This early novel from bestselling author James Lee Burke is a gritty coming-of-age story about a young Kentucky miner growing up in the Appalachian mountains who’s torn between his family life and the lure of the city.
James Lee Burke, a writer who “can touch you in ways few writers can” (The Washington Post) brings his brilliant feel for time and place to this stunning story of Appalachia in the early 1960s. Here, Perry Woodson Hatfield James, a young man torn between family honor and the lure of seedy watering holes, must somehow survive the tempestuous journey from boyhood to manhood and escape the dark and atavistic heritage of the Cumberland Mountains.
THREE MEN AND a boy sat in the dark in a battered 1958 Ford on a shale road that wound along the base of the mountain. One of them smoked a hand-rolled cigarette in the cup of his hands, bending down his head below the level of the windows whenever he drew in the smoke. The first leaves were shedding from the trees, and they rattled dryly along the road in the wind. Around the curve of the road was the coal tipple, huge and looming over the railway tracks that led past the mine opening down towards the switch where the C & O made up the long freight cars that would eventually take the coal to Pittsburgh. The boy, Perry Woodson Hatfield James, sat in the backseat with one hand gripped tightly under his thigh and the other over his wrist. He could feel the sweat form under his arms and run cold down his sides. He believed that if fear had a smell it would already have soaked through his clothes and permeated everything in the car. He could smell it in himself every time he took a breath. It was a rancid odor, like something dead in the sun. Big J.W. and Little J.W. sat in the front, immobile against the glow of the moon except when Little J.W. bent to smoke off the cigarette. They were half brothers, both fathered by a North Carolina moonshiner who was killed at the age of seventy-six in the dirt streets of Harlan while giving whiskey free to the miners when John L. Lewis first organized the coal fields and the National Guard was sent in by the state to shoot down a man who tried to stop a scab from crossing the picket.
Big J.W. wore a tin hat down low on his forehead, and his skin was grained with coal dust, rubbed so deep around the corners of his eyes that it looked like a burn. The faded pinstriped coat he wore over his overalls was stretched almost to tearing across his angular shoulders, and the knobs on his wrist looked like white bones sticking out of his sleeves. His teeth were yellow and long, and his fingernails were as thick and hard as tortoiseshell, broken to the quick and colored with blue-black half-moons. His wife cut his hair with a straight-edged razor, and it hung unevenly over the back of his neck like a girl’s. Little J.W. was a small round man with a hard, little, round stomach that pushed against his work trousers. He was thought to be an invaluable man in the mines because he could go a half mile up and down a narrow shaft on his hands and knees like a groundhog. His soft, brown eyes and quiet mountain accent caused few people to pay any particular attention to him except when there was an explosion or cave-in down in the hole and somebody was needed to crawl through the fallen limestone and timbers to some gas-filled pocket deep in the earth where no sane person would go. But those who knew him well realized that he was a much more dangerous person than Big J.W., and when set in motion he would go at something or someone with the quiet rage of a hot iron scorched across wood. Once, he and an uncle argued while drinking, and after the uncle drew a knife, Little J.W. hit him six times in the head with a poker and threw him off the front porch of the company cabin into the yard. “Pull a knife on me, will you,” he said, the poker still in his hand. “Pull one against your own blood, will you. Well, if you get home by yourself that’s all right with me, and by God if you die out here in the lot that’s all right with me, too.”
On the back floor of the car, under a blanket, were a lever-action 30-caliber Winchester, a double-barreled twelve-gauge with the barrels sawed off two inches in front of the chambers, fourteen cans of dynamite, three primers, and a four-hundred-foot spool of cap wire. The boy also knew that each of the three men with him carried a .38, since they would no more leave home without it than they would without their trousers.
“It ain’t we got to blow it,” he said. “Maybe just set it up on the mountain and push some rock down on the hole.”
“I done told you, honey,” Big J.W. said. “We’re a-blowing that tipple right over on the moneyman’s head. We didn’t risk no year in Frankfort breaking open the shack just to move some rock around.”
“Moon’s a-setting,” Little J.W. said.
“Get them charges out, Perry,” Bee, the man next to the boy, said. He was the boy’s uncle, a tall man who had to stoop slightly so his head wouldn’t hit the top of the car. Like Big J.W., he wore overalls, with a leather belt around his waist, and a suitcoat and a cloth slug cap on his head. Years ago he had lost his dentures, and his mouth was collapsed in rows of thick creases around his lips. His gums were blackened from the wad of snuff that was always under his tongue. During the forties he did two years in the Kentucky penitentiary for shooting a company deputy, and because he had refused to name any of the other men who shot three more company men in the same battle, he was made a business agent for the United Mine Workers when he was paroled. He rasped and coughed into his sleeve. He’d had silicosis since he was twenty-five from working in the mines before the companies had been forced to put ventilation systems in the shaft.
