“Family,” the old man said to no one.
The word hung in a puff of frozen breath, before dissipating into the early morning fog. Riley Burroughs used that word the same way a master carpenter used a hammer. Sometimes he just gave it a gentle tap to nudge one of his kin toward his way of thinking, but sometimes he used it with all the subtlety of a nine-pound sledge.
The old man sat in a wooden rocker, slowly squeaking it back and forth on the worn and buckled pine slats of the cabin’s front porch. The cabin was one of several hunting shelters his family had built all over Bull Mountain throughout the years. Rye’s Grandfather, Johnson Burroughs, built this one. Rye imagined the elder statesman of the Burroughs clan sitting in that very spot fifty years earlier and wondered if his brow ever got this heavy. He was sure it did.
Rye pulled a pouch of dried tobacco from his coat and rolled a smoke in his lap. Ever since he was a boy, he’d come out here to watch Johnson’s Gap come to life. This early, the sky was a purple bruise. The churning chorus of frogs and crickets was beginning to transition into the scurry of vermin and birdsong—a woodland changing of the guard. On frigid mornings like this one, the fog banked low over the veins of Kudzu like a cotton blanket, so thick you couldn’t see your feet to walk through it. It always made Rye smile to know that the clouds everyone else looked up to see, he looked down on from the other side. He reckoned that must be how God felt.
The sun had already begun to rise behind him, but this gap was always the last place to see it.
The shadow cast down from the Western Ridge kept this section of the mountain almost a full ten degrees cooler than the rest of it. It would be well into the afternoon before the sun could dry up all the dew that made the forest shimmer. Only thin beams of light broke through the heavy canopy of oak trees and Scotch pine. As a kid, Rye used to believe those rays of light warming his skin were the fingers of God, reaching down though the trees to bless this place—to look out for his home. But as a man, he’d grown to know better. The children running underfoot and the womenfolk might have some use for that superstitious nonsense, but Riley reckoned if there was some Sunday school God looking out for the people on this mountain, then the job wouldn’t always fall on him.
The old man sat and smoked.