DeDe Nettles was a pistol. At thirty-nine, she carried a .38 Smith & Wesson and could shoot straight. When she slipped it into the pocket of her apron it felt heavy, like a ball and chain. Yawning, she shuffled out to the back porch for some fresh air. She stretched and leaned over the railing hearing … she wasn’t sure. “Could be raccoons trying to get to the chickens.” Voices—someone’s in the yard. “The whole world’s gone crazy.”
She scurried back into the kitchen and locked the door behind her. It was the first time she’d turned that lock since she’d married Thirl and moved into the house on Nicholas Street. After pouring another cup of coffee, she walked to the front room to rest in her overstuffed chair. A chair Thirl had bought her for Christmas. He brought it in on the train from Charleston. The same year he purchased their first refrigerator and added the bathroom to the back of the house.
Before she sat down she smacked the chair. An impulse from living in a coal camp, the dust that flew out of it determined her next cleaning day. She was a small woman and felt like a child each time she sunk into her chair. The first time she took a seat and saw her reflection in the windows, she laughed and said she looked like a redheaded kewpie doll with no legs.
Life’s sorrows showed in her brown eyes, Thirl had told her. DeDe had seen first hand the hardships of mining life on women, and she was no exception. Every woman she knew aged quickly. DeDe’s smiles were few and far between, reserved only for special moments, and mostly for James Curtis. Up close her skin was a vague meshwork of lines and wrinkles, like the peel of an orange, only smoother. Petite, but often the largest presence in the room, her physical size often went unnoticed. She was bound to protect her own with as much commitment and passion as Joseph Bradley when he decided to build his coal empire in Widen.
Thirl teased her, how she could testify about her sanctification one night and shoot a perfect game of pool the next. DeDe recruited every child on Nicholas Street for Sunday school. She never missed a church service. And everybody knew she loved her boy. James Curtis was her prize possession.
For all her religious dreams, visions, and premonitions, she headed the ladies prayer group every week, specializing in prayer for the safety of miners. Some folks said she had the “gift.” Her grandma had it, and so did her mama. A sense of knowing the future, of hearing what could not be heard by normal folk. A direct line to the Almighty. She didn’t gossip, but when she spoke—folks paid attention.
DeDe’s hand slipped into her pocket; her fingers clasped the cold metal of her gun. With her other hand she reached out to the bookcase beside her chair and lifted the ancient picture of her grandfather, turning it in the dimly lit room, tilting it this way and that, gauging the severity of his lifeless face. He was God’s minister, and yet she wondered if he heard the mine scream before his head snapped toward the explosion and the rumble of the fireball—before he was incinerated. Or maybe he never saw it coming. Maybe he was buried by tons of earth without warning. Maybe his bones were crushed, his organs split open, his senses annihilated, his life wiped out before he had a chance to understand what was happening. But she doubted it.
The coal camp sprawled over the bottom of the hollow some sixty miles northeast of Charleston, the state capital. The road to Widen was hilly, twisting and narrow. A broken road with ruined shoulders and potholes. A yellow sign at the top of the steep hill that dropped into Widen warned, HILL. Somebody scratched it into the word, HELL.
At the bottom, all along its length were small houses, occasionally a large one, set back from the road at the edge of the mountain. A twisting octopus of streets swirled through the valley, not the typical plaid grids of flatland towns. Although the valley was wide, as they typically were in that part of the country, one road and one railroad led in and out of town. Thunderous coal and passenger trains rode the rails and filled the valley with the sound of screeching brakes and shrill whistle stops. A loose-plank bridge near the Grille rumbled with a clap of thunder each time a vehicle drove over the creek below that collected beer bottles, candy bar wrappers, and cigarette butts. No streets or alleys were paved; that was only for folks in cities like Charleston and Huntington. Widen’s streets were covered in slag coal or dirt.
