“The unlikeliest of hero’s”
Well, friends here it is, Chapter one of “The Leech Cemetery Witch.” Plenty of folks have waited far too long to get a peek at it. I’ve decided to post a chapter or two each week, (yes, the entire book.) But there’s a catch, I need your help. We have a lot of seasoned writers in the group whom I respect in every way. as you read the coming chapters, let me know what you think. How can it be improved? What parts are too slow? Where do I need to further expound? Punctuation: I’m sure I’ve dropped the ball there quite a few times. Please let me know. Comments are not only welcomed but encouraged. Drop a note, an e-mail, a comment, a carrier Pigeon, Morse code, whatever it takes. Thank You so very much.
Finally: it’s time to formally introduce you too…THE TIN CUP CLAN.
Time to get up!
Her voice wakes me quicker than any alarm clock ever could.
But ma, I protested. My throat hurts; I can barely talk.
Come on, young’un, get up and go gargle with some warm salt water; you’ll be fine in a bit.
They’s’ no point in arguing with her; we’d been through this too many times before. That old excuse had begun to wear as thin as her patience, and I needed different ammo, a better disease.
Yea, that’s it, maybe somethin’ contagious and oozy. Who don’t like oozy?
I shuffled my bones from the warm bed. The cold floor stung my bare feet, grabbed me by the ankles, and shook the sleepy from the rest of me. After a good stretch, I turned and tugged at the blankets until the wrinkles were somewhat gone. Then punched the pillow a few times, fluffin’ it up good and proper. I stepped back, admirin’ my handy work that there is what’s known as a “properly” made bed. I grabbed my pocket radio (you know; the one you ain’t supposed to have, but everyone does) and hid it under the mattress just as ma poked her head through the door.
Come on, young man, MOVE, she yelled as she slapped the wall with her open hand.
You’re gonna be late… again.
Shaking her head from side to side, she turned in a huff, leaving me to get dressed.
It was cold in the house, not freezing cold mind you, just cold enough to make a body miserable. The kind of cold that seeps into your bones like wet mold, making every joint painful, stiff, and slow to move.
The oil furnace had once again died during the night. Seems like the only time the ol’ girl decides to give up the ghost is when she can cause the most discomfort. Ma had the oven door open in a desperate effort to get some heat into the kitchen. It didn’t do a lot of good; the trailer had so many air leaks we might as well be camping in the great outdoors.
But there we stood, holding our hands in front of the open oven door, pretendin’ the glowin’ coils were a campfire. The two of us rubbin’ our hands together and slappin’ our arms shakin’ off the misery. If it were really cold, she would pull a chair to the front of the oven; there she would sit, waving heat into the room with a piece of cardboard. Once her arms began to ache, we would take turns.
I’ll work on the “ol” girl when I get outta school.
Her face looked worn and battle weary.
We got any kerosene left?
Yea. I think there’s another five gallons or so outback.
I was used to workin’ on the ol’ girl. Heck, I’ve had her apart about a million times. I knew every nut, every bolt, and every mood swing. Yep, we kinda got a love-hate relationship that stove and me. I hate workin’ on her, but I swear she loves the attention.
But enough of that, we had a schedule to keep. Missing the bus wasn’t an option, not that I couldn’t walk to school, No sir. Missing that bus meant I’d end up missing out on school breakfast, and that was somethin’ I just couldn’t allow.
As I stepped onto the porch, Jack Frost was ready to greet me. I stopped for a second, dead in my tracks, just to soak a bit of it in. With a deep breath, I blew into the morning air and watched as the mist floats above my head before fadin’ away into the cold.
Around me, pillars of smoke seep from chimneys; it hovers there, just over the rooftops like rain clouds. When I inhale, each breath brings with it the scent of burnin’ Hickory, Oak, and coal, especially in the mornin’ when the heavy cold air holds it low to the ground.
Yep…this is Fall in the southern mountains, and I love it.
Time to catch that bus.
Funny thing about a school bus; unknown to most, a certain “social segregation” reigns supreme. One might go as far as to say a miniature cold war of class separation.
Now… you might think a body could sit just about anywhere there was an empty seat. But every kid that’s ever sat on a bus knows that just ain’t the case, here or anywhere else.
One simple mistake, such as sittin’ in the wrong territory or next to the wrong person, could haunt a kid for the rest of the school year, maybe even the rest of your life. No kid, no matter how hard they might try, can ever leave one group for another or switch class of friends; such a thing just ain’t done.
I believe the seatin’ arrangements are about the same no matter where you might go to school. Where you sit is a lot more than fate, I’m not sure how, but I think life sifts us a lot like coal through the washer, different sizes fall through different holes, and you don’t really have much choice in the matter. It’s some twisted sort of “natural” order—birds of a feather and all that nonsense.
Oddly enough, it starts at the back of the bus.
First, we have the jocks and their giddy band of cheerleaders; they sit in the very rear. With heads full of cotton, they brag about upcomin’ games, how much each can bench press, and what kind of car they hope to drive someday. Even which poor soul at the front of the bus gets drafted into doing their homework.
