Hey, look, Miss Dimple! Watch me! Watch me! I’ll bet I can jump ‘hot pepper’ to ’bout a hundred!
While her classmates counted, Peggy Ashcroft, cheeks flushed and pigtails flying, became the undisputed jump-rope champion of Miss Dimple Kilpatrick’s first grade class at Elderberry Grammar School. Her new blue jacket with the fuzzy lining, along with its matching tam, had been tossed in a heap at the foot of the school steps with an assortment of other wraps, and their teacher knew from long experience it would be useless to urge her small charges not to shed them.
That had been yesterday. A million years ago, it seemed. Now Dimple Kilpatrick carefully searched the bare December landscape for a sign—any sign—of a round little face and a glimpse of bright blue. A scurrying in the dry leaves just ahead lured her forward, her breath coming faster.
“Peggy! Peggy, where are you?” She drew up short when a squirrel scampered into a tree and out of sight.
“Dimple, are you sure we’re looking in the right direction? Chief Tinsley didn’t seem to think a child Peggy’s age would be able to wander so far in this length of time.” Dimple’s friend Virginia paused to catch her breath, clinging to a sapling to steady her progress on a hill slippery with pine needles.
But Dimple knew that Peggy Ashcroft could run faster, climb higher, and race farther than almost any boy in her class. “Bobby Tinsley obviously doesn’t know our Peggy,” she said, shoving aside the limb of a large cedar as she continued up the hill. The fragrant evergreen reminded her that Christmas was only a few weeks away and the children in her class were already wild in anticipation, although gifts would be limited again this year. Bicycles, tricycles, roller skates, and anything else made of metal or rubber would have to wait until after the war.
Sighing, Virginia plodded along behind her. “Didn’t her mother say the child had a fever? Might be coming down with the flu—it’s going around, you know.”
However, Dimple Kilpatrick also knew how much the little girl loved her calico, Peaches, and doubted if a fever would hinder her search for the missing cat. Peggy had confided in her teacher about her special place on what she called Bent Tree Hill. Before that bad thing happened to her mama and she’d come to live with Kate and Mathew, she said, she’d had picnics there with dolls made of acorns, sticks, and leaves, built tiny houses of twigs and moss.
And Dimple Kilpatrick had listened with understanding because she, too, had been raised in the country with only her brother to play with, and Henry Kilpatrick wanted nothing to do with creating dolls and houses of sticks and grass. If it didn’t have wheels or wings, it wasn’t worth his time.
How long had she been missing? Dimple didn’t stop to look at the watch pinned to her dress under the worn purple coat because she didn’t want to know. She did know it was getting late and the days were much too short. Night would soon be upon them, making it almost impossible to look for a small six-year-old girl alone in the cold and dark.
Below them on an adjacent hill, searchers spread out in all directions in a frantic endeavor to find her. The little house on Fox Grape Hill, where Peggy had lived less than two years before, had been demolished after the fire that claimed her mother. Now a tangle of underbrush and honeysuckle obscured the blackened remains.
“If Peggy thinks her cat has roamed back to the place where they lived before, it only makes sense she’d try to find her there,” Oscar Faulkenberry reasoned as he organized a group of townspeople to help look for the child. As principal of Elderberry Grammar School, he was accustomed to giving orders, and several teachers, as well as others, willingly scattered to cover that area while Chief Bobby Tinsley led volunteers in a search around Etowah Pond.
Of course she would go there first, Miss Dimple thought, but she didn’t believe Peggy would linger when faced with the ruins of her former home. She would probably return to that other place, her happy place, she’d called it, on Bent Tree Hill. But the other searchers remained unconvinced, and now she and her friend Virginia Balliew were determined to cover the area together—or at least Dimple was determined. Virginia wasn’t as physically fit as her friend. As town librarian, she spent much of her time behind a desk, while Dimple, with her lively charges, rarely had a chance to sit down, and her brisk early-morning walks only increased her stamina.