The town was alive with coal. The Company’s huge gob piles, ominous heaps of mine waste with their guts ablaze, filled a person’s nostrils with the pungent odor of struck matches. Over thirty feet high, the graceful slopes of loose coal and sulfurous dirt glowed a soft orange. The tipple’s steam rose like the breath of a monster. A place where coal was screened and loaded into railroad cars, the tipple demanded the town’s attention and tribute. Its silo, locomotive shed and repair shops hugged the company’s railroad yard.
A company town; Joseph Bradley and The Elk River Coal and Lumber Company owned it from tipple to barbershop. Despite the company store, school, post office, bank, movie house, medical dispensary, YMCA, baseball park, and 310 dwellings, Widen was first and foremost a coal mine.
The trees may not have been straighter in Widen, the grass greener, the sky bluer and the mountains more purple and majestic, but when the mine was producing, it often seemed so. On fine mornings the locals liked to tell each other that, indeed, God covered His black gold with these hills, this place—first.
But the fine mornings had ended. During the first weeks of September after the mine closed down, the town’s inhabitants remained behind closed doors, clothed in fear. The school closed, the Grille closed, and even the post office closed the day after the strikers dug in and parked their cars, sons, and guns at the top of the road into Widen.
Inhaling the hills of his childhood, James Curtis watched Odie Ingram skirt the timber at the far end of the east pasture mounted on a young, edgy bay colt. Huge maples, oaks and hemlocks towered over everything, standing still in full foliage on the mountain behind his farm.
Odie worked hard in the mines and he worked his horses hard. James had been welcome once, but he had no idea what Odie would say to him now that they were on opposite sides.
James leaned his shotgun against the fence. He knew most of the younger men had sided with the strikers—he wasn’t taking any chances. They were boys he’d gone to school with, like Cole Farlow. Cole was known for his hot head and short fuse. It stuck in James’ memory the day Cole spouted off that if there were ever a strike, he’d shoot a kiss-ass company man faster than a nigger-lover.
But James knew if the strikers had tried to kill his dad, they’d shoot at anybody. He respected his dad’s position. He’d never side with the union even if he did share a few union sympathies. His love and loyalty to his family far outweighed any feelings for or against the union. Beyond his duty to honor his parents, however, he loved Savina with his soul, and today he wanted to explain that to her father—hoping to keep his place in Odie’s house as his future son-in-law.
James Curtis suspected Odie liked him well enough, but he'd made it clear. Savina could not marry until she was eighteen. It was her daddy’s stubbornness, Savina had said. James, in an attempt to be amiable, respected Odie’s condition. But deep down, James believed Odie would never allow Savina to marry him. James anticipated an eventual elopement. Many couples in Clay County married early, but Odie had an innate fear of being alone since his wife died, so James agreed to wait hoping time would ease his anxiety.
Odie rode high in his saddle, appearing taller than he was. Through the mist of daybreak, the dreamy scene played like a western picture show. In the distance on his favorite colt, Odie checked the mares for signs of illness or accident. The horses fanned away from Odie and the colt. Quick in the morning chill, the mares puffed funnels of breath and shook their heads at the inconvenience.
Odie was not a company man. He worked the mine for one reason and one reason only—to pay off his farm and to raise quarter horses. Odie rode up to the barn then jumped down and hitched the colt to a post, nodding to James, acknowledging his presence. When he ambled toward the back of the house, James shivered; a chill ran the length of his body. Gazing up to the dreary sky, winter was on its way … the leaves were changing, like the rest of his world.
James walked toward the front of the peeling, sagging farmhouse. A pack of spittle-flinging dogs barked and paced back and forth on the porch. Chickens roamed freely. Savina quit trying to fix up the place after her mother died. The yard was covered with junk. Rusted bedsprings, empty Pennzoil cans, wet newspapers, bald tires, corroded truck parts … it looked like the house had vomited its insides.
