While our novella collection—The Christmas Heirloom–is mostly set during the Christmas season, I couldn’t resist working Thanksgiving into my story. I mean, my heroine is handy with a rifle and the Monday before Thanksgiving is the opening day of deer season.
Romantic? Maybe not, but it sure fits my Appalachian stories! So, in honor of the first day of deer season, here’s a Thanksgiving excerpt from A Shot at Love, my contribution to The Christmas Heirloom.
Hank expected to miss being with his sister Molly and her family for Thanksgiving, but the Markley clan was keeping him well occupied. After a quick breakfast of biscuits with molasses, they set out through a skiff of snow with James intent on getting his first deer. When they spotted a four-point buck, Judd and Hank fell back while Abram led his twelve-year-old son in taking down the animal with a single shot.
James looked like he’d won the biggest prize at the county fair. Abram tousled his hair. “Good job, son. Quick and certain, that’s the way to do it. Don’t take the shot if you’re not sure you can make it. Few things are worse than wounding an animal and having to track it down.”
James nodded. “Yes sir. Can I dress it out?”
Abram hid his smile. “We might help some, but any hunter worth his salt dresses his own deer.”
James pitched in and the four of them had the deer ready to drag home in short order. Hank was grateful there were four of them to take turns dragging it out over rough and rocky terrain. Once they got to the house, they hung the deer from the limb of a massive pine to let it cool in the chill, November air. There was plenty of work to be done yet, but for now it was time to join the ladies for a Thanksgiving feast.
The turkey Hank won at the shoot sat as the centerpiece of a laden table. Lydia and her mother Rose had toiled for two days preparing fluffy yeast rolls, sweet potato soufflé, fried cabbage, mashed potato and rutabaga, cornbread dressing, creamed onions, something called leather breeches which appeared to be a sort of bean, and three kinds of pie. Hank couldn’t imagine who would eat it all until he saw Judd and Abram tuck in. He hoped they wouldn’t think less of him for not eating half a pie all by himself.
“And now, in longstanding Markely tradition, it’s time for an afternoon nap,” Judd announced after they’d helped the ladies clear away the remains of the meal.
Even James, who had likely slept little the night before in anticipation of their hunting trip was more than happy to sprawl in front of the fire and close his eyes. And Grace, although nearly nine and prepared to fight napping, didn’t argue near as hard as she might have on another day.
Hank settled with the family in the front room where lazy conversation gradually gave way to soft snores. And yet, he found he wasn’t the least bit sleepy. The pleasures of the day filled his spirit in a way that made him want to simply spend time appreciating being invited so fully into the bosom of this good family living in this beautiful place. Finally, he stood and tiptoed to the back door, letting himself out into the bracing air. He’d see if he couldn’t walk off at least a little of the huge meal he’d eaten. He also wanted to ponder those life changes he’d been carrying around in the dark corners of his mind.
Thirty minutes later, Hank realized he’d let himself become so lost in thought that the roll and sway of the mountain land had lured him into . . . getting lost. It was a hard thing to admit and he wasn’t quite prepared to consider his cause hopeless, but when he’d crested this most recent hill the view wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. He thought he’d be able to see a curl of smoke from the Markley’s chimney beyond the next rise, but instead there was a mountain looming that really shouldn’t have been there. A blue jay sat on a bare limb cocking its head his way and jeering in that coarse way jays do. For a minute, he had a notion to follow it when it flew, but decided not to grasp at straws.
He peered around in all directions, unsure of where to go next and wondering if maybe he should just stay right where he was until someone came along. This surely looked like a path that would be used regularly. It wound through the edge of a field near the tree line. A cow stepped into his field of vision. Or, it might just be a cow path. Still, where there were cattle, people couldn’t be too far off.
Still weighing his options, Hank sat on a fallen log to give himself time to think. The tree had fallen years ago, and its stump was almost hollow—rotted from the inside out. It was the sort of timber that looked good from the outside, but failed to produce. It made Hank ponder what his life would amount to if it were measured in board feet. He’d been feeling a bit hollow lately—like the heart had gone out of him. If he were honest, he’d have to admit it had something to do with seeing Judd and Larkin so happy. They had a child now—the main reason Larkin hadn’t come along on this trip. Little Lavonia was barely walking, and the young parents agreed traveling with a child not yet two would be a trial for them all. Sweet Lavonia had wormed her way into his heart just like James and Grace were quickly doing. Maybe there was more in this world for him than playing second fiddle for the Waccamaw Timber Company.
The jay he’d noticed earlier landed on the punky stump and dipped his head as though peering inside. The bird snatched a fallen leaf in its beak and flew to a low branch, tilting its head to consider Hank. He’d known jays to be curious, but he’d never known one to take such an interest in him.
“You act like you’re after something,” he said aloud.
The bird dropped its leaf and bobbed along the branch, eye now focused on the stump. Hank turned his attention back to the hollowed wood and noticed that the leaves inside didn’t look natural. They looked more like someone or something had piled them there—stuffing them in. Could it be a nest of some sort? Hank wondered if they had critters in these hills he didn’t know about. He poked at the mass with a stick, finding the leaves formed a sort of cap that came away revealing . . . what appeared to be a gun cleaning cloth. He fished it out and something tumbled onto the ground at his feet. He picked the lump up and found it to be an embroidered cloth pouch with a weighty something inside. Tipping the bag, a piece of jewelry—really beautiful jewelry with intertwined hearts and a glinting purple stone—dropped into his hand. Well now. Had he stumbled upon someone’s secret cache?
Distracted, Hank didn’t notice the soft sound of footsteps approaching until they were nearly upon him. He startled and caught himself before toppling off his log as Fleeta Brady hove into view, head down and muttering to herself.