top of page

On Blue Ridge Roads

I winced as Carraway lit another cigarette.

"Jee-zus, man," I said. "You fixin' to go through the whole carton tonight?"


Carraway didn't reply - just took a long pull off his gasper. The burning ring of embers crept along the paper until its faint orange glow illuminated his chin, defiantly outlined against the fat sac bulging at the bottom of his bulbous face. Coupled with his wide-set eyes and vacant expression, a fella could be forgiven for confusing him with a bullfrog.


He turned to me and opened his mouth in a wide "O", letting the smoke ooze out, rather than blowing it right at me. Not that it mattered; in the small Studebaker, there was no escaping from the noxious fumes. I couldn't stop myself from grimacing, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight, thin-lipped smile.


"What’s wrong, pretty boy? Don't like menthols?"


"Not my preference, but I ain't about to tussle with you over it."


"But you want to." Carraway’s grim chuckle sputtered into a wet cough. "You got a little mean streak, kid. Coulda used someone like you in Belleau Wood."


"’Chu mean?"


"Don’t play dumb. You’ve plugged more of these hillbilly bootleggers than any three agents taken together. What are you trying to do? Clear out the holler?"


"Could be."


Carraway flicked his cigarette out the window.


"Look, kid, I don’t know what’s eatin’ you, but here’s one thing I did take home from Over There: anger will get you killed. I had this buddy..."


I turned aside as Carraway, who, as far as I was concerned, knew fuck all about anger, started rambling through yet another war story. Somewhere in the valley below, a coal train blew its whistle, and I realized it was the late night train from the mine, same one I used to fall asleep to. Like Momma always used to say, nothin’ much ever really changes in the holler, and when it does, it’s never for the better.


I cranked my window down a bit further and was rewarded with a cool gust of night air coming down from Blue Ridge. It filled the Studebaker, swirling with the hazy cloud that hung between me and Fatso.


How that toad survived the Great War was beyond me. The more I heard of his stories, the more I was sure he musta been a cook or something. He would’ve been too big a target to miss, assuming he could even get himself out of the trench.


Not like Daddy. He’d fought the Hun head-on, gone over the top and back n’ forth across No Man’s Land no fewer than seventeen times. Even busted off the blade of his trench knife in some Kraut’s throat, if you take him at his word, which everyone in Bakersville always did. Came home with a bronze star, a wooden leg, and shell shock to show for his trouble.


He’d given me the trench knife - now little more than spiked brass knuckles - after my first successful moonshine run. Even with everything that’d happened between us, I hadn’t been able to shake the habit of carryin’ it wherever I went. I reached impulsively for my vest at the thought, running my fingertips over its reassuring outline.


What Carraway didn't understand - could never understand, actually - was that anger was the only friend I had left round these parts. I sucked in another deep breath of earthy mountain air, and it was like I was right back in Jonas’ arms on our last night together, layin’ in with the hemlock under the sugar maples, no more’n twenty feet from one of Daddy’s stills.


I made a half-hearted effort to push the thought away. I needed to keep my mind right; needed to focus on the stakeout, but I just missed Jonas too damned much. Of course, I couldn’t think about him without thinking about Levi.


On that miserable night, Jonas and I hadn't noticed my brother until it was too late. Levi took one look at us, all tangled up in the undergrowth, and sprinted back off through the woods toward our house. Against Jonas' protests, I'd taken off after him.


By the time I got home, Daddy was waiting for me on the porch, shotgun half-cradled under one arm, half braced against the girth of his potbelly.


"I'ma give you till the count a' ten to get outta my sight. And only that much because you're -- because you were my son.”


He had a look on his face I’d never seen before. I’d seen him angry, even seen him cryin’ a time or two, though he never knew it. But this - this was something else. Some awful thing halfway between the two; an emotional No Man’s Land.


“I don’t know what you are anymore!” he hollered.


