Emeralds in the Snow by Maggie Bishop

Much of Emeralds in the Snow was written during breaks while I was a ski patroller at Sugar Mountain, NC.  My parents were pro patrol for over 20 years and I managed to work there for five.  My use of real people (including their names and photos) as minor characters began with this novel.

Prologue

 Everett Graham cursed under his breath as his freshly-detailed blue Cadillac bounced sharply along the rutted road, kicking up a billowing cloud of dust behind it. This trip grew more irritating every time he made it. He longed to send an asphalt truck in here to pave the damned thing over, complete with gutters and a convenient cul-de-sac. But, of course, that would defeat the whole idea of secrecy.

At last he spotted the familiar rusty pickup, where the road seemed to disappear into brush and old-growth forest. At least it confirmed that Tucker was here.

“I’ll have to get a load of gravel dumped out here before I come again,” Graham said to himself as he eased his belly out from behind the steering wheel. “I wonder if Tucker has any relatives who could spread it, or if I should hire that done too. Damn, forty-five’s too old to go traipsing around in the backwoods.” Graham was, in fact, fifty-five.

He hefted himself wheezing out of the low-slung Cadillac, closing the door and zapping the locks. Another zap popped the trunk open. Bracing himself along the car’s side, Graham struggled over rocks and ruts to get to it. He pulled out his camouflage hunting jacket and shrugged it on, pulling the zipper halfway up over his paunch.

His custom-built deer rifle was one of many in his collection. He caressed its satin-like, hand-carved cherry stock. Even window-dressing had to be of the finest quality on the market when it belonged to Everett Graham. He patted the hunting jacket’s chest pocket to be sure his map was there. It was, of course. He liked to be sure of things.

He fished a couple of shells out of another pocket, slid the bolt back and pressed them one at a time into the magazine. He had never actually seen a bear on any of his forays into these god forsaken woods, but Tucker insisted they were there, and it paid to be prepared.

Everett surveyed the open woodland of oak, hickory and locust. If the road ran any further into the trees, it was long since overgrown. Tucker’s trail began somewhere in here, and the only way to find it was to know where it started. Graham squinted into the underbrush. White blooms of wild cherry gleamed through the dense shade like a signpost, pointing to the creek. Graham plunged into the thick underbrush. He’d done this plenty of times before.

Spring rains and melting snow had swollen the stream into a boisterous cataract that buffeted and swamped a line of stones across it. Graham scanned the map and then the line of trees on the other side of the creek. No sense stepping into that icy water before he had to. Ahh, there it was. The deer-rub scar on that oak tree. Sure sign of the deer trail he was looking for. He dipped the toe of a well-greased boot into the water like a timid non-swimmer.

Following the trail was easy for about a mile. He stopped suddenly at the sound of a rustle. As he slipped the rifle off his back, he looked around. He hadn’t really hunted in years, but the old instincts were still there. He positioned the stock butt against his shoulder, just in case. There, in a thicket, a buck bounded away from him. He slipped off the safety and put the deer in his sights. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, he stopped. He’d have to dress the thing and lug it out. It was not deer season. Just too much trouble. This whole trip was that way. Must be getting lazy. He returned his attention to following the trail.

His partner, Tucker, was cagy and secretive, just like all the old Appalachian mountain people who scraped out a living in these hills. Tucker’d rather walk these miles. Wouldn’t do this the easy way, on a horse or a dirt bike. No, he had to do like he suspected Tucker’s daddy did when he ran a still—always on the watch for someone to do him dirty. Grudgingly, Graham supposed he had the right idea. But it was still a damned pain in the neck.

Everett’s roots were here, too, but in town, not back in the woods. Pulling a fast one on Tucker was almost better than winning in the stock market. Out-foxing the fox, so to speak.

Graham had just about enough of those trashy Tuckers. They’d been in this area a long time, like his family, but they were peculiar and cantankerous, keeping to themselves back in the hollers. They were all poor as dirt and stubborn as mules, a trifling, unseemly lot he would never have associated himself with—if it hadn’t been for the emerald mine. And even now, his association with them was a closely-guarded secret.

