought liquor from the Bondurants, and respectful and gracious when she declined her fourth partnered dance in as many songs.
Then, to her relief, they called the first of a set of line dances, and she motioned to Cricket, who had made a wallflower of himself, sitting by himself on a bale of hay, looking dejected. He was waiting for Howard and Forrest, since Jack had busied himself by talking quietly with Bertha in a corner. Her father was nowhere in sight, she had come with her older cousins, and was delighted to have time to speak with him.
"All right, ready?" Alice asked, smiling.
"R-ready fer what?" Cricket asked, looking around.
"Virginia Reel next."
"I can't, with my legs." He looked miserable, having to say it aloud. Alice was not deterred. She had faith in him.
"If I can, in this stupid dress and these cursed heels, you most certainly can. You move quick, don't doubt yourself." It seemed Alice had already decided for both of them.
"But I'm gonna look stupid," Cricket said, panic rising in his voice.
"Yes. Good. That the principle idea upon which the line dance was founded. Perfect. We'll pick a spot halfway down the line, you'll be fine."
They waited for the song before theirs to end, and then chose a spot in the center of the line, opposite each other. Before he knew what was happening, Cricket had allowed Alice to convince him that since they were halfway through the line he'd have enough time to refresh his memory on the steps before it was their turn. He had been nervous about the skips down the line, first and foremost, but she had put him at ease by never breaking eye contact and quietly reminding him of the next step when they danced.
"Forward, two, three, bow," Alice mouthed discreetly, when they made it to the front of the line and Cricket seemed nervous, since they were being watched.
"Two hands, circle" she said, when they joined hands. He remembered most of the steps, only needing little cues from her.
"Right elbow swing, then opposite side" she said.
"Do see-do, then seesaw," she said.
Then they went down and back through the line, came back, then swung through the line. When it came time to make the bridge at the end of the set, after the other dancers had all followed the two down the separate lines, she put up her hands with his and the rest of the dancers went underneath. The smile on Cricket's face was infectious. When the last couple had gone, everyone in the barn clapped, and Cricket and Alice dissolved into peels of laughter.
"Thanks fer makin' me do that." Cricket said, quietly.
Alice smiled "You're welcome."
When the next dance started, Jack ran across the wooden floor and skidded to a stop beside Alice.
"I got someone fer you to meet." He said.
It was in this way that Alice was introduced to Mr. Edmonson's brother, the second Mr. Edmonson. She had asked Jack not long after she had first moved to Franklin County to put out feelers for young, barely broken horses, so that she could buy one, as a project. It had happened that Mr. Edmonson's son, William, had been a very accomplished horseman, employed by wealthy landowners to train their horses, and the trainer of many of his own who he sold, up until he was thrown from an unruly colt and sadly met his death. His father had disposed of that horse, and sold the others, but a fourth, that his son had not had the opportunity to begin work on, still remained in his brother's barn. A skittish, willful gelding best described as a thoroughbred/warmblood cross, Mr. Edmonson explained that while the horse was endeared to him having been his son's, he had no need of him, and with the depression on, was looking for one less mouth to feed. Especially one that wasn't able to plow or carry riders. Alice explained to the Misters Edmonson (who were speaking with her near the dance floor) about her horsemanship accomplishments, and experiences with her father, reassuring them that she was qualified to handle whatever they sold her, provided she found him suitable.
The younger Mr. Edmonson, Clyde, was inviting Alice to seek out the horse for assessment, at her leisure, where he was in his stall in the neighboring barn, when Forrest and Howard arrived at the barn dance. Forrest sauntered into the barn in his usual way, his mouth half closed around a lit cigar, surveying the scene from the left side of the room to the right, until he simply stopped halfway through. Howard, behind him with two crates, almost bumped into his brother, and gave him a puzzled look from behind. It might have been that everyone was staring because Forrest had survived his ghastly attack and was standing before them a reaffirmed legend with a gruesome line of stitches across his throat. It could have been that everyone was staring because Forrest was behaving differently. Generally, his steady gaze would sweep across an entire area, surveying and assessing. It usually never stopped. He would slowly look around at everyone and everything, almost all the time, always prepared and authoritative. But he wasn't moving now, and he was staring directly. It was probably because he was staring at someone, and when they saw who it was, the residents of Franklin County watched with rapt attention to see when she would finally notice him. Alice, her back to the open barn doors, noticed a change in the atmosphere, and turned, peeking the left side of her face over her left shoulder. And then she saw him. The smile that broke across her face lit up the dimly lighted barn.
"Forrest!" She called, into what was now a very quiet barn, the dance band taking a break between songs, rubbing rosin on the strings of their fiddles, changing the strings on their banjos and guitars and mandolins.
Jack, who had gone with Cricket to set up a station by the stairs, nudged his friend gently as they took the crates from Howard. They shared a secret smile and went about their business. Forrest moved then, in a straight line, his stride deliberate and imposing. When he finally was close enough to Alice, he realized he had no idea what he wanted to say to her. He just stared, at her soft reddish hair in it's rippling finger waves, at the fascinator pinned in it. At the dress, which he tried not to stare at, in front of all of these people. Thoughts of her, beneath him, the two writing together in his bed, flashed through his mind, and he scolded himself for allowing them. Every single curve of hers stirred his imagination, and he had half a mind to put her over his shoulder and carry her up to the hayloft.
She noticed, before anything else, his eyes. How soft and gentle they seemed. They punctuated an expression she'd never seen on his face anywhere else. He looked….vulnerable, for once in his life. The Misters Edmonson backed up, blending into the crowd as a whole, after nodding respectfully at Forrest. Alice moved a bit closer to him and leaned in at a respective distance.
"Forrest," she whispered. "I feel like it's gotten very quiet in here." Her cheeks very, very quickly began to acquire a pinkish tone, swelling to a blush against her will. The band began then, a soft, low fiddle whine introducing a slow partner dance. Slowly, around them, couples began to gather, partnering up to sway with the music.
Forrest remained standing there, a look of pure adoration and helplessness on his face as he looked at Alice.
"We should probably dance," she said, stepping a little nearer to him. "Or move. Something." She was at a full blush now, stammering a bit.
"Dance with me." Forrest commanded.
Queue Ed Sheeran - "Kiss Me"
Alice grinned, and arched out her left arm in a pretty curve, placing her gloved hand on his giant shoulder, lifting her right to place her fingers in the crook between his first finger and thumb of his left hand. His big hand gently closed around her. She trembled for a moment, realizing he wasn't wearing gloves. Forrest, for his part, was panicking. He had no idea where to put his other hand. His arm was around Alice's waist, which made him tremble on it's own, but if he placed his hand on her back, it would be against her bare skin, and if he wanted to put his hand somewhere covered with fabric, he'd be at the small of her back, dangerously close to her bottom, especially with the size of his palms.
He eventually decided on holding his hand awkwardly out a few inches, away from her back, though he could feel the heat radiating off of it.
"You know," she began, as they started to sway gently. "Every gentleman I've danced with up until this day has had gloves on when I've gone backless."
She was so very close to him now, he felt his heart hammering in his chest. He wished all of these awful people were gone. He pulled his hand further back reluctantly.
"No!" she said, almost too forcefully. She was terrified that he had misunderstood her. She spoke quietly as she moved her left arm all the way down his shoulder, running her gloved fingers down the sleeve of his cardigan, to catch his hand and place it directly on her back. She'd had to arch her back to reach her hand around to that awkward position, and her soft ample chest pressed against his hard, muscled one, and Forrest could feel himself instantly start growing hard. How was he supposed to get out of this one, with everyone here? It was both a dream and a nightmare. He was supposed to be here selling whiskey. And here he was dancing…with her. His Alice.
"I just wanted you to know. It's just you….like this."
Forrest's heart fluttered again, and he felt a surge of warmth when the pads of his fingers settled in the valley of her spine. Her porcelain skin was so soft, his fingers so calloused, and he reveled in the contrast between the two of them. Instinctively, he pulled her close to him, and he saw her bite her lower lip when she felt him against her.
"Sorry," he muttered, looking up over her head so he wouldn't have to make eye contact.
"Forrest," she purred, leaning close to his neck so no one else could hear. And then she giggled, thinking of the most ladylike way to tell him it was about time she had some kind of reaction from him, physical or otherwise.
"I'm flattered." It was the boldest statement she'd ever made to him, and she thought in for a penny, in for a pound, and she asked, "Who do you think I wore this stupid dress for?"
He just warbled in the back of his throat, somewhere between a groan and a growl, squeezing her very, very gently.
"Are they still watching?" She asked.
"Eyeah," he grumbled.
And then, suddenly, the music stopped. Neither of them had been listening, and they had not been prepared. They stood there, as all the other dancers broke up and went to switch partners for the next dance. Their eyes locked, Forrest held tight to Alice, and she stood with her hands exactly where she'd placed them at the beginning of the dance. Then Howard appeared.
"Um…Forrest?" He called, standing back at a respectable distance.
Forrest turned his big head, glaring at his brother over his shoulder from under his big hat.
"Whatchu want?" he asked.
"Mr. Rose? He wanna have a word with you about settin' up regular deliveries to his homestead, so…" he waited, awkwardly, for his brother to let go, even though it tore at him to break the two up for business.
Forrest tried to think of anything that would relieve him of the raging…condition he had pressed up against Miss Alice. She tried as hard as physically possible not to laugh when he let go and turned around, very slowly, walking awkwardly with his brother over to the waiting customer.
Alice suddenly needed air, and she lifted up the hem of her much appreciated dress, and darted outside to find the horse she might want to buy. Anything to get away from the staring eyes, and the heat raging all throughout her body.
Queue The Civil Wars - "Dust to Dust"
When he found his Alice, she was in the barn up on the hill, a few yards from the one in which the dance was going on. He stood in the doorway before going inside, mesmerized by the shadows dancing across her pretty, exposed back. She was in the horse's stall, the door open, with a little chain across the door. He realized she hadn't heard him. She was talking quietly to the horse. Her gloves were hanging neatly on one of the rungs of the ladder up to the hayloft, and Forrest instinctively folded them and put them in his pocket, thinking she might forget, which she would have.
"What are you doing out here all on your lonesome, handsome?"
Truthfully she was talking to both of them, Forrest and Smoke, the horse, imagining Forrest was there, and that she might say something of the like to him. He thought he was done for when he saw her bend over with her round behind in the air, beside the horse, running her hand from the horse's knee, down his cannon, over his fetlock and down to his pastern, stopping before the hoof, checking for soundness. He was enamored and impressed. She really did know her horses. He walked slowly and quietly to her, clearing his throat when he came close. Alice was slightly startled, and jerked her head up. The horse blew out in protest, and stomped his foot. She turned and smiled at Forrest.
"Hi, Mr. Bondurant." She said. He nodded at her.
"You know, they said this one here is a handful, but I think he's just a big teddy bear."
She patted the horse's neck and scratched his poll gently when he dipped his head. Then she stepped out from inside the stall, shaking the shavings that made up his bedding from her dress and standing beside Forrest, closing the stall door, latching it quietly.
"He's also blind. I think." She watched as the horse came to the stall door and put his head over, whickering softly and putting his muzzle against her cheek. She turned to Forrest and smiled. "He's mischieveous, for sure." She began.
"But he can't see out of the mane side of his right eye. I think that's a big part of it." While she scratched the horse's forelock, Forrest stared at her.
"Alice, I-" he started softly.
She turned to look at him. He grumbled, and turned away and started pacing in frustration. Alice left the horse and walked after him, so that when he turned back to her, which she hadn't expected, she was right up against him, startling them both. He looked into her eyes, and started walking towards her. She backed up, playfully, giggling slightly when she bumped against the ladder to the hayloft. He didn't stop moving towards her. His arms reached out and gripped both sides of her waist possessively, and he dipped his head into her neck, growling when he heard her sigh and her breath hitch. Then the predictable happened. They heard Jack calling.
"Alice!" he called.
"Goddamnit, Jack!" Forrest snapped over his shoulder, but Jack didn't hear. He called for Alice again, and Alice called to him. He couldn't see his friend and his brother in the darkness of the barn, but he heard her.
"Jack?" She called.
"Go away." Forrest chuckled, deep in his chest, and Alice wriggled pleasurably against him when she felt the sensation. He felt himself growing again.
"Oh. OH. Okay, I'll put your cape in your car, then."
"Thank you," She called, smiling up at Forrest with a sweet, submissive look.
"Alice," Forrest grumbled, squeezing her again, and pressing his forehead against hers, watching her eyes flutter closed.
Then someone else shouted, and they both snapped to attention.
"ATU spotted on the road! Everyone out!"
The lookout was shouting into the barnyard, and everyone started to scatter. Alice ducked away, heading for the door. She was shocked when she noticed Forrest hadn't moved, and had only turned his big torso to stare at her. She stood in the light of the barn, and put out her hand.
"Forrest, come on, ATU! We've gotta go. Come with me." It was only then that Forrest strode towards her, taking her hand as they jogged to the Pierce Arrow in the darkness.
As Alice and Forrest hustled to the Pierce Arrow, Forrest following after her to where she and Cricket had parked, the middle Bondurant brother kept his eyes open for anything that could go wrong. Her hand was in his, and her other held the train of her dress up as much as she could, keeping it off the ground as they ran. She squeezed gently at Forrest's hand and he stopped a moment while she pulled off her heels and then kept running. She knew she'd fall somewhere in the barnyard otherwise. Barefoot, she was much more sure of herself. She could run barefoot up and down a newly felled tree trunk and not loose her footing, but in heels she was far less adept if she weren't on an inside floor.
Franklin County residents of every type found their horses, their newer Fords, their trucks, and their old model Ts, and darted off in their separate directions, as the electric lights strung up in the barn began to turn off. When they were in sight of the Pierce Arrow, concealed beside a copse of trees, Howard and Jack emerged from two different directions, headed towards their leader, and Forrest stopped moving. Alice hadn't noticed that he had stopped, so she felt a strong jerk against her hand when he stopped running with her. She turned, looking at him, puzzled. He rubbed his thumb over her gloved knuckles and reluctantly dropped her hand. Then he pointed with all the authority he could muster, acting as though her pretty, pouted mouth and her wide, brown eyes weren't disarming him in that very moment.
"Get in the car."
"Now, woman!" he snapped. He saw her lower lip tremble and he felt terrible, so he softened his voice a bit, stepping in close to her.
"I'll be right there." He said. "I ain't leavin you, but I gotta make sure the boys'll be ok."
Queue The Civil Wars - "Barton Hollow"
Alice accepted this, worried about the boys herself, and realizing he intended still to come with her, she scampered off to the car, hopping into the passenger side and throwing her shoes in the back seat. She felt momentary guilt, for protesting, and she searched in her beaver fur capelet, finding her keys and pushing the levers to start the Pierce Arrow. She turned her head back, looking up a few yards onto the little hill where the Bondurant boys were holding council. She couldn't help thinking how Forrest wore his power so well. Then she forced herself to focus. They weren't in a dire situation, but it would be important to keep her head about her. Alice noticed that Howard carried two remaining crates, over stuffed with shine jars, probably overflow from another crate, consolidated in haste so they could move quickly. Then the three broke up, Jack going to his new Ford and Howard coming around to the Passenger side of Alice's car. Everything happened very quickly. Forrest got into the driver's seat. Alice opened the door for Howard, and he went to place the crates down on the floor in front of the passenger seat. As he was explaining that Alice and Forrest had the quickest car and the best chance of getting back without being caught, the sound of thunder boomed loudly overhead, and Howard jumped. He dropped the crates, and two of the extra jars stuffed on top exploded against each other. It startled Alice, who put her bare feet down instinctually, and was surprised by a large shard of broken glass that had been thrown to the floor. It punctured her foot. She cried out, softly, and Howard's eyes went wide.
"You stupid sumbitch!" Forrest shouted.
He didn't know. Before Howard was rescued from the sea, there was rain. Two days of rain, pouring onto him as he floated aimlessly across the wide ocean. And the way it sounded, with everything around him sunken or bloated with death, the echo of the sound off the surface of the empty sea, was terrifying. Howard could manage just fine if he knew a storm was coming, but being startled by thunder sometimes brought trauma to the surface he couldn't predict. Forrest moved from his seat as though he were going to engage his brother in a fight. Alice's left hand shot out and she took Forrest's hand gently, linking her fingers securely with his to catch him before he could move. She lifted her foot and turned it gingerly so she and Forrest could see. Forrest was fuming, but he dropped her hand and took her foot gently, and saw that at least the glass could be taken out and she would be fine. He was just upset that she seemed so shaken and hurt.
Howard ignored his brother.
"Oh God, Alice, I'm sorry." He stammered. She noticed that Howard was trembling. He was somewhere else.
Alice put on a brave face and looked at Howard. Then she carefully lifted her foot again to rotate it in his direction, and showed him the piece of glass.
"See? It's not so bad. I pulled back quickly enough." The moonshine that she had stepped on was stinging her foot, but she decided not to mention that. Howard was nodding, but he wasn't with her, still.
"Bondurant!" She said, attempting to snap him to attention. He seemed to respond to that, meeting her eyes for a moment, and holding her stare.
"Go drive." She said. Cricket was waiting to ride back with him in the truck, while Maggie and Bertha had gone with Jack. Howard and Cricket needed to get a move on if they were going to use the lanes in the Edmonson's cornfield to get away. Howard stood up from where he had crouched to see Alice's foot, and wiped his mouth, furious with himself. Then he nodded, and closed the door carefully.
Forrest grumbled various disparaging things about his brother to himself, as Alice reached in the back seat to find the blanket she kept back there to warm her legs on long drives. Her foot wasn't bleeding yet. The glass was still stuck inside. She turned herself carefully and folded the blanket, putting it beside her on the seat, placing her foot on top, glass up.
Forrest watched her, in awe. She sure was brave, he thought, not for the first time, or even the tenth. The girls he known from school age would be in hysterics. She seemed interested in one thing: a solution to the problem.
"I gotta take it out," Forrest said, his voice soft and gentle. "If we hit a road block or we have to run on the road….I gotta take it out." He hated the idea of having to cause her more pain, but he was afraid of what might happen if they needed to get away quickly.
Alice nodded and gently placed the blanket on his lap, her foot on top. Forrest cursed himself for feeling a slight thrill at such an inappropriate time, as her dress was awkwardly pulled up by all of the shifting about, and he caught a glimpse of her stockinged thighs above the knee. He examined the cut. The glass had gone right through her stocking and into the pad of her foot. Then he held her foot carefully in his left hand, resisting a gentle caress, and with his right hand expertly and swiftly pulled the glass from the ball of her foot. She gasped, softly, and tears ran down her cheeks.
"I didn't mean for this to happen t'you," he said, his right hand tightly wrapping the blanket around her bleeding foot, his left hand cranking the window down so he could toss the glass on the ground.
"It's all right!" She insisted, running her bare fingers over the back of his muscled hand. When he was finished, she carefully pulled her foot away from his lap and moved it to the top of the dashboard, elevating it as much as she could, placing the beaver fur capelet over her lap for modesty. It all seemed to have been a lifetime, but they were only sat in the car in the barnyard for two minutes.
Forrest said nothing, just put the car into gear, and followed the others out of the Edmonson's barnyard. They could hear the obnoxious, comical whine of ATU sirens off the in the distance. Once they were moving, and out onto one of the side roads, they both relaxed a bit, and Alice carefully maneuvered her injured foot and turned around to reach into the back seat, Forrest torn between turning to look beside him at her bottom half bent over something and keeping his eyes on the road. The quit it was wrapped in rustled, and soon he heard the click of the bolt on her Remington as she checked to be sure it was properly loaded.
"Whatchu doin'?" Forrest grumbled.
Alice giggled, happy that they were finally on their way back to the station. She carefully balanced the gun behind them, butt on the floor, muzzle up, where she could reach it, if she needed to. Then she moved around again, very carefully, and settled in, tucking her dress and capelet demurely around her. She could feel the blood seeping into the blanket Forrest had wrapped around her foot, but she had hit the glass in such a place that she knew it would ache for a few days and then be fine.
"I don't travel without it in reach now." She said, patting the back of the seat to show that she meant the gun. Then she tried to lighten the mood a bit; she could see the tension drawn tight as a bow in Forrest's big shoulders.
"Relax, bootlegger! This isn't my first raid."
He looked over at her and grunted, his brow furrowed, yet again surprised by his Alice. He grumbled and asked
She shifted a little closer to him, waiting for the heater to kick in to warm the rest of her body.
"In Charlotte, there were plenty of speaks." She explained.
"Most of them were so upscale the owners had puppets in law enforcement on the payroll…but some?" She paused, and thought.
"Well, I'll phrase it this way. Sometimes you have to go downtown to avoid your own parents at the speakeasies uptown. My friends liked adventure. I don't know which was more embarrassing, being yelled at over the phone by Lettie in the middle of a crowded lockup, or my father giving an improvised, impassioned speech about the unconstitutional nature of the Volstead act in the middle of the lobby of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg police department."
Forrest chuckled, picturing Alice hiding her face under some type of giant fur accessory while Johann (a man he could now picture having seen his photograph) pontificated to the sheriffs. He thought about how different her life had been from his, and despite the fact that she seemed to talk about parts of it with whimsy, he loved how she clearly preferred the deep mountain woods to formal supper clubs.
"A few times, he came straight from a speak himself and got me." She giggled again, and looked around, the ghostly silhouettes of the trees augmented by the deep midnight blue of the sky. Silently, wisps of snow began to fall. Lettie had been right again. This certainly was some strange weather they'd had that week.
"Is this a different road?" She asked.
"Back way." He said.
The heat started to flow into the car, and Alice put her hands in front of the blowers. She realized something was missing.
"Shit!" She said. "I forgot my gloves. They're in the barn. I suppose I'll have to come back tomorrow."
"No you didn'." Forrest said. He shifted, with one hand on the wheel, and pulled them out of his cardigan pocket. Alice was speechless, for once, and just held them on her awkwardly placed lap.
Queue Jillian Edwards - "Nonfiction Love Song"
"Thank you." She managed. "How did you…notice?"
"Ain't much about you I don'notice." Forrest said.
Alice turned her upper body and looked at Forrest. But then she couldn't. His strong, handsome profile in her view always made coherent thought more difficult. She looked at her lap, playing with her gloves. There were tiny bits of cardigan fuzz on them, and she smiled to herself, dangerously on the verge of tears. Forrest heard the tremor on her voice when she asked.
"Why?" She was trying desperately not to cry.
"My whole world has been nothing but splintered wood and madness, blood and death….fire, and ash."
"Ain't none o'that 'cause of you." Forrest said.
"But you, Forrest, you're brilliant, and smart, and steadfast, and strong, and powerful"
Alice hoped she didn't sound too breathy and wanton when she said 'powerful' but she couldn't help by say it. It was the truth, after all. She continued before she lost her courage.
"and…..perfect. And I'm just some silly little girl with pretty clothes and a fast car and more bad luck than I can handle. Why would you ever take note of me? Why would you…"
She paused before speaking the next word, fiddling with her gloves and her capelet, because she knew it would hurt her to say it
"….trouble with me?"
