Pa run off years ago, I never knew his face. Consumption took Ma twelve winters back, yet her face refuses to fade. It’s just me and Cousin Ronald now, and this ol’ mountain feels cold, even in August.
Cousin Ronald said the silver in his pocket came from work in the valley, but I knew he ran liquor. Ma prayed he’d stop, but the mines were played out and the cow wouldn’t give milk. It was moonshine or starve. God forgive me, but I hate a rumblin’ belly. And Cousin Ronald, God love him, couldn’t stand to see me down low.
Cousin Ronald could drive. His corn liquor was fine, but his 1940 Ford coupe with the flathead V8 under the hood was the best there ever had been. It cut mountain roads like a huntin’ hawk rides the sky. Ronald would take corn liquor from his still by the crick and fly to town, leavin’ Revenue Men floating behind like so many autumn leaves caught in winter wind.
Cousin Ronald liked to say he was self-employed. His operation was small, but it kept us alive and attracted little attention. That was, it did until the summer I turned fourteen. That was the year Ronald taught me to drive. It was also the year the Dead Man came down to Grant County from his lair up in Wheeling.
The day I met the Dead Man we’d gone to Petersburg to buy fatback and sugar. Cousin Ronald let me drive. I was gettin’ pretty handy behind the wheel which attracted attention from the youngsters in the valley. I was also getting pretty close to womanhood, which attracted attention from the men. I didn’t know yet to mind, but it bothered Cousin Ronald somethin’ fierce. He tried to keep the men in town away from me because I was so young, and he tried to keep the boys away because I didn’t fancy them. To his credit Cousin Ronald never tried me himself. We were cousins by marriage, not blood, so it wouldn’t of been out of the question. But he loved me like a daughter and treated me like a sister. He never even stole a glance at me. I trusted him completely.
The Dead Man was leaning against Ronald’s 1940 Ford coupe when we stepped out of the general store. He wore a black suit and had a Lucky Strike between his lips.
“They call me the Dead Man,” he said, one eye on Ronald’s Ford coupe, the other on me. “Don’t you want to know why?”
The Dead Man had power. Ronald could feel it in the way he leaned against another man’s property. I could feel it in the way he looked at me, eyeing my body like a mountain lion eyes a spring born lamb.
“What do you want?” Ronald asked.
“You,” was the Dead Man’s reply.
Cousin Ronald was the best driver in the Appalachians, there had never been one better, and the Dead Man wanted him for his organization. Ronald resisted, but the more he balked, the harder the Dead Man’s eye coveted me.
“You aughta know this, Cousin Ronald,” the Dead Man said, “I get the things I want. But I’m not a jealous man. I know how to bargain.”
“What sort of bargain do you offer?”
“Your drivin’. Or her.”
As he said this the Dead Man nodded at me, then leaned back and opened his coat just enough for Ronald to see the shiny 1911 he wore on his hip.
Cousin Ronald shook his head no, said he was self-employed and liked it that way.
“Maybe you do like it,” the Dead Man said, sun striking his face and fading his dark coat, “and maybe I’ll like your drivin’, and your cousin here. And then maybe I’ll like even more. Your choice, Ronald. I said it already, I’m not jealous. I know how to bargain.”
The Dead Man’s hand touched the barrel of his pistol and he stared at me.
“This ain’t no bargain,” Ronald said.
“You can call it whatever you care to,” the Dead Man said, taking an exhausted drag off his Lucky Strike, “as long as you give me what I want. I don’t wanna hurt the ones you love. But I can. And I will. And you know it’s been done before.”
Then the Dead Man left us.
I asked Ronald, what did he mean, it’s been done before? Cousin Ronald didn’t answer, so I asked again. It was the first and only time my cousin ever raised his voice to me.
“Quit that,” he said, his neck red under the collar.
Later, on the drive back up the mountain, he turned to me.
“Forgive me, cousin,” Ronald said. “I shouldn’t a been short with ya. I just didn’t want to ever tell ya what I have to tell you now.”