NOT BY SIGHT
Ozark Mountain Trilogy #1
Jimmy Dale Oldham had never killed anything bigger than a June bug. Hunting was supposed to come as natural as breathing to every Arkansas boy. Not him. At least if he could hit his mark, the kill would be quick and clean and the animal wouldn’t suffer. That might be the best he could hope for.
He took careful aim through the scope of the Winchester 94 30-30 caliber rifle he inherited as his birthday present. He slowly squeezed the trigger and an empty soup can popped off a log about fifty yards away. He pretended it was a feral hog. He’d never shot one but was convinced he could do it now. Maybe. He didn’t dare give in to the revulsion he felt every time he saw his dad shoot and butcher wild game. Or admit how disappointed he was that this birthday present was not the Smartphone he had hoped for.
Dad said that turning twelve was a rite of passage. And being given a rifle passed down for three generations was something special—especially since Winchester had stopped making this model. Grandpa and Dad had hunted with this rifle and downed every kind of wild game that roamed the Ozark Mountains—and had wall mounts to prove it.
Jimmy Dale ran his fingers along the smooth, polished wood handle. He had always admired the look of Daddy’s prize Winchester and the respect it had earned from less-successful hunters who recognized his father’s exceptional marksmanship. He was proud to make the rifle his. He just preferred not to shoot anything that breathed.
He glanced up at a red-tailed hawk flying away with something squirming in its talons. He wondered how long he could put off going with Daddy and Uncle Jake to hunt the sounder of feral hogs that were ruining crops, burrowing into lawns, and eating up all the wild turkey. There were plenty of boys his age who could shoot a pesky porker without thinking twice about it. Maybe once he did it a few times, he would toughen up and be like them. Then his dad would be proud of him. His stepdad sure wasn’t.
Jimmy Dale stood erect, the afternoon sun browning his bare shoulders, and lifted the rifle. He took aim and ever so carefully squeezed the trigger. Another soup can popped off the log. Perfect. No squealing. No bleeding. Nothing to butcher. His kind of “kill.” He fixed his gaze on an empty gallon milk jug set on a big rock near the tree line about a hundred yards away. He hadn’t hit one—yet. But there was a first time for everything.
He took off his red cap, wiped the sweat off forehead, then put the cap back on and raised his rifle. He got the plastic bottle in his sights and squeezed the trigger. Missed. He cocked the rifle and took another shot. Missed again.
He spit out a curse word he knew was grounds for his mom to wash out his mouth with soap. He discharged the empty shell and dug his heels into the dirt. Holding his breath, he took careful aim, his index finger positioned on the trigger—and squeezed. The plastic bottle didn’t move. He hadn’t even grazed it.
He threw his hat on the ground. He stunk at this! How come girls never had to prove themselves this way? It wasn’t fair. He gripped his rifle tight and trudged through a field thick with larkspur, primrose, Indian paintbrush, and black-eyed Susans. He stopped at the rock and reached out to snatch the milk jug and move it back fifty yards just as a deep voice bellowed from nearby in the woods.
“That’s some wild shootin’, boy!”
Jimmy Dale jumped, his heart beating like a scared rabbit’s, and saw a silhouette of someone in the dark woods—it appeared to be a bearded man, a little girl clinging to him like a monkey.
“I thought I was alone out here,” Jimmy Dale confessed, his face scalded with humiliation. “I’m pretty good at fifty yards, but can’t seem to hit anything beyond it. Name’s Jimmy Dale Oldham. Folks call me J.D. I live over yonder about a mile.” He nodded toward the west. “What’s your name, Mister?”
The bearded stranger didn’t answer. He said something to the little girl and set her on her feet, then reached down to the ground and started dragging something across the forest floor and out into the light. It was an injured man, the front of his shirt soaked with blood.
The bearded stranger let go of the man’s wrists. The guy’s arms fell to the ground like dead weight, his face hidden by tall clumps of Indian paintbrush.
“You killed him.” The bearded stranger locked gazes with Jimmy Dale.
“Me …?” Jimmy Dale struggled for a moment to find his voice. “I-I didn’t see a soul out here. I wasn’t aiming for him. Honest. I was just shooting at that milk carton.”
“It was an accident.”
“So you say.”
“Is he really d-dead?” Jimmy Dale’s knees began to wobble and he couldn’t bring himself to look at the body.
“Ain’t got a pulse.”
“I-I didn’t mean to do it.”
“He’s just as dead either way. The law’ll expect you to pay for what you done.”
“Please, Mister. I’ll tell the sheriff it was an accident. You saw everything. You can tell him.”
“All I seen was a man shot! I don’t know nothin’ about the why or how of it!” The stranger’s gruff voice made his little girl whimper, and he shot her an admonishing look, his index finger to his lips.
