Autumn 2005, Harlan County, Kentucky
He was gaining on me, but I couldn’t run any faster. The sun had dipped below the mountains, casting dark shadows across my path. As I made my way through the dense forest, I struggled to push bramble and brush outta my way, which only made it easier for him to catch up.
The birds must’ve been singing, but I couldn’t hear a one. Not the hum of insects or the song of frogs. It’d rained the night before, enough to awaken their music, but I didn’t catch a single note. Just the beat of blood pounding against my eardrums as I ran for my life.
I knew who was behind me, and I knew he meant me harm. With each breath I thought about my wife, Fiona; our young’un, Conor; and our dog, Mollie, precious like no othern. Thinking of them helped keep me going.
I had no idea where I was headed, just racing through the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky. Years ago, I’d come this way when Fiona and I’d first met. I felt a wave of sadness wash over me that such a happy place now had a taint to it. Or worse. I might die here. Then again, maybe that was exactly the kinda place you wanted when you were facing the end.
Crazy thoughts like that kept pecking at me, like turkey buzzards on carrion.
I grew up in woods like these, though I never spent much time in them. As a boy in Laurel Falls over in North Carolina, I mostly sat round feeling sorry for myself, watching TV, or hanging out in my chair, the one I leaned against the front of Coburn’s General Store.
I shook my head, trying to chase away such thoughts. This was no time to worry over my past. I needed to pray I’d have a future.
I caught a break when I rounded a curve and saw the path branch up ahead, one fork sloping downhill in a way that let me slip outta sight before he could see which way I’d taken. Footprints already marked the soft, damp ground, so mine wouldn’t stand out.
Just after the turn, the path grew thicker with brush. But that was fine by me. Instead of picking up my pace (a notion my legs were screaming against), I could slow down and hide. I crawled in a rhododendron thicket and tried to quiet my breath. Hard to do while struggling for air, but my only hope was to disappear in the tangle of branches and leaves. A sickly sweet smell from the rhododendron leaves made me queasy, or was that just fear messing with my stomach? I took a deep breath and held it. And listened.
Earlier, back at the barn, I’d done a good job of sneaking up on him. I’d heard a woman scream and ran toward her, careful-like so he wouldn’t see me. I had no doubt she was about to become his next victim.
As I snuck alongside the barn, I looked through a knot hole and saw he held a small woman in a chokehold, a gun to her head. And I could hear her crying and offering him money. But by then I knew he wasn’t after any material reward.
I inched toward the barn door and peered round the opening. He turned toward me. I heard the gun go off, and I ran. My legs ached, my chest cried for mercy, but neither were life threatening—not like the man chasing me. The man the FBI and I were after.
Yeah, you heard me right. Me and the FBI. Abit Bradshaw helping the FBI find a vicious killer of mountain folks. I prayed he didn’t add me to his list first.
Spring 2005, Laurel Falls, N.C. Seven months earlier
Chapter 1: Abit
“I sure wish they’d hurry up and catch that murderer.”
I’d been studying a sad story in the Mountain Weekly about a murder when Fiona snuck up behind me and started talking while she read over my shoulder. I flashed back to a time a man on the Metro train in D.C. caught me reading thataway when I was up visiting my friend Della Kincaid. He started shaking his newspaper in my face, shouting at me to cut it out. Of course I’d never do that to Fiona.
“Honey, don’t worry about it,” I said. “He’s not round here. This took place over in Randolph County.”
“Well, that’s still awfully close for some nutter to be wandering round. Who knows where he’s hiding out now that he’s on the run after drowning that poor woman? Everyone working the night shift at the hospital is on edge.”
I tried to console her, but she wasn’t having it. I was glad she and her fellow nurses were being careful, but back then I never thought that sort of thing would come into our lives.
That evening we headed out to one of our music gigs. Our bluegrass band, the Rollin’ Ramblers, had a growing following, which meant we were traveling farther to larger towns and bigger audiences. The band had changed a lot lately; Fiona and I were the only original members left. She still played fiddle and sang vocals, and I sang backup, but I no longer played ole Bessie, my bass fiddle. I’d grown partial to the mandolin Fiona’d given me, the one that’d been passed down through her family in Ireland. I sold Bessie to Rhonda Ross, who replaced me just fine. We’d also added Owen Kent on guitar and Marshall White on banjo. Somehow, even with all those changes, we had the same sound, maybe better.