Forrest sighed. He didn't like his newfound propensity for what he considered lengthy conversation. But he knew he would never forgive himself for not telling her what he wanted to.
"You belong here." He said. He spoke, very slowly, letting each word count.
"Virginia. This…is your home. Howard n' Jack're my brothers. My blood. But a man can't….sometimes a woman…" Forrest sighed, angry at himself. He narrowed his eyes at the road ahead of him. But he continued. Alice hung on every word, trembling.
"Sometimes you find out somethin's been missin' all your life."
Forrest turned his head and looked at her for a moment, taking his eyes off the road.
"You think I don't, but I see you. You light up everything you git close to. You been a part of this place long before Franklin. But you belong in Franklin. You belong….here." He grumbled. "With me."
Alice wiped at her eyes carefully, her pretty art deco drop earrings bobbing with the movement of her head. Then she smiled inside, the reaction playing on her lips.
"You better not be teasing me, bootlegger."
Forrest shook his head, and grumbled a no.
Alice suddenly wished she hadn't turned on the heat in the car. She suddenly realized that she had, in fact, been almost completely ignorant of what Forrest felt for her until he spelled it out…twice. But perhaps she wasn't to blame. Everyone else had always been so obvious, so grotesque about what they wanted from her, she felt. As much as she reveled in Forrest's gentle subtlety, it took some getting used to. Alice stared out at the road ahead of them, at the red clay illuminated by the headlights on the car that was slowly turning to white as the thick snow began to gather. Then Forrest turned off to the right and the car ambled down a little side road. They stayed on the small road that was almost a cow path, and then merged onto another street. Alice recognized the turnoff to Blackwater Station. They had come from the opposite side.
"You know the roads very well." She said.
"Have to." Forrest replied. He pulled up in front of the station.
"Stay here." He commanded, and Alice didn't object. He came around to her side of the car, and she felt her heart hammering in her chest. She had considered the fact that she wouldn't be able to get up the steps to the station on her own. Alice shuffled around, putting her gloves in the pocket of her beaver fur capelet, draping it around her shoulders, and fastening the clasps. Forrest opened her door, and, dipping low into the car so he wouldn't knock his hat off, he leaned in towards Alice. She could feel tiny hummingbird wings beating in her chest when he put his cheek close enough to her that she could feel his scruff brush against her bare collarbone.
"Hold on, now." He said.
She realized that he expected her to hold onto him while he carried her. She nodded and put her arms up and over his giant shoulders, locking them behind his neck. Then Forrest carefully put his left arm behind her back, and slipped his right arm under her legs, pulling her out of the car and hoisting her up into his arms in one swift motion. She almost swooned. Alice was by no means tiny, and he had lifted her as though she weighed nothing at all. He closed the door to the car carefully with his foot. He mounted the steps to the darkened station, and grunted, remembering he'd told Jack to lock up.
"Awlright, I'm gonna move you."
"Move me?" Alice asked. Before she had a chance to ask him to explain, Forrest had lifted her up to face away from him, gently putting her over his left shoulder, bent at the waist, securing her with his left hand around her thighs. She yelped and laughed despite herself. She bent her knee to keep her foot elevated as he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out the tiny key, unlocking the door.
"Well, this is thoroughly embarrassing." She said.
Forrest said nothing. He was trying to memorize every sensation he was feeling in the moment,the smell of her soap and perfume, the way her soft hair and the feathers of her little fascinator brushed against the sensitive skin by the stitches in his neck with every slight movement. Her giggle. The way her thighs felt under his arms, through the velvet and silk, the incredible softness of the skin on her back as his calloused hand slipped under her capelet so he could hold her. If he hadn't been trying to make sure her wound was being taken care of, he would have had all kinds of different thoughts and intentions in mind.
He flipped on the lights, and stalked through Blackwater Station with Alice on his shoulder as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Alice relished the entire process.
"Okay, lettin' you down now" he said.
He gently placed Alice on one of the stools at the counter, holding her beneath her thighs and against him with his hand on her back, until he was sure she was secure, resting her back against one of the beams. She held onto him until she felt her bottom touch the stool, then she reached out to steady herself on the counter. Forrest moved a second stool over to her, putting her injured foot on it. She smiled up at him, and he thought his heart would burst.
"Awlright. Be right back." He said. He lumbered away, and Alice sat in the soft glow of the station, waiting. She shrugged off her capelet, suddenly feeling very warm. Forrest came back with the entirety of what Blackwater Station possessed with regard to first aid, a great heaping wooden box filled to the brim with different medicinal odds and ends. He placed it on the counter, and sat across from her, lifting her foot off the stool he had placed it on, and bringing it to rest on his lap, where he held it, gently. He unwrapped the throw blanket from around her foot, and used it to protect his lap from the blood that started to drip from the gash. He stared at the cut, carefully scrutinizing it, and Alice cleared her throat.
"I should probably take my stocking off." She said, bashfully.
Forrest nodded, looking at her with big, gentle eyes. Then he stood up, setting her foot down again gently on the blanket, grumbling something about making some coffee.
Alice flushed, and moved her leg down below the counter so she could retain some modesty. Then she carefully reached her hand up her dress and unhooked her stocking from her garters, shimmying it down her leg, until her leg was bare. She examined the ruined bottoms of the stocking, shrugging to herself. She had plenty of other pairs. She tucked the stocking under her leg, and put her foot back on the blanket resting on the stool. Forrest set the coffee to percolate, and turned on the radiator, heating the Station. He filled a small bowl with water and brought it back over to where she was sitting. Then he lifted her foot and put it on his lap again, blanket and all. She waited, patiently, while he examined her foot for more glass. He carefully dipped a cloth in the tepid water and cleaned her foot off so he could make sure there was nothing else in it. He crinkled his face and gave her a funny look.
"Hey!" she protested, laughing. "My feet don't smell!"
He raised his eyebrows, wondering how she got some of the crazy ideas that came into her head. What he had caught was the scent of the white lightening that had soaked her stocking and left her foot reeking of alcohol
"Like whiskey they do."
She laughed again. "Well, at least it's been sterilized."
He shook his head, dabbing a wad of cotton with iodine "Ain't enough."
He watched as Alice gripped the sides of the stool she was sitting on and, despite attempting to retain a brave face, hissed and cringed, gritting her teeth and wincing when he carefully covered the wound with the antiseptic. Then he placed a piece of cotton batting against the wound, and then wound gauze carefully around it, tight enough to staunch the bleeding but also loose enough that she could sleep comfortably in it. When he was satisfied, he affixed it with a safety pin, careful not to poke her with it. Alice watched him in fascination, recalling that he had probably done this for Jack and Howard hundreds of times before. When he looked up, her pretty face was lit by the glow of the lights and she was smiling at him.
"No trouble." He grumbled. "Sorry…'bout Howard."
Alice shook her head. "It was an accident. And it has been resolved." She smiled and wiggled her toes in Forrest's lap.
He gently ran his fingers over the top of her foot above the bandage where it met with the ankle. "Sorry…about the dance."
"Why?" She asked, smiling. "I had a wonderful time."
Forrest nodded, trying not to read too much into what she had said. "You like that horse?"
"Smoke? He's a pistol, but that's what I like. I think he's part Friesian. It could explain why he's so broad. He's near 17 hands, I think. Hard to tell in heels." She smiled, thinking of the big, fussy, midnight black gelding she'd met earlier. Forrest's fingertips ran back and forth across her ankle in a slow, even motion, and she prayed he wouldn't stop.
"How'd you know he's blind?"
"Well, Edmsonson said he was testy. So I approached him carefully. He's got mischief in his overall personality, but that isn't why he's jumpy. I walked around both sides of his head, I could tell he got anxious when I reached a point where he knew I was there but couldn't actually see me. Which means I'll have to get him more used to my smell than I might with others. But he's sweet, once he lets you get close enough to see you're not a threat."
Forrest nodded, and grunted.
Queue The Civil Wars - "Dust to Dust" (I'm repeating this one here because I see it as kind of a reprise, connecting this to suggest a rekindling of what started in the barn where it was first cued.)
"Oh!" Alice said. Forrest looked up at her, waiting for her to elaborate.
She yawned. "Did you try the coffee ice cream yet? I hope it came out okay."
"Coffee?" He asked.
"Yes. I made it yesterday morning by grinding the beans to a fine powder and adding them it to the regular recipe. I put some cocoa in it too. It's in the icebox."
Forrest was up and had placed her foot on the stool before she could even finish her sentence. She could hear the icebox open out back and Forrest's heavy footsteps shuffling around. He had the canister from the ice cream maker she'd made it in, and had found himself a spoon, planting it in the middle of the hardened ice cream like a flag. While he poured coffee for himself (Alice shook her head when he gestured to her), she watched him. He came back to her and she moved her foot so he could sit down, which he promptly placed on his knee while he ate.
"You tryin' to spoil me, woman?" He asked, between bites and sips of coffee.
Alice grinned. "Yes. Definitely." She blushed, and had to look down at her hands, fiddling with the claps on her capelet.
Forrest smiled to himself in between bites, and gestured with the ice cream canister. "You want some?"
"No," Alice said quietly. "I think I'm going to retire to my room, if you don't mind."
"Awlright, I'll take ya up." He said.
"I can hobble those few feet! We have a bannister!" she protested, laughing, but Forrest had already put down his ice cream and had scooped her up in his arms again, careful not to knock her foot against anything as he brought her upstairs. When they reached her room, he jerked his head and grumbled, and she leaned back to flip the switch on the wall, turning on her two small lamps. He looked down at her face for as long as he had courage to, standing in the middle of her room, holding her.
"Um…" she began. "You can put me down on the trunk, if you like." She pointed to the trunk she'd turned into a makeshift bench on the end of her bed.
"Awlright." He said. He carefully placed her on the trunk, steering clear of her foot. He tried not to linger too long with his arms around her, and instead squatted in front of her to check her bandage again. When he looked up, she smiled at him.
"I wanted to thank you, for inviting me to stay here. I love….everything about this place."
Forrest looked up at her. With her hair falling the way it was, in that dress, in this light, Forrest couldn't help himself. He'd been waiting too long. He leaned in to her, putting both of his big rough hands on either sides of her round face, and planted a single, gentle kiss on her soft mouth. His heart thundered in his chest, and he felt a warmth spread through his body, punctuated by the beginning resurgence of the hardness he'd been embarrassed about earlier. Alice's whole body was trembling and tingling. She felt as though she would simply melt into a blissful puddle. When she kissed him back, reaching her hands out to gently grip both sides of his cardigan, letting her tongue slip between his pouty lips, he growled softly and moved his left hand around her waist, gripping her bare back possessively, his right hand still cupping her face. Then they heard a bang downstairs as Cricket and Howard noisily made their way back inside. Forrest grumbled and reluctantly pulled himself away from her, moving for the door before he lost his momentum and inadvertently communicated to her how much he wanted to always be next to her.
"Good Night, Forrest." The very flushed Alice said, softly.
Forrest lingered in the doorway. "G'night, Sweetheart."
He closed the door before he could see her reaction, which was nothing less than a silent fit of celebratory joyful wiggling. Then she heard him calling downstairs to Cricket and Howard
"Y'all better not be eatin' my ice cream now!" to which the muffled replies of both could be heard.
With the comforting sounds of the boys heckling each other below her, Alice slowly started getting ready for bed.
In the morning, after his customary enormous breakfast of waffles (or pancakes) and scrambled eggs, toast with jam, bacon and sausage, and his usual break for coffee on the porch, Forrest went out to check the storage shed where he kept their product. Forrest grumbled and screwed up his face when he heard the sucking sound the mud made when he lifted his boots off the ground. The bit of snow that had fallen the night before had completely melted by the first rays of sun to spread across the sky, and the drive was now a complete muddy mess. Howard had been ordered to scrub the floor of Alice's car until the scent of moonshine no longer lingered, and to put the rest of the shine in the shed, under supervision. They had emptied the stills of more than they had needed to take with them the night before, so they still had some white lightening and finest apple to sell while the current stills were producing more, while they were putting plans in place for the big submarine stills. After a quick count, jotting the figure down in his notebook in pencil, Forrest locked the shed and lumbered back towards the station.
When he came around towards the front, surveying the yard as he walked, he saw her, sitting serenely on the porch, her posture and composure perfect as ever, and he stopped in his tracks. She must have hobbled her way downstairs. She sat on a heavy, thick cushion he thought belonged on a giant veranda somewhere, fitted to the back of a wicker love seat, cushioning the behinds of people intending to sip mint juleps and remark on the particular angle of the sun over the mountains. But she was seated on it, flush against the floor of the Blackwater Station porch, her feet tucked up beside her in little buffalo suede moccasins. She was wearing, of all things, wide legged jeans, similar to the kind he'd seen on cowgirls, but with pretty buttons on both sides as closure. He'd never seen a woman in pants like that, unless they were rodeo riders or farm girls who worked all day long. He figured Alice probably spent her fair share of time in a barn as well, given her keen observations on the gelding the night before. But concerned as she was with comfort, she was as beautiful as ever in her little peach blouse with a bow closure at the neck, and the big cream colored cardigan she was swimming in. She had pulled her hair back away from her eyes, pinning sections of it to the sides of her head. The rest she left down. In her left hand, she held Winesburg, Ohio open in her lap. In her right, she held the mug of hot cider she had just heated on the stove.
Forrest watched as she crossed her right arm across her chest and put the mug on the railing attached to the pole she was leaning against as she sat, never taking her eyes from the page. It was unseasonably warm for Virginia at that time of year. Climbing up to nearly fifty degrees already. Mustering as much indifference as he could, Forrest mounted the stairs beside which she sat, stopping briefly to look down and nod at her when she raised her face to him and smiled. He made a conscious decision to keep walking. He'd had plenty of time to think the night before….about their dance, about the kiss, the soft, gentle way she'd spoken to the horse, the smell of her perfume, the curve of her body, about what she might feel like curled up next to him on his mattress on the floor, and all manner of things that might ensue afterwards. For once, last night, Forrest had allowed his mind to wander. Mostly he thought about how he, he of all people, was completely coming unhinged over a girl, of all things, but there was no reason for anyone else to know that. When he walked into his office, Forrest grumbled audibly. Tucked carefully inside a piece of ledger paper folded a few times was a stack of neat little bills, and on the paper, an itemized list. She hadn't been there a week yet, and already she had billed herself for food consumed, bedroom leased, and car services rendered. He ran his fingertips over the word "Alice" which she had scrawled in pen at the top as part of the phrase "Alice H. Østergaard – Invoice" and he shook his head. She must have based the prices on what they charged for everything at the station for the regular patrons, and she charged herself a considerable amount for the room she was staying in. Forrest muttered a disgruntled slew of complaints, torn between going outside and reprimanding her for giving him too much money, not letting him decide how much she would pay for what, most of all for even thinking he wanted her money, or the alternative, which was remaining inside so he wouldn't just go outside and stare at her and forget what he went out there for. He chose the alternative.
Forrest spent the morning in his office, calling several different distributors to order the materials they would need to make the new stills, spreading the purchases around to different suppliers so as not to attract even more attention than the Bondurants were already attracting with their notoriety. He went back and forth several times between his office and the front counter where Maggie was working, refilling his coffee mug each time. He observed the comings and goings of the patrons, seeking gasoline, or moonshine, a bite to eat, or any combination thereof. Each time he made the trip out front, he stole a glance in Alice's direction through the screen doors. She hadn't seemed to have moved since the morning, but now a steady rain was falling. The overhang of the porch roof was far enough beyond the porch to offer protection from the rain, so she wouldn't have to worry about getting damp, but Forrest couldn't help being concerned about her. Around eleven in the morning, when most of the patrons had gone, Forrest heard the soft, uneven pitter-patter of Alice's delicate little moccasins on the wooden floorboards. He could tell she was moving slowly and with some difficulty, and he stopped shuffling papers for a moment so he could hear if she was having trouble. But she seemed to make it up the stairs okay.
With a heavy sigh, Alice started packing her things. She had only just arrived at Blackwater Station, but she had promised Lettie that the two would make the journey to her brother's house on Lake Tillery in North Carolina, and spend Christmas there with him. Lettie's brother and sister no longer spoke, for reasons neither could exactly remember. Lettie spent most of her time with her sister Maybelle, but since Maybelle had her children and husband's family in eastern Virginia, and Lettie rarely got to see Ezra, who would be alone on Christmas, they made plans to go and visit with him. Ezra, who Alice had called Uncle Ezra all her life, had a beautiful mid size farmhouse right beside the lake, and ordinarily Alice would be delighted to be going there, but she was apprehensive about leaving Blackwater Station. She would miss the boys and Maggie. She dressed, slowly, in a traveling suit, complete with a dress and matching coat, after she'd packed plenty of clothes in a traveling trunk. With her bandaged foot stuffed into a stocking and then into a pair of kitten heels, Alice slowly thumped down the stairs, balancing the trunk on the steps above and scooting it down step by step. Jack, who was on his way upstairs, cast a puzzled glance in her direction.
"Where ya goin?"
Alice smiled. "Lettie and I will be spending Christmas in North Carolina. I'll be back after the new year."
Jack nodded. "You want some help with that?" He asked, gesturing to the trunk.
"Please," Alice said, relieved.
Alice made her way slowly downstairs, leaning on the railing as she tried her best not to apply too much pressure to her wound and the dull throb that had come to characterize it. When he heard the commotion, Forrest left his office, and met Alice at the bottom of the stairs as Jack scampered outside with her trunk. When she looked up at him, the look on his face was one of confusion and hurt, and Alice almost couldn't abide it.
"Where you goin'?" he asked, his brow knitted together. His expression was almost angry.
Alice leaned against the wall, taking weight off her foot, standing to talk with Forrest, dressed impeccably in one of her light blue traveling suits, yet suddenly feeling terribly self-conscious now that he had appeared. She hoped that her departure wouldn't discourage him from pursuing…whatever it was he had intended to pursue with her. Her deepest fear was that leaving for a few days would break the spell.
"I made plans with Lettie this summer, for the both of us to spend Christmas with her brother in North Carolina." The expression on her face was almost apologetic, and her eyes searched his for indication that her leaving was all right.
Forrest grunted and nodded, grumbling and muttering to himself as he made his way back into the office. He didn't like the idea of her leaving, but he reprimanded himself because he believed it was for entirely selfish reasons that he didn't want her to go. He knew that Alice considered Lettie her family, and that she would be safe with the older woman and her brother. More than anything, he wanted her to be safe. And happy. He hung back inside his office, close to the door, his hands in his cardigan pockets, listening to see what she would say to Maggie.
"Bye, Maggie!" Alice called to the other girl as she went to pour coffee for a man seated with his friends.
"Have fun!" Maggie said. "Tell Lettie I said hi. I feel like I know her from all you tell me."
Alice smiled. "I surely will. I'm going to miss y'all." She said.
She raised her voice loud enough to Forrest could hear in his office "I'll be back on the 7th."
Alice and Maggie stood together for a moment, waiting to see if Forrest would come out to say a formal goodbye. Alice wasn't waiting for Howard; he had left that morning to start clearing out the old lean-to storage shed that they were going to use to house the new stills. Jack returned, asking Alice if she was heading off.
"Yes." She said, quietly.
She realized Forrest wasn't going to come out. She hobbled out of the station, on Jack's arm, and the two made their way through the mud to the Pierce Arrow. She stepped onto the running board, and Jack stepped back so she could close the door. She pressed the levers, and the car roared to life. She noticed the worried look on Jack's face.
"I will be back on the 7th of January. Not so very long." She said.
Jack shrugged, kicking at a rock stuck in a clod of mud in the drive. "S'more'n two weeks."
Alice sighed. "I know. Take care of grumpy, would you?"
Jack beamed. "I will."
Queue (Mississippi) Fred McDowell - "Highway 61"
Alice waited as long as she dared before pulling out of Blackwater Station. She didn't see Forrest, who had slammed his fest on his desk so hard Maggie had jumped behind the counter and almost spilled coffee all over herself. He stalked upstairs, saying not a word to anyone. Then he stood in his bedroom, staring out the window at the pretty blue car sitting warming up in the driveway, a soft, pained look on his face. Alice couldn't see him. She had been staring at the doorway hoping his big hulking shape would appear in it. Then suddenly, she was embarrassed, and wanted only to be on her way. Forrest watched her wave, and took it to be Jack she was waving to downstairs. Then she pulled out of the station at quite a clip, the car fishtailing slightly, flinging mud in her wake as it flailed off her tires. Jack exhaled. That was an angry acceleration if there ever was one. She sped all the way to the train station, where she collected Lettie, and the two made their drive south. She tried not to feel hurt, or slighted. She tried not to wonder how much would change in the time she would be gone.
Maggie was steering clear of Forrest. She knew she never had to fear him, that wasn't the issue. He was simply the most cantankerous she had ever seen him. He snapped at his brothers, he lost patience with himself, and he spent most of his time brooding in his office. Jack and Howard were glad to be off hiding in the woods forming the new stills. Cricket scuttled around, just trying to steer clear of Forrest when he wasn't helping Jack and Howard. He tried to distract himself as best he could. Business and work, business and work. Over and over again. And in between, when he was the only one around, he'd linger in the doorway of her bedroom, and remind himself that she was coming back. He also reminded himself that she had gone somewhere that made her happy, to see people who made her happy, and he decided that perhaps he was being altogether too melancholy. But as he lay awake at night waiting for sleep, he tried to imagine what the place was like she'd gone to, whether she was happy, and what she might be doing just then.
Then a letter came from her, a week into her stay.
Dear Boys & Maggie,
Merry Christmas! I write to you on the eve of New Year's Eve from Lake Tillery. It's about as cold here as it is in Franklin County, but it hasn't stopped me from dipping my feet in the lake every night before bed. Lettie says I'm mad for doing this, but Uncle Ezra is all right with it, and it's his house, so I suppose it's fine. He has a dog I've fallen in love with, a yellow colored Labrador retriever whose love affair with a particular rubber ball rivals those I've read about in novels. It's nice just to get to sit for a bit. And eat. Lettie and Ezra are both wonderful cooks, and love having extra hands, so I'm learning quite a lot. I didn't bring any books with me, because Ezra has a fantastic library, so I've been reading as many books as I possibly can while I'm here and have the opportunity to experience the vast selection. Though I'm enjoying North Carolina very much, I do look forward to seeing all of you very soon.
Forrest had pretended not to be interested in the letter, letting Jack read it aloud to everyone while he hung back, listening. He admitted to himself that he had been concerned that she'd been talked out of living with them and was writing to ask them to send her things. So when Jack casually left the letter unattended out back for Forrest to find, he picked it up and folded it gently, holding it between his fingertips as he made his way up the stairs. Forrest went to the nightstand by his mattress and looked in the drawer for a key he wanted to unlock a drawer in his desk. But before anything else, he gently rubbed the heavy, expensive paper between his fingertips again, tucking it gently into it's envelope and placing it in the drawer.
Alice sat with Lettie and Ezra at the kitchen table as the three sipped hot chocolate that Lettie had made for them, Alice staring into space out the window. Raindrops thrown against the house by the wind trickled down the glass, slow in comparison to the steady pour going on beyond the porch.
