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February 3, 1958
The small airplane, a Piper Comanche, soared above the Cumberland Plateau and approached the Appalachian Mountains. The moon was full and cast its glow on the clouds and snowy landscape below, but the three passengers did not notice. They were cold and cramped in the small passenger cabin but elated from adrenaline and anticipation.
The youngest of them was Guy Berry, in one of the two bucket seats. He was only seventeen, a lanky, bespectacled kid from Texas, so he was totally unused to this sort of weather. He drew his knees up to his chin and wrapped his coat around them.
The oldest was P. J. "Large Sarge" Sargent. In his forties, he was one of those irrepressible types who smiled no matter what. He looked on the other two as little brothers, offering advice and surreptitious sips from his flask when no one else was looking. They in turn adored him like a favorite uncle.
The biggest by far was Byron Harley. Billed as the "Hillbilly Hercules," he had to fold his six-foot-four frame into the plane almost like a contortionist. He wasn't tall and skinny, but thickly muscled from a childhood of hard manual labor. He sat on the bench seat along the back cabin wall, with his long legs stretched out straight before him. His heels reached the far end, and he had to keep his head bent forward because of the contour of the wall behind him. This accommodated both his height and the brace that supported his left leg. It was a miserable position for five minutes, let alone for an hour, but it was still better than the alternative.
He'd been hurt in a motorcycle accident while working as a courier during his stint in the army, and his choices were to wear the brace or lose the slowly withering leg entirely. It gave him almost constant pain and discomfort, but most of the time didn't dampen his friendly personality. And for those times it did ... well, he had his own hidden flask. And while the alcohol helped his leg, it did the opposite for his temperament.
But he was sober now, and delighted to be on the plane, which would accomplish in an hour what their old, broken-down tour bus would need almost a day to achieve. They would be in Knoxville soon, checked into a warm motel, where they could sleep in beds, eat freshly cooked food, and wash their sweaty stage clothes.
These were, in fact, at that moment, the three most popular musicians in the country. Their songs were known by everyone sixteen and under, and by many older than that. They had appeared on national television, and in the movies, lip-synching their hits to the screams of studio audiences. And now their joint winter tour, in this new genre called "rock and roll," played to sellout houses across the Southeast.
"Did you guys meet that old banjo player that opened the show?" Guy said. The boy had had two small regional hits in Texas before his third single, "Bonnie Jo," skyrocketed him to stardom.
"What about him?" Byron asked.
"He had six fingers on each hand. And they worked! I ain't never seen nothing like it!"
Large Sarge nodded. He coasted on a single novelty record, "That's What I Think," but understood exactly how lucky he was, and how to maximize his time in the spotlight. He knew that by this time next year, he'd be back at his old radio station spinning platters, and that was okay. He appreciated the ride while it lasted. "His name was Rockhouse Hicks," Sarge said. "Used to play with Bill Monroe, I think."
"Hell, everybody in these parts used to play with Monroe," Byron said. Byron had the most substantial career of the three, with a half-dozen hits for himself, and three songs he'd written for others on the charts as well. In his last movie, Riot in P.S. 105, he'd even been given a few lines of dialogue, and there was talk he might be up for bigger parts in the near future. "He finds 'em, trains 'em up, and then off they go. I hear he's a mean SOB."
"Well, if he trained this fella, he did a great job," Guy said. He shook his head and repeated, "I've never heard anything like it."
"Well, that's 'cause he's a Tufa," Large Sarge said.
"What's that?" Guy asked.
"Nobody knows for sure. They got black hair like Indians, but you saw him-he don't really look like one. A lot of 'em look like they could be part Negro, too, but they swear they're not." He gestured toward the window. "They live up in these mountains somewhere, and don't come out very often, but when they do, it seems like every last one of 'em is a great musician."
"They all play banjo?"
"Naw, they play all sorts of things. And they know damn near every song you can think of. But you can't get much out of 'em otherwise." He took a drink from his own flask and offered it to Guy, who politely shook his head. He continued, "Some folks say they were here when the first white folks came over from Europe. Hell, some stories say they were here when the first Indians arrived."
"What do they say?" Byron asked.
Sarge laughed. "They don't say shit."
"So they ain't Indians," Guy said.
"Nope. Nobody knows what they are. But if you're around one, watch yourself. They're sneaky, like Gypsies."
