The Giver of Stars -Jojo Moyes


20 December 1937

Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it. There’s no birdsong past dawn, not even in high summer, and especially not now, with the chill air so thick with moisture that it stills those few leaves clinging gamely to the branches. Among the oak and hickory nothing stirs: wild animals are deep underground, soft pelts intertwined in narrow caves or hollowed-out trunks. The snow is so deep the mule’s legs disappear up to his hocks, and every few strides he staggers and snorts suspiciously, checking for loose flints and holes under the endless white. Only the narrow creek below moves confidently, its clear water murmuring and bubbling over the stony bed, headed down towards an endpoint nobody around here has ever seen.

Margery O’Hare tests her toes inside her boots, but feeling went a long time back and she winces at the thought of how they’re going to hurt when they warm up again. Three pairs of wool stockings, and in this weather you might as well go bare-legged. She strokes the big mule’s neck, brushing off the crystals forming on his dense coat with her heavy men’s gloves.

‘Extra food for you tonight, Charley boy,’ she says, and watches as his huge ears flick back. She shifts, adjusting the saddlebags, making sure the mule is balanced as they pick their way down towards the creek. ‘Hot molasses in your supper. Might even have some myself.’

Four more miles, she thinks, wishing she had eaten more breakfast. Past the Indian escarpment, up the yellow pine track, two more hollers, and old Nancy will appear, singing hymns as she always does, her clear, strong voice echoing through the forest as she walks, arms swinging like a child’s, to meet her.

‘You don’t have to walk five miles to meet me,’ she tells the woman, every fortnight. ‘That’s our job. That’s why we’re on horseback.’

‘Oh, you girls do enough.’

She knows the real reason. Nancy, like her bedbound sister, Jean, back in the tiny log cabin at Red Lick, cannot countenance even a chance that she will miss the next tranche of stories. She’s sixty-four years old with three good teeth and a sucker for a handsome cowboy: ‘That Mack McGuire, he makes my heart flutter like a clean sheet on a long line.’ She clasps her hands and lifts her eyes to Heaven. ‘The way Archer writes him, well, it’s like he steps right out of the pages in that book and swings me onto his horse with him.’ She leans forward conspiratorially. ‘Ain’t just that horse I’d be happy riding. My husband said I had quite the seat when I was a girl!’

‘I don’t doubt it, Nancy,’ she responds, every time, and the woman bursts out laughing, slapping her thighs like this is the first time she’s said it.

A twig cracks and Charley’s ears flick. Ears that size, he can probably hear halfway to Louisville. ‘This way, boy,’ she says, guiding him away from a rocky outcrop. ‘You’ll hear her in a minute.’

‘Goin’ somewhere?’

Margery’s head snaps around.

He is staggering slightly, but his gaze is level and direct. His rifle, she sees, is cocked, and he carries it, like a fool, with his finger on the trigger. ‘So you’ll look at me now, will ya, Margery?’

She keeps her voice steady, her mind racing. ‘I see you, Clem McCullough.’

‘I see you, Clem McCullough.’ He spits as he repeats it, like a nasty child in a schoolyard. His hair stands up on one side, like he’s slept on it. ‘You see me while you’re lookin’ down that nose of yours. You see me like you see dirt on your shoe. Like you’re somethin’ special.’

She has never been afraid of much, but she’s familiar enough with these mountain men to know not to pick a fight with a drunk. Especially one bearing a loaded gun.

She conducts a swift mental list of people she may have offended – Lord knows there seem to be a few – but McCullough? Aside from the obvious, she can find nothing.

‘Any beef your family had with my daddy, that’s buried with him. It’s only me left, and I ain’t interested in blood feuds.’

McCullough is directly in her path now, his legs braced in the snow, his finger still on the trigger. His skin has the purple-blue mottle of someone too drunk to realize how cold he is. Probably too drunk to hit straight, but it’s not a chance