An Appalachian Tale

Fiction By Timothy // 11/27/2006

*Based on a true story*

The faint glow of the moon was drowned in a blaze of light as a battered pickup truck rounded the corner of the rough dirt road. It bounced slowly over the uneven surface as it navigated the sharp turns of the valley. The driver gazed with half focus on the road ahead as it was revealed by the headlights. He fancied he could stay on the road even without the lights, he’d traveled it so many times.

Another hairpin curve and suddenly, blinded by the lights of the truck, there stood a rough, tattered man on the side of the road. He held his hand up to shield his eyes, as the driver slowed his truck to a halt. The driver leaned his head out the window. “Need a lift, mister? It ain’t healthy to be roaming these parts so late at night.”

The rough man nodded and gave the driver an unappealing smile. “I surely could use it, mister. I’m a-thankin ya.”

He walked quickly around the back of the truck and climbed into the passenger seat.

“Where to, mis-” the driver stopped suddenly as he felt a sharp prick in his side.

“Listen here, man,” the passenger snarled, “you’ve got a knife in your side and I’m takin’ over this truck. Now get out before I make ya.”

The driver hesitated, then reached for the door handle. Suddenly he spun back around and swung a fist at the would-be car thief. There was a sickening crack as the thief stumbled backwards. The driver swung again, missing this time. The thief shook his head, blinked, and then with a fierce snarl lunged at the driver.

The feeble moon faintly revealed the shadow of a knife raised high into the air, and then plunged into the darkness of the truck’s cab.

- - -

Seven-o-clock, Monday morning, and Ray Foster had already been up for hours. Working a living out of the uneven ground of the Tennessee valley called for long hours of rough, strenuous work. There was the small corn field to be taken care of, the vegetable garden to be tended, and, most important, the livestock to be fed. It was a rough way to live, but the Fosters had been doing it for as long as Ray could remember. No other way of life suited him.

Many years before, he’d been offered the chance to move into the city and get a comfortable position at a big grocery store. But Ray knew that he was too far ingrained in the country way of life to fit in with city people. He wanted to someday see his kids get a good education and move up in the world, but he knew it was too late for him.

He stood at the kitchen window of his small house and gazed absently down the hill toward the tumbling fields and rolling, rising forests that he knew so well. Behind him, his wife Mary worked at preparing breakfast for his two sons. Soon, they would be picked up by the small school bus that dared to venture this far into the backwoods for the sake of educating the country children.

But right now, Ray wasn’t thinking of school, the city, or his two sons. He was thinking of the startling news that he had heard only fifteen minutes before. His neighbor, Mamie Willis, had nearly run up his long driveway to convey the stunning information. Just last night, around midnight, a man’s body had been found lying on the road, stabbed multiple times through the back. He was identified as Jim Rainer, the owner of a horse farm. The truck that he should have been driving was nowhere to be seen.

The suspect was obvious to everyone. Just a week before, a criminal recently convicted of first degree murder had escaped from the police while being transported. His picture had been posted all around the countryside. Naturally he would want a truck to aid his escape.

Ray Foster shook his head silently as he stared out the window. If that man came anywhere near his house and family, Ray Foster would give him something to remember him by.

He turned back from the window and sat down to his breakfast. Soon after, his two sons rushed off to catch the bus, and Ray and Mary were left to continue the day’s work by themselves.

- - -

The day wore on into the afternoon, and Mary Foster put two pans of homemade bread dough into the oven to bake. Soon, not only the small Foster house, but the entire surrounding area was filled with the delicious aroma of baking bread.

“Mary, my girl,” Ray Foster laughed, “you’re gonna draw our neighbors in from all around with that lovely smell if you ain’t careful.”

Mary laughed softly and hurried to check on the bread.

Ray was relaxing in an old rocking chair on his small porch at the front of the house. It was too hot to do any work, so he was taking a well-earned break. The hills surrounding his farm nearly burned with the bright light of the afternoon sun. Suddenly, something caught Ray’s eye.

Down on the road below the Foster hill, a man was climbing down out of a battered brown pickup truck. He stopped and seemed to test the air for a second, then started to climb up the hill toward the Foster house.

Ray watched curiously as the man approached. He began to call out to the man in a friendly manner, but he stopped short. Suddenly his face was transformed from a friendly smile to an angry stare. He leaped from his chair, leaving it rocking rapidly, and hurried into the house.

Mary emerged from the kitchen and sensed that something was wrong. “What is it, Ray?” she called after him as he hurried into their bedroom.

“That escaped convict is climbin’ up our hill right now. But we’re not gonna end up stretched out like Jim Rainer did.”