“What if them scabs is there?” Perry said.
“They’re a-going right with it,” Big J.W. said. “They can steal food out of a man’s mouth down in hell if they’ve still a mind for it.”
Bee tore the blanket off the explosives and guns. “Now you build them charges,” he said. “By God, there ain’t nobody saying a James or a Hatfield puts a scab before a workingman.”
The boy screwed the cans end to end, tightening each socket securely. He built the charges in cylinders of four cans each, with a primer on the butt end of each row. The sweat on his hands was cold against the metal. There’s enough here to put half the mountain down in the holler, he thought. Them four hundred feet of wire ain’t even going to give us running distance. We’ll be a-setting here with rocks big as cars coming down on us. I seen them drop a charge like this on Black Mountain in Harlan once, and the trees and rocks burst all over the sun. The dust stayed black across the crest of the ridge until twilight when it started to rain. He wished he was back home in the cabin now, with the dry poplar logs and huge coal lumps burning in the blackened sandstone fireplace. He was too afraid to care whether he worked union or not. Maybe the operator ain’t wrong, he thought. Maybe he can’t afford to pay scale, and it ain’t nothing but trouble to push union in the coal field. We was doing all right with what they was giving us. Twelve dollars a day is more than we’re a-getting on the picket. There wasn’t no shooting and no company men coming around the houses asking where the men was at the night before. We didn’t have nobody cutting off our charge at the store. And on Saturday afternoon a feller had a hard dollar in his pocket to ride the bus into Winfro Valley for the Barn Dance that’s over the radio.
Then he felt an old secret shame inside him at his fear. His people had been against the operator since his grandfather had had his mineral rights stolen out from under him for fifty cents an acre by a New York sharper—an eastern feller, with a gold watch that must have cost a hundred dollars hanging on his vest, his grandfather had said. He set down at your table and told ye how good your fatback and greens was and how the half dollar would pay the county tax and said the land wasn’t good for anything no way. Bought up the whole holler for no more than the price of that train ticket from New York. And didn’t tell nobody that what ye signed give the operator the right to do whatever he wanted to the top of the land. They could tear away the mountain and let it slide all across your tobacco crop, there wasn’t nothing ye could do about it except go to work for him.
Perry knew that no James or Hatfield in his family had ever been afraid of operators, company thugs, strikebreakers with their axe handles, or even the National Guard. His grandfather said he was related to Frank James, the outlaw who hid out in the Cumberland after robbing a bank with Jesse over in West Virginia, and his mother was a direct descendant of Devil Anse Hatfield, who killed McCoys all over Pike and Logan counties. His family had been union people even before John L. Lewis and the CIO organized the coal field. They had fought side by side with the organizers from the National Miners Union before the Great Depression, when the man who breathed the word “union” was fired from his job, evicted from his company-owned cabin, maybe run out of the county by the sheriff, and sometimes shot and thrown down the hollow.
“It’s dark enough now,” Big J.W. said. “Hand baby brother up the shotgun.”
Perry gave Little J.W. the sawed-off double-barrel and watched against the door.
The entrance to the mine was a dark, square gap in the face of the mountain. Farther down, a huge slag heap was smoking in the cold. Since the time he was a small child Perry could not remember ever having been near a mine without smelling the odor of burning slag. It was a fire that never went out because its source of fuel was never stopped, and the air around his home always had the same acrid stench to it. The coal from the tipple spilled across the road into a black slide and down the gulley into a stream. Next to the road a discarded sign on a wooden stick, left from the day’s picketing, was propped at an angle against a rock. It read in crude, hand-printed letters: this mine unfair it dont hire union men.
“They didn’t leave no guard,” Little J.W. said.
“Watch that opening. Them scabs might be a-drawing right down on my windshield now,” Big J.W. said. “Remember when they shot up Noah Combs? He never knew where they was at till he was right up on the shaft.”
Bee took the .38 special from the bib pocket of his overalls and let it rest in his palm against his leg. Big J.W. drove past the tipple a hundred yards and stopped the car under an overhang of pine trees. The base of the burning slag heap glowed red in the breeze. Down in the hollow Perry could hear the bats squeaking through the darkness as they swept in circles over the creek.
