Edison Bestwell and Benjamin Baldridge have been best friends since the third grade. Life in the small backwoods town of Cripple Creek, Kentucky, usually doesn't move faster than a snail, and the boys enjoy plenty of freedom to explore and get into a bit of innocent mischief. But during the summer between fifth and sixth grade, Benjamin's sister, Lilly, goes missing, sending the town and the friends into turmoil.
Lilly is never found, and seven years later on a peculiar autumn night, a tragic incident thrusts Edison and Benjamin back into the enigma surrounding her disappearance. What they find causes them to question everything they know about what is possible-and what is real. Unfortunately, they're soon caught between the law and the pursuit of truth as once again Cripple Creek becomes embroiled in mystery.
With federal agent Tucker Davidson and local sheriff Harlen Jenkins hot on their trail, the two friends race across the ridges and through the hollows of backwoods Kentucky with a discovery that could settle the case once and for all. There's just one problem: Who in their right mind will believe them?
Written in the tradition of Southern fiction, The Ballad of Edison Bestwell simmers with suspense, charm, and a healthy dose of wry humor.
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The Ballad of Edison Bestwell
By JASON KELLER
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Jason Keller
All rights reserved.
My name is Edison Bestwell. Everybody calls me Eddie, though. Hardly anybody even knows that my name is really Edison. I think my mother named me that in hopes that I would be a genius or something, like someone naming their kid Jordan in hopes that he'll be able to play basketball, or Mariah in the expectation that she'll be able to hit a high note. I may not be a savant, but don't let the fact that I'm a backwoods hillbilly fool you either—I've seen a few things in my time. I was born in 1969 in Cripple Creek, Kentucky, a town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where generations of hill people carved their way through the area just like the rivers and streams that shaped the land. Times were simpler when I was a child, and people seemed happy to just saunter along the path of life without much fuss. The Shawnee Indians roamed these hills first, with their natural religion to guide them. A great Shawnee chief is said to have roamed this region too. At the moment of his birth, his father, Pucksinwah, saw a meteor streak across the sky, and he named his son Tecumseh, which means "the panther passing across." That story stuck with me as my best friend Ben Baldridge and I wandered the surrounding country as kids. Ben's older sister, Lilly, would tag along most of the time as well. She was two years older than us, but she was the runt of the family, and if you were to line us all up together, you would've thought we were all born in the same litter. Ben and Lilly's resemblance was remarkable except that Ben had the haircut of an enlisted soldier, whereas Lilly's flaxen locks flowed abundantly past her shoulders. It seems like the first thing I remember about life is these hills and the people that belong to them.
When Ben and I entered third grade, Mrs. Bender sat us all in rows, in alphabetical order, like this was supposed to instill some sense of order to the Chinese fire drill that was her classroom. That placed me right behind Ben in the middle of row one. And as fate would have it, the apple of my eye, Cristina Jenkins, sat directly next to me in row two. I don't know if there is an official age one has to reach to legitimately fall in love, but I guess I hit my stride early. When I first saw that girl, it felt like a donkey kick to the chest. But you know how young'uns are—it would take me the better part of that school year to muster up the nerve to talk to her, and when I did, I nearly peed my pants.
But Ben and I were inseparable. We would chum around the schoolyard talking about how we were gonna be oceanographers one day. I don't even know where we got that crazy idea, but it sure did stick. We would dig through encyclopedias, finding every fact and picture about every fish we could. And we had these notebooks with all these sketches of fishes, with facts neatly listed beside them, page after page. We would talk for hours about adventures on the high seas, searching for the answers to the mysteries hidden in the deep.
Little did we know that a whopper of a mystery was in our future. The things we saw implicated us, and our curious minds involved us, so as luck would have it, we were entangled from the get-go. The mystique would soon grow into something that we never could have imagined.
But we'll get to that soon enough. As I was saying, Ben and I were like peas and carrots, thick as thieves, and I started riding the school bus home with him so we could continue planning all the adventures we had in mind. Ben lived up the hollow just like nearly everybody else in Cripple Creek. Growing up in Appalachia had its ups and downs. Everybody I knew was dirt poor, including Ben's family. But they were good people. Ben's mom, Nell, worked in the cafeteria at school and always knew what kind of trouble Ben and I were up to. The trouble was innocent enough, though, stuff like skipping class to go fishing down at the river or turning a snake loose in Mrs. Bender's desk drawer. And she was always bringing leftovers home from the cafeteria, which meant chili and peanut butter sandwiches three or four nights a week.
We were always in the woods. We knew every game trail and creek bed like the back of our hand. The hills became a part of who we were. I can see how the natives and settlers felt drawn to it, like the land was adopting them. That's the way us hill folks are. The land doesn't belong to us; we belong to the land.
