issue twenty-seven

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(2370 words)
William J. Watkins, Jr.
Joy Ride
       Stoney Hightower reclined on the cot at the Maxton jail. His face showed several days' worth of growth and the bluish, purple bruise below his right eye made the brown of his irises seem all the darker. With his head quasi-propped up via two odorous and well used pillows, Stoney watched the trap set in the hallway just outside of his cell. He had seen several rodents run around the trap, but none had stopped to examine the bait. Stoney marveled at how they seemed to know that the trap meant danger. He wondered whether this knowledge was somehow communicated from vermin to vermin, or whether just the smell of death on the old trap was sufficient notice to keep them away.

Stoney figured that his latest stint in the jail marked an even dozen times that he had lodged in the old building. He knew the routine, the rhythm of the place, and all the deputies and constables. Although conditions were not always the best, especially in the summer months, the jail had a certain comfort about it. The building was part of the known world for him, just like the entire Chauga Valley. He had never been outside of the Valley, but tonight he reckoned would be his last night in both the jail and the surrounding countryside.
Life in the Valley had not been easy. Stoney never knew his father and was often referred to as "one of Ginger Hightower's bastards." He and his older brothers worked odd jobs from their early teens to help put food on the table. His mother cleaned, sewed, and did less dignified acts to provide for her brood. His brothers eventually settled in as sharecroppers and remained just as poor as they were when Ginger brought them into this world. Stoney was going to break the chains of upcountry poverty and show them what he could do in a more favorable environment. He was going to make it and not break his back doing so. By finally using his head and leaving the known, innumerable possibilities were about to develop.

The revenue agents promised him transportation as far as Atlanta. City life would be a big change, but Stoney understood that jobs in the mills and stockyards were plentiful. With the money earned for his information, Stoney figured that that he could find a boarding house and easily cover his expenses for six months before actually having to get a job.

He had considered just going as far as the state line and looking for a piece of land that he could farm. But Stoney had never been a fan of the constant demands of crops and livestock. These responsibilities were too limiting. Chickens needed daily feeding, cows morning and evening milking, and gardens vigilance in the fight against weeds and pests. Rarely on a farm did Stoney ever have the leisure to stay in bed all morning or go on a bad drunk if that was his inkling.

The city would be liberating. He could write his own story. There would be no collective memory to challenge his version of history or to remind him of his place in the Valley's hierarchy. No one would know that he was born a bastard with nothing but speculation as to who the father was. They wouldn't know that his mother, in the eyes of most, was a poor white harlot. More importantly, and in light of current circumstances, no one would know that he was a snitch.
Stoney estimated that it was just past midnight. By now, the revenue agents would be following Rocky Creek and would be upon Homer Hardy's enclave. The Hardy family had long ago mastered the art of corn whiskey distillation and could ask top dollar for their product. The business was predominantly kept in the family, but at times they hired help when the demand called for it. Manning the stills and moving the whiskey was not easy work, but it suited Stoney better than farming. He had worked off and on for Homer since he was sixteen.

Homer had a perfect location in the middle of the cane break just off Rocky Creek. Cane was thick and invasive, but Homer and his sons maintained a decent trail through which they could move supplies and product. The trailhead was practically invisible unless you knew to look for the magnolia trees -- just across from a cluster of water oaks -- that marked the starting point.

Homer would have his entire crew there to complete the quarterly order for the Slaterville taverns. Stoney had expected to be there working on this batch until circumstances presented an opportunity. His joy ride in a 1937 Oldsmobile that had been left running in front of Spencer Dye's hardware store turned into a high-speed chase and a sound pistol-whipping once Stoney wrecked the car on Oakway Road. When he "borrowed" the car, Stoney saw that it had out-of-state plates, but he never contemplated that it belonged to two federal revenue agents. Stoney had supposed he would get a week's use out of the car, but enjoyed the transportation for less than two hours before he ran into the first roadblock.

After the local deputies apprehended Stoney, the federal agents quickly sized him up and recognized him as someone having the ability and inclination to "help himself." In exchange for his information on distilling throughout the Valley, agents promised that no federal charges would be filed for his theft of government property and that he would be entitled to significant monetary compensation for his work as a "confidential source." Being a "source" appealed to Stoney. It carried far more weight than being a mere hand, laborer, or bastard. Of course, Stoney was not necessarily proud of telling on his friends, but he did have a feeling of satisfaction that a new and easier life was at hand. The genial thoughts of city life and lateness of the hour caused Stoney to drop off into a quiet sleep.

Dreams of the new world streamed through his mind. City women who weren't set on marriage, public transportation that made automobile ownership unnecessary, and plenty of adventure just around the block -- every appetite that he had could be easily satisfied. In his dreams Stoney rode the busses and made eyes with attractive females who sat around him. Their skirts were several inches shorter than country girls with whom Stoney had a very bad reputation. All of them wore nylons without a single run or tear. Just as Stoney got up and started to follow a cute blond off the bus, the sound of the vehicles turning into the jail's gravel parking lot pulled him out of his slumber. He was unsure just how long he had been out.

Only a couple of men on Homer's crew had ever spent time in prison. "They must be crapping their pants bout now," Stoney snickered to himself as he stretched. Stoney had suggested to the agents key spots where they could hide out if anyone made a break for it. If they did like he told them, the federals should have arrested the entire crew. Stoney really didn't care whether the agents arrested one or six men -- the deal he had cut was not contingent on the results of the raid, but on the truthfulness of the information. And for once in his life, Stoney had told the entire truth. From the location of the trail, to the cooking schedule, to the identities of the men working for Homer, Stoney told it all.