"She ain't with us," Ezra said to Lettie.
"Mmm, I 'spect not. Her mind on that boy." Lettie shook her head and wrapped her shawl more carefully around her.
"Hmm?" Alice asked, coming back to the conversation, and her two older companions smiled at each other. "I'm sorry, I was just….thinking."
"Mmmm-Hmmm" Lettie said, hiding her smile behind her mug.
"What?" Alice asked, her face darting back and forth between the two. "Tell me!"
"Ever since you got here all you been talking about been 'Mr. Forrest Bondurant'" Ezra chuckled, grinning at her.
"You in deep, honey child." Lettie said.
"What?!" Alice asked again, even less convincingly this time.
"Ain't never seen you moon over anything in your life the way you moonin' over him now."
Alice flushed. "Would that be so bad?" She asked.
Lettie smiled, "No, I 'spect it'd be about time."
Alice was sitting by the window, taking a break from her book, looking out at the rain on the lake through the watery pane, when Lettie came by and touched her hand gently.
"You know, I may stay on a few more weeks. If you so worried about gettin' back, get back."
Alice leaned over to rest her head on Lettie's shoulder, like she always had, and for a moment felt complete peace as the woman who was her mother in everything but name stroked her hair gently.
"You know you come see me any time. Whenever you like. Maybe it's time you be getting' on to Franklin County. Just know Ezra and I won't be offended…if that is what you decide."
Queue Ariela Jacobs - "The Sound"
She winked at Alice and started to head upstairs. And that was how Alice ended up racing through the back roads of North Carolina. She had hugged and kissed Ezra and Lettie before they went to bed, and then spent the rest of the time packing her things back up. She drove comfortably in her black velvet ballet flats on the winding roads through the mountains, only realizing at Stokesdale what she would be arriving at Blackwater Station wearing. She had on her wide legged jeans, a large buffalo plaid flannel shirt tucked in, like the ones the loggers had worn, and her big, bulky cream colored cardigan. Lettie had dutch braided her hair around her head in a big crown, and strands had come loose here and there around her forehead and ears. She felt rather scrappy, but she hoped she could just sneak back up to bed and leave her trunk in the car for the morning so she wouldn't wake anyone hauling it upstairs. When she finally pulled into the drive at Blackwater Station she slowed the car as much as possible, trying to operate the engine as quietly as she could and not stall out.
Forrest was awake. He'd had trouble sleeping the past few nights. At the very moment when he heard the sound of the Pierce Arrow's engine, he knew what it was. He stopped playing with the ribbon he had picked up after Alice had washed up in the bathroom that day. He sometimes drew it through his thick fingers before he went to sleep, as a way to relax himself, but it wasn't needed for that now. No one else seemed to have heard the car, but Forrest was up and dressing. He wanted to be downstairs when she got there. Normally, he'd be self-conscious, but he thought nothing of going downstairs with his shirt only half buttoned, and his undershirt visible underneath. At least he'd had time to get his belt and his boots on before he reached the front door. He opened the door to Blackwater Station with a creak, walking outside while lighting a cigar he'd grabbed off his dresser. She was climbing out onto the running board and hopping onto the ground. He puffed twice on the cigar once it was lit. The moonlight lit up the yard of the station, and Alice could see the silhouette of Forrest standing there on the porch. His outline. His shadow. He could see her plainly. She looked beautiful in her fine clothes, he thought, but dressing the way she did when she was comfortable made her look like some sort of adorable, strange little creature from the trees. He liked informal Alice as much as formal Alice, he decided. But he'd known that would be true. She stood, wringing her hands, hidden inside her sweater sleeves. Forrest found he liked her hair this way, too. But he preferred not to let her catch on.
"You comin' back late." He grumbled. "Everythin' awlright?"
Alice shook her head.
Forrest stepped down towards her, his eyes focused on her, his manner alert.
"'smatter?" he asked.
Alice stood with her arms crossed defiantly, and however assertive her pose was, it was paired with a look that suggested she knew how strange what she was about to say might sound, and was uncertain how it would be taken, feeling the need to say it nevertheless.
"You didn't say goodbye."
In the dark, he sat down on the steps, and motioned for her to sit next to him, rather crudely, by pointing to the step beside him, but she didn't mind. It was definitely a command. She sat down, resting her elbows on her thighs and crossing her arms over them.
"I didn' know you were leavin'" He said. "Thought maybe you were….unhappy. Here."
She took his hands in hers, putting her hands out and waiting for him to take them instead of just grabbing him. She had seen people accustomed to violence react badly when grabbed unexpectedly. He put the cigar in his mouth, willing himself not to shiver when she started running her bare fingertips over his scabbed knuckles. He'd been fighting someone, well several people, while she'd been gone. Just as he knew she knew what he had been doing, he knew she wouldn't say anything to him about it. She understood his life. The way it had to be. He was grateful to her for that.
"No. I'm very happy here." She said. "In fact, I got sent back."
Forrest looked over at her, scrunching his pouty lips together and knitting his brow.
"Lettie will be staying with her brother for the next few weeks, and I was told to be on my way because they were tired of watching me pining away for some grouchy bootlegger."
She giggled, and squeezed his fingers. Forrest felt a tremendously crippling feeling, like a cramp in his heart.
"What I mean to say is….they could tell I was anxious to come back." He took one of his hands back so he could take his cigar out of his mouth for a moment, and Alice patted her lap once firmly.
"Well, time for bed, I suppose." She said. "It's after 1 o'clock."
"Yea, awlright." He said.
Alice stood up and went to the doorway.
"It feels different." She said. "All my life I've been going from house to house….our homes, logging camps, and other places, but never for very long at a time. I've always been going somewhere else. But I realized halfway through North Carolina that I-that you were right about Franklin County and I. Maybe we do get along. Anyway, It's nice to be back here. Now."
Forrest sat as still as he possibly could, apart from playing with the key to the station he kept on a little white string, and ashing his cigar. He didn't know how to tell her how cautiously happy she was making him. He couldn't even begin to try yet. Alice sighed. Patience, he'd said.
"Well, Goodnight, Forrest." She said, hurrying through the station and up the stairs as quietly as she could. He did grumble
"G'night" at her, but she was gone before he had a chance to turn around and see her go.
Forrest awoke early as usual the next morning, but instead of laying in bed for the customary few minutes he usually spent reflecting to himself on the day ahead, he got up straight away. As he walked past Alice's closed door, he listened carefully for any sound of her phonograph playing softly within, but there was none. Then he recalled how tired she must have been from driving the night before and moseyed downstairs to hunt down some coffee and wait for Cricket out back to make his breakfast. Cricket, who opened with Maggie some mornings, knew to begin making Forrest's breakfast as soon as he heard him start lumbering downstairs. He shuffled around, getting supplies out of the back pantry and generally hoping to avoid encountering Forrest. Pouring his cup of coffee himself while Maggie set tables, Forrest startled and bumped into Cricket who trembled visibly when he thought he was about to be reprimanded.
Instead all he got was a "Mornin', Cricket." Then Forrest headed out to the porch.
Cricket turned to Maggie and looked at her, his hands spread apart and his mouth open in bewilderment. Maggie smiled, and brushed her hair out of her face, checking to be sure Forrest was out of earshot before she looked over at Cricket, arranging flatware on the table.
"You didn't see her car out front this morning?" Maggie asked. Maggie hadn't either, but Howard had seen Alice's light on when he had gotten up in the middle of the night, so she knew Alice was back.
Cricket shook his head, he hadn't seen the car out front. He wouldn't have. Forrest had taken Alice's keys from the secret spot where she sometimes kept them concealed underneath her extra tire, and moved it inside one of the servicing bays overnight, coasting it in neutral so she wouldn't hear anything. He sipped his coffee, looking out at the yard, his heart hammering in his chest as he thought about the plan that he was putting into action that morning. He hoped he'd still be able to surprise her. She wasn't supposed to have come back for another few days, but he figured today was as good a day as any. He had talked with Howard about his plan, and he thought his brother had been rather excited about it, which surprised him. He had helped him figure out what they should order and what was necessary, Howard being a bit better at the particulars in that department. He'd need Jack's help before they could set up a time to do what they intended to. Forrest went inside, collecting his energy to go and rouse Jack, and make his phone call. Then, breakfast.
Queue Composer Thomas Newman- "The Vast Continent"
Around ten in the morning, Alice had roused herself from bed, brushed out her dutch braid crown and pinned it in a fashionable braid at the back of her head, leaving the waves against her scalp in the front like the girls in the fashion plates her friends had cared about. Then she had stepped into a pretty light blue button up crepe de chine dress with puffy sleeves and a pretty, several layered silk skirt that went down to her calves. She put on her stockings, but left off her shoes, choosing a pair of pink silk fur lined slippers to shuffle around her room in. She was going to take Forrest up on his offer to put holes in the walls. Spending time with Lettie had inspired her to take out all of the photographs that she had mounted from home. She had reminded Alice that being reminded wasn't so bad after all. Her scrapbooks and photo books, stacked in the trunk, had hundreds upon hundreds of photos inside them, but she had plenty of framed ones as well. Photos from various logging camps, of the trains that brought supplies in and lumber out, the small, picturesque towns, the booms, the skiffs, the sawmills, the rivers flush with fresh cut timber, photos of her father and his business partners, photos from Williamsburg, from Lynchburg, where her father often did business, of Alice at different ages, Alice with horses, Alice with her beloved dogs, Alice with camp staff, Alice in the woods, Alice with Lettie, Alice with Johann, Alice with both, the camp staff portraits, photos of her father in the cutting swathes, atop logs, in the sawmill, surveying a site, his sleeves rolled up, a farmer's hat on his head. She left the photos from Charlotte in the trunk.
The steady, even, 'tap tap tap' of the nails going into the wall satisfied Alice, as she hung each photo on the wall. She laughed when she hung up a particular one, a photo of herself at nine, standing underneath the jagged upside down V created by the shape of the still rooted trunk and the toppled cracked remainder of a black walnut tree that had been struck by lightening. She was grinning and staring up at the crack in the tree looking surprised, while a group of foreman stood behind the tree, to show how massive the giant arbor had once been. The caption, in white in the photographer's elegant hand was "Black Walnut Lightening Strike, Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, 1916." She heard shouting, and a truck outside, Jack being yelled at as usual and his accompanying protests, and a few loud, muffled bangs. She figured they were conducting business with someone, or having some sort of delivery made for the restaurant portion of the station.
Maggie was pacing downstairs nervously, smoking a cigarette and sighing occasionally. She'd received specific instructions from Forrest neither to move nor to allow Alice outside until he came to get her.
Maggie had given him a look and threw up her hands as if to suggest "as if any of us could stop her if she made up her mind to go outside," but only said "I'll try."
She didn't know how long these things typically took, so she was biding her time, trying not to worry that every shuffle above was Alice coming downstairs. She finally exhaled when Forrest walked through the station. He'd shrugged off his cardigan and his hat despite the cold, in order to help his guests and his brothers with their task, and held them in his hands now, setting them down in his office so he could collect himself before going upstairs to talk to Alice. He stepped out into the station, and scooted behind Maggie, going to wash the dust and dirt off his hands before going upstairs. Drying his hands on a towel he looked at Maggie and nodded.
"Everything okay then?" she asked.
He nodded. "Eyeah."
Jack and Cricket were still outside with Howard, curious to see what would happen next. Forrest carefully mounted the stairs, one step at a time, and strode along the corridor until he reached Alice's bedroom. He watched her for a moment, the way her delicate little ankles rose straight up out of her slippers when she stood up on the balls of her feet to hang a photograph. He couldn't contain his excitement any longer. Or his anxiety. Forrest Bondurant realized, startling himself, that he was anxious for the first time in as long as he could remember. He cleared his throat, and took up most of the doorway. Alice whirled around, her face lighting up as soon as she caught sight of Forrest.
"Forrest!" she said, happily. Then she came to her senses and tried to contain her excitement. "Hello," she said, more demurely. "Thank you for the nails, as you can see I've made use of them."
He grunted in assent and then cleared his throat, watching her profile and the way flyaway wisps of reddish curls floated around her face as she crouched to look at the stack of photos next to her. She stopped, and turned around, looking up at him from her low place on the ground, and he stepped into her bedroom, emboldened, and crossed over to her. Something about the sweet, worshipful, submissive look she gave him as she looked up made him feel a fluttering ripple in his stomach he had only become familiar with since Alice, and somehow he knew she'd always be able to do this to him. He offered his hands, and she took them, allowing herself to be helped to her feet. Her eyelashes fluttered and she flushed a bit when she realized how close together they were.
"Uhmmm," Forrest began.
Alice waited. Patience.
"You got a visitor." He said.
"All right." Alice said. She didn't question it. She assumed it was probably someone from downtown, delivering leftover mail from when her address was changed at the hotel, or someone with concerns about her uncle's property. She certainly didn't expect what Forrest had in mind for her.
She carefully stepped out of her slippers, pushing them off to the side quickly in her stocking feet, still shy even after their intimate encounter when he dressed the wound on her foot. She flitted over to her bed, and pulled a pair of pumps out from underneath it with her foot, stepping into them one by one. Then she picked up a camel colored cashmere cardigan off her bed and put it on, leaving it unbuttoned. Forrest watched this entire exchange with fascination, completely unused to watching something so beautiful creating something so fascinating out of so mundane a task. He moved his hand to gesture that she should leave the room first, and he followed her downstairs and into the open air of the restaurant. Alice looked around, looking a bit confused. Forrest stalked steadily past her as she paused to try to recognize one of the diners as her guest, and opened the door out onto the porch, gesturing for her to follow.
Forrest walked quickly. Alice had probably noticed that before, but she certainly had noticed it now. He seemed…almost nervous. He led her up the hill towards the barn, and she looked around, puzzled. Jack and Howard were sitting on crates outside the barn, passing a jar of shine back and forth. Cricket was leaning against the fence of the paddock beside the barn. The paddock that was usually empty….
Forrest turned to watch Alice when they had gotten close enough to the barn and he had stopped, and she then automatically did the same. He watched, breathless, as her pretty mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide and an enormous grin, which she covered with her hands as she giggled with delight, spread across her face. A loud, friendly nicker was Alice's greeting from Smoke, who stood on four giant hooves, large and imposing, a few yards from where Cricket stood, on the opposite side of the fence.
"He knows you," Forrest grumbled softly, happy things were going better than he expected. "He's gon' be visitin' you here for a while."
Alice was still staring at smoke, who was approaching Cricket at the fence for the tenth time, but thus far had shied away before allowing himself to be touched.
"How? Why?" was all she could manage to say, stepping closer to Forrest, and tugging gently on the hem of his cardigan sleeve.
"Edmonson's are customers. I approached him for a trade. Try him, see how he goes. If you're still happy, we make him yours."
They walked together, slowly, to the paddock fence, Cricket moving down so Alice could admire Smoke. Forrest stood beside her as she stopped and waited, resting her arms across each other over the fence, making soothing clucking sounds at the big gelding. She watched him as he moved to where Howard had left him a few flakes of hay, pulling free a clump and chomping on it. Alice turned to Forrest. The other three were watching the new horse, but were far enough removed so she could speak privately.
"Forrest…" she said, quietly, looking over at him as the wind whipped at the loose curls around her face. "This is the most wonderful thing….thank you….Ooh!" she shrieked.
Smoke shied and made a blowing sound in protest. She looked at him. "We'll work on that later." She liked sound animals. Balking wouldn't do. She had suddenly remembered the dozens of boxes in her car. And her car. She looked around the yard.
"Wheres my car?" she asked.
Forrest pointed to the service garage.
She smiled secretively, and leaned in, her body pressing slightly against his, leaving goose bumps spreading all throughout his body. Forrest stood stone still, his hands stuffed in his cardigan pockets and his face expressionless as she placed her little fingers over his shoulder, gently got closer, and pulled herself up to his ear, whispering.
"Mr. Bondurant, you're spoilin' me. I'm not accustomed to accepting gifts from gentlemen, but I'm not afraid of what this comes attached to." She paused and giggled seductively. "You be careful now or you'll have a girl thinkin' you want her to stay."
Her accent was pure Virginia now, very little of the snooty society accent she'd learned remained. He noticed she dropped her 'g' sometimes now, only when she spoke to him, a cute flirtatious element in her more relaxed tone. As attracted to her as he was, he was terrified of her. She did things to him he didn't understand, and completely disarmed him when he wasn't expecting it.
She pulled away just as quickly as she'd moved in, enlisting Jack and Cricket for help.
"Boys?" She asked, and they perked up. "I seem to have forgotten in all this excitement that I have Christmas presents in my car. Would you both be willing to help me bring them inside?"
Both boys leapt at the chance, and they had started to hustle down the hill to the garage when she turned to follow.
"Y'all make sure you come back in the station for presents, now." She called over her shoulder to Howard and Forrest. Then she looked right at Forrest and smiled mischievously.
"We'll talk about how wonderful you are later."
She walked swiftly down the hill, pulling her sweater close to shield her from the chill. But she still heard the steady thuds that were Howard's teasing punches against his younger brother's sides, and the hollow smack that was Forrest's retort, followed by Howard's cursing and protests. Alice giggled, her heart swelled with love and excitement, and she hurried to help Jack and Cricket.
Forrest grumbled at Howard, who had yelped in protest when his younger brother had slapped him, not a truly aggressive act, simply an attempt to get him to desist, but strong enough to smart. Truthfully, Howard had made a scene because he found it tremendously funny that Forrest was taking the teasing he was giving him so seriously. Howard had watched with fascination the entire courtship ritual his brother seemed to be going through with Alice. There was something strangely old fashioned about the whole thing, he thought. He had believed the Victorian period was over. He couldn't remember ever having to buy a girl a horse to get her to bed with him. But then, of course, that wasn't what Forrest was interested in, he thought. He looked over at his brother. Howard had long ago figured out that women knew that men knew how to look at them without appearing as though they were looking at them, and he was going to share that information with his brother, but he decided he didn't want to get slapped again. So he stood quietly, rubbing his cheek and scowling.
Queue The Wailin' Jennys - "Bird Song"
Forrest watched Alice carefully pick her way back to the station, choosing the path where the clay was hardest. She gradually turned to head towards where Jack and Cricket were running back and forth from the garage to the station, attempting to beat Alice to the car so she wouldn't get the chance to carry anything herself. He watched as she pulled her sweater in close around her, admiring her perfect posture, and the delicate curve in the seams of her stockings as they made her way from her ankles up towards the backs of her knees. Where he'd often pictured his hands, holding her gently as he pulled her to him across a bed. Their bed. He'd pictured it a thousand times but he had no idea what it looked like. Just a space bordered by shadows inside his mind upon which the majority of his fantasies occurred. His sweet Alice. Who he'd never been prepared for.
His life had passed in front of him much in the way he'd thought it would. Run the station; take care of the boys, save a little money. Every year. And nothing to inspire him to do otherwise. He'd always thought, abstractly, that he would like to have a wife, and a family, like he and the boys had growing up here in Franklin County. But years had passed, he'd been so far removed from everything around him, and with his interests in the women he had met never progressing beyond brief silent admiration, he had assumed that the married life simply wasn't in the cards for him. He had thought that time for him had passed. And then she had come out of nowhere like a little tornado and stirred up everything within him and everything around them. And settled into the land like a gentle, mysterious fog on a warm fall evening, rolling in gradually and then enveloping everything, all of a sudden. He watched her talk with Jack and Cricket, the boys' arms filled with packages, and the three walked around the front of the station.
When Forrest and Howard reached the station, moving efficiently across the yard like a pair of wolves prowling their pack's territory, they found Maggie, Cricket, Jack and Alice all together at one of the tables closest to Forrest's office, the entire table heaping with packages of different sizes in different types of wrapping and presentation. Alice herself sat at a chair in the center of all of them, Blackwater Station's unspoken queen. As there were no customers for the moment, Forrest couldn't find a reason to protest having to sit and allow himself and his brothers to be doted upon. So he took a chair and sat, chewing on a toothpick he had found in his pocket. Alice jumped up quite suddenly as Howard was pulling his chair around to face the rest of the group.
"Oh! I have one more thing." She said. She put up each of her index fingers as if to plead with them to wait. "I will be right back."
She stampeded up the stairs to her bedroom. Searching amongst all of her trunks, most of which were stacked along the walls, she found one of the ones she'd kept some of her father's most precious possessions in when she packed up their house in Charlotte. Fumbling with the locks, she shuffled through the trunk and found what she was looking for, picking up the item in question, which was carefully wrapped in a blood orange silk scarf. As an afterthought, she opened the trunk at the end of the bed as she was headed out of her room, finding the correct photo album to correspond with what she was bringing downstairs. She hurried down the stairs, her little heels clicking on the steps. Then she retuned to her seat, huffing and puffing, the item still concealed in it's scarf. She held both the scarf and the photo album protectively in her lap.
"Okay," She said, grinning. "Who wants to go first?" She asked.
"Cricket and I need to talk separately about his gift, so someone else." Cricket and Jack looked at each other, puzzled. Forrest watched Alice, noticing how happy she looked, puzzled by what she could possibly be giving their young friend that she'd have to be so secretive about.
"How 'bout Maggie," Howard said. Alice grinned again. Maggie blushed and touched Howard's thigh gently.
"Okay," Alice said. She looked around at the different boxes, which, though unmarked, she seemed to know by shape and appearance to whom they should be given. She picked up one big box, carefully handing it to Maggie, who took it onto her lap with a careful smile on her lips. Alice pulled another box from the other side of the table and placed that one on top. Eagerly, Maggie tore open the first box, revealing a beautiful mink muff, dyed black, with a light pink silk lining. Maggie almost squealed.
"Oh Alice, it's beautiful!" She said, slipping her hands through both sides.
"Open the rest," Alice said, tapping the box eagerly. Maggie put her muff on the table and opened the second box, revealing a matching black mink stole with the same silken liking. The letters MB were embroidered into the lining near a small pocket in red stitching. Maggie lifted it into the air, her jaw dropping open.
"I-" She started. "I love it." She said nothing else for a few moments, running her hands over the fur, gathering it up and rubbing it gently against her cheek. Then she hopped up, knocking the empty box onto the floor, tissue flying everywhere. She hugged Alice, a big, warm embrace that the other girl gladly returned.
"Thank you so much." She said quietly. She draped the stole over her shoulders as she sat down, and placed the muff in her lap, petting it as she admired the fur.
"It's my pleasure. Okay, Jack and Cricket now," Alice said.
She took two small boxes from the table and handed one to each of them after checking for her small pencil marks underneath.
"Don't get angry at me." She said. "I was sneaky. But Jack, open this first."
She handed him another small box, which he carefully opened, standing up instead of staying seated. Inside, a beautiful gold cigarette case with gilt engraving in lovely patterns, and in the center, where an empty space had been intentionally left, the letters "JB" engraved in big, scrolling letters. Jack looked at it with his brow furrowed, not saying a word, running his fingers over the letters. Perhaps it was because it was now his that he thought so, but looking at the case, be thought he had never seen anything so fine.
"I noticed how fancy you've been dressing lately," She said. "I thought this would go nicely." She smiled.
