Saturday, August 11, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 14 ~ The End

~~~Sunday, May 10, 1953~~~

Odie spent the last night on his farm laying his important papers, along with a few pictures of Savina, where Thirl would see them. In the crude barn he’d built after the first one burned, Odie cleaned the horse stalls and said goodbye to his small herd. He fed his dogs, chickens, hog, and his horses, and then laid the feedbags where DeDe could find them easily. Hanging his head and dragging his body through the house, he gathered Savina’s belongings and what few clothes he owned and put them into two boxes to be given to the Baptist missionary fund. Finally, he collapsed into a chair and stared into a blazing fire until morning.

~~~Monday, May 11, 1953~~~

Outside, the low light of dawn came quickly. The sun won its battle and the storm clouds departed, leaving behind ragged wisps of black and gray streaking the blue sky like soot on a clean sheet.

 Odie had one last mission. His car totaled, his truck confiscated by the authorities at the cook shack, he relied on his bay colt to help him fulfill his last duty to his friends. Seizing the reins, Odie swung up onto his horse’s back, knees tight around the animal’s barrel of ribs. The horse uttered a great whinny, tossed his head, and broke into a lope across the hill. Odie wiped tears from his eyes with his coat sleeve and headed for Colored Holler.


DeDe’s body, slow and heavy, rolled out of bed early. She had filled her washing machine with boiling water from the stove. Sleeping the day away under a pile of blankets was an option she’d considered. Except something made her get out of bed. The sunshine, perhaps.

Sheets and towels went in first, then underwear, socks, Thirl’s T-shirts, colors, and lastly—Thirl’s work clothes. The same wash-load line-up every week for the past few decades.

At the bottom of the basket the smell of coal rose from dirty pants and shirts. Her hand shook lifting them out—they were her son’s. She shoved them into a paper bag with no intention to wash them. DeDe set the bag in his room and closed the door behind her. She wanted the room sealed off, kept as a tomb. What would we ever use it for anyway? DeDe forced her mind to go blank, refusing to think of the fresh graves at the end of town.


The sound of a horse brought men and women out to their porches in the hollow.

Nappy-headed children peeked through windows. Smoke floated out of every chimney. When the horse stopped in front of Jabo’s house, Mama Ola clopped out on the porch, her eyes stern and her lips stiff.

Odie tipped his hat. “Ma’am.” He remained on his horse. “Mister Kelly awake?”

“Nawser, you g’wan now … git. We don’t need no trouble up heah.”

Hephzibah stepped out on the dilapidated porch and wrapped a shawl around her mother-in-law. “Jabo’s in the house. He be out directly. We’re grievin’ too, Mist’ Odie.”

“I know. You loved my Savina, and I appreciate what you done. You know what I come fer?”

“I knows why,” said Hephzibah. “You ready to tell the Nettles the truth?”

“I am.”

Jabo walked out with his rifle. “You do this, Mist’ Odie, you do this right, or ah swear ah hunt you down mysef.”

“I promise, Mister Kelly. I promise to make the Nettles’ world a little happier today. I’m goin’ to prison, probably for the rest of my days. You’ll have no fight from me, Sir. Was my bullet that killed Cole Farlow two nights ago. I’m gonna pay for that.”

Jabo nodded. “Come inside then.”


Thirl, having the week off, roamed the house, the porch, and the yard, bumping into his wife at every turn. His mind weary, his hands empty—his heart needing a reason to beat, he carried the heavy basket of sheets to the back yard for DeDe to hang them on the line. Needing to be near her, Thirl handed her clothespins, until the first glimpses of the funeral procession for Cole Farlow moved up Nicholas Street. Recognizing the few cars that followed the hearse, Thirl walked back into the house and stepped out on the front porch. His legs buckled under him—falling to the steps, his eyes fixed on the motorcade rolling by slowly. He had no idea where they were burying him … he didn’t care.


The sheriff arrived early to arrest Odie at his house, but when he walked up on the porch he saw a note had been tacked to the door. You can find me at Thirl Nettles’.


Squeezing with his feet, he gave a little hey-yup and set the horse into motion, waving goodbye to Jabo and his family. He headed to Widen. Odie passed houses at a slow trot; it’d been many years since folks had seen a horse in the middle of town.

DeDe heard the noise of the crowd getting louder as she hung clothes on the line. It sounded as if the whole town was walking up Nicholas Street again.

Thirl stuck his head out the back doorway. “DeDe! Come quick. It’s Odie riding his horse up the street. Ya ain’t gonna believe this.”

            DeDe wiped her hands on her dress and walked inside. The air in the house was electric. Watching Thirl limp out to the front porch, DeDe's head tingled and music played inside her again. Grief moved aside for a moment as she stepped out on the porch with her husband.

            Odie sat on top of his horse that pranced in the street by the gate. Odie’s right hand was wrapped around the chest of a smiling baby boy propped in the saddle in front of him. The baby looked to be about ten months old. DeDe ran to Odie and reached up. Tears flowed as she laid her hand on Odie’s leg. The book of life had never closed. In moments it was revealed to her mind.

Gazing at the boy for a second, Odie tentatively touched the child’s forehead and cheek. He folded the blanket down around him and allowed the baby to slip off his saddle, out of his large hands, and into DeDe’s arms. He had James’ eyes and Savina’s mouth. And red hair. Lots of dark red hair.

