(Appeared in DeClassified Affairs 1)
She straightened with a wince and leaned on the hoe, listening. Yes, the telephone. Probably just her cousin Jesse's boy, making another of his duty calls to check on her, but she headed toward the back door.
She stopped to wipe her muddy shoes carefully on the back mat. The phone kept ringing, and would for some time. Callers in the country understood that it might take some little time to get in from the garden or the barn. "Bertie? It's Sarah from down at the store." As if there was some other Sarah she knew, as if she had forgotten that Sarah worked at Caudill's store and had for 30 years.
"Sarah, how you doing?"
"Can't tolerate the heat the way I used to, but I can't complain if the Lord sees fit to give me another summer. Listen, Bertie, I wanted to let you know. There was a fella in here today, just a while ago, looking for a place to stay. I told him about Hyman's but he said he's going to be working up the Grapevine and he wanted a room up that way. I told him he might check with you."
Bertie held the receiver away from her ear, gave it an accusing frown. What had she ever said or done to give Sarah Bates the idea she was down enough to take in borders? Still... She glanced at the cranky old wringer washer that threatened every week to abandon its duties.
"What kind of man?" she demanded. "What kind of work?"
"Oh, a real nice boy, real polite. From up North somewhere. Talks kinda funny but keeps himself neat. Except his hair's kinda long. He's a little runty. You know, he kinda puts me in mind of Hale Bowling." Sarah's voice trailed off ruminatively.
"What kind of work?" Bertie repeated.
"Oh, the mines. He's a blaster, he said, but his hearing seems pretty good still. Said he worked the mines in New Hampshire or Wisconsin, one of them Northern states. He's coming in to work for Martins' in the Freda Mae."
"The Freda Mae? You'd think folks would be smarter than to crawl back into that hole." She shivered despite the heat. She'd felt the earth tremble, sitting here on her own front porch just under a year ago and had known, as everyone around here did, what it meant. Fourteen men had managed to scramble out of the rubble, but the Yates boy and Darrell Dean had been killed that time, leaving wives and kids, both of them, and the bodies finally recovered from the mine weren't fit to be seen at the viewing.
“Well, people got to pay the bills and there's not much else around here where a man can support his family. Anyway, Bertie, he's on his way up to see you. I know how you feel about your privacy and all, but he seems like a real quiet fella and you know it's not safe, you up there all alone with all them newcomers in and out. It'd give you a little company. And we could all use a little extra money, couldn't we?"
Bertie felt her spine stiffen. "Frank left me real comfortable. He was a man to provide for his family." She looked again at the washer. "Still, I wouldn't mind a bit of company."
He drove up a little later, in a beat-up yellow sedan, one of those big cars that Frank Junior would have known the name of. She smoothed the clean apron she'd put on over her dirty dress as he slid out of the car. He wasn't over tall or very big around. The hair certainly was long enough to give some folks fits, but clean-looking at least. He was wearing well-worn Levi's and a faded plaid shirt tucked in neatly and thick work boots that made his walk heavy and slow.
When he reached the porch he looked up at her with light blue eyes that studied her thoroughly, from her newly re-pinned hair down to her shoes, still dusty from the garden. "Mrs. Back?" He had an odd accent, Wisconsin, probably. "My name is John Carey. A woman at Caudill's store said you may be willing to rent me a room.
"Sarah. She called me. I ain't made up my mind to it as yet." She raised her chin. "We don't do that sort of thing, normally, but I understand you need a place up this way. I like to help folks out when I can."
He nodded and said, "I'd appreciate any help you can give me," but the pale eyes went beyond her, taking in the peeling paint on the front door and the broken storm drain. "You said ‘we.' Is your husband home?"
She drew in a breath. "My husband is dead," she said stiffly. "Frank is dead."
"I'm sorry." Well, at least he understood that there was no point piling on a bunch of useless words.
"I guess you'd better come in," she said, stepping back and holding open the screen door, knowing that his entrance would be the admission of a fundamental and final change in her life. At least he wiped his boots.
Of course, the minute the hallway was mopped, someone had to come upstairs. Joy slopped the string mop back into the bucket with a sigh and straightened, fingertips digging into a sore muscle in the small of her back. The footsteps on the stairs brought first her mother, who paused at the top of the stairs. "Well, looks like the floors up here is wet. Watch you don't slip," and she gave Joy a quick glare as though mopping the floors was something she did for fun at other people's inconvenience.
Joy watched with interest as the man following her mother came gradually into view. Smooth black hair, like a movie star. A dark brown jacket over a clean white shirt, and a necktie, tied right up under the collar, and pants to match the jacket. He had a real nice face. The chin reminded her of Charlton Heston, whose chin frequently dominated the screen over at the Star-Vue, before it closed.
When he reached the top of the stairs, the man turned to nod a greeting to her. Dark eyes fell immediately to her six-month belly, like most people's did, and flicked back up to her face. "Sorry about the floor," he said, and smiled beautifully.
"Your room's here," her mother called sharply. "Got a real nice view of the river."
Joy pulled out the mop and squeezed it and swiped away the smudgy prints from her mother's worn sandals and the crisp outlines of his perfect leather shoes.
"Hope you like chicken," Bertie said when her boarder appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. "Chicken's mostly what we got around here."
He smiled. "I like chicken, especially fried. And," he peeked over her shoulder at the pots on the stove, "gravy and green beans and cornbread and creamed corn. Shall I set the table?"
Bertie reared back at that. Frank was a good man, but it had never occurred to him in their 42 years together to offer to set the table. Probably a Wisconsin thing. "Plates are over there in the cupboard," she said. "Mind the bowl there to the side. It's antique. Silver in the second drawer. Glasses up above."
He moved smoothly and silently to gather it all and Bertie realized he'd changed into sneakers. "Is the room all right?" she asked stiffly. It had smelled a little musty and the bed had to be made up, but at least he knew the linens were clean and the fan would air it out pretty quick. How strange to see someone in Frank Junior's room after all these years.
"It's very comfortable," he said. "That's quite an arrowhead collection in the closet."
"Frank Junior got ‘em around here, mostly from the riverbed. Got so farmers'd turn one up in a field and save it for him. I can move them if they're in your way,"
"That's not necessary," he said. "I don't have much with me. Does Frank Junior live nearby?"
"He died in The War." She didn't go into any of the other stuff, about how she'd be a grandma by now and how the Sunday dinner table would be full of food and family, about how different everything would be.
"I'm sorry," he said and again let it go at that.
John looked a little surprised when she began grace, but he waited through it before filling his plate nice and full and digging in like he hadn't eaten in a while.
"This is wonderful," he said finally, swallowing a mouthful of cornbread.
"It's just country food," she said, politely negating the compliment. "What do y'all eat up in Wisconsin?"
He took a minute answering. "Oh, beef. There are a lot of cattle. And cheese. And coffee. Nothing like this. I understand the Freda Mae has been closed for a year?"
"They had a cave-in," she said. "Couple of boys were killed. There'd been all sorts of trouble before that, accidents and such. Nobody wanted to work the Freda Mae."
"What's changed their minds?"
She shrugged. "Folks have to make a living. My Frank would never work the mines. He said a man was meant to walk upright in the sun, not crawl around in the dark like a worm."
She stopped, aware that this probably sounded rude, but he didn't seem bothered. "It's not for everyone," he said, "but the money's good."
"If you live long enough to spend it."
He grinned. "That's why I like to be the one setting the dynamite; at least I know its done right. Mrs. Bates said there were a lot of newcomers settling here. Are they all at the mine?"
"Nossir. Most of them seem to be working for Mr. Bantam up at the Blackbird mine further up the Grapevine."
He coughed like there was biscuit in the wrong pipe. "Blackbird? Interesting name. Pass the gravy, please? Thank you. Has that mine been working long?"
"Little over a year. I got more corn on the stove."
"No, thank you, I'm fine. Is it productive?"
"Not so you'd notice. Nobody around here knows too much about it; Mr. Bantam wouldn't hardly hire any of the local boys. Brought in a bunch of fellas from outside. I can't say they're very friendly."
"Perhaps they are shy," John said, and grinned like that was a pretty funny joke. With a shake of her head, Bertie went to cut the chess pie.
She wasn't supposed to use the indoor bathroom when they had boarders, but it was harder and harder to get on and off the slop jar and the old outhouse was such a long trek in the dark and spiders who-knew-where and lately the baby didn't give her much time when it started wiggling around. Joy tiptoed in bare feet past the nearly closed door of the guest room.
Nathan Smith was his name, he'd said at dinner, and he was looking into buying up some bottom land for a sawmill somewhere around Chavies. Nobody was bold enough to point out all the good timber had been snaked out and floated downstream long ago.
The stranger's presence had brought a congeniality to the dinner table that hadn't been there for a long time.
