***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***
Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sightâ€¦.
Nothing wakes a body faster than a barking dog competing with the heated shouts of furious men. Eleanor Booth threw off her heavy quilt and leaped out of bed, pulled her flannel collar up tight around her throat, and raced across the gritty floor to the window. With her fingertips, she rubbed a circle of frost off the pane and peered out into the cold, dark morning, squinting to make out the shadowy figures that appeared to be facing off just feet away from the rotting front porch. An icy chill surged down her spine.
â€œI ainâ€™t payinâ€™ you one cent more, Sullivan. You done took me for every last penny.â€
â€œThatâ€™s where youâ€™re wrong, Byron. Your pocket ainâ€™t empty till I say it is, and as long as you keep producinâ€™ hooch, the greenbacksâ€™ll keep rollinâ€™ in. You stop payinâ€™, and Iâ€™ll shut you down quicker than a lizard on hot sand.â€
They were at it againâ€”Byron Pruitt, Ellieâ€™s worthless stepfather, and Walter Sullivan, that crooked government agent. Byronâ€™s dog, Curly, didnâ€™t let up his fierce, frenzied barking, which ought to have deterred the dispute but seemed to fuel it instead.
â€œByron,â€ Ellieâ€™s mama, Rita, pleaded in a panicked tone. â€œByron, pay the man so heâ€™ll get off our property.â€
â€œShut up, woman, and git back inside! I ainâ€™t payinâ€™ â€™im another dime!â€
Ellie snatched her fraying robe from the foot of her bed, slipped it on, and rushed out of the room, toes gone numb from the frozen air wafting up through the floorboards. Tennessee winters didnâ€™t generate much snow, but that didnâ€™t stop the temperatures from plummeting into the single digits.
She entered the dark, tiny living room and found her mother standing in the open doorway, shoulders hunched, hands clutching the door frame. Her grayish-black hair was mussed every which way, and her tattered flannel nightgown hugged her narrow frame.
Ellie shot a hasty glance at the potbelly stove in the middle of the room, where nothing but a few embers glowing through the blackened glass. More shivers stampeded down her spine. â€œWhatâ€™s goinâ€™ on?â€ she asked, coming up behind her mama.
At the sound of her voice, Byron gave a half-turn, and thatâ€™s when Ellie spied the sawed-off shotgun in his arms. â€œGit back to bed, missy,â€ he groused. â€œYou ainâ€™t needed here.â€
Walt Sullivan had a gun, tooâ€”a pistolâ€”but he kept it holstered, one hand hovering over it.
â€œByron, put that gun down before somebody gets hurt,â€ Ellie said firmly.
â€œYeah, Pruitt. Listen to your purty liâ€™l daughter.â€
â€œShut yer tater trap and git off my land, Sullivan.â€
â€œNot till I get whatâ€™s due me.â€
â€œI done paid you. Now, git!â€
â€œâ€™Fraid you paid me half.â€
â€œYou keep raisinâ€™ the rates, you dumb ox. How you â€™spect me to make any kind oâ€™ livinâ€™?â€
Sullivan chortled. â€œThat ainâ€™t my concern, now, is it? I swear, if you donâ€™t pay up, Iâ€™ll come back with my men, and weâ€™ll turn your whole operation into mincemeat by midday.â€ He made the mistake of taking a step toward Byron, whether to intimidate or to show his authority, Ellie couldnâ€™t say. She knew only that it was a mistake.
Byron raised his rifle and quickly fired off three shots, each one reaching its intended target. For a brief moment, his eyes glistened in the vanishing moonlight. Then, eyes bulging in an expression of shock, he dropped to the ground like a sack of wet cement.
Utter mayhem followed. Curly kept barking and ran circles around the fallen body, while her mama shrieked. â€œByron! Youâ€”youâ€”youâ€™ve shot â€™im. Is he dead? Oh, dear God, help us!â€ And Ellie, to suppress her own sobs, turned away from the body, where red fluid already oozed from mouth and nose. She clutched her stomach to keep from retching right there on the floor.
â€œShut up, just shut up, both oâ€™ you!â€ Byron roared. â€œI have to think.â€ With eyes flaming and nostrils flaring, he turned and started pacing.
The women kept quiet, save for the occasional gasp of air, and hugged each other. Ellie swallowed down some of the bitter juice churning in her stomach and chanced a peek over Mamaâ€™s shoulder.
Byron paused and crouched over Sullivanâ€™s body, feeling for a pulse. He cut loose a curse. â€œHeâ€™s dead, all right.â€
Ellieâ€™s mama gasped and released her to cover her mouth with her hands. â€œOh, mother of all things holy, Byron! What in the world have you done?â€
â€œShut up, I told you, â€™fore I shoot you, too!â€ He raised his gun at her.
On impulse, Ellie leaped between them, her arms raised. â€œPut that gun down, you fool!â€ She had to tell herself to breathe.
