Tennessee ghost story of a budding guitarist seeking fame in Nashville who hitches a ride with a creepy bootlegger.. Written by William Morris.
Most Appalachian coal mines had been closed for over a decade, but the caustic coal dust still clogged the air and covered the stores, cars and clothes of all mountain dwellers. Luther’s grandfather and father had both worked and died in the mines. Pappy died in a cave-in and Pops was killed in a union hall explosion during a miner’s strike when Luther was eight years old. Neither man’s body was ever found. He was the last of six kids, the only male, left behind to care for their mother. His sisters had followed Mom’s footsteps, marrying early as teenaged brides with children of their own before leaving town to look for work. She had birthed the first child at fourteen and Luther at the age of nineteen. As she approached thirty-nine years of age, raising the brood by herself had reduced her five-foot four inch frame to less than one hundred and ten pounds and left her with little hope.
Alcohol and Black Lung had finally taken her last week. Tomorrow, the newest in a long line of failed attempts will be revised by a new mining company taking the house for a new family with able-bodied men to work one of the mines slated to reopen. There was no need for a skinny, nineteen year old kid with a twisted foot, toes dragging in the dirt tracing his struggles with every painful step.
A pickup loaded with drunken teenagers set upon Luther when he was just thirteen years old. After beating him senseless, one of the boys took his hunting knife and severed his right Achilles tendon just above the ankle.
“That’ll keep you from running off the next time we come looking for you,” the punk yelled as they drove off, leaving Luther to crawl back to town. The health clinic nurse had simply bandaged the cut and said it would heal itself in time. It had not.
Luther spent his days looking for odd jobs to supplement the welfare checks the state sent to his mother. Now those checks would stop. He spent his nights down at the only juke joint in town, playing his guitar for the locals who drank themselves into oblivion in order to escape their plight for a few hours. Those nights usually ended in fist fights as the sad lot attempted to regain some portion of their manhood in the most basic animalistic rituals.
With his mom gone and the house pulled out from under him, Luther decided to hit the road after dark, less likely to fall prey to the ne’er-do-well white-trash drunks that still traveled the back roads, drinking and shooting road signs or anything else they found entertaining. He threw his clothes in an old potato sack, grabbed his guitar and ran into the woods behind the house he had lived in all his young life.
It was the first week in May. The skies were clear and the moon provided a soft light erasing many of the shadows cast by the tallest trees enabling Luther to make his way through the woods to the logging road that would take him down from Possum Knob to state highway 61. The heat of the day had left the valley and a cool breeze was rolling down the mountainside by the time his well-worn work boots first struck asphalt.
He walked for hours, navigating the many switch-backs as the roadway meandered over several ridges and down into valley after valley. Luther was able to cut through the woods between switch-backs on the downside. He would slide on the seat of his pants down the mountain, but the terrain was too steep for his bad foot to provide the support for Luther to attempt any shortcuts going up the mountainsides. The only company was the occasional deer or raccoon headed for the roadside streams still bubbling with the remnants of spring rains. He had to stop every hour or so and leave the roadway, finding a tree to lie beside and elevate his swollen foot long enough to drain the fluids and ease the pain. He then returned to the road and continued his trek in earnest.
After walking for hours, with a clear sky and full moon above, he thought it must be around midnight as he was returning to the road after one of those breaks and a quick nap. Up ahead, he saw a large shape moving through the trees accompanied by a low rumble. At first, he feared it might be a bear foraging through roadside trash piled high by those too lazy or too arrogant to drive to the county dump. As the front fenders pushed through the brush, Luther could make out the form of an old forty-seven Ford two-door coupe, either purple or black with rusting primer covering one fender, as it pulled onto the roadway from a well-hidden logging road.
As the car pulled within ten feet of Luther, he still could not see the driver’s face in the shadowed interior of the car. Then, a flash of light filled the car as the driver struck a match on the dashboard and held it to the cigarette hanging from his lower lip. His face was pasty white and smooth, like he was wearing a mask. For just a moment, as the match flared, the man’s eyes took on a red glow startling Luther and causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand at attention. “Hey, kid, come over here,” yelled the driver as he revved the engine.
Luther cautiously walked over near the passenger side of the car so as not to place himself in danger of being run over. The man’s hands were very large and powerful with oversized knuckles crisscrossed with train tracks of scar tissue. The tattoo of a dagger covered the back of the massive hand grasping the floor-mounted gear shift.
“Where you headed, boy?” the driver shouted through the open window.