“Don’t do no talking when we’re out of the car,” Big J.W. said. “And if you see a scab, drop him fast before he gets off a shot. He hits one of them primers and they’ll have to scrub us off the mountain.”
The four of them got out of the car onto the road. The wind against the sweat on Perry’s face made him cold. He and Big J.W. each carried two sticks of charges; they held the spool of cap wire between them with an iron pipe stuck through the center. They moved up the mountain towards the tipple, over the scattered lumps of coal and slag. The rocks rolling down under their boots and hands sounded to Perry like an avalanche crashing into the hollow. There ain’t no sense in it, he thought. You ain’t got to blow half the county to let them know we wasn’t working for no one-twenty-five. There ain’t going to be no work anyhow when the tipple goes.
Before they got to the base of the tipple, Little J.W. and Bee dropped to one knee and pointed their guns to each side of the structure. Bee held his .38 straight ahead of him, with his left hand gripped around his wrist to steady his aim. The boy and Big J.W. moved up to the steel stanchions sunk in concrete that supported the weight of the tipple. Perry’s fingers felt thick and uncoordinated as he and Big J.W. placed the charges around a stanchion on the downhill side of the mountain and wrapped them securely with baling wire. Big J.W. pulled the end of the cap wire loose from the spool and carefully set the small plastic tube of gelatin detonator across a primer head and wound it over with electrician’s tape. Then he took the spool of wire and made two turns around the bottom of the stanchion and tied a sailor’s bowknot in it so that the tube of gelatin would not pull loose when they strung the wire downhill.
Big J.W. grabbed the boy’s arm hard and pulled him into a crouch beside him. Several rocks rolled past them from above. They waited in the dark, hardly breathing, while the bats squeaked and whirled above them. Little J.W. and Bee looked like carved soldiers, frozen in their positions. Run now, the boy thought. Drop the wire and take off across the road into the holler. It ain’t cowardice to run from getting shot at. People in wars do it. They didn’t say nothing about shooting. It ain’t fair to get shot at when you ain’t got a gun.
“Set, boy,” Big J.W. whispered fiercely, his hand tightening on Perry’s arm.
“We can’t even see them. They’ll tear us up soon as we get in the open.”
“Shut.” This time the hand clenched so tightly over his arm that the boy thought his blood veins were pressed flat against the bone.
They waited five minutes under the tipple, each with his hand squeezed hard on the iron bar that held the spool of wire, the slag cutting into their knees. Perry felt that even if a small rock was set in motion by the point of his boot, a volley of shotgun and rifle fire would open up that would blow him backwards like a pile of rags onto the road.
“Start stringing it,” Big J.W. said. They crawled down the mountain between the two other men while Big J.W. pulled the cap wire off the spool with one hand and laid it out evenly behind them. Bee’s extended arm was as rigid as a thick piece of wood as he kept his pistol pointed towards the top of the rise, his jaws sucking slowly on the saliva-smooth lump of snuff in his mouth. He started to cough once and pressed his palm across his face, spitting tobacco juice all over himself in a dry rasp. Perry knew that somewhere up there in the dark a man had the V-sight of a carbine lined in on the nape of his neck, and involuntarily he kept touching the back of his head with his hand. I wouldn’t be afraid if they give me a gun, he thought. Them company guards ain’t likely to stick to a fight when they get shot back at. Big J.W. wouldn’t be a-grabbing on to me like he was something unless he had that special in his pocket.
He felt that a gun would be like a piece of magic in his pocket. He knew the heart-pounding and heavy breathing would stop if he could feel a .38 stuck hard down inside his trousers with the hammer on half cock. A gun was something smooth and lovely that fitted into the curve of a man’s palm as though it were an extension of his arm. You could hold scabs and company deputies at a distance with it, and you didn’t have to be afraid of a man letting off a shotgun at you from the dark opening of a mine shaft. Noah Combs wouldn’t have been shot up if he’d had his revolver in his hand rather than in his glove compartment when the company guards hit him from both sides of the road.
Perry and Big J.W. made the road and strung out the last of the wire to the automobile. Big J.W. unlatched the hood, raised it carefully, and pulled the cap off of a spark plug. Little J.W. and Bee moved backwards down the mountain, with their guns still pointed in front of them. The mountains looked cold as iron. The black trunks of the trees and the sharp rock walls of the cliffs were beginning to coat with ice. The boy’s feet felt like stone. J.W. opened his pocketknife and shaved off the insulation from the end of the cap wire. He pulled the wire apart in two sections and wrapped the exposed metal strands around the head of the spark plug and replaced the rubber cap.