"It's wonderful," he breathed. He looked up at Alice, and a smile broke across his face. "Really, it's beautiful, thank you."
Alice smiled at him. "You're welcome. Okay, now open your joint gifts!"
Alice was excited. She always liked buying and giving gifts for others more than she did for herself.
Jack and Cricket glanced at each other and quickly tore apart the string and paper wrapping the on the boxes, opening them very carefully.
Jack thought he might cry right there in the middle of the station. Cricket was grinning like a fool. Inside were the Tommy Gun shells Jack had picked up off the road after Floyd Banner had shot up the ATU car in Rocky Mount a few months before. They had been dipped in white gold, a white gold chain attached to each though a tiny ring soldered to the top of the shells to hold it. Each one had engraved on the back of the bullet a "J" and a "C" respectively, identifying which one belonged to which boy.
"Jeepers, Jack, just like we said!" Cricket cried. He was examining his shell from all directions, carefully manipulating the clasp so he could fasten it around his neck. Jack had already put his on and was twirling it around in his fingers.
Alice laughed "You kept saying you were going to put a string through them, I just put the pieces together."
"This is aces!" Cricket said. "Thanks, Alice."
"You're welcome," she said. Jack just looked at her and nodded knowingly, thinking to himself how happy he was that she'd gotten lost that day late in August. It wasn't that what she had given them was expensive and nice. That was appreciated, but what he appreciated more was how she had taken the time and thought of them, doing something so nice and creative for he and his friend.
"Okay, Howard," Alice said. Jack and Cricket chattered to each other, looking at their new charms. Forrest was watching Alice, sitting back in his chair fiddling with a knife he had on him. He was nervous. He didn't like receiving gifts just like his older brother. Alice pulled a big box from the table and handed Howard that one first. It was elongated, a strange shape. When he opened the box, he was smiling.
"Oh, thank you!" He said, bashfully. Howard wasn't so great at receiving presents, he was always nervous and didn't know what to say, feeling awkward, and often, undeserving, but he was certainly appreciative. Inside the box was a beautiful deep hunter green barn coat. He had ruined his a month ago when he singed it on one of the still coils, but couldn't be bothered to replace it. He lifted it out of the box. It was quite handsome, he thought. He looked in the bottom, and was puzzled. There was a big fluffy item in the box.
"Oh!" Alice said. "That's for when it's colder. It's shearling, it's a lining that buttons inside to keep you warmer." She smiled. Howard smiled over at her, genuine appreciation on his face.
"Thank you!" he said. He carefully opened the second box, grinning when he saw what was inside. A fine flask, with HB discreetly engraved on it. He smiled, admiring the white gold that covered it. The cap was attached with a small hinge, so it would never be lost.
"This is keen!" He said. "Thanks, doll."
Alice smiled and nodded at him. Forrest grumbled, not exactly happy that his brother's drinking had been encouraged, or that someone else was using pet names with Alice so freely, but appreciative of the gesture towards his brother nonetheless.
"Okay. Now Forrest," Alice said, smiling at him. She pushed the remaining boxes towards him, one long, big one, and two smaller ones. When he opened the big box, he actually smiled. As far as Forrest could openly smile. Inside, laying one over another, were three beautiful new cardigans, just like the ones he always wore around the station. Just like the ones, he now admitted, had holes and fraying around the hems, and coffee stains.
"You wear so many of them," Alice started. "I thought a few more couldn't hurt." Forrest was quiet, admiring the different colors. Each was made of a lovely woolen and cashmere blend. One was a light heather grey, the other a deep charcoal grey, and the third a handsome hunter green like his brother's coat. He grumbled his thanks at Alice, appreciative, but just as uneasy as his older brother with gifts. The second and third boxes he opened carefully with his big, thick hands, the first containing a very smart and handsome gilt engraved cigar cutter, white gold with a sliding razor. His initials were on the back, quite small on such a tiny item, but still visible. He grumbled again, another thank you. Forrest hated opening gifts. He never knew what to say, never seemed to express himself as fully as he wanted to. He reached for the third box and untied the wrapping, finding inside a beautiful rectangular cigar case, engraved similarly with a gilt pattern inlayed in the white gold. The front had "FB" engraved in it on the front in empty oval of shiny metal space left for that purpose.
"Open it," Alice said, quietly. Forrest, still overwhelmed by his first gifts, pushed the clasp and it opened. He noticed immediately what Alice must have been directing him to. Inside the beautiful case, in the top of the lid, was a small engraved message
"To Forrest on Christmas (1931)
With Love, Alice"
Forrest looked up at her with his big, conifer colored eyes, his features soft, his pouty lips gently parted, not speaking. He wasn't sure what to say. His heart felt swollen and achy and uncomfortable in his chest. He grumbled again, a flush coming to his cheeks, and he looked up at her again, helplessly. She smiled; she could tell he wasn't sure what to say, but that he was happy.
"You're welcome," was all she said.
"Well, there is just one more thing, besides Cricket's gift, which we will discuss," she made eye contact with Cricket so he knew she hadn't forgotten him. She carefully handled the red silk pile on her lap.
"It's not a Christmas gift, but…." She paused, turning her attention and her body towards Howard. "it's something I want you to have. You took great risk helping me with my little gift to Rakes, and…" she stopped speaking again. "Well, my father used to give rewards for dead snakes because they were dangerous to camp, and used to bite workers. This is…was a monster that was so big he had this made…."
She handed Howard the whole heavy bundle of silk, and he gingerly opened it. Inside, he found the most attractive belt he had ever seen. Made from the hide of a timber rattlesnake whose molt was a brilliant patterned combination of deep black and light caramel, it was carefully stitched to a soft tan calf leather that lined the back, it's buckle a beautiful copper square, the belt holes lined with the same metal.
"Oh, shit," he said. "That's something." He unrolled it all the way, admiring it, then stood up to take off his old belt and replace it.
"My what a fine thing. Thanks, littl'un. I'll wear it with pride." He beamed over at her as he threaded it through his belt loops and buckled it. It was the first time he'd referred to her that way, and her whole face brightened. Alice carefully looked through her photo book, a standard one of the time, secured at the binding with a ribbon, all black heavy card stock pages with small strong frame inserts inside spread apart so that the edges of photos could be tucked inside. In white ink she had labeled the different photos. She came to one page, and stopped.
Alice turned the pages of the book around so that everyone could see. The scene sat against a backdrop of a long, officious looking cabin with a huge porch, above which hung the sign that read "Camp Offices," its letters carved into a chunk of an old Oak tree, and lacquered with the rest of the board. In front of the door stood a man of about six feet, five inches, very thin, wearing riding pants, a plaid shirt, shiny black field boots, and a hat at a rakish angle. He was grinning, with his hands on his hips. Beside him stood a camp worker in overalls over his work shirt, grinning himself as he held aloft a giant, dead rattlesnake by the buttons on its rattle. He had to hold his hand high up beside his head so that the full length of the animal could be appreciated by the camera's lens. Howard pulled the book towards him carefully, and stared at the photo. He smirked. Maggie leaned over his shoulder and peered at the writing below which read "$35 Catch! Millboro, Virginia, April 19th, 1918."
"Is that your father?" She asked. Alice nodded.
"He's handsome," Maggie said.
"Thank you," Alice said quietly. "You can, um…" she said.
She cautiously flipped the book so they could start at the beginning. As they turned to the front, Alice stood up awkwardly.
"What's a Huldra?" Howard asked. He was staring at the blank black page, upon which an eleven year old Alice had written "The Legend of Alice the Huldra" in big, white, elegant script.
Alice blanched. She glanced at Forrest, who was sitting back, looking at his sweaters again, and feeling the fabric with his fingertips. "It's my middle name." She wasn't ready to explain beyond that yet.
Howard nodded. He and Maggie and Jack and Cricket were turning through the pages. Through pages of photos Alice had collected and had a hand in taking.
From the time she had been given her own Brownie camera at age seven (after making the specific request of one to St. Nicholas), she had rarely been without it. Her father had purchased one of the brand new Kodak 1 box cameras when they had been released in 1888, and his obsession for photography had grown, and poured out into his daughter like a waterfall into the pool below. She hadn't taken a single photograph since before his death.
Alice scampered up the stairs, not interested in looking at the book for herself just yet, and went to her tack trunk. She pulled out her saddle on its wooden stand, grunting a bit at the effort. Short as the stand was she'd been able to fit it upright in the trunk, and she checked the little box situated underneath where the saddle sat to be sure she had her saddle soap and sea sponges and cloths and suede and leather brushes. Then she rummaged around to find her bridle and the accompanying martingale, draping those over the saddle and fishing around for the different bits she had. She'd have to see which one she wanted to use with Smoke, but for now she'd soak all of them in hot water. She dropped them into the little box on the bottom, and left it there momentarily.
She changed from her dress into a pair of black riding pants, pulling her black boots on over her silk socks with her hooked boot pulls, and buttoning herself into an off white silk round-collared blouse, which she tucked expertly into her breeches. She left her hair up. Then, with a little jingle, she hoisted the saddle stand up into her arms, pinning the bride and martingale against her chest so they wouldn't slip.
Coming down the stairs, plunking and clinking with the sounds of her boots and the bits following her the whole way, she attempted to peer over the saddle so she could see where she was stepping, but moved mostly on feel. She could smell the muted coppery butterscotch colored leather on the saddle, and she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the last time she'd used it. Summer. In Charlotte. She hoped it would sit well on Smoke. She had every confidence that it would. She clunked down onto the main floor and turned the corner, noticing that Forrest had poked his head out of his office and was making his way out into the common restaurant area as she stepped through the doorway. She smiled shyly at him and moved through the doorway, out onto the porch. She plunked herself down in the corner where the porch at the front of the building joined with the porch on the other side, and went back inside for two bowls of water. Forrest ushered everyone around with simple hand gestures, the other four moving carefully around each other to pack up their gifts and bring them to a safe place. He wanted them cleared out before the lunch crowd came in. He stood and picked up his boxes, putting the two smaller ones in the pocket of his cardigan, and tucked the larger one with his new sweaters under his arm. He watched as Alice shuffled around behind the counter, filing one bowl with water and setting the other beside the stove top while she set a tea kettle to boil. When he stopped, he did so very briefly to watch her make her way around the kitchen, and he realized with a sense of contentment that she knew where everything was by now. As she came around to the other side of the counter with her little ceramic bowl and passed by him she gave him a little smile, turning both sides of her mouth upwards as if she had some sort of secret. The sun was shining outside at Blackwater Station, so Alice plopped herself directly down onto the wooden floor of the porch and sat to start cleaning her tack. She brushed at the fine French leather gently with a soft brush she often used to burnish it. Once she was satisfied that it was clear of most of the surface dirt, she folded up a little towel and sat it on her knee. She heard the door to the station open, and Forrest's hard footfalls. Upstairs, Jack and Howard were changing into old ratty clothes to go finish the submarine stills. They'd been hard at work while Alice was gone, and now were putting the final elements in place. They came through the door a few moments behind Forrest, tumbling down the stairs and off the porch, heading into the woods at a clip with Cricket lagging behind, in case someone were watching from the woods, which they sometimes were.
Forrest set himself up in his usual char, chomping on a cigar and sipping his coffee in between puffs. And of course, watching Alice. She hopped up again almost immediately after the boys left, going to get her hot water from the stove. She poured as much water as she could fit into the second porcelain bowl and brought it out to the first, pouring some of the hot water into the other bowl, mixing it around with her finger to neutralize the temperature. She then took her four bits; A dee ring snaffle, a full cheek jointed snaffle, an eggbut snaffle, and a baucher snaffle, and put them in the hot water, letting them soak.
Forrest watched as she first washed her saddle gently with a damp sponge, taking the dirt and dust off the leather, rinsing here and there as she went. The little wisps of hair that had come loose from where she had pinned them blew across her face, and he watched her lower lip with fascination as she sucked it partially into her mouth and secured it between her teeth. He couldn't help but recall the way her lips had felt against his that night a few weeks before.
She pulled off her stirrup leathers and set them aside, to clean separately with her bridle. Then she cleaned the entire saddle with her little bar of glycerin soap, which she set to rest on the towel she put on her knee, rubbing a bit of soap off on the sponge here and there to add lather. The entire task she seemed to complete with a sort of comfortable repetitiveness, lulled by the ritual of the thing, and how it seemed to calm her in the sincere purpose of itself. She was always so confused, constantly feeling so lost. But this, she knew how to do. With all assurance, she was doing something she felt expert at, and it calmed her in a way she hadn't anticipated. She cleaned everything thoroughly, from skirt to billets, to cantle, to panel, and down to stirrup leathers, carefully setting everything to dry once she'd finished, bridle and martingale included. She'd taken everything apart, from the throat latch to the cheek pieces and the crown, wanting to be sure she eliminated any dirt that had settled into her tack while she'd had it packed in the trunk. Then, to Forrest's surprise as he oversaw the steady trickle of customers who had started to mount the steps and find seats inside for lunch, Alice fished out the bits one by one and scrubbed them like mad, holding them with the old towel, and using a coarse brush and the rest of the hot water to scrub off whatever might have settled on them in the course of their travels from North Carolina. She'd rinsed them hastily when she packed them up, but they needed a good scrubbing before she was ready to put them in another horse's mouth. She lined up the bits on the towel, the soft clinking sound of metal on metal as she tumbled them around on the terry cloth, scooping up the entire bundle to dry them as best she could. Then she stood, and brushed her pant legs off, hauling the still damp stirrup leathers, bridle and martingale over her right shoulder, rolling the bits together into a little package that she tucked along with the soap, brushes and sponges into the box on the bottom of the saddle stand. Her stirrup irons she placed into the box beneath the saddle as well. She lifted it up, picking her way around the bowls of water she'd collected, and took the stairs between the railings, trying to see over the top of the saddle.
Forrest half moved to help her, but she seemed to have everything under control on her own, heading around to the barn to find a place to store her things. When she'd found the perfect space in a small tack room which now held all manner of other miscellaneous supplies, she settled everything into a spot where it could dry, reassembling and hanging the bridle and the martingale on a set of hooks against the wall. Then she headed out, past the four cows that the Bondurants had, and the old chestnut gelding who seemed to belong to all of them, finding her way back to the porch to dump the water she'd used and rinse out the bowls. Forrest was gone when she returned, having sequestered himself in his office again. She rinsed the bowl out, then climbed the stairs to find her gloves and brushes. She found a harder brush and a softer one, her hoof pick and the comb she used for pulling manes. Then she took one of the quilted blankets in the giant pile of bedding she slept beneath, and carried everything downstairs with her, and back to the barn. She took some nails and hung the blanket up in the back of what was now to be Smoke's stall. Beside the blanket was the set of Dutch doors leading to the paddock, that could be opened so he could be turned out and brought back in directly from his stall, a pleasant convenience when often horses had to be walked through the barn to access an outside turnout area. Tucking the comb and hoof pick into the pockets of her riding pants, she banged the brushes together by the bristles so they would stick, and headed out the door, whistling to the big black gelding who was still snuffling around on the ground for the last few bits of hay on the ground from the flakes Howard had thrown him that morning.
"Hey, handsome!" She called. He lifted his head, blew out of his nose and mouth in greeting and plodded over to her. Instead of cross tying him inside, where it would be darker and he might be more skittish due to the unfamiliar surroundings and the blindness Alice hadn't fully explored the bounds of yet, she decided she would brush him outside, where she could spend time with him without restricting him. He seemed content to stand while she brushed him out with the hard brush, flicking giant puffs of dirt off his coat to be carried away by the wind. When she moved around to the side where his vision wasn't the best, she talked and sang to him continuously, so he would associate what had happened on the left side of his body with her working around to the other side, so he would be as compliant as he had been before. He seemed to realize that it was Alice beside him, and stood, turning his head around a few times to sniff at her. She'd put her hand out while she brushed with the other, letting him breathe in her smell so he would associate the calming brushing with her scent. It was all part of the gradual building of trust that had started that night in the barn. The quilt was a part of it. She switched back to his left side again, brushing this time with the softer brush to smooth out his beautiful, deep black coat. She worked for the better part of an hour, and by that time, he had started to shine, his coat reflecting a deep black in the sun. As she carefully brushed his legs, she thought of Forrest, and how he'd brought Smoke here for her. She was still so struck and moved by his kindness. Perhaps he'd seen how at ease she had been with the horse, or maybe he could tell by the number of riding pants and pairs of boots she seemed to own that she spent a fair amount of time on horseback, but whatever the reason, she was completely and utterly touched by the gesture. She would have to find a way to show him how very grateful she was. She was relieved, and happy, and excited. Why would he have brought the horse here...unless he were intending for her to stay.
Queue Jillian Edwards - "Sink My Feet"
When she went to pick Smoke's feet, she noticed his hooves had been trimmed since she'd seen him last, and new shoes had been nailed into the hoof wall. While she was bent over, picking the clods of mud out of the sole of his hoof, avoiding the frog, she heard the crunch of boots that she knew to be Forrest walking over at his usual, even pace. She placed Smoke's hoof carefully back down onto the ground, then whirled around to face Forrest, her stray, wavy bits of russet colored hair blowing in her face a bit. She lifted her arm and placed her hand across her eyebrows, squinting to see him in the afternoon sun.
"These are new shoes since I saw his feet last." She said.
"Mmm." He said. She looked at him and nodded slightly, smiling at him. He knew. He'd been behind it, she realized. She picked up the next foot, picking at that one as well, digging at a bit of sandy mud that was stuck against the bar of his hoof. She heard the crunching of feet again as Forrest entered the barn and walked out through Smoke's stall, into the paddock. He stopped in the doorway, leaning backwards to have a look, then gesturing to the inside of the barn.
"Ummmm…redecoratin'?" He asked.
"Oh." Alice said. She laughed slightly at her own oddness. "It's so he gets used to my smell. Since he can't see so well. The more he's exposed to it, the less likely he'll be to jump ten feet if I have to approach him in the dark."
Alice had slept with that old blanket ever since she was little; it was comforting to her. She wanted to know that if the young horse's condition were ever to deteriorate, that she could simply come into the barn, and he would know immediately who was there by how she smelled. She stepped around again, working on his other two feet briefly, since not much had built up in his feet. Then she backed up and looked at him, brushes tucked into her hands, knuckles against her hips.
"That should do just fine." She said. She stepped towards the horse, humming a few bars of an old mountain song, before she reached out and gently touched his neck. He balked slightly, but she kept humming to him and he settled once he focused on the soothing sound of her voice, and the gentle feeling of her gloves on his neck.
"Whatchu doin'?" Forrest asked.
"I'm talking to him so he knows where I am. He can sense me, but he can't see me over here. So the sound of my voice alone will tell him where I am, but my humming will tell him he should relax."
Forrest nodded. Smart girl, he thought, for the umpteenth time. He and his family had never bothered with owning persnickety or high maintenance animals. All of the animals in the barn served a purpose, the cows for breeding with a different bull from a different local farmer every year, calves to sell, milk to drink and serve and use for cooking at the station, meat to eat if and when it came to that. The old gelding, who was sometimes taken out for a trail ride, earned his keep by conveying the brothers to stills set higher in the hills that would take all day to reach by foot. This horse, Forrest thought, was something else, just like his new owner. He just hoped that Smoke would be worth all the trouble she was going to for him. She spoke to Forrest quietly.
"I was going to pull his mane to make it all short and uniform, but I'll wait on that for another day." She said. She didn't want to risk breaking the rapport she had with him. Pulling his mane wouldn't hurt him, just as it didn't hurt most horses, but it was entirely possible that she could startle him, badly, with the sharp jerking motion she'd need to use to pull the hair free, especially because his mane sat on his blind side. Perhaps she'd just trim it.
Alice carefully walked around to his other side to join Forrest. She came to stand beside Forrest at a respectful distance, and he could see the careful scrutiny with which she observed Smoke. He could tell she was getting all kinds of information just by watching him walk around in the paddock. The big horse had gone back to milling around, smelling things in the paddock once he had discovered that his pampering for the day was temporarily over. Alice took her gloves off and stuffed them in her back pocket. She sighed, and smiled. "He's just perfect," she said to Forrest, who said nothing. Alice gently reached out her hand and brushed her fingers over the top of Forrest's left forearm, moving her fingertips in circles over the wool of his cardigan. He looked at her hand, helplessly. His big, gently cast eyes went soft, and his brow furrowed slightly.
"Thank you." She said, her voice soft and quiet.
"Mmm." Was all he said.
Alice smiled to herself, and headed back towards the Dutch doors. A few moments later, she heard Forrest's footfalls as he followed her. She placed her brushes on the stall railing, stacked out of the way so she'd have use of both hands. She waited for him to come through the doors and close them before she opened the other set of doors going back into the main aisle in the barn. Barn safety rules had been hammered into her head since she was a child. Although she doubted that Smoke would come tearing through the open Dutch doors and out the stall door into the aisle, her old habits were ingrained in her. She hesitated, just a moment, reaching her hand over the stall door to slide the lock. As she was pulling the door in towards her, Forrest's right hand reached out as he moved towards her in the shadowy darkness, and took her left hand in it. He didn't pull her, instead he guided her gently to him, closer into the darkness of the stall than the lighted aisle of the barn. She allowed herself to be moved, carefully following his gentle lead. His second hand came out and took her other hand, holding her loosely with his big, strong hands by cupping her wrists from beneath. Her wide brown eyes looked up at him, searching through the shadows to make out all the features she'd memorized on his face. His hands carefully and deliberately moved up the backs of her arms, his fingers rubbing against the soft crepe de chine silk of her blouse until he had reached her elbows and nudged her closer to him, until the brim of his hat was almost touching the top of her head as he leaned down to look at her.
In a sudden, inspired moment, Alice made a decision. She'd never hugged Forrest, not once, so she lifted her arms, and stood on her tiptoes, linking her arms together behind his neck, resting her forearms on his enormous traps. She leaned in and rested her head on her arm, her lips close against his neck. Forrest froze. It was just like their dance. Except they were alone. And he was free to hold her the way he wanted to. At least, he imagined he did. Why else would she have wrapped herself around him like this, unless she wanted him to. His arms had paused, bent as though to hold her, and then he allowed himself to place his giant palms against her back and cross them, holding her safe and snug against him.
"Thank You, Forrest," she said again, softly, and he could feel her gentle breath against his neck. The way she said 'Forrest' was something he often played over and over in his mind. He could hear her say it ten different ways in his head if he wanted to; he'd memorized her voice so well. He grumbled something that she couldn't make out.
"Hmmm?" She asked, pulling her face back so she could look at him.
"Welcome." He said, again. Alice smiled, and then pressed her left cheek against his left cheek, whispering in his ear.
