The first preview of Redemption Ridge, Volume II of The Taliaferro Chronicles. Let me know how you like it!
Their first kill was accidental. If the old man hadn’t been walking the ridge alone. If he hadn’t been wearing a brown plaid flannel coat. If their dads had come with them or had made them obey the hunting laws, for that matter. If Sandy at the Beer Bell had asked them for ID. A lot of ifs Doug called it or the old man might not have died that glorious October afternoon.
At first they decided that no matter how they looked at it, they agreed that it was the old man’s fault. Years later when they were still killing, his death was the one they remembered most. They laughed about walking across the ridge to where he lay gasping for breath. That was when they found that they liked killing people more than deer.
Although deer hunting season was almost six weeks away, that Sunday afternoon deer hunt was their own reward to themselves for having played what they considered an excellent football game the night before – one where they had trounced Clay County 35-0. They had decided to go hunting the night before while driving home from the game and playing their favorite game of busting mail boxes. As they took turns driving and swinging a baseball bat at the mailboxes, they were also finishing off the case of beer that Doug’s dad had just given them. Doug’s dad was proud of his quarterback son and rewarded the boys with a case of Schlitz every time they won a game. The reward wasn’t as good when they lost like when they had failed to beat Woodrow Wilson last year in the Regionals. Doug’s dad had beaten the shit out him. Doug took the beating without saying a word. Doug accepted it as the way things were supposed to be and knew he just had to do better the next time.
When Doug was little, he had asked his mother to keep his dad from hitting him, but his mother, Helen, told him to take it like a man and to stop being a whiny baby like his older brother, Sammy. Not that Doug’s dad had spared her or his brother in his rages either. He had been harder on them. But Doug was determined to show his dad what a man he could be, so he was as merciless on the football field as he was off. He was a bully at his high school. If he were beaten at home, some poor jerk would get beaten at school the next day just for being in the hall or the bathroom or the locker room at the wrong time.
But the Sunday afternoon the boys shot the old man, they discovered so much more about themselves than their families or church or school or football or sex or even drinking had ever taught them.It had taught them that watching a person die was the best high they could get.
The day was warm enough to shed their jackets, but they kept them on anyway. They were the varsity stars of Gladstone High and they wore their letter jackets everywhere. They kept their hair just a little bit shorter than most kids in their school, especially the hippie band students or even the shop boys who stayed away from them most of the time. The slightly shorter hair was a symbol of whom they believed they were in the social order of the school. They believed they had their choice of any girl at the school, although they weren’t really liked by many of their fellow students. But they were feared and because they associated being liked with being feared, they never knew what most people thought of them.
Doug was stupidly unaware of what the girls in the school had to say about him. At 5’9”, his shortcomings were more than just his height and more than a few girls had giggled over that. With light brown hair and a constant smirk, he was not handsome, but he was muscular. He never understood the difference between the two. One of the cheerleaders, who had spent a few too many hours watching the Gong Show, always called him the Unknown Comic – someone with muscles but who needed a bag on his head before she would go near him.
Tim was handsome and tall, but not very bright. When Doug wasn’t with him, he could be kind. But Doug was almost always with him and that tainted his reputation. It was only after Doug went off to college that Tim began to make other friends.
That day in the mountains above the New RiverValley where the seemingly benign, but actually deadly river meandered below them, the leaves had turned bright red and orange, almost glowing against the brilliance of the clear turquoise blue sky. The river looked small and peaceful from where they sat, but one of the earlier lessons they had learned in life was that the river killed and it killed fast.
Tim told Doug once that he had heard a legend that the river was called New in English because the Indian word for the river sounded the same as the word new, but that the Indian word actually meant death. Doug told him he was stupid to believe those old stories.
But that legend, whether true or not, was one they came to believe because of their own young stupidity. When they were twelve years old, they dragged the rusted and abandoned car top of a 1950s Dodge and decided to use it to float down the river. They pushed the car top into the water and then jumped on, each of them grabbing a long metal arm at the front of the car top, thinking they could use it to steer the top through the water. They had gone about a quarter of a mile when they realized they were in real trouble. The car top kept hitting hidden rocks that tossed the top and them with it up into the air, causing it to spin wildly. They finally both jumped from the car top in what looked to be a place close to the bank. As they crawled up over the bank they watched as the car top was thrown high in the air and landed in the river right side up. It had overturned and sank as it bashed itself against one large rock. After that day, they watched the river from above. Tim was thoroughly convinced that the river was cursed, but Doug came to believe that just like most rivers, it could kill the stupid and foolish and decided to stay away from most rivers, choosing to swim at the swimming pool at the state park instead.
They had almost finished off the case of Schlitz that Sandy had sold them when they saw a movement in the tree line across from them. The old man’s brown plaid jacket had just enough cream in it to fool Tim’s drunken eyesight into thinking that he was looking at a doe. Tim picked up his shotgun believing a doe would be an easy shot, but he was too drunk to see the old man’s human face and thinning white hair. He just saw a brown movement in the trees and fired. He missed and the shot went wide and far in front of the man, but not wide enough for the old man to realize some idiot had shot at him. The old man took off running, but in his confusion came running towards the boys instead of down the opposite hillside away from them. Tim, still thinking it was a deer, started giggling and tried to aim and shoot, but missed again.
The old man was Bill Harrison. He had left his home at the base of the other side of the mountain earlier that Sunday, thinking about his dead wife, Sarah Jane, and how much she would have loved this beautiful autumn afternoon.