“Ah!” Virginia collapsed on a moss-covered stump and pulled her coat snugly about her. “Have to sit just for a minute.” She shivered. “I believe it’s turning colder, Dimple. I hope somebody finds her soon.”
Dimple looked through the bare trees to the faraway figures on the next hill. The whole town, it seemed, had turned out to look for Peggy Ashcroft. The child’s father had died when she was barely three, and her mother supported the two of them on the little she earned as a waitress at the Dixie Belle Diner. The fire was believed to have started from a spark from a kerosene heater, and a passerby, seeing the flames, pulled the sleeping child from the house but couldn’t awaken her mother in time.
Kate Ashcroft, who taught music and piano at Miss Dimple’s school, and her husband, Mathew, had long wanted a child of their own. The couple welcomed five-year-old Peggy into their home and made the arrangement permanent by legally adopting her. Some people found it disrespectful that Peggy was allowed to address her new parents by their given names, but Kate insisted, saying that Peggy once had a mother who loved her very much and although she and Mathew couldn’t take her place, they could do the next best thing. That seemed to suit all concerned.
“Tell me again what we’re looking for,” Virginia said, brushing leaves from her coat as she stood. The wind had picked up and she sneezed, fumbling in her pocket for a handkerchief.
“It’s a tree bent horizontal to the ground. There was one on the farm where I grew up and I’ve seen pictures of others. They were made to grow that way and used as trail markers by the Indians. They usually indicated graves or campsites—sometimes water.” She frowned. “Virginia, you have no business out here in this cold. I don’t know why you insisted on coming after that bad bout of bronchitis. You don’t want to come down with pneumonia.”
“It’s only a sneeze, Dimple, and I want to be a part of this. I won’t be able to sleep tonight not knowing what happened to that little girl.”
It wouldn’t help Peggy Ashcroft if Virginia got sick, Dimple thought, but she didn’t say it aloud because she knew how important it was to aid in the search. She paused to look around at the oatmeal-colored woods. Except for an occasional brushstroke of green where cedars and pines lent a smear of color to an otherwise drab landscape, the only other relief was in the dark winter branches of oak, sweet gum, sycamore, and hickory. Under ordinary circumstances, Dimple embraced the starkness of the season, the sharp, cold air, even the piercing wind, just as she relished the distinctive differences in spring, summer, and fall. Not today.
Dimple ducked under the swaying limb of a shortleaf pine and held it back for Virginia. “Peggy! Peggy, can you hear me?” she called again, and Virginia joined her in shouting. If the little girl were near, she would certainly have heard them.
“I can’t help thinking about little Cassie Greeson,” Virginia said, sneezing again. “Remember, Dimple? They dragged Etowah Pond, scoured the countryside for miles around, but never did find her.”
Dimple remembered. In fact, she had been thinking about the same thing but had tried to dismiss it from her mind. The child had disappeared about a quarter of a century before and no one ever had a clue about what happened to her. It was almost as if she’d vanished off the face of the earth.
“We weren’t living here then,” Virginia continued, pausing to cough. “Albert was preaching at the Methodist church in Eatonton and I remember his coming here to help look for the little girl. It upset him terribly—upset everyone.”
“Eugenia Greeson was pregnant with Jesse Dean,” Dimple said. “Poor woman died soon after he was born. I don’t know if Cassie’s disappearance had anything to do with her death, but it certainly didn’t help.”
“Whatever happened to Jesse Dean’s father?” Virginia asked. “I don’t remember him ever being in the picture.”
“He left not too long after that—supposedly to find work, but I don’t think anybody ever heard from him again.” Dimple paused to untangle herself from a clutch of briars. “Some say Sanford Greeson never was right after he came back from the war,” she explained. “The war to end all wars, they said, which, as we all know, it didn’t.”