"Nathan," she whispered it aloud to hear the sound of it. Nathan had kidded with 13-year-old Mose about his changing voice and praised the dinner until her mother had actually blushed. He'd asked her father's advice about finding a car to use and the two of them had gone on talking about cars until almost dessert time. He hadn't said much to her, except to ask for the salt and to offer to help clear, but Joy had felt his eyes on her more than once.
She considered not flushing, but decided it would be OK because her parents would figure it was Nathan and Nathan wouldn't know the rule about using the outhouse. As she tiptoed past his door again, she paused, hearing his voice. It sounded like he was talking on the phone, but the phone was downstairs in the hallway. She leaned closer to the opening.
"...check out the mine in the morning," he was saying. "I'm going to rent a car tomorrow from a neighbor down here, so I'll be more mobile but I expect most of what I want to know I'll learn sitting on the front porch with the locals. Just be careful you don't bring down the mountain."
There was a pause and Joy was turning to tiptoe away when the door swung wide. She squeaked with surprise and pulled the thin nightgown around her body.
He was looking at her in a funny way, with his head cocked a little on one side and his eyes narrow. "I was just coming back from the bathroom," she said. "I thought maybe you was talking to me."
It wasn't much of a lie, and he didn't believe it, but then he told one of his own. "I was reading," he said, "and I tend to read out loud when I'm alone. I guess I picked the habit up to keep me company when I'm traveling alone so much." He gave her a grin to make it go down better.
"Unh-huh," she said skeptically. "Well, good night."
"Good night, Joy," he said and shut the door carefully.
Talks in his sleep, Bertie thought as she lay wide awake in the dark on her side of the creaky old bed. It was hard enough to sleep with a stranger in the house, even with a chair propped under the doorknob. Now, there was this noise to remind her of his presence. Mostly it was just a soft murmur, but occasionally a word or phrase would drift through the open window on the night breeze. For a moment, she thought maybe he was talking to someone in the room, maybe that Simms girl running around on her husband again. But, there was no woman's voice and the words she heard were so nonsensical it had to be dream talk - "... remember I taught the course at the island,” and "...most pitiful cover I ever heard of."
She listened a while longer, catching a word or phrase. Finally, she turned restlessly and the bed creaked its protest. The sound of it must have roused the border some, because he got quiet after that, but Bertie was awake way on past 10 o'clock.
Nathan's bed was all made up when Joy went in to clean the room. He'd done a good job, turning in the comers and pulling the sheets and covers tight and smooth. Everything else was tidied up, too. An electric razor, a toothbrush in a cup, a can of deodorant and bottle of cologne and a tortoise comb were lined up precisely on the dresser top.
He'd taken her dad's advice and rented Henry Thompkins' Studebaker right after breakfast. She'd seen him driving away to talk to somebody who wanted to sell land, leaving Henry standing in the rooster tail of dust shaking his head at the speed.
The Studebaker would make a lot of noise coming down the street. Through the window she could see her mother out in the garden and her dad always limped down to the store this time of day to talk with the other men disabled by age or drink or the mine.
Still, Joy was careful to be quiet as she opened the top drawer of the dresser. There was a pile of fresh, crisp white shirts, a half-dozen carefully rolled socks and some undershorts. She picked up the top shirt and drew in the toasty clean smell. The shirt crackled and she discovered a layer of paper tucked inside and straight pins holding it into the tidy shape. She replaced the shirt carefully.
His dirty clothes from the day before were loosely folded in the next drawer. The other drawers were empty. In the closet were two more suits on hangers and a pair of shiny black shoes and his suitcase. She tried the latch, but it was locked. So, she wasn't going to learn much about Mr. Nathan Smith this way. "Reckon if he's married?" she murmured, trying to remember if he wore a ring. She indulged in a momentary fantasy, herself in a starched dress over a net slip standing in the doorway of a freshly painted house smiling as Nathan walked up the sidewalk toward her, suitcase in hand. Conceding reality, she added a child to the picture - but a clean and well-behaved one, a little girl with curls the color of Nathan's dark hair wearing a ruffled flowery dress and patent leather shoes.
There was a tickly thump from inside her belly, the little piece of reality growing there reminding her that life didn't work out that way. With a sigh, and a placating pat to her belly, Joy headed across the hall to clean the bathroom.
"You talk in your sleep," Bertie told him over eggs and bacon and reheated biscuits.
"Really?" John looked across the table with innocent eyes. During the hellion years before he was drafted, Frank Junior had frequently looked at her just that way.
"What did I say?"
"Bunch of nonsense, something about an island, and about quilts..."
"Quilts?" he interrupted, looking genuinely puzzled.
"'Most pitiful cover I ever heard of,' you said. If there's something wrong with the bed linens, you ought to just say so."
He was smiling. "Everything is very comfortable. I can't imagine what I was talking about. Anything else?"
"Something about that disease horses get."
'No. Thrush, that's it. I didn't mean to pry, mind, but it come right through the open window."
"Of course, I'm sorry I disturbed you." He frowned like he was trying to remember something. "I must have been dreaming about my uncle's horse farm. There was an island in the stream there where we would go fishing."
"And something about a lazy gun. My Frank and Frank Junior had a few guns between them, but they favored the Remington. I never heard of a lazy gun."
John shook his head. "Neither have I. It must have been quite a dream. I expect it was being on the road and coming to a new place that made me restless; you won't hear anything from me tonight."
"That's fine," Bertie said. "For a while there I thought maybe you'd brought somebody in with you. You might as well know up front, I don't hold with that."
"Somebody..." He looked confused for a minute, then widened his eyes. "I'm married, Mrs. Back, and I don't cheat on my wife." He held up his left hand and sure enough there was a gold band around the fourth finger.
"You left her back in Wisconsin?"
"She and the children are living with my parents. It didn't seem right to move everyone down here until we're sure the job is going to last."
"What you got?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh. A boy and a girl." John rose abruptly, picking up his plate and coffee cup. "I'd better get on my way to work."
Bertie saw him off, trudging off up the Grapevine on the cross-country route she'd pointed out to him, carrying a canvas bag of his tools in one hand and Frank Junior's old lunchbox in the other. She shook her head sadly. Poor little fellow missed his family so much he couldn't even bear to talk about them. She turned back toward the house, considering what she would fix for his dinner.
They’d actually put a big sign right out front, by the turnoff from the dirt road. “Blackbird Mining” was painted next to a large profile of a bird on the wing. Against his better judgement, Solo stopped the old Studebaker on the steep road, pressing the soft brake against the worn floorboard. There wasn't too much to see from where he sat; thick undergrowth closed in toward the narrow access road, obscuring the view. A largish man emerged, walking toward him with a rifle tucked under his arm and an intent look on his face.
Solo carefully set the hand brake and pushed the car into gear before opening the door and getting out. "Afternoon," he called in what Illya referred to as his "Manhattan hick" accent.
The man nodded without smiling, shifting the gun into a more useful position.
"I'm looking for Mr .... er," Solo consulted a piece of paper, "Mr. Bantam. Owner of the Blackbird Mine. Is this the right place?"
"Wha'd you want with him?" the guard had stopped on the far side of the car. His worn shirt and dusty boots fit the region well enough, but the accent was pure Chicago, as were the dark sunglasses.
"Heard he might have some land for sale," Solo said, keeping his eye on the gun. "I'm looking for a piece for a lumber operation."
"You heard wrong."
"Maybe I could come up to the office and ask him myself."
"No. Mr. Bantam is a very busy man." The rifle angled through the window of the car. Solo felt his stomach muscles tighten. He glanced at his wristwatch.
"Is there another time that would be better ...."
He let out a breath and shrugged. "Well, thanks for your hospitality. Tell Mr. Bantam I'm sorry to miss him." It wasn't until Solo got back in, started the car and released the brake that the rifle was withdrawn from the window. The guard stood in the middle of the road and watched him back down the rutted road until the first bend.
At Caudill's store, Solo pulled in next to the milky blue flank of a battered Ford truck and glanced again at his watch, raising his eyebrows. The watch, a new toy from the boys in the lab, had registered an impressive burst of electromagnetic energy during his one-sided conversation with the burly guard. Illya's speculation about some sort of a laser gun just might be accurate.
The row of men slouched in cane-bottomed chairs on the store's long, narrow porch regarded him with unapologetic curiosity as Solo got out to tap into what was probably this region's equivalent of U.N.C.L.E.'s Communications Central.
As the metal gate clattered closed on the elevator-sized cage, Illya Kuryakin reminded himself sternly that he had no fear of heights. Or depths, he amended, as the cage began its creaking descent into the hole in the ground that was the Freda Mae. The other four men in the cage eyed the newcomer, apparently for signs of panic. He gave them none.
"Heard you's from up North somewheres. You mine deep up thar?" a man with short-cropped grizzled hair and the stooped posture of a lifetime underground miner finally asked.
"Never measured. I figure once you're underground, it doesn't much matter how far," he answered. "It doesn't get any darker than pitch."
A man with curly dark hair and the eyes of an El Greco painting chuckled agreeably, displaying a four-tooth gap in his upper teeth. "Waar you from?" he asked in faintly slurred tones.
