The screen door slammed behind him, a quick echo to the cocking of her rifle. She took her time crossing the few feet to the door and opening it with her left hand, rifle ready in her right. She saw him skid around the back corner of the barn, shirt-tale flapping in the breeze.
Her name was Avera. It sounded like “average,” but “average” would never describe her. She and Henry married almost two years earlier, but with his deployment they had only lived together for the last six months, since the war was over. He still had a lot to learn about her.
She knew most of the soldiers were having trouble adjusting to “regular” life…the ones who came back, that is. Some were in the ground in faraway places, hard to visit; some found a life elsewhere. The hollers of Pike County, Kentucky, just didn’t hold the glamour of San Francisco, the excitement of a war that spanned the globe, or the recognition to which a man in uniform so quickly becomes accustomed. Submarines in the Pacific Ocean were a far cry from the mountains of Kentucky…although, come to think of it, coal mining must feel a lot like being underwater. She reflected on that comparison for a minute as she settled into the rocking chair on the porch. The wooden stock of her rifle remained cool across her legs, but the metal barrel glinted in the sunlight.
She had tried to be patient. She really had. But every woman has her limits. When he backhanded her for “smartin’ off” (that’s what he called it) he stepped across that limit. She didn’t plan it out, just turned around and picked up the .22 she kept on the kitchen shelf, behind the teacups. He was out the door before she even turned back around. That fool! His muddy shoes were still sitting here on the porch.
Henry’s dark hair and blue eyes peeked around the corner of the barn. She didn’t aim, just fired in his general direction. He ducked back as the bullet took a chunk out of the barn wall about a foot from the corner. His hair was growing out since he left the service: thick and dark. She liked it.
She was aiming near his head when he peeked around the other side of the barn. She fired, nicking the corner of the barn. They would have to replace those boards tomorrow.
He waited a bit longer before revealing himself again, and this time, he moved more slowly. She shifted the rifle sights down and to the right so she knocked another chunk out of the same board, just a bit lower than before. No point in replacing more boards than necessary.
She had him cornered, so to speak. He could move along the back of the barn and perhaps down the right side just a bit before she saw him, but that was all. Everything on this property was wedged into the folds of the mountain. If he tried to escape directly backward, he would also be going straight up a hill, and she would see him before he was ten feet away.
His backside thumped against the dry ground near the corner. He didn’t call out to her—just sat. Probably stained his shirt-tale with dirt. That was something else she’d have to fix tomorrow.
Henry was a good twelve inches taller than Avera’s 5’2” frame. He was older, more travelled, more worldly. But he came from this very holler, just like she did, and he was not smarter. She read that newspaper article just like he did, and she knew his facts were skewed. He thought he could smack her just because she corrected him over the dinner table. Not so. Her Daddy taught her to think for herself. Taught her to stand up for herself. Taught her to shoot, too. She could hit a target better than any man in this holler—even the soldier boys.
Her own huff brought her back to the present. She glanced up the holler to the next house. Henry’s Daddy was sitting there on his porch. Just watching, of course. He would know she had a reason. A good reason. Didn’t matter that this was his house and his land. Didn’t matter that was his son hiding out behind the barn, barefoot, from a woman.
The remains of dinner hardened on the plates inside. The fire in the stove smoldered and smoked. The washing crackled dry on the line out back. Henry’s Daddy sat, watching. Avera sat, rifle laid across her knees. Every once in a while, she pushed up on her toes, rocking exactly once. Henry sat in the dirt behind the barn. She estimated it was about every twenty minutes that Henry leaned around the corner. Sometimes she shot, sometimes she just took aim before he retreated.
As the shadows stretched across the porch steps, Henry’s Daddy unfolded his own tall frame and sauntered across the walkway toward her. It was made of wood, one side recessed into the mountain, the other on stilts in the steeper parts. He could have been taking a stroll down one of those boardwalks she’d seen in San Francisco when Henry was deployed that last time.
He waited to speak until he could prop his foot on the bottom step, but he didn’t come onto the porch. His voice was steady, reasonable, as if watching this type of spectacle were an everyday occurrence. “Avera Mae?” The two names were a sign of respect from him. “How long you plan on keeping him up there behind that barn?”
Avera rocked once before she answered. Then she nodded as she spoke: “Until I’m sure he’s learned somethin’.”
Avera was my grandmother, and this piece is based on a true story.
“The United States Armed Forces proved a popular way for sons in the region to get ahead. Appalachian men had always made excellent soldiers, for few Americans were as deadly with the rifle or as willing to face the dangers of combat. In fact, a remarkably high percentage of Congressional Medal of Honor winners in each of our wars have been natives of Appalachia.
“Once a mountaineer had tasted the thrill of travel and the marvels of Paris, London, or Sydney, it was hard to keep him in his Appalachian hollow.Richard B. Drake, A History of Appalachia.
What about you? What family stories lie in your memory? This is just one of many for me. Let me know what you think in the comments below!