Jesse Dean’s sister, Cassie, was about four when she wandered away from her parents during a Sunday school picnic at Etowah Pond. Her father, caught up in a lively game of horseshoes, paid her little attention, and her mother dozed off for a minute while Cassie played with children nearby. It was a scorching July afternoon and Eugenia Greeson was well past her sixth month of a difficult pregnancy, but she never forgave herself. Upon her death, Jesse Dean was raised by his maternal grandmother, Addie Montgomery, who, in an effort to “bring back” her missing granddaughter, dressed him as a girl and attempted to raise him as such until the little boy finally rebelled.
Through a tangle of underbrush, Dimple thought she saw a tree bent in the manner Peggy had described and used a stout stick to clear a pathway but was disappointed to find it was only a fallen limb. “Peggy?” she shouted again. “Peggy!” Her only answer was the soft thud of a pinecone dropping to the ground and the sound of her own breathing. Surprised to find herself a bit winded from the climb, she rested a minute, watching each breath disappear in a puff of vapor in the frigid air. From here she couldn’t see or hear the searchers in the distance, and it suddenly occurred to her that she couldn’t see Virginia, either. Dimple started back the way she had come, calling her friend’s name, and found her seated on the ground some distance away, her head resting against the scrawny trunk of a redbud tree.
“I’m afraid my knees gave out on me,” Virginia said, struggling to stand. “I’ll be all right in a minute.”
“Your knees aren’t what concern me. I don’t like the sound of that cough.” Dimple pulled off a glove to touch her friend’s cheek. “Your face is flushed and you feel warm to me. I’m afraid you might have a fever, Virginia.”
“Oh, come now! I’m not one of your first graders, Dimple! I’m just not accustomed to all this climbing.” Virginia’s laughter turned into a rattling cough and she clung to the tree until the spasm passed.
“That does it. Back you go!” This time Virginia didn’t protest when Dimple supported her part of the way down the steep hill until they reached the area dotted with scrub pine and cedar with a clear vista ahead. From there they could see cars parked below and hear other searchers calling from the adjacent hillside.
“I’m fine, really, Dimple. I can see my car from here, but how will you get back?” Virginia hesitated, bracing herself on the hillside. “You aren’t going back up there alone, are you? There’s not much daylight left.”
Dimple Kilpatrick was very well aware of that and that was exactly why she was in a great hurry to search more of the hill before it got too dark to see. “I can get a ride back with Bessie Jenkins or with Lou and Ed Willingham if I need to,” she said. And my goodness, she could walk home if she had to! Didn’t she walk this far or farther almost every day?
Dimple stood and watched her friend make her way down the hillside before turning to go back the way she had come. Virginia had promised to drink hot lemonade, take two aspirins, and go to bed. And yes, Dimple in turn said she would call her when she got home.
It didn’t take as long to find her way back to the place where Virginia had rested against the tree, and Dimple explored the undulating terrain above it, using her stick to help keep her footing on treacherous ground where hidden hollows and stump holes might bring about a broken ankle, or roots a harmful fall. Faced with a steep gully, she chose to sit and slide down, as the bank was slick with pine needles and the bottom soft with fallen leaves. If she weren’t on such a grave mission, Dimple thought, she might enjoy the experience, as it brought to mind happy memories of a time long past when she and her brother played follow the leader through the woods on their farm, splashing through streams and swinging on vines before racing home across familiar fields. After their mother died when she was fourteen and Henry, eight, Dimple’s carefree hours were limited, as she had to help with much of the housework as well as look after Henry. Dimple Kilpatrick took mothering seriously, as she did later with her teaching. Her father had hired a cook to take care of their meals, but Dimple saw that her little brother didn’t skip his baths, had clean clothes, did his homework, and went to bed on time. And she loved him with all her heart. At the present, Henry was working at the Bell Bomber plant in Marietta on a top secret project that might help them win the war against Germany and Japan, and Dimple liked to think that her parents, if alive, would be as proud as she was of the man he had become.
Having no children of her own, Dimple Kilpatrick discovered that she had plenty of leftover love to share and knew she had found her mission in life when she first faced a classroom filled with squirming five- and six-year-olds, some of who clung to their mothers in tearful desperation.
