But then there were days like when she got the call for an assist out of McCray County and the raspy lady working dispatch insisted it was something Mary Beth needed to handle personally.
“Call came in nearly 30 minutes ago, Sheriff. Shots fired on McCray deputies responding to a domestic. Some old coot has ‘em pinned down, but they can’t give us an address. All we know is it’s some shack a few miles off Rural Route 4 near Cottonmouth Ridge. That’s all we got to go on. We’ve had two cars circling around who can’t find it. You know what it’s like in McCray. All those hollers and mountain roads are like a maze.”
Mary Beth’s chief deputy and best friend, Isaiah “Izzy” Baker, was riding shotgun and told dispatch to, “Just get the GPS coordinates.” But Mary Beth shook her head, knowing that wouldn’t work. You could never pick up a consistent satellite signal in McCray. Her Sirius XM cut off every time she drove through there--maybe the last place on the east coast where you could still get off the grid.
Dispatch confirmed that GPS had been tried and was a no-go and added, “They said, you’d know how to find it, Sheriff. The old coot who’s raising hell out there is supposed to be some relation of yours. James Logan.”
“Oh, shit,” Mary Beth said, looking at Izzy. She told dispatch they were en route and flipped on the party lights, pulling a 180 in the middle of College Avenue and gunning it up past 70 before fishtailing onto Sycamore. From there she got on Highway 123, which would have taken her all the way into McCray but she veered onto Rural Route 6, down toward Crawdad Holler.
“What are you doing?” Izzy asked.
“If we’re going to see my Uncle Jimmy, I want to take him a present.”
Mary Beth brought the Camaro to a hard stop where the pavement gave way to a dirt road that led up onto Cottonmouth Ridge, knowing the path was way too rough for her low-riding car and they’d have to walk it from there. She and Izzie made it to about a hundred yards from the clearing before Uncle Jimmy’s cabin, when Mary Beth felt a whoosh pass by her left ear, then a rotted-out birch tree exploded, sending wooden shrapnel flying everywhere, followed by the crack of a high-powered rifle.
“Get down!” a man’s voice called out from somewhere up ahead on their left.
Mary Beth and Izzy both dropped to the ground just as another bullet took down a large branch from a sycamore. It fell to the ground in front of them, providing enough cover for them to slither off the road into the thick stuff.
Mary Beth heard the same man’s voice yell, “Keep your head down! The old bastard’s crazy!” Her eyes tracked left until she spotted them. A gray McCray County Ford Explorer pulled off-road behind a semi-circle of shrub pine and evergreens that made a nice screen between them and the madman on the hill.
“This is Sheriff Cain and Deputy Baker from Jasper County,” she called out to them. “Who all’s over there?”
“Deputies Hawlings and Jenkins,” the man yelled back. “And one of the old man’s daughters is with us too.”
Mary Beth raised an eyebrow. “Which daughter? Janice or Raelynn?”
She could hear some whispering like the men weren’t sure, then the same man called back, “It’s Raelynn.”
“No shit? How you doin’ Rae?”
A woman’s voice responded, sounding scared and shaky, “Okay, Mae B. How you?”
“Well, I just got shot at a couple of times but other than that, I’m doing fine.”
“I know, right?”
Mary Beth hadn’t seen Raelynn in a few years but had heard she was back home with her daddy, rebounding from a nasty divorce.
“Hang on,” Mary Beth said, “I’m coming over there.”
She ordered Izzy to hold his position then cradled the brown paper bag by her stomach and made a hunched-over dash across the dirt road. Mary Beth ducked behind a shrub pine just as a bullet struck a rock behind her, making a sound like a church bell. She was crouched near the Explorer’s tailgate and scooted around to the side where the two deputies and her cousin Raelynn were cowering.
“That was close,” said the first deputy. His name tag identified him as Hawlings. He was the older of the two, mid-40s and leading man material, with a strong square jaw. Hair was more salt than pepper and he had a dark little mid-life crisis soul patch on his bottom lip that was shaped like a triangle. Mary Beth noticed Raelyn was sitting awfully close to him, rubbing shoulders as she did her damsel-in-distress routine.