"Somebody's pulling your leg," Byron said. He slapped his injured leg. "And believe me, I know about leg-pulling."
"Maybe. But you didn't hear that ol' boy play tonight, did you?"
"Naw, I was restin' my leg in the dressing room," Byron said. It sounded like an excuse for partying, or meeting a girl, but it was the literal truth-his leg needed all the rest he could get before a show, because he performed like his injury didn't matter at all. Oftentimes it meant flinging his leg about like a dancer might, except that the extra weight of the brace was even harder on its already weak muscles. But the crowd loved it, and he couldn't imagine not doing it; the screams of the girls alone made the pain worthwhile. Right now it throbbed with a dull regular beat, 4/4 time, which was the rhythm he'd used for most of his hit songs.
"Man, the sound in that place tonight was awful," Guy said. "I hate playing in gymnasiums."
"One time I had to go into this gym, and they didn't have a stage or nothing," Sarge said. "They just had bleachers on both sides, and they sold all the seats. Then they made the whites sit on one side, and the coloreds on the other. So I had to set up in the middle and try to play to both of 'em. Everybody was too nervous to be the first one to start dancing. It wasn't until right before the end that a few people came down from each side, but they stayed in little clots, making sure they got nowhere near each other. Man, I tell you what, we need to stop screwing up our kids with our problems, you know that?"
"I had something worse happen," Guy said with a grin. "It was my first band in high school, the Furious Ones. We had this guitar player named Pete who thought he was hot shit on toast. He liked to sneak Dexedrine from his cousin who was narcoleptic, and toss one down before the show. Usually it didn't do much-he was pretty wild anyway, and this actually kind of calmed him down-but I think he took more'n usual on this night. So he was bouncing off the damn ceiling.
"Anyway, he had this super-long cord for his electric guitar, and he liked to dance all around. So on this night, he got his feet all tangled up, but he was too into his music to realize it. He jumped way up in the air, like he always did, and usually he came down with his feet spread apart. But this time he couldn't, and he landed flat on his back. His guitar flew headfirst into his amplifier, and it made this god-awful shriek that I swear probably messed up my hearing to this day. The drummer jumped over and unplugged his guitar, and we looked up to see everybody starin' at us. Then the announcer's voice came over the PA: 'Let's give a big thank-you to Guy and the Furies.'"
They all laughed. Byron took a swig from Sarge's flask; then Sarge said, "What about you, Byron? You got to have a story, too."
"Hey!" Guy cried. "Did you see that?"
"What?" Large Sarge asked.
"Outside the window. Something flew past."
Sarge leaned over and looked. He saw the plane's wing, the moonlight on the clouds, and the stars in the cold air. "I don't see anything."
"Maybe it was a bird," Byron said.
"At night?" Guy protested. "And it was big!"
"Owls are pretty big," Byron suggested.
"Do they fly this high?" Guy asked.
Before anyone could respond, the plane suddenly lurched and threw them first against the right cabin wall, then the ceiling. Guy screamed, his voice high pitched and panicked. Large Sarge, who'd been in the marines in World War II, reacted calmly and tried to find a handhold. Byron, who'd been in the army but never saw combat, was blinded by pain as his limp leg wrenched in its socket.
Then there was noise, and fire, and the sensation of being inside a blender, followed by stillness and cold.
* * *
Byron Harley took a deep breath and pressed his palms flat against the metal covering him. It was hot to the touch.
His head ached like his first hangover, and he felt tight and hot all along his left side. He'd lost consciousness at some point, because he remembered seeing treetops scrape the cabin windows as they shot past, and then he was here, trapped under some big sheet of steel.
He pushed with all his considerable strength, and felt the weight mostly in his back where it pressed against the ground. They didn't call him the Hillbilly Hercules for nothing, after all. The plane's wing rose enough for him to get his pinned leg out from under it.
He slid his bad leg to one side. Ironically, the brace had taken the wing's weight, protecting his damaged limb. Then again, that leg was numb in so many places, he couldn't be sure it wasn't snapped in half.
"Okay, okay," he said aloud. "One more time."
He lowered the wing slightly, gathered his strength again, then pushed hard and fast, flinging it up into the air. He rolled, and the wing crashed back down onto the spot where he'd been pinned. A cloud of sparks from the smoldering leaves rose around it.
