“Tell me again—where is it you’re going?” Karen asked.
“To West Virginia, to see a piece of property.” Richard lowered the suitcase down from the closet shelf, opened it on the bed, and began to pack.
“Pretty short notice,” she said, “or I might have found someone to stay with the kids. No, come to think, I couldn’t, because I’m getting a booth ready for the spring show at the Javits. And we really can’t afford a vacation, or I’d enjoy staying at some plush resort while you’re checking-out real estate.” She turned back to her dressing table.
Richard saw he needed to explain. “My great-great grandfather was a businessman here in the city, successful at his trade but a sucker for lousy investments. When some colleagues talked him into an oil speculation in West Virginia, ‘black gold’ and all that, he went shares on three square miles of woods way out in hillbilly land, nowhere near any plush resorts.”
“Did they make any money? If they did, we sure haven’t seen any of it.”
“Nothing but dry holes. Great-great granddad was disgusted and said, ‘You guys divvy it up.’ He should have paid more attention, because the others got farmland or timber acreage, while he ended up with a stony ridgeline.”
“Then why travel there?” Karen asked. “Sounds like a pretty expensive trip to check out some worthless rocks. Now, if it were going to make us some money. . . .”
“Because my father’s Cousin Edna—remember that old lady I used to go see?—has left it to me in her will. I need to go. . . .”
“To find oil—ha-ha-ha?”
“To find a good realty lawyer and get rid of it. No telling what liability we might incur if someone falls off a cliff.”
“Okay, but don’t let some hayseed talk you into giving anything away. You know we’re strapped for cash.”
* * *
“You can leave that rental in town, Mr. Sofrino,” Lawyer Snodgrass said. “We’ll need this four-wheel drive. That’ll be on top of my hourly rate, of course.” He smiled without opening his lips, striving to hide snaggly teeth that Richard’s children’s orthodontist would have loved to get hold of. The man reminded him of a photo of the pre-beard Lincoln—lean and angular, with deeply lined features, black suit with bow tie.
“That’ll be fine,” Richard said. For the whole day, Snodgrass was charging him less than he’d have paid a Manhattan shyster for an hour.
They left the county seat, a village that would fit into a corner of Central Park, and drove, Snodgrass at the wheel, about six miles down a narrow valley. The road was shaded in the early morning by hills pale green with spring foliage. “This here’s Sour Creek,” he said, gesturing at a tiny collection of frame houses alongside a pretty rivulet. “Your property’s in Sour Creek District.” With that, he steered off the paved road and descended a gravel trail, fording the tiny stream. A lurch and a splash, and they were on the other side, heading uphill.
Meadow turned into woodland, and as the ascent steepened, the trees got larger. Soon they were following a nearly invisible track through the forest, their vehicle tilted precariously toward the out-of-sight bottom of a ravine. When they emerged temporarily in sunshine, where a long-ago landslide must have cleared the hill of trees, the terrain fell away so steeply as to give Richard momentary vertigo. Far below, a waterfall spilled in a series of white fountains, until it disappeared in the scrubby brush of the valley.
They entered thicker woods, and it was as if they’d gone back to pre-history. The gloom was palpable, and Richard imagined baby dinosaurs peeking through the banks of rhododendron and mountain laurel. “Come up here ‘round June,” Snodgrass said, “you’ll see God’s own paradise of bloom.”
It had rained heavily the day before, and an intermittent brook coursing down another ravine splashed over rocks and through leaves piled in drifts from the previous autumn.
The track leveled off, and they found themselves on a rocky trail along the ridge’s spine. In every direction, lesser hills rolled endlessly toward a misty horizon. “Here we be,” Snodgrass said. “Feller’d pay a pretty penny for a view like this, back where you come from, I reckon.” Richard had seen the Duke University Law School diploma on the man’s office wall, and Snodgrass had spoken cultured English in that setting, but here he’d slipped into a vernacular complete with accent right out of Grand Old Opry.
They traversed the length of the ridge, two hills each about a mile long, with a gentle saddle between. “What’s that?” Richard asked, pointing to a rocky outspill a hundred yards below the crest of the second.
“One o’ them old mines,” Snodgrass said, as if Richard would know what he was talking about.
“Can we go look?”
“Sure, but best be careful. Don’t be goin’ inside, or I might hafta hire me a gang o’ diggers to fetch you out.”
Snodgrass led the way, striding surefootedly down the hillside, while Richard had to clutch trees and bushes to brake his descent. The foliage had a fecund odor that would still cling to his clothing a day later. They arrived at a level space about twenty feet across, the soil mixed with black fragments that crunched under their boots. The mine looked like something from an old western flick—a square opening framed with timbers, leading into a downward sloping tunnel. Richard wasn’t about to venture inside. “What did they mine here?”
“Coal,” Snodgrass answered. “Cannel coal. Cleanest burnin’ stuff you ever saw, low ash, no smell. Folks hereabouts use it to heat their houses, and it’s the best damn cokin’ fuel in the world. Back in War Two, they was mines all over these hills, supplyin’ the steel mills over ‘long the Kanawha River. The mills’re gone now, and that throwed lots of folks out of work.”
