The big Plymouth’s starter gave a raspy whine as it struggled to turn over the massive engine beneath the hood. After a moment, the engine fired and struggled into a lumpy uneven idle, rich smelling exhaust pouring out the pipes and into the humid evening air. Billy covered the accelerator pedal with his foot and raised the engine speed ever so slightly to help the big engine warm up, but he was careful not to rev the 440 cubic inch power plant until the temperature gauge began to stir. Too much too soon might foul the plugs.
After a few minutes at idle, Billy put the big car into gear and moved it from where it had been concealed beneath a lean-to attached to the barn to the driveway in front of the farmhouse. He left it there, lights out, and went into the house to gather up the things he would need for his night’s work. Jeanine was in the kitchen waiting for him as usual, her pregnant belly swelling proudly beneath one of his tattered flannel work shirts. They exchanged a look as she passed him two chicken salad sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and a thermos filled with hot coffee.
“You know Billy,” She began again, “I don’t like you doing this. It’s not right.” She told him.
Billy sighed heavily and looked down at his dung covered boots. They had been through this before. “Hon,” he said in a quiet voice, “I know you’re right but I don’t want no son of mine growing up with an empty belly and patchwork clothes. Just another run or two and we’ll have enough for that piece of bottom land I have my eye on. Then I’ll sell that old car and we can be respectable.”
Jeanine nodded, she knew her man meant what he said, “You know my father could loan us the rest.” She offered. “All we have to do is ask. You don’t have to do this tonight.”
Billy nodded, “I promised your momma and daddy that I would be a good husband to you, Jeanine.” He looked in her eyes, “I can’t go back to them and ask for charity.”
“My daddy knew what you were when we married,” Jeanine protested. “Besides, it’s not charity, it’s family. The day we said our vows you became his kin. He‘s ready to help” She said flatly.
Billy went to her and wrapped her in his long sinewy arms. “You know I can’t ask.” He told her, “Just one last run and I’ll be done.” He held her for a long moment before finally releasing her. “I promise.” He soothed. Then, with his sandwiches and thermos in calloused hands, he turned and headed back into the darkness.
Jeanine followed him to the door and watched as he clambered down the steps and slipped behind the wheel of the Plymouth. She saw his face glow briefly in the car’s dash lights as he turned on the headlights and saw him pause to look at her one long, last time before putting the big car into gear and rumbling down the long driveway. He was a good man, she knew, hard headed, proud and honorable, so much like her own father. She sent up a silent prayer that he would be safe and turned to go back inside, leaving the porch light on behind her.
But for the sound of the big car’s engine, Billy sat in silence as he guided the car down the dirt track to the main road. Before turning East towards the hills, he ran his finger over the row of toggle switches at the bottom of the dash to ensure the car’s tail and brake lights were on and checked the rear view mirror for the telltale red reflection before easing off the brakes and moving out onto the asphalt.
The pavement was rough and broken and in his seat Billy felt every ripple of the pavement through the big car’s tightly sprung suspension. The ride would smooth somewhat, Billy knew, on the downward leg of the trip when the car was filled with mason jars, but for now he would just have to make due. He he had suffered through worse than a sore back in his time for a lot less. His future depended on this trip, he knew, and when this night was done and his new, better life was secure maybe he would take the old car down to the dirt track to race for fun rather than money. It would be nice.
Ten miles up into the hills Billy used the toggles to kill his tail and brake lights and turned the big car onto a narrow cow path that led back under the trees. He guided the car carefully up the narrow road as the trees closed in around him to a place where it circled back on itself. He pulled to a stop, quickly turned off the car’s mighty engine and doused the headlights. Silence closed in and Billy paused in the seat with the windows down.
His eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and in the dim moonlight Billy began to pick out the details around him. Close by the forest floor showed mottled patches of moonlight and a dozen yards away a small creek flowed down from the higher elevations. Through the break the creek created in the canopy of trees, Billy could see a few stars shining brightly in the sky overhead. He slipped from the driver’s seat and circled around behind the car where he popped the trunk. With the car ready and waiting, he slipped silently away from the vehicle and melted into a dark patch of forest close by.
The time passed slowly but Billy waited patiently, his eyes and ears adjusting more fully to the conditions with each passing minute. Still, even with his heightened senses, he was slightly surprised at the low whistling of a bird call just a few yards away. Billy paused a moment to hear it repeated before he responded with a similar low call of his own. A brief exchange occurred, Billy exchanging calls with the unseen bird, their pattern changing ever so slightly with each whistle. Eventually both sides were satisfied that the other was genuine and Billy and the moonshiner emerged from their hiding places into the clearing by the car at almost exactly the same moment.
He was a big bear of a man with long oily hair and a brushy beard that draped down over his vast belly. His worn coveralls smelled of liquor but, Billy noted, as usual, there was none on the man’s breath. “Billy,” The man began in low tones, “I thought you were done with us.” He seemed disappointed.
Billy looked at the shadow before him, “Price was higher than I was first told.” He said simply, “But another run or two ought to get it.”
The big man’s frown was unseen in the darkness but came through in his voice, “We all want better for our families.” Answered the man, “I’ll make sure this run nets you enough for it to be your last.” He said.
“I’ll earn my share,” answered Billy, “I aint askin’ for charity.”
“And I aint offerin’” answered the bootlegger, “This is a big load and with all the revenuers around lately prices are high. Your share will be enough. I guarantee it.” The big man turned and at his whistle three other men emerged from the darkness and began to fill the big Plymouth with jar after jar of white lightning.
Ten minutes later Billy was back behind the wheel of the big Plymouth threading his way back down to the main road. Back on the pavement he switched on his tail lights and headed back down towards the valley, his slow speed and calm driving the polar opposite of his racing heart and jangled nerves.
The road wound out before him and flattened as he came down out of the hills. To the south the county seat slept peacefully through the summer night and Billy avoided it by sticking to the back roads. He knew his course well, down the valley, up over another low range of hill and West into the adjacent valley to an isolated general store where he would offload his cargo in exchange for crisp dollar bills. From there the liquor would go into the back of one of the trucks that dropped off foodstuffs for the country folk and then work its way North into one of the big cities where it would be mixed into potent drinks and sold to other working class men at cut-rate prices.
Behind him, in the back seat, the jars clanked about as Billy guided the big car carefully through the corners, the extra weight pushing the car down onto its heavy springs, lowering its ride height and increasing the tires’ grip on the asphalt. The car stuck in the corners and as Billy slowly wicked up the speed the grip seemed to increase. The driving was becoming mechanical to him now, a simple action and reaction to everything that that came into the headlights glare as the road rushed towards him. Brake, turn, accelerate in a never ending cycle, each corner a little quicker than the last. He was in the groove, his concentration fully on the road when he noticed the distant glow of headlights in the rear view mirror.
He stepped on the gas and brought up the big car’s speed. He was going fast now, the car approaching its limits but still settled under his steady hand. At higher speed there would be no way any casual pursuer could gain on him but despite his increased speed the headlights in the mirror drew gradually nearer. Billy frowned, the car behind him was moving fast. He held held his speed as he blew through a small village, a dark general store on one side of the road and a faded white church on the other, the little pieces of civilization both coming and and going in the wink of an eye. Behind him, in the church parking lot, a second set of lights snapped on and surged into the roadway, accelerating hard towards him.
Billy put his right foot hard to the floor and the big Plymouth’s acceleration drove him back into his sea. He pulled away from his pursuers for a moment but this second, closer car was clearly faster than his loaded down Plymouth and it little by little it edged forward. Behind them both the other car, its headlights still a single bright star in the distance, also seemed to be closing the gap as well and, as Billy stole quick glances in his rear view mirror, he felt an unaccustomed feeling grow in the pit of his stomach. One pursuer he could understand and avoid, but two pursuers were beyond even his experience. It was bad.