All this accompanied by the constant singin’, gigglin’, cheerin’, chitterin’, and whatever annoyin’ nonsense those daing cheerleaders might think up. For the most part, they’re a vain group, with poofy hair and heavy make-up, and not very bright either, but dangerous all the same.
Just a few seats up, you’ll find the “cool” kids.
I’m talkin’ rock music, leather jackets, pretty girls, and long hair. You have to be careful around this group. They can smell fear just by lookin’ at you. When I say aggressive, this is the group that comes to mind. They seem to leer at everyone, forever on the lookout, searchin’ for the slightest sign of weakness within the herd. Herd being everybody else.
They were unbelievably less intelligent than those jocks. If they caught you lookin’ at one of their girls or made any manner of eye contact, you’re probably gonna get a poundin’ or, at the very least, a severe cussin’.
Closer to the front sit the smart kids.
They’re a good bunch at heart, and all are harmless. They don’t say a whole lot, least not to anyone outside their group. Most have an anxious look about their face, and their laps are generally covered with piles of dog-eared papers. Some frantically scratch at the papers in a last-minute dash to finish homework, or more likely, extra credit projects.
When it comes to this group, eye contact must be avoided for an entirely different reason. Most are like deer in an open field, constantly wary of predators; an unwelcome stare or hostile movement may send many into catatonic fits. Desperately digging through pockets and trapper-keepers, frantically searching for the ever-present inhaler. Yea, I reckon they spook pretty easily.
Separating the smart from the cool was the “poor kid” section. I reckon you might call it a homemade demilitarized zone. A buffer protecting the smart ones from the various projectiles flips to the noggins or other insults launched from the rear seats.
This section is the biggest by a long shot, mainly kids whose parents work for the mines in one way or the other; everything’s hooked to the mines around here. The clothes they wear might be a bit tattered, repurposed hand-me-downs from older brothers and sisters. Many have never laid eyes on an iron, even if they had, late nights and busy mornings don’t leave much time for such trivial and vain labors.
Black soot has replaced the fingernail polish common in the bus’s rear, leftovers from gathering coal, feeding animals, or tending morning fires. Guys wear haircuts done at the kitchen table with a pair of scissors and a towel. But the girls proudly show off long, neatly brushed hair that shimmers in the morning sun. Pretty homemade bows keep the hair pulled to back, framing their faces.
It’s only October, so blue jeans still cling to their dark blue color; most have only just now begun to fade. Most ain’t even torn yet; patches of different shades will soon cover knees and the occasional butt-cheek. We usually get a couple of new pairs when school starts; it takes a good while to break ‘em in. Until that time, the denim is generally so stiff I swear they could stand on their own if given the opportunity.
Along with the new britches comes a new pair of shoes. Not the shoes worn by jocks or cool kids; ours are a whole lot more “down to earth.” But that don’t stop most of us from dreaming of high-top All-Stars for the guys or a bright white pair of “Keds” for the girls.
This is where I usually sit, if not in the same spot, then really close to it. A seat saved for me by one of my three closest friends in the world. I don’t remember what brought us together; heck, I don’t know when we all first met; it just seems like we’ve always just, well, been.
First, and in my opinion, the best, is David Owens. “Big” David, by nature, is a quiet sort; he seems to be in a continuous state of mild-mannered happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a slight smile on his face. I’ve come to believe his face is just sorta, made that way.
Whatever the reason, and without his knowledge, he just seems to bring a sense of calm to our group. Ma calls it a “sweet spirit,” from what I hear, friends like that are pretty hard to come by.
But the oddest thing about David is the ever-present smell of wood smoke. He wears it like perfume, and it always seems to arrive a bit before he does, no matter where he’s going.
He’s a big ol’ boy with giant fingers and big hands. His head sits on top of a thick neck and broad shoulders. Nobody wants to get on ol’ David’s bad side; if he even has a bad side, nobody’s really seen it. Usually, his slow deep voice and calm nature are just enough to defuse about any situation one of our little group might get ourselves into.
Next, there’s Chucky Mathews. He’s kind of an odd duck. A dark-headed short kid with an abnormally large mouth. Not big like he talks a lot, even though he does. I mean big bright red clown lips that cover the entire bottom of his face. They remind me of the wax ones you can buy at the dime store. Those big lips also hide a set of the tiniest teeth you ever saw. It makes you wonder if he ever lost his baby teeth.
They make him look kinda silly, and he’s all kinds of sensitive about it. He has a laugh that’s just as weird, like a chip-monk or squirrel, a kind of chittering sound. He uses that weird laugh all the time, laughing at everything even when he’s in trouble, especially when he’s in trouble, which now that I think of it is a lot.
Last but not least was “Stick.” David Byrge is his real name, but nobody calls him that; it’s just plain ol’ Stick. He’s as skinny as a hoe handle, and his bright red hair usually looks like it’s cut around a bowl. When I say red, I mean “RED,” not light, dark, almost, but bright red.