Hearing the sound of a vehicle, Richard looked up. Above them on the ridge, another four-wheel drive had pulled to a halt behind theirs. A large man got out and stood looking down at them. “What the hell you doin’ down there?” he yelled.
“What the hell you doin’ up there?” Snodgrass yelled back. “You’re trespassin’.”
The man came crashing down the hill, and Richard anticipated a scene from Deliverance. But his build turned out to be more pudge than muscle, and he wore thick spectacles, a rumpled seersucker suit, and a mild expression. “You the property owner?” he asked.
“He is,” Snodgrass said, pointing to Richard.
“Well, have I got a deal for you!” The man grasped Richard’s hand in both of his, pumping vigorously. “I’m Mel Watts.”
“Whom do you represent, Mr. Watts?” Snodgrass asked, shifting accents.
“Certain interests,” Watts replied, “the revelation of whose identity will depend on whether I perceive a deal.”
“For?” Richard asked.
“For coal, of course. You may not realize it, young man, but your property stands atop a vein twenty feet thick, that’s barely been touched in the past.”
“How do you know this?”
“Because,” Watts said, sweeping his arm in a circle, “as you can see, this ridge rises above the others around here, and similar elevations in the region are loaded with the stuff. We’ve taken enough borings to satisfy my clients that your property is similarly endowed.”
“So you want to reopen this mine?” Richard asked, gesturing at the shaft opening.
Watts laughed. “That’s not how we do it. As it happens, the vein lies entirely within your property lines, and your neighbors on the lower slopes have all signed waivers allowing us to pile spoil on their land for a fee per cubic yard, along with our guarantee of replanting with ground cover. All we need now is for you to okay we strip-mine the top.”
Snodgrass pulled out a pocket calculator. “How many tons, at how much per?”
After an exchange of figures, Snodgrass to turned to Richard. “You stand to gain a cool million, young fellow. That’s before taxes, but even with the bracket I suppose you’re in, what with depreciation you’ll net a pretty penny.”
Richard pondered. Karen, who’d insisted on living in the city for easy access to her fashion business, had also insisted on having their children privately educated. As a result, they’d saved little or nothing, and faced considerable belt-tightening when the kids started college. “I think we can make a deal,” Richard said, “but I’ll need Mr. Snodgrass to advise me.”
“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Watts,” Snodgrass said, proffering a card.
Back up on the ridgeline, they waited until the man was out of sight before heading back the way they’d come. When they got to the saddle, Snodgrass braked to a halt and dismounted. “There’s someone we have to see,” he said. Richard followed him down a gentle slope to a one-story cabin, its log surface chinked with whitewashed earth. He’d failed to notice it the first time by, nor had Snodgrass pointed it out. There was a front yard of beaten soil, with a cornfield and vegetable garden to one side, a chicken house and pig pen on the other. A wisp of smoke drifted from the stone chimney. “Who lives here?” Richard asked.
“Reckon he’s your cousin,” Snodgrass replied. “Leastwise, he says so.” He paused. “Best you call me by my given name, Mr. Sofrino, which is Sam, lest folks think we don’t like each other. What do you prefer?”
Stepping onto the porch, one end holding a pair of rocking chairs, the other an old-fashioned laundry wringer, the lawyer knocked on the unpainted planks of the cabin door. It opened to reveal a thin, shirtless, overall-wearing man of perhaps fifty. “Howdy, Sam,” the man said, smiling to reveal a number of missing teeth. Those he had were deeply tobacco-stained, as was his unshaven chin. “Come right in, and bring your friend.”
Richard stumbled as he crossed the roughhewn threshold, and their host closed the door behind them.
“Why don’t you set?” He pointed to a table hewn from the same planks as the front door, circled by four homemade chairs. “Like some water? Mighty hot out there.”
Sam was given a pint Mason jar, which looked unwashed, and Richard was dubious about the tin cup he’d been handed. Still, he drank gratefully, and the water was cool and fresh-tasting. “Do you have a spring?”
“A ways down the hill,” his host answered. “One of my begetters dug it, must be a hundert years now. Sweetest water in these parts.”
“Let me make an introduction,” Sam said. “Richard Sofrino, this here’s Amos Sofrino. I reckon the two o’ you might oughta get to know each other.”
“We’re really related?” Richard asked.
“I calc’late we are,” Amos cackled. “My great granddam, she was just a girl when your great-great grandpap come up here to see his property back in 1889. He must’ve honey-talked her somethin’ good—here only here a couple of days, so my pap told me—and she was carrying my pap’s daddy when the New York feller left. He done sent support, so there’s no hard feelin’s, if that’s got you worried.”
“No,” Richard said, “I wasn’t worried about that.”
“’Bout what then? Look’s like somethin’s botherin’ you. Bet you think I want some o’ your New York money.”