Billy clenched his jaw and felt his hands tighten their grip on the wheel. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. Panic was the enemy, he knew, and whoever was chasing him could only benefit from any mistake he might make. If he ran off the road or slid down a ravine they would care little about him as they wrote their reports detailing how they had heroically taken another bootlegger off the roads. No, thought Billy, he had not worked so long and come so far to give up without a fight. This was his valley and he knew it like the back of his hand, as he guided the car he ran through a list of possible solutions.
Ahead, he knew, there was chance, a small road that led back through the woods and looped back around to the old church where the chase had begun in earnest. With his right hand Billy slapped the row of toggles at the bottom of the dashboard and killed his tail and brake lights to avoid tipping his hand too soon. Even before his hand returned to the wheel he was hard on the brakes, furiously scrubbing off speed in order to make the turn. He whipped the wheel hard right, hit the entrance perfectly and was back on the gas. The car behind him closed the gap in an instant and almost struck him as it shot past, its driver throwing the car into a skid as he too jumped hard on the brakes.
Billy gunned the big Plymouth and it clawed its way forward spitting gravel in its wake. Behind him, through a cloud of flying dust, Billy saw the pursuing headlights swing onto the road and rejoin the chase, but the advantage was Billy’s now and he put distance between himself and his pursuers on the rutted trail as it twisted its way through the woods. In a matter of minutes Billy had wended his way back to the old church and he re-entered the main road at full speed. He was a good quarter mile ahead when his pursuers rejoined the road and this time, adrenalin coursing into his bloodstream, he stayed hard on the gas and forced them to work to close the gap.
Whatever that car was, thought Billy, it was fast because as soon as it hit the paved road it began to slowly gain on him. Little by little its driver, obviously someone with real high-speed driving experience, worked to regain the lost distance and no matter how well the big Plymouth seemed to stick in the corners, those relentless, following headlights were always a little closer on each exit. At the very least, thought Billy, the third car was no longer something to worry about. That car must have passed on, unaware of the detour the other two cars had made, and was most likely somewhere on the road ahead chasing shadows.
Deep black skid marks marked the pavement at the place where Billy had turned off onto the tiny gravel path to loop back to the old church. The pursuing car had closed the gap to just an eighth of a mile at this point and Billy briefly toyed with the idea of taking the cut-off once again. There was a chance they might crash on the narrow road, but still, if they had a radio, he thought, they might also call for back up. Wary of being trapped, he stayed hard on the gas.
As Billy passed the entrance of the little road, another set of headlights sparked suddenly to life. Billy heard the roar of an engine and the sound of spitting gravel and this new set of lights rushed forward across the road behind him. The other pursuer closed the gap with this new threat in a moment and there was the sound of screeching tires and crunching steel as they made contact with one another. The new set of lights flashed brightly as the car jumped on its suspension and heaved towards the right side of the road. The lights of the original pursuer, traveling much faster, skewed off the left side of the road at an odd angle and flashed skyward as the car rolled into the ditch and began to tumble. Over and over the lights rolled, skyward and earthward, first illuminating the ground then the treetops as the car tore itself to pieces.
A curve rushed up and Billy took it mechanically, braking only enough to make the corner without upsetting his load. The scene in his rear view mirror was abruptly cut off as he took the turn and, without knowing whether or not he was still being followed, he ran hard for several more minutes before he became certain the chase was done. Gradually the adrenalin drained from his system, leaving him feeling weak and a little sick. He slowed his speed and a sense of normalcy returned to the night. He drove on to the general store and slipped quietly around back, through a small grove of trees and into an open barn. He killed the engine as someone closed the doors behind him and sat shaking in his seat. Unbelievably, he was safe.