Jimmy Dale took a step backward. He remembered hearing about another boy who shot and killed a man, was tried as an adult, and went to jail. How could this be happening to him? What would his parents say? His whole life might be over before his voice even changed. Or he got his driver’s license. Or a Smartphone. He glanced out across the field and wanted desperately to run. But the stranger knew his name and where to find him.
“Sir—” Jimmy Dale felt urine soak the front of his jeans—“I-I don’t know what to do. I didn’t mean any harm. I’ll swear to it on the Bible. Please …you have to believe me. This man probably has a family. We should tell someone.”
“I know him. He don’t have kin.”
The bearded stranger was about his dad’s age. Piercing eyes. He wore denim overalls and no shirt. His arms were hairy, his biceps big and lumpy like Uncle Jake’s.
“Go on home, boy.” The stranger spoke softly now. “What’s done is done. I’ll see to him.”
“What’re you gonna do?” Jimmy Dale’s heart pounded so hard he was sure his accuser could see his bare chest moving.
“Ain’t your concern. Don’t never speak of this to nobody or I’ll be forced to tell the sheriff what I know, and they’ll throw you in jail ’til you’re an old man. Now go on. Git! Keep your mouth shut and don’t never come back here.”
“I won’t. I promise.” Jimmy Dale turned on his heel, holding tightly to the murder weapon, and raced full throttle across the open field, wildflowers flattened under the thrusting blows of his Nikes, his rush of adrenaline fueled by fear and shame. If only he hadn’t tried to hit the stupid target at a hundred yards! His birthday rifle had been used for decades to put food on the table and trophies on the wall, and now he’d put a man down with it. His dad would be devastated if he ever found out his son had killed a man. He couldn’t let that happen.
Jimmy Dale fell on his knees when he reached the place where he had fired the fatal shot and retched until his lunch came up. He found his cap and put it on, then looked back at the tree line. The bearded stranger and the little girl were gone. So was the body. Nothing Jimmy Dale could say or do would bring the man back to life. All he could do now was try to forget it happened and hope the stranger did the same.
Abby Cummings ambled along the glass wall at Flutter’s Café, balancing a tray of empty breakfast dishes on one palm, her gaze set on the morning sun as it inched above the golden rim separating earth and sky. A warm glow spread across the thick blanket of fog on Beaver Lake, turning it a delicate shade of pink—
Abby felt a jolt and then the tray flew from her hand and landed with a deafening crash. Glass shattered. Silverware clanked on the stone floor. Her mother’s chiding words filled the aftermath.
“I’ve told you a thousand times to watch out for the swinging door!” Kate Cummings scanned the broken dishes, then quickly turned her attention to Abby. “That door really whacked you. Let me see. ” She gently brushed the hair off Abby’s forehead and looked for any sign of injury. “You’re going to have bump. But it’s not bleeding. How do you feel?”
“My pride hurts a lot worse than my head.” Abby felt her cheeks warm as she imagined customers staring. “What about you?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
Her mother smoothed her neatly-coiffed hair that was almost as gray as it was auburn, then straightened her blouse and the Angel View owner/manager name tag she had worn ever since Abby could remember. She didn’t look fine. Something in her tone belied her words.
“Sorry, Mama. You can take it out of my paycheck.”
“I’m not going to dock you for it, Abby. Tell me what happened.”
“I was admiring the sunrise and wasn’t paying attention. It won’t happen again.” Abby bent down to pick up the silverware and big pieces of broken dinnerware.
“Don’t fool with that, honey. You’ll cut yourself.”
Savannah Surette, her ponytail swaying from side to side, hurried over to them. “Here, boss, let me get that. I‘ll fetch the broom and have this cleaned up in no time.”
“Thanks.” Mama glanced over at the bustling dining room and then out the window where the June sunrise that had painted the clouds covering the lake. “The guests hardly noticed our little mishap with all that to look at. It never gets old, does it?”
“Sure doesn’t to me,” Savannah said. “The bayou was pretty, and we had plenty of fog, but we didn’t have Angel View Lodge. First time I’ve ever lived in a place where I could look down on the clouds. Takes my breath away.”
Mama smiled. “You and Benson really have acclimated well. You’re a great addition to our staff.”
“You mean for a couple of crazy Cajuns who talk funny?” Savannah laughed. “We do love it here. Everyone’s so nice. Okay, I’ll go get the broom and be right back.”
Mama put her arms around Abby and held her. “I’m sorry I raised my voice, honey. It happened so fast. No real harm done, but try to pay attention to where you’re going.”
“I will,” Abby said. “I guess I’m a little off today.” Don’t you even remember what day it is?