"Wisconsin. Mined copper there ‘til the government shut down the mines."
"Reckon that’s what our taxes is for, shuttin' things down," the older man drawled.
They rode in silence for a while, the warm sunlight fading away into a glowing circle above. When faces were no longer discernible, the men flicked on their helmet lights and the visual world was reduced to a confusing babel of images, shifting with their movement. Coolness rose from below, inching up Kuryakin's feet and legs like rising water.
"How many are working the mine now?" he asked, his voice flattened and muffled by the surrounding earth. "You're lookin' at em," a big man to his left growled. "Martins're havin' trouble findin' anyone stupid enough to come back to the mine."
"I heard there was a blast a few months ago," he said.
"Most a year ago," the big man said. "They was a coupla little accidents right before that. Folks had already started saying they was something wrong with the mine and when the big one went off, they was sure."
"Any idea what caused it?" he asked.
The bobble of the light may have indicated a shrug. "Darrell Dean was bad to smoke; could be he got unlucky."
"Darrell Dean knew what he was doin'," came a light voice from across the cage, apparently the angular teenager with an odd, upstanding homemade-looking haircut. "And they wasn't no gas. It uz somebody done it on purpose."
There was an audible sigh from one of the miners, but an assenting nod from another.
"Who?" Kuryakin asked.
"Darrell Dean uz workin' for the union..." the teenager began, but the big man broke in: "Martins had nothin' to do with it. They're hill people, they wouldn't do somethin' like that to their own. I went to school with Elwood and he acted just like anybody else. It wadn't Martins."
"Then who?" Kuryakin asked again.
The bright beam of the light shone full on his face for a moment. "Somebody from outside, maybe," the deep voice rumbled. Then the elevator thumped and the gate opened, spilling them into blackness.
Solo was nursing his second Coke and had almost mastered the art of tilting the chair back at a 45-degree angle without support by the time he was able to nudge conversation around to the Blackbird Mine and the newcomers who had come to work it.
"Big fella, you say? Wearin' sunglasses? I seen him around," the thin, talkative man beside him said, rocking his chair gently on its back legs. "Name of Laski, somethin' like that."
"Kolaski," another rocker supplied succinctly. "That's it, yeah. Handy with a gun, they say." The talker, who had introduced himself as T.P. Harper, did not elaborate on who said so or how they had come by the information, but Solo had no reason to doubt the analysis.
"He sounded Northern to me," Solo hazarded, hoping that he did not.
"They all Northern, them fellas," an elderly man sitting on the end of the row growled.
"You mean Mr. Bantam didn't hire anyone at all from around here?"
"Nary soul," the man said, "and folks needing work bad around here."
"Now, I heerd one athem Johnson boys got hired on," one of the men challenged.
"Four-toes is workin’ for em," the knowledgeable T.P. confirmed.
"Big and dumb and mean seems to be what they's lookin' for."
"Somebody said there was another mine reopening," Solo offered.
"The Freda Mae," T.P. supplied. "They just got a few fellas so far. Hear they hired some fella from up North to blast for ‘em. Little runty fella with long hair like a hippie. Stayin' up with Miz Back on the Grapevine. Big eater, nice tidy fella but talks in his sleep. He hadda leave his wife and kids behind with his folks. Said the government closed down the mines up there."
One of the porch sitters spat decisively off the edge of the porch, but it was not clear whether this was a natural occurrance or a political commentary. Solo settled for a noncommital grunt, silently marveling at the efficiency of the local information network and anticipating the pleasure of repeating the information to his nice, tidy, runty partner.
Crawling into a rubble-strewn, gradually narrowing tunnel with blackness closing in from all sides and uncalculable tons of dirt and rock suspended over his head, Illya Kuryakin sternly reminded himself that he was not claustrophobic; the U.N.C.L.E. shrinks had assured him so.
He paused, drawing his canvas bag into the light from his lantern, and pulled out a small box trailing a thin wire and an earphone. He inserted the earphone and pressed the box against the rough wall. Several previous tests in this and other meandering tunnels had revealed only a thunderous silence.
Was there a faint ... ? Yes. A soft murmur that could be an underground stream, or just possibly the confirmation he was seeking. He closed his eyes, concentrating, trying to perceive words or a mechanical regularity in the sounds. "Whatcha setting a blast over here fer?" demanded the large voice of the large miner, John Petty, more familiarly known as Big John. Kuryakin quickly stowed the listening device in the canvas bag and squirmed out of the tunnel.
"I wasn't setting a blast," he told the downward slanting light from Big John's helmet. "Just looking the place over. That blast last year could have done some damage. I don't want to be surprised by a tunnel that's ready to go.”
"Um," Big John said noncommitally. "Lunch."
He didn't care for Big John's bulk behind him, so Kuryakin followed the broad back on a zigzag course through one tunnel after another. They stepped into the larger cleared area where they'd stowed their lunchboxes and the lamps of the rest of the crew turned as one to welcome them.
"Here he is," Big John informed them and Kuryakin felt his back tense in anticipation of trouble. He soon discovered, however, it was his lunch that interested the miners; apparently "Miz Bertie's" cooking was legendary. His lunch pail, tightly packed with leftover fried chicken and biscuits and tomatoes picked that morning, provided bounty to share. Kuryakin politely accepted the cold dumplings the older miner, Skeet Dobbs, pressed on him in exchange and surreptitously hid them under a rock.
"Were any of you working here when the explosion happened?" he asked when the lunch pail was returned, much depleted.
"John were," Dobbs told him through a mouthful of biscuit. "I'se home with my lungs. Bud here," he nodded toward the thin young man, "he was in school. And Lyle, you said you was in Hazard, didn't you?"
He turned his lamp into the El Greco eyes. "I said it, and I was," Lyle responded sibilantly. "I tole you a hunnert times, Elwood Martin sent me to Hazard for them new drill bits off the train. You got some other idea where I was, let's hear it once and for all."
Cutting into the argument, Kuryakin turned to Big John. "Do you really think it was a gas explosion?"
"Musta been. Wadn't no blasting that day."
"’Less it was haints," Lyle murmured.
Kuryakin raised his eyebrows. "Ghosts?"
"Ain't you heard em? Voices and such comin' outta the walls," Lyle said. "That last crew, they still talk about it."
"Buncha superstition," Big John scoffed. "I been down here more years'n I want to count and I never heard nothin'. You got any more a that chicken, Little John?" Kuryakin surrendered the lunch box again.
The girl from the boarding house was coming down the dirt road toward the store. Solo had learned last night that her parents had named her Joy, but it was pretty clear from what he'd seen so far that they no longer thought the name fit. She walked slowly, scuffing up clouds of dust like a child stretching out the walk to school. Her thin, awkward arms and plump cheeks fit the image but the belly that pushed out the front of her sundress did not.
She raised her head, pushing strands of damp hair behind her ear and scanning the row of men on the porch. They rather pointedly did not notice her. Solo nodded and smiled at her as she came up the worn concrete steps and she nodded back before pushing at the metal Wonder Bread sign on the creaky screen door.
A few minutes later she emerged from the dimness, carrying a paper bag. Solo dropped his chair with a thump and stood up. "Gents, it's been fun," he said. "Mr. Hyman, can I offer you a ride home? How about you, Joy?" She hesitated a moment, glancing over her shoulder into the store, then nodded.
Solo followed her down the steps and hurried ahead of her to open the car door, handing her into the front seat. She slid in with self-conscious care, clutching the groceries against her chest.
"It's a long way to walk," he said conversationally as he drove slowly back to the boarding house.
"No it ain't," she said. "Don't people walk where you come from?"
He laughed, picturing the crowds on the Manhattan sidewalks.
"Yeah, they walk. Maybe it's just the heat that makes it seem so long."
"Boy, you're right about that," Joy said, tilting her face into the breeze through the Studebaker's window.
"Seems like I'm feelin' it a whole lot this summer."
"Um, when is the baby due?"
"Coupla months, I reckon." Joy gathered her hair up off her neck, a thin child's neck.
"Aren't you going to a doctor?"
She snorted. "I'm pregnant, not sick."
"Is the father a miner?"
She let the silence spin out for a long time. Finally: "The father don't enter into it, and that's the end a that."
"Ah. Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
They rode in silence for a few minutes.
"When I was little we used to swim down there," Joy said, pointing a freckled arm toward a bend in the river and looking longingly back at the children leaping from a half-submerged boulder into the shallow brown water.
"You've lived here all your life?"
She laughed. "Mister, the only way folks end up here is bein' born here."
"But you're planning to stay?" He guided the big car to a stop in front of the Hyman's front fence.
"I usta have some big plans bout gettin' on a train outta here. Maybe Lexington or Atlanta or Chicago. Now... I reckon maybe not."
"You shouldn't give up on your dreams so quickly, Joy. You still could..."
She sighed and shook her head, suddenly taking the role of elder. "You men ain't got any notion what life's all about. I thank you for the ride. Better come on in and wash up - lunch is ‘bout ready."
