Chapter 1

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It had been a couple of hours since the sun had gone down on the mountainous region of Eastern Kentucky that 17-year-old Hannah called home. Hannah was joined by her parents this December evening near the fireplace that flanked the eastern wall of their modest cabin situated in a holler of Oakley Creek. The women's attention was focused on darning the socks that would be hung as stockings soon on Christmas Eve night. Hannah's father, Frank, was slowly deciphering an article in a newspaper he had picked up at the mercantile store that day, rocking back and forth in a handmade, wooden rocker, enjoying the warmth of the fire on a cold night.  Past copies of the newspaper were hung on the walls surrounding the family in a make-do wallpaper designed to keep out the cold, wintry drafts from entering the home.

Hannah's older brother, Joseph,  18 and desperately wanting to leave the family home, much to his parents' chagrin, sat at the kitchen table whittling a handle out of oak for a homemade axe to be used for cutting wood for the fireplace. Hannah looked up from her handy work when she heard Albert, 6 years old and the youngest of the three Maxfield children, run into the room and quickly place both of his arms around Joseph's neck in a playful choke hold.

"I'm gon' get ye for that, you little rascal," yelled Joseph, as he stood up and grabbed Albert around the waist, pulling the youngster to the floor with a thump. Albert screamed in exaggerated anguish when his head bounced off the wooden floor.

"Joseph, y'know better than to hold yer younger brother down like that, son," exclaimed Frank, raising up from his seat to put away his newspaper in a trunk situated underneath the kitchen window.

"Yeah, you know better, Joey. I'm not as big as you are," said Albert, getting up off the floor and brushing away the dust on his pants with his hands.

"Well, you don't need to be a-comin' in here and startin' with me when I have a knife in my hand. I could've hurt me or you, both," replied Joseph. "Besides, you need to learn to defend yourself before you start school. Ye ain't healthy enough to be kept at home and help on the farm, so you need to know how to roughhouse with all them other boys."

Ever since Albert was born, he had a hard time catching his breath. As a baby and a toddler, Mary kept the boy indoors most of the Spring and Summer months because he could not breathe easily outside. In the Winter months, the Maxfields had to be cautious when starting fires in the fireplace since the smoke bothered Albert's nose and throat. As he grew, his condition was exacerbated by Albert's desire for physical activity, such as running with the other boys in the settlement; but, as much as Albert tried to keep up with his friends, games of tag and ordinary chasing of the other kids always found him out of breath, bent over, with his hands on his hips, gasping for air. After each such episode, Albert gained his mother's full attention, as she tried every mountain remedy she knew to improve his condition. One of the recipes Mary often used to open Albert's airways was boiling Basil leaves in water on the hearth and having him inhale the vapors of the mixture, his head covered with a cloth to prevent any of the fumes from escaping into the air.

Luckily, this evening, Albert was able to recover with ease, climbing onto Hannah's lap as she reminded him that Christmas was not too far away, and advised him to be kind to Joseph because Santa Claus was surely watching over all of the children of the world. The Maxfield family tree was placed on the far end of the fireplace after Frank and Joseph cut down the cedar a short distance above the cabin in a forest of the Appalachian Mountains that surrounded their small settlement of houses in the holler, as it came to be known. Frank picked out the tree himself from among red spruces, white pines and balsam firs which were common in the highest elevations of the southern mountain region. Tonight, the tree sat in a bucket of water and was adorned with many homemade ornaments, such as paper cut-outs, paper looped chains and strings of popcorn. Hannah taught Albert how to fold a piece of paper into several sections, and then cut the paper into festive designs as they spent several late November evenings at the family table getting the decorations ready for the holidays.

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