“I guess we can thank the chilly weather for the clouds on the lake,” Mama said, as if it were just any other day. “It’s rare to get fog this dense in the summer, but it sure makes for a spectacular sunrise at Angel View.” She wet her finger and wiped something off Abby’s cheek. “Fortunately, Beaver Lake is beautiful in every season. It’s Mother Nature that drives our business.”
“You sounded like Daddy just then.”
“Did I? I’m surprised you remember details like that after all this time.”
“Of course I do. And the last time I heard his voice was five years ago today.”
Mama flinched ever so slightly, and Abby could almost hear the dead bolt slide across the door of her heart. “I’m well aware of what day this is.” She seemed to stare at nothing, her eyes watering. But only until she blinked. “I’m glad you find comfort in remembering. I still don’t.”
“Because there’s no closure?”
“Do you ever wonder if Daddy and Riley Jo are still alive?”
Mama shook her head. “I accepted a long time ago that something awful must’ve happened to them. Maybe one of these days we’ll know for sure so we can put it to rest. I know one thing: I’ll never believe your father ran off with another woman and took your little sister with him. I don’t care what the rumor mill has to say about it. Micah wouldn’t have left us by choice.”
Abby bit her lip. “Then why don’t you defend Daddy when people gossip about him?”
“What good would it do?”
“Maybe people would see that you trusted him and weren’t going to put up with their trashing his reputation.”
Mama ran her thumb across the diamond wedding band she still wore. “We’ve been through this, Abby. Their ignorant comments are not worth addressing. My being defensive won’t stop them from saying it. Or change their minds. Gossip is pure poison, and there are always casualties.”
“Well, I refuse to be a casualty.” Abby folded her arms across her chest. “Daddy’s reputation is in the toilet, and I’m the only one in this family who ever defends him.”
Mama tilted Abby’s chin and looked her squarely in the eyes. “And has defending your father put a stop to the rumor mill?”
“Maybe not. But at least everyone knows where I stand.”
“I don’t much care what people think, Abby. I miss your father and Riley Jo with a pain so deep there’re no words for it. But I don’t feel obligated to discuss my private thoughts with anyone.”
“Because you have doubts?”
Mama’s eyes turned to slits. “Because I don’t. Now drop it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Abby sighed. You never want to talk about it.
“It’s hard enough getting through each day without them,” Mama said. “It doesn’t help to hear how disappointed you are in me for the way I handle it. I can only be what I am. And telling off the gossips in Foggy Ridge isn’t part of my makeup. I can’t live in the past, even if people in this town are still whispering about it. I’ve put it behind me the best I can.”
Well, I haven’t. Abby looked into her mother’s pretty face and sad blue eyes. Mama had doubts too. Why wouldn’t she just admit it?
Savannah came out of the kitchen carrying a large plastic bucket, a broom, a mop, and a dust pan. “No worries. I’ll have this cleaned up in no time. Benson said to tell you that he’s making gumbo and cornbread for today’s lunch special. And, if I do say so myself, it’s pretty amazing.”
“Everything he’s made so far has been,” Kate said. “I’m enjoying adding a little Cajun flair to our Ozark cuisine.”
Savannah flashed a proud smile. “Benson keeps trying to duplicate the gumbo served at Zoe B’s Cajun Eatery in our home town. He worked there part time when he got out of cooking school. Chef Broussard never did tell Benson exactly what was in it. But I think he’s got it down pretty close.”
“I can’t wait to try it,” Kate said.
“Excuse me.” Abby stepped backwards. “I should get to work. Looks like the guests at table six are ready to order.”
She left the conversation, taking another glimpse of the tinted fog on the lake. She wondered if Daddy and Riley Jo could see it—either from heaven above or somewhere on earth—and if she was the only one in the family who couldn’t let them go.
* * *
Buck Winters sat with a friend at Flutter’s Café and observed his granddaughter taking the breakfast order of the folks at table six. Even though Abby was sufficiently pleasant, he could tell the smile she wore was strictly professional. No doubt she was embarrassed and upset about dropping the tray and her mother’s scolding words.
Kate demanded a lot of herself and expected no less from everyone on staff, including her kids. Perhaps it was because Kate and Micah built Angel View Lodge from the ground up and it had become almost a monument to his memory. They had invested so much of themselves and had made a great team. Micah was the outgoing one and took care of operations. Kate was content to handle the finances. After Micah disappeared, she took on both roles and immersed herself in work to salve the grief.
Buck’s gaze followed his granddaughter as she walked back to the kitchen. Abby was so much like Kate at sixteen, her hair long and thick and the color of an Irish setter. Deep blue eyes. Fair skin and a natural blush to her cheeks. Cute figure. Sweet from the inside out. It was a both a wonder and blessing that she didn’t have a serious boyfriend to complicate her young life. One more year of high school—and then she would be off to college.
