J.C. and Jean strolled slowly together on the gravel driveway in the hot sunlight. They arrived at the tailgate of Jean’s square, green pickup truck whose paint had erupted into pocks across the top and hood.
She reached out and affectionately patted the side of her old pickup as someone else might do a favorite horse.
“You won’t have to worry about the brakes, anymore,” she said. “Dan Mills fixed them for me last week. Brand new, all around. That Dan’s a good boy.”
“Gave you a good deal, did he?” asked J.C.
“Two dozen asparagus starts and some fresh walnuts of this year’s crop is all it cost me. You underestimate me, Johnny. I’m a very good bargainer.”
“I know you are, Jean.”
“When you get back with the pickup I might be napping, so just leave the keys in it; I’ll find them later.”
“All right. Thank you for the lemonade and the advice.”
“I never give advice, Johnny. You should know that about me by now. I only offer friendly observations and encouragement. I don’t have the courage to give people advice and take responsibility for it. It’s how people ruin friendships, and I would never want to jeopardize ours, Johnny. And that’s the truth.”
“I know, Jean. Well then thank you for the lemonade and the friendly observations, my dear. I appreciate both very much.”
“You are welcome, and don’t stay away.”
J.C. climbed into the pickup, rolled down the window, slammed the creaky door, and fired up the engine. Then he waved to Jean and backed the truck down the long drive and out onto F Street where he lurched to a stop as he stepped on the brakes.
“I told you they worked!” shouted Jean and laughed.
He waved again, shifted gears, and was off.
It was an unusually sleepy day for April. The heat had driven all the gardeners of Jeap’s Holler indoors for the afternoon. But they would return in the evening with the barn swallows when the breezes had cooled to finish their watering and weeding.
J.C. bounced over the uneven streets of town that had been repaired innumerable times but had not been repaved in forty years or more. After a quick stop at Spooner’s Bakery where he picked up loaves of unsold bread, J.C. followed B Street until it ran out at the end of town where the old water tower stood.
The water tower had once been bright silver with neat, block lettering, in yellow and black, printed on one side, the side where the tower faced the old highway by which travelers entered town. J.C. could still make out the message on the tower which had turned into a ghost of the original lettering painted on it:
Home of the Miners
But Jeap’s Holler had not been Coalville for over eighty years. The residents had changed the town’s name to spite the coal company when the company suddenly closed the mine and abandoned the workers who had relied on coal, for several generations, as their only source of income. Jeap’s Holler was the original name of the place before it had been Coalville. So the people decided to return to their roots and not trust a mining operation ever again.
At the end of B Street, on the other side of the train tracks, there were the water tower and three fat silos on the left—also abandoned. There B Street branched. Straight ahead it turned into Fish Lake Road, but to the right it was Old Coalville Road which, if followed, eventually brought one to the hamlet of Turner. At the stop sign where B Street branched, J.C. continued straight on Fish Lake Road.
Fish Lake Road meandered out to the rustic picnic grounds at the lower end of the lake, then skirted the tranquil body of water for about three miles along its northern shore until it reached the lake’s upper leg where J.C. enjoyed fishing the bass which prowled its reedy shallows in late spring.
At the upper leg, the road parted company with the lake’s edge and angled along the grassy wetland, southward, until it found the canyon’s mouth. There, among granite outcroppings and eastern white pine, the road swung east and gained elevation as it hugged the hillside and began climbing the canyon.
Ironically, the canyon appeared drier at its base where the lake and wetlands were, but grew greener and lusher with fern and woodland shrubs the farther up the canyon one went. The canyon was a long and gentle grade, but a person did not travel too far before the granite outcroppings sank into the earth and the topsoil became deeper and richer, enough to support fruit trees on the western exposures.
At another period in their history, the hills around Fish Lake had supplied three large fruit packing companies with good quantities and a wide variety of fruit, though apples and cider where its champions. There were some nut orchards intermingled as well. Of all the orchards in that area, the Bridewell Estate was most famous and the largest. It spread across 250 acres and lay just off of Lake Road (as the road is known once it enters the canyon).
But the Bridewell orchards had not been kept up for many years and were now approaching the brink of no return in terms of restoration. Some of them had already crossed the line and would have to be torn out and replanted before they would be productive again. J.C. cruised past the gate leading to the Bridewell mansion and pushed on up the grade toward the top.
The canyon would have presented a hard climb for J.C. on his bicycle, but he had done it many times before. But by now, he had achieved the summit and below him—down a gentle decline and in a shallow valley—lay the upland farms spread out before him. The individual farms were separated by natural margins of undergrowth, rills, and woods.
J.C., even on his bicycle, had always considered climbing the canyon worth the effort when he finally reached the uplands because they were so idyllic and beautiful. The families who lived up there, thought J.C., were the most fortunate inhabitants of all Winstanley Canton.