"You rescued me." She sighed. She was trying not to cry. Being held, this way, she felt truly untouchable, like she was floating, like she never needed to know fear again. Then she pulled back again, looking into his eyes, her nose an inch away from his, their mouths so close he could feel her speaking every word as well as he could hear them. "You'd better be right about being invincible, I'd never know what to do if you eve-"
She wasn't allowed to finish the sentence. The felt of his hat brushed against her cheek as he tilted his head to tenderly place his full, pouty lips against her pretty little mouth. He felt the little pleasurable sound she made that was somewhere between a moan and a purr in her throat as it trembled through her tongue into his. His arms locked stronger around her back as she used the leverage of her arms on his traps to pull herself up and closer to him. For a blissful five minutes, they were as close as they'd ever been, mouths moving in tandem each against the other's, and Forrest felt something deep in his stomach, a terrible ache at the notion that he'd eventually have to let go. It was Alice who pulled gently away at first, and looked up at Forrest, who looked like an injured pup when she stopped. She giggled inside at his disappointed face, happy that he seemed to feel the same as she, and then hugged him once more, whispering in his ear "We'd better stop now, or I don't think I'll be able to."
Forrest grumbled angrily, holding her tight. She ran her hands down from his shoulders almost down to his waist, towards his belt. Towards. Almost. She stopped by his stomach, and he was so taken aback he'd loosened his grasp, and she wiggled free. She sauntered through the door into the aisle of the barn, gesturing for him to follow her, glancing over her shoulder with a devilishly flirtatious grin.
"Unless you think you can handle that."
"Woman," Forrest grumbled, "You got plenty more'n you can handle comin' fer ya."
She was walking more quickly than he was, and she paused and peeked her head back into the barn after him, as he tried to buy himself some time to walk off the situation in his pants.
"Oh, do I?" She purred, and hustled down the hill towards Blackwater Station as the frustrated Forrest brooded and lusted after her.
Alice strode back towards the station, Forrest lumbering after her, grumbling to himself under his breath as he fished a cigar out of his pocket. His eyes scanned the yard, though he kept watch over Alice out of the corner of his eye. She had hurried out of the barn faster than he would have liked her to, but he empathized with her reservations. He realized that her gentle, flirtatious teasing was perhaps her indication that she was expecting him to initiate something more concrete than a few desperately impassioned kisses and a protective disposition. He wasn't sure exactly how to characterize what was going on between them, but he knew it was only a matter of time before his hand would be forced.
She was a breathtaking, intelligent, young woman, albeit stubborn, and outspoken, and probably very spoiled, despite the efforts of the Lettie woman she was always talking about. Rakes had already come after her twice, and added gasoline to the blazing coal of hatred for the puffed up prohi puppet that Forrest had already been stoking. Someone else would soon catch sight of her, and find her just as captivating as he. Though he doubted anyone could care for Alice the way he cared for her. He would move heaven and earth to see her happy. But he wasn't sure exactly where she stood, nor could he be certain that she would wait forever for him. To use an expression his father favored, it was "Comin' up on time."
He had to make his intentions known. But he didn't know where to begin.
He noticed Alice's body language change slightly as the party in the yard came into view. Forrest saw them as well, as he picked up his pace. Alice kept walking at the same steady pace, but changed her stride so she was covering less ground with each step. It allowed Forrest to swing wide around to her right side, putting himself between her and the men in their driveway.
He recognized Pete, Roy, Alfred, Vernon and Glen. The rest were seconds of the five men who had come. There were a few different cars in the drive. He assumed they had come as a kind of emissary for the larger gathering of men who had met under the railroad tracks a few months ago after Wardell had introduced Rakes. He had heard that the heads of two or three small time operations had already caved and started paying money to Wardell in order to avoid trouble. And they would soon be out of business, he assumed. Their liquor wasn't made as well as Bondurant shine, which he knew as fact without any prejudice, and they would have to raise the prices to both make profit and pay the shakedown "fees". When those in Franklin County and beyond could buy top-notch shine from more successful, well run operations, there would be no incentive to buy less than stellar liquor at an elevated price. But he was certain that this group of men could be interested in discussing just one thing: Moonshine. This could only mean trouble. They wouldn't have come to him unless they had something he needed to know.
He looked over at Alice, who had nudged herself closer to the station house with each step, and allowed him to pick up his pace and maneuver himself between she and them. Before he even greeted the men, he stopped in the yard by the gas pumps and cocked his head up at her, pointing with his left finger to suggest she go inside. With a brief, discreet nod, she mounted the steps two at a time and went indoors, calling quietly to Howard, to make sure he was aware of what was going on outside. He answered with a "yeah" from the corner of the station, sat tipped back in his chair with one foot on the table, sipping from a jar. He nodded at her in indication that he knew who had just arrived outside. She scooped her photo book off the table and smiled at Maggie, who was shaping biscuits out of a roll of dough with a handled metal biscuit cutter. Alice ascended the stairs, her feet scuffing on the worn wooden steps.
Alice resisted the urge to go into Forrest's bedroom and pull back the curtain to see what was going on outside. She had no doubts that he had the situation under control, and the individuals outside seemed more concerned than menacing, but she was curious nevertheless. Instead, she went back into her room and sat down on her trunk, pushing the backs of her ankles into her bootjacks so she could get her boots off without twisting her ankles. Then she shuffled back onto the bed, realizing that she had taken the photo album with her. She peeled off her tall silk stockings that she wore under her boots and balled them up, tossing them into the little wicker basket she put her laundry in.
Sitting cross-legged on the buffalo hide she kept on top of her fluffy comforter, which Lettie had never allowed her to keep out on her bed while it was made, she carefully opened the book and started to flip through the pages. She remembered this year. The year that the biggest timber rattler anyone could ever remember seeing in camp was killed (the one Howard was now wearing slung low on his hips), the year that Lettie shot a pistol for the first (and last) time, the year an eleven year old Alice almost pummeled the life out of a local camp kid for calling her father a cripple, kneeling on his chest and striking his nose until his face was covered in snot, tears, and his own blood (which he was almost drowned in).
It was also the year that Alice started devouring books like mad, and insisting on going off on her own more and more frequently. She would climb trees and make herself comfortable in their branches, spending hours aloft reading and brooding by herself. She'd grown willful that year, and Lettie had told her more than once that she was glad Alice was the only child her father had because she was the only child she had time and energy for. She had also begun the battle in her mind with herself over whether she loved or hated her mother.
She had always idolized Rose, but nearly always from afar. Despite the fact that her mother loved her a great deal, most of her focus was on caring for Alice's ailing aunt. Then Alice's aunt had passed away, peacefully in Wililamsburg. It was then, when she was nine, that her mother had arrived in camp, followed by the Spanish flu that killed her, and Alice became furious with the world. Alice had only just gotten her, all to herself, and she had imagined so many plans for the two together. She had been convinced that her mother, introduced to the atmosphere on only a few brief visits, would love long term life in camp just as much as she did. But the place Alice loved had killed her. And then all the examples she'd hoped to follow as a child growing up had to be based on the recollections of Lettie and her father, and her own distant, hazy memory. She had long ago come to terms with the situation surrounding her mother's death, though to this very day she remained slightly bitter about the entire set of circumstances.
Queue Composer Thomas Newman - "Valley of the Shadow"
She carefully started pulling the pins out of her hair one by one. She'd tipped her head nearly upside down several times as she picked the dirt from Smoke's hooves, and brushed his legs, and some of the pins had moved around to uncomfortable positions against her scalp. She had a bad habit of taking afternoon naps nearly every single afternoon, and it wouldn't be comfortable to sleep with the pins in her hair. Shaking out the curls that had formed in her hair by being pinned back, she turned the pages with one hand.
She happened upon a photo of herself with Lettie, the two sat on the porch of her father's house in camp, a sprawling one floor log home that could actually be disassembled, packed up on the train and re-assembled when they moved camps. In the photo, Lettie sat with a book opened flat down in her lap, her hands tangled in Alice's hair, experimenting with different updos and setting patterns, a soothing action that could calm the child like nothing else, as the younger girl sat cross legged on the porch in front of her. Her father had taken this photo. Alice's face was in profile, turned left and upwards, looking into Lettie's face as the older woman leaned down to say something to her.
It was then that Alice's breath hitched. The tears started rolling down her cheeks before she knew they were in her eyes, and she wiped them away absentmindedly with her fingertips. The saddest moment has come for her when she and Lettie had parted ways in Charlotte. She didn't want to think about that just now. The thought that had a hold of her now was simply longing. Longing for the time she spent with her father and Lettie, and longing for the life that she had had when she was on "camp time." Or in "camp town." Though every logging camp was different, and the atmosphere slightly altered, they nonetheless all shared the magical, fairytale quality of a quiet, isolated place in the woods, a tiny village hamlet smelling of sap and fresh shavings that popped up out of necessity, around which was nothing but forest. Where the world felt new, and wild. Before the country stopped being what it had once been, everything had been swept away or covered with dust. All gone in a shattering, crippling instant. That October morning.
Alice had never felt bitter about them taking her father's money. She was furious that they had taken her life. As her father had when he'd taken his own. Even now she couldn't think of the sound of the gunshot and the blood pooling on the marble floor without wincing. She never imagined she's miss those hot summer afternoons just doing nothing on the porch with Lettie before dinnertime. Lettie would read a book, or a letter from family, or she would work on needlepoint, and Alice would sit on the edge of the porch and dangle her legs over the side, waiting for her father to appear from one direction or another, to signal it was time to dress for dinner. They ate in the commissary at least twice weekly, where they socialized with the workers. On Saturday nights, everyone would stay up and listen to the music of the fiddle players, and banjo players, the guitar players and mandolin players, singing and playing mountain music, or music they'd learned in another life, far away. Other days, food would be brought to the house from the canteen. But Alice had loved that quiet time, just she and Lettie, watching the world pass by.
She blinked, staring at the photo, and another set of tears dripped from her eyes, a steady stream of them forming each behind the other. Welling up, tide upon tide. She closed the book and hugged it to her chest. When she blinked her eyes closed, tipping her head up towards the ceiling as more tears fell, she felt a sob rising in her chest that she couldn't hold back, and she allowed herself to quietly roll onto her right side, facing the door, and cry quietly to herself.
Alice lifted the corner of her curtain, and carefully reached her hands out to lift the window a few inches. She hid herself behind the curtain, still in her nightgown. She carefully reached her hand past the threshold of the sill, and wiggled her fingers in the morning air. Checking the temperature.
She bounded down the stairs a few minutes later, heading out to the barn at a good clip the way she had for the past two months, since the day Smoke had arrived at Blackwater Station. The time she awoke usually changed, but Smoke was her first priority upon waking. They started with a good brushing and a lunge, as they did every morning. And plenty of work on ground commands, getting to know one another, and fact finding on Alice's part to discover the extent of his blindness, so she could anticipate any complications for him. Further communication with Mr. Edmonson had gained her the knowledge that his son had been able to mount Smoke without the horse's protest, but beyond a few trips around a ring at the walk, trot, and canter that had been sloppy and out of control at best, he'd not had a chance to start real work with the four year old gelding. Beyond that occasion, when he'd been making an assessment before he purchased him, he hadn't ridden him once. Alice suspected that some of the bad habits and nervous reactions that her horse was prone to probably had to do with whatever was practiced on him at the breeding barn that he came from, which might have been acceptable practice with other animals, but, she suspected, weren't as effective with a horse who couldn't see the way most could. And she had known individuals who had been good trainers, but lost what little patience they had, and turned less than kindly towards project horses with flaws. Alice had been riding Smoke only about a week, and only for very short periods of time. His muscle groups had to build up, which she'd begun to accomplish with the work on the lunge line she did with him every day. But two months' work wasn't enough to keep him equipped to carry a rider, so she'd been transitioning him easy, and stepping up his lunge work, keeping him fully tacked up most of the time now. She'd only gradually been able to increase the amount of time she spent lunging him. The ground had been frozen, but spring was coming to Franklin County, and the footing was much improved. She looked forward to getting their training into full swing.
Queue Jillian Edwards - "Gotta Have You"
But she missed Forrest. He'd gone quiet and more reticent than usual, which in Forrest's case left him nearly unresponsive unless he was grumbling brief courtesies or ordering his brothers about. Alice was grateful to have Smoke with whom to occupy her time, or she feared she would have been mooning around the station waiting for him to cast glances in her way, brooding in her room when he did not. A grown woman, she'd imagined herself. But now she wasn't so certain. With her own responsibility, and excitement at the prospect of a new project with an exceptionally wonderful gelding, she had managed to muster a healthy level of distraction. But he was never far from her mind.
Every week, she'd carefully write up an invoice of everything she had consumed (including over the past two weeks the special feed she'd requested for Smoke, and his hay allotment, and a bit extra for Jack, who was in charge of feeding and turning out the animals). Each week it had promptly been returned, often placed beside an empty shine jar filled with water and fresh wildflowers, Forrest's way of finally putting his foot down after the money would routinely be placed on his desk, returned to Alice's dresser, brought back down to Forrest's office, and returned again to Alice's room. Forrest had learned the flowers were the only way to get her to keep it. Those weeks when she thought that he had accepted her self assessed rent fee, she'd go about her business in her room only to later find it hidden in an obscure drawer she rarely used, or behind the picture frames she kept on opposite nightstands.
Money was one thing the Bondurant boys were flush with, now, and if things worked out in his favor, Alice wouldn't have to spend another penny ever again. He'd make sure of that. He knew prohibition couldn't last forever; he and his fellow criminals were making the money they made because the illegality of the once commonplace substance was largely being ignored by its consumers, which left shoes to be filled by bootleggers and all other manner of crooked entrepreneurs. Crime had increased to a fever pitch, and the attempts by the powers that be to sway public opinion and vilify the outlaw were backfiring. Floyd Banner was a celebrity. Al Capone could run for mayor of Chicago and probably win. But it could only go this way for so long. He, his brothers, and his tenant could be sitting on the porch of the station a few years from now just watching the sun move across the sky, without looking over their shoulders, just a good old country boy, his brothers, his gas station, and his Alice. Especially Alice.
If he could just have this time to focus on his liquor operation, he could set them up for a very comfortable (if rustic) life, and simultaneously ensure that his intended wasn't in any danger. Not that she'd hesitate to blow the head off of anyone who gave her too much trouble, he often thought, with a smirk to himself. But still, she was only one person, a sweet, smart as a whip beautiful person whose every fault, every one, was entirely forgivable. And she couldn't protect herself against an entire army, and it seemed that was what Rakes was gradually bringing to Franklin County. Every few days more ATU cars arrived, erratically as was their strategy to as not to attract attention, usually carrying one agent at a time. But the increase in presence was certainly noticed in Rocky Mount and the surrounding towns. When Jimmy and the others had come to speak with him in the yard on that warm day in January, they carried news that Rakes and his underlings had begun systematically eliminating selling operations one by one, starting with those run in barns and fruit cellars and sheds, working carefully up to those which stood alone in the mountains, the bigger producers. They told him of how acquaintances of theirs had been stopped in the dead of night on dark roads, not even toting liquor, but meeting with ill fates nonetheless. Jimmy's childhood friend was beaten within an inch of his life, found the next morning in a ditch bleeding out of his nose, his ears and his mouth. He recovered for three days in the hospital, and was still wheezing every time he took a breath as his broken ribs rattled. They had all been harangued by the law before. That was not the issue they presented to Forrest. The issue they had come to discuss was the systematic intensity with which they seemed to be being besieged. Forrest couldn't be absolutely sure of Alice's safety unless he was completely on guard, and attempting to negotiate the subtle nuances of courtship with an educated southern belle wasn't something he had time for. He wanted his moment, his time to do things the way he wanted to. But he knew his time was running out. And he was coming to the realization that she'd be safer if she were closer to him sooner rather than later. But he'd put off that conversation with himself so many times. He heard all of Maggie's hints, saw Howard's disgusted looks when Forrest seemed oblivious to the way Alice dressed carefully when she knew they'd be having dinner together, or didn't seem appreciative enough of the coffee she brought him after dinner. He heard Jack's outright verbal suggestions that he take Alice somewhere nice, and Cricket's silence, a sparkling behind the encouraging look in his eyes as he overheard Jack. He refused to be pushed by anyone. But he knew that she was probably confused by the amount he had seemed to pull back.
He left the flowers when there was occasion to, and had written her a note in carefully printed pencil when he made the final delivery of shine to the Edmonson's as payment for Smoke's permanent residence wherever Alice went. She'd gotten up the next morning and made him cornmeal waffles covered in blackberry compote she'd cooked down from raw berries herself, simmering it on the stove all morning. With his favorite, bacon and sausages, of course. She had gotten up before dark for all of that. The cream she'd whipped herself while the compote bubbled. He remembered smelling something from downstairs, and hearing a faint singing, but he stopped completely when he looked up, having come down the stairs and saw her standing there. She was biting her lip as she concentrated, and carefully tipped a pot into white ceramic bowl with a pouring lip, the compote steaming hot as it filled it. The smile she gave him when she looked up from what she was doing sent his insides reeling and his brow furrowed then, as he thought of what to say. He was still so surprised by the fact that she was here. She was both so natural and at home, and at the same time so elegant that she was a constant pleasant surprise in a place which had for so long had been dominated entirely by men. She fit just right. She sat with him in the quiet of the morning, while he ate, saying almost nothing, other than a nod when she asked him if he wanted more coffee, and a grumble of assent when she asked him if he wanted more. Then she'd thanked him, kissed him full on the mouth, and scampered up the stairs, bursting out the front door a few minutes later with a grin over her shoulder at him as she headed out to the barn. The kitchen had smelled like blackberries all day that day, and Forrest had given in at eleven in the morning and taken the compote back to his office with him, eating the last few spoonfuls like a selfish child, not wanting anyone else to have something Alice had made for him.
He thought of her nearly every moment that he allowed his mind to disentangle and detach itself from business matters, and he always found himself holding his breath whenever he could hear her voice in another room. When she was in front of him, he did his best not to watch her with too much intensity.
But still they rarely spoke, Forrest constantly busy, hyper-vigilant, ever engaged in some sort of plotting with his brothers; their connection with Floyd Banner had blossomed into a steady business relationship which required great care to maintain. Both Banner and the Bondurants were high profile in the criminal element in the region, especially here in Virginia, and could ill afford to delay their transactions because of the ATU. It would have brought their operation to a halt, or to a compromise, which was exactly Rakes' goal. So Alice had very little time to spend with Forrest, but his affections, and hers, had hardly dampened. The longing between the two, palpable as they passed one another on the stairs and looked back only to just miss the other having done the same, had only been magnified.
And now, standing in the paddock, carefully threading the lunge line through the halter's iron rings connecting the leather pieces, and across his nose before securing it, she thought of how Forrest had asked for patience, and how, as long as they would have her, she'd stay. And wait. He could have all her patience. And as she worked with the seventeen hand gelding in the growing warmth of a mid March Virginia morning, turning her body slightly in a circle as she spurned Smoke into a canter around her, Forrest's big, hulking shape appeared on the porch, puffing on a cigar, watching her from back at the station. He could see the way her eyes locked on Smoke, and the smattering of freckles that had formed across her cheeks and nose now that she'd had time in the sun, how she followed the horse: her concentration, her instinct, and her insight, the horse obscuring his vision of her each time the four large hooves passed around back in front of her. And he'd have loved to watch her like that all morning, but he had a business to run.
Jack Bondurant squinted as he carefully placed a third shine jar full of water on a rickety old single shelf he and Howard had built for just this purpose. The next one he pulled from where it was tucked underneath his arm, trying his best not to slosh the water out or upset the other two clutched beneath his other arm.
Six yards away, Alice sat on an old crate, her Remington Model 30 Express .30 Springfield 1906 bolt action rifle in her lap. She was rubbing gently at the receiver with a soft cloth she used for just this purpose. She raised the gun against her shoulder, pointing it at the ground, and peered down the sights. She had shrugged off her sweater and was sitting on it, the warm forty degree afternoon having inspired her to be a little chilly for the sake of being able to go without it. She was in her typical uniform of riding pants, knee high slightly dusty black field boots, and a white round necked collared shirt with little gold buttons. She had pulled pieces from the front of her hair and pinned them together at the back of her head to keep it out of her way. She'd discarded her gloves, the ones she'd used when she'd ridden Smoke that morning. A small, hinged wooden box filled with .30-.06 ammunition sat opened beside her on the ground.
Twenty minutes before, Howard had found her leaning against a post on the station porch, staring towards the paddock where Smoke was wandering around, inspecting and smelling and gaining information from queues humans weren't astute enough to perceive. He'd almost frightened her out of her skin when he asked "Somethin' on your mind?"
With a relieved sigh, Alice's hand flew to her chest when she realized it was Howard who was suddenly behind her, and not someone else. Ever since Charley Rakes had come after her in the woods, and in her empty hotel room, she'd been highly reactive to most everything. And she was well aware that their conflict with him was far from over.
"I want to know how he handles gunfire." She said, jerking her head towards Smoke so Howard knew what she was talking about.
"It's a common enough sound, but some horses don't respond well. And I'd hate to have a gun go off around him and never have seen how he reacts." She paused. "Especially if I'm on him."
She realized that Howard had a new jar of white lightening in his hand, one he'd just opened from the relative fullness of the vessel. He nodded. Alice could see a bit of mischief playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Well, awlright. Why don't we do some shootin' then? I'm sure ol'For'st will allow us a little fun. Go'n git your gun."
Alice paused for a moment, a bit apprehensive, imagining the wrath they may incur if Forrest weren't in the mood to humor them.
Howard shuffled back inside with muted scuffs of his boots on the wooden porch. Before they were fully inside, Howard called to Jack to set up the jars, reaching his earshot, where he was cavorting with Cricket in the smaller garage off to the side of the yard where Cricket had his sleeping palate. They were working on Jack's new Ford. Alice had gone upstairs to get her firearm, and Howard strode nonchalantly inside, and poked his head into Forrest's office, smiling wryly at his brother. Forrest turned his thick neck around slowly, staring at his older brother. He noticed the way his brother slouched with his shine jar in his hand, the sparkling, slightly impaired gleam in his eyes.
"Whatchu want, Howard?" Forrest grumbled.
Howard smirked. "We gon' be goin' hot outside in a few minutes here, For'st, just wanted to let you know so you don't come out all brass knuckles and brimstone when you hear the gunfire."
Howard turned to leave and Forrest called after him. "Now y'all be careful now, make sure there ain't nobody in the yard when you're doin' that shit."
Howard called a grumbled, half-hearted reassurance back over his shoulder and headed out through the station into the warm afternoon sunshine.
Forrest himself much preferred hand-to-hand combat over trading gunfire with another man, but he knew sometimes it was inevitable. He also knew he didn't need any practice. With a shake of his head, he turned back to his paperwork. He was calculating time and volume expected from both the new submarine stills, and the entire operation as a whole now that they had been added. It never occurred to Forrest that the footsteps he heard, Alice's footsteps, were headed in the direction of Howard's little training session. His assumption was that she must be headed back out to the barn, where she now spent most of her time.
Alice turned her head when she heard Howard coming down the porch steps. He grinned at her, and spat a bit of tobacco out the side of his mouth onto the clay yard. Alice had risen to her feet and was sliding the bolt of her rifle into place as she loaded it. Jack and Cricket had come to join her, and stood behind her, at a safe distance. Howard stood to the side, grinning. Alice watched as he took a sip of his shine jar, and she saw him making chewing motions and swishing the whiskey around in his mouth.