“He’s had us pinned down here for over an hour,” Jenkins, the second, younger, more scared-looking deputy said. “You know this guy?”
“Sure, Uncle Jimmy’s a peach,” Mary Beth said, staring at her cousin. Mary Beth hated to admit it, but Raelynn looked good, like she’d gone on a revenge diet to let her ex-husband know what he was missing, and she’d cut her blonde hair, into a stylish little bob. Raelynn had Hawlings coat wrapped around her shoulders and when she shivered it separated revealing a skimpy little outfit underneath, like a waitress for one of those breasteraunts.
“He’s off the deep end,” Raelynn said. “Won’t take his medicine. Totally paranoid. Was plannin’ to go into town shooting the people who he thinks are out to get ‘em. I tried to hide his keys but when he heard the police pulling up he went off in a rage. I ran down here to try and warn these guys not to come no farther and he started firing on us.”
“Are his keys still in the house?” Mary Beth asked.
“Yeah, his are. I got mines.”
“How well hid are they?”
Raelynn frowned. “I did my best but I’s movin’ quick. It’s just a matter of time ‘til he finds ‘em.”
Mary Beth pushed her hat back on her head as she thought. She heard some branches break and peered around the back of the Explorer. She saw Izzy. He was still on the opposite side of the dirt road but had advanced his position to where he was even with the others, finding a good spot to hide behind a hickory stump.
“Izzy?” she called to him.
“I’m here, Sheriff.”
“We got a wild one up there, threatening to head into town, guns blazing. I’m gonna go up there and distract him.”
“How?” Izzy asked.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a plan. But while I’m distracting him, I need you to creep around back to the barn where he keeps his truck and do something to disable it.”
In addition to being the only black member of the Jasper Creek Sheriff’s Department, Izzie was also, by far, the shortest—not quite five feet even with his boots on. He made up for his lack of height though with a big personality and an even bigger gun, a .44 magnum with an extended barrel as long as his forearm that he pulled in a flash. “You want I should shoot out his tires, Sheriff?”
Mary Beth shook her head. “I was thinking of something a little more subtle. Like maybe pull out the distributor cap.”
“Oh.” Izzy holstered his gun. “Roger that, Sheriff. I’ll take care of it.” “Good. Oh, and Izzy…”
“Stay low.” She winked at Izzy who saluted her with his middle finger.
Mary Beth crawled back to the side of the Explorer. “You got a loudspeaker in there?” she asked Hawlings, gesturing toward the SUV.
“Sure,” he responded. “What are you gonna do?”
“Just talk some sense into him.”
Mary Beth opened the driver-side door and crawled inside. She switched on the loudspeaker and stood on the door jamb. She could just make out her uncle’s cabin through the evergreens, listening to the echo of her amplified voice reverberating off the mountainside: “Uncle Jimmy. This is your favorite niece. Your sister Mamie’s girl, Mary Beth—”
A shot fired, tearing through the evergreens, clipping pine cones just above Mary Beth’s head. She fell, landing flat on her back, all the air leaving her lungs.
Mary Beth was dazed. The world was spinning. Izzy was yelling, asking was she okay, sounding like a grunt in a war movie who just saw his platoon leader get shot.
“I’m okay,” she said when she was able to breathe again. She got to a seated position and shook her head to clear out the cobwebs.
“Where’s my hat?”
Raelynn handed it to her. Mary Beth snatched it jealously and examined it carefully, thankful to find it uninjured.
“His memory ain’t good, Mae B,” Raelynn said. “He’d probably know you by your nickname.”
Mary Beth groaned. She found the CB mic hanging out the door. Crouching down, staying safely behind the shield of the Explorer this time, Mary Beth said, “Uncle Jimmy, I’m the one you used to call Strawberry Shortcake.”
She heard a chuckle from the opposite side of the dirt road. Mary Beth picked up a small rock and whipped it, side-arm, in Izzy’s general direction.
“Now listen, Uncle Jimmy,” she said, slipping into her McCray slang, “I done brought you some of your favorite blueberry moonshine.” As Mary Beth spoke she pulled a mason jar of clear liquid from the brown bag she’d been carrying. “I’m gonna walk it down this here dirt road and bring it to ya. But first, I’m gonna take the lid off.”