“But Daddy — ” I started. He turned the shotgun up and blasted a hole in the porch roof. I took off through the woods and never looked back.


After laying low for a few days, I went to the bus station, thinking to get out of town. I found Jonas was waiting for me there: he was on the front page of the Bakersville Gazette:


POLICE: NO LEADS IN MOONSHINER LYNCHING


And there would never be. Half the cops in the Valley were paid off; the other half were scared of Daddy. I crumpled up the paper and tossed it onto the seat next to me at the bus terminal. When it landed, I saw a small want ad for Prohibition enforcement agents. They were accepting applications over in Charlotte.


What can I say? At that moment, all I wanted to do was take everything away from Levi and Daddy like they done to me, and sometimes the universe throws you a bone. Of course, I was a little worried they might make me at the office, but I hadn’t seen a lot of Prohi action in Bakersville, so I figured Daddy hadn’t made their radar yet.


I was happy to fix that.


I applied under a fake name, then spent the next year feeding them enough information through anonymous tips that they eventually had to open a field office to keep up. Most of the drivers got arrested, but whenever I got mixed up in things, they wound up on a morgue slab. Dead men couldn’t spoil my cover, and it wasn’t like I was going to catch any heat over a bunch of cold hillbillies. Didn’t hurt that they was likely as not to have played a hand in Jonas’ death.


I knew sooner or later Daddy would have no choice but to send out Levi as a driver. With any luck, I’d be the one to chase him down. Poor boy only had a shade of my skills behind the wheel, but what he lacked in talent, he made up for in rabid loyalty, not that Daddy ever noticed. Once I busted Levi, I could send a slug through his heart and call it quits. If someone else pinched him, that was fine, too - I’d just plug him in his cell and suffer the consequences. Not like I had anything to lose, but that was nothing new.


Like the old lady said, nothin’ much ever really changes in the holler.


Or in Carraway’s stories, for that matter.


"...I still have that letter, you know," he was saying. The seat groaned as the restive agent shifted his weight. "Christ. We’ve been here since before sundown. You still think this guy’s coming?"


"Gabriel said he’d be here."


"That old-timer was half-shot. He coulda been talkin’ total applesauce for all we know. What makes you so sure we can trust him?"


I was sure because that haggard, sticky-bearded hillbilly had been delivering newspapers in Bakersville longer than I’d been breathing, and knew just about everyone between Asheville and Wilkesboro. Not to mention that once Prohibition hit, he’d been eager to leverage his truck to help move along shipments of Daddy’s giggle water.


Yes, Gabriel was a good many things, but he wasn't a liar, and even half in the bag, he’d almost made me. Lucky for me Carraway had had enough of his ‘coot gibberish’ and rearranged his jaw before the old man could cause any real trouble.


"It's all gonna be Jake," I said. "Just you see."


Hours passed - or perhaps it was only minutes. It was a moonless night, so the only way to even guess at the passage of time was by Carraway's chain smoking. Or, it was - until his hope chest ran dry.


I started tapping the steering wheel, my eyes scanning the dirt road out in front of the roadster's elongated nose, gleaming in the yellow-gold light of the billboard we'd parked behind.


Then I realized the light wasn't coming from the billboard. I thumbed the starter, and a moment later, the Studebaker rattled to life. Just as the headlamps flickered on, a Hudson Super Six rolled by, an inkblot gliding down the mountain road.


The driver threw up an arm to shield his eyes, but even with his face blocked, I’d have recognized that sorry mop of hair anyplace.


It was Levi at the wheel.


My brother killed his own lights and gunned it. The Hudson kicked up a cloud of dirt as its wheels struggled momentarily for grip, then it took off down the mountain.


Idiot.


He shoulda played it cool -- for all he knew, we coulda been a couple of teens gettin’ handsy, nervous about being busted -- but he didn’t have a cool bone in his body. Still, though, his instinct had been right in this case, and that just fed my anger.


Carraway sat forward. "Shit, that thing's fast!"