Peggy Ashcroft had seemed a happy child since she walked into her classroom on the very first day of school in her shiny new brown shoes and a red plaid dress sewed painstakingly by Kate, who admitted she’d had a little help from Mary Edna Sizemore, who taught home economics at the high school. Apart from a normal period of grief and questions about what had happened to her mother, the little girl appeared to have become adjusted to school and to her new family, and Kate and Mathew— Well, it made Dimple happy just to look at them.
Now she tugged her lavender knit hat snugly about her ears and turned up the collar of her coat as a stiff wind sent brown leaves skyward. It was already cold and would soon become colder. Was a frightened little girl lost and shivering somewhere on this wooded hill? Dimple stood still and listened. Again she called, but only the wind answered. She was too far away to hear or see the other searchers, and the bare trees seemed to stand in judgment around her. Dimple Kilpatrick pulled a handkerchief from her coat pocket to blot her eyes, as the wind had caused them to water. Of course it was the wind. Not that there was anything wrong with crying, but it wouldn’t help anyone now.
She thought of red-eyed Kate Ashcroft earlier at the school where they had gathered to organize the search and how she had stood at the top of the steps to tell everyone about her little girl: what she looked like, what she wore, how she sang “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to her calico cat, Peaches, and wanted a red scooter for Christmas but knew she would have to wait until after the war. That was okay with Peggy. Although her hair was naturally curly, she preferred to wear it in pigtails but the ribbons tended to get lost. She had one tooth missing right in front and loved chocolate ice cream just about better than anything—except maybe watermelon …
Seeing his wife about a breath away from melting into tears, Mathew Ashcroft stepped up to thank everyone for their help, and arm in arm, the two moved aside for Bobby Tinsley, who would direct the search.
Mathew had joined the group combing the area around Fox Grape Hill, where the charred remains of Peggy’s former home lay buried beneath a jungle of honeysuckle vines. Although Kate begged to go with them, on the advice of Chief Tinsley and others, and accompanied by several friends, she reluctantly went back to the house to wait and hope for Peggy’s return.
The stricken look on the young mother’s face would stay with Dimple Kilpatrick for years to come, and she yearned to comfort her and tell her everything would be all right, but she wanted even more to help find that child and bring her safely home.
Was everything going to be all right? When she and Virginia had first set out to look for Peggy’s “happy place” on Bent Tree Hill, she was almost certain she would find her there, but now …
Daylight was slipping away quickly, and in spite of her warm wool gloves, Miss Dimple’s hands were numb from the cold, and she could scarcely feel her feet. How far had she come? If she didn’t start back down soon, it would be too dark to see. In her coat pocket she was comforted to feel the cylindrical shape of the small flashlight she had thought to bring along at the last minute. It didn’t give much light, but it was better than nothing and might prevent her from taking a serious fall. Except for members of the Home Guard and a few hardy others who intended to search through the night, most volunteers would soon be leaving, and Virginia was the only person who knew where she was. Her friend Phoebe Chadwick, who owned the boardinghouse where she lived, was visiting a relative in Macon, and her fellow roomers were usually on their own on Saturday nights, having a quick sandwich in the kitchen before going to their rooms to read, write letters, or listen to the radio. Those who chose to gather in the parlor would probably think she was either in her room or sharing supper with Virginia. Miss Dimple sighed and surveyed the spreading gloom around her. It was time to make a decision. A practical decision. And Dimple Kilpatrick had always prided herself on her practical sense. She would walk as far as the large rock up ahead, and if she found nothing there, although heartsick, she would begin to make her descent.
At first she thought it was a leaf, dangling as it was on the end of a twig, but autumn was far past and this was much too bright for a leaf. Too red. Dimple pulled the ribbon from the waist-high branches of a bush, and after years of having young children cluster about her, Dimple Kilpatrick knew it was just the right height to snag a ribbon from a little girl’s hair.
Copyright © 2013 by Mignon F. Ballard