She'd had opportunity to observe many different rugged men's habits in logging camps, but she'd never seen someone intentionally soak a gob of chewing tobacco with moonshine so he could squish the liquor out as he chewed it. She shook her head, smiling. She stared ahead of her at the five-foot high shelf that held five mason jars with water in them. Howard nodded to her encouragingly, leaning forward with the heels of his hands on his knees, grinning at her from underneath his hat. He'd been curious since he'd seen her guns just how well she could shoot.
Alice smiled and raised the butt of the rifle to the crook of her shoulder, placing her left hand under the forestock and resting her right hand gently a few inches below and around the bolt, keeping her finger from the trigger until she was ready to shoot. Alice turned her head to the side and looked down the front sight, speaking to the boys in a quiet, concentrated tone.
"Not sure what I'm going to hit with y'all staring at me." She laughed. She had cleaned and carried this rifle since she'd been here, but hadn't actually shot a firearm since her father's death in Charlotte. She clicked off the safety and held her finger carefully inside the trigger guard, away from the trigger. She lined up her sight carefully, aiming for the center jar. A deep breath in, and she pulled the trigger carefully. A deafening crack sounded throughout the yard, and with the sound of exploding glass, a spray of shards and water shot every which way. She pulled the bolt, and the cartridge ejected up and to her right.
"Damn!" Howard shouted, laughing to himself as he shook his head. Alice immediately turned her head to see what Smoke's reaction in the paddock had been. He had raised his head, and his ears were at attention, but other than his heightened alertness he seemed unphased.
Cricket and Jack piped in with accompanying praise, "Holy Smokes, Alice!" and "Jesus H. Christ!" respectively.
Alice laughed and turned to Howard, who was mashing around his tobacco. "Yes, but which one was I aiming for?" She asked.
Howard laughed again, standing up straight, and spat a bit of chew on the ground. "You knew which one you were aimin' fer." He said.
Alice sighed. She made note of where the cartridge had ejected to, but Cricket had already shuffled over to retrieve it. She loaded another round of ammo into the chamber and closed the bolt, clicking the safety on immediately. She looked around at the boys, checking to see if they were taking turns or if she should shoot again.
"You know," Howard began. "At this range," He moved his finger back and forth to show the distance between the very farthest edge of the pond where the shelf stood, and far back towards the garage where they now stood, "that's a damn good shot."
Alice shrugged, her face flushing a bit.
"I have at most five talents. Horses, guns, remembering details, being in the woods, and pretending to be refined." She laughed. "This happens to be one of those five things. My father came to America from Denmark with the idea that he was going to be some kind of cowboy."
When she said 'Cowboy,' her voice had the distinct timbre of one whose voice was much deeper, and quite accented. An impression of her father, Howard observed. She paused. Her smile faded just a bit, but only because the sentiment behind it changed.
"So we did all of these things, like riding and shooting, hiking and exploring in the woods, learning about the plants and animals. And reading American stories, of course." She said, laughing.
A second tremendous crack, followed by its echo, mirroring it it through the hills. Humming unpleasantly in Alice's shoulder.
"Shit." She grumbled.
"It's awlright, take yer time." Howard said, leaning forward in concentration.
Alice lined up again. Pulled. Crack. And a twinkling burst as the sunlight hit the exploding jar. Sitting in his office Forrest had the distinct feeling that he heard Alice's voice outside with Howard's. Would she have not come to him first if she intended to shoot in the yard? He was not concerned about her asking him for permission on this particular matter, she had enough sense to do whatever she liked as long as she did it safely. Besides, he was certain she'd been reassured that he, Forrest, would not be upset by what they were doing. What upset him was that out of a list of choices that included him, she was outside with Howard. He seemed not to have noticed Jack and Cricket. Alice was ejecting her third cartridge by the time that Forrest appeared on the porch, stalking around with his hands in his cardigan pockets and his mouth around a cigar. He squinted, and looked up, ignoring them for the most part. But he was watching her, out of the corner of his eye. He watched her face, how soft her features stayed, how relaxed she seemed as she peered down the sights. She was so still for a moment, her hair blowing a bit behind her in the wind, her hand correcting for the breeze. Then another crack, another burst of glass and spray of water. Howard nodded approvingly at Alice.
"Okay, Jack and Cricket, pick who's going next and fill up more jars." Howard said, gesturing with his left hand that they should put themselves into motion, sipping from his shine jar with his right.
The two hustled off to the shed where they kept the damaged shine jars, ones that were too cracked or chipped and were no longer suitable for selling. It was these they used for target practice.
Meanwhile, Alice loaded her last cartridge, and replaced the bolt one more time. She aimed at the very last shine jar. The last crack and explosion of glass were accompanied by a sharp little gasp of pain as the recoil slammed the butt of the gun into the part of Alice's collarbone closest to her arm socket. She looked over at Forrest and Howard
"I suppose I should've held onto that one a little better."
Forrest furrowed his brow in confusion, trying so hard to mask his concern that he appeared disgruntled. She giggled, looking down self-consciously. She ejected the cartridge and put on the safety, out of habit. She tucked a bit of hair behind her head and sat on the crate, a safe distance from firing range. Forrest watched how carefully she lay the rifle across her lap.
Jack and Cricket took turns with a set of five jars, alternating shots between the two, changing up when one missed. The handguns they were using weren't the best pistol and revolver, respectively, with regards to accuracy, so they wound up attempting to compensate quite a bit in their aim. Alice sat on the crate, which had been placed far back at a safe distance, and Forrest watched with fascination the way she reached into her little hinged box and retrieved her five round charger and five rifle rounds, carefully balancing everything on her lap. She loaded the rounds into the charger, and the charger into the rifle, peering down into the chamber to make sure that everything was sitting properly within the gun. Then she put on the safety and waited her turn. Forrest observed. He turned down his chance to shoot with a stern grunt and a shake of his head. Howard himself decided he didn't want to shoot either, preferring instead to watch Alice shoot again.
Standing the way she was as she got into position to shoot again, her posture perfect, her shape accentuated by the riding pants and the tucked in shirt, he suddenly felt a very protective need towards her. And anger at his brother. Who was looking at her so openly. Truly, he did not believe that his brother intended to stand in his way with Alice, in fact, he thought the opposite might be true. That Howard may be flirting with her in attempt to force his hand was a distinct possibility if not a certainty, now that his stubbornness and lack of initiative with Alice had left them at an awkward and cautiously romantic standstill which was confusing both rather much. Howard was goading him, and he didn't like it, even if he and his brother both knew it was for his own good. Forrest hung back, watching the two, and waiting to see how far his brother would push.
Halfway through their shooting, the boys had replaced the glass jars with old rusty cans. The jars had made quite a mess on the bit of burlap they'd placed on the ground to catch the glass shards and make for easy removal from the yard, and they wanted to change targets before there was too much glass to account for. It was Alice's turn again. Howard stood at a 90 degree angle to Alice, far enough out of range, while Jack and Cricket hung back ten yards behind her, and Forrest brooded on the porch. Forrest had come in and out every hour or so to see what was going on.
Queue The Civil Wars - "I Had Me A Girl"
"Awlright, go on." Howard said.
Forrest, now standing at the very edge of the porch, closest to the action, scrunched up his brow.
Alice aimed, and pulled. BLAM! Another explosion, echoing throughout the yard, and a twanging sound as the slug punctured the old rusty can and knocked it a few feet in the air before letting it fall. Alice didn't wait for Howard to tell her to shoot again, she pulled the bolt to eject the cartridge and position the next round from the five round charger. She replaced the bolt and fired again. Four times. Quick, fluid movements, coupled with minor adjustments, each round producing a deafening crack and a complete obliteration of a rusty old can. His expression belied no particular sentiment, but internally, Forrest was shaking his head. That wasn't lucky shooting. She had been taught this skill very carefully by someone quite adept at it. The way in which she still managed to remain elegant and feminine, even with such power behind her trigger finger made his belly twist unpleasantly with a warm feeling that should have spread comfortably, but was instead met with resistance by the angry, brooding stance he'd adopted towards his brother. Getting so comfortable with her. Forrest recalled, not for the first time, that his encouragement where Alice was concerned came primarily from the people now at Blackwater Station with him, his brothers, Cricket, and Maggie. It was unlikely that Howard was actually attempting to make advances toward Alice, and far more likely that he was playing upon the fact that he knew Forrest would become jealous and forced to act.
"Shit! You can really throw lead!" Howard exclaimed, reaching down to his feet to pick up his jar and take another swig.
Alice laughed, bashfully, and ejected her last cartridge. Cricket and Jack were already scooping them up for her.
"Really," Howard asked, smiling at her as he brought the jar to his lips again. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"
"Well, for a man who owned far too much fur, my father objected to killing animals for sport. He wasn't bothered by others hunting, he just didn't particularly enjoy it himself. So most of our practice centered around target shooting." Bashfully, Alice returned to take her seat on the crate again, and Howard came closer, while Jack and Cricket went to set up again, digging through a burlap sack full of old cans they could line up on the shelf. Alice sighed.
"We should try moving targets next." She said.
Howard grinned, and laughed to himself, speaking to her out of earshot of the younger two boys.
"Whatchu wan do? Put an apple on Cricket's head and tell 'im to make a run for it?"
Alice's mouth dropped open.
"No!" She laughed, despite the nature of his suggestion, at the reference to William Tell.
"I have a clay launcher." She said simply. "And a few different types of target racks, and maybe a few other things. I'll have to look."
She had dumped most of her home and her life into her trunks carefully with respect to protecting each item, but without much regard for what was going into which trunk. She remembered Lettie's frequent admonishments that she really should catalogue what was going where, but the sickening numbness and raw ache that followed her father's death had left her all but deaf to most things other people said to her during that time.
Howard nodded at her, taking another sip. The afternoon sky was clear, and the temperature had started to climb into the higher forties. Alice took turns with Jack and Cricket, shooting when it was her turn, and remaining relatively quiet for whoever was up, so they could concentrate. But while Jack and Cricket were switching guns, Howard called over to Alice
"So your daddy didn' hunt. Do you?" Alice smiled.
"I'll shoot birds." She said. She was sitting on the crate, her rifle across her lap, pointed in a safe direction, her elbows on her knees and the heels of her hands up under her chin. "I try not to shoot anything with fur, but sometimes it can't be helped."
She thought of the day that a rabid coyote had come upon an accident that had occurred in which three massive logs had tumbled onto three workers, crushing one almost to death, and pinning the other two. Alice had heard the warning attached to the commonly held mountain belief that coyotes (among other animals, like big cats) could smell human blood and would be attracted to it. It was eleven twenty in the morning when Alice and her father had ridden to the disaster and her father had immediately leapt from his horse and hustled to help those who had first responded, attempting to deduce the best way to remove the logs from the workers, making sure that all three were equally safe while they tried to extract them. Alice had been fourteen. She'd had a different rifle then, but she had carried it across her back on their rides out for occasions such as this.
"Watch the parameter," her father had said. He was concerned about landslides and other natural occurrences such as other trees or roots being knocked asunder in the accident, and wanted his daughter to be able to warn them if any of these threats seemed imminent and they had to clear the area right away. The accident could result in a far worse disaster if the situation weren't managed properly. It was not long afterwards that she saw a snarling, menacing looking, very large coyote making his way towards the growing group of men who were trying to figure out how best to extract those men who were trapped beneath the falling limbs, and also lift them in the interim to alleviate the pressure on the bodies of the men trapped beneath. She could tell by the troubled way that he ambled that there was something terribly wrong with him. She didn't alert her father, she simply squeezed her horse, a Chestnut Warmblood at that time, into a walk that she directed around the pile of logs, placing herself between the men and the coyote, who despite his impairments had been moving quite quickly towards the assembly of victims and rescuers. Her horse sidled and shied, but she managed to steady him long enough to raise herself so she was standing up high over his ears, on the balls of her feet in her stirrups, her reins looped through her arm as she held her rifle with two hands. She aimed as best she could, but she thought perhaps she should be praying instead. When she fired, all she noticed at first was the reaction from her father and the workers, all quite startled. Her horse had jerked up his head and shied to the side a bit, but had otherwise remained rather calm. It was then that she had looked and the coyote had been reduced to a pile of fluff on the ground, and she was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt at what she had done. She had pitied the poor creature, who was so deranged by the rabies that was obviously ravaging his system. She decided then that what she had done was in part a merciful action, and put it from her mind, going to explain to her father what had happened.
It was the workers of the camp who, one month later, had presented her with her silver "Alice in Lumber Land" bracelet with the bark and leaves motif, the one she could most frequently be seen wearing. The one she was wearing now. She touched it, turning the ring around with her right hand, and thinking fondly. They had appreciated the risk she'd taken, even if it had only been for a smaller grouping of them. The coyote had become a rather large mantle that she often wore in the woods.
Alice came back to where she was. She'd always been known as a bit of a daydreamer, something that was dangerous when in her particular situation, holding a rifle. Howard was grinning at her, raising the jar to his lips yet again. "We go huntin' sometimes. You should come."
"For turkeys," she said.
Howard laughed. "Yeah, we can do a turkey shoot."
Alice smiled. "It's a deal." She said. She had the vague idea that Forrest was watching them quite intently, and that he had been for most of the afternoon. It was at that moment that he picked himself up and stocked inside, the sound of one of the screen doors snapping shut beside him as he came in.
Howard glowered at the doorway of the station.
"'scuse me," he said to Alice, and she nodded, turning her attention back to Cricket and Jack.
Howard took the porch steps up to the landing and headed inside the station, finding his brother behind the counter filling up his coffee mug, Maggie taking a break as there were no customers, sitting on a stool beside an open window, reading a book of short stories Alice had leant her. He came up to Forrest on the opposite side of the counter, put down his jar of shine and placed his palms flat down on the countertop.
"Awlright, For'st. What's eatin' ya?" Howard asked. His voice sounded like that of an irritated observer who has long endured a particular behavior that they simply cannot abide much longer. Forrest turned, his big frame taking up most of the surrounding area in the space he occupied. Maggie knew to mind her business and keep her face in her book. She could listen just fine as an invisible audience.
Forrest pointed with his right hand, aiming his finger outside towards where they'd been shooting. "Whatchu doin' out there?" He asked.
"Shootin." Howard said.
"Eyeah." Forrest said slowly. His eyes were steely as he stood opposite his brother. "But whatchu doin?"
"It's called fun, Forrest." Howard said. Forrest narrowed his eyes at his brother. He was trying to think of what he could say that wouldn't make him sound like a lovesick, jealous pup. Instead, he grunted a warning. He turned to stalk off but Howard followed him, not considering whether or not he was about to go too far.
"You want her attention all fer yerself. But you blow so cold with her, Forrest!" Howard called after his brother, walking after him.
"I enjoy her comp'ny, so does Maggie, so does Jack and so does Cricket. But we talk to her. You think she gon' wait around fer you to mumble at 'er every now'n then?"
Forrest turned around and walked towards Howard, stopping himself inches from his brother. While Forrest looked angry, Howard sighed, putting his hands on his hips and looking down, discouraged, but not backing down. "You know? Thing is, I think she will wait around for you. She got no other eyes for anyone else, which is why you look like such a sap." Howard shook his head again and turned around. "Poor girl."
Forrest, at this point, wasn't so angry as he had been, though his brother's verbal aggression had escalated. He was too concerned with, and surprised by what his brother was telling him. His face remained scrunched in an unpleasant position, but his eyes darted back and forth with his thoughts. Maybe it was, in fact, time. He'd brought her here to live so he could protect her, he'd bought her the horse so she'd be happy, and not lonely while he and the boys were busy. Now he thought for a moment, with pride, a swelling of his heart in his chest, and a bit of regret at having wasted time, that what Howard was telling him was true. He, Forrest, was what she seemed to everyone else to want more than any other thing, just as he did her. He'd been so blinded by his mission to make himself more worthy of her that he hadn't realized she already thought him so.
They both stopped, noticing that she had appeared on the porch, lifting the lid on the red Coca-Cola cooler the company had provided for the sales of their bottles. She lifted one out and opened it on the little bottle opener mounted to the side of the box, lifting her eyes for a moment to see Forrest facing her at the window. With a shy smile she waved, returning to the crate she'd been sitting on to enjoy the Virginia afternoon. Howard noticed that Forrest had remained stone still despite Alice's efforts to greet him, shook his head, and walked back out.
Forrest went into his office, sitting down in his chair. He raised his head to peek through the caged window on the side wall, making sure that there was no one around. He scratched at his scruff with his right hand, swinging back and forth in his chair uneasily. Forcing his hand wasn't something that generally worked in favor of whoever was making the attempt, but he was now concerned, based on Howard's one sided conversation with him, that he had been cold with Alice, and that she may in fact be wondering where he stood with her. All he'd been doing, all he'd been preparing for, included her. Was for her. But he supposed his brother was right. How could she have known? He reached into his rolltop desk, pulling out a secret compartment that slid out as it's own drawer. He carefully counted the money that was neatly stacked there, and the different newspaper clipping he'd seen with illustrations of what he'd been thinking of. He'd done a bit of reconnaissance in their travels to larger towns with larger selections of shops, but very little, though he knew exactly where he would go when he sought to find what he needed. He counted the money and replaced it and the clippings, then he turned back to business, immersing himself in moonshine and figures.
Alice should have been surprised that she wasn’t at Blackwater Station, but the nature of dreams is not to question what you’ve been shown until after you find yourself awake. She stood on the sidewalk in fine cut gold silk, a white fur mantle around her shoulders, her gloved wrists braceleted, her brow banded by a feathered crystal headpiece. She could see herself in flashes of moments only just passed, images and sounds flooding her mind. The inside of the upscale supper club, flush with attractive women, delicious, rich, well prepared foods, talented performers, and imported liquor. The dim lights as they went down around the diners to prepare for the stage acts, mahogany and amber tones in the furniture and in the paneling the walls, suffocating the sounds of raucous laughter and bawdy rollicking. The younger men and women of Charlotte, entertained by the sounds of jazz and the rhythmic sultry undulating of the dancers’ movements, accentuated by the ostentatious beading on their garish costumes. Everything in excess. Feathers, velvet, beads, fur, crystal, silks, diamonds. She saw the flashes again, even now, on the street, standing under the marquee with its bright lights and its banner in rolling script. The Osiris Club. The god of the underworld for the children of the underworld. You’d be a fool to think you’d be invited simply because you liked the finer things. Alice looked around the street. Cars pulled to the curb to allow their passengers to enter. She saw the flashes again. Jazz. Liquor. The man in the tuxedo standing on the edge of the stage, shouting to them in his jovial tone “Hello you darlings of jazz, you infants of the underworld, you’re at it again! And how! Now, for your listening and viewing pleasure….” His voice like one in a talkie picture.
It didn’t seem strange to Alice that she couldn’t see any of her friends. It seemed normal that she stood on the street alone. A car pulled up in the center of the road, a black 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom II that she recognized. Suddenly, she realized, all the others in the street had departed. It seemed everyone in the world had departed. While the lights shone and blazed around her, the cars had somehow disappeared, and from the front passenger’s side of the car came her fathers shape, emerging. She realized that she saw a shape in the driver’s seat, but she was certain there was no one driving the car.
“Alice” Johann said. He spread his arms to her, gesturing that she should join him in the empty street. She was not surprised to see him. It was as if she had seen him earlier that day. She stepped gingerly in her matching gold t-strap shoes onto the road, fully expecting pavement. The gritty, sandy sound she heard as tiny rock fragments crushed under her feet was a surprise. The entire street had turned to muted brown soil. Bone dry. She walked to him, and noticed the wind had picked up, and all of a sudden, the buildings around her started to blur. The powder began to be kicked up by the wind, and begun to swirl around them gently. Johann held out his hands, and Alice took them. He smiled at her. A great, pleased smile. She noticed how handsome her father looked in his black tuxedo. It occurred t her that she was glad he had gone with the white waistcoat beneath all that startling black, but she had no reference for the notion. Then she took his arm and they began to walk down the street. As she gazed at the car, she noticed there was certainly no one behind the wheel, yet it remained running. As they walked down the street, suddenly downtown Charlotte began to transform. Where tall buildings reached skyward, as they walked, the buildings seemed to move on either side of them, slowly, changing to smaller, more stout, rural-looking establishments, at a pace that allowed Alice to notice the transitions. Then the wind began to blow with greater ferocity. She could feel tiny particles between her teeth, brushing across her skin. Suddenly, she and her father were in a ruined field, all it’s once anchored plants now blown away. She recognized the region she was in.
“Papa?” She asked. “Where are we?” Though she knew.
He turned around, and it was strange because though the buildings that had surrounded them were now gone, and they, left alone in a tattered field, the electric lights from the marquee still cast a strange glow over father and daughter.
“They’re going to call this the Dust Bowl.” Her father said. The wind whipped around them, but she could hear him clearly, and neither of the two had a hair or garment out of place, despite the winds and the fact that this, this dust was all around them. “Now it’s merely overused soil, refusing to allow anything to take root. And no rain. Never rain. But these winds will blow, child.”
“Why are you here?” Alice asked. “You’re gone.” She seemed to be remembering.
“I am always here, Alice.” He said. “I’m waiting for the dust to settle.”
“What about me?” She asked. And then, with far greater desperation “What do I do?”
“Remember your enemy.” He said.
“The ATU? The government? Wall Street? Who??” She asked. Her father had blamed so many for their fall.
“Time.” He said. He looked out on the fields around them. “The only enemy is time.” Suddenly, Alice felt as though she were being pulled, hard, and Johann stared at his child helplessly, watching her slip back to the world.
Alice gasped, sitting straight up, hauling air into her lungs like one only surfacing after ages kicking for the surface of the sea. Back once again at Blackwater Station, where she could breathe. Gasping and sighing repeatedly, holding her hands to her chest she caught her breath. She had never dreamed that clearly of her father before. She had seen his face, his image, played his death over and over, but never had he spoken to her so. A dark thought flooded her brain in the darkened room.
You’re crazy, Alice. Just like him...You are, after all, the Mad Hatter’s daughter.
It was then that her dark thoughts began to gain weight, and she turned onto her side, fitfully anxious and convinced that Forrest would want nothing more to do with her if he found out she was as crazy as her father. There were weeks when they had watched her behavior, after his death: Lettie, her father’s attorney, and she knew they were wringing their hands at her odd behavior. And she still believed that she might have inherited her father’s curse as well as his blessing. He had been known to fall into deep bouts of depression, especially when away from camps, only to rouse himself considerably without explanation or warning. Alice had known others whose parents, siblings, husbands had committed suicide after the market crash, but Alice chastised herself for not seeing her father’s own self destruction coming. There had been so many signs. He had been wildly optimistic in the beginning, before the sadness set in. She realized she blamed herself for not anticipating the fall.
