“I asked what’er ya doin’ on me property?”
Her tone was gruff, her manner, urgent. Hart didn’t want to argue with the old woman. Especially since she was wielding that axe around his head. He smiled weakly, and said, “I’m lost, I…I think.”
The woman was taken back. She stepped off of Hart’s hand. “What do ya mean ya think y’ur lost? Ya either are, or y’ur not. Which one is it, boy?”
Hart licked his dry lips. No use arguing with a backwoods hillbilly from Fairy Falls. He cleared his throat, and said, “I guess I’m lost. I’m looking for Gertie Ellis’ place. Do you know where she lives?”
The woman screwed up her face, which made her look even scarier than before, and then rubbed her bristly chin, as if she was actually contemplating beheading him. After a few seconds of silence, the old lady grunted. “Then I guess y’ur not lost, boy. Y’ur looking at her.”
Hart’s mouth fell open. His heartbeat accelerated. No way. She can’t be. Not her. Not this crazy, ancient biddy from the woods. He felt his face burn. This wasn’t who he expected. This whole freaking place wasn’t what he expected. Before Hart could reply, a sudden nudge under his right elbow begged for his attention. The dog, with a stick in its jaws and his tail wagging, wanted to play. It dropped the slobbery branch in Hart’s lap, then sniffed his bloodied ear and licked it. Hart winced as a gob of doggy drool dripped off his lobe. Gertie Ellis giggled, sounding suddenly like a little girl. He tipped his head to the side. Maybe there’s more to her than her backwoods charm?
“I see Skoka likes ya,” she said in a syrupy voice.
Hart smiled, then carefully patted the dog’s big, solid head. He sniffed Hart’s face and tried to lick his mouth. Hart ducked in time. “I think Skoka likes granola bars more.”
Gertie laughed again. “Ya got that right. So what do ya want with me, boy?”
Using Skoka as a brace, Hart lifted himself off the leafy forest floor, and turned to face Gertie Ellis. He was right about her height—five foot nothing—and noticed she brought the axe up across her stocky body, as if getting ready to defend herself. Hart shook his head.
He stuck out his hand. “My name’s Hart. Hart Stewart.”
She relaxed, grabbed his hand, and shook it firmly. Hart winced.
“So, Hart, what can I do fer ya, then?”
He frowned. “You don’t know who I am?”
She shrugged. “Should I?”
Hart bit his bottom lip. “Does the name Catherine Stewart mean anything to you?”
Gertie balked. “Catherine? Me niece Catherine?” She was silent for a moment, as if downloading old memories. Gertie scratched the bridge of her bulbous nose. “Hmm, yeah. Looked after her a spell when her mom passed. Then one day she just up and left me and Pete. No warning, no note. I only heard from her once in all the years.” She paused, as if letting the past catch up, and then looked up at Hart. “So, what of her, boy? Where’s she at now?”
A facial tick attacked Hart’s left cheek, then moved down to his mouth. Doesn’t she know about my mom? Hasn’t anyone contacted her? Hart wiped his face roughly to halt the twitching. “She’s, uh…she’s six feet under. She was murdered, a year ago today.”
Gertie’s leathery face clouded over, as if a shroud had covered her soul. She swooned and dropped her axe. Hart moved his foot before the axe’s head embedded itself into the earth. As Gertie fell back, Hart was there in seconds, holding her up, shaking her. She grasped his arm and pulled herself up. He could feel her warm breath on his skin, sense the shaky, unsureness in her touch. Shock, Hart assumed, and he suddenly wished he had informed Gertie of his mother’s death in a different way.
“M-murdered,” Gertie mumbled.
“It’s okay, Aunt Gertie, take a deep breath,” Hart said, encouragingly.
Gertie jerked. “A-aunt?”
“Oh, sorry. Great-aunt.”
Her face darkened. “What do ya mean? I got no family left. Me Pete’s been dead since last winter and now ya tell me Catherine’s gone.”
“You got me,” Hart whispered.
Her face reddened and she pushed Hart away. “And just who are ya?”
“Catherine’s son,” Hart replied.
Gertie reached down to seize the axe. It made a slow, sucking noise when she yanked it out of the ground. Hart’s great-aunt clenched the handle, her knuckles whitening under the pressure. “Liar! Catherine had no kid. She would’ha told me! Y’ur just a scoundrel after me fortune!”