Mary Beth screwed off the gold lid and tossed it aside, catching a whiff of ethanol so strong she felt a contact buzz just off the smell. “So, you be a good ole boy and don’t shoot me, cause if you do, I’m gonna spill all this good ‘shine—and that’d be a tragedy.”
Izzy watched Mary Beth in disbelief. “You’re gonna get your head blown off!” he yelled.
Mary Beth waved for him to be quiet. “I swear she won’t be happy until she gives me a heart attack,” Izzy muttered. Mary Beth was brave. There was no doubt about that. Some said she was fearless. But reckless, was the word that more often came to Izzy’s mind when he thought of his best friend.
“You’re not gonna shoot are ya, Uncle Jimmy?” he heard her say. “Cause this here shine sure smells good.”
Izzy peered through the trees up toward the cabin, trying to get a fix on the old man, but all he could make out was a shadowy form up on the porch. A few seconds went by. No shots.
“Okay, I’m comin’ up now,” Mary Beth said. “Just me, Uncle Jimmy. ” As Mary Beth said this she looked over at Izzy and nodded for him to get moving.
“Shit. Here we go.” Izzy hated the woods. If he came within a country mile of poison ivy he’d have a rash for weeks. He crawled out from behind the hickory stump and crouched as low as he could, making a wide sweeping maneuver to his right so he could safely flank the house without alerting the old man. But staying quiet wasn’t easy, there were so many damned twigs and pine cones hidden on the leaf-covered ground that kept cracking and snapping no matter how delicately he stepped.
Izzy was a good distance from Mary Beth now, watching her slowly walking down the dirt path but he caught her glaring in his direction, mouthing for him to, “shut the hell up.” Izzy stepped on another branch that made a loud crack. He closed his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the sound of a gunshot. None came. Instead, he heard Mary Beth start singing at the top of her lungs.
Country Roads—West Virginia’s unofficial state song, singing it loud enough to cover up the noise Izzy was making trying to trek through the woods and he swept farther and farther to his right, little twigs popping with nearly every step. He lost sight of Mary Beth just as she was hitting the line about the misty taste of moonshine.
As Izzy drew closer, he realized the cabin was a lot bigger than it looked from a distance, and it was no shack. Built from light brown logs with thick white mortar like vanilla frosting, he could tell it had been recently stained and was well maintained. Looked almost like a gingerbread house. Two stories. Had a brick, wrap-around porch on three sides and a large detached garage, separated from the house by about 20 yards. Izzy was coming up on the back of the house, making a beeline for the garage past an antique tractor on display, surrounded by fountain grass and planters full of posies.
The garage must be what Mary Beth had referred to as Uncle Jimmy’s barn. It was built of the same wood as the house and had double barn-style doors that swung out.
Izzy found it unlocked but a rusty hinge squeaked as he pulled on the heavy door. Izzy froze, training his ears on the front of the house to see if he’d been detected. He could hear Mary Beth still singing, the old man actually singing with her now, really getting into it.
Izzy opened the door just enough to wriggle inside. There he found not one truck but two. A little white Chevy S-10, the hood at Izzy’s eye-level, and a big black Ford F-150 that he’d need a good-sized step-stool to reach. Izzy wasn’t sure how much time there’d be to accomplish this little mission and took a guess that the big truck belonged to the old man. The little one was probably Raelynn’s.
Fortunately, the F-150 was unlocked, so popping the hood was no problem. Reaching it would be. Uncle Jimmy had a large, red, Craftsman tool chest in the corner that looked big enough. Izzy unlocked the wheels and rolled it close to the black truck, locked it in place, and after several failed tries, eventually climbed on top of it, using it as a step ladder to sprawl under the hood of the F-150. He located the blue distributor cap that housed the spark plugs but found it pretty well protected by some type of exhaust tube.