“The most powerful force in the universe is gossip,” said Odie. “Savina didn’t want anybody to know, didn’t want people pointing at her baby, calling him a bastard. It was my fault they didn’t marry sooner. But they was gonna leave town next month, get married, come back later, after some time had passed. Jabo and his family been takin’ care of the boy all this time, that’s why Savina spent so much time there. He was born last July fourth.”

Thirl walked up behind DeDe and put his hands on her shoulders, then touched the child’s head, smoothing down his fine hair. The baby smiled, its toothless little mouth opened with a gurgle. With his finger, Thirl wiped drooling spit from its chin.

Odie choked on his tears. “Thirl, meet our grandson. This here is Emery. Emery Curtis Nettles. Son of James and Savina, grandson of Deanna and Thirl, and Josephine and … me.”

Thirl unhooked a sack of clothes and diapers tied on the saddle. Odie laid his hand on Thirl’s shoulder and smiled.

“We’ll take good care of him,” Thirl said and nodded. He shook Odie’s hand.

DeDe kissed the baby and held him close as a silent police car nosed through the parting crowd and pulled up behind the horse.

~~~Thanksgiving 1953~~~

The music dueled in the barn. Thanksgiving held a special meaning this year to the residents of Widen. Groups of men and women played their fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. A few guitar pickers joined in. They danced and sang old mountain songs from their past and set rows of food for the town to partake together, giving thanks for an end to the strike.

Thirl raised Emery to his shoulders. “Mamaw, you want us to bring you some cider?”

“No, you boys go on. I’m gonna sit here a spell and listen to the music.” She hesitated a moment. “Thirl?”


“I want … I want you to know how much I love you.”

He smiled down at her as he patted his grandson’s legs hanging around his neck. “You’re a fetching woman, Deanna.”

She smiled back. He had been her rock. She wanted him to know.

Watching her husband carry his grandson with the same love and affection he once carried James Curtis in the Thanksgiving barn, the pain of loss pulled at her insides. She’d grown weak in her mind. Mournful. Raising Emery only put a Band-Aid on the infected wound of losing her son. Even Doc Vance worried about her—part of his rounds to sick folk included a visit to the Nettles family every week.

Her foot tapped in time to the music. She shoved stray hairs back into place and closed her eyes, absorbing the low cry of the steel guitar.

“Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance.”

She recognized him. Herald Wingate. DeDe turned toward the voice; her mouth opened but remained silent.

He hiked up his same nasty boot on the bench beside her and rested his arm on his leg. “God will not let you suffer what you’re not able to bear.”

“I cain’t bear anymore.” Anger filled her throat like she was choking on a piece of meat.

“He knows that. But you’ve got to find the strength He sent you a while back to raise this young’un.”

“What strength? When?”

“The night you heard the angels sing. That was for you, Deanna.”

“Just who are you? Why did you come back here?”

“He sent me, to tell you that. Who I am doesn’t matter. Your suffering is over. You’re to be a witness to those who will still have some suffering to do.”

“That’s my purpose? To help others get through their suffering?” She turned away from him, indignant, and stared straight ahead to watch people dance.

“Yes, and to raise their child. They’re watching you, you know. They’re proud of you.”

DeDe continued to stare at the dance floor, ready to match him word for word. “Who’s watching me?”

No answer.

Jugg Pyle’s fiddle began to play Angel Band, and the aroma of apple blossoms filled the room. She turned to speak to his face, but his face was gone. Along with the rest of him. Nobody had seen him that night, nobody but DeDe.


Odie’s trial lasted for months. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and given life in prison. The Clay County grand jury handed up a series of indictments, from holding up the railroad and stealing dynamite to blowing up the bridges, and the murder of Cole Farlow.

In November 1953 the evidence gathered by the FBI was finally laid before a federal grand jury in Huntington against the UMW strikers. More of the striking miners found themselves doing time in a federal prison. The United States Department of Justice regarded the indictment as the most important attempt to deal with labor violence under civil rights statutes. Widen’s reign of terror was over.

~~~May 1954~~~

Spring came again.

            In the mountains, near the shadows of town, side by side in their graves, the young lovers slept under the apple tree. Close by the humble walls of the little Baptist church, in the heart of Clay County they laid, unnoticed. Daily the tides of life went ebbing and flowing beside them. Every Sunday throbbing hearts filed past where theirs were at rest. Every Sunday Pastor Jessie searched the scriptures, but their minds were no longer busy. Their eyes were closed for eternity. Every Sunday the toiling hands of the Pastor shook those of his congregation while their hands ceased from their labors and a thin gold band laid forever buried under a stone in a cabin now abandoned. Every Sunday weary feet drug into a sanctuary to rest from a weeks’ worth of backbreaking labor in the mines, but their feet had completed their journey. Every Sunday the Pastor reached across his pulpit for the souls of his congregation, but their souls had walked to the light.

As Pastor Jessie concluded his sermon, his gaze fell upon Thirl, DeDe, and their grandson asleep in his grandmother’s arms. He stretched his arms above his head, and held his black King James in his right hand. His voice bellowed and he wept aloud. “The United States Government may have ended the strike, but Savina and James Curtis ended the hatred of family against family, brother against brother, man against himself. Their love was not in vain. God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts. Who are we to know the plan of God?”

“The violence and sorrow in Widen will not be put away and forgotten like an old picture book, but passed on for future generations to never forget what has happened here. This tale of woe is not the sole possession of one family, but of all families in this town. For all are punished. Let us pray and let us remember.”


He played coal miner with his toy truck on Nicholas Street. On warm sunny mornings he could be found sitting in the dirt, a little redheaded boy with brilliant blue eyes and coal dust on his feet.

The End

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