Feeling vaguely foolish, Solo followed her in.
Bertie waited at the top of her freshly swept back steps, broom still in her hand, and watched a black figure amble slowly across the lawn toward her. When he reached the bottom step she ordered, "You just stop right there."
He jerked his head up, the blue eyes shining like bachelor’s buttons in the dark soil of his face. "I have never in my life seen anyone so filthy."
He looked down with surprise at coal-blackened shirt, pants, boots, hands, bag and lunchbox as though he had not noticed them before. Bertie tsked. "If you're going to come home in such a state as that, you're going to wash out by the well. I'll bring out some soap and hot water and a change of clothes for you. Don't worry, can't nobody see you from the road and I sure won't be lookin'."
She watched him turn and head for the well before going into the house, shaking her head. Why, it was just like having a boy around the house again. Bertie found herself smiling as she pulled a wash pan from under the sink.
After dinner, Nathan went up and turned on the radio in his room kind of loud. When the dishes were finished and the kitchen tidied and her parents settled on the front porch for their evening sit, Joy climbed the stairs and stood outside his closed door, hesitating. Finally, she knocked.
It was a little bit before he opened the door.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry for what I said, you know about men not understanding life and so on," she said. "I was just feelin' a little sorry for myself, I reckon."
"No problem." She couldn't make up her mind to leave and he finally stepped back. "Would you like to come in?"
Joy's eyes widened. "Don't worry," he continued with a smile. "We'll leave the door open."
The room was in its usual neat condition, except for his writing pen lying on the bed. "Where's that station from? Don't sound like WHZZ. That's country, out of Hazard," Joy explained, standing awkwardly in the middle of his floor. "It's mostly what folks listen to around here." The music was slow, romantic sounding, with no steel guitars or fiddles. Some woman was singing about love forever true. Joy sighed. "That don't happen," she said. "That stuff about love forever."
Nathan smiled. "You're a little young to be giving up on love. Sit down." He motioned to the chair by the nightstand. He sat casually on the end of the bed.
She settled carefully, crossing her ankles and wishing she could cross her legs at the knee like the women did in the magazines her mother sometimes bought at Caudill's. "Where you from?" she asked.
"New York City." He picked up the pen and slipped it into his pocket.
"That's about the biggest city in the world, ain't it?"
"It's close," he said. "More people than the whole state of Kentucky. There are apartment buildings with more people than live in Hazard, I imagine."
"I'd really like to see that someday," she said wistfully.
He smiled. "Visitors always welcome. Give me a call; I'll show you around."
“Show me around?” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“You know, dinner, maybe dancing. A trip to the top of the Empire State Building.”
"Sure, I'll come out," she said with heavy sarcasm. She felt angry tears stinging behind her eyelids and tried to blink them away, but they spilled out anyway. Nathan handed her a snow white handkerchief from his top drawer and sat back on the bed.
"What's the matter?" he asked in a nice voice.
"Well, it just ain't gonna happen, that's all. We can play at flirtin' and plannin' but there's not gonna be any travelin' or anythin' else happening in my life from here on out."
"First of all, I'm not flirting with you, Joy. I'm much too old and worn out for someone like you." She was almost able to smile at that.
"Second, if you give up on your life now, you're going to have a very long 50 or 60 years ahead of you. A friend of mine once said, 'Young lady, you can do anything that you believe."'
Well, it sounded nice anyway. And there were all those stories in Reader’s Digest about folks who faced terrible odds and came out winners. Of course, Reader’s Digest didn't write about folks in her fix, but maybe there would be some way out of this mess. Maybe.
"I thought some about goin' up to Miz Lloyd's place, Caney College, on up the Grapevine. Maybe leamin' about business or somethin'. But with a baby..."
"You could give the baby up for adoption."
Now, that made her mad. "Reckon it's mine and I'll keep it," she said through clenched teeth. "I brought it this far alone and I'll keep on."
He nodded, looking surprisingly satisfied. "You've got some grit, Joy. I think you just might come out of this OK."
"Maybe so. It's scary, though, not knowin' what comes next."
"What comes next is you call Mrs .... Lloyd? and find out what it would take for you to go to school there. Did you finish high school?"
She nodded. "Just barely. They didn't want me to come to graduation, but I did it anyway. Figured I done the work, I earned it. ‘Sides, everybody looks pregnant in them big black gowns."
"Congratulations," he said and it just about took her breath away. Her parents hadn't come to graduation and nobody had said anything about congratulations, until now. She felt her cheeks warm with pleasure.
"Tell me more about what we’d do if I was to come to New York."
Nathan leaned back on his arms and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Oh, let's see ... I think first I'd take you to Coney Island to ride the world's highest roller coaster. We'd eat Polish franks on the beach and ice cream cones while we walked on the boardwalk. Have you ever seen the ocean?"
Joy shook her head.
"Well, you should. We'll take off our shoes and walk on the beach. Then that trip up to the top of the Empire State Building and a ride on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty."
"I seen pictures a them," Joy put in.
"We'll take pictures of you on them, how about that? In the evening, I'll take you to Chinatown for dinner at a little restaurant I know and then dancing at The Blue Note and then a ride through Central Park in a carriage."
"Gee-oh. All of that? But, what about the baby? And I don't even know how to dance."
"The baby can stay here with your parents. If she's old enough, bring her along. I know someone who would love to babysit for the evening. And as for dancing... you're about to learn." Nathan stood up and held out his hand.
"You can." And Joy was pulled into his embrace, his arm warm and strong behind her back. He reached for her right hand and she tucked it behind her.
"It's all rough, from the dishes and all." But he caught it and pulled her arm up and smiled like they were already on the dance floor in some fancy, shining place.
"Just relax and follow my lead," he murmured, pulling her as close as her belly would allow. Joy closed her eyes and sank into his confidence and let him move her around to the beautiful music. Her body floated, easy and light as when she was a child letting the shallow warm water of the creek carry her above its stony bed. One and two, one and two while the strong arm guided her gently around and around.
The song must have ended because now there was somebody on the radio talking about buying a car. Nathan let her go and said, "You see, you're a natural."
After dinner, Bertie settled in her rocker on the screened porch and watched John set off on a walk down to the riverbank. She could see him through the trees the whole way, the moon shining on his light hair. He stood right still for a long time with his back to the house.
After a while, he bent and picked up something and threw it. Skipping stones. Just like a kid, and him with a wife and two kids of his own. Maybe he'd bring them all down soon and they'd stay here, for a while at least, until they could find a place of their own. The children could sleep on the big old couch in the rarely used living room - wonder did they take after John in looks? John and his wife could keep Frank Junior's room. There'd be a full table every night, just like when there was family here, before they all moved away looking for better. Maybe even after they found a place of their own, John's family would come by regular, just to visit. Maybe.
"Worse than Vietnam," Solo muttered as he stomped and hacked his way as quietly as possible up the mountainside that paralleled the Three Bush Mining Company boundary. His shirt clung to him with a sweaty embrace and his suit pants were a dead loss and the Italian loafers would never be the same. He knew what his partner would say about his clothing, but being called in directly from an assignment in Vienna hadn't left him any time to pack a grubbier wardrobe.
He paused, leaning against the uphill side of a maple as he checked his watch again and collected two pieces of information - it was almost suppertime and something in the vicinity was emitting a very high level of electromagnetic radiation. He squinted, trying to peer through the long shadows of evening. No good; he would have to get closer.
A matchbox from his pants pocket opened into a fairly ingenious device that would warn him of any nasty electronics hidden in the undergrowth. Holding it in front of him like a compass, he headed toward the spike-topped metal fence that lined the Blackbird property.
As usual, not finding any deterrents made him more nervous rather than less. Inside the fence, the undergrowth had been mowed down, except for that left strategically obscuring the roadside and the entrance drive. He approached carefully, sticking to the cover of the underbrush on this side of the fence.
It certainly looked like his idea of a mine - beyond trucks and a couple of cars parked on a leveled area was a truck-sized hole cut into the mountainside. Lights were strung along the top of a tunnel that disappeared into darkness.
What was missing were heavy-duty dump trucks that would have hauled the coal away from a working mine. There was one truck piled with rock, but it's rear right tire was flat and looked like it had been for some time.
What was not missing were guards. He could see two of them, cradling rifles and walking a criss-cross pattern around the cleared area. He would have placed another man on the hillside above the mine entrance, and assumed that Thrush would have done the same. It was not going to be easy to slip in this way. Solo settled down in what he hoped was nothing poisonous to puzzle out a solution.
"Nice un," Dobbs commented as the settling dust revealed the well-placed rubble of the latest blast. "Seems like you're a headin' off a little bit to the east still, though."
Kuryakin managed to look chagrined, but none of the skill with explosives that had won him an extra stint as an instructor at U.N.C.L.E.'s Island had left him. A little bit to the east was exactly where he wanted to be. It was where that elusive murmur led him. As the others set to the task of clearing out the area and loading up the coal that had been knocked loose, Kuryakin turned to find Big John's lantern shining on him like an accusation for a couple of very long seconds.