Where’d you go, Buck?” Titus Jackson said. “You seem miles away.”
Buck lowered his gaze and peered over the top of his glasses at the retired history professor who reminded him of Sidney Poitier. “Sorry, Titus. I’m just stunned at how grownup Abby is. Seems like just yesterday she wore her hair in pigtails, and I carried her on my shoulders down to our favorite fishin’ hole.” He chuckled. “And I’d hate to guess how many times I put the arms and legs back on that baby doll she just wouldn’t part with.”
Titus took a sip of coffee. “And now she’s lost interest in the doll and the fishing?”
Buck smiled. “At least she’s not boy crazy. That’s one headache we don’t have yet. She hangs out with Jay Rogers, a real nice kid from school, but they’re just friends.”
“I imagine it’s hard on Kate, raising Abby, Hawk, and Jesse without the love and support of a husband.”
“I try to be there for her,” Buck said. “I know it’s a lonely job for her at times, but I’d like to think it helps some to have her father livin’ with her. The kids seem to enjoy havin’ me around.”
“I’m sure they do.” Titus glanced over at Abby as she walked toward the kitchen. “Can’t be easy for them either, growing up without their dad.”
“I’d give anything to see Micah walk through that door with Riley Jo and put an end to this nightmare. In case you didn’t know, it was five years ago today that they disappeared.” Buck sighed. “It’s impossible to fully let it go with so many unanswered questions.”
Titus ran his finger around the rim of his cup. “I didn’t know y’all when they went missing, but it’s easy to see the painful effects of it. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Not at all.”
“Did the sheriff ever have a lead in the case?”
Buck shook his head. “Not really. Micah and Riley Jo just seemed to vanish. Micah’s truck was still parked in the driveway.”
“Who was the last person to see them?”
“Kate,” Buck said. “Micah told her he was takin’ Riley Jo fishin’. Kate was busy in the office and didn’t see them leave. Sheriff’s deputies searched the path to the lake and combed the woods around it. Never found any sign of them. No one’s come forward with information.”
“That’s downright bizarre,” Titus said. “Has anyone else disappeared?”
“Nope. I suppose you’ve heard the rumors.”
Titus shrugged. “I’ve heard a few oddballs say Bigfoot got them—or aliens. And I’ve heard others say Micah ran off with another woman and took Riley Jo with him. I’d rather know what you think.”
“Thanks for that,” Buck said. “Speculation’s been hurtful. Truth is, Kate and Micah had been fussin’ at each other for a couple weeks over a business issue they disagreed on. The sheriff had to consider the possibility that Micah left her. I mean, Micah could’ve pretended to take Riley Jo fishin’ and had someone pick them up on some backwoods road, where no one would see them leave town. If he was runnin’ off with another woman, that’d be one way to cover his tracks.”
“Any idea why he took his youngest daughter with him?” Titus said.
Buck wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “All I can figure is Riley Jo was the only one of his kids young enough to forget the past. She’d be able to adapt to his new life. But even if he wanted out of the marriage, Micah wouldn’t be that cruel to Kate. At least I never would’ve thought so.”
“So this is what the rumor mill’s been feeding off of all this time?”
“No. Kate and me and the sheriff are the only ones who know they were havin’ a disagreement.” Buck stroked his mustache. “The gossip really started flyin’ after a couple town busybodies thought they might’ve spotted Micah and Riley Jo at the corner of Main and Cleveland gettin’ into a car with some blond woman. Of course, neither of them can describe the car or the woman. And, at the busiest intersection in town, no one else saw them. But as time went on the story got enhanced. I’m sure some folks believe it.”
Titus arched his eyebrow. “But you don’t.”
“Doesn’t ring true. For the life of me, I can’t see Micah Cummings up and leavin’ Kate and the kids. Or addin’ insult to injury by takin’ Riley Jo with him and cuttin’ off all communication. The man I knew was a devoted husband and father. That only leaves one other possibility, as I see it: foul play. Either way, it’s bad news.”
Titus pulled apart a warm biscuit and buttered it. “I appreciate your filling me in. I don’t put much stock in gossip but have never felt comfortable asking you outright. I didn’t want to pry. You realize this is the first time you’ve opened up about it in the four years I’ve known you?”
“Never saw the point. Talkin’ about it doesn’t help. Time does.”
Titus nodded. “I hear that. It was a few years after my wife died before I could really talk about her without feeling down. Now thoughts of her make me smile. Time really is our friend.”
“Well, friend or not, I doubt time’s gonna bring Micah and Riley Jo back to us.”