The manâ€™s beady eyes stared as if to bore holes through her, but he lowered his weapon. Still, she knew Byron Pruitt had no soulâ€”sheâ€™d known since the day sheâ€™d met himâ€”and sheâ€™d go to the grave wondering why her mama had married him after her father had died. Perhaps, sheâ€™d seen him as her only hope of surviving in the hills. Some protector heâ€™d turned out to be, operating an illegal distillery that brought the scum of society straight to their door. If he ever turned a profit, her mama never saw it, for what he didnâ€™t gamble away he paid in bribes to keep the authorities off his back.
â€œI gotta get rid oâ€™ this body,â€ he muttered, sweeping five stubby fingers through his scraggly hair.
â€œNo,â€ Ellie said quietly. â€œWe have to call the sheriff.â€
â€œAre you crazy?â€ he spat, stepping over the body and walking toward them, his eyes as wild as a rabid dogâ€™s. â€œWe ainâ€™t callinâ€™ no sheriff. I kilt a man, a government man, in cold blood. You think any court oâ€™ lawâ€™s gonna let me off the hook?â€
Ellie huddled close to her mama and wrapped a protective arm around her.
â€œW-we wonâ€™t tell,â€ Mama said, her whole body quivering. â€œWe promise, Byron.â€
Ellie couldnâ€™t believe her ears. â€œMama, how can you say that?â€
Byronâ€™s eyes bulged with madness as he climbed the rickety porch steps and entered the house. The worst kind of cold slithered in the door and tangled around Ellieâ€™s ankles. â€œBecause you twoâ€™re in this with me, thatâ€™s how she can say it. Iâ€™ll tell the cops you both played a part, that you talked me into doinâ€™ it.â€ He raised the shotgun and poked the barrel into her mamaâ€™s chin, lifting it.
Ellie swallowed hard and stiffened. â€œByron, donâ€™t you dare hurt her.â€
Her stepfather was a perpetual terror, always cocking a gun, sharpening a knife, or speaking not-so-veiled threats. It seemed that nothing satisfied him more than creating havoc in their little household. Byron Pruitt was a viperous lunatic, and if it hadnâ€™t been for her beloved mama, Ellie would have left years ago.
Byron slid the muzzle up Mamaâ€™s face and held it at the center of her forehead. â€œI ainâ€™t lyinâ€™, Eleanorâ€”if you donâ€™t help me bury that body anâ€™ promise to keep yer trap shut â€™bout what you saw, Iâ€™ll kill yer ma.â€
â€œYou are plumb crazy,â€ Ellie whispered through her teeth.
â€œDonâ€™t believe me?â€ He cocked the rifle and chortled. â€œIâ€™ll blow â€™er head off right now.â€
Mama whimpered as a lone tear trickled down her trembling cheek.
Byron redirected the shotgun at the floor and pulled the trigger. A unison scream sounded as Ellie and her mama clutched each other and stepped away from the cloud of dust that rose from the splintered hole in the boards. Outside, Curly barked even louder, and Ellie could hear the chickens fussing in the coop.
But she heard nothing except the pounding of her own heartbeat when Byron stuck the barrel of his gun in her mamaâ€™s temple. â€œIâ€™ll kill â€™er, Eleanor, I swear it. You go to the cops, and sheâ€™s as good as dead. And hereâ€™s an interestinâ€™ liâ€™l tidbit: you workinâ€™ alongside me at that liquor still makes you my partner in crime.â€ He laughed, the sound cold and hollow. â€œThem head beaters donâ€™t look too kindly on us moonshiners, anâ€™ with you beinâ€™ one of us, well, theyâ€™re likely to lock you up tighterâ€™n a pickle in a canninâ€™ jar. Just donâ€™t forget that.â€
She hated that he was right. â€œFine. Just put that stupid gun down.â€
He complied, but only after heâ€™d held it in position for what seemed like another minute, an ugly sneer on his face. â€œGood. Iâ€™m glad weâ€™re clear on that.â€ He pulled the gun strap over his shoulder. â€œWell, come on, then, both oâ€™ you. We got a body to bury.â€
Hours later, Ellie could barely believe sheâ€™d actually dug the grave of Walter Sullivan. Granted, sheâ€™d done it with Byronâ€™s rifle aimed at her. Twice sheâ€™d emptied her stomach contents into the hole, only to hear the gun cock and Byron tell her to hurry up and finish before somebody came along.
Now, she watched her mama working at the stove to prepare lunch. In the living room, Byron sat in his rocker next to the fire and cleaned his gun, Ellie knew, to rid it of any traces of telltale gunpowder.
Ellie moved up beside her mama and touched her shoulder gently. â€œYouâ€™ve been stirrinâ€™ this soup for fifteen minutes, Mama. Why donâ€™t you go sit down a spell? Youâ€™re plain tuckered out.â€
â€œWhat you two whisperinâ€™ â€™bout in there?â€ Byron barked.
