General Motors engineers couldn’t have had Big Grave Creek Road in mind when they designed the 1956 Chevrolet. Michael Kovac reached that decision minutes after leaving Moundsville.
He drove with the windows down against the heat. As he headed southwest, he sneezed against roiling dust raised by passing farm trucks and wrestled the Chevy around giant potholes.
There just was no room to maneuver. The road twisted along the west bank of its namesake, Big Grave Creek. To the right, a homestead would pop into view, one minute to the next, tucked into a hollow in the tree-thick green slopes climbing into clear West Virginia skies.
Nothing but knee-high weeds prevented a four-foot drop into the water to the left. Still, Michael believed he had everything under control, felt certain they would arrive at Mount Zion on schedule. Then he made an error.
“What time is it, Mr. Mueller?” he asked.
Michael heard hesitation in Wilson Mueller’s voice. Stalling. That couldn’t be allowed, no matter who Wilson’s mother might be. Michael raised his voice. “The time. Tell me the time.”
He snuck a peek. Wilson looked as if he’d bitten a lemon wedge, expecting it to be an orange. Good. The kid had come on sufferance because his mother, a partner in one of the largest law firms in Columbus, sat on Ohio State’s board of trustees.
“Now, Mr. Mueller.” Michael said.
Wilson jerked his hand from the dashboard, squinted at his watch. Dots of sunlight bounced from the crystal, danced about the car’s interior, as the Chevy hit more potholes.
“Twenty past four.”
With that, Wilson tried to brace his hand against the dashboard once again. Off target and too late. The Chevy’s front right tire dropped into another crater. Wilson’s head bounced against safety glass with a hollow-pumpkin thunk.
Dazed, he reached to right himself. His hand flailed at the steering wheel, raking Michael’s knuckles. The wheel turned free, the Chevy veered left into the northbound lane.
“Sorry —” Wilson mumbled apologies, fumbled at the wheel. The Chevy jerked further off course.
For one mad moment, Michael thought he’d managed to salvage the situation. Then the Chevy hit another pothole, twisted left, cut through the wall of weeds and soared above the creek.
Just time to consider how far they’d fly, to wonder if they might arrow nose-first into the thorns lined thick along the east bank. Then the Chevrolet lost momentum and slammed into the creek bed with bone-grinding force, spraying sheets of water.
And silence settled over all.
After a time, Michael glanced at Wilson. “You all right, Mr. Mueller?”
Wilson touched his forehead. His fingers came away slicked red. He turned the rear-view mirror. “I am, a little. It doesn’t hurt. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” A lie.
Michael’s right knee ached. He’d jammed it into the steering column. There’d be nasty bruises on his left shoulder, too.
“You shouldn’t fib, Miska.” The whispered voice sounded like his mother, that part of her he carried with him always, somewhere in his mind.
Not the first time he’d broken a rule his mother and father impressed on him, growing up on Kary Street. Wouldn’t be the last time, either. “We’ll miss the service now,” he said.
Wilson pointed up the creek. “Maybe not. Can we drive along the creek bed, find a way back up to the road?”
A solution with imagination. For the first time, Michael wondered if Wilson might be more than a crew-cut fraternity jock with a mother cemented in the university power structure.
“Maybe,” Michael said.
He reached for the key to re-start the engine. A sharp rap rattled the rear window to his left. Michael jerked about in the seat. “What the -”
A man stood outside the door, peering through the open window. “You fellas all right?”
Michael nodded. “We’re fine, just in a bit of a jam.”
“Yes, sir. A real pickle.” The stranger grinned.
His thin, reedy voice didn’t fit him. He stood an inch or two above five feet tall, with a broad chest, thick neck and meaty arms, as solid as the stony floor of Big Grave Creek. He sported a deep tan, wore an open-collared white shirt and dark trousers.
“Is it safe to drive up the creek bed?” Michael asked.
The stranger glanced upstream. “For a ways, I reckon, but there ain’t a place to put your car up to the road, that’s what you got in mind. Least not before the water gets deeper.”
“Is there a telephone nearby?”
