The Stills by Jess Montgomery: New Excerpt
By Crime HQMarch 9, 2021
Wednesday, November 23, 1927
Week before last, cold shooed warmth into a wish and a memory, then rattled tree limbs to leaflessness with one gnarly hand while gripping the earth with the other.
Now on this cold earth Zebediah Harkins lies belly down in the shaggy brush line by an old clearing, as if he had crawled here through the forest itself. Truth be told, this morning, as on every morning for the past two weeks, he’d turned off just a mile into the three-mile trek down Forbidden Creek Run, the dirt road between his home and the Rossville schoolhouse, then traced his way to his post along nearly hidden, almost-forgotten paths once cleared to make way for the iron-works business—itself now all but gone.
A not-yet-sticking snow teases Zebediah’s face with quick melting licks. He aims his Hamilton single-shot rifle at a squirrel, over there by the old stone iron blast furnace. He’d hiked out here last Thanksgiving with his grandpa, who’d told him about working there—clear-cutting trees for burning into charcoal to be fed along with coal into the smelting fires of the furnace. All that’s left now of ironworks in the Appalachian hills of Bronwyn and nearby counties are old furnaces like this, still standing in uncrumbling defiance against time and vines and brush and twenty-year-old trees growing where the old ones had been, and bits of glassy slag littered in among the natural rocks and dirt, and stories like his papaw’s.
Papaw had passed on this past spring, and Zebediah has learned of late the value of focusing on whatever’s offered in the moment as a way to secure the future—like that unwary squirrel. Wouldn’t Ruthie be right pleased if he brought the critter home for a savory stew?
But he hears his sister’s weary voice, as if she’s knelt beside him to whisper in his ear:
Where’d you get that, Zeb?
Where you been all day, if’n not the schoolhouse?
And he can see her take note of the dirt on his clothes, of the flashing quickness of his dropped gaze. Not for want of trying, Ruthie is the one person he can’t lie to. Zebediah doesn’t want her to know that he’s been skipping school.
Zebediah swipes snow from his face. When he refocuses, the squirrel has skittered to just the other side of a makeshift ledge of plank on stone, on which bottles of moonshine are lined up side by side, as if the plank is a proper store shelf.
God forbid he shoots one of the bottles. Boss would have his hide.
His job is to keep watch over them and the bigger swigging jug, always set out by the time he gets here, and stowed away, he reckons, in some hidey-hole after he leaves. He doesn’t know where the moonshiner’s still is—probably not too far off—but that’s none of his business. Boss had made sure to tell him that, along with plenty of other admonishments:
Stay quiet. Watch. Note if someone don’t leave money for their bottle or swig, or overly guzzles, or pockets the coins.
He will only get a small portion—five cents for every dollar—from the coins he gathers between customers. But plenty of men are coming—he recognizes some from church, or from town—and not just ’cause it’s Thanksgiving eve. In winter’s bone-jarring cold, shining at small, personal stills will be hard, and with smoke rising twixt bare-limbed trees, hiding them will be harder. ’Sides, talk is that revenuers—the federal agents who work for the Bureau of Prohibition—will soon beset the land like ill-timed locusts.
And ain’t it nice that the boss trusts him? Pa won’t even trust him to come along hunting for wild turkey! Says he was too shaky, the last time they went out for squirrel and rabbit.
Zebediah’s head throbs. As he sits up, his vision speckles, gray spots waltzing with snowflakes. His hand shakes as he reaches into his pocket, but he manages to grab the biscuit, a remnant from last night’s supper and dried overnight to the toughness of hard tack. Usually, Ruthie cleans the kitchen nice and proper at night, rises early to make a good hot breakfast, and fills his dinner pail for school, but she’s been so preoccupied of late.
Zebediah snaps off a bite. His mouth waters for want of the squirrel, enough to soften the biscuit.
Mayhap it’s just as well if he doesn’t bring home squirrel. When he complained about the sameness of Ruth’s suppers last night, Pa back-handed him so hard that his vision blacked out for several moments. From the other side of this inflicted darkness, he’d heard Pa growl: Don’t go making work for your sister! She’s got enough.
By which Pa means—tending to Ma, dying.
Course Pa don’t call it dying. He calls it taking a bad spell. As if Ma just has a touch of fever. But Ma knows. Ruthie knows.