Suddenly, she had to get away. Just for a little while. She pulled the covers off of her and began to dress. Fully clothed in beige linen riding pants and a pretty white button up blouse, she set to packing her pack basket. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology went in, along with a blank leather bound notebook, a large roll of watercolor paper, her watercolors, paintbrushes, drawing pencils, binoculars, her brownie camera, a camp lantern, and a glass jar filled with water. Her rifle’s strap she carefully affixed to the pack basket so she could tote it with her. She slung her coyote wrap around her shoulders, tucked a red riding coat under her arm, rolled up her second buffalo hide, smaller than the one she often kept on her bed, and strapped it to the bottom of her pack basket. Then she tiptoed quietly downstairs, aware of the fact that it was not yet five o’clock in the morning. She held her boots in her hands and her boot pulls tucked inside, her coat over her arm, her pack on her back. In the kitchen she found biscuits, cheese, cornbread, a little tin of blueberry jam, and some butter to bring up the hill with her. She filled her rather large canteen, and put her coat on when she reached the porch, replacing her basket. Fully armed, stocked with food and a strong will, Alice headed off into the Virginia woods in the darkened morning, towards the highest peak she could see.
When Forrest awoke an hour later, he thought nothing amiss. Alice usually woke after he did. But the strange knot that formed in his stomach caused him to feel something might be terribly wrong. And when no one had emerged from her bedroom by eleven o’clock, he sent Maggie to check on her. It was then that his worry turned to full blown panic.
(Play) Gillian Welch - "Down Along the Dixie Line"
Alice had left the world behind. At least for the afternoon. She'd hiked to the top of a hill covered from the ground to it's craggy summit in slightly skeletal arbors of all kinds, new leaves just beginning to bud, and conifers of all types, their leaves and pines the same constant green. She climbed with the sun as it began to rise, casting strange shadows as the light came down through the trees, the merry rattle of her supplies inside her pack basket following her as she made her way across two meadows towards the foot of the hill she meant to climb. She'd moved quickly across the meadows, a sudden energy rushing through her as she hustled through dewy grass in the purplish morning light. She could feel the weather growing warmer by the minute.
When she reached what she thought must be just below the summit, she found a pleasant, quiet place to sit and think. She sat at on a wide, spacious rock ledge, looking out over the hills and valleys of Franklin County, alternating between focusing her gaze with her binoculars, and taking in the view unencumbered. She was wrapped in her coyote pelt, draped over her shoulders, and had laid out her buffalo hide to sit upon, cushioned from the rock by the bison's shaggy winter coat. Her red riding coat sat spread out in front of her so on the off chance a hunter happened by, they wouldn't mistake her for an animal amidst all the fur. She had chosen a place she thought relatively safe, high enough into the hills that the ATU weren't likely to be searching, as the location was inconvenient and the ground uneven and unstable. She enjoyed the opportunity to simply sit and do nothing, staring at whatever view caught her fancy for whatever amount of time she desired. Halfway through the morning, she unlaced the laces at the ankles of her field boots and found a way to pull herself out of her boots without having to use her boot horn. The boot pulls she'd placed in her pack basket. She passed the morning in quiet reflection, closing her eyes and tipping her face skyward, the corners of her mouth turning up in a smile as she thought of all the possible variations in which Lettie could shout at her for exposing her face to direct sun. When she tired of doing nothing, Alice shuffled through her pack basket. She found her roll of watercolor paper and a tiny, thin paintbrush, and pulled the little jar of water and tin of paints she'd brought with her. Then she started on her project: a little map of Franklin County as she could see it. She would use knowledge of distance and elevation she'd gleaned from traveling about, and she'd use her view atop the hill and certain key landmarks to judge scale and proportion. It was well known that Alice couldn't draw a thing, and her painting skills were rudimentary, but she could use color and shading to create maps well enough. Ever a visual person, Alice enjoyed organizing places and landmarks in her mind by painting them on paper. The colors would help remind her of points of reference. She had created maps like these for her father before, and it was the first she'd made for herself that she wouldn't copy for him as well. In pleasant solitude, with the sun on her shoulders, she lay the paper out in front of her on the flattest surface of rock she could find, and carefully began to paint.
At Blackwater Station, the day began much as any other might, though most were surprised when Alice didn't emerge from her room in riding clothes around half past nine. Jack and Howard took most of the morning preparing for a delivery that would go to Floyd Banner later that evening. Forrest spent the hour after breakfast seated on the porch, wondering when Alice was going to come barreling past on her way out to see Smoke. Forrest would sometimes dawdle with his coffee and his cigar, waiting to see her before he sequestered himself within his office, or took off to conduct business or to go on a run. Jack had fed the horse his grain and flakes of hay in the morning as he always did, and turned him out shortly thereafter, and Forrest sat wondering while the big gelding paced around in his paddock, looking back and forth for his rider, and stopping every so often to stare in Forrest's direction as though he might know where she'd gotten to. Forrest noticed the morning was passing quite quickly, and by ten o'clock, disgruntled, he shuffled into his office, grumbling to himself all the while. Maggie gave him a shifty sideways glance and turned back to doing the dishes. Forrest sat for a while, calculating expected outputs from the new submarine stills. Now that they were producing, he could estimate how many gallons could be expected and how frequently they could expect them to be ready for sale. But he was having trouble concentrating on his work. By that point, there would have at least been shuffling from Alice's room. Forrest couldn't imagine why he had been feeling so…ill that morning. It wasn't any type of illness he could recall having felt before. But there was certainly something wrong. His stomach felt tight, and he could feel the nervous tension that had settled there. He forced himself back to work several times, each time concentrating for a shorter amount of time than the last. Finally, he stalked into the kitchen and got Maggie's attention, in the way he usually did, standing at the counter and waiting for her to come speak to him. She approached the counter, waiting.
"You seen 'er?" He grumbled.
Maggie leaned forward and refilled Forrest's cup, which he'd toted along with him. "Not today," she said.
Forrest was still standing at the counter. And waiting. Maggie sighed, placing the coffeepot back down on the stovetop, and looked back at him.
"You want me to go check?"
She asked discreetly. It wasn't exactly a question. She knew what he was expecting. All he did was nod and turn back around, lumbering off to his office to listen and wait. Maggie clicked up the stairs in her little heels, turning at the top of the stairs to knock on Alice's door.
"Alice?" She called. She knocked again.
"Alice?" She heard nothing from inside. She knocked once more, and then gently cracked Alice's door.
"Alice?" She called, peeking around the door.
All she could see were the bedcovers, haphazardly thrown back, as though Alice had left her bed only moments before. Suddenly, Forrest's preoccupied, idiosyncratic behavior that morning didn't seem as strange as it had throughout the rest of the morning. Everything about Alice's absence seemed strange. Maggie turned around and closed the door behind her. Then she quietly made her way back downstairs. Forrest was waiting in his office, seated at his desk, looking up at Maggie expectantly. Maggie suddenly felt a tremendously maternal instinct towards Forrest. As far as she could remember, he had never looked so concerned as he did at that moment, his big, wide green eyes open, earnest and hopeful, his jaw a hard line, his brow furrowed. Maggie shook her head.
"She's not upstairs." She jumped back an unnecessary distance as Forrest leapt from his seat, and he pulled back a little when he realized he had frightened her. Then he brushed by her through the door and headed out into the yard. Howard and Jack were around back, lining new crates with fresh hay for their delivery. Occasionally, Banner would keep the crates if he needed to transport large quantities, other times he would unload the jars from the crates in order to store them at his convenience. Either way, they preferred to be prepared. Forrest was possessed of the ability to move more quickly than nearly everyone else judged he was capable of, and he moved that quickly now. He was in Howard's face before his brother expected him to be.
"Where's Alice?" Forrest growled.
Howard looked at his brother with a quizzical look on his face. Normally, he would be offended and incensed that his elder brother would confront him with such a question, but he was so startled at the nature of the inquiry that he just stared openly at Forrest.
"Whatchu mean?" He asked.
"Well, y'all such good friends now," Forrest said, his jaw tight. "Thought you might know where she went to."
Howard shook his head, puzzled still. He wasn't even angry at his brother, where otherwise he might have been, given the insinuations that could be inferred from his statement.
"I didn't know she was gone."
"Whassamatter, you can't find 'er?" Jack asked, coming around with another crate. Forrest's brow furrowed, but he supposed he'd have to explain to his brothers at some point. He shook his head.
"Her car's still here. Horse is still here. But she ain't upstairs. We went to bed after she did. An' I been up since five o'clock."
Jack's lower jaw went slack, and he looked back and forth between his two older brothers, wondering what to do. Howard shook his head, running his right hand through his unruly curls. Jack, growing older now, and slightly more aware than he'd been the day he saw Floyd Banner shoot an ATU car to bits in town, sensed he should probably let his elder brothers talk.
He suddenly had an idea for an appropriate distraction. "I wonder if Cricket knows something." He tamped down the last of the hay into the crate and took off down the hill a ways to Cricket's side garage and living space.
Forrest spoke quietly to Howard. "The doors were locked this mornin' when I came down."
"She got a key?" Howard asked.
"Maybe she went somewhere early? Real early?" His brother asked.
"Car's here. The horse is here." Forrest was shaking his head.
"So she went on foot…or someone picked her up." Howard suggested.
"Or someone took her." Forrest seethed.
Howard scrunched up his lips at the side of his mouth. "For'st, if someone wanted money, don't you think we'd know they had 'er by now?" Howard supposed that his conclusion could be logical, given the fact that she drove around in that fancy car, and dressed the way she did when she went into town, like one of the fashion plates in the magazines. Maybe someone thought there was plenty more that came from wherever those expensive things did. Perhaps someone would try to ransom her, counting on the county rumors of Forrest's over protective sentiments towards his tenant, and the new relative wealth of the Bondurants as the last functioning bootlegging operation in Franklin County to cover the fee if it turned out she wasn't worth a penny. Howard could imagine that being their plan. But he doubted that was the case, as there had been no note, and they had no other contact from anyone claiming to know where she was.
Forrest looked directly into Howard's eyes "What if they didn't want money?"
Howard squinted in confusion. Then his eyes opened wide. "ATU?"
Forrest made a stern growling sound in the back of his throat.
The brothers were making their way back inside the station, Howard following Forrest's lead, hurrying to keep up. Since no one was in the station at the moment, they were free to speak openly as they opened the door and stepped inside.
"For'st, if Rakes had her, you know he'd like nothing better than to tell you he did. It's almost noon, and he's not here. Nor are Hodges or Abshire. Where else could she be?"
Maggie was kneading dough behind the counter, and she interrupted before Forrest could say anything. "Her daddy was King Shit of Timber Mountain or whatever, wasn't he?" She asked. "She's probably off on her own somewhere. She told me she used to take walks in the woods all the time. She'd spend hours out there." Maggie seemed to think the boys were overreacting, until she felt a twinge of pain in her abdomen and remembered. "But…" she paused. "They're searching the woods all the time." She looked between both brothers, making sure they understood what she was telling them. She may have left the station just fine, but what if she encountered someone on her way back. It had happened before, unfortunate encounters for Alice in the woods. All three in the station remembered. Jack and Cricket tumbled into the station, having run from Cricket's garage. Both of them looked helplessly around the room.
"If she's anywhere," Cricket breathed. "Don't you think her colored lady would know?"
Forrest nodded. Howard had an idea. He went to the phone in Forrest's office, and picked up the receiver. Forrest, Jack, Cricket and Maggie followed to stand outside the door. The operator picked up, and Howard smiled, nodding at everyone. "Inez? This is Howard Bondurant." The other four watched in fascination as Howard greased the girl on the other end of the line.
"Well, she called two days ago, from North Carolina, or Virginia. Around two in the afternoon? We jus' need that exchange darling. Yes. Tha'd be the one. Would you connect me? Awlright. Thanks darlin'. "
They watched with fascination as Howard spoke to invisible voices on the other line.
"This is Howard Bondurant. I'm acquainted with Alice Ostergaard. We're looking for um, Etta Louise?" He asked.
"Yessum. I'll git 'er." Said the young girl on the other end of the line. There was shuffling and shouting in the distance and then a deep, sweet voice picked up the phone.
"This is Etta Louise."
"M'am I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but this is Howard Bondurant at Blackwater Station?"
Lettie began to worry. "Everything all right?"
Howard considered how to approach the situation. "I was wondering if Alice had a habit of…disappearing? Her car is here, so is her horse, and she didn't leave a note. But she's been gone since this morning. We want to know if we should be concerned."
The woman on the other end of the phone sighed. "This child." She paused. "Is wild. She will go off in those woods without tellin' nobody. She gon' be somewhere with a view." Lettie said. "The biggest hill within five miles. That's gon' be the one she'll be on. Right on top. Somewhere with sun, somewhere with a lil' shade, where she can look out and see the mountains. That's where you'll find 'er. Most likely on flat rock."
"Thank you so much m'am," Howard said, brightening. Forrest's shoulders sunk down from up around his ears, some of the tension leaving him, though he remained nervous.
"You go up there, an' you still can't find her, fire two shots quick and one a bit after. That's the call. She'll shoot back." It was the signal Alice and her father had used.
"Thank you." He repeated.
"Oh, Young man?" Lettie asked.
"Yes m'am?" Howard replied.
"You tell your brother the only way to catch a moving train is to jump on board." She said, laughing .
Howard himself laughed aloud. "I've been trying to deliver the same message myself, m'am."
"Well all right," she said. "Take care of my baby."
"We will, m'am." Howard said. "Thank you again."
Howard hung up and turned back to his brothers, Cricket and Maggie. "She is a frequent visitor to the surrounding wilderness." He said. "Forrest, if you want to find her, we got to leave now."
"Where?" Forrest asked.
"Top of the highest hill within 5 miles."
Forrest nodded. He knew where they were going. As the brothers made their way upstairs to change their boots, Forrest stopped Howard on the stairs. "What she say to you?"
Howard laughed "I'll tell you on the way. Somewhere you can't push me off."
Sweating in their long pants and collared shirts, Howard and Forrest Bondurant hustled up to the top of the hill they now felt certain had been Alice’s destination. Howard carried a shotgun, while Forrest carried a rifle and his sidearm, as they crashed through the brush quickly as they could, making up time. By half past one in the afternoon, they were approaching the tree line, and Howard was growing increasingly nervous. His concern was not for Alice, who he seemed certain would be just over this ridge or the next, but for his brother, who seemed to be losing patience with each foot they climbed. He had never seen his brother so distraught in all the years he had known him. As they climbed higher, heading for the section of the hill which boasted the most rocky ridges, Howard, out in front of his brother, paused for a moment, wiping sweat away from his brow, and turned his ear to the sound of what he thought was a voice several hundred feet above them. Forrest stopped short behind him, waiting to see what it was that had caught his brother’s ear. Howard pointed in the direction of the sound of a clear, lyric voice, singing words he couldn’t discern. Forrest furrowed his brow and paused until he could hear it. It could only be her. He had listened out of earshot to her singing to herself on occasions when she had cooked at the station, and quite often as she sang to Smoke while she brushed him and tacked him up. They climbed further in the direction of the voice. They climbed via a circuitous route, unable to approach her directly, instead required to climb up one side of the hill and then down. As they reached a place on the hill where they were parallel to where she had made her day camp, they could hear now quite clearly what it was she was singing. A folk song, from the war between the states.
“I spent my childhood walking the wildwood”
Forrest could see her by now, laying, of all things, flat on her stomach at the edge of the bison hide, resting on one forearm which held down a sheet of heavy watercolor paper as it lay flat on the flat rock surface while the other carefully drew a line with a fine paintbrush.
“Down along the Dixie Line”
He couldn’t see that she was painting. All he could make out were the soft, curvaceous lines of her form as she lay flat on her stomach in her tailored, fitted riding pants. Her round bottom, specifically, and her lovely little feet, bare of stockings or boots, which she kicked back and forth absentmindedly on the ends of bent legs. Her hair, which she generally tied back, was down around her shoulders, shining golden red in the sunlight.
“Freight trains are squalling
Eyeballs are bawling
Four engines at a time”
Howard patted his brother’s shoulder and turned to go back “See you at the station,” he said.
Forrest looked bewildered “You ain’t comin?”
Howard chuckled “Oh no… I told you what her colored woman said.”
Forrest shook his head once, realizing he was so distracted he hadn’t asked the particulars beyond where they should be able to find her.
Howard grinned saucily and mimicked the deep, sweet melodic voice he had heard on the other end of the line
“The only way to catch a moving train is to jump aboard.”
Forrest’s eyes went wide and he looked away for a moment, embarrassed, though he couldn’t tell why. Howard grinned again and gave his brother a good natured punch in his massive bicep
“All aboard, big man,” he said. Then he made his way back down the hill.
Forrest sighed and took off his hat, smoothing back his hair, suddenly self-conscious. He placed it back on his head and climbed as quietly as he could up to where she lay, until he was directly above Alice, ready to head down the outcropping towards where she sat. He waited an inordinate amount of time, listening to the sound of her sweet voice.
“I was so happy with Momma and Pappy
Down along the Dixie Line”
Watching her lazily move her legs back and forth, bent at the knees, he allowed himself to think of exactly what he’d like to do if there were no constraints on either of them. How he’d like to catch her little heels in his hands and carefully lower them to the hide she lay upon, gently part her thighs and settle himself into place against her, burying his face in her lustrous, sun warmed hair. He got as far as imagining the eager, impatient grinding of her backside against him as he unbuckled his belt, shocked when he heard her voice call out to him.
“Are you going to stand there forever, bootlegger, or are you comin’ down?”
He could hear her distinct, soft Virginia twang in her voice. One he couldn’t always make out amidst her generally more refined way of speaking. One he loved to hear.
She didn’t even look up at him. Suddenly, Forrest was incensed. Laying his gun down in a discreet, secure place, he lumbered down through the rocky area that lead to the outcropping, striding with confidence towards her until finally she raised herself up on her haunches to look at him, turning as a light breeze blew her hair across her neck. It was then that he stopped mid stride, disarmed. He noticed for the millionth time the swell of her ample chest beneath her pretty white blouse, and the curve of her waist in contrast with her hips. Alice blanched slightly, noticing the anger on Forrest’s face. She would be lying to herself if she claimed not to fear his temper a little, and a worse lair still if she denied her enjoyment of his palpable power. Carefully, she rose to her feet, and as he looked down Forrest noted her little toenails were painted bright red. The meek, submissive look on her face roused Forrest’s confidence once again and he stepped towards her in big, imposing strides.
“Whatchu think you’re doin?” he asked sternly.
She looked so pathetically confused, her pretty mouth parted, her eyes wide and searching, that he almost felt badly for his tone. Then he remembered all the worrying he’d done.
“Didn’t tell no one where you were goin?” he demanded.
He saw Alice’s eyes grow dark, as her combative nature was provoked. “I wasn’t aware it was required of a tenant.” The way she used the word tenant suggested contempt for the nature of their relationship.
“There’s prohis crawlin’ all over these damn woods,” he barked.
She looked up at him, testing a bit of insolence, but reverting to the self-conscious behavior of tucking her hair behind her ear as she often did “I was distinctly aware of you watching me shoot yesterday. You should know you have nothing to worry about.” She sniffed dismissively and turned to go back to her spot sitting on the hide, when she felt Forrest’s hand shoot out, surprisingly quickly, and catch her gently by the forearm.
“No!” she snapped, yanking her arm away and crossing both over her chest. “You only pay me mind when it pleases you to.”
Forrest felt a terrible, tight, wrenching sensation in his chest and the pained look on his face told Alice she’d perhaps been too harsh with him. Then she recalled all the hints she’d dropped, all the opportunities she’d given him, and the way he seemed to have disappeared after their kiss the night of the barn dance and their escape to Blackwater Station. Suddenly, she was angry, and completely unafraid of him. Completely unafraid of whatever might happen to her.
“You think I don’t know what they’ll do? You think I haven’t seen men bleeding and dying and crying out to God to save them? When I was nine years old a sixty pound splinter of oak went straight through a man’s heart in front of me. You think I haven’t seen violence, and gore, and death? You think I don’t know what men do to men they hate? To women they can’t have?”
She was shouting now. And trembling, she realized. She had backed away from him and was standing back on her buffalo hide, curling her toes in anger, her hair whipping around her face in the wind. Forrest stood, stunned. Angry tears had mustered at the corner of her eyes and she fought them off.
She looked down at her feet, her voice suddenly quiet
“My father….I saw my father…” She looked up at him again, and Forrest felt his heart crushed to the point where he couldn’t draw breath, the pain on her pretty face almost too much for him to bear. A deep, quiet sob rose in her throat “He didn’t die right away.”
She closed her eyes and tears rolled down her cheeks, recalling the look in her father’s eyes as she had skidded to a stop on her knees on the blood soaked marble floor, the light draining from his eyes as she sat sobbing and cradling his head in her hands.
No sooner had her tears fallen than they were replaced. She wiped them away from her cheeks, as they burned with shame.
“He was mad. And every day I’m afraid I will be too.”
“Good man ain’t measured by his sanity.” Forrest grumbled. Alice looked up at him.
“Why did he leave me, Forrest?” She asked, her lower lip wobbling as more tears streamed down her cheeks. “Why did he leave me?” She sobbed, her voice quavering and earnest.
She realized her hands were raised in front of her chest, balled into loose fists, elbows bent as her arms quaked along with the rest of her body.
More quickly than either of them expected, Forrest had closed the gap between them and with giant, gentle hands had gently encircled Alice’s waist, pulling her protectively against him. Her arms relaxed as she cuddled against his hard, muscular chest, and she put them up around his thick neck, her entire body slackening a bit as he caught and held her in his strong arms.
“Shhhh,” he whispered softly as she cried quietly onto one of his big shoulders, and he hated Johann then, if only for an instant, for causing her this pain. For a few moments, they simply stood there. Forrest, never one to use words needlessly, said nothing for a time, only turned his head to rest his cheek against the side of her head, until the words he needed came to him.
“Everythin’ I been doin’ is for you, Alice. I always pay you mind.” She turned her head to look at him, bewildered.
“For me? But you’ve been so-”
“Been workin’.” He said. “Man’s got to be proud of who he is and what he got before he can hope to…”
“Hope to what?” Alice asked, her heart leaping in her chest.
“Now ain’t the time to talk about that.” Forrest said, stiffening. He realized she truly wasn’t certain. And he realized what a fool he had been. She loved her horse, but he had offered her distraction when all she seemed to want, to his delight and disbelief, was him. He had made her wait, and it killed him inside that she’d taken his preparation as rejection.
“Why don’t you come ridin’ with me tomorrow? I don’t like you out here alone.” He asked. He was tired of waiting. He had questions for her. Alice pulled back to look at him, her arms still around Forrest’s neck.
“I’d like that,” she said. She blinked up at him through still reddened eyes “You’re not going to tell me I have to go?” she nearly whimpered, tears welling in her eyes anew.
Forrest shook his head. “No, darlin', no one’s leavin’ you any more.” He said.
She leaned back into him, wrapping her arms around his neck tightly as she whispered, lips soft against his ear
“Good. I could stand to loose everything but you.”
Forrest trudged back down through the brush and uneven rock, having retrieved his shotgun. Laced back into her field boots, Alice had set to work rolling up the bison hide and strapping it to the back of her pack basket, which she’d hastily re-packed. Now she bent to retrieve her map, lifting it gingerly in her hands to gently blow on the paint and examine to see if it had dried yet. Anxious not to keep Forrest waiting, she placed a blank page over it to absorb excess paint and keep it from moving, and rolled them both together, placing that in her pack basket, which she slipped her arms through, careful around her loaded rifle, despite the fact that the safety was on. Then she turned to him, looking up and placing her hand over her eyes to shade them from the sun.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Forrest nodded, turning without a word and leading the way up the outcropping to where they could access the rest of the hill and descend towards the station.
