Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 11


Strong enough to show the washboard road ahead of him, evening's light illuminated every pothole. James Curtis drove along with ease.

            Coasting his truck past Cole’s house, James stared at a group of men gathered on the porch. He figured they were kin. Cole’s dad had died during the invasion of Normandy. Cole lived with his eccentric mother and grandmother; both had refused to leave Widen after the war.

            James recalled the day he stopped at Cole’s house—the day after Cole turned sixteen, quit school, and went to work in the mines. Cole's mother stumbled into the house, screaming drunk. Pounding her son with her fists after finding money in his shirt pocket, she then disappeared for two days. Word was she got saved during some local summer revival. But that didn’t save Cole from trouble. “Bad seed,” Doc Vance had said once as he stitched up James Curtis’ eye from a punch Cole had thrown over a lost game of pool.

As boys, they had played in an abandoned mineshaft on the opposite side of South Mountain dug by the sweat and blood of miner’s backs. Men who had worked the earliest mines in Widen at the turn of the century. The ancient cave was unlike the new coal mine with its main shaft located near the tipple, and the underground maze of tunneled streets that ran sixty miles from Clay to Nicholas County.

At fifteen, Cole had built a moonshine still close to the opening of the old mineshaft, and James Curtis had donated ingredients from his mama’s fruit cellar. But when Thirl found out, both boys had been immediately introduced to the wrath of God and the rod was not spared. Neither boy could sit for a week. In spite of warnings to never visit the dangerous mine again, it remained a place of risk and adventure for the boys and young men of Widen.

The night of their high school graduation, Cole joined James Curtis and several boys from the class, filled a washtub with ice and beer and carried it into the mineshaft. They spent the night drinking, playing cards, smoking packs of stolen cigarettes, and puking after hours of pretending to be men. Driving in the dark, his eyes stung wiping his tears with his bare hands. James determined he would have ended up like Cole, alone, with no direction in life, had it not been for Savina.

Rumors spread quickly that the authorities had rounded up every striker involved in the cook shack shootings, all but Odie and Cole. He’d heard it before he left Doc Vance’s office. Still, James couldn’t imagine Odie not knowing about his daughter. Somebody had to have gotten word to him by now, even if he and Cole were hiding out. Odie, a seasoned hunter, was well acquainted with every mountain and trail in the state. With access to a good horse, James figured he was probably miles away by now.

As for Cole … James knew his hiding places. The first on the list was the old mineshaft. 

Pulling his truck up as far as it would go, James stepped out into the tall grass and weeds leading up to the cut timber logs that framed the opening. The wind blew colder after the sun had gone down, but the rain had lessened since morning. He shook visibly, but not from the night air or from fear. Ravaged by grief, insanity had begun to seep into his pores like a cold rain. Rage twisted tight around his head as if caught in a vice squeezing out all reason. He switched on his flashlight and pulled his shotgun off the front seat.

“Cole! It’s me, Cole. We need to talk!”

James walked to the edge of the mineshaft. The light from a small fire cast flickering shadows on the walls of the mine. He tossed the flashlight into the weeds. Cole crouched like a feral cat against a pile of rusted metal. The remains of their moonshine still sat crusted with several years’ worth of dirt, but the recipe still hung on ancient wires from the ceiling. An empty whisky bottle lay in the dirt. Coatless, Cole’s clothes were covered in dried mud. His lifeless green eyes fixed on James Curtis.

“It was an accident, wasn’t it? You didn’t mean to kill her, tell me that. You owe me that. Tell me you didn’t mean to kill her.”

Cole stood and smiled a ragged gap-toothed grin that was both knowing and mean. Another half-empty bottle of whiskey dangled from his right hand. “I don’t owe you jack shit.” Large and chinless, he had an enormous adam’s apple and sideburns like Elvis. At school, his breath was like coffee and cavities. But all James could smell was the dampness of the old mine and wafts of Cole's 100-proof breath.

Cole dropped his bottle to the ground. He shook out a Lucky Strike, tapped it on the side of his lighter, lit it, and then blew a stream of smoke toward James. He had tucked his filthy T-shirt in tight, and rolled another pack of cigarettes into his right shirtsleeve. His Levi cuffs were turned up around muddy work boots. But it was his big round ears that made him almost comical to look at.

Sweat rolled down James’s cheek. “Did you do it on purpose? Did you touch her?”

Cole flicked his smoke into the dirt and stared, shooting James a don’t-mess-with-me smirk, the drink long gone to his head. He snarled like a rabid dog. “I shoulda shoved her into the back seat ‘fore I shot her, now I’m gung fuggin kiw you!”

A war scream pierced the darkness and echoed through the mine as James hurled himself at Cole, dropping his rifle in the dirt.

            James got him first with a left hook. Cole wheeled and came back at him and drove a vicious blow right into his nose. It sent James reeling. He felt the crack and went to one knee, his eyes welled up and a fountain of blood erupted from ruptured vessels, pouring like a faucet thrown on. He wiped blood from his face. It dripped from his hands, as his nose seemed to disappear into its cavity.

            The blood appeared to unnerve Cole. He let James crawl up the side of the wall to steady himself.

Through eyes blurred by tears and blood, James caught movement coming toward him again. Struggling to hold on to his bearings he crouched low, preparing for the strike. He ducked Cole’s fist and it landed high above his head into the rock wall. He could see it sent a bullet of pain up Cole’s hand and arm.

