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For me, this is how it started. With a phone call.
“My name is Ashley Cook and I’m calling about Paul’s crusher.” The woman spoke rapidly, as if seizing an opportunity that might pass. “I got your name from a lady up on Yellow Mountain.”
“Who? Which lady?”
“Beth, I believe it was.”
Beth Langstaff? My mind tried to find a reference. Witt Langstaff and his wife had bought the pastureland down the hill from me, below my pond. Beth. Must be Witt’s wife, I thought.
“Is everybody okay? Is Witt okay?”
“Well, not everybody.” The woman’s voice was high and tight, like the first string on a guitar. “Paul pulled a shot over at the rock crusher and it cracked the foundation on our house. We’ve got a police report on it. I called that lady and she called her husband, who is off somewhere working, and that man said I should call you, because Paul has run all over the mountain, and you being a lawyer . . .” She stopped to regroup. “See, Paul and Richard Whitehead—you probably know him—and James Vance, we call him Nasty, they work for Paul, and he has violated the mining law in ten different ways. At least ten. I haven’t counted it up, not yet. Now they want to put in a gravel conveyor that would be on a seventy-nine-foot tower.” Ashley Cook’s words came out in a torrent, but her tone was clear and her intelligence obvious. Her accent was faint, country, but not overtlymountain, and I wondered if she was making an effort to conceal it. She said she was a Cook. I knew the Cooks from up on Little Horse Creek, but she didn’t talk quite like them. She sounded as if she had moved away from here and come back, had tried to forget how to talk mountain.
“I heard it,” I said.
“Heard what?” She’d gotten tangled up in her own telling.
“When they pulled that shot. When they blew that first chunk out of the mountain.”
“Don’t you live up on Birchfield Creek somewhere?”
“I live up on the mountain.”
“And you heard it all the way up there?”
“That’s interesting,” she said, as if this were an important part of a puzzle she was piecing together. Now she muffled the receiver and relayed my words to some audience: “He says he heard that shot all the way up on Yellow Mountain!”
Yes, I had heard it. I was working at my desk when the air went wild with an explosion on Belview Mountain. The sound swept up the east slope of Big Yellow and screamed over the house. I sat up. Nearly levitated. One of the dogs, Biscuit, rose from a deep sleep and let loose a fusillade of barks. I expected every tree on the ridge to lie over flat, for feathers to fly from birds, but once the sound passed, everything stood as it had.
“Tell me about the gravel conveyor,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to make of any of this just yet, but this woman had seized my attention.
She paused. I detected in her tone that she was less than impressed that I did not immediately understand the significance of a seventy-nine-foot conveyor tower.
“Do you want to talk to Aunt Ollie?” she asked suddenly.
I didn’t know if I did or not. In my brief moment of consideration, the phone was passed on to Aunt Ollie.
“I hope we’re not a-botherin’ you,” said a new voice, “but, son, we got big trouble, Mr.—”
“You can call me Jay.”
“All right, Mr. Jay. We need help. We’re killed.”
This voice I knew. The Cooks have been rooted in Avery County for as long as history or memory records. They are mountain people. Hard people with birdy faces who live high up on the cold creeks. Either hard drinking or hard churchgoing, the Cooks and Taylors I knew growing up were wraithlike. They grew potatoes and a little bit of corn, cabbage. They hacked at the slopes to try to get the earth to give something back. Some of them carpentered for a living, others worked horses, in timber, and one of them was married to a man who ran a sawmill down below our house when I was a boy. They talked in the singsong trill of the deep hollers. I asked Aunt Ollie how she was kin to my neighbor Stella Thomas, who was born a Cook.
“She’s my sister. My half sister. See, my father got married twicet.”
“Okay.” I had heard that before.
Aunt Ollie took a deep breath. “We’re in trouble,” she said before pausing. Was she smoking? She might have paused to pull on a cigarette. “We’re barely hanging on. Paul’s killing us.”
“All right. But who is Paul?”
“Oh, Jesus, son!” she exclaimed at my lack of knowledge. “Paul owns that rock crusher over across from my house. He’s killing us. You don’t know Paul Brown?”
“Paul Brown,” I said, scrambling to repair my credibility. “Clark Stone Company. I know of him.”
“Well, you’re going to know Paul real good before this thing is over. Because he’s going to pull that whole mountain down.”
“So I hear. What can I do for you?”
“What we need for you to do, if you’ll do it, is to come to the county-commissioner meeting. I don’t know if we need a lawyer, or a preacher, or a damn undertaker, but Sam Laws has got this thing all lined up the way he wants it. Thing is, doesn’t Avery County have a Ridge Law?”
“North Carolina has a Ridge Law,” I said. “I don’t know about the county.”
“Well, if I’d knowed what to do, I’d’ve already done it.” She nearly saidI’d’ve already did it,but she corrected herself. I made a note of her efforts in this regard. “We can’t get a lawyer because Paul has them all bought off already. He’s got a lawyer on a retainer, that’s what I heard. Ashley, she’s read everything on the books, but Paul don’t care one thing about any laws, and he’s wanting to get a variance for his conveyor tower and hit seventy-nine feet tall. And the commissioners are all a bunch of damn dogs, some of them anyway. You might know some of them.”
“Who is Ashley?” I asked, treading furiously to keep up.
“That’s who you were just talking to. Ashley Cook. She’s read everything in print and on the Internet, too. All the mining laws they ever passed. She’s my niece.”
I heard a question raised from beyond her. A son? Husband? Aunt Ollie now relayed the question. “Dallas says, don’t a seventy-nine-foot conveyor violate the Ridge Law? We’re killed if it don’t.Hayull.”
She drew in her breath again. “Well, I’m honest I don’t know what to do. You got to forgive me. I got your name and I told Dallas, that’s my husband—everybody calls him Curly on account of his hair, I’m sure you’ve heard of him—and he said we had to call somebody to do something about this, because Paul, he’s coming in here like a Scud missile. And luckily Ashley, she got your name.” Aunt Ollie felt the need to explain, for which I was grateful. “Well, what happened was, Dallas asked a man, and he said to call Witt Langstaff from up on Yellow Mountain ’cause he’s madder’n hell about Paul. And his wife, Mrs. Langstaff, she said she would have to call him where he was a-workin’, and then she called me back and she give me your number. Can you help us?”