A Hidden Mountain Novel
Return to Hidden Mountain…
Lorelei Stewart has always accepted her role as the town tramp’s daughter and has earned her fast and loose reputation. She’s a hard woman who pays her way and asks for nothing, but times change. Pregnant and overburdened with responsibility, she’s given up on men and has a plan to provide her baby with what she never had as a child; a decent home and a loving mother. The old bootlegger, Rollie Roper, needs a caretaker and has room for Lorelei and her coming child; a fair exchange.
Everything’s almost perfect until Rollie’s long lost nephew, Cob Thornton, turns up with money and plans of his own and those plans don’t include the woman living in his house, yet something about Lorelei fascinates him. He begins to see past the cold armor she wears to protect herself from pain and finds a vulnerable and loving woman within. Now all he has to do, with a little help from old and new friends, is convince the pessimistic Lorelei that sometimes, changing times can be a blessing in disguise.
Cob Thornton eased his way through the town he hadn’t seen in twenty years. There were a few more vacant storefronts, a few more boarded over windows. His mother had written of Doc Hanson’s passing. Murray’s store was gone, too, but he smiled when he saw the lights on in the corner diner. Someone must have taken it over. Much to his childhood dismay, the Brinsons had closed it when he was eight. How he’d loved sitting at the counter with Rollie, ordering coffee and pie as if he was one of the men. Mrs. Brinson always left plenty of room for sugar and milk in his cup, but that hadn’t mattered back then.
He was tempted to stop, grab a cup of coffee and see how the place had changed; as it must have changed. Everything changed. He only hoped his old home hadn’t changed too much.
His uncle sure as hell hadn’t changed. They’d argued twenty years ago when Cob enlisted and hadn’t spoken since. His mother had written though, and he’d called her once a month until the letters stopped and his calls went unanswered. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to tell him his mother had passed.
Well, the old man would have to get used to having him back. Half that house and half that land was his mother’s and now it was Cob’s and he had plans, big plans. He’d scraped and saved and invested his money for twenty years. He’d dreamed of coming home to the mountain for twenty years, too, though that wasn’t the plan when he left. Now he was back and no one was going to stand in his way.
Cob passed the Post Office, also new, and noted the mailbox marked ‘Tolliver’ seated on a post of rusty tire rims welded together. He wondered which Tolliver it was. When he was a kid, every other person you met was either a Tolliver or related to one.
It wasn’t Dan’s. Cars were too damn fast for Dan. His mailbox would sport a wagon wheel or a horse head.
Instead of narrowing, the road widened and was paved. This was also new. Rollie had given John Preston right-of-way through his land, but would never allow a public road. Times changed.
The lane to the house hadn’t changed. It was as overgrown and rutted as it was when he left. The yard, however, was completely different; no cans, no bottles and holy shit! Were those baskets of flowers hanging from the porch?
He parked the truck and retrieved his duffle and started for the house. His mother’s lessons kicked in. Front doors were for guests. Cob headed around to the back door. As he rounded the rear corner of the house, debating whether he owed his uncle the courtesy of a knock, he was brought up short by a sight he never thought he’d see, a woman other than his mother hanging clothes in his uncle’s backyard. It couldn’t be.
He paused to watch and think. Her back was to him and her long, brown curls bounced along her back as she pegged a towel to the clothesline running between two posts. She was tall and slim as far as he could see. Her legs, extending from a pair of modest shorts, were long and as finely shaped as any he had seen. Her shirt was sleeveless and showed a pair of muscular arms, but it was one of those wide, smocky things so he couldn’t get a good idea of her waist.
Her line was sagging and she bent to pick up a wooden prop at her feet and Cob got a good look at a rounded, heart shaped ass, a little wider than perfect, but eye-catching just the same. She picked up a man’s shirt from her basket and that’s when everything clicked.
The clean front yard, the flowers, a woman hanging laundry in the mowed back yard. He looked beyond her and saw a vegetable garden, something Rollie would never keep, but Cob’s mother always did.
Times change. Some other family was living in his house and that could only mean one thing. His Uncle Rollie was dead.
Cob was surprised at how hard that hit him. How many times had he wished his uncle to burn in hell? He never once thought the old bastard would actually do it. His mother was always frail, but Rollie was like Big Rock; granite hard, immovable and eternal. He was looking forward to having a knock-down-drag-out with the old man. Cob was no kid anymore. He had plans and the knowledge and money to make them happen. He’d rehearsed the scene so many times in his mind and now it would never happen. His shoulders sagged.