But walking back toward Ben's house on the road from the end of the hollow always gave us the creeps—a real bona fide case of the heebie-jeebies. This always happened because we had to walk past the old run-down barn that sat on the edge of the Baldridges' property, a half a mile or so down the road from their house, where the road turned from pavement to dirt. The township never saw fit to pave the whole road, I guess, 'cause only the Hayfields lived up at the end of the hollow, and they hardly went anywhere except for when Mrs. Hayfield delivered her homemade pies to DeeDee's Diner. Such a thing wasn't so rare in Cripple Creek—everything 'round these parts ran on a shoestring budget. Most everybody was pretty much self-sufficient. Just about everyone I knew grew their own crops to feed themselves and kept some cattle and pigs around to slaughter for meat. It's not like there was much to go to town for anyway. All we had were a couple of diners and dollar stores and the Family Fuel-Mart where you could get your gas and groceries all at the same place. It was pretty big news when Cripple Creek got its second red light out where the highway runs through. Oh yeah, and there was the drive-in movie screen out off Route 60 near Owensville where the movies became alive with the backdrop of the hills. It was a magical place.
But that barn had to be the creepiest place in the world as far as I was concerned. It looked like it was about a hundred years old and nearly ready to fall in on itself. It looked as if you could kick one of the boards that had turned sickly gray with age, and the whole thing would just come crumbling down and turn into dust. And it just smelled stale around the area where it stood, like the place was sick or something.
Ben and I would be walking down the road with not a care in the world, and as soon as we got near that barn, our pace and our pulse would quicken with equal intensity until we were galloping on past as fast as our legs could carry us. We wouldn't slow down until we were well past and looking over our shoulders—just to make sure, ya know. Man, that place sure did give us the willies.
I guess we kind of always just knew, ya know. I think kids are more sensitive to evil. The closer they are to the innocence of infancy, the more keenly attuned their senses are to corruption. And when I say evil and corruption, I mean ... well, I'm getting ahead of myself again.
The summer between our fifth- and sixth-grade years was one of those magical summers of childhood, the ones where it seems like you make a lifetime of memories in one season. Ben and I were always together. My house was two or three miles away by car, but if you went over the hill right behind Ben's place and through the woods a ways, you would come out right into my backyard. We would meet halfway, where the hill came down to meet the creek that ran all the way to the river. Cristina was with us a good bit of the time as well. Since I'd broken the ice with her back in third grade, we kinda took a liking to one another, and we were now an item. She would go fishing with us down at the river, and she would even bait her own hook. Cristina was growing up to be quite the looker with her long dark hair and eyes to match. She looked like she could be a little model or something. But you couldn't let that fool you—she could hunt and fish better than most boys our age. That summer was full of memories. It was the summer that Cristina and I first kissed.
It was also the summer that Lilly went missing.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. It seems that when something big happens, whether it's good or bad, it gets seared into your memory for time and all eternity.
It also happened to be during one of the worst storms that Cripple Creek had seen in years. Trees were laid over everywhere, and the town was without power for over twenty-four hours. They said that up to five tornados were spotted in Johnson County. It seems the storm was a harbinger of things to come.
The day before, Ben and I were outside behind his house ranging about the toolshed when Ben's mom came out and told me I'd better be making tracks for home. The radio was sending out severe weather warnings for all of Johnson County. It had been sprinkling earlier, but there was an eerie calm presiding when I started off for home. I went the usual route over the hill, and I was about halfway when it hit. The storm descended on the forest like an eagle on its prey. Wind gusts were soon knocking me sideways. The trees groaned against the storm, and with the cracking of broken limbs, it soon became a symphony of devastation. I kept moving, and I was never more glad to reach home.
* * *
The next morning I came shuffling into the kitchen in my pajamas. "Eddie, when was the last time you saw Lilly?" my mom asked as I pulled on the handle of the fridge.
"I don't know. I took off for home before the storm hit," I said as I grabbed the pitcher of orange juice.
Before I could turn around, my mom grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a little shake. "Eddie"—I immediately sensed the panic in her voice—"never mind the orange juice. This is important. When was the last time you saw Lilly?"
"Over at Ben's, I guess. Why?" I was confused, and I could see that my mom was frazzled. Her long brown hair had not received its obligatory brushing, and the skin around her eyes was swollen and red.
"Well, Lilly is missing, and they're over there looking everywhere for her, and your daddy went to see if he could help." She grabbed me and pulled me in toward her. I could feel her shaking. I thought of Ben.
"Do you think she got caught out in the storm?" I asked.
"I don't know."
"Is Sheriff Jenkins over there?" I asked, now alarmed.
"Half the county's over there looking for her, sweetie!" my mom snapped. And right then I fully realized what was going on. Panic flowed over me like a wave of nausea. I imagined what it must be like over there, with the lights on the sheriff's car lighting up the hollow and the men slogging up the hills in the early morning fog, calling Lilly's name over and over. Where was Ben in all of that? Was he out in front with a light, hollering her name, or was he just sitting wide-eyed back at his house with no idea what was going on, just like me right here? I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach.
