Rob led Josh to an open Jeep on the edge of the airstrip. As he tried to start the vehicle, he said, "If there's one thing we need around here it's a good mechanic. When this place was built as a training camp, there were practically no roads to or from it. Now, since we have no reason to hide, we have a good road, but it still takes an hour to go to town and that may do no good as there's only one mechanic who can work on modern computer-equipped vehicles. We have lots of vehicles, tractors, and motor-driven equipment which would just about keep a mechanic busy and the people around us would be delighted to have a mechanic. I've tried, but had no luck. For example, this Jeep has a lot of miles to go, but it's a pain to start. Just haven't had time to take two hours to get it to town and two hours to go pick it up."
"Hang on, Rob, to that I may have a solution. I think I may be here to stay before the six months I thought at first and I have a friend who is one hell of a mechanic and I think he would love it here."
Rob drove a few miles and as they crested a hill, Josh saw a mountain meadow with a rushing stream running through it. Across the glade against the side of a wooded hill was a very large rustic house. "That place is huge!" Josh exclaimed.
"Yeah, it's large. You'll see it soon, but there's a very large living room, a large library, formal dining room, large, professional kitchen with an eating area and, of course, the master suite with office, sitting room, bath and bedroom on the first floor. The second floor has three suites with two bedrooms, sitting room and bath and three pairs of bedrooms connected by a bath. The basement has a wine cellar—at least I think it does. So far as I know, it hasn't been opened since Elijah died. It also houses an emergency generator and heating system—we just converted it to geothermal last year—and storage areas. There's a porch, as you can see, across the front and a deck across the back."
When Josh stepped into the house, he felt at home. Had it been a reasonable choice, he would have called San Francisco and told them not to expect him back. He might well have chosen the furnishings and décor they were so to his taste. He would not have been more pleased had he built and furnished the house himself.
Janie Birdsong, the housekeeper, was clearly of Indian ancestry. When Josh mentioned that, she replied that to her knowledge, she was a pure-blood Cherokee. After Rob had introduced the two, he turned to leave, then turned back and said, "Janie, Josh gave a go-ahead for a cookout tomorrow night." She nodded.
"Janie, I suspect you are almost old enough to be my mother. Now if anyone is going to be mistered or mizzed, it's going to be you. I'm Josh."
"Well now, Josh, I'm not sure about discussing a lady's age, but I guess you'll just be Josh. Should I pass the word?"
"How about the children?"
"What do you think?"
"Well, you're kinda young, but I think Uncle Josh up to thirteen and then maybe Mr. Taylor."
"Whatever you decide Janie." It didn't happen. Except for the very young, he was just Josh.
Janie then showed Josh to the master suite. If he had fallen in love with the house, he was doubly smitten by the master suite. While he was standing, mouth open, Janie asked when he'd like supper. "When do you usually eat?" he asked. She replied that she usually ate at seven. "Then we'll eat at seven," he said. She looked puzzled and he asked, "Well, am I not eating with you?"
"Well, I didn't know whether you'd want to eat with the help or not."
"Janie, I have to eat alone entirely too often. Also, you may work for me, but that doesn't mean one of us is better than the other. Unless there is a reason to do otherwise, when I am here, we eat the same thing, at the same time and at the same place."
At seven, Janie served a wonderful meal of beef stew with rich gravy. There were no vegetables in the stew, but mashed potatoes and fresh snap peas were side dishes. For dessert there was blackberry cobbler with ice cream. As they had coffee and dessert, Janie asked about his family. Josh debated what to tell her, but decided the truth would serve best and said, "I have none. My mom and dad died before I finished high school and I lived with my mom's parents. My Granddad died when I was sixteen. I was raised a Mormon and when the church found out I was in love with a man, I was excommunicated and my grandmother disowned me."
Janie was horrified and said so, adding, "That's like what happened to Elijah."