The shudder of the metal door at the sally port entrance signaled that the prisoners were on the way in. Suddenly Stoney heard feet shuffling and the barking of commands. The racket was coming closer. As he sat up on his cot, he saw a line of men chained together moving slowly into the cellblock. As they came closer, Stoney recognized Homer Hardy and his two sons Gaylord and Oliver. The men's overalls were mud-splattered and testified to a pursuit and tussle in the creek before their apprehension.  

Stoney's breathing quickened as the sheriff led the men toward Stoney's cell. Stoney had not expected to see the Hardys after the execution of the raid. He quickly calmed himself as the sheriff unlocked his cell door, motioned for a deputy to remove the leg irons, and directed the three prisoners into the cell. Stoney knew he had to play it cool.

"What in blazes got hold of you?" Stoney asked as he sat on his cot. He glared at the cuts on Homer's hands and forearms.

"Brambles make it hard on a man to make a hasty retreat and I'd not recommend grabbing at them if you lose your balance," Homer replied.

"Revenue agents poured out of the cane just as we was startin' to chill the mash," Oliver offered. "Elberton Childs pulled his pistol and they shot him dead on the spot. Everybody else tried to skedaddle. The three of us hit the creek and maybe got 20 yards from the still before they caught us. Couple of young boys out ran 'em though."

"Man, that's too bad about Elberton. He was a good one," Stoney lamented.

"He was. He barely had reached for the pistol when two of the federals lit him up with twelve gauges," Homer added.

"We was wondering where you was, but it looks like you musta made the guest list before we did," Gaylord said as he sat down on the cot in the far corner. "What did you do to end up here?"

"Oh, I requisitioned a Buick from an out-of-stater and got accused of stealing. I was gonna bring it back," Stoney said with a wink.

"Hell, that's penny Anny shit," Gaylord averred. "That'll be at most a 30-day vacation for you. Them revenue agents was talking about us looking at a couple of years on top of forfeiting a portion of the land around the still. Do you have any idea how long that land has been in our family?"

"I hear ya. The federals are afraid to see a working man get ahead. Once a man starts to pull away from subsistence to something better, they gotta move in," Stoney complained. "They want us to stay in our place."  

Things soon quieted down in the cell and Stoney cursed the lawmen under his breath for housing him with the Hardy clan. He felt a tinge of guilt at the thought of the Hardys losing their land over a batch of whiskey. Stoney never much cared for Elberton and did not give his death a second thought.

As his stomach churned, Stoney tried convince himself that there was nothing for him to worry about. These were the feds, after all -- not some slack-jawed local sheriff. The feds knew what they were doing, he reasoned. Since the Hardys saw him locked up, no one would suspect that he was involved with the raid. Though Stoney admired the agents' cleverness, he wished they had shared this portion of the plan with him. Sleep proved elusive the rest of the night. Stoney lay on his cot, stared at the ceiling, and pretended to snooze.
The sun had not been up long when Stoney and the Hardys heard a deputy's footsteps and caught a whiff of biscuits and coffee. Stoney reached out through the bars and took the sack of biscuits from the deputy, passed them back to Homer, and then received the thermos containing the coffee. Homer began distributing the biscuits as Stoney took a tin cup and poured himself a portion of the steaming liquid. He sat the thermos on the floor in front of Homer's cot and helped himself to a biscuit from the paper bag.

"So where was that Buick from that you 'borrowed?'" Homer inquired in between bites of biscuit.

"I think it was Georgia or Alabama," Stoney replied. "To tell you the truth, I didn't really notice. I just figured that Buick would be a whole lot easier on my feet than walking."

"An out-of-stater probably looking for land to develop, huh?" Gaylord asked.

"I reckon. The sheriff and his boys roughed me up pretty well when they caught me. I never found out whose car it was."

"I guess it don't really matter," Gaylord said.

"I guess it don't."

The Hardys polished off their breakfast and sat quietly on their cots. Homer rummaged through his pockets and located a crushed pack of cigarettes. He found several intact and tossed each of his sons one. Stoney waited for Homer to offer him a smoke, but Homer quickly tucked the pack away.

"Funny thing, the sheriff never mentioned to you that you'd done gone and stole a vehicle belonging to federal revenue agents," Homer said as he took a draw from his cigarette. "Spencer Dye said he seen it all from his store. In fact, the federals used his phone to call the sheriff and put out an APB on that car. Spencer spread the word that revenue agents was in the county, but we didn't figure they'd be able to find our place. And they couldn't have without some help."

"You put quite a dent in the fender when you wrecked it," Gaylord said. "But it was still in good enough shape for them to load Elberton's body in it and take him to the undertaker."

Stony felt a flush run up the back of his neck and across his scalp. The Hardys glared at him and waited for some explanation or a confession. Stoney's first instinct was to act indignant. How dare they accuse him of conspiring with outsiders to upset an operation from which he had profited. So he stole a car. That did not put him in the pocket of the feds. Maybe the sheriff had mentioned who the car belonged to, but after the whipping he took it would be understandable to forget certain information. Just as Stoney was about to launch into his defense, a loud snap rang through the corridor of the cell block. A rat had run across the trap set in the hall. The sound reverberated for a moment, and then was gone.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, William J. Watkins, Jr. All rights reserved.