“Not fast enough.” I threw the roadster into gear.


The Studebaker leaped out onto the road, pebbles and chunks of dirt clinking and clattering all along its underside. I pushed the accelerator as close to the floor as I dared; going downhill, we had gravity working with us, pulling us ever faster down the path. Carraway's jowls bounced and quivered with every bump, the seat creaking in protest under his weight, but he made no comment besides the occasional grunt.


We skidded into a straightway, and I could see the Hudson's outline up ahead. I mashed the accelerator to the floor. Whoever had souped up the Hudson had done it right -- the beast took the shocks and jostles of the mountain road better than our Studebaker. But I didn't have to keep a load of coffin varnish from spilling all over the back of my ride.


Just then, the Hudson gave a little hop, and a second later, our roadster bounced. For a terrifying moment, I nearly lost control, but kept my foot on the gas and steered through. Meanwhile, Levi had come down at a bad angle. He was swerving, trying to keep the Hudson from spinning out or crashing into the side of the mountain. I flattened the pedal against the floor. The mountain's jagged edge blurred by on my left, while trees whizzed by on our right. Was that the Studebaker’s engine or Carraway screaming?


Levi had lost just enough speed that I was able to nudge his bumper at an angle, and that was all it took. As the Hudson swung toward the cliff, Levi overcompensated, veering into the mountainside. The Hudson stopped with a meaty crunch that shattered the windshield.

I stomped the brake pedal, gripping the wheel as my stomach lurched. Carraway's forehead smacked the dashboard with a dull thud, and I spun the wheel, bringing the Studebaker to a stop with its headlamps pointed back at the Hudson.


Carraway was slumped over to my right - still breathing, but his face was covered in blood. I figured that made us about even for him blowing smoke in my face.


I don’t like to leave scores unsettled.


I threw my door open and hurried toward Levi's car, pistol in hand. As I approached, a dazed Levi spilled out of the Hudson, babbling incoherently as he collapsed onto the ground. By the time he was getting unsteadily to his feet, I was waiting with my .45, and cracked him one across his jaw with the pistol’s handle. He cried out, trying to back away, but in his hurry, he managed only to tangle up his ankles, and dropped to the ground once more.


“What the fuck!” he cried, clasping a hand to his jaw. He already had his other arm up, shielding his eyes from the Studebaker’s headlamps. “I was gonna come quietly!”


“Ain’t nothin’ quiet left for you in this life,” I muttered.


"Who that?" He tried to move his arm to get a better look at me without blinding himself, so I stepped in front of one of the lights.


“You know who I am.”


“B-Beaumont? Is that you?”


“Why’d you do it, Levi?” I asked. “Why’d you have to go and get Jonas killed?”


Levi let out a wail that sounded like a wounded mountain lion. “I didn’t mean for it to - agh!” He cried out as I sent a slug through his shoulder.


“Next one’s goin’ lower,” I growled, placing my sights over his chest.


“I mean it, Bo, honest!” Levi started to blubber, his lips making a sad little puttering sound as spittle bubbled out of his mouth and ran down his chin. It was all I could do not to pull the trigger again.


“Why’d you do it?” I asked again, surprised to hear my own tone softening. I forced my pity back into the dark place it’d come from. There was no room for doubt - not when I’d come this far.

Levi looked up at me, wheezing and whimpering. His jaw had already started to swell.


“You - you was the best at everything,” he said. “Daddy always loved you most, and I hated you for it.”


“What? You got outclassed by a fairy, and so Jonas had to die?”


“No!” The word erupted from his mouth, and I took a step back. “I never cared nothin’ about any of that mess with Jonas! You think that was the first time I seen you together?


“I just - that night, how happy you was … somethin’ just snapped inside me. I thought Daddy would maybe chase him outta town and take you down a peg or two is all. I never thought …” He shook his head, trailing off. “Bo, I never seen Daddy like that. Not even when I left the gate open and Daisy runned off. I didn’t think he was gon’ get the boys together and do that to poor J-J-Jonas!”

