As the Civil War rages nearby, Cassie Willis and her family struggle to scrape a living from their small Virginia farm, while Cassie’s father and beloved brother, Jacob, are away fighting with the Confederate army. When a letter arrives with the news that Jacob has been killed, Cassie and her dog, Hector, immediately go to the secret hiding place Cassie and Jacob shared—a thicket deep in the piney woods. But when she finds the remains of a campsite, she realizes that someone has been living in their special place. Suddenly afraid, Cassie tries to flee, but runs smack into a Confederate deserter. With Hector’s help, she escapes. But she can’t forget the man’s crazed eyes—or the way he threatened her.
Soon, Cassie begins to have the strange feeling that she’s being watched—and then things start disappearing from the farm. Has the deserter returned to make good on his warnings, or is someone else lurking in the woods, waiting to harm Cassie and her family?
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Watcher in the Piney Woods
By Elizabeth McDavid Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Elizabeth McDavid Jones
All rights reserved.
It was because of poke salad that Cassie saw Myron first.
Everyone in the Willis family loved poke salad—poke greens simmered for hours with fatback and spring onions and served steaming hot—but nobody loved it more than Jacob, Cassie's seventeen-year-old brother. Jacob, of course, hadn't tasted Mama's salad in a very long time. Three years ago exactly, he had signed up with the Confederate army and marched away to whip the Yankees with General Johnston in Tennessee.
Today was only April eighth, early yet for pokeweed in Virginia, but Cassie had spotted some good tender poke shoots about a mile up the road from their farm. Mama had sent Cassie to fetch her some to make poke salad for supper. "You be careful though, Cassie," Mama had warned. "There's Yankees and no-good soldiers about—deserters and such. You know the Waldrops was robbed clean last week by a Yankee soldier out foraging. Keep Hector with you, hear? And don't go far." Hector was Cassie's dog, a hound given to her by Jacob before he left for the war.
That's how Cassie came to be up the road, bending over the fence around the tobacco field—now gone to dock weed and sheep sorrel—that Pa laid out right before he got drafted. "Won't be gone long," Pa had promised Mama. But he had already fought a year with General Lee, and there didn't seem to be much hope now of Pa coming home unless the war ended. Which it didn't show any signs of doing.
So here Cassie was, bent over double on Pa's fence, tugging at weeds growing by the side of the road, and feeling vexed about having to do it all herself.
Little Ben's help is no-account, Cassie was thinking. Though she dearly loved her four-year-old brother, he was an imp and always getting into trouble. Just this morning he had gotten himself a whipping for snitching one of Mama's ash cakes baked on the hearth. He took it from the windowsill where Mama had set it to cool and then fibbed about it to Mama.
Ben would have loved to tag along with Cassie, but his help was more trouble than it was worth most of the time. He would have picked the poisonous red poke shoots right along with the green, Cassie was sure. Emma could have come, though, and helped—'course she wouldn't, she was sixteen and prissy. And Philip, well, there was no use asking him. Not the way he'd been bossing everyone and putting on airs since Pa left him in charge of the farm. Though only two years apart in age, Cassie and Philip had never been close, and now it seemed they did nothing but argue.
"Philip giving me orders all the time," Cassie fumed, "like he was President Jefferson Davis instead of my fourteen-year-old brother." She yanked hard at a stubborn poke shoot and threw it into the basket that Mama had given her.
Cassie looked wearily at the huge basket. It was only half full. She straightened up and stretched an arm behind her to rub the ache in her back, then pulled her sunbonnet off her head and used it to wipe the sweat that was trickling down her forehead. It was hot for an April morning—seemed more like June. Hector, usually frisky, was flopped in the shade of the pines at the edge of the field. Cassie was of a mind to leave off picking for a while and go down to the spring to cool her feet. Maybe she could even find some lady's slippers or dogtooth violets in the woods to make up a bouquet for the table.
While she was thinking, Cassie heard the clatter of a wagon and spotted old Myron Sweeney and his nag Lucy pulling out of the piney woods that circled the Willis land. Myron had gone into Danville to pick up supplies for families in the vicinity whose menfolk were off at war, which meant practically everybody. So many things were scarce these days—from wheat flour to pins and needles—that the shelves of Sloan's store down at the crossroads were nearly empty. It was "make do with what you have or do without," Mama said.