The car was quickly unloaded while Billy sat exhausted at the wheel mechanically eating his sandwiches and drinking his coffee. As the last jar was removed a dim figure stepped up to the window and handed him a wad of crumpled bills. Billy took them silently without looking up and stuffed them into his shirt pocket. The man stepped back into the darkness for a moment and returned with a jar of Billy’s cargo in his bony white hand. “You seem shaken, boy.” said a voice, “Have a sip to calm your nerves.”
Billy smiled and looked up from the wheel for the first time since entering the garage. “Thanks.” he answered waving the jar away, “Good for the nerves but bad for the reflexes.” the shadow nodded knowingly as Billy reached for the key and fired the big car’s engine. Behind him, the unseen men opened the barn doors and Billy backed out through the trees. On the street. he switched on his headlines, once again checked his toggles, and accelerated smoothly towards home.
His cargo delivered, Billy was in no hurry and he decided to steer well clear of his previous route. Twenty miles out of his way took an extra forty minutes but the trip was uneventful and dawn was beginning to break as he drove through the silent streets of the county seat. A few miles later he turned into his own driveway and made his way up the long track to his home. The porch light burned dimly in the growing daylight but its glow told him that his return was a welcome one. Relief flooded into him as he approached the house and guided the car around back towards its usual spot behind the barn. The sight of the damaged Sheriff’s cruiser parked near the back porch, however, stopped him cold.
Billy parked the Plymouth next to the police car and made his way up to the porch where a giant, uniformed man sat silently waiting on the steps. The two men regarded one another in silence for a moment and then Billy sat down uncomfortably next to the big man. The Sheriff looked at Billy with a practiced eye, taking in the exhausted, reed thin young man next to him, and noting the wad of cash still stuffed in the boy’s pocket. At long last he spoke.
“There was a big wreck out there tonight.” He said simply, “It was lucky that no one was killed.” He added.
Billy was guarded, “How’d it happen?” He asked.
“Seems like,” began the Sheriff, “Some boys from the FBI were down here following some leads on a big moonshine operation. They were pursuing a car they thought might be a runner and, unfortunately, they collided with yours truly.”
“With you?” Asked Billy genuinely surprised.
“Pity they didn’t bother to tell me they were in the area,” answered the Sheriff, “I was going after a speeder and ended up colliding with them. They flipped four times before they came to a stop. They’ll be in the hospital for a good while I think.” he added.
“That’s too bad.” Said Billy, “I hope they get better soon.”
“No real harm done.” said the Sheriff, “If I knew who that speeder was he might be in a whole mess of trouble, though.” he added. “I’d have got him for sure if I hadn’t had to stop and help those boys.”
Billy swallowed hard, “Any leads?” he asked.
The Sheriff leaned over and put his face an inch away from Billy’s. “I got an idea.” He said coldly. He inhaled sharply, sniffing the young man’s breath, leaned slightly back and then leaned in again for another whiff. “Nothing to drink tonight?”
Billy leaned back, “No sir,” he answered truthfully, “just a cup of coffee.”
“Good lad. Drink can change a man.” The Sheriff smiled. “It can make him lose sight of what’s really important.”
The Sheriff leaned back against the porch railing, “Billy,” he said, “I’ve known your people my whole life. My grandfather served with your great grand pappy in the Civil War. I went to school with your mother, fought with your uncles and hunted with your father. We’re connected in ways that people from outside the valley will never understand.”
Billy smiled weakly.
“I know everything about you,” the Sheriff continued, “Who you meet, where you go, and what you do. I know you the way an old coon dog knows a raccoon – every trick and every backtrack.” He gave a sly smile, “But I hear that after tonight the tricks are all behind you, aren’t they?”
The big man stood up stiffly, put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and looked him square in the eye. “I know you were raised to never ask for charity, Billy, so I won’t offer it.” he said plainly before turning to go, “But I’ll help you out when I can. My grandson is going to need his father around, and it’d be a darn shame if you were in federal prison when he is born.”
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.