"Exactly. I only found out a few months ago that his brother remembered him—he was my grandfather—and asked that I be named after him. It is, in fact, why I am here as owner of Sentinel Mountain." Josh had decided he would not say anything about the possibility that he might not end up owning Sentinel Mountain, thinking it would give a level of uncertainty to their lives that they did not need.
The next morning Josh checked with Janie about buying beer and wine. She told him she was Cherokee and Baptist "and neither mix well with alcohol. Rob or any of the men could probably tell you."
Josh asked her if having beer and wine would offend her and she said there was no problem if there was something for people who didn't drink. Josh nodded agreement and asked, "How do I find Rob?"
"Well, if he's close to the Jeep, he can hear the radio. There's been talk about having cell phones, but you can seldom find a signal here." Josh made a mental note to check on solutions to that problem when he got back to San Francisco. A general call on the radio reached no one, so Josh asked about a vehicle and was told there was a Jeep in the garage. He found the garage—a four-car garage—with a nearly new Jeep inside.
He climbed in and decided to drive around until he found someone. He saw a figure at the edge of a meadow, maybe half a mile away. He hoped the meadow was safe to drive on because he headed for the figure, blowing the horn to get the man's attention. The figure stopped and waited for him. Suddenly the person started waving Josh away from where he was headed and he stopped and waited. It a young woman, not a man, who ran to the Jeep. She extended her hand and said "I'm Louise Birdsong, Janie's niece. Good thing you stopped or you would be in trouble," she said, motioning Josh out of the Jeep. The meadow's high grass hid a waterfall and a drop-off of about twenty feet to large pool and a very rocky landing.
"Thanks," Josh said, extending his hand. "I'm Josh Taylor,"
"Where were you headed, Mr. Taylor?"
"Josh, please, and I was headed for you, looking for someone to give me some information, but since you're Janie's niece, I guess that means you're Cherokee and Baptist too."
She shook her head. "Janie was married to my father's brother. Their stepfather was a Birdsong. So far as I know I have no Cherokee blood—though I suspect most of us in this part of the world have some, and I'm an Episcopalian. So what can I do for you? By the way, I'm half of the forest management team here."
"I'm planning on buying beer—and wine—for tonight and I need to know where."
"Well, you're in Sylvan County which is dry, I guess because it's mostly Baptist. Crockett is the closest town which sells beer and wine, but it's a drive to get there."
"Do they have an airport? I could look it up, I guess."
"I think there's a strip there, private field I believe."
"What are you up to right now?"
"I was checking out a dead deer one of the cattle guys reported. Don't know what killed him, but he wasn't shot. So I was on my way back to the station."
"Like to fly to… Crockett, is it?" Louise nodded. "Make a beer run?"
"Why not, but I drive."
She drove to the airstrip and Josh checked to make sure that Crockett had an airstrip, radioed and said he was flying in and got the necessary information. When they arrived, they called a taxi, found a store which sold beer and wine and loaded up and flew back. On the way back, Josh started laughing and said, "Rob told me there was a wine cellar and if it matches the rest of this layout, Elijah's ghost may not let us in the house with this stuff." Louise laughed with him. Once back at the house, Louise helped get the beer iced down and said she was looking forward to the cookout.
"Your niece is a nice young lady," Josh said to Janie after Louise left.
"Has a nice young man too," she said. "They're getting married in a couple months if she can get her mother off her back. You know the problem, mama wants the wedding she didn't have and Louise wants a simple ceremony in the chapel…"
"There's a chapel here?" Josh asked.
"Yeah, started out with little more than an altar and logs to sit on when Elijah was training his troops. Some of the boys built it and some took turns doing a service. After the war and when Boys' Camp was built, a group of boys worked on it, using half logs with legs for benches. Over the years, a pole shelter was erected over it and it is still kept up, like everything else. Being Baptist, I don't really understand about altars, but the one in the chapel is the original one. Nice setting for a wedding, but mama wants it in town in the Episcopal church and with all the trimmings. I understand she and the priest already had a set-to about what she wanted. She walked into the church office with wedding plans and was asked if she was getting married and it was on. Anyway, she and Louise are at loggerheads or would be except Louise just ignores her and her plans."