â€œNothinâ€™,â€ Mama called back. Then, with lowered voice, she sputtered to Ellie, â€œYou canâ€™t stay here. You gotta leave today. I wouldnâ€™t be able to bear it if anythinâ€™ happened to you.â€
â€œI canâ€™t leave you with that maniac, Mama. Heâ€™s insane.â€
â€œOf course you can, and you will. Iâ€™ll be fine. The minute he heads out to the barn, I want you to grab whatever you need and then skedaddle across the field to the Meyersâ€™ house, you hear? Ask Burt to drive you down the mountain. Heâ€™ll do it.â€
â€œWhat you two blabberinâ€™ about?â€
Byronâ€™s brusque voice in the hallway had Ellie whirling on her heel. â€œNothinâ€™, just like Mama said. Go sit down. Your lunch is ready.â€
â€œHumph. You best not be planninâ€™ to run off anywheres,â€ he grumbled before shuffling off to the table. Ellie caught the smell of his breath, and her stomach lurched, though she should have been accustomed to the stench of whiskey by now, considering the hours sheâ€™d worked at the still, where the air was saturated with mash. She would always associate the odor with Byronâ€”and his shotgun, which was the only thing that had kept her working there.
The legs of his chair scraped against the sooty floor as he scooted in closer to the table, his back to them. With an icy chortle, he muttered, â€œYou two donâ€™t got nowheres to go, anyway.â€
Three hours later, Ellie bumped along in the backseat of a Model T driven by Burt Meyer. Mildred, his wife of forty years, sat up front with him. Quiet tears dampened Ellieâ€™s face as Burt maneuvered the automobile, its brakes squealing in protest, down a narrow pass.
Sheâ€™d had no more than minutes to throw a few belongings into a little suitcase, hug her mama good-bye, and then sprint along the worn path across the cornfield. Mama had given her strict orders to locate her deceased husbandâ€™s aunt in Wabash, Indiana, and not to send word to her for at least a month, and then only through Burt and Mildred. â€œWe can trust them,â€ sheâ€™d said as sheâ€™d helped her pack, Ellie crying all the while. â€œDonâ€™t tell them where youâ€™re goinâ€™, though, and when you write to me, put the letter inside a small envelope and then tuck that inside a bigger one. Put your return address on the inside letter, never the outside one, you understand? The less information Burt â€™nâ€™ Mildred know, the better off theyâ€™ll be. Theyâ€™re good people. I donâ€™t want them gettinâ€™ involved in this mess, other than to drive you to the train station.â€
â€œYou sure you want to leave your ma?â€ Mildred asked, bringing Ellieâ€™s attention back to the present. The woman turned around and looked her in the eye. â€œYou seem awful broke up â€™bout leavinâ€™, honey.â€
Ellie wiped her cheeks and nodded. â€œIâ€™m nineteen. High time I make my own way.â€
â€œAnd get away from that fool stepfather oâ€™ yours,â€ Burt muttered. â€œToo bad Rita didnâ€™t leave with you.â€
Mildred glared at her husband. â€œNow, Burt, that ainâ€™t none of our concern,â€ she scolded him gruffly. When she was facing front again, Ellie heard her add, â€œEven if youâ€™re right.â€ In a louder voice, she said, â€œWeâ€™re goinâ€™ to miss you somethinâ€™ fierce, Eleanor. Always did love it when you came across the field to visit us.â€
â€œAnd brought them scrumptious pies with you,â€ Burt tacked on. â€œWonâ€™t be the same up on West Peak with you gone.â€ He glanced back at her and winked. â€œWhere you travelinâ€™ to, if you donâ€™t mind my askinâ€™?â€
â€œIâ€¦I plan to head north, look for a job. Not quite sure just where yet.â€ She could at least tell them that much.
Mildred turned around again, her brow wrinkled in concern. â€œYou donâ€™t got a plan, Eleanor? Why, we cainâ€™t just drop you off if you donâ€™t have no sort oâ€™ arrangements.â€
â€œSure you can,â€ Ellie said, forcing brightness into her tone. She wiped away the last of her tears. â€œI need to break out oâ€™ my cocoon.â€
â€œDarlinâ€™, if you want to break out, why donâ€™t you go south? Itâ€™s so blamed cold up north.â€
â€œDaddy has an aunt Iâ€™m planninâ€™ to stay with.â€ She regretted the disclosure immediately, but it did seem that they deserved an explanation of sorts. Theyâ€™d always been so kind to Mama and her.
â€œSay no more,â€ Burt spoke up. â€œLong as youâ€™ll be safe, thatâ€™s enough for Mildred and me.â€
â€œHe ainâ€™t a good sort, that Byron Pruitt,â€ Mildred said, as if she knew that he had something to do with Ellieâ€™s departure.
Ellie determined to purse her lips for the rest of the trip, lest some hint of the sordid murder slip past them. Best to keep it buried in the deepest parts of her soul.