Rollie was at the root of all his dreams. Rollie taught him everything he needed to know and some of those things had saved his life a time or two. Rollie was his only living kin and the best damn distiller of illegal corn whiskey in the mountains.
“Oh God, not Rollie.” Cob dropped the duffle and leaned against the house.
Lorelei heard a dull thud and a quiet groan and dropped the wet overalls back into the basket. She looked up at the wooden screen door that led to the kitchen.
“Rollie? Rollie, honey? You okay?” If the old man fell again because he refused to use the damn walker, she’d kill him herself. It was hard enough to lift him the last time and it niggled at the back of her mind that the old fart did it on purpose, just so he could cop a feel while she helped him up. He never fell when she was at work or if he did, he picked himself up. “Rollie?” she called a little louder.
“Godammit woman, can’t a man have a minute’s peace? What do you want?”
Breathing a sigh of relief she called back, “Nothing. Sorry.” She bent to pick up the denim pants from the basket.
Lorelei eeked and spun. She held the overalls out in front of her like a shield. “Who the hell are you?”
“Cob Thornton and this is my house, so who the hell are you?”
“This is not your house, buddy.” She took a step back and toward the stairs. “Rollie?” she called as loud as she could. “We got company! Now!”
“You live here? With him?”
“What if I do? It’s his place.” She dropped the heavy denim and took another quick step toward the porch and safety. She hated showing this guy her fear, but she’d been in this place before; alone and at the mercy of a strange man and she wasn’t pregnant then. “Rollie!”
Cob stopped, mouth open. The woman was pregnant, belly swollen and about to pop. Rollie had a woman? A young and beautiful woman. A pregnant woman. Shit! What’d the old man do, win the lottery?
He raised his hands in a gesture of peace, not wanting to frighten her any more than she obviously was. He heard the door open. “I won’t…” hurt you, he started to say.
“Damn right. You won’t do squat. Stay right there, Mister.”
Rollie, looking older and a lot smaller than Cob remembered, stood on the back porch holding a shotgun that wavered vaguely in Cob’s direction.
The woman, now behind his uncle, reached for the gun. “I got it, honey.”
“The hell you do. It’s my legs don’t work. I can shoot just fine.” He rested the barrel on the rail.
Hands still in the air, Cob said quietly, “Rollie, it’s me, Cob, your nephew,” he added, in case the old man had lost his mind as well as the use of his legs. He stared at the woman’s middle. Obviously other parts worked just fine.
“The hell you say. Cob’s dead. Been dead these last fourteen years.”
“Then how the hell am I standing here now?” Cob thought for a minute before he came up with something the old man would understand. “Did they ever send you a check?”
“Don’t deal in checks. It’s cash money or nothing. Anybody who knows me, knows that.”
Cob’s head dropped to his chest. He gave it a quick shake and picked it up again. “You are as thick as the soles on a banker’s shoes, Rollie Roper.” It was what his mother said over and over when Cob was a boy.
Rollie took his finger off the trigger. “Step on over here so’s I can get a good look at ya.”
Rollie handed the shotgun to Lorelei and leaned over the rail to get a better look. The boy had been tall and skinny when he left. This feller wasn’t as tall as Dewey Tolliver, but he was twice as broad.
“What was your Mama’s name?”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Cob started to lower his hands and then noticed how the woman held the weapon. She looked a damn sight more competent that Rollie.
“My mother’s name was Abigail. My father was Elijah. I was born in this house, or so I was told, in the same damn bed as you were, though I hope to God it wasn’t the same damn mattress. We came to live with you when I wasn’t much more than a baby. You had an old hound you called Boner that my mother hated though I didn’t understand at the time it was the name she hated, not the dog. He lived under that porch you’re standing on and you told me he would eat me alive if I dared leave the house without you or my mother. I believed it, you old bastard.”
Rollie slapped the rail. “I’ll be damned. I thought you was dead. Got notice from the gov’ment.”
“That I was wounded, not dead. Didn’t you listen to what they said?” He started to drop his hands again, stopped, looked at the woman and completed the move when she nodded and lowered the weapon, though she didn’t put the safety on when she cradled it across her arm.
