ON Tuesday, just after daybreak, Paris Brumfield rode his wagon up Smoke House to see about his oldest son, shot some two days earlier from ambush. For all Paris knew, the assassins who had shot Al, still unidentified and at large, lurked in the wooded mountains above the road, waiting to shoot him next. The old fellow kept a watchful eye toward the hills and a steady finger on the trigger of a Winchester that sat across his lap. John and Bill Brumfield accompanied him – John piloting the wagon – as did George Ward, a dark Negro who had drifted into the community some years earlier. Old George, a Kentuckian by birth, was very loyal to the Brumfields, who kept him. Also in the group, at Al Brumfield’s request, was Ward Brumfield. George entertained Ward. He loved the boy.
After a ride of roughly one hour, the rooftop of the large two-story Dingess cabin crept into view. For the first time on this ride, Paris Brumfield felt safe. The entire Dingess clan seemed to greet him in the yard by the creek. Charlie Dingess came toward the Brumfield men.
“Howdy, Charlie Dingess,” Paris said, standing up slowly in his wagon.
“Hello, Paris,” Charlie answered.
“You all holdin’ up all right?” Paris asked.
“Doin’ the best we can,” Charlie said. “Ain’t had no more trouble since Sunday.”
“Good to hear,” Paris said. “Where’s my boy?”
“He’s in the house with Hollene, he is,” Charlie said. “You all get out of that wagon and come on in. Harve’ll tend to your horses.”
“Much obliged,” Paris said. “Be good to stretch our legs.”
John and Bill Brumfield were already getting out of the wagon. John was a free-spirited, reckless sort – a noted skirt-chaser, probably as eager to mingle with the Dingess girls as to see his brother. Bill, aged fourteen years, was more interested in finding some homebrew. Ward, with his grandpaw’s permission, bound out of the wagon toward his aunt Harriet Dingess, aged eleven, and some of the younger Dingess children. It would do the boy’s mind good to spend time with his cousins. The old man was the last to crawl out of the wagon. George Ward guarded him, armed and loyal.
“Where’s your paw?” Paris asked Charlie.
“He’s up in the hollow with Hugh checkin’ on the still, he is,” Charlie said.
At that moment, Al Brumfield came out of the house. He wore a sling on his right arm.
“How’s my boy?” Paris asked.
“Arm’s broken,” Al answered flatly. “Is ever thing all right down at home?”
“Now don’t you worry none about that, son,” Paris said. “We got ever thing under control down there.”
“And the youngns?” Al asked.
“Ann and Doll’s watchin’ over ‘em,” Paris said. “Ever body’s just fine.”
John stepped toward his brother and put his hand on Al’s back.
“You doin’ any better today?”
“I’m all right,” Al said. “You all watchin’ my place still?”
The men talked briefly in the yard. Paris brought news of goings on in Hart and kind words from neighbors, who had sent up food, drink and best wishes. Some of the talk was small: Local farmers were busy saving fodder and cutting up corn. There was also some sickness in the community; two or three people had died of the flux.
“So who you think it was did this to you?” Paris asked.
“Can’t say yet,” Al said. “Got some leads but that’s it.”
“Well, don’t you worry none,” Paris said. “We’ll figure it out soon enough and by god we’ll make ‘em pay for it, too.”
After a short while, Paris headed inside the cabin to check on Hollene. George Ward remained outside with the Dingess boys.
“Hello, Sallie,” Paris said to Mrs. Dingess, who stood just inside the door.
Sallie closed her eyes and shook her head.
“It’s an awful time,” she said. “We’re barely makin’ it.”
“I reckon so,” Paris said.
The room was quiet.
“So how is Hollene doin’?” Paris asked.
“Lord, Paris, her face is shot up awful bad,” Sallie said. “Doctors say she’ll be lucky to make it. Doc Hudgins – he’s been here since yesterday mornin’. He just left a little bit ago to see about some people up the creek. Flux. Some people up there got the flux. Doc Moss, he’s with her now. He come up from Cabell County last night. Looked her over and worked on her some.”
“Poor thing,” Paris said. “You must be tore all to pieces.”
“We are,” Sallie said. “Henderson’s takin’ it awful hard. And the boys too. We just lost Floyd last year. And now this.”
Brumfield cleared his throat.
“Well, we got some things for you all out in the wagon,” he said. “Things people sent up to eat.”
“You do?” Sallie said. “Well, we surely appreciate it. We ain’t had no time to put any food on the table. The girls had to cook for ever body this mornin’.”
Mary Ann Farley, oldest daughter to Mrs. Dingess, emerged from the bedroom. She favored Hollene; both were short and stout with dark features. They were the eldest girls in the family.
“Mommy, Hollene’s asleep,” she said. “I’m goin’ outside to see about the young’ns.”
The old woman nodded her head.
”Hello, Paris,” Mary Ann said, making her way to the door.
”Howdy,” Paris said.
“Paris has brought us up some food,” Sallie said. “Go out and make some of them boys bring it in for us.”
“Yes, Maw,” Mary Ann said.
“It’s out there in the back of the wagon,” Paris said. “Make John and Bill help you bring it in.”
Paris stood just inside the door, watching for Henderson to come through the yard. He wanted to see Hollene but wasn’t sure if it was appropriate under the circumstances.
“Well, I reckon I better get on back outside,” he said. “I need to speak with Henderson. Charlie said he was up at the still.”
“Yes,” Sallie said. “First time he’s been up there since all this happened.”
There was a pause, and then Sallie said, “You want to see Hollene?”
“Why sure,” Paris said. “If you don’t think it’ll bother her none.”
Sallie led Paris into the bedroom past Dr. Moss where Hollene lay – unconscious, clinging to life, numb from the morphine… Her face was heavily bandaged. Paris did not need to see beneath the wrappings to know the extent of her injury: torn skin (stitched together), shattered bone, blood… A Winchester rifle shot to the face – it would have killed most people. There was still the chance that she would die from the wound. Even if she made it through – poor woman – her looks were shattered forever… How would it be for a husband and kids?
Paris stood at the bedside momentarily in silence and then walked back into the eating room with Sallie. He was angry.
“They’s no reason for this,” he said to Sallie. “None of it.”
“Right now, we’re just thankful she’s alive,” Sallie said. “The doctor says it’s a miracle.”
Eventually Al took Ward by the hand and led him inside to see his mother. The boy cried for a few minutes and then said, “Mommy will be better soon, Poppy.”
“Yes Ward,” Al said. “Mommy will be better soon. And Poppy, too.”