They said almost nothing to one another as they made their way down past the tree line, back the way Alice had come, and down across the meadows, until they were at the edge of the Bondurant property. It had taken them only half the time, Alice hurrying along behind Forrest to keep up with his big stride.
When they had reached a place where Alice was reminded of something she had wanted to tell Forrest, she called out to him, softly, uncertain of whether or not he was upset with her, given his relative silence upon their descent.
“Eyeah?” he grumbled.
“Those three sycamores to the west of the pond, and that big chestnut all have to come down.” She said.
“Ain’t gotta come down, them trees-“ Forest protested.
“They do,” Alice interrupted, frustrated. “It’s anthracnose, see the leaf blight?” She asked, pointing to the sycamores. It’s faint, but it’s in the beginning stages.”
Forrest glared at her and harrumphed. Despite this, she continued.
“And the chestnut has blight fungus, see the cankers? If any of them topple the wrong way they’ll land on the shed.”
Forrest stopped walking entirely, stared at the trees, and then at Alice, who stared back, looking sheepish, and then followed without a word when he turned to keep walking. He was headed for the four trees. Standing back, a few hundred yards from the station, she watched him examine them, remaining at a respectable distance. He walked about for a few moments, picked at some of the bark, and then brushed his palms off on one another and turned around, head down and eyes narrowed. To his relative disbelief, she was right. He hadn’t even noticed. As he passed by Alice, waiting with her hands gripped around the straps of her pack basket, he grumbled, eyes darting over her pretty features
“Awlright, we’ll cut ‘em down.”
She hurried to fall back into step with him. As they made their way back into the yard at Blackwater Station, Alice saw Cricket pick his head up and wave to them as they passed by. Jack and Howard were nowhere to be found, but the truck was gone, and Alice suspected they had gone on a delivery. Forrest stalked into the station with Alice behind him, heading into his office without another word.
“Hi, Maggie,” Alice said.
Maggie looked up from where she was mixing together a batter for that night’s dinner, and smiled at her. “There you are,” she said.
“I probably should have mentioned going walking,” Alice replied, guilt marring her features.
Maggie shook her head, furrowing her brow. “Just do so next time, please?” She asked.
Alice giggled silently, nodding in the direction of Forrest’s office. “As if I could forget to, now.”
Climbing up the stairs two at a time, Alice went to her room and placed her pack basket on her bed, pulling her blouse out of the waistband of her riding pants, unbuttoning the sticky garment and tossing it into the laundry. Sitting on the trunk at the end of the bed, she used her boot horns to pull them off, peeling her stockings down her legs and shimmying out of her riding pants. Throwing her pantalets, bra and chemise in the laundry as well, she donned a dressing gown and snuck into the bathroom to bathe.
When she returned to her room, feeling clean and refreshed, Alice planted herself in the middle of her bed and finished the last of her snacks from the pack basket, stopping intermittently to roll her wet hair into a cascade of finger waves that she pinned to her head with individual curl clips. When she was satisfied, she curled up in bed with her curtains drawn, in a short, sheer nightgown, and fell blissfully asleep until dinner.
When her little alarm clock chattered to life at five thirty, Alice rose and unpinned her hair, brushing out the waves with her fingers as she rummaged around the room looking for what she intended to wear. It had grown warm that afternoon, and Alice wasn’t interested in sweating any more than she had earlier that day. She put on a freshly laundered bra and matching pantalets, crinkling her nose as she dug out her matching garter, digging through her drawer until she found her sheerest (and therefore coolest) pair of stockings. Sighing, she found her thinnest slip and shimmied into it, hoping the night would start to cool off. She stepped into a cream colored wispy crepe de chine bias cut dress with an attractive keyhole opening at the front, a wider cutout opening at the back, and scalloped sleeves. The buttons on the dress were an attractive glaucous blue, trailing down her side and meeting at the top of the keyhole opening to her dress. Finding a pair of comfortable matching blue flats, and patting her smooth, luxuriant finger waves, which she swept up and pinned in the shorter, trendy style, she took one last look in the mirror, dusting some powder on her cheeks, applying a bit of balm to her lips and brushing a bit of mascara onto her eyelashes.
Hurrying down the stairs, Alice retrieved her apron from its shelf behind the counter, hauled the ice cream maker from it’s place beneath the fresh table cloths, and set to work beside Maggie, making frozen lemonade while the older girl shuffled about working on dinner. There were few customers in the station that night, drinking at a table in the corner and playing cards amicably. Cricket came around and offered to help turn the hand crank on the ice cream machine, while Alice made the lemon syrup she would mix with the ice she had pummeled and placed in the canister in the center. The heat from the syrup would melt the ice into a kind of slush, and once mixed together with ice and salt around it, would turn a thicker consistency that could be eaten with a spoon. Lettie had taken many an opportunity on sweltering hot days to cook up this concoction, and she and Alice would sit wherever was coolest, fanning themselves and letting the cold mush chill their insides.
Forrest listened from his office to the pleasant chatter of Alice and Maggie, talking about nothing and everything. Cricket moseyed around underfoot, checking the grill where Maggie’s chicken was cooking, helping both girls as much as he was able while they bantered back and forth. In the budding evening, the air had cooled, and pleasant breezes blew through the screens on the open doors of the station, and in the windows, carrying the smells of dinner throughout the building and cooling Alice off considerably. Alice placed her mixture in the ice box, hoping it would freeze sufficiently by the time dinner had concluded. Then she went about setting the table for five. When she had nearly finished placing the last pieces of flatware by their respective place settings, the jalopy pulled up, and Jack and Howard came inside, looking tired and accomplished. After washing their hands, they reported to Forrest’s office, speaking low, delivering the cash so their brother could count, store, and distribute it. Before long, all three brothers emerged from the office, just as Maggie was placing the last heaping serving bowl in the center of the table and Alice followed behind her, placing a pitcher of ice water beside it. As was customary, the girls waited for the brothers to take their places at the table. Howard and Jack chose their places beside one another, but instead of seating himself, Forrest paused and went behind the chair which sat beside the one on which he would sit, pulling it out from beside the table and looking at Alice bashfully, then casting his gaze down to the chair. Flushing a bit, she didn’t hesitate, instead standing in front of it and sitting gracefully as he pushed it in behind her. She cast a glance at Maggie and smiled a slightly goofy grin at the older girl. Keeping her lips slightly pursed so that Forrest wouldn’t be given the impression they were keeping secrets, she discreetly returned the smile.
Throughout dinner, very little was said, everyone seated at the table suddenly famished as soon as they sat down. While the girls and Cricket cleaned up, Howard sat at the counter fixing a hinge on one of the still pourers they used for draining the liquor into jars. Jack swept up around the table and throughout the station. Forrest wrote in a notebook with a tiny stub of pencil he kept in his cardigan pocket, bits of information he wanted to remember from his conversation before dinner with his brothers. Then he rose and stalked out to the porch, cutting a cigar from the case Alice had given him with the cigar cutter she had given him for Christmas. It was not lost on her that he often made use of them, and she smiled as she dried another dish with a dishtowel, placing it on the stack of dried dishes already assembled by the sink. She checked the icebox, opening the tin of frozen lemonade to check the consistency, then scooping it into tumbler glasses, placing a few lemon slices in each for good measure. She handed Jack, Maggie, Cricket, and Howard each their own glasses with spoons, and planted one in each of two glasses, carrying one in each hand as she headed out to the porch. Forrest was seated in his usual chair by the green rectangular table, puffing on his cigar and squinting out at the setting sun in the yard. Wordlessly, Alice stepped towards him and held out a glass. He took it from her and furrowed his brow, looking up, appreciative but curious.
“Frozen lemonade,” she said.
He nodded, and sipped a bit of frozen slush off the top, nodding his head and licking his lips. Satisfied that he was satisfied, Alice gracefully sat on top of the wide railing in front of him, leaning her back against the wooden post, laying her legs out in front of her, crossing one ankle over the other. She looked out at the yard as she scraped at the ice with her spoon, placing it gently in her mouth and pulling the ice onto her tongue, savoring the contrast of sweet and sour, and the pleasant chill as it slid down her throat. She watched the colors start to fade, and turned her face towards the sky as the stars began to appear. All the while, Forrest watched her, stubbornly digging at his frozen lemonade with one hand while he smoked his cigar with the other.
She turned her head towards him, pretending not to notice he was struggling with both hands full. “What time will we ride tomorrow?” She asked.
Forrest thought for a moment. “Seven,” he said.
Alice nodded. “All right.” Swiftly, she swung down from the railing and descended the porch steps, padding across the dirt yard in her flat shoes, heading for Smoke’s stall. She dug around in her glass for the last few spoonfulls as she walked, finally tipping her glass upwards to drink the last of the freezing cold lemonade. She set the empty glass on the railing of an empty stall, walking along in the relative dark to find the light switch, flicking it upwards to illuminate the barn aisle.
“Hello, handsome,” Alice said, smiling at Smoke as he peeked his large head over the doorway of his stall. As she stepped beside him, he lifted his head and placed it over her shoulder, and she put her arms around his neck.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to work today,” she said. “I needed some time to take a walk.” She sat with the horse for a bit, scratching beside his ears and patting his neck alternately, talking aloud as much to herself as to him.
When Forrest had finished, he placed his glass on the counter inside, and still puffing on his cigar, made his way to the shine house where he would check to be sure everything was in order.
Taking one last glance at the darkened interior of their storage shed, Forrest locked the padlock on the door and spied Alice, glass in hand as she flipped off the light in the barn and rolled both doors closed for the night. In the light of the high moon cast across the yard, she noticed Forrest looking at her, and waved shyly. They met in silence as they walked back towards the station, and matched each other’ strides as they headed inside, Forrest locking the door behind them and moving around to lock the side doors while Alice went to place her glass in the sink. Yawning as she came out from the back kitchen, she laughed when she saw Forrest had noticed.
“Well, I believe I’ll head upstairs” she said, wondering where the others could be. Jack seemed to have disappeared, Cricket would have gone home by now, and Howard and Maggie had seemingly retired to upstairs. Forrest only nodded and lumbered into his office, going to count some figures before turning in.
As he climbed the stairs that night, instead of pausing outside the threshold and wishing her goodnight through the closed door as he usually did, Forrest knocked gently on Alice’s door. When she called to him to come in, he was taken aback to notice she was laying on her stomach on her turned down bedcovers, in a pale peach silk nightgown that reached just below her calves, but was so thin as to leave little of her curvaceous shape to the imagination.
“Oh, uhm…I uh” Forrest stuttered, embarrassed, caught between wanting to look and knowing he shouldn’t.
Turning to him with her hair falling in her face, she smiled, a flush coming to her cheeks, and said bashfully
“Please, come in. Could you close the door, please?” she asked, her intentions to communicate that she didn’t mind if he saw her this way, but preferred for no one else to. Hesitantly, Forrest stepped into the room, the soft light of one of her bedside lamps casting a dim glow across everything in sight. Including her. He noticed she was reading, a book which she placed flat on the bed. He could see he cover, it’s gold letters “The Woman In White” written neatly on the spine. To his surprise, she had raised herself up onto her knees and came to face him, and his heart dropped in his stomach as his eyes took in the way the silk of her nightgown draped over her chest and hugged her waist. The neckline plunged quite low, and Forrest panicked, feeling a flush rise to his cheeks. She hung back a foot from him, kneeling on the bed, and looked up into his eyes.
“Have you come to kiss me goodnight?” She asked, no longer concerned with propriety.
He stepped in towards the bed, his knees pushing into the mattress as he took her gently around the waist, squeezing her tight against him as he dipped his head to nuzzle at her neck.
“Mm,” he said. She giggled a bit when his scruff brushed against her jawline, and he pulled back to look down at her lovely face once again. Eyes blinking expectantly, he watched her pretty mouth part ever so slightly, and leaned forward to place his pouty lips against hers. He was surprised by the eagerness with which she kissed him in return, but nevertheless responded in kind, puling her to him possessively and gently slipped his tongue past her lips, prodding her tongue with his. He was suddenly aware of his hands gripping great fistfuls of silk, pulling her nightgown halfway up her thighs without realizing what he was doing. As he grasped for another handful, his calloused fingertips brushed against the softness of her skin. She gasped, pulling away with a disappointed sigh of regret, her arms still about his neck where they had been resting.
“Forrest,” she whispered. “I want you to. You don’t know…..how I want you to.” At this, he groaned softly.
“But we’re….” She paused, searching his eyes, “it’s not….not yet. I’m a…and we…it’s not….time.” She was steadily turning pink, and Forrest reluctantly uncrumpled her nightgown, sighing so heavily she felt his chest move. She leaned forward and squeezed him around the neck again.
“S’alright, darlin’” he said. “That’s why we’re goin’ tomorrow.”
Puzzled, Alice pulled back and smiled at him, a bit of inquisition in the look she gave him. But he would give nothing away. He simply looked at her, his gaze steady, his big palms flat against the skin of her back as he held her.
“Well,” she began, looking down. “I suppose I should sleep so I’ll be wide awake.”
She beamed at him, to show her excitement. He nodded and pulled back, watching her as she carefully tucked herself into bed and placed the book on her beside table, turning over on her side and gazing up at him. Forrest reached out and ran his thumb over her cheekbone, pulling the bedcovers up around her and reluctantly stepping away from the bed, turning back to her in the doorway as she reached one hand up and gently yanked the pullstring to turn her light out.
“Goodnight, darlin’” he said.
She smiled, closing her eyes and settling onto her pillow as she sighed. “Goodnight, Forrest.”
He closed the door quietly, with one last glance at her pretty face.
One ear trained to the quiet sounds of her moving about above him as he sat in his office, Forrest felt a quickening in his stomach when he heard a soft padding begin down the stairs, certain from the signature of the sound on the steps that it had to be Alice. She crept down quietly, neither Maggie nor Howard awake yet, attempting to allow them to sleep for as long as they might. She wanted to lunge Smoke a bit before she and Forrest went on their ride. Thus, she was awake early, the sun just beginning to steadily saunter up and peek across the horizon. Forrest quietly rolled his chair a bit closer to the open door of his office, listening intently for the sounds of her movement. She reached the floor, field boots clenched in her right hand, her rifle and leather supply bag slung across her chest. She placed the rifle and the bag down on the nearest empty table, wincing when they made a slight noise, and sat on a chair, leaving her boots on the floor beside her. She hooked her boot hooks into the fabric loops sewn inside her first boot, and pulled it up to her knee, first one, and then the other. She was leaning over to tie the laces at her boots’ ankles when she heard the familiar creaking of Forrest’s shifting weight on the floor boards. He had decided another cup of coffee was warranted, and with that excuse in mind, was lumbering around behind the counter, headed for the coffee pot when she snuck a look up at him. His back was to her, so she turned her attention back to tightening the laces the way she wanted them.
“Mornin’,” she called softly.
Forrest grumbled good-naturedly in reply. He turned around to look at her, doubled over in the chair in her cream colored riding pants, half their light brown knee patches covered by her shining black boots. She had a black cardigan buttoned over a light blue pin stripe round collared shirt, and Forrest noticed, alarmed that he was paying mind to such a minute detail, that the only button of the sweater that she had buttoned was buttoned into the wrong buttonhole. As she usually did, she had pulled the two sections of her hair by her temples back behind her head and pinned them there, leaving the rest of her hair down, the previous day’s pin curls now relaxed and wavy.
Instinctively, without much consideration for what he was about to do, Forrest placed his coffee down on the counter and crossed over to her in five big strides. Alice, still leaning down, had tied her laces and was brushing at what looked like a scuff on her boot when she heard the sound of his movement across the floor, and her heart beat with furious excitement when his boots came into view. He was so close. Had she looked up from her bent position in just that moment, her line of vision would be in quite an inappropriate place, so she simply paused, bright red fingernails brushing imaginary dirt from the toes of her boots. Then she felt his touch. His hand tipped sideways, Forrest placed the first finger of his right hand down under her chin, gently but firmly pulling up with the rest of his hand behind it to raise her face, and her eyes, to him.
He resisted the urge to suck in a breath. He almost wished she wouldn’t look at him like that. Forrest prided himself on his ability to maintain control of any given situation, and Alice left him feeling defenseless. He had been the object of many an admiring gaze, but she looked at him with the kind of adoration he assumed he couldn’t possibly deserve. Like he was kind of folk hero, and not simply a successful criminal with a healthy reputation. Like her guardian, her deliverer, her paladin. And all of these things he was, communicated so plainly by the worshipful look on her face. Forrest had forgotten what he was going to say. He was not even certain at that moment that he had planned anything to say to begin with. She smiled slightly, mouth twitching with nerves, and though she could not seem to control her blinking, her eyes never left his for a moment. He stared down at her, mouth stern and hard, mind racing. His deep, earthy green eyes bored into hers, and Alice worried for a moment that there might be something wrong, or that he had changed his mind. Then he lifted his hand and with rough, scarred knuckles slowly and tenderly stroked her cheek. She fluttered her eyes closed for a moment, and a familiar feeling began below Forrest’s belt, with Alice so close to the vital places associated therewith, a feeling that Forrest did not wish to nurture, precisely because of her proximity. He’d embarrassed himself enough with involuntary, inconvenient physical manifestations of his desire for her. He hadn’t reacted like this to thoughts of, or the presence of, the opposite sex since he was much, much younger, but to his disconcertion, it was rare for Forrest to think of Alice for a prolonged period of time without there being present some spontaneous, involuntary fantasy related to the imagined sounds, sensation, and imagery associated with her panting, and moaning, and writhing with pleasure beneath him. His deep, unnerving, and overwhelming affection for her was interwoven with his desire to claim her as his own each night as he lay down, to couple with her with so intense and devoted a passion that the hours they spent apart during the day melted away.
He needed to pull himself from her at this particular moment. There were notes he needed to leave for Jack and Howard, information they might need in his absence, as he did not expect to return with Alice until midday. And there were bits of business to put in order. Soon enough they would be high in the hills, and he would have the opportunity to actualize all he yearned for, or watch his hopes crumble. But either way, he would know. He had wasted time in waiting this long, and today he would remedy that. With a final caress of his knuckles on her jawline below her ear to her chin he held her gaze for a moment and grumbled
“….gon’ finish my work n’ we can go.”
Alice nodded emphatically, remaining quiet. When he had stalked off back to his office, stopping briefly to retrieve his coffee, Alice took a deep breath, placing her left hand over her heart and her right over that to steady herself. She sucked in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, smiling to herself as she jumped up, grabbing her bag and her rifle. She hurried out the front door and through the screened one, filled with a sudden burst of energy as she rushed down the porch steps and across the yard to the barn.
When Forrest headed out to tack up the old chestnut who occupied the stall next to Smoke’s, Alice was in the paddock beside the barn, lunging Smoke, tacked up except for his bridle, which Alice had draped over the fence. At the end of the lunge line attached to his halter, the young gelding cantered along, quick but collected, his head and neck relaxed. Alice turned slowly in place at the center of the circle he made, following him with the lunge line and her eyes, the lunge whip in her hand dragging on the ground behind him where Smoke could see it. Before disappearing into the barn, Forrest indulged himself with a prolonged inspection of Alice’s behind in her riding pants, managing to look away before she turned her head with Smoke’s movement and caught him looking.
When Forrest lead his horse outside into the yard, Alice was already mounted up, having traded Smoke’s halter for his bridle and her lunge line for the reins in her gloved hands. Her rifle and her bag were sideways across her chest, and she was staring off into the hills, taking in the scene around her. Forrest noted with contentment the look of tranquility about her when a breeze blew across the yard and she closed her eyes, tipping her face skyward. He watched her chest heave as she took a deep breath, pulling the fresh air as deep into her lungs as their capacity would allow. Her posture was impeccable, sitting tall and serene on Smoke’s back. She sat like the proud, satisfied queen of a kingdom at peace, a confident ease to her noble seat atop her mount. Forrest was surprised by how calm she seemed, with stakes growing higher each day now that the Bondurants were the final and most sought after target for Rakes to attempt to eliminate. There was little of the veiled melancholy Alice had displayed when she’d first arrived in the early fall. After he’d swung up into his western saddle and righted himself, situating his reins in his hand, he looked over and noticed her smiling at him. Wordlessly, he squeezed the horse gently with is legs and started off in the direction of their first destination, Alice and Smoke following suit.
Alice kept on Forrest’s left side, hoping to gauge, now that she had the opportunity to observe Smoke alongside another horse, how he reacted regarding his limits in vision when being ridden with another horse and rider. Thus far, he seemed perfectly at ease as they picked their way along a small path through the trees that Alice had never taken before. She had seen Jack and Howard come from this way often enough, and head back off in this direction, but until her foray to the top of the hill the day before, she herself had done little exploring of the property.
Given that Forrest, true to himself, was not speaking, Alice decided not to spoil the pleasant silence of the morning, and chose instead to enjoy and absorb the scenery around her without a word. With Forrest, she did not feel compelled to speak, or to fill the space with empty chatter, an unpleasant pressure she often felt around those with whom she was not at ease. With Forrest, Alice had learned in practicum something her father had always attempted to teach her in theory…the importance of being quiet and reticent, and Alice scolded herself for occasionally having felt impatient with Forrest on those occasions when, despite her affection for him, she had allowed him to frustrate her when she should have simply been paying more careful attention.
The path through the trees was gradually opening up, the trees fewer and farther between, and before long, Alice realized, they were on a patch of grass that was opening up into a larger meadow. A large barn, flanked by a pen occupied by a few cattle, sat a few hundred yards from a sprawling farmhouse with a front porch that ran the length of the dwelling, and as they drew closer, Alice could see another barn behind it.
“Well,” Forrest said. “This is the farm.” He turned to look at Alice’s face, attempting to gauge her reaction.
She was looking about, taking in everything at once as they drew nearer. Then Forrest stopped his horse in place so they could face the house and the barns from an angle where all three buildings were visible, and Alice, pleased, noted that Smoke had instinctually stopped as well. She sighed, and looked over at Forrest.
“What a peaceful place….” Alice continued, not concerned that Forrest would think her odd, despite what she was about to say.
“I…when I was little, we rarely spent more than a few years in one place, or a few months at a time with my mother, in the winter, when there was no logging…and I always used to conjure in my mind places I’d want home to look like if I ever had one that I never had to leave.”
Forrest was watching her face with his brow furrowed, big pouty lips parted slightly.
Her voice was soft and low when she continued.
“So many times, I pictured somewhere…like this. Not the very same….but a place…like this one.” She looked down at her hands, resting on Smoke’s withers, aware that Forrest had not ceased in looking at her. She looked up at him once again, giving a soft smile. “Thank you for taking me here, Forrest.”
He tried to not appear touched by what she said, though all of it had caused his level of optimism to rise considerably, and he was anxious to move on.
“C’mon,” he said. “Got more for you to see.”