The stranger pointed back the way they’d come. “Back the road a piece, at my place. There ain’t a soul to home.”
He chuckled at his little joke.
Michael smiled. “I expect not.”
Rule one in any fieldwork: agree with the natives.
The stranger held up his hands, apologetic. “I’d haul you out of there with my truck, except I ain’t got the time. Me and the missus are headed to the meeting.”
Michael peered into the rear-view mirror. A small woman stood on the creek bank. She held a pair of men’s shoes, was dressed as simply as the man.
“That wouldn’t be the Mount Zion camp meeting, would it?” Michael asked.
The stranger’s ready smile lost some of its shine. “Maybe. Why would you be asking?”
“It’s where we’re headed.”
“Yes. I was invited by Mr. Hallaway.”
“Mr. Hallaway? Big heavy-set man without no hair?”
Michael didn’t mind being quizzed. He liked essay questions, too. “No, Sir. The Mr. Hallaway I know is slim, with a full head of white hair, brows like wooly caterpillars.”
“Yes. We met in Wheeling just last week.”
The stranger relaxed and grinned.
Good enough for an A.
“That’s the Mr. Hallaway I know, too,” the stranger said. “I expect you two are all the way over from Ohio State.”
“We are. I’m Michael Kovac. This is Wilson Mueller, my assistant. How did you know?”
The stranger’s grin grew broader.
Even better. An A plus.
The stranger held out his right hand. “Peter Adams. Elder up to Mount Zion. You and the boy are staying with me and the missus.”
“Of course! Geoff Baxter spoke of you.”
“I surely hope he said something nice.”
Michael accepted Peter’s hand. He had a dry, firm grip. Michael liked that.
“We can carry you to the meeting,” Peter said. “That is, if the young fellow don’t mind sitting in the back. The missus will take a look at his cut before we pull away.”
“What about my car?”
“It can set right there ‘til we get back. Nobody going to bother it and the crick ain’t going to rise.” Peter chuckled.
“All right. Thanks for the offer.”
They’d settled the matter that quickly. Michael liked that better than the handshake. He reached for the door handle.
Peter held his hand against the door. “Best pull off them shoes and socks. Roll up your pant legs, too.”
Peter pointed down with his index finger. Michael peered over the window lip. Peter stood barefoot in the clear, fast water of the creek. It reached above his ankles. He’d rolled his trouser legs above his knees and had tied them in place with lengths of binder twine. Peter’s left leg matched the rest of him, thickset and pale, but his right leg below the knee had been replaced by a metal post.
Michael didn’t even blink. The War had left a lot of men like that. “Mr. Mueller, there’s friction tape under your seat.”
The water chilled at first touch, but Michael soon grew used to standing barefoot on smoothed stones. It reminded him of his childhood, playing on the edges of the Detroit River. Peter began to wade toward the roadway. Michael followed. The little man moved with certainty, despite a limp.
Michael turned and called back. “Mr. Mueller.”
“Bring the cameras.”
“Yes, sir.” Wilson opened his door and studied the surface of the creek. He looked as if he tasted that lemon again.
Michael grinned. “And don’t let them get wet.”
They heard Mount Zion Holiness Church Signs Following long before it came into view. Keyboard tones carried upon the wind. A guitar and fiddle soon joined in, then the smoother sound of voices, joined in celebration.
Evelyn Adams, in the truck’s center seat, began to sing along. She matched her husband. Compact, with graying hair hung unfettered to her waist. And she possessed a no-frills singing voice. “ — gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”
The singers – and Evelyn – latched right on to Marching to Zion.
Peter slowed, turned from New Bethel Road onto a driveway through a copse of trees. The truck’s tires crunched the gravel surface. The grumbling of its engine shifted to a lower pitch, as it muscled up the grade to a rise.
“There she is.” Peter said.
The church building stood at the eastern edge of the rise, looking just as Geoff’s letters described it. Whitewashed and boxy, clean lined and longer than it is wide. Its tall, narrow windows glittered clean in the sunshine. An American flag rippled on a tall pole a few paces from the door.