“N…n…Nashville,” stammered Luther, as he struggled to swallow the fear swelling in his throat.
“Well, hell, then, jump in. I’ll git you there faster than walking,” grinned the driver through a cloud of blue smoke.
Luther slid into the passenger seat with his small bag of clothes at his feet and his guitar across his lap. He kept one hand on the door handle, determined to jump out at the first sign of trouble.
The driver put the car in gear, popped the clutch and accelerated down the highway, turning on the headlights only after they had rounded the first curve on the twisty mountain road.
“Cain’t be too careful, with a full load,” the driver laughed while pointing his thumb to the rear of the car.
Luther looked in the back of the car and noticed for the first time the back seat had been removed and a fifty-gallon steel drum was welded in its place. He could hear the contents sloshing around as they navigated the turns in the road.
Whiskey, he thought. This guy is driving moonshine for a bootlegger! Luther had heard the stories and songs bragging about whiskey runners in the mountains outrunning the law and making good money, even in bad times.
“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do to feed his family,” Pops said the night before he died.
In the glow of the man’s cigarette, Luther’s eyes were locked on the side of his face. As he drew the smoke into his lungs, instead of exhaling like most men Luther knew, he let the smoke roll out of his mouth and nose as he spoke, as though the smoke did not exist. His face was smooth as melted wax with no eyebrows or lashes and thin purple lips framing his tight mouth – not a mask, but maybe transformed from a fire.
“Kind’a scary ain’t it,” snarled the driver. “I rolled my first whiskey run and the car went up in a ball of flames. I was only fifteen and had my seatbelt on too tight. My head was on fire before I could get out. I ran fifty yards before I fell into the creek. Saved my life, but left me with a face that scares the kids!”
“I wasn’t staring.”
“Sure you were. Everybody does, but the girls like it once they get over the first shock. One girl said, ‘It’s like riding with the devil.’ Can you imagine that? Girls sure can be weird.”
“Yeah, I’m not much into girls. My name is Luther, by the way.”
“You can call me, Slick. You get it? Slick, ‘cause of my face. That’s what my friends call me now.”
“Sounds like mean friends to me.”
“Not really. It’s just the way it is,” said Slick. “Besides, I don’t carry no ID, so if the cops catch me they can’t track back to my folks. Slick, suits me just fine. They cain’t ketch me though. My uncle bored out the cylinders in this engine and put in oversized pistons and a blower. He says I got three hundred and fifty horses under the hood. He’s also the one who insisted I wear this special seat belt he installed to protect me ’cause he thought I was too young to run at high speeds when I first started running ‘shine. I’ve never had her full out, yet. Cain’t find a straight stretch long enough to let her run. Maybe when we get close to Nashville we can let her go and see what happens.
“You planning to make some money with that guitar in Nashville? Ain’t never seen a black boy playing country,” laughed Slick.
“That’s ’bout all I know,” said Luther. “Country blues from hard times on the mountain. Folks down at the juke joints likes it just fine. I can play a little rock ‘n roll, too.”
“Play me some driving music, then, boy. We got a ways to go,” Slick yelled above the roar of the engine as he pushed the car through the sharp mountain curves.
Luther strummed his guitar and started into a song he thought Slick would like:
It was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and white lighting was his load.
It was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The Law, they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.
“That’s a ketchy tune. Did you write that?”
“Oh, shit. Here comes trouble,” Slick yelled before Luther could explain the song was an old East Tennessee favorite and he thought everyone in the mountains knew it by heart.
“That car just passed us is a Revenoo’er sure ‘nough. He’ll be turning around as soon as he can and be on my tail. I gotta make tracks,” Slick said, as he pulled the car to the side of the road.
“Reach under that seat and hand me that box,” Slick motioned to Luther.
Luther pulled the cigar box out from under the seat and handed it to Slick. Slick opened the box on the seat between them. It was full of cash! More money than Luther had ever seen! Slick reached in and grabbed a one hundred dollar bill from the top of one of the stacks. He crumpled the bill in one of his large fists and then stuck it in Luther’s shirt pocket.
“This is where you get out. There’s a store a couple of miles down the road run by a Chinaman. You can trust him and the bus stops by there once a day. Tell him I sent you and he’ll make sure nobody bothers you ‘til the bus gets there. Good luck, kid.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Luther.
“I’ll double back and blow the doors off that cop’s ride. He’s probably calling up ahead to set up a road block. I cain’t let that happen.”