Izzy made a half-hearted effort to remove the tube, before he decided to change to a more expedient course. He fished a pair of snippers out of the tool chest and simply cut the wires leading into the distributor cap. It would be a lot harder to restore power to the truck that way, but it wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
After climbing down from the truck, Izzy rolled the tool box to the rear of the garage and noticed for the first time the two stickers on the rear bumper of the F-150. One read, REDNECK PRINCESS. The other, WARNING: MY BOOBS ARE BIGGER THAN MY BRAINS. Using his highly-trained powers of detection, Izzy guessed that the vehicle he’d just disabled belonged to Raelynn.
“Son of a bitch.”
Izzy went back to the door to see if he could hear Mary Beth. He couldn’t. The singing had stopped. He wasn’t sure what was going on out there or how much time he’d have. For all he knew, the old man could be headed this way
Izzy moved quick. He fished the snippers back out of the tool box and went to work on the S-10. It was a lot lower and easier to reach but he wasn’t going to waste time trying to neatly remove its distributor cap. Izzy found the wires leading into it and started cutting away.
He ‘d just closed the hood when he heard Mary Beth scream, “Uncle Jimmy! No!”
Then there was a gunshot. After that, Izzy heard what sounded like a woman in the distance, howling in pain. It was an awful, primal sound. Then there was another shot and the howling stopped.
Mary Beth was doing John Denver proud, singing Country Roads with all the gusto she could muster. The old man actually started singing with her as she got close, closing his eyes as he belted out the chorus, sawing back and forth in his white wooden rocking chair. She’d made it to within ten yards of the porch without getting shot by the time the song was over.
Mary Beth had remembered how much Uncle Jimmy loved Country Roads—used to line the kids up and make them sing it right before the head-standing competition at the family reunions. Piping it out, loud and proud, was the only thing she could think of to distract Uncle Jimmy from all the damn racket Izzy was making trying to creep through the woods. She’d lost sight of Izzy some time ago and didn’t know if he’d made it to the garage yet or not. Unless Uncle Jimmy asked for an encore, Izzy’d have to move a lot quieter or else he was likely to get shot.
“You got a good voice, Strawberry.” Uncle Jimmy was a wiry little thing, shorter than Mary Beth and probably didn’t weigh 140 pounds dripping wet. Had snow white hair slicked back like a greaser with too much pomade and wore black-framed, sixties style glasses, coke-bottle thick, that looked like they should come with a pocket protector.
“Thanks,” Mary Beth said. “You know you ought not shoot at people who are tryin’ to come visit ya, Uncle Jimmy.”
Uncle Jimmy shrugged. He had an old M40 rifle with a high-powered scope laid across his lap. “Those were just warning shots, Strawberry. If’ I’d wanted to hit ya, I’d a hit ya.”
“Well what a ya want a go scaring me for?” Mary Beth was turning on the little girl charm, syrupy sweet.
“I thought you’s with them.” Uncle Jimmy pointed his rifle toward the stand of evergreens in the distance.
The pit bull jerked at his chain, violently yanking his head around trying desperately to pull free of his collar.
“Say, Uncle Jimmy, does your dog bite?” she asked. Jimmy looked down at the mastiff as though just realizing he was there. “Nah, Two Dogs don’t bite,” he said. “Sit down Two Dogs! And shut up!” The dog complied, sitting next to Uncle Jimmy like a stone gargoyle.
Mary Beth looked around to see if there was another dog on the porch that she’d missed somehow. There wasn’t.
“Why do you call him Two Dogs?”
Uncle Jimmy looked at her like she was stupid. “Cause it’s his name, I reckon.” “Yeah, but why’d you name him that—seeing as there’s only one of him?”
“Cause there used to be two, but one got kilt, tusslin’ with black bear. After that I kept hollerin’ ‘Two Dogs’ and this one kept a comin’. So no need to change it. Your name’s whatever you answer to.”
Mary Beth, who was used to being called all manner of names and nicknames—Mary, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Beth, Mae B., MB, Sheriff, even Strawberry Shortcake—had to admit that made some sense. Uncle Jimmy had always been full of little nuggets of hillbilly wisdom like that. He could have gotten a job writing fortunes that they stuck inside something unique to West Virginia—pepperoni rolls, maybe, or the bottom of a moonshine jar—if there was such a thing.
“So how ‘bout that bottle of blue?”