But there just wasn't a way to do without some things that were scarce, like paper to write letters to Pa and Jacob on. Mama had asked Myron to see whether he could find some writing paper in town, and Cassie had given Myron the five cents she'd been saving from her Christmas stocking to get her some paper, too. She wanted to write Jacob a letter of her very own and tell him how much she missed him.
When Cassie caught sight of Myron, all the pains in her back disappeared. She whistled to Hector. "Come on, boy!" Then she left the poke greens and took off running to meet Myron's wagon. Hector sprang to life and raced after her.
"Whoa, young'un," Myron said. "Where you galloping off to in such a hurry?" Myron gave Cassie a hand up to the box seat beside him. "You done lost your bonnet again, girl. You're going to add another hundred freckles to that face." Hector trotted beside the wagon.
"Nary a soul would notice," Cassie said, "amongst all the freckles I already got." She pulled her sunbonnet back onto her head, though. No use having Emma light into her if she saw Cassie without it.
Myron had two or three small barrels piled in the back of his wagon, and what looked like a sack of flour. Cassie kept turning her head to look back there, hoping Myron would let on what he had brought for her family, but Myron didn't say a word. He just clucked to Lucy and turned up the corners of his mouth ever so slightly.
Cassie could hardly stand it. It wouldn't be polite to ask Myron flat out what he had brought, but maybe she could nudge him a little. "Looks like you got a heap o' stuff in your wagon, Mr. Sweeney."
Myron's eyes started dancing, and his long white mustache twitched. "I reckon I come away with more'n I expected to get," he said. "Let me see. What do I have back there?" He pulled on the end of his beard. "I got a sack of flour to be split between the MacKenzies, the Hefners, the Waldrops, and y'all. And a half pound of salt. Oh, and some wooden clogs for Maude Shope's young'uns. She wanted brogans for 'em, but ain't nobody in Danville got leather for shoes these days. What leather there is, the army gets."
Myron rambling on and on—Cassie couldn't bear it. "What else you got," she said, "for us?" Then she clapped her hand over her mouth. How had such rudeness popped out from between her lips? She had just broken a heap of Mama's rules of etiquette, all in one breath: don't speak till you're spoke to, don't interrupt, don't be nosy, don't be sassy Mama would be fit to kill if she'd heard Cassie.
But Myron only grinned. "Oh, you want to know what I got for you. Well, I wish you'd have said so. Why, I do believe there's a hoe blade back there for you. Yep, a hoe blade. So you can get to work on your Mama's kitchen garden."
Cassie knew times were tough, but she had been so hoping She swallowed hard and tried to hide her disappointment. "Reckon we do need a hoe blade. Philip tried to whittle one out of a hickory branch. Didn't work too well." Cassie dropped her chin. She didn't want Myron to see the tears she felt welling in her eyes.
Myron's eyes quit dancing, and he put his hand on Cassie's knee. "Couldn't get no writing paper, Cassie. I hate it. I know you was counting on it." Then his mustache twitched again, and he added, as if he'd only just remembered it, "However, I come across something in town that might go a ways towards making up for that lack of writing paper."
Curiosity replaced Cassie's disappointment. "You did? What is it?"
Myron reached back and pulled something out of the hip pocket of his britches—an envelope. He held it up, and with a smile that could have spread across the whole state of Virginia, he said, "It's from North Carolina. You know anybody from down in them parts?"
Cassie's heart leaped. "Jacob!" Last they had heard from Jacob, he was still with General Johnston, being chased by that Yankee general Sherman across the Carolinas. That was over three months ago, and there had been no word since. They'd all been worried sick about him. Now at last to know that Jacob was safe Cassie's insides felt near to bursting.
"Can I see it?" she asked, then quickly added, "Please."
"Why sure," Myron said. "I was thinking you should be the one to give it to your mama anyway, seeing as how you and Jacob was always so close."