            But Cole’s advantage was clear. Swooping in from above he rushed James once more, whirling his pained fist squarely at his head. Fighting back a sudden wave of nausea from a pungent mix of tobacco smoke, alcohol, and Cole’s unwashed body, James forced himself to push off with his feet, turning his body slightly, and caught the blow in his right arm instead of his face this time. He somehow managed to snake his arm around Cole’s, his hand winding up on Cole’s shoulder. Making full use of their combined momentum, James sidestepped Cole, allowing him to trip over his feet and tumble to the ground.

            A sickening pop echoed off the rock walls of the mine, followed instantly by a hideous scream of pain and anger. James had maintained his hold on Cole’s arm, forcing it farther and farther back, then letting him fall into the dirt. Squinting through swelling eyes, James bent over Cole where he lay, face down, moaning and clutching his wracked shoulder.

Mercilessly hooking the toe of his boot under his armpit, James rolled him over onto his back, meeting with another wretched cry. Staring up with eyes blinded by rage and pain, Cole used his legs and good arm to skitter away. James stalked after him, adding fear to the hatred that glared back at him. Cole’s attempt at escape was cut short as he rammed into a wall of railroad ties.

Eyes darting from side to side like a cornered fox, he accepted escape was not to be found. Fumbling at the top of one boot with his good hand, he produced a Bowie knife from its sheath, satisfaction replacing some of the fear. Undeterred, James drove forward with a purposeful stride, dodging a feeble swing of the knife but tripping over Cole’s deliberate swipe with his feet, landing flat on his back in the dirt. Cole rolled, stood and placed the heel of his boot squarely on James’ stomach, just below his rib cage, the knife at his neck drawing blood. James grimaced and let out another gasp of pain.

            But the pain from Cole’s arm caused him to stagger backwards a little, lifting his boot from James’ chest. James heard the wheezing sound of air being forced back into his own lungs. Cole staggered forward again; his hand flashed out from behind his back, trailing after it a reflection of the metal that swung toward James in a sweeping arc. James flinched instinctively, but his blurred vision hampered his reaction; too slow to save him from the unexpected attack. He rolled, but not far enough. This time he felt the jolt, then the sting. A sharp smell cut through his swollen nostrils, a damp stain grew across his arm, then the loud whine of his own voice pierced the dead air of the cave.

           
            Cole, also fighting against his own pain, rocketed through the air again and stabbed ruthlessly at an unsuspecting James, this time slicing his cheek open with the tip of the knife. Half crawling and half falling, Cole stabbed at him again but missed entirely and bowled over from drunken exhaustion.

            James rotated to his hands and knees, breathing fast and hard. His head wanted to explode from the pain, his arm throbbed with his heartbeat, blood soaked his coat; he felt vomit stirring inside. Picking up a rusted pipe near the fire, he struggled to his feet and swung at Cole’s head, hitting him square in the mouth. Cole’s lips burst open, shooting blood everywhere. Smack against the mineshaft wall; his face, sideburns, and shirt were instantly soaked in blood.

            “Yer fuggin dead,” he muttered, spitting a tooth into the dirt. A wicked smile twisted on his mangled lips, causing James to wince as the expression tugged at the flesh and bone of his busted nose. Through the slits of swollen eyes, he saw the terror and humiliation that now held Cole in their sway. Cole swung the knife loosely in his hand.

James Curtis took a breath as if to say something, but words seemed inadequate and insufficient to account for the years of humiliation Cole lived with on a daily basis from an over-bearing mother and taunting men from the mine. A cry from a distant hollow rung in his ears and pulled at his heart. James raised his hands; sanity replaced his adrenalin.

“Cole … enough.”

“It’ll never be ‘nuf.” Cole lunged with the knife again, trapping James against the twisted metal of the old still. The strength poured out of James’s injured arm; his futile attempt to fight off his adversary made Cole laugh. “Yer just like her. She walked off, refused to fight me, and she paid fer it.”

 Cole pricked the point of the knife through his enemy’s shirt and into his chest, seemingly surprised at the ease with which the sharp blade penetrated. James’ swollen eyes popped wide as the knife entered his body. Cole shoved the knife deeper, the resistance of the blade bit through to the bone. He shoved harder until it plunged deep into James’ lung, until he coughed and gasped, until warm blood oozed from his mouth. Cole tore the knife through his skin, spilling more blood out of James’ chest wall and down his shirt.

Without a word, Cole yanked out the knife and backed up. Stumbling toward the dying fire, he bent down with his uninjured arm, picked up his whisky bottle, and then took a long swig. He swayed back and forth, feeling his way back along the rock wall until he tripped over James lying on the floor of the mine.

Sitting in the dirt, he finished the whiskey to numb his pain then leaned over and pulled James’ truck keys out of his jacket pocket. Getting to his feet, he staggered back to the mine opening and found James’ rifle lying in the dirt. He picked it up.

Cole looked back into the darkness and laughed. In minutes, he was spiraling slowly down the mountain in James’ truck … looking for a store, or a bar, and another bottle of whiskey.

~~~

            James heard her voice; it was Savina, he was sure of it.

Blood seeped from every orifice as he tried to whisper her name. But his lips only motioned what his tongue would have spoken. His breath stopped. Not breathing came as a relief from the shortened, labored gasps his breath had become over the last few minutes. Was the voice real, or imagined? Savina.

Sinking down through depths of darkness, James Curtis watched the fire die in the cave. Her voice was the last thing he heard.

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