Byron lay on his back gasping, staring up at the bare branches silhouetted against the orange-tinted haze high above. The air smelled of burning gasoline and heated tree sap. Smoke rose from the wrecked plane, mixing with the fog and blocking all view of the stars. The ground beneath him was cold and wet, now that the heat had melted the frozen leaves.
He coughed and rolled onto his stomach. With supreme effort he got his hands and knees under him, then shoved himself to his feet. His leg brace, bent by the impact of the crash, pinched his thigh. He wiped his watering eyes and took his first look around.
The little plane had crashed into the mountain slope at full throttle. There had been no warning: one minute he and the other two passengers were chatting about their upcoming show, and the next their world was filled with screeching metal and screams.
No, wait, there had been something. Guy thought he saw something flying around the plane, something big. Could an owl have really caused this, tangling in the propeller and sending them earthward?
His brain gradually sorted out the debris so he understood what he saw. The engine was on fire, the bent propeller blades visible like huge fingers reaching up through the flames. The crash had sheared off both wings, and the fuselage was crumpled like an accordion. The fog and smoke hung close, and the fire turned the whole vista softly orange. Like a glimpse of Hell, he thought.
How had he gotten out in one piece? He'd been in the backseat, pinned by his height, and should've been crushed on impact. But somehow he'd been thrown clear. That meant that the others might have ...
"Guy?" he called. "Sarge?" He didn't recall the pilot's name, so he couldn't shout for him. He kept calling their names as he stumbled to the plane and peered in through the shattered cockpit window.
The pilot was still strapped in his seat. Byron could tell by the limp way the man sprawled forward that he would stay there until someone took him out, and there was no hurry on that. He threw handfuls of wet leaves onto the flames, hoping to smother them, but all it did was generate fresh surges of smoke that blew right into his face. He coughed, wiped his eyes, and gave up. He realized he had no idea where the gas tank was on a plane like this, so he had no idea if the wreck was about to explode.
As he stepped back, he saw something else. Near the front of the plane, a body lay wrapped around a tree trunk, as if thrown there like a child's doll. It wasn't Guy or Sarge: he could tell by the clothes, and the small size.
He knelt beside the body and turned it over. It was a boy of about twelve or thirteen, with jet-black tangled hair. He was barefoot and wore overalls. His face was stuck in a look of surprise, and there was a huge bloody gash in his side that allowed his insides to fall out.
Byron fought not to throw up. How much dumb luck was that? Some kid wandering through the woods in the middle of the night gets hit by a crashing plane.
"Too bad, kid," he said as he closed the boy's eyes. His skin was still warm. "Too damn bad."
He got to his feet, coughed again, then called out, "Guy? Sarge? Where are you? We gotta get outta here, man!"
Nothing answered, except the crackle of flames and a distant owl. Then he spotted a hand protruding from beneath a seat torn free in the crash.
He hobbled over to it and pushed the cushion aside. Guy Berry lay on his back, his eyes open behind his trademark thick-rimmed glasses. His hair, and the skin from which it grew, was sliced away from the left side of his head, exposing the bone. Like the boy, he looked startled, not afraid. And of course, he was dead.
Byron swallowed hard. He flashed back to the first time he'd heard one of Guy's records. It was on a jukebox in a Utah diner, when Byron had been traveling from Northern California to St. Louis. He remembered thinking that it was the first time he could actually hear the singer's smile, and he just knew Guy had been grinning the whole time he recorded it. And when they finally met a year later, he realized it was true. Guy was infectiously happy when he was performing.
And now that smile, that music, was silenced.
He found Large Sarge still in the plane, crushed between a section of roof and the fuselage floor, his body almost bent in half. His fallen toupee covered his face. He was dead as well.
Byron stumbled back and sagged against the nearest tree trunk. Hot tears burned his eyes, but wasn't sure if they came from the smoke or his own feelings. "Goddamn it," he muttered. Then he screamed at the sky. "Goddamn it!"
He thought of his daughter, little Harmony Harley, barely two years old. Perhaps God had saved only him from the crash because he knew there was a baby out there who needed her daddy. Guy had no kids, Sarge's were all grown up, and the pilot had mentioned he was getting married in the spring; only Byron had a young child. Had that made the difference?