“Right.” Mary Beth stepped timidly up on the porch, staying as far as she could from the dog and gave her uncle the jar. He wasted no time getting into it. Mary Beth let him. She took a seat in the empty rocking chair that backed up to the mountain side of the porch and gave Uncle Jimmy a few minutes of quiet sipping as they both enjoyed the view.
The whole time she was thinking about Izzy. How much time would he need to get the truck disabled? Quite a bit, she feared. Izzy wasn’t exactly mechanically inclined. Once in high school she’d had to show him how to check the oil in his grandmother’s El Camino. She’d better keep Uncle Jimmy talking.
A strong gust of wind came off the mountain and whipped around the porch. Mary Beth buttoned the top button of her coat, shivering from the cold and noticed Uncle Jimmy was just wearing a flannel shirt, no coat, but didn’t seem bothered by the elements. “Sweet Jesus, Uncle Jimmy, it’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love up here. Don’t you wanta put on a coat?””
Uncle Jimmy held the mason jar out to her. “Have a hoot. That’ll warm you up.” Mary Beth wanted to keep her wits about her and knew from long experience just how strong Colby’s shine could be. “I’ll pass,” she said.
Uncle Jimmy gave her a dead stare. “I said, have a hoot.”
Mary Beth took the jar tentatively, eyeing the fermented blueberries floating inside like dead bodies.
“Well what should we drink to?” she asked.
“Let’s drink to the Flash.”
The Flash, was a reference to Elwood Gray, a local folk hero. One of the first black men to ever play for McCray County High School after integration who led the team to back-to-back championships in ‘64 and ’65. But, unfortunately, the Flash had recently gone down in flames—literally. Wasn’t more than a fortnight ago he’d got drunk in his Mapelton apartment and fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand, setting his easy chair on fire.
“To the late, great, Elwood Gray,” Mary Beth said, and took a healthy sip from the jar. The liquor hit her instantly, burning down her chest and turning her cheeks red. She hacked a little from the overpowering taste.
Uncle Jimmy cackled. “God damn. That’s good ain’t it?” His teeth were yellow and sharp, much like the dog’s. Probably needed dentures if you could ever get him to a dentist.
“Sure is,” Mary Beth said in a hoarse voice, handing back the jar. Uncle Jimmy helped himself to a few more sips.
Her goal was just to keep talking, give Izzy all the time he needed to disable the truck, and keep Uncle Jimmy drinking for as long as she could. She figured if she could get him halfway through that jar, he’d have to go take a long alcohol-induced nap, and Raelynn could handle him from there. Just start mixing his meds in with his mashed potatoes and he should be fine.
“Raelynn, says you don’t want to take your medicine,” Mary Beth said.
“Raelynn,” he said with disgust. “She’s in it with ‘em.”
“All of ‘em. Them prospectors wanting to buy up everybody’s land for nothing, keep mining around, looking for clean coal. Clean coal. Dumbest damn thing I ever heard. Coal ain’t s’posed to be clean. If it’s clean, it ain’t coal!”
“Well, you need your medicine, Uncle Jimmy. Every time you stop taking it you get yourself in trouble. Remember a few years back I had to come up here and smooth things out for ya?”
Uncle Jimmy seemed to be grasping for the memory but not quite reaching it. “I don’t recollect,” he said.
“Remember Buck Davis?”
Uncle Jimmy scowled and ran his gnarled hands through his hair, fluffing out the feathers of his duck-ass hairdo. Mary Beth could see it coming back to him. It was then that he took note of the star on her hat. “That’s right. You’re the law ain’t ya? Over there in Jasper Creek?”
“That’s right,” Mary Beth said.
Uncle Jimmy had a plug chew crammed inside his lip and spat, leaving a trail of it running down his chin, clinging to his beard stubble. Mary Beth didn’t know how in the hell he could chew that stuff and drink at the same time.
“Can’t trust the law ‘round here,” he said. “They’re all in on it too.”
“In on what?”
“They work for the coal companies. Always have.”
Jimmy took another sip. He breathed real deep, enjoying the burn of that one. “They want me to take my medicine to numb me out. Keep me from takin’ care of my business.”
“What business is that, Uncle Jimmy?”
