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THE OVER-MOUNTAIN MAN

 

Emma Goldrick

 

She was the one who needed help!

"Why me?" Katie Russel lamented when her car issued one last, dismal clank, leaving her stranded in the Great Smoky Mountains. But she managed to fumble her way to the nearest home to ask for help.

"Come in. Come in!" A strange man, obviously frazzled, flung open the door and pulled her inside. "I’ve been waiting for you since last night."

He’d been expecting a domestic to take his sister’s fussy baby off his hands and dance to his fiancee's whims. And he had no intention of apologizing once he realized his mistake....

 

"We both know you're not a domestic, don't we now?”

Katie was livid. "And you think that gives you the right to force yourself on me?"

"Come on, love," Harry taunted.

"Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy kissing me, because I know you did. I would think that my aunt would have picked out a more experienced candidate, though."

"I haven’t the slightest idea what you're talking about!"

A wide grin spread across his face. "I wouldn’t put it past Aunt Grace and my sister to work up some double-barreled scheme. Anybody who would choose this route as a shortcut to Ohio needs her brain transplanted. Don’t be alarmed, though. I always manage to uncover the plot before the trap is sprung."

The only trap, as far as Katie was concerned, was the one fate had caught her in by leading her to Harry King's door!

 

To Polly King, who taught us to love mountains

 

CHAPTER ONE

It
was five o’clock in the morning when the layby appeared on the right-hand side of the twisting mountain road. With a sigh of relief she turned the wheel, drove the little red Volkswagen out on to the rough grass and turned off the motor. There was an old wooden signpost about six feet away. She unfolded her five feet ten inches from the tiny box of a car, stretched mightily, and wandered over to the sign. A full moon graced the horizon to the west of her, and in its brilliant light she read ‘Spivey Gap, Great Smokey Mountains. Elevation 3252.’

She rubbed the back of her neck to relieve the tensions from the long drive, and ruffled her fingers through the tight bronze cap of curls that lay in confusion against her head. Spivey Gap? What in heaven’s name ever led me to take this ‘short cut’? Somebody said something—I wish I could remember! A short cut from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Humbersville, Ohio. Who said it? Great day! Eubie Fairfield said it! The clown who finally convinced me to head for Ohio and home—seven weeks early for sister Marion’s wedding. How about that? I’m lost in the mountains between Carolina and Tennessee, and all on the word of the biggest idiot who ever played baseball!

She was laughing quietly to herself as she sauntered back to the car. It was chillier than she had expected for an early morning in late August. There was no sign of a breeze. She opened the car door and fumbled in the back seat for her cardigan. Her camera cases, the tools of her trade, filled the seat. She up-ended one of the Minolta cases, found a sweater, and slipped it on, a wry grin on her mobile tanned face. She ran both hands through her hair again, and leaned against the top of the car.

Eubie Fairfield, probably the worst outfielder in the Carolina League. ‘Big bat, big mouth, little glove,’ the sports editor of the paper had written. ‘Every fly ball hit to left field is an adventure when Eubie is there!’ She had been dating him for two months, and had already concluded he had little to offer except his height. And then, just before he boarded the bus on the last road trip of the season with the team, he had called her.

‘I’ll be back in fifteen days, babe,’ he had said. ‘And when I do we’re going to do something about your brash little maiden act.’

‘You can’t cure brashness overnight,’ she had laughed.

‘No,’ he returned, ‘but we can cure maidenhood!’

What with all her other troubles—homesickness, Marion’s wedding, the problem of working in the field of sports photography, essentially a man’s world, and now Eubie’s little promise—all that-had been just enough for her to resign from World Wide Photos, pack her few things in a bag, and head for Ohio. Which, in turn, had put her, early in the morning, near the crest of the Great Smokey Mountains, the section of the Appalachian Range which divided the Atlantic plain of the United States from the great internal valleys of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee Rivers. She shivered again as she looked out into the silvery moonlight, now beginning to pale under the threat of pre-dawn in the east.

She stretched one more time, then crammed herself back inside the car. She shifted into gear, drove over the crest of the pass, and nearly swallowed her tongue. The road ahead of her went straight downhill for about fifty yards, and then disappeared into a thick white layer of fog. Fog that hung over everything in the valley, obliterating all signs of life, as if a painter had wiped the canvas clean. It was as if she were in an aeroplane, skipping over the top bank of clouds. Route 19W seemed to have poised itself on top of the mountain, and dived off into nothing.

The brakes squealed as she jammed then on, and the little red light on the dashboard blinked at her a dozen times or more before it quivered out. Well, she told herself, you can hardly turn back. As best as she could remember there was nothing behind her but mountain roads, dark forbidding mountain roads, until you came to the village of Bald Creek. Which had been shrouded in darkness when she had driven through some two hours before. And the little red light on the dashboard wasn’t blinking any more. It glared at her in righteous wrath, saying something important in a language Katie could not fathom. Anything mechanical was anathema to her—except for her cameras, over which she had laboured with love since she was fifteen.

‘Oh murder!’ she snarled in exasperation, pounding on the steering wheel to relieve her frustrations. But there seemed to be no alternative. Turning back was out of the question. Stopping by the side of the road to out-wait the fog was equally distasteful. With a muttered prayer she took her foot off the brake, shifted into second gear, and urged the little car forward into the fog. It swallowed her, car and all.

She could barely see six feet in front of her. Her foot automatically switched the lights to low-beam as her hands moved the car over to the crown of the road. She aimed her tiny hood ornament down the white line that marked the highway’s centre, and leaned forward over the steering wheel, taking full advantage of her height to get her nose close to the windscreen. Her grip on the wheel tightened, and the car slowed to five miles an hour. The road bucked and twisted under the wheels, and her eyes, straining forward into the fog, began to water from over-concentration. The red light on the dashboard came on again and glared balefully at her.