“Didn’t talk to ‘em. Saw the car and the uniforms and knew why they were here. They don’t send a car lessen you’re dead. You best come in since you ain’t.” He turned, tottered, and was rescued from falling by the woman.
“Good to see you, too,” Cob muttered as he went to retrieve his duffle.
When he entered the kitchen, Rollie was sitting at the table and the woman was leaning over him, rubbing his back and cooing something into his ear. There was an aluminum walker next to the table. Rollie didn’t look good. Maybe she thought she and the baby would inherit this house when the old man died. She wasn’t wearing a ring. Still…
He heard Rollie blow his nose. The woman leaned further in and kissed the top of his uncle’s head. “Thanks for being there, honey. You’re my hero. I’m going out back to finish hanging my wash.” She glared at Cob, but spoke to Rollie. “You call if you need me.”
Cob moved out of the way as she passed. For a woman ‘great with child’, she moved gracefully without the waddling gait he’d noticed in other women in her state.
She stopped just past him and turned her head. “Don’t upset him again,” she warned.
Upset Rollie? His uncle wasn’t the one held at gunpoint, was he?
The screen door slammed behind her and he turned his attention to Rollie.
“Who the hell is she?”
“An angel sent to save my life, but don’t go repeating that. I wouldn’t want her to think I’d gone soft in the head.”
Soft in the head pretty much covered it. “Rollie,” he said slowly, “Who is she? What’s her name?”
“Lorelei Stewart. You know her.”
Rollie furrowed his eyebrows and frowned. It was a look Cob remembered well. The old man was puzzling something out. Having arrived at a conclusion, he waggled his index finger beside his ear.
“Come to think on it, maybe you don’t,” he said. “She’s a good deal younger’n you. She’d a been just a little thing when you went away.”
“She’s from around here?”
“Sure, sure. She and her Mama lived up on Dry Creek Run.” Rollie ran the handkerchief over his mouth, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose again.
“The only Stewart I remember on Dry Creek… Holy shit, Rollie. Is that Pearl Stewart’s daughter?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
That explained a lot.
Pearl Stewart was a whore, plain and simple. She spread her legs for any man willing to pay her rent and buy her booze and when the money ran out or the man got tired of being Pearl’s bank, she moved on to the next and there was always one waiting in line. There was always a party at Pearl’s and the door was always open to anyone who brought a ‘donation’; food, drink or money. Cob had only been there once, when he was eighteen.
Fresh out of high school and ready to head out to basic training, his friends had treated him to a night out at Pearl’s. Pearl couldn’t have been more than twenty-five back then and seemed wild and exotic to a kid who only saw women wear high heels and lipstick to church on Sunday. At the time, he didn’t realize Pearl had sisters the world over who plied their trade on street corners or bars, or in sleazy bedrooms in cheap rent districts.
“How many kids did Pearl end up with?” he asked casually.
“Just the one, but a fine one she is.”
She certainly was that and no longer the child Cob remembered; a little girl about eight with a cloud of dark curls spread over an uncovered pillow of blue and white ticking. She was sound asleep in a rumpled bed on dirty sheets. She looked so peaceful and he remembered wondering how she could sleep through all the noise and music. Even as a kid he knew it wasn’t right to expose a child to what went on in that house.
Cob lost his virginity that night, not with Pearl, but with another girl older than him and certainly more experienced. She said she had a going away present for the soldier boy and took him outside and after kissing like he never kissed before, he banged her up against the wall of the house beneath the bathroom window.
It was obvious to Cob now, as it hadn’t been then, that his concern for the sleeping child was right on the money. Being raised in that house, the apple couldn’t fall far from Pearl Stewart’s tree.
Lorelei was better looking than her mother and it looked like she was smarter, too. She’d found herself an old man with a house and land and no one to leave it to. Rollie probably had a few dollars laid aside as well. He earned good money with his illegal still, paid no taxes, and lived frugally.
Cob couldn’t drive her out. There was a baby involved and that baby would be kin. Someone would have to look out for the child and it looked like the job would fall to Cob. Rollie didn’t look like he was faring too well, and at his age, it was unlikely he would live to see the child fully grown anyway.
It wasn’t in his plan, but plans could be adjusted. He’d do for the child what Rollie had done for him, though hopefully with fewer clouts to the back of his head and a helluva lot less yellin’. They’d all have to make the best of it.
Times changed. Welcome home.