He gave her a hard stare. “Revenge, little girl. Revenge for the Flash. I know they kilt ‘em.”
Mary Beth didn’t like the mean look on Uncle Jimmy’s face. Not while he was gripping that rifle he’d kept from his Marine days. She tried to sound extra calm. “Now why would somebody wanta do that?”
Uncle Jimmy took a long drink and leaned back in his chair, looking at places far away. His eyes were already a little glassy and Mary Beth could tell the wheels of his damaged brain were starting to turn slower and slower.
“‘Cause Gray took a stand against ‘em see. Against big coal. Telling it like it is. Tried to block the strip mining and get some new businesses in here. Made all kinds of enemies. You say something bad against coal and folks around here are on you like stink on shit. They think coal is mother’s milk. But what they don’t realize is, the milk is poison.”
Mary Beth had heard a little about Elwood Gray’s opposition to a new strip mine in McCray. He had some pie in the sky idea about attracting green energy companies to come in and revitalize the area. Mary Beth had her doubts about that but didn’t think it was fair how some folks had labelled Gray a job killer.
“So, who is it you’re seeking revenge against? Who’s the bad guy?”
Uncle Jimmy wasn’t in a mood to let relevant questions like that get in the way of the delusion he was swimming in. “They!” he shouted. “Them!” He shook his head angrily. “I don’t know exactly who, but I’m gonna find out.”
Mary Beth knew she probably shouldn’t provoke Uncle Jimmy but she had some small hope she might be able to reason with him a bit. Get him to talk through what he was thinking and realize it wasn’t rational.
“The way I hear it, the Flash killed his self,” Mary Beth said.
Uncle Jimmy didn’t like that. “Uh, uh. Ain’t no way.”
“That’s what the paper said. They say he got drunk and fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and got burnt up.”
Uncle Jimmy slapped the arm of his rocking chair. “The man didn’t drink!” “How do you know that?”
“Cause I just saw him this past April. We was both ridin’ a car in the Easter parade and got to talkin’. He told me he gave up the drinkin’.”
“So, suppose he lied?”
“The Flash don’t lie.”
“Okay, so, suppose he was tellin’ the truth at the time, that he’d quit drinkin’ but then later he started up again.”
Uncle Jimmy squinted hard at her. A frightening expression formed on his face. She’d seen it once before. Back when she had to smooth things over for him after his incident with Buck Davis. It was his war face. In one quick motion, Uncle Jimmy raised up his rifle, pointing it in her direction.
Mary Beth barely had time to yell, “Uncle Jimmy! No!” before he pulled the trigger.
The sound was deafening from such close range. Mary Beth’s ears were ringing as she started to register the fact she was still alive. She heard some kind of terrible shrill howling noise that grew louder as her hearing recovered. Then Uncle Jimmy squeezed off another shot and Mary Beth turned her attention up on the ridge behind her, where she saw a dying bear curled around the base of a tree.
“We’re in the revenge business today, Two Dogs.” The dog looked up at Jimmy licking its lips, asking permission. “Go on Two Dogs,” he said, as he undid the leash. “Go and get you some revenge for what they did to your brother.”
“I thought the old man had shot you,” Izzy said, when Mary Beth finally returned to the clearing, thirty minutes after watching Two Dogs drag the big cat back to the house. “I came around the corner ready to fire and I see a crazy dog tearing that bear to pieces and you and your uncle up on the porch sipping moonshine like you were just watching TV or something.”
Mary Beth smiled. “Had to wait around until he finally fell asleep.” She turned to Raelynn. “Just slip his meds into his coffee whenever he gets up.”
She was thinking about what her Uncle Jimmy had said, wondering if the old coot might be onto something about the Flash. What if his death wasn’t what it appeared? What if the law in McCray was crooked? And Lord of Mercy what a mess that would be.
Mary Beth brushed past them, eyeing what was left of the shine, swirling it around the mason jar.
“Where are you going?” Izzy asked.
“After all that,” Mary Beth said, “I need a drink.”
Izzy looked down at his watch. “It’s 10 am.”
Mary Beth hollered back. “I know. It’s fixin’ to be one hell of a day.”