Slick floored the accelerator while cutting the wheel hard to the left. Luther was covered in flying gravel as the car disappeared in a cloud of dust and tire smoke. Luther headed down the road towards the next town.
Around two o’clock in the morning, Luther came over a hill and thought he could see the lights of a store in the valley below. The throbbing in his foot caused him to sit down for a short nap before going further. He was soon awakened by the roar of a powerful engine and tires screaming down the mountainside, then the faint whine of a police siren followed. In the wink of an eye, the coupe came flying over the hill. Slick flashed his lights and gave Luther a “Thumbs Up ” sign as he flew by faster than any car Luther had ever seen. There was a sharp curve, just as the road took a steep dive into the valley below, about two hundred yards from the spot where Luther stood.
He watched in horror as the coupe flew into the curve at top speed. The rear wheels lost traction and the car slid sideways into the curve, over the edge of the mountain and tumbled into the abyss below. The sounds of tearing metal and breaking glass carried up the mountainside to Luther, followed by the whoosh of an explosion and the glow from the gas- and-whiskey-fueled fire lighting up the hillside.
Luther ran down to the curve and peered over the side at the horrific scene down below.
The car was a mangled ball of fire. There was no sign of Slick anywhere. Luther could not imagine how he could have survived the crash, much less the raging fire engulfing the entire hillside. He ran further down the road to the store a quarter-mile away. As he reached the store, he could see the blue glow of a television peeking through the blinds on a window of the living quarters on the second floor of the store.
Luther began banging on the door and screaming for help. He continued banging the door even after his knuckles began to bleed. A small oriental man, who appeared to be over seventy years old, came to the door after ten minutes of Luther’s cries for help.
“Why you make such noise?” the Chinaman asked with a heavy accent.
“There was a car crash up at the curve. Slick must have burned up in the car!” frantically yelled Luther.
“I know,” said the Chinaman quietly.
“He was running whiskey! The cops were chasing him! His car missed the turn and rolled into the creek below in a ball of flames! We have to get help!” Luther continued to scream.
“You drink whiskey, tonight?” the Chinaman asked.
“No. No. I don’t drink,” said Luther. “We have to help Slick!”
“No can do,” said the Chinaman. “Slick been dead eight years.”
“What! No,” said Luther as he ran back out to the road and pointed back up the hill. It was then he noticed the fire had gone out. He ran back to the curve. His foot was throbbing, his lungs burning and he was wheezing to catch his breath as he reached the edge. He stumbled forward in shock, struggling to push his heart down from his throat.. There was a new guardrail in place and the Kudzu on the other side was lush and green, completely covering the hillside. There was no car, no fire. He could not understand.
He turned to walk back to the store and noticed a small signpost in the center of the curve. He walked over to the post and balanced on his good foot while his eyes scanned the words on the small plaque attached:
Bobby “Slick” Boydd
Last of the Whiskey Runners
May 9, 1955
Luther’s leg buckled as he sat down scratching his head. It was May 9, 1963 – eight years after the crash. Who had he seen? Had he fallen asleep by the road and dreamed it all? He had never heard the story, why would he dream such a thing? He walked back to the store in a daze.
“But he told me you were here. That I could trust you,” he said to the little old man. “He said I could catch the bus to Nashville from here.”
“True. True,” said the Chinaman. “You sit right here. Bus come by at six-thirty in morning. I go back to bed.”
Luther sat on the bench in front of the store trying to make sense of it all until exhaustion carried him off to sleep. The crunch of bus tires on roadside gravel awoke him at six-fifteen. The bus squealed to a stop in front of the store. The door opened and the driver yelled down to Luther.
“You looking to catch the bus?”
Luther rubbed his eyes and tried to stand, jiggling his bad foot still tingling with pin pricks of sleep.
“How much to go to Nashville?” he asked.
“Forty-seven fifty to the stop on Music Row,” said the driver eyeing Luther’s guitar. “Not too much for a chance to live the dream.”
Luther was pretty sure he did not have enough money for the ticket, much less for food once he reached Nashville. For just a moment, he thought he might have to keep walking and thumb for a ride. Self-consciously, he went through all his pockets looking for any cash, although he knew he had little.
Then, a smile crossed his face as he pulled the crumpled bill out of his shirt pocket and smoothed it across his knee. He grabbed his clothes sack and guitar and boarded the bus. He laughed out loud as he handed the driver the smoothed bill.
“Just give me fifty in change,” he said.
“I guess that’ll make us Slick!”