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The dark shadows of a winter twilight hovered over Parkers Lake, Kentucky when Reuben Hughes heard the family dog barking in the distance. It was an anxious bark, one that he had heard many times when the dog had treed a raccoon or cornered a possum. With the unbridled enthusiasm and undeveloped reasoning of a ten year old, Reuben threw on his coat and grabbed his father’s carbide lamp. With visions of putting supper on the table, he rushed out the door. Following him, like the proverbial shadow he had become, was his little brother, Robert.
Three hours later, Mack and Anna Mae Hughes had waited long enough. Their initial aggravation had turned to worry. Their two boys were missing and they had no idea of their whereabouts. It was time to sound the alarm.
Within minutes of receiving the news of the missing boys, a search party met at the Hughes home. Men, hardened by arduous labor in the mines and logwoods, stood in the light of kerosene lanterns and carbide lamps, awaiting further instructions from the boys’ father. Their grim faces, partially obscured by grey fedoras and canvas miner’s caps, were portraits of genuine concern for the boys’ welfare and a determination to find them.
The terrain surrounding the tiny community of Parkers Lake was, and remains, a morass of precipitous cliffs, impenetrable mountain laurel thickets, and deep gorges that receive sunlight only a few hours each day. It is difficult terrain to traverse during daylight hours; doing so is almost impossible at night. Yet, that is what the men of Parkers Lake attempted to do on that December night in 1930.
A three-mile search radius was laid out, centering on the Hughes home. With safety in mind, searching would be confined to the ridge tops where walking would be less dangerous and the chance of falling off one of the many cliffs less apt to happen. Even so, many hazards existed on them. Most members of the search party were on familiar terms with those ridges, having harvested thousands of board feet of white oak timber from them for the Bauer Cooperage Company who turned the majestic trees into barrel staves for the Kentucky bourbon industry. They knew that one misstep in the timber debris could result in a broken leg, or worse. Trees that had failed to topple and been abandoned, deadly “leaners,” as they were called, were numerous and posed a continuing threat to anyone to walked under them. Becoming disoriented in the laurel thickets was, also, a possibility. Staying together was the only way to avoid that unnecessary predicament. More than anything else, however, remaining far from the edges of cliffs was imperative. A fall from one of them could prove disastrous. Fortunately, mid-December had removed the concern that one of the men might encounter a copperhead or the rarely-seen timber rattlesnake, both of which hunted at night.
The search for Reuben and Robert Hughes got underway about 9:00 PM. The first destination was the railroad bed and the tunnel built by the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, both of which were tempting lures for wayward boys. They did not find the boys there. Turning their attention to the ridges that divide the Cumberland Plateau into long fingers of wooded land, separated by dark ravines, the search party moved as a single organism, ever wary of the danger around it. The light from lanterns and carbide lamps flickered in the darkness as the men walked slowly abreast through the tangled underbrush and decaying tops of fallen oaks. Their whoops and yells reverberated through the night as they sought to remain in touch with each other. They found many nocturnal animals that fled from their approach but they found no boys.
Dawn was breaking on the morning of December 20 and frost had painted the land with an icy brush when the search party began looking in the ravines. They had found nothing on the ridgetops. Now, in the relative safety of daylight, it was time to look beneath the cliff lines. The implications of that decision were both ominous and frightening. The possibility that the boys had fallen from a cliff was one none of the men wished to contemplate. To become a mission of recovery, rather than rescue, was too horrifying to think about. Regardless of what they feared they might find, however, the men pushed on.
Sunlight illuminated the ravines and the search party was able to move rapidly through a wooded terrain that had, for the most part, been spared the felling axe and cross-cut saw, removal of harvested timber being economically unwise. Still, the men remained close to each other. They picked their way, carefully, amid boulders that had fallen from above in eons past and through rockshelters that had housed native peoples for thousands of years. They found holes drilled into stones by “niter” miners as they sought to extract potassium nitrate to use in making gunpowder. They found dens of bobcats and foxes. They found pack rat nests. But, they found no boys.
Then, in a thrilling shout of joy, a cry rang out. The boys had been spotted. They were lying under a blanket of dry leaves at the base of a cliff that soared more than a hundred feet over them. As one, the searchers rushed to what they feared would be a scene of unspeakable tragedy. Instead, they found two young boys, wrapped in each other’s arms against the chill, and bruised from a fall that should have killed them, but, otherwise, in good shape. They had been holding hands, they said, when they fell off the cliff. Their carbide lamp had gone out and they had huddled in the darkness all night, waiting for someone to come and get them. The searchers could only shake their heads and marvel at the miracle they had witnessed.
Christmas came early that year to the family of Mack Hughes. It came not in the form of a Santa Claus or mistletoe or decorated cedar trees, but in the form of rough-hewn, tobacco chewing mountain men who left the warmth and tranquility of their own hearths and risked their lives to search for two lost children. It came, also, as a guardian angel that spread its wings beneath a hundred foot cliff and cushioned the fall of Reuben and Robert Hughes. When the date of the celebration of the nativity of Our Lord arrived, five days later, those boys had more than one reason to rejoice
So, in that same spirit of rejoicing, to the readers of this column and especially to the editor and staff of The Voice who, in this age of censorship, give me free rein to spin my yarns without fear of criticism or editorial correction, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.