“For the coal. Don’t worry, me and my woman we got ever’thin’ we need in life, right here.” Amos gestured around the cabin. Richard’s eyes had adjusted to the interior dimness, and he saw that the room occupied roughly half of the structure. In one corner stood a woodburning stove, now unlit, and a metal washtub held a few pieces of crockery. Between a couple of tiny windows, shelves affixed to the wall were filled with canned and packaged foods, along with stored paper towels and toilet paper. The walls were covered with old newspapers, presumably to keep out winter’s cold. The only other furniture was a lounge chair of soiled yellow fabric, with a tarnished spittoon at its side. The floor was randomly stained in that vicinity, attesting to the owner’s careless aim.
“We were thinking. . . .” Richard began, but stopped in mid-sentence upon a headshake from Sam.
“I hope you ain’t talkin’ open pit,” Amos said. “If you be, we got us a quarrel.”
“But you said. . . .”
“Don’t matter what I said. Anybody what comes up on this mountain with power shovels gonna get hit with a court injunction quickern’ spit on a hot griddle. I know my rights.”
“Let me handle this, Richard. You got squatter’s rights, sure ‘nough, Amos, but Richard here can get a counter-injunction to move you off the property while it’s being mined, long as you and your missus be provided with housing during excavation and then a new cabin—on what’ll be restored flat ground—afterward.”
From a bedsheet-curtained doorway, a woman emerged. Heftier than her presumed husband, she was also better attired, in a cotton dress that had been pressed after washing. “I’m Bridget Sofrino, gentlemen,” she said. “Welcome to our home. Why don’t you take our guests for a walk, Amos, while I make lunch? I got ham hock, white beans, cornbread, greens with pot liquor, and cider to drink. No milk, ‘cause the cow’s gone off fresh, but you can bring up some butter from the cold locker at the spring.”
“While I’m doin’ that,” Amos said, “I’ll show you feller’s how the land lays hereabouts.”
The tour took two hours, and had obviously been planned in detail. In addition to the spring of which Amos had spoken, burbling from a rocky cleft downhill from the cabin, there were rocky outcrops and hardwood copses among meadows bright with wildflowers. Rabbits bolted at their approach, white tails flashing in the sunlight, and birds called from the trees. Amos pointed out native flora – trillium, yellow lady’s slipper, staghorn, and wild blackberry. He dug up a ramp, offering bites of the garlicky root, and predicted an ample summer harvest of wild parsley and the carroty tubers of Queen Anne’s lace, and of mandrake for the weekend town market. A fox ran across their path, so quickly that Richard at first mistook it for a feral cat; and a family of deer, a buck and three does, looked inquisitively down from higher on the hillside. The morning mist had dissipated, and the hill country stretched beyond vision.
After they had climbed back up the hill and onto the track along the ridge’s spine, heading back toward the cabin, Amos spoke. “That’s a quarter of your land, Cousin. Come another time and I’ll show you the rest, just as perty. D’you like what you see?”
“It’s paradise,” Richard said.
“Then it’d be a sin to ruin it, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it would.”
Lunch was perfunctory, the visit having served its purpose. Richard and Sam got back into their vehicle and headed down to the valley. “I know what you’re thinking,” Sam said. “You’re thinking you ought not to spoil that Eden. Well, I’m here to say that it’s inescapable.”
“You knew about Watts and his company all along?”
“Of course, but I figured you were probably one of those do-gooder city folks, and you’d want to see for yourself.”
“Now that I have, I won’t be a party to it.”
“You ever been down a mineshaft? Can you imagine what’s it’s like to go underground to earn your daily bread?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Just that this area is full of impoverished ex-miners, half of them with black lung disease, living off a pitiful union pension while they cough their lives away. Their children are mostly out of work, and this project will provide desperately needed employment. I could take you into some of those houses in Sour Creek, and you’d see what rural poverty really looks like. That cousin of yours and his wife are the exception, subsisting off this land of yours.
“You’re going to say, ‘We should respect their choice,’ and I’m telling you that they—and you, for that matter—don’t have any choice. Your property is bounded by that of five neighbors, all of whom have contracted with Watts’s company to deposit spoil on their land followed by restoration. They also desperately need the money, and will go to the county government to exercise eminent domain to get this project going.”
Richard was indignant. “It’s going to rape the land!”
“It’s going to destroy the land’s natural beauty, that’s for sure. But the coal company is also going to restore the topsoil and re-plant the forest. Thirty years from now, this ridge will be as nice as it is today, except that it will have become a mesa covered with trees.”
“And Amos and his wife? In their lifetimes, the ridge will be uninhabitable.”
“They’ll get cash for their squatter’s rights and buy themselves another place. Land is cheap hereabouts.”
“Start all over, at their ages? He’s my cousin, for God’s sake!”
Sam kept silence until they had crossed the stream, then braked to a halt before re-entering the highway. “Now listen here. I may be just a country lawyer while you’re an urban sophisticate, but we’re both able to recognize the inevitable. If your conscience bothers you so much, gift some of those royalties to your cousin.”
That brought Richard back to reality. There was no way that he and Karen could—or would—part with a penny of this good fortune. “Okay, get me back to town, so I can drive to the airport and catch my plane home. You can mail me the contract.”
“With the eviction order?”
“With the eviction order.”