"The young man?"
"You'll meet him tonight. Bruce Harrison, he's a sheriff's deputy. Came here from somewhere in the Piedmont."
Around three in the afternoon, Rob arrived, driving a pickup with a very large cooler on the back. He opened the cooler and took out a large package and carried it into the kitchen. "I brought twenty pounds, Janie," he said as he put the package in a large walk-in cooler. "Brought a side of beef as well. I'll get the fire going now."
Janie opened the package and had started making burger patties when Sherry arrived. "I'm Sherry, Rob's wife, Josh."
"Good to meet you, Sherry. Thanks for helping out getting ready for this evening's cookout."
"Glad to help. We don't have enough get togethers here these days."
"Sure not like when Elijah was alive," Janie said. Josh suspected he was being given some good advice in an indirect way and made note of it.
Louise was the first to arrive and introduced Bruce to Josh. "I guess Janie told you we are planning to get married," she said. Josh nodded as he shook hands with Bruce. While Josh considered himself a good judge of character and practically never made a snap judgment about a person, he did about Bruce Harrison. He had spent time with Louise making the beer run and had found her intelligent, well educated and knowledgeable. He expected her young man to measure up to his opinion of her. He did not. In fact, he found him arrogant and overly self-important.
As the evening wore on and Bruce drank more than his share of beer, he became plain obnoxious in Josh's eyes. Jake Allen, who was far from drunk, but had a good buzz on sidled up to Josh and said, "Josh, I'm old enough to be Louise's father and she has been like a daughter to me since she was big enough to pick up a pine cone. She deserves better. Once he got that pistol belt around his gut, he developed a swagger that sets my teeth on edge." Josh didn't know how to respond, so said nothing.
Hank Fisher—who did, in fact, look like a cattleman—grabbed a cold Dos Equis out of the icy water, and raised a questioning eyebrow at Josh who nodded. He handed Josh the beer and twisted the top off his. "I'm afraid I have lived too soft a life to do that," Josh laughed, knowing from trying earlier the beer did not have a twist-off cap.
Hank handed Josh the beer he had just opened and twisted the top off the other for himself. "I don't mean to pry, Josh, and it's really none of my business, but I heard that you have lost a lover, a man."
"True. I hope he's alive and one day I'll find him but, yes, his mother took him from me when we were sixteen."
"Well, I want you to know that loving a man makes no difference here. I was kicked out of my home when I was fifteen when my father found me and my best friend in bed making love. I lived on the streets of Cincinnati for six months, doing what I had to do to stay alive. A fellow who I thought was a john looking for a blowjob, picked me up, bought me something to eat, listened to my story and said he thought he could help. He took me to a hotel and while I got cleaned up, he went out and bought me clothes. Three hours later I was on a bus to Asheville. Abel, Abel Wills was his full name, met me and brought me to Boys' Camp. I was there until I finished high school and then I asked about staying on to work with the cattle. Elijah took me on and I've been here ever since.
"My best friend was Phillip Dugan. His family kept him pretty much a prisoner, but they didn't throw him out. He managed to get in college on a scholarship and after he graduated, started trying to find me. I always sent my grandmother a birthday card and the year after he graduated, he remembered her birthday and that I always sent a card. He found her in a nursing home. She didn't remember me or Phillip, but my birthday card was pinned above her head. She had written him when she entered the nursing home when she still had her mind. Phillip got the address off the card and came to see me. We kinda dated for 'most a year before we decided we really did want to live together. He'd been here this evening except he's in Raleigh at an education conference."
"So you live here at Sentinel Mountain?" Josh asked.
"We all do. You work on the place, you can live here. 'Course, you're free to live anywhere you please, but who'd want to live anywhere else? If there's a free house you can take it or if you like, you can build one. There's materials made available for a nice house, but if you want better, you pay for the extra materials. You build it yourself, well, that's not true, you with your friends and neighbors—Sentinel Mountain neighbors or outside neighbors build it or you pay to have it built, but it's yours as long as you or you partner live. I mean, there's plenty of space here," he laughed. "We live about five miles up on the side of a mountain. We'll have to have you over for dinner soon as you get settled."
