Thursday, November 24, 1927
Just a moment more.
Behind her house, Sheriff Lily Ross kneels by her garden plot. After a cold snap two weeks ago, she’d harvested the last of her sugar pumpkins and acorn squash, then hand-tilled most of the plot, turning under dried husks of tomato vines and cornstalks. Snow, sifting down into these Appalachian hills since yesterday, now shrouds the mounds of dark earth like fine white chiffon.
In one garden corner still unturned, sage yet spikes toward the cold winter sun. Lily adds another stem to her thick bouquet of the herb. Might as well harvest it all—some for Thanksgiving dressing, most to dry in bound bundles in her cellar. Lily glances up at sodden, bulky clouds, gray horns of plenty spilling an early snow. She should hurry—so much yet to do before the day’s feast.…
Just a moment more.
This is her chance for a few minutes alone before her house fills with a houseful of family and friends—a blessing, to be sure. But it’s also a blessing to have a few moments alone on a day off from her duties.
One in particular hounds her. The telegram, on her desk at her office in the new wing of the courthouse, flits across her mind: Expect Special Agent Barnaby Sloan, Columbus office of Bureau of Prohibition, to visit Friday 25th, a.m., to review forthcoming visit by Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt. She will address value of Prohibition at Kinship Opera House, Wednesday next. Requests your briefing on local situation—Lily assumed that meant moonshining in the county’s hills and hollers. She’d shaken her head in surprise and wonder at the telegram, then shrugged at the notion of a briefing. What could she possibly tell the highest-ranked woman in the country?
Now Lily shakes her head to clear it of work worries and plucks one fuzzy gray-green sage leaf, rubs it. Ah. That savory scent, a summer season’s warmth infused from the earth itself.
Lily gazes across her land, past the empty clothesline strung between crosses, beyond outbuildings of barn and chicken coop and cold frame and outhouse, on down to the tree line along Coal Creek. Her twenty acres of crops—split between buckwheat and corn—are beyond view, but she imagines them now, resting under a soft thin sheet of snow, thinks back briefly to Mr. Harkins, whom she’d hired to work the fields, and who had last come three weeks ago on a Sunday just after they’d gotten home from church. Mr. Harkins had worked the fields for the previous owner, who’d told her the Harkinses were a good family. She knows them as such, from attending the Presbyterian church with them in Kinship, but they hadn’t been for a few months.
Well, it’s not her place to judge the Harkinses’ religious practices, but still, Sunday’s an odd day to be working the fields. Some would say a sure way to draw bad luck for next spring’s crops. Lily isn’t the superstitious type, but still she’d been startled to find the Harkins boy at the mudroom door. She almost hadn’t recognized Zebediah, whom she reckons is twelve or maybe thirteen. He’d shot up since summer’s end to a smidge taller than Lily’s five-foot-three.
Pa’s loading up the cart, Zebediah said. The boy’s hands shook, imperiling a quart jar of canned apples. For pies. Ruthie wants you to have it.
Lily’d recollected that Ruth had come several times to help Lily in the big garden but had stopped of late. The girl was no doubt busy helping her mother with the younger children—twins, just turned two. And yet the boy looked worried as he thrust that jar of apples at her. And why was the girl proffering gifts, and not her mama?
Ruthie wants you to pray for us, Zebediah said as Lily took the jar.
Tell her thanks—though I’d pray without a gift of apples. But why—
Mr. Harkins had come around the corner, and Zebediah cast his gaze downward. Mr. Harkins said he’d be back in the spring if she’d have him, only nodding when she told him of course she would—quieter than usual. She went back in her house briefly, to get the money she’d been planning to pay him later in the week. By the time she returned, Zebediah was heading back to the mule cart.
Now Lily refocuses her thoughts on her own family. There’s a fine line between trusting the instincts that serve her well as sheriff—such as how to deftly handle that upcoming visit from Willebrandt—and putting her nose in another family’s business where it’s not needed.
A snowflake tickles Lily’s nostril, and she sneezes. Then she laughs, the snowflake spurring a childish impulse. As far as Lily can see, she’s alone on her snow-gilded twenty-acre farm—the boys are frog hunting at the creek, her daughter feeding the mule and dog and cats in the barn—and so she jumps up, sticks out her tongue, and laughs again at the delightful sting of catching a few frosty flakes.
“Lily Alvena McArthur Ross!”
Lily snaps her mouth shut and sees Mama, just inside the mudroom door, arms crossed.
Usually, she’d be aggravated by Mama hollering her full name to indicate irritation. But Lily laughs again. Even as—or maybe especially as—a twenty-nine-year-old widow and mother and county sheriff, she finds something delightful in being treated as if she’s a youngster, with no more concern than the consequences of lollygagging by her garden plot. Maybe for Thanksgiving Day, that can be true.
As she goes back inside, Mama lets the mudroom door slam shut hard.
Just a moment more … a quick walk down to the creek, to the Kinship Tree.…
No. She’s loitered long enough while the other women toil in the kitchen.
Just outside the porch, Lily pulls the soles of her boots over the boot scraper. Warm kitchen scents lure her from the grasping cold: baking pumpkin pies spiced with fresh ground nutmeg and cinnamon, bubbling turkey broth. Lily smiles at the blend of scents mingling into the most exotic perfume. Home.
With now-clean boots, Lily steps inside the mudroom, briefly sets the bunch of sage on top of a stack of old newspapers and Sears, Roebuck catalogue pages for trips to the outhouse. As she hangs her coat on a hook, that jar of sweetened apples from Ruth Harkins catches her eye from a shelf filled with home-canned goods. Then she picks up the sage, holds it behind her back, quietly enters the kitchen, and whips the savory bouquet out at Mama, hollering, “Hiya!”
Mama is too caught up in a conversation with Marvena Whitcomb Sacovech to be startled by Lily’s hijinks.
“You mean t’tell me this here is perfectly legal?” Marvena pokes at a brick-shaped package on the worktable.
Lily sighs and starts tearing sage leaves into a bowl of crumbled corn pone on a small table by the stove. Mama and Marvena stare at each other from either end of a longer table. Mama’s dress and apron bundle her plumpness, and the softness of her round face makes the stubborn thrust of her chin endearing rather than intimidating, especially with wispy gray tendrils flying comically loose from her bun. Marvena is all wiry angles, sharp bones held taut by lean muscles hewn from years of hard farmwork and hunting and moonshining. She’d once spent time in lockup at Lily’s behest for brewing corn whiskey. Still, Lily knows not to count out Mama in this standoff.
On the worktable between the two women is a paper-wrapped brick, one of two Mama had insisted on buying the month before at Douglas Grocers in Kinship. The brick is compressed dried grapes, wrapped in paper and labeled Vino Sano Grapes. Beneath the fancy script are detailed instructions: Dissolve in a gallon of fresh water. Add sugar to taste. Store in jars and drink grape juice within week after mixing. Warning: storing in jug in dark cupboard will cause fermentation three weeks from date of mixing. Can also add baking soda to prevent fermentation.
When Mama had shown her the bricks, Lily had laughed out loud, amused by the absurd yet clever work-around of the Volstead Act, now national law for seven years, making the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol illegal. But perfectly legal dehydrated grapes with an absurd “warning” give the company a wide-eyed legal dodge, and “wet” consumers the exact instructions for making wine. Why, even the most die-hard “dry” would have to admit that was clever. Even Mabel Walker Willebrandt.
Copyright © 2021 by Sharon Short