Zebediah knew before even they did. There’d been that day back in early September, when the last breath of summer taunted red-tinged leaves loosening on high limbs and made the Rossville schoolhouse so suffocatingly warm that Miss Cooper, the schoolmarm, had let everyone tote their dinner pails outside when the mine’s noon bell rang. Zebediah had kept right on toting over to Forbidden Creek Run. At their farmhouse, he found Ma out on the side porch, coughing so fiercely that she bent near double as she held her stomach. As she looked up at him, the glassy terror in her eyes told him something was bad wrong.
Ma took to her bed shortly after that. Ruth, who is in the eighth grade and loves school so much she has pretensions toward high school, dropped out to tend to Ma and the toddler twins, while Pa works as a laborer for Sheriff Lily Ross and others in Bronwyn County, and spent the rest of his time at the River Rock Holiness Church, praying for a miracle. Till recently. Sunday before last, he proclaimed it good for nothin’. At least twice since, like last night when he was back-handed, Zebediah thought he smelled liquor on Pa’s breath.
Imagine Pa showing up here as a customer—a prospect both terrifying and amusing.
Both Ma and Pa expect him to just keep on going to school, even though he’s the opposite of Ruthie. For him, reading is especially hard. The letters lift off the page and swim around. Why, he ought to be the one dropped out, tending to Ma, but Ruthie is older, and a girl—
A snapping sound startles Zebediah to wide-eyed alertness, in time to see that it’s just a small branch, wind-flicked from a treetop to the ground near the plank.
Zebediah shifts on the hard ground, seeking a comfortable divot. The pouch of coins digs into his hip. His stomach rumbles. That hard biscuit won’t stave off hunger for long.
And yet he grins, thinking about the fanciful books Ruthie covets at the Kinship General Store—most especially one that’s been in the store for nearly a year, The Blue Castle. Soon, with his portion of these coins, Zebediah could go back, buy that book for Ruthie for Christmas—he’d memorized the cover with its goldenrod yellow binding and, on the front, the outline of a grand castle impossibly built into rocks and clouds. Maybe getting the book will remind Ruthie of who she was before Ma took sick—who she still is, deep down, below weariness and sorrow.
He’d like to earn enough to get himself something else he’d seen in town—a new Winchester repeating shotgun. Better than this kid’s gun. He’d have to buy it himself—Pa won’t trust him with it, after that hunting trip where he’d shook so bad.
Footsteps crunch the frozen spikes of grass on the other side of the old iron furnace.
Zebediah quickly goes back down on his belly like a sneaky snake—he grins at the notion—hidden but still able to see who approaches.
He doesn’t recognize the men, and they’re not the sort he expects—farmers, coal miners, hunters. One is in a fine wool coat and boots, the other in just a suit and two-toned leather lace-up dress shoes. Both wear fedora hats. Zebediah frowns. There’s a speakeasy in Kinship for men like this—everyone knows that. Even the ladies and children at the church they used to attend know. The pastor, Brother Stiles, railed against it often enough.
“Here it is,” the man in the coat and boots says, gesturing at the makeshift shelf.
Zebediah’s frown deepens. This man’s voice has the sound of the hills and the hollers, each word jangling into the next like beads on a string, but something makes him seem an outsider even more than the younger man, coatless and in fancy shoes too fragile for backwoods hiking. Are these men part of the revenuers people have been talking about?
The coatless younger man shivers so hard that his voice crackles as he asks, “This is it? You were supposed to lead me to Vogel’s main operation!”
Vogel? Zebediah wonders who that is.
“Well, one small operation leads to the bigger ones.” The older man grins as if he’s clever, but he looks more like a rat baring its teeth.
Zebediah’s heart pounds. Something is not right. He wants to yell at the younger man: Run!
The younger man says, “It had better. We’re paying you enough—”
“No. The pay isn’t all that I’m after. You promised—”
“You’d better not be toying with the bureau. We’re deadly serious—” The younger man pulls out a revolver, but it shakes in his hand.
Damn, mister, thinks Zebediah—he’s rooting for him, whether he’s a revenuer or not—stop shaking! Maybe he can’t help it, just like Zebediah can’t.
The older man’s expression stiffens. “Let me show you some markings on the jug that will help you believe me—a symbol that leads straight to Vogel. Put away the damn gun first.”
Markings? The only marking was three Xs, signifying that the whiskey was triple-distilled. That won’t lead to whoever this Vogel is.
As the younger man puts away his gun, something blue and gold pinned to his vest flashes in the spare morning sun. He steps toward the plank.