Cassie stretched out her hand eagerly. The envelope looked like it had been made from wallpaper. One more way of making do, Cassie figured. On the outside was scrawled Mama's name—Annie Willis—and then just Danville, Virginia. Cassie wondered why Jacob hadn't sent the letter straight to Sloan's store, like he usually did. That way Mama would probably have had it a week or more ago.
But, Cassie thought, the main thing is we got the letter now. She held it tightly while Myron's wagon bounced down the narrow, rutted road toward the Willis farm. Finally, they wound around through the pecan grove, and Cassie spotted the little weatherboard house with the green roof—home.
Jacob had surprised Mama for her birthday one year by painting the shingled roof bright green. He did it while Pa and Mama were in town. Pa was mad at Jacob for wasting time and money on such foolishness, but Mama liked it. She said the roof reminded her of spring all year round. The green roof made Cassie think of Jacob's generous ways, and she pressed the letter even closer to her chest.
Nobody was in sight when the wagon finally rolled up to the front gate. "Mama!" Cassie yelled, half to make herself heard over the racket of the wagon and half because she couldn't keep quiet another second. "Where you at? Emma! Philip! Ben! Come quick! Come and see what Myron brung us!"
Cassie jumped off the wagon before Myron even reined Lucy in. "It's a letter! From Jacob!" Hector, caught up in Cassie's excitement, barked and frisked at her feet.
Ben let out a whoop from somewhere back of the kitchen. The kitchen was a separate building set away from the main house.
Then Cassie saw the kitchen door fly open, and Emma burst out and hurried across the yard. Mama came behind Emma, walking slow and dignified, like she always did. She greeted Myron with an outstretched hand.
"Mornin', Myron. Did you have a nice trip?" Mama's voice was unruffled, as if Cassie clutched a bucket of taters and not a letter from Jacob. Cassie felt so impatient she could hardly stand it. How could Mama be concerned with being polite at a time like this?
"Mama," Cassie said, holding the envelope up. "Here it is. The letter from Jacob."
Mama put her hand on Cassie's shoulder. "Patience, sugarfoot. Mr. Sweeney come a long way with news of my oldest boy. The least we can do is greet him proper."
"That's all right, Miz Willis," said Myron. "You go right ahead and read that letter. We'll save our howdy-dos for later, after me and Philip get the wagon unloaded."
Philip had come from the barn and was standing behind Mama. His shirt and britches were caked with red mud. He looked dog-tired. Cassie had forgotten that Philip had spent the morning digging stumps out of the new cornfield. All by himself. Cassie's conscience pricked her. Being left in charge of the farm wasn't such an easy thing, she reckoned.
"Here, Mama." Cassie pushed the envelope toward Mama again, and this time Mama took it. It was nice to see Mama smiling, not just bows at the corners of her mouth, but a big, wide smile that showed her teeth and made her face look like the sunrise over Oak Ridge. Like she used to smile before Pa and Jacob left. Like before the war.
But when Mama looked close at the envelope, her eyebrows knit together, and she said, "Peculiar. This don't look like Jacob's handwriting."
Myron frowned. "It come from North Carolina. So I just reckoned it was from Jacob. Who else do y'all know from there?"
"Well, surely it's from Jacob," Mama said, but she gave Myron a little smile that Cassie didn't think she felt. Then Mama tore open the envelope. Her hands were trembling.
Cassie stood and watched Mama's eyes go back and forth over the letter. Mama's lips moved silently, forming the words. Then Mama's face went white, and her lips stopped moving. Cassie felt a stab of fear.
Mama closed her eyes and pressed the pale pages against her chest. Cassie wanted fiercely to ask Mama what had put that look on her face, but she couldn't find her voice to do it.
Emma had no trouble finding hers. "What is it, Mama? What's wrong? Is the letter from Jacob?"
Emma's words hung frozen in the air. No one moved. Cassie couldn't even breathe. She looked at Mama and waited.
Finally Mama opened her eyes. "Philip, help Myron tote them things from his wagon," she said, but the life had gone out of her voice. She sounded like she did after the Home Guard came and hauled Pa off to fight with General Lee. It hurt Cassie to hear Mama sound that way again.