He yanked open the door to their small closet and emerged with an old rifle in his hand. Mary didn’t blink. They had a different law out in the backwoods than the city folk had. If Ray hadn’t grabbed the gun, Mary would have.

Ray rushed back to the front of the house. The convict was nearly at the porch. Ray raised the gun to his shoulder and yelled out. “Mister, you’d better turn around right now or you’ll never take another step in life.”

The man gave Ray a pathetic look and shouted back. “Can’t you feed a hungry, tired, traveler?” Ray didn’t answer, and the man began to walk again. “All I want is a little brea-” suddenly the air was rent with the roar of the rifle. The convict stumbled, took one more step forward, then fell backwards with a thud.

- - -

Two fresh loaves of bread rested on the Foster kitchen table as Mary Foster waited anxiously in the living room for a call from Ray. After shooting the convict, Ray had phoned the police. They had arrived only minutes later, carrying both Ray and the dead body back to the police station in town. It had been hours since then, and Mary had yet to hear from Ray.

Suddenly, the old telephone jangled loudly and insistently. Mary leaped up with a cry and jerked the receiver from its place on the phone. “Hello?” she shouted into the receiver.

“Hi, hon, it’s me,” she heard Ray’s voice on the other end.

“My lord, honey, what’s been keeping you? I’ve been waitin’ for hours to hear from you. When are you comin’ home?”

“Well, hon,” Ray sounded cautious. “I don’t think I’ll be comin’ home no time soon. They’ve done locked me up under charge of murder. They’re gonna try me, too.”

“Oh, Ray!” Mary shrieked. “They can’t do that to you! You was only defendin’ your property!”

“Well, I know that, dear, but it seems these judicial types need to be convinced of that real formally. The trial should be soon, though. Until then, I guess I’d best stay here in the pen.”

“Oh, Ray . . .” Mary’s voice faded as she began to sob.

“Now, now, Mary. Don’t be actin’ that way. They’ll say I’m innocent once they get me in court and they hear what happened. They won’t lock me up for long.”

“Oh, I hope so,” Mary cried.

“Well, hon, I’d better go now. They’ll let you drop by and see me if you can get one of the fellas to take you into town.”

“Oh, I will, I will.”

“Bye now.” Ray hung up.

Mary set the receiver back in its place and sobbed quietly.

- - -

On the day of the trial the county courtroom was surrounded by old, battered trucks and vans as family and friends of the Fosters arrived to witness the trial and provide support for Ray. Inside the courtroom, the small seating area was packed with rough-looking men and solid country women. In the front of the room sat Ray Foster with the lawyer provided by the state to defend him.

Soon, the judge emerged from a room in the back and took his seat in the front. He banged his gavel loudly and announced the commencement of the trial.

Ray Foster watched quietly as the prosecuting attorney called up two policemen to testify to the killing. He then called upon Mamie Willis, who had seen the shooting from her house. She looked uncomfortable as she related her tale.

Throughout the proceedings, the judge watched on with a sickening smirk. Ray gave a faint smile as he examined the judge. He was a smooth-faced man who looked like at any minute he was going to burst into tears. Ray had previously met men like him when he had ventured into town. They didn’t have much spine or will, and Ray had tried to avoid them if at all possible.

It was clear to everyone in the courtroom that Ray had, indeed, killed the escaped convict. However, it was up to the jury to decide whether or not he was guilty of murder. Finally, the prosecuting attorney called on Ray himself to testify.

Ray settled into the witness stand. The attorney began to ask him questions in rapid succession. He answered them all to the best of his ability. Finally the judge turned to Ray and gave him a sad smile. “Mr. Foster,” he asked. “Do you have any regrets concerning this unfortunate event?”

“Yes, your honor, I sure do,” Ray replied. The judge’s smile widened. “I’m sorry that murderer didn’t try to steal my truck, ‘cause if he had I would have killed him then and that other fella wouldn’t be dead.”

The smile faded on the judge’s face. Somebody started clapping. Suddenly, the entire gallery of spectators was on their feet applauding. The judge angrily pounded his gavel. The applause continued.

“Silence! Silence in the court!” the judge yelled. Slowly, the clapping faded. The judge attempted to compose himself. Finally, he said, “The jury may now leave the court and deliberate over their decision.”

The twelve jury members filed out into a room on the side of the building. The echo of the door slamming shut seemed to have hardly left the ears of the spectators when suddenly the door opened again and the jury came back out. They took their seats once again, many of them displaying smiles despite their attempts to suppress them.

“Jury members, what is your decision?” the judge asked.

“Your honor,” a man said, “we find the defendant not guilty.”

The judge looked like he had swallowed a bee. He hesitated, then grabbed his gavel and hammered the block once with unnecessary force. He then stood and stalked out of the room.