The older man pulls out a pistol from inside his overcoat, and shoots, grazing the stone furnace. At the cracking sound, the younger fellow whirls around—and a second shot hits him in the head. Blood spurts as he goes down to his knees, dropping his weapon, grabbing at his head, knocking his fedora to the ground. But then his eyes roll back, his bloody hands drop, and he falls forward. The older man strides over, kicks the young fellow over to his back, stares down as if regarding nothing more than a fallen tree limb.
Run. The moonshiner had told Zebediah to run if there was trouble—and this is the greatest mess he’s ever seen. But all he can do is stare, transfixed.
The older man’s mouth curls, just the slightest self-congratulatory smile.
Startled by the odd, cold reaction, Zebediah gasps, drawing the man’s glassy gaze. Zebediah holds his breath.
A chipmunk darts out from the old iron furnace, making the man jump, look away. Then he laughs, pulls a flask from his hip pocket, tries to take a swig. Frowns, irritated that it’s empty. He opens the sipping jug, drinks—one gulp, two—then sloppily pours moonshine into his flask, which he caps and pockets as he walks away, whistling some merry tune, off-key and wheezy.
Tears burn Zebediah’s cheeks as he waits for the man’s wretched whistling to fade. Finally, the only sounds are a thin hum of breeze, birdsong, creaking bare-limbed trees.
For a long time, Zebediah lies where he is, staring at the younger man’s body. What to do? Wait for someone else to come along? Run to find the moonshiner?
The man’s hand twitches.
Zebediah swallows back a whimper. Surely that was just the man’s body shutting down. He’d seen that with deer and pheasant out on hunts with Pa—the post-death twitch.
But then there’s a soft moan. It grows louder. Zebediah rises stiffly, as if he’s aged a decade in the last minutes. His mouth is sticky, parched. He opens the sipping jug, wipes the top with his jacket sleeve. He takes three long gulps. The liquid burns as it goes down. He gasps.
The man moans again.
Zebediah moves slowly toward the man, like he’s trying to run in a muddy creek bed.
The man’s eyes open in a glassy-eyed stare. He does not appear to be breathing. Had Zebediah only imagined the man’s moans?
The man’s jacket, fallen open, reveals a pin on his vest—the flashing item from moments ago. The pin, knocked loose by the man’s fall, is in the shape of a shield, with a bright royal blue background, a coin-like insignia, a U, an S, the other letters rising up, floating around, like they do in his schoolbooks. Ruthie would know right away what the letters say.
Zebediah starts crying again. He wants his big sister.
Another moan. The man’s eyelids flutter.
Zebediah stares at him.
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 workaround 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.
Yet Lily’s laughter had turned bittersweet as she considered that agents from the Bureau of Prohibition—established this past spring by the US Department of the Treasury—were expected to enforce the laws of the Volstead Act, so filled with loopholes that it was flimsier than worn-out washrags. The bureau was tasked with ending criminal syndicates besetting big cities as they bootlegged alcohol. But with just a few thousand agents, a vast country, and seven years since Prohibition took effect for criminals to develop clever means of mostly eluding capture, the Bureau of Prohibition agents—vastly outnumbered and underpaid—may as well have been sopping up a flood with those worn-out washrags.
Lily’s laughter had drawn startled looks in the grocery. After all, Lily is sworn to uphold the law. And she does, when she runs across the occasional still, or a moonshiner raises too much of a ruckus, or someone—usually a frustrated wife—complains about the speakeasy that kept popping up in a “storage room” in the basement of the Kinship Inn. Lily has raided it twice. But in geographically large Bronwyn County, there is enough else to occupy her time and attention in the spread-out population of mostly coal miners and farmers without looking for trouble in the hills and hollers as well.
Now Lily regards the brick of “vino” sitting in the middle of the long table, like an awkward centerpiece.
“Drinking alcohol is legal,” Lily says. “Just not selling, buying, transporting, making…”
“So anything that makes drinking possible,” Marvena says dryly.
Mama glares over the brick at Marvena. “Don’t get all high-’n’-mighty with me.” Mama is referring to Marvena’s recent conversion to a strict Pentecostal sect, after years of being an unchurched moonshiner. “These were a pretty penny—brought in last month all the way from California. Only two per customer.”
Marvena arches an eyebrow. “Convenient timing, right afore the holidays. I reckon the other brick has disappeared into a jug of water.”