With that, he burst into a fresh spate of crying. I glanced over my shoulder at the Studebaker to make sure Carraway hadn’t stirred, but his head was still on the dashboard. Then Levi’s voice caught my attention.


“And I knew - Bo, I knew that when we didn’t find you that night, you was gonna come after me. Do you know what that’s like? Almost two years not knowing if you’re going to turn a corner and see a gun waiting for you?”


I grimaced. I hated that I knew exactly what that felt like; that I could commiserate on any level with the pathetic creature in front of me. As I realized my arm was getting tired, Levi actually started to laugh.


“It’s a relief, in a way,” he said. “I figured it was you putting our guys away, or putting ‘em in the dirt. Daddy’s been pulling his hair out tryin’ to figure how the prohies got wise. I said ‘What if it’s Bo?’ and he beat me nine ways to Thursday. Said you’d never turn, but I always knew.


“And now you’re here,” he added. “Now my nightmare’s over. You can just kill me and have done with it.”


“What makes you so sure I’m gonna kill you?”


This time, Levi’s laugh was mixed with a sort of panicked shrieking.


“If you don’t, Daddy just might. Shit, he’d probably do it over this batch of giggle water. I can’t even imagine what he’d do about the Hudson.”


“You know, you didn’t drive it half-bad.”


“That fits. Half-good is about all I’m worth.”


I sighed and holstered my pistol, then extended my other hand to Levi. He grabbed it, and I hauled him up to his feet. He pulled me into a hug, and I let him. He reeked of stale booze and sweat.


“I’m sorry for what I done, Bo,” he whispered.


I wanted to accept his apology, to absolve him, and I suppose in my heart, I did. I had to. Carraway was right - the anger was going to get me killed.


But the words never made it out. Instead, I patted him on the back, then stepped back, and gave him a tight-lipped nod. Before he could say another word, I decked him with Daddy’s old trench knife.


He was out before he hit the ground. I dragged him over to the Studebaker and set him up against the side of the car, cuffing him to the open door. If he came to before Carraway, I wanted to make sure he didn’t go anywhere. If Daddy wanted to have Levi killed in the jail like a caged animal, that was his business. But I wasn’t going to have any more of my brother’s blood on my hands.


After thinking about it for a moment, I slipped Daddy’s trench knife into his pocket. Maybe it’d give Levi some measure of protection in the clink; maybe Carraway would find it and confiscate it the second he came to. Either way, I’d carried its weight for long enough.


The .45, on the other hand, would make a nice going-away present from the prohies for all my services rendered. Word was likely to get back to Daddy that I’d been the one to bring his empire crashing down, and I could imagine about how well he’d take it.


I’d just finished relieving Carraway of his extra ammunition when I heard the baleful whistle of an inbound coal train and realized morning had come to the valley.


I started to make my way down to the tracks. I was going to do what Daddy and Levi never could: leave Bakersville behind. Things might never change for the better in the holler, but I could move on, find someplace where “better” wasn’t just an idea.


I pulled in another breath of cool Blue Ridge air, and somehow I knew Momma’d sent her blessing on that breeze.




34 views

Recent Posts

See All

Birdie

I have always heard its tendrils writhing in the walls each night. Felt them, to put it more accurately. Ever since my mind's eye, gripped in the throes of nightmares most cruel, glimpsed that sightle

Before Long

Baba waves her liver-spotted hands dismissively as she crosses the threshold. "Too old," she sniffs, her nostrils flaring. "Much too old. Too many ghosts." Aranaya smirks, closing the door behind them

The Escort

Pearl Ebberhartt did not smile often. Could I prove it in court? No, but I guess even after your by-the-book chief hauls you into his office and says you’re a real good cop but he’s gotta put you on i

Comments


Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this piece, tips are always appreciated!

Get the latest Dregs delivered straight to your spa-- I mean, inbox.

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page