Fiona, Conor, and Mollie, and I barely fit in her Ford wagon, but we made it. The rest of the members all piled into Owen’s van, which was big enough to carry Bessie and the other instruments. We all used to travel in what used to be the Rollin’ Store bus we’d converted, but it’d gotten too old to repair. And to be honest, we realized we didn’t really need a bus. Back then, we were playing at being bluegrass rock stars.
As we rode along, I noticed Fiona wasn’t saying much, just looking out her window. Then it hit me. We were heading east, toward a venue not all that far from what’s now called Randleman, where the recent murder had taken place. That was still a good forty mile southeast of where we were playing, but I knew how her mind worked.
She’d never talk about it with Conor in the backseat, but he was messing round with Mollie, so I took a chance. I put my hand on hers and asked real quiet-like so he couldn’t hear, “Are you still worrying about the murder?”
At first Fiona acted like she hadn’t heard me, but then she gave a little nod. I told her all the same things I’d said earlier, about him not coming near us.
“Oh, Rabbit, let’s not talk about it now.”
Rabbit. That’s what she called me when she was feeling softer toward me. Back on the first day I saw her, I was so dumbstruck when she asked my name, I said, “Er, Abit.” It wasn’t just because of her pretty red hair and green eyes. I was fumbling for the right name to tell her: either my nickname Abit or my real name Vester Junior. I hated Daddy’s name, and I’d gotten used to being called Abit, even though it wasn’t a nice name, either. I came by it when Daddy told everyone, “He’s a bit slow,” and over time that shortened to Abit. That made him feel better, letting the world know he knew he had a retard (his word). Turned out a lot of my slowness had to do with how people treated me—and how I saw myself.
But I had to hand it to that gal. Oncet we got set up on stage, Fiona didn’t bring her worries with her. She played her fiddle and sang with all her heart. And Conor? He may have been only 8 year old, but he brought the house down sawing on his pint-sized fiddle when we played “New River Train.” Mollie worked the crowd, too, getting more petting than we could give her in a week.
We got home round eleven, and I put Conor to bed. That evening, the little fella was all keyed up, so I read him a story. It still blew my mind, the idea of me reading to anyone, even a young’un. I’d had a time of it in school, lagging so far behind that Daddy yanked me out when I was only 12. When I turned 16, I got a second chance at The Hicks—the Hickson School of American Studies—thanks to Alex Covington, Della’s ex-husband and now-boyfriend, or whatever the right word was at their age. That was where I’d learned mountain music and woodworking, two things that saved my life.
When I finished the story, I set the book down on his nightstand. Conor’s eyes were closed, and I tried not to disturb him. I reached to turn out his cowboy-on-a-horse lamp, the one I’d found last year when I was cleaning out Mama’s old house.
“Daddy,” Conor said, giving me a start, “tell me a story.”
“I just did, son.”
“No, tell me one. About when you were my age.”
A bad feeling washed over me, close to being sick to my stomach. My boy didn’t need to hear any of those tales. I’d never told him one; I just let him think his grandparents were as fine as a little boy needed to believe. But now I regretted being so careful. Maybe I’d cut off too much of my life, working so hard to make his different. Surely there was something I could share.
He was looking at me funny when Annie Totherow popped into my head. I was older than Conor when I first met her, but that wouldn’t matter. I started wondering what’d happened to her—it’d been years since I’d thought of Annie—and I hoped things had turned out good for her.
“Okay, okay,” I said, chuckling, “here goes.”
I wove a tale of happiness on the playground and having fun at Annie’s family home when I went to buy honey, which her daddy was famous for throughout the county and beyond. I cleaned up my childhood good enough for a Hallmark card. It wasn’t a lie—those really were good times. Conor just didn’t need to know what went on in between. By the time I was running outta ideas, I looked over and his eyes were shut tight. Damned if he didn’t have a little smile on his face.
I stopped by our bedroom to kiss Fiona goodnight before heading to my woodshop in the barn. I needed to finish a coupla dining-table orders (something I always seemed to put off, for some reason), but I also needed some thinking time. I’d put up a good front to Fiona about the murder, not wanting her to know it’d unsettled me too. I knew bad people lived amongst us or could just slip in tomorrow. Della and I’d worked on some nasty crimes done by people I’d thought were real nice. Those were the kind that threw you. Scoundrels and con artists putting on a show of being loving parents, social workers, shopkeepers—then doing the meanest things right in your own hometown.
It was long after one o’clock before I’d smoothed out enough rough wood and raw feelings to think about getting some sleep.