Lily suppresses a chuckle. The jug had been resting in the pie safe for, oh, about three weeks. And Mama had saved the baking soda for its proper use—leavening biscuits.
Mama grins mischievously and nods.
Marvena glares at Lily. “You’re all right with this?”
“It’s Mama’s house, too. If she wants to offer perfectly legal grape juice—even if it’s gone ‘bad’—at Thanksgiving, that’s her prerogative. Just like it’s other folks’ prerogative to say ‘no thank you’ and leave it at that.”
Marvena, usually too tough to be cowed by anyone, drops her gaze. As her shoulders droop, Lily wishes she could retract her snapping tone. Marvena, who has had a hard life, too, values Lily’s respect and friendship. Though sadness has always lingered behind Marvena’s gaze, and worry edging on anger furrowed her brow, of late these expressions have deepened.
Lily softens her tone as she tears more sage leaves. “A grape brick’s not the only frivolous item Mama picked out for Thanksgiving,” Lily says. “She got soda pop for the children! Ginger ale.” The store had started carrying Whistle brand.
“Well, if it’s got real ginger in it, that might settle Frankie.” Marvena picks up a bowl of cream and beats it. Her next words are so soft-spoken that Lily barely makes them out over the clink of the metal whisk. “She had a bit of a sour stomach this morning.”
Oh no. Frankie—Marvena’s daughter, same age as Lily’s eight-year-old Jolene—often takes sickly turns, usually coughing fits. Lily’s had to quietly tell Jolene not to play rough with her friend.
“Well, I hope she feels better,” Lily says gently as she rinses her hands in the pump sink’s icy cold water. She grabs a towel to dry off. “Jolene and the boys were disappointed she didn’t come with you.”
Marvena puts the bowl down long enough to sift in some sugar and cream of tartar—just a pinch to stabilize the whipped cream so it won’t melt back down to liquid. “Her cough gets worse in the cold,” Marvena says. She’d ridden part of the way from Rossville to Kinship with someone she knew, then hiked the rest of the way, all just to help with today’s feast.
Marvena goes back to beating the cream, so hard now that she’s going to beat it into butter, if she doesn’t crack the bowl first.
“Frankie’ll be along with Jurgis and the others,” Marvena says, meaning her husband, Jurgis; his mother, Nana; Marvena’s brother, Tom; his son, Alistair; and Hildy Cooper, the coalmining town’s schoolteacher and Tom’s sweetheart—and Lily’s oldest friend.
Then Marvena’s eyes glint with amusement. “Well, not all the others. Your mama tells me there’s one more guest coming.”
Lily stops mid-dry, clutching the towel between her hands so tightly that she’s in danger of rending it. “Mama—you didn’t.”
“I did,” Mama says, a mite defensively. Then she grins. “And he said ‘yes.’”
He is Benjamin Russo, an old friend from the Great War of Lily’s deceased husband, Daniel. Now Benjamin works for the Bureau of Mines in the southeastern Ohio branch on safety studies in various mines in the region. Several months ago, he took a boarding room in Kinship.
“Mayhap we should drink to that,” Marvena says, a wry twist to her tone.
“Are you kidding? After all”—Lily waves her hands around so hard that the towel flaps noisily—“after all that moralizing?”
Mama’s already opened a lower cupboard, digging past jars of blueberries and pickles so fast that there’s likely to be a mess on the wood floor any second now.
Marvena shrugs. “Hear tell this Benjamin—”
“Mr. Russo!” Lily snaps.
“OK—this Mr. Russo—is a big-city fella, from Cleveland originally.”
Lily turns to Mama, though all she can see of her now is her backside sticking out of the cupboard. “You’ve been telling Marvena about him?”
“Figured she’d want to know about him, seeing as how she’s not met him before.” Mama’s voice comes out muffled from inside the cabinet.
Lily and Marvena exchange a gaze acknowledging the truth—Marvena had met Benjamin before—once, two and a half years before, near the conclusion of the first case Lily had ever solved: the murder of her husband, Daniel. Marvena, who had been Daniel’s childhood friend, had worked alongside to solve the case, while Benjamin had helped resolve a dangerously brewing conflict in the mining town of Rossville between the miners Marvena was helping organize for possible unionization and Luther Ross—the then-owner and boss of the mining company, Daniel’s half brother.
Marvena clears her throat. “Seein’ as how your mama is going to serve the so-called grape juice no matter what I think, we may as well make sure it’s safe for your honored guest. Wouldn’t want to poison the poor man, before he can even start properly courting you.”