It ain’t too late, the boy thought. Run on down the road as far as you can get and it ain’t a part of you no longer. Stringing the wire didn’t hurt nobody. Get across the ridge into the next holler and it’s them burning out the operator. You didn’t have nothing to do with sending that spark up to the charge. They ain’t going to send a feller to Frankfort for laying some wire down a mountain when it would have got done if you was there or not.
He put his chafed hands down deep inside his pockets and felt his fingers come out through the worn lining against his thighs. His long, straw-colored coarse hair was damp with sweat, even in the wind. The women in his family said he looked like a Hatfield, because at sixteen he was already taller than most of the men in the hollow where he lived. They said his eyes were like a Hatfield’s, too, washed-out and pale, as though he were looking at you from under water. The pupils looked like pieces of burnt cinder. He was always able to pass for several years older than his age, and he had been working in shaft mines since his fifteenth birthday. His hands and the hard, bone places in his face had already begun to take on the black discoloration from the coal dust. In a few more years his face would look like Big J.W.’s, with the grit from the coal seam ground deeply into the pores, and no amount of scrubbing with the hard, skin-blistering soaps they sold at the company store could get rid of it. His clothes, made of different fabrics and belonging to at least two generations of the James family, were faded and patched and without any resemblance of a crease in them from being washed in boiling water and left to dry over a rick fence behind the cabin. The old suitcoat his father had given him was too large for his shoulders and it hung limply against his back. The work shoes he wore were hard as brick from walking through water every day at the bottom of the hole, and they had rubbed a ring of callus around his ankles. He looked as though he were made of sticks; but his long arms could swing a pick harder than a grown man, and he could work two shifts in a row in the mine when other men wouldn’t stay sixteen hours in the hole even for double time.
“What we got to blow it for?” he whispered. “They’ll find the charge and know we wasn’t fooling with them.”
“Because the operator don’t sign a contract till it starts costing him money,” Big J.W. said.
“There’s somebody moving around on that ridge,” Little J.W. said, the sawed-off double-barrel hanging loosely by his side. “Knock the fire out of their ass and let’s get off this mountain.”
“Get ready to pull that wire, baby brother,” Big J.W. said. He got into the front seat to start the engine, and the other three crouched behind the far side of the automobile.
They ain’t got no sense, Perry thought, his head pulled down between his knees. We’ll get buried under all that coal and rock. There won’t even be no way to tell who we was when they dig us out.
As Big J.W. turned the ignition and pressed the starter, the boy leaped to his feet and ran for the far side of the road, towards the slope that fell off into the hollow. He heard the car engine gun and looked over his shoulder to see the tipple explode in white and yellow flame. The noise was as if God had crashed every lightning bolt He owned into the side of the mountain. The roar of sound and the heat rushed over him and beat against the walls of the hollow. In that instant when the flame ripped over the black sides of the tipple, he saw a man’s silhouette stand out sharply on top, and then the whole structure erupted in pieces of torn metal into the sky. Years later, he would never know if he actually heard a scream in that ear-splitting second or if something inside him was screaming. Slag and coal and rock clattered down on the automobile and broke both front windows. Little J.W. and Bee were hunched over on the ground, with their hands over their heads. A twisted spar whistled through the air like a cannonball, cutting through the tops of two maple trees. The air became black with coal dust. As the last echo of the explosion began to thin in the distance, the boy could hear the leaves from the trees settling to the ground around him.
Little J.W. ran to the hood of the car, pulled the cap wire loose from the spark plug, and threw it behind him on the ground.
“Get that boy out of there,” he yelled.
Perry felt a pair of hands on each side of him grab his arms and pull him towards the car. He choked on the coal dust when he breathed. It seemed that the mountain with the jagged hole torn in its side was spinning rapidly around him and was about to crash in an avalanche over his head. He thought he was going to be sick, as though he had drunk too much corn whiskey on an empty stomach. Then he felt the movement of the car jolt him against the seat, and he knew he was roaring down the mountain, because he could see the trees change shape in the moonlight through the spiderwebbed cracks in the front windows.
James Lee Burke is a New York Times bestselling author, two-time winner of the Edgar Award, and the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in Fiction. He’s authored thirty-six novels and two short story collections. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
Get our latest book recommendations, author news, and competitions right to your inbox.