Mama turned then and walked away, her shoulders sagging. She walked right on back to the kitchen, forgetting to invite Myron to dinner, forgetting to thank him, forgetting to tell him good-bye and see him off. Cassie couldn't believe it. Not once had she ever seen Mama forget her manners.
Cassie stood where she was, watching Mama go. They all stood there—even Ben—staring after Mama. Emma's chest was heaving up and down, and Myron looked sick, like he'd gotten punched in the stomach. A long minute passed, and then suddenly Emma jumped forward and started after Mama. Philip moved silently to the wagon and reached for a barrel.
"Mama!" Cassie called, and ran after her. Emma glared, as if Cassie had no right to speak to her own mother.
Mama turned and looked at Cassie with empty eyes. "What is it, Cassie?"
Everything Cassie wanted to say flew from her brain. "I I forgot the poke greens," she stammered. "Want me to run back and fetch 'em for you, Mama?"
"Don't want no poke greens," Mama answered in that dead voice.
Cassie felt desperate. All of a sudden, those poke greens seemed greatly important. "But you was going to make poke salad, remember?"
Mama, oh, Mama, Cassie thought. If you would just go on and fix your poke salad tonight. Make everything better again, Mama. Please.
"Poke salad?" Mama said. "I don't never want poke salad again, you hear?"
Then Mama pulled up the latch on the kitchen door, went in, and shut the door behind her, leaving Cassie and Emma standing, bewildered, on the steps.CHAPTER 2
All through dinner, Mama was silent. Silently she laid four places at the long oak table in the kitchen; silently she set down bowls of food—steaming sweet potatoes, cornbread, pickled tomatoes.
Then, without a word, she hauled herself to the rocking chair in the corner and rocked back and forth, staring into empty air.
Cassie sat at the table, with her brothers and Emma, going through the motions of eating, but she had no appetite. All she could think about was Mama and the way she was acting and the letter that had started it all.
After dinner, Mama sent them all to the house to wait for her. She wouldn't say why, but Cassie figured she was going to tell them what was in the letter. "I'll be in directly," Mama said, though she kept right on rocking.
To Cassie, it was an eternity that the four of them—five, counting Hector sprawled on the hearth—waited for Mama in the sitting room. The hands of the old planter's clock on the wall seemed to barely budge. Ben sat with Hector by the hearth, playing in the ashes, and when he asked for the fifth time, "When's Mama coming? She said she was coming," Philip blew up and told him he was peskier than a big black horsefly. Ben started to wail, and at that moment the door opened and Mama came in.
Mama paid no heed to Ben, which wasn't like her at all. "I reckon we got us a letter to read," was all she said. She marched over to the slat-back rocker and sat herself down. Ben took one look at Mama and hushed right up.
As Cassie watched Mama, she suddenly had a vision of the big basswood tree on their land that got struck by lightning a few years back. The tree stood tall and straight on a ridge beyond the cornfield, dwarfing all the other trees around. But it never did bear leaves again after getting hit, and although it looked strong on the outside, Cassie figured that tree felt right pitiful, stripped bare and all alone like that. Mama was that tree, trying to look strong but not feeling that way, Cassie thought.
In a voice that sounded too light and breezy, Mama started reading. "Dear Mrs. Willis," she read. She stopped and clutched at her throat, then squeezed her eyes shut. The planter's clock ticked, ticked, ticked. Fear built steadily in Cassie's chest.
Excerpted from Watcher in the Piney Woods by Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Poke Salad,
Chapter 2 The Letter,
Chapter 3 Alone in the Swamp,
Chapter 4 Home,
Chapter 5 Suspicious Characters,
Chapter 6 Missing,
Chapter 7 Noises,
Chapter 8 Yankee!,
Chapter 9 Vengeance,
Chapter 10 Gus's Revelation,
Chapter 11 The Caves,
Chapter 12 Tracking Down a Scoundrel,
Chapter 13 A Discovery,
Chapter 14 Invader in the Thicket,
Chapter 15 Homecoming,
Going Back in Time,
About the Author,