That stupid song wouldn't stay out of his mind, something about a Revolutionary War rout of the British forces. "They ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go..." Hurtling full bore down the rough mountainside Solo jumped an unhandy fallen tree and landed on the far side in a very stickery bush. His loafers slid out from under him and he ended up ignominously on his rear, skidding down another 10 feet. A whine above his head told him the pursuit had not given up. He scrambled to his feet again and ran at a crouch to the right, heading for the road that had to be there somewhere.
He hadn't had the chance to ponder long beside the fence. Something had tipped the Blackbird guards to his presence. They had not bothered to inquire whether he was a lost squirrel hunter before mounting a hot pursuit that included frequent discharges of firearms. So, he had, in effect, gotten his answer - whatever was going on in the Blackbird, it was not coal mining.
He skidded to a stop behind a large maple and pulled out the U.N.C.L.E. special, firing blindly into the curtain of undergrowth. The sounds of pursuit quieted; he fired off a couple more shots for good measure and slipped as quietly as possible to the shelter of another tree, and another. They were all being stealthy now, with only the occasional twig snap to indicate the woods were busily occupied.
The ground suddenly was not beneath his right foot and he fell, grabbing at dirt, and found himself lying on his back on the rough roadbed, staring up at the 6-foot cut into the mountain. Feeling dangerously exposed, he got to his feet and began running down the road toward a vaguely familiar cutback. There was a crackling of brush behind him and the first of his pursuers burst through the bushes and was momentarily airborne. He landed badly and shouted some imaginative curses, clutching an elbow. Solo fired a few rounds to discourage the others from leaving the woods, then pounded full speed around the bend and into the front fender of the Studebaker. He scrambled behind the wheel and made very, very good time backing down to the paved roadway.
John had worked a long shift; by the time he hallooed from the back step Bertie had had ample time to recall the many nights when Frank Junior wandered to bad places with no-good companions, and to relive her vivid imaginings of disaster. With a sigh of relief, Bertie watched him move through the dusk like he was worn out, dragging the filthy shirt slowly off his shoulders. She tsked. The Martins oughtn't to work the few men they had so hard. She would have a talk with Susan Martin at church Sunday.
She went into the kitchen to turn on the heat under the cold chicken and dumplings and to fetch John some clean clothes.
There was a sharp clang from outside and she hurried the window over the kitchen sink. John was on the ground on his hands and knees with three shadows moving around him. One of them darted in close and kicked him in the side. Bertie gasped, hand at her mouth, frozen by the sudden violence of it. But when another of the men rushed forward to punch at his head, she found herself moving without thought to the pie safe where she kept Frank's favorite rifle, loaded and ready.
When she reached the back steps, the gun seemed to find its own way to her shoulder, her finger on the trigger. For a moment, she could almost feel Frank's big, rough hands guiding hers, feel his protective bulk behind her. When she called out, "Now you stop it right there!" her voice didn't quaver a bit.
John was back on his feet and one of the big men was laid out on the ground, but another one was ready with fist raised to deliver another blow. There was something familiar about that pose, about the way the man moved. He turned his big head to look at her and she knew. "Merlyn Johnson, you just stop what you're doing right now," she ordered. Sheepishly, he lowered his arm. The other man reached into his jacket for something and John spun suddenly and kicked him in the stomach with one of those big, clunky boots. The man folded up, whooping. When the one on the ground looked ready to lunge at John, Bertie closed her finger on the trigger, slow and easy like Frank had taught her, and dirt kicked up from just in front of his chest.
"You three, get off my property," she shouted. "Go on, get moving."
After a moment's hesitation, Johnson bent to help the man who was still gasping for breath and the three of them headed down the drive toward the road. John was standing there weaving slightly, his shoulders hunched, staring at her. "You better come on in," she said.
Nathan was a real mess, the smooth hair all on end, his pants and nice shirt torn and filthy. There was a bloody scratch across his forehead and another on the Charlton Heston chin.
Her parents and Mose had gone down to the church for a potluck, so Joy hurried to hold the front screen door open for him. "What in the name of..."
"I took a little hike," he cut her off.
"Why'd you want to do something like that, hot as it is?" she demanded. "And wearing those clothes?"
Nathan chuckled. "You remind me of a friend of mine," he said.
"The 'You can do anything you believe' friend?"
"That's the one." Nathan grabbed the stair rail and started up. "I think I'll have a little bath before bed."
He was a mess, head to toe, sitting there in a towel-draped dining chair in the middle of the kitchen floor.
"I'll just go take a shower," he said for the second time, but Bertie put her hand on his bare shoulder and pushed him back down. She brought a bowl of hot water over and a clean washrag and began swabbing off the worst of the soot and blood.
"First off, who were those fellas?"
The blue eyes looked at her innocently out of his half-washed face. "I never saw them before. You're the one who seemed to know their names."
"I never seen two a them, but Four-toe Johnson I taught through fourth grade. Worst bully you ever saw. I always thought that boy was not right."
"I was a teacher for 11 years, in the schoolhouse across the river. It was closed up when they built the new school; now it's mostly gone."
"And you say his name is Four-toes?"
"No, his name is Merlyn but fool was playin' with a hatchet one day and cut off his own toe. So, he got him a nickname. And you have not told me what argument they got with you."
"Like I said, I never saw them before."
"Uh-huh. That doesn't answer the question." She wiped at a stubborn streak of white on his throat and then realized it was a scar, running right down under his jaw. Narrowing her eyes, Bertie stepped back and looked him over. The coal dust had seeped through the shirt enough to powder his chest and back a light gray, but not enough to obscure what was there to see - a puckered spot on his shoulder, another long white line along his ribs, stripes of scar that curved around his side from his back, wide, flat scars around each wrist.
When her eyes came back to his face , he was watching her closely, and she was pretty sure the face was not one she'd ever seen before.
"What argument did those three men have with you," she demanded, sounding each word with emphasis.
"I believe they were from the Blackbird," he said, "trying to discourage me from working in the Freda Mae."
"I'm sorry, I can't answer that question now."
"Well, what questions can you answer? You aren't a miner, are you? I shoulda, known, your hearing was too good and your manners are too fancy. You got any kids? A boy and a girl, wasn't it? And a wife in Wisconsin. You're not even from Wisconsin, are you?" He sighed.
"No," he began.
He was still in the bath. Joy took the plate of cold chicken and sliced tomatoes and beans into his room and set it and the glass of iced tea - just the way he liked it, with half a spoon of sugar and some lemon - on the nightstand that used to be hers until they had to furnish a room for boarders. She arranged the napkin and fork carefully and turned to leave, startled to find him standing in the doorway all cleaned up and combed and watching her suspiciously.
"I'm sorry, I just thought maybe you'd be hungry since you missed dinner," she said. He looked past her at the food.
"Thank you," he said. "Was your mother angry?"
"Well, she was more worried that you'd took off without payin' for the room."
He smiled, dabbing with a piece of toilet paper at the cut on his forehead.
"You want a Band-Aid?"
"No, thanks. It's just a scratch."
"So, what happened to you?"
"I decided to take a walk in the woods and I got a little turned around."
"Uh-huh. Nathan, you are the least walk-in-the-woods person I ever met. What'd you do that you think you got to lie to me about it? Maybe I could help."
He stared at her for a long time. Then, "You'd better sit down. This could take a while."
A spy. Well! And such goings on up at the Blackbird. Not that anybody couldn't see that something wasn't right, once you thought about it. Once she'd gotten over the anger at being lied to, it was actually pretty easy to accept the rest of it. And he'd trusted her, and nobody else, with the secret, knowing that she could keep her mouth shut. This was about the most interesting thing that had ever happened around here, but she wouldn't ever tell a soul. Well, not for years and years.
That night when she heard the soft murmur of his voice, she knew he was talking on that funny looking communicator with that other fellow, the one who had come along to back him up when he needed it.
In the darkness of the hallway, Joy smiled and padded back to her bed.
In the darkness of her bedroom, Bertie smiled and turned carefully so she didn't interrupt the conversation.
"Pretty close. A couple more blasts tomorrow should do it."
"Just remember, once you've got that back door open it's going to be hard to close it again."
"I have no intention of opening the back door until we're ready. I will simply get close enough to peek through a window, vet the situation and call in the muscle."
"Meaning me, I suppose."
"Meaning the squad from the Nashville office. Which will include you if you have located some decent shoes by then."
"I'll make sure they're ready to move. So, we sneak in wearing our appropriate footwear..."
"...creep through the doorway I will have opened..."
"...subdue whoever gets in the way and grab the fiendish thingy. Simple."
"Isn't it always? See you tomorrow, possibly."
"I will if you will."
"What the hell happened to you?"
