Shoal Mountain, Kentucky, 1872
My eyes focused as best they could. "Stately!" I shouted. "Stately!" In our fifty-some years together, I hardly ever caught the man sittin still. Something was wrong.
I'd swear the man was growin deaf. That, or he just chose to ignore me. Momma used to call that selective hearin when she was talkin to Daddy. I just never dreamed it would happen to me. But that's been Stately's habit through the years. Dragging me to this blessed mountain and stickin me here without a body outside of himself to talk to.
"Stately Jenkins, you getting hard of hearin? Answer me!"
I inched my way down the bank to the fence line. A blurry shape hunkered over by the water trough never budged. My eyes were weak, and it was hard to tell if it was a person or just something leaned against the barn.
"Stately!" I hollered again.
My heart raced as fear seeped into every pore of my body. Surely to goodness, that couldn't be my husband, but the closer I got to the barn, the clearer things become. Stately was on his knees, one arm rested on the trough, and his chin hung to his chest.
"Lawsey mercy." I grabbed hold of his shoulders, and he fell into my arms, graspin hold of his chest. His eyes were glassy, but I could feel his hard gasps for breath. "What happened?" I tried to pull his arms from his chest, but his hands were stiff. It was like he'd been struck by lightning and the surge still raged through his body.
He finally grasped my hand. "Too late," he whispered. "Keep the secret. It's up to you." His words were weak yet stern.
Panic shot through me. "What happened? Did your legs give? Is it your heart?"
He nodded. Stately's legs were weak from bein hurt in the war. He'd fall at the drop of a hat.
"Oh, lawsey, lawsey." I pressed one hand against his. "Stately, open your eyes and answer me."
He stretched his hand to my face. "You promise me. Keep the secret?" His voice grew soft. "Promise to keep the box a secret?"
"Secret? I ain't worried about no secret, and why would you? I'm frettin over you."
His skin grew a pasty grey. All I could think to do was talk. Momma always told me I could talk a blind man off a ridge. I'd use this gift, or curse, to talk Stately outta dyin!
"Don't you die on me! Don't you dare die on me," I squalled. "Stately Jenkins, you hear me? Now ain't the time to ignore me."
His body grew heavy, and his arm dropped to the ground.
"Oh lordy, what'll I do? Stately. Open your eyes. I married you fifty years ago, trustin you'd always be with me. I followed you up on this mountain where there ain't a soul within miles. You ain't about to leave me here alone. There's work to be done. The garden fence needs mendin. How do you suppose I can see to do that?"
His lips took on a blue tint. His mouth gapped open.
Tears commenced to slip off my nose. "Stately, you know I ain't a woman that cries over spilt milk, but I need you. You got responsibilities here. You blessed ole stubborn hound dog. Don't you die! Stately, please don't you die on me." I pulled his head close to my chest and gently brushed his long, white beard. "I'll not tease you no more about the skin that shows on top of your head. Hear me? Stately, you hear?"
My talkin wasn't doin no good. I couldn't guilt him outta dyin.
"Promise me?" His voice hissed like steam from the coffee kettle.
I felt his chest heave, and a groan seeped from his mouth. His fingers wadded the tail of my apron into his palm. His hand balled into a fist, and his lips opened.
"Promissssse." The word pushed out of his mouth.
Even with my poor sight, I could see his pupils shrinking. I was losin the one thing I depended on.