"Maybe sooner than I thought," Josh replied. "I thought I would be lucky if I could get the company turned around in six months but, to be honest, I expected it to take nine months or a year. I've worn my buns out traveling, seeing customers and suppliers, and things are definitely moving in the right direction. Fortunately, I have also gotten back the backbone of the company which was fired by the late owner's coke-head son. Could be back to stay in a couple or three months."
"We're looking forward to that," Hank said.
"Thanks," Josh said and turned to meet someone else when Bruce roared, "The cock-sucker got what he deserved. I'll be god-damned if I waste my time investigating his charge. Assfuckers need to know they are not welcome in Sylvan County."
"Bruce, you're drunk and shooting off your mouth. Go over there and flake out on that bench until you are sober or at least not dog-drunk," Jake said quietly. "Louise, you need to get Bruce somewhere to sober up."
Louise was red with embarrassment. She took Bruce by the arm and tried to get him to lie down on a bench on the end of the back deck where the cookout was being held. As she did, she said through clinched teeth, "Bruce, shut your fucking mouth."
"Hey, bitch, who do you think you're talking to? What's your problem? You think two men sucking cock and fucking ass is ok?"
Shane Everette and James Fisher walked up to Bruce and grabbed him by the elbows and headed toward the bench with him. Both men, about his age Josh guessed, had been friendly, but Josh had noticed they were very quiet all evening, as if they were very shy, which was strange because the Sentinel Mountain people struck him as a kind of extended family. He also noticed that the two were having no trouble handling Bruce. Both had hard bodies, he guessed from hard work, and either could easily have handled Bruce. Bruce wouldn't shut up and when he looked back at Louise and said, "Bitch, you'll regret this," Shane slugged him. With the alcohol in his system, the blow put him out like a light. The two men then unceremoniously dumped him on the bench, grinned at each other and walked away.
Louise walked over to Josh, her head hung, and said, "Josh, I'm sorry. I have never heard Bruce say anything like that before. I'll have my letter of resignation to you tomorrow."
"Two questions… no, three. First, do you agree with what Bruce had to say?"
"Of course not!"
"Second question, do you realize Bruce will never be allowed back on Sentinel Mountain property again, even in an official capacity?"
"I could have guessed as much."
"Third question, are you going to marry a man who calls you bitch?"
"Are you nuts or do you think I am?"
"Neither. Maybe another question. Do you like your job?"
"Then forget about resigning. Just know Bruce will not be back on the property and should you marry him, you cannot live on the property."
"Josh, I'm calling the sheriff to come pick up Bruce and I hope I never see him again. I guess a little alcohol dissolved the veneer of decency he had plastered over an asshole."
"How long have you known him?"
"Six months. We met shortly after he was hired after finishing an AA in criminology in one of the state community colleges. He seemed nice and we started dating. He liked coming out here to use the shooting range and all. He knew Hank and Phillip lived together and I assumed he knew they were partnered and didn't mind. Couple weeks ago, a young man was beaten and left on the side of the road up near the county line. He had 'cocksucking fag' written across his forehead and 'no queers in Sylvan County' scratched or cut into his back. The sheriff happened to see him and he was airlifted to Asheville. He was released yesterday. Bruce was given the case to investigate and I was upset when he said he thought it had been blown out of proportion. Anyway, I'm going to run inside and call the sheriff."
"Tell him he needs to handle this personally because I need to chat with him."
Louise went inside and Josh went back to meeting the people of Sentinel Mountain. He did not look forward to meeting with a good old boy sheriff about one of his deputies who was way out of line, since it didn't seem to be good way to introduce himself to Sylvan County, but he was not going to allow him to have a bigoted asshole on sheriff's staff and keep his mouth shut.
Editors: Jesse and Scott.
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