Kuryakin turned in the narrow passageway. His lantem found Big John's face as he squinted against the light shining into his. He'd been through this already, in the lift on the way down. "I went over to Hazard to a bar and some guy started a fight and..."
Big John interrupted in a lowered voice, "Was it Thrush?"
Kuryakin knew his mouth dropped open, because he felt the pull on his split lip. "What are you..." he began.
"Well, who do you think told New York about what's been goin' on around here?" Big John demanded triumphantly. "Auxiliary agent in residence John Petty, is who. Let's see, last I heard from my contact, the code word was Cock Robin."'
"Birdbrain," Kuryakin responded. "Well, it seems I have been left in the dark a bit."
"’Auxiliary agents in residence will not be identified to agents on assignment except in the case you holler for help.’ That’s right outta the handbook." Big John said. "I was lookin' for you fellas to be in the area, but I didn't know what you was goin' to be tryin' to pass as. At the first, I figured you for a plant from t’other side. But when I saw how close you was takin' us to the Blackbird, well, I knew they'd be steerin' us t’other away. The handbook didn't say nothin' about me not sayin' howdy if I figured you out," he added.
"Well," Kuryakin said, "howdy."
He could just make out the flash of a grin. "Howdy," Big John said. "Anythin' I can do to help out?"
"Do you have suspicions about anyone else on the crew?"
"About bein' up to no good? Could be, I suppose. Any one of ‘em could use a little extra money. Bud's all het up about this union stuff since Darrel Dean - Darrel Dean was his big brother - died. He'd be easy to talk into somethin' if it was put right. Skeet's got the black lung, and this hole is likely where he got it. He might decide to get even if somebody made a suggestion. Lyle was seein' my sister for a while and didn't treat her any too good, so I already got a eye on him." He shrugged. "Could be any one of ‘em."
"I see. Well, thank you for your help," Kuryakin said.
"Anythin' else I can do? It gets a little slow sometimes, just watchin' goins-on."
"I think we are doing well so far," Kuryakin said, cautiously. "We'll let you know."
Big John's lantern bobbed. "I get you. Just remember, you need help, holler."
The Nashville team was standing by, impatiently, fully rigged, next to the helicopter that would bring them to the Blackbird within an hour. The conversation making that arrangement took all of five minutes. It seemed a little pointless to continue with the land-buying cover. He didn't want to stir up the hornets by going near the Blackbird again or answer the questions his appearance would generate down at Caudill's store. As usual, waiting was the hardest part of the job.
Solo's restlessness took him out the back door and into the extensive garden that helped fill the Hyman dining table. Mrs. Hyman was there, shoveling new potatoes the size of a baby's fist out of the powdery dirt. She gladly relinquished the shovel when he offered to take over the job.
The hot sun beat down on his back. The thin-soled shoes weren't particularly suited for shovel tamping, but he went at the job fiercely. Illya had been in the mine for a couple of hours now. Enough time for the final blast that would bring him the surety he wanted? Of course, Thrush knew someone was here by now, especially after his performance yesterday. But he felt pretty sure that the three thugs who had beaten Illya had been operating on general orders to stop encroaching work at the Freda Mae; if they'd determined he was an U.N.C.L.E. agent, there would have been an accident at the mine, or a gunshot from the underbrush. Of course, there was always the possibility of an accident today... Hurry up, Illya, he urged.
"That oughta be enough for most of Hazard, if they ain't too hungry." Joy's shadow fell over the mounds and mounds of turned dirt stretching behind him.
"I was thinking," he said lamely.
Joy squatted awkwardly and showed him how to push the potatoes back into the earth and pat the plants back into place.
"I just called Miz Lloyd," she said casually. He searched his memory for the significance of the name. "The college woman," he finally recalled.
"That's right. So anyways, I told her everthin', just flat out, and she said how what I done was really stupid and how a woman's got to be extra careful ‘cause men just don't understand how things work. She asked about the father and I explained how there was no help comin' from there and how I was the only hope my baby has and how people can do anything they believe they can. So, she said if I can find someone to watch the baby and if I keep up with my schoolwork, I can come there and we'll work out the payin' later. I can go to college!"
Solo grinned back at her and began to give serious thought to riding the world's tallest roller coaster.
With Big John keeping watch, Kuryakin lay on new rubble and listened to the slightly muffled sound of voices discussing resonance factors. Three voices that he could distinguish. Of course, there could be 30 guards in the room keeping their thoughts to themselves. He pulled the tiny drill from his bag, motioned for Big John to provide covering noise, and began making a window.
Solo was still replanting potatoes, a giggly Joy dancing through the bush beans, when his pen warbled.
"Napoleon, I think it’s time to call in the boys in the band," Illya's hushed voice said. "It’s the gun, all right. Four white coats and half a dozen guards visible."
"This Peeping Tom stuff seems to appeal to you to an unhealthy degree," Solo said. "Enjoy it while you can; the band will be landing out front in less than an hour."
"Fine. I'll place the explosives and set them off when they get here. See you."
Solo quickly stomped the last plants into place; he had things to do.
Kuryakin tamped the last bit of wire into place on the thin rock wall and sent Big John off to get the other miners out of the mine. Ten minutes until the troops were due to arrive. There was no telling when things might go south, and he liked to get as many innocents out of the line of fire as possible.
He squirmed out of the small space and headed for the mine's mouth to make sure they left, and to welcome Napoleon and the troops.
The sound of running footsteps echoed from ahead and he paused, trying to place the direction. Suddenly, Big John burst into view. "Run!" he shouted. "It's going to blow."
Kuryakin spun and headed back into the tunnel with the scrape and scrabble of Big John's footsteps just behind him. He slowed as they neared the end of the tunnel, aware of Big John at his back. Silence... He turned and saw the big man standing between him and the exit, bent down to fit inside the tunnel's dimensions.
"Well?" he demanded.
"That fool Lyle, he's sittin' there with a brand new lunchbox," Big John said. "Surprised none a us noticed it on the way in. Anyway, he says when he stopped at Caudill's like always this morning for a soda, some tourist fella offered to trade with him, said he was a antique collector and liked the 'character' a Lyle's lunchbox. Even had a lunch packed in the new one already."
"It certainly seems an unlikely story," Kuryakin said, watching Big John cautiously. "Did he describe the man?"
"I didn't hang around to ask. I just told the rest a them to get on out and come back for you."
Big John, it seemed, was remarkably conscientious. "Well, it appears they miscalculated. Assuming that it is a bomb, what makes you think it's ready to blow?"
'He decided to have somthin' to eat and he's sittin' there now, white as a sheet with his finger on the trigger."
"You left him holding a bomb?"
"Like I said, he didn't treat my sister too good and he done the same for a lot a women round here. Besides, it’s his lunchbox. I figure he's the one put hisself where he is.,.
With a sigh, Kuryakin started back down the tunnel. Big John loomed large. "Where you think you're goin'’?'
"To disarm it."
"You crazy? How long do you think he's gonna be able to hold that thing?"
"Long enough, hopefully. Move."
Big John moved. The earth moved. A gush of wind and noise, billowing black soot, shoved him roughly. Something very large and heavy carried him down.
The Studebaker stuttered on the road. Pothole, Solo thought in the sliver of time before he realized what was happening. He floored the accelerator, heading toward the Grapevine and the plume of black dust that rose above the green hillside. At Caudill's store, the porch sitters had abandoned their post, standing in a ragged line and staring up the mountainside. One of them shouted something at Solo as he sped past, but the words were lost behind him.
Solo fumbled out his communicator without taking his eyes off the road. "Mike, how close are you?"
"Eight minutes out. What's up?"
"Something's happened at the mine. An explosion. Hold off until I figure out what's going on."
"You got it. Wasn't Illya supposed..."
"I'll be back in touch as soon as I know something." Solo cut in and closed the channel.
The baby was born, sliding out of her smooth and easy. She looked down between her upraised knees and saw a grinning toddler with curly black hair and huge dark eyes. The baby pulled itself up and she saw a body like her last doll, the plastic one, plump belly, bent arms and legs, no sex. Are you a boy or a girl, she demanded, but the baby just smiled.
A rumble half woke her from the dream. Good, the summer rain that her mother’s garden had been craving. She turned, cradling her belly, and slid back into sleep.
The tomato worms were showing up bad. Bertie plucked another from a vine and squished it under the toe of her shoe. She swayed dizzily as the ground seemed to lift and then the sound reached her. "Oh, no. Oh, no," she breathed and stumbled to her knees.
Someone was shining a flashlight into his eyes, painfully, blindingly close. So, an interrogation. He was lying on his back. Drugged? Perhaps; the world certainly seemed off-kilter. Breathing was difficult. "I need to get up," he said, and the words thudded back at him, unanswered.
He began to struggle, on the verge of panic. Arms free, legs not. His palms skidded painfully on rough stone. Not an interrogation, not a lab table or a prison cot. The mine. There had been an explosion. He closed his eyes, recalling that moment, and saw again Big John's body blown at him like a doll's by the force of the blast.