He was 72 and the black lung was slowly killing him after spending his life working in the black dust of the Seneca Sycamore Mines. Although he had tried to get disability, the people at the disability place had denied it every time so he just had to keep working until he was old enough to collect his Social Security. He had never expected to live to see 72 or outlive Sarah Jane, but he had. Of course, his Social Security wasn’t much and certainly not enough to pay the hospital bills when Sarah Jane got sick.
He tried not to think of her in that hospital. She had cancer in her female parts, at least that’s what the doctors had told him. She had spent most of the last year of her life taking that chemo-poison, as he called it, strapped first to a chair in the hospital and then at the end unable to move in the bed they had put her in to die. He never left her side those last weeks except when the Black Lung made him cough so hard that he was afraid he would wake her. She had been in a lot of pain that even the drugs the doctor gave didn’t seem to help. She would moan as she slept and would clench the sheet with every pain that tore through her tired body.
She had passed one morning at four a.m. He had been holding her frail hand when she squeezed it one last time and then she was gone. Just like that. That’s why the hike up the hill had been so important. It was about a year ago that he had lost her and he felt the need to see the mountains from the ridge one last time.
The climb had left him wheezing and at one point his breathing hurt so much that he thought he would be seeing Sarah Jane sooner that he had thought, but once he was up there and breathing normally again, or at least what passed for normal for him, he was glad he had done it. The view from the ridge had been magical for him since he had first gone there as a child with his parents. He had grown up on that mountain, kissed his Sarah Jane there the first time, and had conceived one of his kids there one starlit summer night.
His kids had long since moved away from Gladstone Gap, and while he missed them and his grandchildren something fierce, he was glad that they had found jobs in Detroit where they wouldn’t end their lives coughing up black tar just to keep breathing. It had been his dream to send them off to college, but every time he would get some money put back, it seemed that a strike would stop work or the company would do lay-offs and the money he had saved would be spent just trying to keep his family fed.
He was thinking of his new baby great-grandson when the first shot came whistling by him. He got turned around and didn’t see the boys over on the ridge with the guns. He just started running in a circle, completely confused at the sounds of the gunshots whistling around him.
By that time Tim was so drunk that he dropped his gun and slid off the rock he had been sitting on, holding his sides as he laughed uncontrollably. He was way too drunk to realize that he had been shooting at a person and not a deer.
But Doug saw from the first shot that it was no deer. He saw the old man’s face and waited until after Tim had taken the second shot. When he saw that Tim was too far gone to do anything else, he took his rifle and carefully aimed at the old man, leading him just a bit before firing. The old man went down with one shot.
“You got it!” Tim said and picked up his shotgun and began heading across the top of the mountain where he thought he had seen a deer fall.
Doug didn’t say a word. He knew what was waiting and felt a little bit of excitement building in his gut as he followed his friend through the woods. He wondered what Tim would say when he realized what had really happened.
Tim stopped about 20 feet from the old man and turned back toward Doug and started to puke. Doug carefully avoided his friend’s vomiting and walked up to the old man. The only surprise he found was that the old man was still alive, blood pouring from the wound in his belly. By that time, Tim had sobered up enough to join Doug next to the old man.
“Shit, Doug, you shot a person. Shit. Ah, shit, what’re we gonna do? Your dad’s gonna kill us if he finds out.”
Doug looked over at his friend and saw that he was starting to turn a little green again.
“Well, I guess we can’t let daddy know about this,” he said.
Tim stared at him, his eyes wide with fear.
“We can’t leave him here. He’s still breathing. Shit, shit, shit. We are in so much trouble.”
Doug grabbed Tim’s shotgun and pushed it into his hands.
“Shoot him. Where ever you want. Just don’t kill him yet. Let’s watch what he does.”
Tim stared at Doug in horror and then the beer buzz kicked in again and he began to giggle.
“Anywhere?” he asked.
“Sure, why not? We can throw his body down one of the old caves after. Anyway, no one knows we’re up here. We’ll clean up good and no one would think it was us up here if someone does find him.”
Tim giggled again and aimed the shotgun at the old man’s knees and shot. The old man screamed and tried to get up to get away from them. Between the gut shot and the buckshot in his knees, he couldn’t move much at all, but he did open his eyes and saw the two boys standing over him. His eyes showed his terror, but also some hope that he could reason with the two boys into helping him.
But before he could utter a word, Doug casually took his rifle and shot the old man in the hand. Instead of words begging for help, the old man screamed again, the sound echoing down into the valley below. Tim started giggling again.
“My turn now. It’s my turn now,” he said and pushed Doug to the side. This time he shot at the old man’s feet, but the buckshot almost severed one of the old man’s feet and Doug put his hand on the shotgun to stop Tim.
“Don’t do too much. We gotta find a way to carry him to get rid of him and I don’t wanna be carrying his feet around after we throw him in a hole,” Doug said.
“You’re right. Sure. Damn, do you think he’s still alive?” Tim asked.
Doug walked over to the old man’s head and gently prodded it with his boot. The old man groaned and clutched his gut with one hand
“Hey, old fuck, still breathing?” Doug asked.
The old man was quietly weeping and by his shallow breathing, Doug thought he might be bleeding out.
Tim had stumbled closer to examine the damage they had inflicted on the old man’s body.
“I ain’t ever seen a person die ‘cept in the movies,” Tim said as he tried to focus on the wounds they had inflicted on the old man.
Doug looked at Tim and wondered if he was just drunk or was really that stupid.
“They don’t really die in the movies,asshole.”
Doug walked back to the feet of the man near where Tim now stood.
“Stand back. We don’t want his blood to get on our jackets. My dad would kill me if he had to buy me a new one,” Doug said to Tim . . .