But billowing white canvas, not Old Glory, caught Michael’s interest. Someone had pitched a big-top tent at the west edge of the rise, as if to balance out the bulk-weight of the church. The tent’s sides had been rolled up and tied off, too, so the afternoon breeze could cool the interior.
The much-patched white canvas pulsed in and out, breathing Appalachian air. It carried the look of a land-bound sail the wind would pull away across the green sea of hills, if it hadn’t been anchored in the West Virginia loam.
Peter brought his truck to a halt near the rear of the parking lot. Another flatbed truck sat nearby, this one black, with Damascus Ministries printed on its dusty doors in faded white letters. It had to be Driscoll’s truck.
People stood and moved everywhere. Children ran across the churchyard, playing an unending game of tag. Men, young and old, stood about in groups, talking or singing. Women lugged infants on their hips, carried baskets and platters of food. Michael could already smell baked ham. Everyone wore plain clothing almost identical to Peter and Evelyn’s outfits.
Michael had already shed his tie and coat. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, as he climbed from the truck, at ease and excited at the prospect of once again facing the unknown.
“Mr. Mueller,” he called. “Strip off your watch and tie and unload the gear.”
Michael followed Andy Hallaway and the elders into the tent. Unlit oil lamps hung just out of reach of the tallest man, from cords passed through loops sewn to the canvas roof. A foot-high wooden platform rested on planks, across the north end of the tent. A simple wooden lectern stood front and center on the platform, a dozen folding chairs perched across the back.
A man stood at the lectern, studying the space. He glanced their way. Hallaway stopped just inside the tent, shifted from foot to foot, a small boy stuck outside the principal’s office. “Brother Driscoll, This here is Professor Michael.”
Driscoll climbed from the platform and extended his right hand as he stepped toward them. “Afternoon, Professor.”
Michael slipped his right hand into Driscoll’s grip. “Hello, Reverend. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“I’d begun to worry. Lose your way?”
“We had an automobile accident.”
“Anything damaged?” Driscoll asked.
“Just my pride.”
“We all can stand to have our pride taken down a notch.”
That sounded like a jibe. Michael took a breath, counted to himself. Michael and the preacher settled near the front of the tent on folding chairs pulled away from the front row. The dozen elders sat on chairs, circling Driscoll and Michael.
“I suspect there’s a cost to everything,” Michael said.
Driscoll’s voice took on an edge. “Yes, indeed.”
Michael could almost see gears spinning in the preacher’s head, shifting through alternatives.
“That reminds me,” Driscoll said. “There’s a matter of money to be decided.”
Michael shot a glance at Hallaway. “Beg pardon?”
Michael and Hallaway had met half a dozen times since January, when Geoff Baxter first suggested a Mount Zion project. Michael had been certain everything had been arranged.
Hallaway shrugged, offering no help. News to him, too.
“I’m talking about a contribution,” Driscoll said.
“How much do you want, Reverend?” Michael asked.
“Call me Brother Driscoll. I’m not ordained.”
“How much, Brother Driscoll?”
Driscoll remained silent. Michael stared back, biting his lip, waiting for the ax to fall. When it dropped, it would chop deep. He didn’t care about the money, at least not like he hated the idea of being played as if he were a mark in some confidence scheme.
“How much?” he said again, after a time.
Driscoll nodded, he’d made up his mind. “Two hundred a night. One hundred for me. One hundred for the church.”
An elder gasped. Michael wasn’t certain which one. He wasn’t about to look.
“That ain’t right,” Peter said, rising from his chair.
Michael raised a hand, interrupting Peter. “It’s all right, Mr. Adams. I’ll pay.”
Whoever had gasped began to sputter, just like the Indian Scout motorcycle Michael drove as an undergraduate at University of Michigan. No wonder. Five hundred dollars had to be a quarter of the church’s annual budget. A thousand dollars was at the top edge of his budget, too, but it didn’t matter. He knew a bluff when he heard one. Driscoll didn’t want him here.
“My checkbook’s in my jacket. Do you want the money now?”
Driscoll sat still for a moment, then sighed, waved a hand. “No need to pay now. Go ahead. Set up your cameras.”