You cain’t put a finger on him no-where without covering a freckle, I mean he’s covered with ‘em. So much so that you’d think they were on the whites of his eyes. He’s been known to drop a fib or two as well, but other than big David, so have the rest of us. Talk about dirty jokes, swear he knows about every single dirty joke on the planet, and he ain’t afraid to tell any of ‘em to just about anybody at any time.
Well, there they are, my best friends in the world. My partners in crime if you want to get picky about it. For the most part, we got each other’s back, well, big David does anyhow. And, if one of us happens to shoot our mouth off to the wrong person or get caught looking at the wrong girl, well, we know where to turn.
All of our families work in or about the mines somehow or somewhere. Big David’s dad works in the hole.
Men who work down there are called moles, for good reason. It’s a dirty job and a lot more dangerous than folks realize. Long hours of stifling heat, coal dust, and fumes, not to mention the ever-present threat of cave-ins.’ But the pay is good for the area, and good-paying jobs are hard to come by. There’s always a line of men wanting to get into the hole to make a better living for their families.
Chuckle’s dad works the belt and washer, just as dirty, if not more, but maybe just a little safer.
The pay’s not near what the hole pays, but he’s lucky to get it. He used to work at the mill, but he was one of the first to get the ax when they cut back. Big David’s dad pulled some strings and got him on at the Blue Diamond mine. He ain’t been there too long, so he’s still playing catch up as far as money goes.
Stick’s ol man drives a coal truck.
Takes a special kind of stupid to climb on top of 60.000 pounds, then try to control it down steep mountain roads and switchbacks. It takes years to learn how to operate and control one of those things. They’s been quite a few who lost their lives on the mountainside. Once a truck takes off down that hill, she takes on a life of her own.
If she gets loose, you got two choices, step out on the tanks, look for a soft spot, then jump off and hope for the best. Or hold on and try to ride it out; either way, you’re probably gonna die, simple as that. The secret is picking a gear at the top and leaving her there. Once you try to shift down and break those gears lose, she’s gone for sure.
Once she goes over, the ground’s too steep to get her back up out of the holler. The mountainside is littered with dead trucks, overgrown with weeds, and rusting away just where they landed.
We go up there a lot, scrapping for parts, playing on ‘em, and picking up spilled coal. We’d all get a whippin’ if we got caught, we’ve been told a bunch of times how dangerous it was, but nobody’s been hurt yet.
Death is always hanging about in coal mining country—a constant companion for most. For the most part, we accept it learned to live with it. Most folk deal with it by pretending it ain’t there. “The Lord calls, and it’s my time, and that’s that,” they say.
Others allow it to follow them around throughout their entire life. “Ol scratch” hangs over ‘em like a spirit that lives in the hills and hollers. They’re easy to spot, those folk. They carry a heavy appearance, burdened, like they’re never really happy. Just kinda going through life, waiting for him, looking for him, almost dead already.
I reckon death is part of life for most of us, normal as breathing. We don’t think about it or talk about it much. As a matter of fact, the four of us know the mines are where we’re gonna work when we hit sixteen. It’s what’s expected if you want to make any manner of living. Come to think of it, I reckon that’s what the spots on the bus are there for—teaching us our place in life, at an early age, our pecking order.
Every year there’s an accident of some sort, in those mines, sometimes it’s a collapse, other times somebody gets hit or run over by equipment. Even if that black hole don’t get ya when you’re working, the black lung’s probably gonna get you after you’ve been down there a while.
It’s not unusual to see men in their forties, pasty-faced and hollow-eyed, panting and gasping for breath, sitting with the old men on the benches in front of stores, swapping lies and stories of coal. Not many of ‘em talk about the “good ol’ days,” probably because there just ain’t that many to tell.
But, for the time being, the four of us are pleased to spend our spare time walking the train tracks, digging for fossils in the slag pits, and well, just being us.
Sometimes we walk the tracks picking up coal that’s fell from the hopper cars. We each carry a five-gallon bucket made from an old lard can with a wire coat hanger as a handle. Ya gotta make sure and wrap the wire with something because the thin wire bites into your skin hard, causing your fingers to bleed at the joints. Putting a dab of kerosene on the cuts stops the bleeding; it kinda takes the hurt away as well.
Coal sells for about twenty dollars a ton, and each full bucket weighs about forty or fifty pounds. That’s some good money for four such enterprising streetwise entrepreneurs as ourselves. But most of the time, we just take ‘em home and use ‘em there.
When we don’t find much coal, there’s always the pennies. We place a few on top of the rails. Then, after the train rolls through, we run out to gather ‘em up. Smashed pennies are like trading cards and a popular form of currency among boys our age. We trade ‘em for just about everything. Gadgets and whatnots, pencils, and erasers. One time a kid brought some pieces of honest-to-goodness sugar cane. Cost each of us two rail pennies apiece. But we slobbered on those sticks for two days. That’s why everybody has one or two in his pocket at all times, just in case.
The Tin Cup Clan books are dedicated to my children: Jeremy, Lydia,Emily, and Savanna. To my grandsons: Kaden, Saylor, Landry, Taylen, Lennox, Maddox, Amaris. My Loves.
Thanks in advance for the feedback; THE TIN CUP CLAN