His fingers explored the source of the light. Yes, Big John's helmet. A stubbled cheek, heavy shoulders. He probed at the neck for a pulse and found none.
He did a mental inventory of his own condition. Head OK, if a little muzzy. Shoulders, arms, OK and mobile. Torso a little squashed, with sore ribs, but nothing acute. Legs... immobile. Pinned, hopefully, and nothing more. He wrapped his arms around Big John and felt around. Something large and heavy and sharp pressed against the beefy back. Big John, living up to his name at the end, had buffered him from the... well, from the ceiling, apparently.
Bracing his hands on Big John's shoulders, Kuryakin pushed one way and squirmed the other. To his immense relief, his legs responded. Something was not right in the left ankle; no pain yet, but a vague disconnected feeling that he recognized as a sprain or torn cartilage. Several somewhat gruesome minutes later, he was free of Big John's persistent embrace and sitting propped against the wall of what the lamp on his retrieved helmet revealed to be a rather small chamber - the end of the tunnel with the explosives remarkably still in place and unexploded. The other end of the tunnel, however, no longer existed. There was only a floor-to-ceiling pile of rubble and Big John. Breathing was easier now that he was out from under, but that wouldn't be the case for long. There would be a rescue attempt, but a blast that did this much damage so far from Lyle and the deadly lunchbox probably hadn't left much of the mine intact.
He felt over the floppy left ankle. Most likely a sprain. He could move, but dancing was not a possibility. And speaking of dancing... his hand reached for his communicator and came up empty. A hands-and-knees search of the small space turned up nothing; somewhere under the rocks no doubt, and crushed useless anyway.
So that left, what? "Open the door," he muttered to himself, studying the wired back wall. The difficulty, of course, was that one wanted not to be too close to an explosion, and he couldn't leave. There was the added complication of whoever was still on the other side of the rock wall. He crawled to the peephole and peeped. A woman and two men in white coats arguing over the dials on a console, three uniformed guards with handguns, and the laser gun itself. Despite the Buck Rodgers look of the gun, the perfectly symmetrical holes that pocked the walls of the chamber indicated that it had some functionality.
If he could just get an obliging Thrush to cut a Kuryakin-sized hole through the rock wall... He sank down again to think.
Another song ran through his mind: "And the smoke and the dust belched out of that mine and everyone knew it was the end of the line..." Solo shook his head firmly to dislodge the lyrics and skidded the Studebaker to a halt in the unpaved parking lot in front of the Freda Mae. Two trucks and an old Chevy dusted black with coal grit were already lined up. An elderly man leaned against the tailgate of one of the trucks while a dazed-looking teenage boy slumped cross-legged at his feet.
Solo ran up to the old man, who regarded him with red-rimmed gray eyes. "What happened? Where are the others?" Solo demanded.
"'Nother blast, is what happened," the old man said hoarsely. "'T'others are still in." He pointed unsteadily at the black mouth of the Freda Mae. Solo ran inside, stumbling over a litter of rock on the tunnel floor. About 10 feet into the tunnel, a metal scaffolding surrounded a hole leading down. He peered over the edge into a darkness filled with the muted smell of coal dust and the clatter of disturbed rocks searching out a stable resting place.
"Illya!" he shouted, recognizing the futility of it as his voice echoed back to him. Two men ran into the mine, flashlights bobbing ahead of them. The first shoved him aside and shone the light down the hole onto a jumble of rock and bent metal. "Jesus, not again," the man breathed.
Solo walked back into the parking lot. Other cars and trucks had arrived and a siren wail from down the mountain promised some sort of official assistance. Half a dozen men and women crowded around the old man. The teenage boy was standing, wrapped in the arms of a sobbing middle-aged woman in a housedress and slippers.
"...like he was nuts, pushin' us to the lift and yellin' about a bomb," the old man was saying. "Him an that blond fella is still in there, Big John and Little John, we called ‘em and now they're in there, and Lyle, too."
"Reckon they're alive, Skeet?" a paunchy man, scribbling notes on the back of an envelope, asked.
The old miner shrugged, tears welling suddenly in his cloudy eyes. The paunchy man studied him, scribbling furiously.
"Is there any way to get to them?" Solo demanded.
"Mister, ain't nobody gettin' into that mine for days, weeks maybe," someone in the crowd informed him with authority. "It uz 19 days before they got Darrell Dean Tanner and Tom Yates out last time."
Solo slumped into the driver’s seat of the Studebaker, pulling out his communicator. "Mike, the Freda Mae's sealed. Looks we're stuck with Plan B. I'll see you over at the Blackbird."
"Frontal assault it is. Listen, Napoleon... Well, maybe the explosion will have them off their guard, at least. See you there."
First step, get Big John's body free. He hauled rocks off Big John's body, piling them into a bulwark between himself and the explosives. When the body was free, he braced his good leg for leverage and pulled.
Moving the limp and broken body was as difficult as it was distasteful, but finally he had the body on its side behind the row of rocks, leaving a narrow space before the rubble of the tunnel entrance.
Next, make a smaller door. He carefully removed most of the explosives and regrouped the others in a more precise pattern.
Now to "soften" the other side. He pulled his special from its holster at the small of his back. The stock was gritty in his palm; he refused to think about the condition of the gun's interior. He shone the lamp of his helmet on the gun. He had three darts - that should get things stirring - and a full clip of bullets.
He eased close to the hole. This was the difficult part. He would have to site first and then shoot blind and hope for the best. He peered through, selected a guard whose back was to him, and visualized a trajectory. The barrel of the gun slid into the hole with little room to spare. Tilt it just a bit to the right and down. Squeeze. He peeked again. The guard had turned toward him with a puzzled frown on his face before folding up untidily. It would take a moment for the other guards to find the nub of the dart, he hoped. Quickly he sighted and fired twice more. One more guard was down and the other, crouching with gun drawn, was looking around the room in confusion. A white-coated bottom disclosed the location of the three scientists, crouching behind the console. Switching to bullets, he placed a series of four shots in a small arc. At least one of them connected and the last guard went down.
He collected the trigger for the explosives and hurried behind the wall of lose rock. He pushed his helmet firmly onto his head, stretched out next to the sheltering bulk of Big John, murmured an apology to the big miner, and blew the wall.
When he heard the chutter of the helicopter and saw its sleek nose poke over the mountain ridge behind the Blackbird, Solo decided it was time to test out the Studebaker’s ramming abilities. Flooring the accelerator, he skidded into the entrance drive and slammed into the metal gate.
Not an effective ram, he concluded, peering over the buckled hood. However, he had created a diversion for the troops from Nashville. The Blackbird's guards were torn between the helicopter and the idiot in the Studebaker. Half a dozen of them raced across the open area toward the gate. Mike quickly and neatly set the U.N.C.L.E. chopper down behind them, a stone's throw from the Blackbird entrance and the guards immediately lost interest in the gate.
Nashville had been generous, he noted as the helicopter disgorged a stream of agents, armed and uniformed and well-padded with body armor. With the exception of a guard hidden - as Solo had predicted - in the thick vegetation above the mine, who loosed off a half-dozen mostly ineffective rounds, the Thrush agents outside offered little resistance. Caught between Solo, who used the Studebaker’s heavy door as a shield, and the well-primed Nashville troops, there was little for the Thrush agents to do but surrender. Two of them made a sudden dash for the fence, which they clambered over, leaving bits of clothing and some skin on the spiked top. Four U.N.C.L.E. agents followed more carefully and headed into the woods. Solo wished them well and did not follow.
The echo of many shots exchanged emerged amplified from the mouth of the Blackbird. Solo darted in, hugging the wall, gun in hand. He was in a hurry to reach the lower levels and attempt to locate a minuscule peephole.
The Thrush facility had a more state-of-the-art elevator than the Freda Mae, stubbornly protected by five Thrush agents sheltering behind various pieces of rusted mining equipment, apparently placed for atmosphere. After the two sides fruitlessly exchanged fire for several minutes, the Nashville agent in charge, Hud Granger, motioned his troops to hold fire. In the ensuing silence he called out, "Hey, how long y'all want to keep this up? I'm guessin' you boys are going to run out of ammo before we do. What say we save some lead and you just surrender now."
A defiant shot rang out, but the other Thrush did not pick up the battle. Eventually, the first man stepped forward, hands in the air. One by one, the others joined him and were hustled into restraints and herded outside.
Solo confiscated a security card from one man's shirt pocket and slid the perforated card into the slot next to the elevator doors.
Seconds later the doors slid open. Solo was halfway into the car before he realized it was occupied. Ten U.N.C.L.E. specials snapped around to point at the woman and five men crowded into the small elevator car.
"Don't shoot," snapped an irritated voice from the back of the car. The occupants reluctantly stepped forward. Three of them were spruce in white lab coats, although their expressions were less jaunty. One of the men carried an odd looking contraption on a tripod over his shoulder and the other helped support a uniformed Thrush guard whose right thigh was soaked with blood.