“He—he’s not—” Lily stutters. Heat rises in her face. “We’re not—” Well, yes, they had chatted a few times in town, at the Presbyterian church, before and after services. But he was just being polite. And beyond the fact that her work keeps her far busier outside a home than most any man would tolerate, Daniel has been gone for more than two and a half years. He will always be a part of her heart. Is that really fair to a suitor—assuming she’s ever interested?
“There’s a barn dance at a farm north of Rossville tomorrow night,” Marvena says. “Even Jurgis has agreed to take me.” Their new church frowns on worldly goings-on like dances. “And Tom and Hildy will be there. It’s an easy walk from Tom’s place.” Marvena’s eyes twinkle as she grins at Lily. “You could ask this Mr. Russo.”
“I—I’m not much of a dancer—” Lily sputters.
To her relief, Mama finally emerges from the cupboard, no broken jars at her feet, holding a gallon-size canning jar filled with dark liquid. Mama’s hair has now fallen completely loose from her bun and her face is red and sweat slicked, but she’s grinning triumphantly.
Lily laughs, lays aside her tea towel, and gets out three jelly jar glasses.
Mama carefully pours dollops of the liquid in each glass, and each woman takes one.
“Here’s to Lily being written up in Thrilling Gumshoe!” Marvena says.
Lily shakes her head. She’d solved a tough murder case last fall, and it had turned into a story in the popular detective magazine, in an issue that had just come out. She’d been teased and adulated far too much already over that.
“To Mr. Russo, then,” Mama says.
“No!” Lily snaps.
Whoops from the yard draw the attention of all three women. Together, they stare out the kitchen window, as Jolene scoops up a snowball and lobs it across the yard so that it lands right on top of her little brother Micah’s head, while Caleb Jr. laughs at Micah’s shock, until Jolene nails Caleb Jr.—Mama’s change-of-life baby, same age as Micah—square in the arm.
Lily grins. Her girl is showing ever as many signs of athleticism and tomboyishness as she had. Many mothers would try to tamp that down. Mama had for a while, until Daddy told her to let Lily be. She’d overheard him saying folks just have to be true to their nature, a sentiment Lily had reckoned as wise counsel. And so now Lily thinks of her own daughter, Good for her!
Lily lifts her glass. “How about a toast to all of our children. May they ever be joyous!”
Even as she says it, Lily’s heart pangs and her grin fades. All of them—her, Mama, Marvena—have lost children. Life offers no guarantees in life, especially of perpetual joy.
But Marvena and Mama lift their glasses.
And then all three women drink the grape-juice-turned-to-wine. Well. It has a kick—but tastewise, Lily had guessed right. It is like gulping pure vinegar.
Lily glances at Marvena, who’d once made nearly 100-proof whiskey. Her mouth twists bitterly, upper lip almost touching her nose, as she swallows.
Lily would laugh, but Mama looks so disappointed that instead she says gently, “It’s—right tasty.”
Mama sighs. “Well. I don’t know about that. Maybe if I add some simple sugar syrup, and a bit of blackberry juice—”
Marvena flicks an eyebrow. “Well now, Mama McArthur, you’re gonna turn into a right proper moonshiner yet.”
For a moment, silence hangs among the three women: sheriff, union organizer and former moonshiner, homemaker. Again, Lily wonders at Marvena’s sudden good humor about alcohol. Maybe she’s backsliding.
But then Mama and Marvena burst out laughing, and Lily joins in.
“To friends!” Marvena says.
The women gulp down the rest of their wine.
Ohio, 1927: Moonshining is a way of life in rural Bronwyn County, and even the otherwise upstanding Sheriff Lily Ross has been known to turn a blind eye when it comes to stills in the area. But when thirteen-year-old Jebediah Ranklin almost dies after drinking tainted moonshine, Lily knows that someone has gone too far, and—with the help of organizer and moonshiner Marvena Whitcomb—is determined to find out who.
But then, Lily’s nemesis, the businessman George Vogel, reappears in town with his new wife, Fiona. Along with them is also her former brother-in-law Luther Ross, now an agent for the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition. To Lily, it seems too much of a coincidence that they should arrive now.
As fall turns to winter, a blizzard closes in. Lily starts to peel back the layers of deception shrouding the town of Kinship, but soon she discovers that many around her seem to be betraying those they hold dear—and that Fiona too may have an agenda of her own.