Odie kicked open the screen door and lifted his gun from his side. Gray drizzle peppered his skin as he stomped down to the bottom broken porch step. Mud and manure covered his boots. A smile ticked briefly at the corners of his mouth like a small spasm and he pulled at his ear with his free hand. Their eyes met with awkward glances. Odie began to stare at James with the eyes of someone who thinks he’s about to be told a fact he already knows. His teeth were clamped shut, his top lip drawn back in that smirking snarl.
James recalled what his daddy had said about Odie a few days ago. That he changed amazingly little over the last thirty years. Except for paunchiness around his middle and the loss of some of his hair, he was the same nice boy he’d gone to school with. James considered the fact that his daddy didn’t really know Odie.
“Morning, Mister Ingram. Savina in the house?”
“I figure she’s down by the crick.”
James Curtis nodded and headed toward the direction of the creek.
“James Curtis!” Odie cocked his rifle.
James froze, feeling Odie’s hot stare burn the back of his neck. He turned around. “Sir?”
A twelve-gauge aimed at his head revealed Odie’s message before he spoke it. “I don’t want you comin’ ‘round here any more. I don’t want you seein’ my Savina agin.”
Up to now, James was unafraid of Odie’s intimidation—it was the attempt to keep him from Savina that left him weak-kneed. “I have a right, Mister Ingram. I have a right to see her. We agreed.”
Odie’s blue eyes blazed, considering this. “Comp’ny men have no rights on my property.”
“Mama thought you’d feel that way. Said to tell you to remember who helped you on the farm last year when Josephine died.”
Odie lowered his gun, by only an inch or two. “I don’t need remindin’. You tell your ma—Thirl and me are even. Ask Bonehead and Hardrock. Ask ‘em who drove Thirl’s car to the Grille last night. With him in it passed out and bleedin’ like a stuck pig. I don’t owe your daddy nothin’, boy. He helped me when Jo died, and it was me that saved his life last night.”
James opened his mouth but nothing came out. Except for his eyes, Odie had become a colorless man. His pale skin, gray hair, gray stubble, dirty gray pants and jacket, and gray cigarette smoke swirling between his fingers matched the shades of gray in his voice. Pockmarks and small scars marred his face. Small cauliflower ears poked out from the sides of his head. The tip of his left ear, which he tugged at whenever he felt uneasy, was cropped, and his nose lay flat against his face—the result of shoeing an uncooperative horse some years before.
Despite his unattractive features, coarse speech and rough manners, he possessed a keen intellect and a profound capacity for observing the world around him.
James stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and shrugged. “You and my daddy been mining together since you were my age.”
Odie cleared his head and throat, coughed, then spit a plug of phlegm at one of his dogs. “Boy, you ain’t tellin’ me what I don’t know. Your daddy and me spent years together in them deep-dark-dank holes in the ground. Goin’ in before sunup and comin’ out after sundown … never saw daylight for weeks. That cage dropped us like rocks hundreds of feet into them black holes. Ever’ day we’d walk toward the tipple together with our dinner buckets, givin’ the comp’ny another day’s labor, never knowin’ if we’d come home.” Odie lowered his gun further.
“Anybody ever tell you the definition of slave labor, son?” Odie flicked his cigarette to the ground. “It’s coalminin’. Men that work a job where they risk their lives ever’ minute and at the end of the pay period owe more to the comp’ny store than they made. Debts don’t die with ‘em, neither. They’re passed on to their children. It’s time the union come in, make things better, work less hours, stricter safety rules … you heard Zirka … time to let some of the younger fellers in on them committees. You need to join us, James. Time we make some of the decisions.”
“Daddy said Joseph Bradley has the highest safety standards in the state. That he kept the mine open during the Depression so the men could feed their families. Daddy said Bradley pays as high as union scale.”
“Your daddy has his opinion about Bradley, I have mine. Bradley owns the damn bank. He owns us, boy. You think about that. We cain’t take a shit unless Bradley approves it. Now I’m telling you to get off my land. You best hope the union gets in, then maybe we’ll talk agin. Otherwise … Savina is off limits to you, son.”