No one knew the source of his vast fortune, not even family. Folks in the area believed he was some kind of stock market genius, and he was pleased to cultivate that illusion. The truth was, ten years ago he had agreed to pay Tucker’s back property taxes in return for a share of the mine Tucker had been working on his property. Tucker did all the manual labor, excavating the gems and turning them over to his partner to be sold through a New York agent and the profits invested. It was a good deal for both, as the agreement went.

Of course, it was true that Graham had taken to borrowing from Tucker’s share to fund his own ventures and comforts. The way he figured it, Tucker was too busy to notice and really had little need for or appreciation of wealth anyway. Graham, on the other hand, had grown up with means and needed to maintain a certain level of style. Surely a reasonable person would understand that. Anyway, he would correct the books once that Beta Max stock went up and nobody would be the wiser. In truth, Tucker was lucky to have him looking after things.

Everett had been walking for well over an hour when he reached another creek. He’d always hated this part, but there was no way to cross except balancing on the downed locust. Bacon and egg breakfasts at Boone Drug and afternoon deal-making bourbons took a toll on his laid-back body. He put the map in his pocket, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and took a deep breath. The wet bark was slick. He grimaced as he went down on all fours. He’d have to practically hug the damn tree to cross.

Bet Tucker scampered across like a squirrel, hang him. Knees weren’t made to balance on. Once across, Everett picked up his pace. He turned and zigzagged up the hill with only four stops to catch his breath. Past the old homestead, across another creek, he braced himself for the last push.

Everett hitched up his creased Carhartts, now covered with dust and tree-slime, and faced the endless climb, huffing and puffing, up a rocky mound. He picked his way up the loose stones left over from Tucker’s digging out the mountain to get at the emeralds.

The last batch were clear enough to be valued as highly as stones coming out of Colombia. A little fancy bookkeeping would keep Tucker’s share a mite short. As stones crunched beneath his boots, he felt more justified that he’d fudged the numbers. In fact, he felt under-compensated.

“’Bout time you got here,” Olin Tucker called. He propped a shovel against the wooden beams framing the mine entrance. He waited there casually, hands in his overall pockets, as Graham gutted out the last of the climb and then bent over, gasping, to catch his breath.

Everett stood at the top of the heap, dusted off his hands and pants, then shook Tucker’s paw. “This trip gets harder every year.”

“Sure enough. I keep pulling out more of the mountain and dumping it down the side. Sit a spell and catch your breath.” The mountaineer sat on a boulder and poured them each a cup of coffee from a battered thermos. They talked about the weather, the mountain form of social talk, before getting down to business.

“I know it’s my idea to keep our meetings secret, but this hike in here is tough for me.”

Tucker nodded. “It’s the onliest way I know to show you how hard I work for my share.”

“I’m not in as good a shape as you are.” Everett envied Olin’s lean and limber body but not the labor required to keep it that way. The dust in Tucker’s thick grey eyebrows and on his scraggly beard prompted Everett to rub his hand over his own clean-shaven face. “The accountant’s still working on the profit statements. We’re both doing fair, but most of it’s tied up in stocks and bonds.”

“So about how much we got?” Tucker studied Graham’s face. “Are we millionaires?”

Everett nodded.

Tucker stood and walked to the edge of the heap of tailings before turning to face him. “Four hundred dollars a month ain’t cuttin’ it. I want to change our contract.” Tucker paced along the edge, rubbing his bristly chin. “Now, you’ve done a good job investing the rest of my half and I thank ye for upholdin’ your end. A million dollars is fine for me. I want to cash out. I’m ready to retire and spend time with my wife and grandson. Lucky’s gettin’ big now.”

Everett froze inside. Trapped. Tucker had every right to his own money. A nightmare of financial transactions played through his head. Their combined assets, all in Everett’s name, had been his collateral in all his business deals over the years. He stood and nodded, buying time to think. “I know what you mean. I wish I could spend more time with my granddaughter. Emerald gets prettier every day. When did you want to start wrapping up this operation?”