The fifth occupant limped out, an U.N.C.L.E. special trained on his prisoners.
"Hello, filthy," Solo said with affection.
"Late again," his partner scolded.
"Someone slammed the door in our faces," Solo said. "Is this it?" He indicated the contraption.
"That is it. If the holes in the walls downstairs are any indication, it works." One of the U.N.C.L.E. agents stepped forward to take the laser gun from the scientist, who showed signs of resistance but eventually released the weapon.
"There are birds running around below," Kuryakin said, and Granger motioned four agents into the elevator.
Limping to a small but sturdy-looking front-end loader, Kuryakin eased himself onto the seat with a sigh. Solo joined him.
"What's the damage?"
"A sprained ankle."
"A sprained ankle? Illya, I believe you officially qualify as the lucky member of our partnership."
Kuryakin gave him a sour look. "I spend several days crawling on my belly over stones. I get beat up by three goons. I am buried alive in a mine explosion and have to rescue myself with a sprained ankle and this makes me the lucky one?"
"Well, at least you're here." Solo couldn't keep the smile off his face. "I know where we could find an ambulance, I expect."
Kuryakin shook his head. "All I need is a ride home. You have a car?"
Solo pictured the Studebaker, half merged with the sturdy gate. "Ah, well..."
"Tsk. Mr. Waverly is not going to be pleased." In the end, Solo stayed at the mine to help with mop up and Kuryakin hitched a ride down the mountain with one of the locals who drove by after seeing all there was to see at the Freda Mae.
"Hey! Verle, how you doin'?' Solo called heartily to the balding man in the battered truck. Kuryakin gave him a very curious glance before struggling into the cab.
"Napoleon," he said through the window, "one of our colleagues is in the Freda Mae, just the other side of a hole in the wall. Could you see that his body is retrieved with some care? I am in his debt."
He added, as the truck began to ease away, "You may need to enlarge the hole somewhat."
Sarah still didn't have much information. WHHZ broke into a Johnny Cash hour to report an explosion at the Freda Mae, miners trapped, but had no more information. The mountain phone tree told her more: Skeet Dobbs and Bud Tanner - out and safe - taken to the hospital in Hazard just in case. Of the other three trapped inside, still no news.
Bertie hung up the phone and went back to the front porch. She sat briefly, then restlessly was up again, wandering the house as she had for a terribly long time. She had finally made up her mind to walk up to the mine and wait with the others when Verle Simms truck pulled into her driveway behind John's car. The passenger door opened and a dark figure slid carefully to the ground.
She drew in a long breath, and hurried down the steps. Oh, he was filthier than ever. Bertie put an arm around him, pulling him tight against her clean apron, and helped him walk up to the house.
The last of the Thrush holdouts had been routed from the interconnecting caverns. A large and battered corpse had been eased from under a rocky bier and turned over to a local mortician who tsked over the task ahead of him. The gun had been carefully packed aboard the U.N.C.L.E. helicopter, along with thoroughly restrained Thrush prisoners and enough U.N.C.L.E. agents to ensure that no one got up to mischief. Solo had just waved the chopper on its way when his communicator beeped.
"Napoleon, how's the clean up?"
"All tidy. Your friend is in the hands of Ahlberg Funeral Chapel. The Thrush are on their way to stir. The gun is on its way to the labs in Chicago. One miner still unaccounted for."
"Lyle Stewart, He brought a bomb for lunch. I doubt much will be found. How many of the Nashville team were left behind?"
"Um, eight, I think. Plus me. Why?"
"My landlady is busily frying chicken for an army. I suggest you all come here if I'm not to have to eat it all myself."
"Wait a minute, is this by any chance Miss Bertie Back? The boys down at Caudill's told me about her chicken. We'll be there. I may bring a friend along, too. See you soon."
They had to put both leaves in the table, and retrieve the chairs from around the house. John wasn't much help, poor boy, but he sat in one chair with his foot on another and cut up tomatoes all right. John's friend - she wasn't quite sure what to call him; he seemed to have a couple of names - she put to work stirring the gravy. The girl he'd brought along with him was a good hand to work, Bertie would give her that, even if she was showing a mile and nowhere near married. She bustled around the kitchen like it was her own, turning a hand to whatever needed doing.
When they all sat down - the young men had been ordered out to the well to wash up first - it was just like a family holiday from decades ago. Well, except for the uniforms and the guns piled on the mud porch. When Bertie said grace, there was a hesitant chorus of “Amen,” and they dug in.
It was nice standing here at Miz Bertie's kitchen sink, with the excitement all over, busying herself with the comfortably familiar task of rinsing and wiping the dishes and letting her mind run back and forth over it all.
Well! She'd finally had an adventure. From a distance, of course, but still she was a little involved. What a lot of stories those men had had to tell over dinner! All the places they'd been to, all the things they'd seen and done.
Still, it was nice to be in this homey place, looking out the window at the fireflies beginning to gather in the hollow at the bottom of the lawn.
The soft rumble of male voices, like thunder from a distant rain, came in through the open window Nathan -Napoleon and John-Something out on the porch where Bertie had chased them after dinner. "Get out from under my feet' she'd scolded them, just as she used to scold Frank Junior and his laughing friends.
The great gaggle of khaki-clad men had left soon after dinner, heading back to Nashville, they said. Each one had politely thanked her. A couple had formally shook her hand and one had given her a great, spine-cracking hug.
Men liked to make jokes about women carrying on, gossiping and yakking, but it seemed to her it was the men did more talking, on and on about what they thought and what they had done or were going to do.
The girl was companionably silent as Bertie passed over one after another of the dishes. There was a sort of satisfying weariness making her feel loose and ruminative and maybe just a little sad.
Thirty-nine years she'd been standing at this same sink, staring out at the same slice of the earth and listening to the sound of voices. There had been the tender murmur of her husband's voice, then the wild piping of her child racing after the fireflies in the evening. And then the silence.
Apparently Miz Bertie wasn't much of a talker. Well, that was OK. It was OK to not talk because there wasn't anything that needed to be said. It was agony to not talk because your words were muffled by anger and resentment and sharne.
She wondered what Nathan and that blond man were talking about. Leaving, probably. She could see them, loaded into the yellow car and backing away down Miz Bertie's drive. Nathan would be driving because the other man had hurt his leg in the mine explosion. He hadn't had much to say about that, but what he had told them chilled her.
And Lyle, dead and gone. She didn't know how to feel about that yet, but it would be good to tell the baby, "Your daddy died in the mines." A lot of fathers had died in the mines over the years; now her child wouldn't be so different. Maybe they wouldn't have to talk much about how he had no intention to marry or care for his baby or even give up all of his other women.
She turned her gaze up the Grapevine. She'd have to ask Miz Bertie if there was a way to get to Miss Lloyd's college without passing that mine. She didn't want to be reminded every day of Lyle lying in there, buried in the dark under all that rock, not when she was starting a whole new life that he hadn't dirtied up. There was a whole lot to figure out before school started in the fall.
Somebody had told her the girl was planning to go to Caney College. Well, it sounded fine and nice, but how did she think she was going to manage, with a baby and no husband and no money and living all that long way away? The trains only carried coal now, and not much of that. There was Frank's old truck, sitting out in the barn where it'd been since... Maybe she could get Jesse or some of the boys down at the garage to get it running again. Somebody might as well get the good of it.
That was only a start. Of course the girl's mother would watch the child for her; any mother had to do that. But when Bertie had asked about her parents the girl had made a kind of wincing face and then shrugged apologetically. The girl had made a bad mistake, no doubt about that, but the poor little baby shouldn't have to pay for it.
Thinking about the baby brought back the sense memory of Frank Junior's small warm body lying contented against her shoulder. After all these long years, she could still feel it, and miss it.
Money was the problem. Miss Lloyd had told her they could work something out, but Joy didn't like the idea of starting over by owing somebody. Maybe there was some work she could do up at the college after her classes. But there was still that long walk to and from Chavies, that was going to take a couple hours each way. Suddenly it all seemed so impossible. "Young lady, you can do anything that you believe," she quoted to herself sternly, carefully stacking a gravy boat on top of the dinner plates. Miz Bertie sure had some nice things.
Bertie rubbed carefully at the old painted bowl with its faded band of gold around the rim. Every time she touched it she was aware of its adventurous past - brought by boat from England by her great-grandmother, carefully used to serve up the poor, cheap food that was available in the tenements of New York. Then, carefully packed with the rest of the set, long since broken or lost, the bowl had been transported in the back of a wagon all the long way here to the Appalachias and finally to her own cupboards. It made her smile, realizing this bowl was still so much older than she was. Reckon who it would go to next? It had been passed, mother to daughter, down through so many years, but the line came to an abrupt halt with her.
She sighed, conscious suddenly of her empty arms, the many empty rooms of her house, the empty days behind and ahead now that everyone was gone.
The bowl slipped in her soap-slick hand. With a mutual gasp, she and the girl caught it, fingers overlapping, saving it.