For twenty minutes she felt her way downward, deep into the fog, trying to wish herself clear. The little engine behind her pushed valiantly, but it had lost its smooth chatter, and was beginning to make fearful noises. That is, it did until it gave one dismal clank and stopped altogether. The glaring red light went out.

She pulled up the handbrake, shifted to neutral, and hit the starter button. Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. She leaned back in her seat and pounded both fists on the steering wheel. ‘Why me?’ she yelled out at the fog. There was no answer. She rolled down her window and watched warily as tiny tendrils of fog weaved into the car, bringing a wet chill, and a fearful warning. ‘You are all alone. The world has disappeared,’ voices whispered in her ear.

She leaned out the window. ‘Now what do I do?’ she roared into the mist. There was a soft sigh of wind in unseen trees. She sniffed appreciatively at the sweet pine scent in the air. If the wind blew, the fog was bound to be blown away, wasn’t it? Or was it? In the Ohio flatlands fog was an occasional thing that clung to the rivers. Here, where hundreds of little streams and creeks ran into the Tennessee, behind the thousand-and-one dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority, there would always be moisture in the air. ‘But it can’t get any worse,’ she assured herself, dragging up every cliché she had ever heard. ‘And it’s bound to be all downhill from here.’

As she heard her own voice she slapped her forehead in disgust. Of course! She had passed over the crest of the mountain, and it
was
all downhill from here. She was still laughing at herself as she made sure that the gearshift was in neutral, and then released the hand brake. The little car began to roll, gently at first, and then much faster. She shifted her foot to the brake pedal, curbing the car’s tendency to build up to forty miles an hour, and hunched forward in her seat again.

She saw the glow of the lights as she came around a deep bend, just in time to slam on her brakes. The glow gradually decentralised itself as she allowed the car to slide down towards it. Two bright lights, each surrounded by a halo, gleaming at her from the right-hand side of the road.

Cautiously she turned the car loose. It glided forward until she could see a large paved area beside the road, an area that looked dimly like a parking lot. Two cars were already at rest there.

‘Well, at least it’s
someplace,’’
she sighed as she steered her battered car into a space beside a shining black Mercedes. When she crawled out of the car to stretch she noticed that the second car was a more commonplace four-door Reliant. ‘So it’s not so bad, Hilda,’ she told her trusty little VW. She patted her car affectionately on its roof, and started to walk towards the lights.

There were two stone pillars, about ten feet high, at the back end of the parking lot, and on top of each was an electric globe. She walked through the gateway formed by the pillars. Immediately she felt the hollowness of wood beneath her feet. She stopped and bent over to investigate. She was on a bridge, some twelve feet wide, leading into the fog towards another light, two hundred feet or more away.

She fumbled her way to the side of the bridge until her hand discovered a steel railing, set about waist high. Going cautiously, she used the rail as a guide. After twenty feet of bridge she stepped off on to a white- pebbled path, and kept going. The light ahead of her was coming through a fan of glass set over the top of a heavy wooden door. Nothing could be seen of the house which contained it. She fumbled her way up three steps, crossed a wooden veranda, and stopped in front of the door.

A huge brass door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head glared at her from the exact middle of the door. Too weary now to puzzle it all out, she grabbed the lion’s head and beat a rapid tattoo on the door. That is, she banged the knocker three times, and was about to give it another when knocker, door, and all were snatched away from her, and she was looking down a large well-lit hall, half-blocked by a blurred male form. All she could tell of him was that he was taller by inches than she was, and for some reason that fact made her feel just the slightest bit welcome.

‘Well, come in, come in!’ His voice was a deep
basso profundo.
Which immediately shook Katie’s confidence. Among other things she was an opera buff, and she knew not only that the tenor was always the hero, but the
basso profundo
was most always the darkest of villains!

‘Don’t stand in the damned door!’ The voice was exasperated. She wished she could make out more of the man who went with it. He grabbed at one of her wrists and pulled her into the hall. ‘I’ve been waiting since six o’clock last night,’ he told her, urging her down the hall. ‘We expected you at least by midnight!’

‘Well, I left at nine last night, and drove as fast as I could,’ she said defensively. ‘Expecting me? I—’

‘Of course we were expecting you.’ He had urged her to the depth of the hall, behind a set of beautiful mahogany stairs that curved gently up to the floor above. ‘I called the agency six times. They promised us faithfully that you’d be here!’

‘And here I am,’ she gasped, wondering what in the world was going on. ‘But where is—’

‘No time for explanations!’ He opened the door under the stairs. ‘Do something about that.’

‘That’ was a little boy, about eighteen months old, sitting in the middle of a hastily rigged nursery, crying his heart out.

‘Do something?’ she stammered.

‘Come off it,’ he roared. ‘I know you’re not a nurse, but the agency said you would be willing to try. Any woman ought to be able to make a kid stop crying! He’s been bellowing since noontime yesterday!’

‘Any woman?’ she asked feebly.

‘Well, almost any woman.’ He modified his statement slightly, with a tone of disgust.

‘He means me, honey.’ The voice came from behind her. Katie turned around to the door. It was half-occupied by a beautiful little blonde woman, leaning against the jamb. She was dressed in a flowery blue translucent nightgown, covered slightly by a transparent yellow neglige, and leaving somewhat more of her showing than the movies usually permit. Which was the thought running through Katie’s head. I’ve fallen into a crazy movie set, she told herself. There’s the kid, she’s the beautiful heroine, and he’s the villain. And where does that leave me?

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