* * *
They had realized she was missing the previous day, right before the storm hit. Bulletins had been broadcast on radio and television for severe weather, and everyone was preparing to batten down the hatches. Earlier, she had ridden her bike into town to buy some thread for her mom but hadn't returned. Earl and Nell drove to the dollar store where she was supposed to go, but there was no sign of her. Nell ran inside and asked the cashier if she'd seen Lilly. The answer was no.
When the wind started picking up, Nell became frantic. She tried calling everywhere she could think of, but some telephone lines had already been knocked out, making it impossible to track Lilly down. Earl calmed his wife down a little by telling her she had probably gone to the nearest safe place when the weather bulletin went out. Eventually the storm started raging through the hollow, and everybody had to hunker down and wait it out. Later that evening, when things had somewhat subsided, they went out to start looking for her. All telephone service was out, so they took off in the truck, but there were trees and power lines down everywhere making the search difficult. No matter, the search had begun.
* * *
Things were a bit tense around Cripple Creek during the days and weeks following Lilly's disappearance. Speculation and conjecture ran rampant in town. Nothing this scandalous had happened in Johnson County since Pete Giles shot his uncle over a bologna sandwich back in '74. (A bologna sandwich, can you imagine that?) But this time, it was more than a bologna sandwich. After the sheriff's office turned up a big pile of jack squat, the FBI came down from the Lexington office to officially register Lilly as a missing person and to do their own little investigation. They turned up the same thing that the sheriff's office had: jack squat. And then it was case closed. You gotta understand that this was in backwoods Kentucky in 1979. The resources simply did not exist. Besides, it was like she'd just up and vanished. Poof. Gone.
Cripple Creek Kentucky, 1987
Ben and I lost our dreams of being oceanographers like the sea captain loses his view of home to the horizon. It just drifted away. But we were tight as a pine knot, and life in Cripple Creek was back to normal, whatever that was. Nobody ever mentioned Lilly; it was like she'd never existed. After all, seven years had passed, and time is the balm that fades the remembrance of tragedy. But it was always in the back of my mind. And yep, Cristina and I were still an item, except for now we had both gone through puberty. But we survived it without any major incidents, if ya know what I mean. Besides, Cristina's dad also happened to be the sheriff, so if he said, "Have her home by ten o'clock," I'd have her home by a quarter till.
I'd been driving all sorts of machinery around the farm since I was seven years old, but when I became legal to drive, I thought I was as smooth as the cat's behind. I am two months older than Ben to the day, so I got my license to drive before he did. When I turned seventeen, my dad saw fit to buy me a 1966 Mustang, and I fully embraced the notion of burning rubber. It felt like I'd been waiting my whole life to take Cristina to the drive-in in my own car. But I can tell you the sheriff wasn't too game on that idea. On the nights that we went there, the sheriff's car must've driven in and out of that place twenty times.
We fell in love with booze. In this part of Kentucky, we didn't have to travel all the way to Owensville to buy whiskey at the state liquor store. We brewed our own corn liquor—moonshine—and it was good. But the first time Sheriff Jenkins caught a whiff of that stuff on my breath after I brought Cristina home, that was it. She was forbidden to even whisper my name. We both took it pretty hard, but we figured it would eventually blow over. Besides, we'd sneak and see each other from time to time anyway.
That's when me and Ben got back to the business of fishin'. Countless were the nights that we would sit on the riverbank fishing for catfish and drinking shine till early in the morning. The fog would roll in so thick in the middle of the night that you couldn't see the river. We'd put bells on our fishing poles so we would know when we were getting a bite because sometimes you couldn't even see the end of your pole.
That's the kind of night it was when this little situation of ours took on a whole different perspective.
We were camping in the hills behind Ben's house. There were four of us: me, Ben, Tommy Lang, and Rodney Stillwater. Tommy's people lived over on Blue Run, so Tommy was always riding his Kawasaki dirt bike over to Ben's place to meet up with us, and Rodney found his way to wherever we were by his own stealthy ways. Problem with that is, Rodney would show up armed to the teeth like he was startin' an insurrection or something. He loved his guns and fully participated in his right to bear 'em. If there were any of us young'uns, besides Ben, of course, who seemed deeply troubled by Lilly's disappearance, it was him. Ever since that fateful day, a subtle anxiety clung to him like a wet shirt. Rodney was a bit off too, if you know what I mean. I don't want to say that he was crazy 'cause I don't think it would have mattered anyway—with what happened, I mean.
Our campsite was one of our usual haunts. It sat in a clearing just below the ridgeline that faced Ben's place, where we could barely make out the lights coming from his house. I do believe it was one of the most peaceful spots on earth, but not on this night. The moonshine flowed heavily, and we were smokin' a bit of that backwoods herb too. The usual shenanigans ensued.
Excerpted from The Ballad of Edison Bestwell by JASON KELLER. Copyright © 2013 Jason Keller. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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