“The sooner the better. I ain’t getting any younger,” Tucker looked across the valley with his back to Everett. “There’s still emeralds aplenty here. You can go after ‘em if you want to. I got all I need.”

“Listen to reason, man.” Graham heard himself babbling, pleading, with this bumpkin who suddenly threatened to ruin him utterly. “You know I have no talent for physical labor. I’m a businessman. We had a deal, you and I.”

Tucker glanced at him then returned his gaze to the valley. “Aw, come on, Everett. You know I held up my end. But I cain’t dig forever in this rockpile. I got a grandson that hardly knows his grandpap. And you, don’t you want to spend more time with your granddaughter?”

“Sure, sure.” Graham wasn’t fond of children, but Emerald was a bright little girl and he was rather proud of her. That was entirely beside the point. Or maybe it was the point. This fortune he had built—through his own dear effort, mind you—was her inheritance. Why, you might even say he’d done it all for her sake. He wasn’t about to let some son of a moonshiner rob his grandchild of her inheritance. Then the questions from brokers, from his family and from the community rang loudly in Everett’s head. There was no way he could pull this off and keep his social and financial standing. He couldn’t give up half of his wealth.

He couldn’t do it. Pain flashed in his forehead. A blaze of red burned in his eyes. Shaking, he stood and stared at Tucker’s back. All his heart registered in that instant was the threat. He’d be found out. He’d have to cash in his part of the stocks at a loss just to cough up half of what Tucker had coming. Time. He needed time for the stocks to recover. He can’t do this to me—to Emerald!

He closed his eyes to blot out the sight of wiping out his empire. Before he knew it, the rifle was off his shoulder and in his hands. He opened his eyes and raised the sight.

Graham squeezed the trigger.

The jolt to his shoulder registered in his memory to be replayed at odd moments for the rest of his life.

Chapter 1

Snow on mountains near Sugar Mtn, NC“If I live through this,” Emerald Graham vowed, “I’ll stay on the bunny slope forever.” Pain, intense as a red hot poker, ran through her leg, and her knee throbbed. “Hey!” she squealed and threw up her hands to ward off the icy spray as some bratty kid made a parallel turn just above her.

Skiers plummeted past on the hard-packed snow. Sugar Mountain, North Carolina. Tom Terrific, the black diamond slope. Their looks of annoyance confirmed what her rather spectacular fall and the pain in her left knee already told her. Grandfather was right. It’s only worth the risk if you don’t get caught.

She’d really gotten caught this time.

She lifted one of her hands off the snow to brace her knee and knew immediately it was a mistake. Gravity was not on her side. The earth moved. Correction, she moved, slid a few inches. Her heart thudded in her chest. She automatically calculated the grade of the slope below her—sixty degrees, if she discounted the big bumps. What were the odds of her getting down this North Carolina mountain in one piece?

“O-o-o-h! N-o-o-o . . .” Sliding and screaming, she went for long seconds down the steep incline. She had nothing to grab on to. Plowing her good heel into the snow as a brake only managed to swing her around backwards.

She slid further, fear gathering in her stomach as her speed increased.

            Thwack. Her back slammed into a bump, stopping her descent. Afraid to breathe, afraid to move, she squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from escaping.

The bump rumbled, like some deep-voiced person clearing his throat. “Hidy. I’m Lucky Tucker with the Ski Patrol. Kin I help you, ma’am?”

She nodded, keeping her eyes closed.

“What’s your name?”

Her eyes flew open and she stared up at the broad shouldered, dark haired man in the red jacket towering over her. “Em,” was all she could manage.

“The letter ‘M’?”

“No, Sherlock, E-M,” she spelled out. “Short for Emerald.”

“The jewel of your father’s heart, Dr. Watson?” He released his skis and propped them up in the snow beside them.

“More like my grandfather’s.” Despite the ache in her knee, she warmed to his bantering tone and smiled, then grimaced. “Are you my knight in shining armor?”

“More like Prince Charming in long johns. You hurtin’?” he asked, already taking off his bulky ski gloves and kneeling in the snow beside her.

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