If so, then why had God arbitrarily killed the boy hit by the plane?
He was exhausted and sore, but he had to keep moving. He attempted to bend his leg brace back into alignment, but he'd need to take it off and get a hammer to do it right. For the time being, he'd just have to be careful flexing his knee.
Now that he had a moment to catch his literal and metaphorical breath, he felt a rush of total panic. Where the hell was he? Which way led back to civilization? Should he try to move his friends away from the crash site in case it did explode?
Then something at the edge of the illumination caught his eye. "You gotta be kidding me," he whispered.
His guitar case lay flat and undisturbed in the middle of an open space, as if gently placed there by a kind and unseen hand. He stared in disbelief as the firelight reflected off its shiny surface. From this angle, it looked almost as if the case itself were burning but not being consumed, like the bush that spoke to Moses. He limped over and carefully knelt, wincing at the pinch as his brace bit into his skin.
The case was warm but not hot. He said a little prayer before he reached for the catches. He held his breath as he opened the lid
His Gibson J-45 acoustic, with his first name in pearl inlay along the neck, didn't have a scratch.
"Fuck me," he sighed in wonder.
He looked around at the crash site anew. Byron was not a religious man, despite having been raised in the Pentecostal church, but it was hard not to see the hand of God in his deliverance. "Lord, looks like I owe you one," he said. The Lord did not respond.
Then he remembered that the plane might explode at any moment. He had to get away from the crash, find a road or a house with a phone, and let the authorities know. He had to call Donna, so she wouldn't panic if she heard the news on the radio first. Ever since Harmony had come along, Donna's emotions had been on a hair trigger anyway; if she thought he was dead, it would send her shrieking down the street.
He knew that there would be no help up the slope, toward the mountaintop. All the houses or roads would be down lower, in the valley. He stumbled down the hill through the fog, bumping into tree trunks and low-hanging limbs, wrenching the guitar case free when it wedged into something. Once away from the fire, the ground grew icy and slippery, with patches of snow where the treetops gapped. In no time the glow from the wreck faded, and he was lost in cold, black darkness. He was glad he wore his leather jacket, but the chill would get him soon if he didn't find shelter.
Twice the frozen leaves flew out from under his feet, and once he slid for a frighteningly long way before he slammed into a fallen tree. He had no idea how long he'd been moving when, ahead of him, he saw another orange glow.
At first he feared he'd traveled in a circle and inadvertently returned to the plane. But no, he'd been moving downhill the whole time. As he got closer, he saw that it wasn't the plane burning ahead of him; it was a campfire.
He approached it as carefully as he could, but his footsteps sounded to him like the passage of an elephant, and his exhausted breath rasped loud in his head. Up here in the mountains they could be moonshiners tending a still, working late and not in the mood for visitors. Through the mist the light grew gradually brighter and sharper, until he could make out the camp's details.
Two men sat on logs on either side of the fire. One looked small and shrunken in clothes made of old rags stitched and tied together. He had an immense, bushy beard and wore an old top hat. The other man wore a more modern winter coat and held a large jug.
A big dog lay between them. When he caught Byron's scent he jumped up and barked once, a big barumph sound that seemed impossibly loud in the silence.
"Hesh up, Acrasia," the bearded one snapped, and the dog obeyed.
Byron stepped into the open. His size often intimidated people, and sometimes that was useful, but not now. He smiled as much as he could, gave a little wave with his free hand, and said, "Howdy, gentlemen."
The two men turned to look at him. The bearded one's eyes glittered with reflected firelight. The other, clean-shaven and dressed more normally, looked familiar, but Byron's crash-fuzzed head couldn't place him. He did note the absurdity of running into someone he might know in the middle of the Appalachian woods after surviving a plane crash.
"You look plumb lost," the clean-shaven one said. His voice was neither friendly nor suspicious, just neutral.
"My airplane crashed," Byron said, startled at the statement's absurdity.
"That's what that noise was," the clean-shaven man said to the other. "Told you it weren't thunder. Anybody hurt?"
"Everybody but me is dead."
For a long moment, all three were silent.
"Ain't that a hell of a thing," the clean-shaven man said at last. "How many we talking about?"
"Guy Berry ... Large Sarge Sargent ... the pilot." Even saying it aloud couldn't make it seem real. They had played before hundreds of people just hours before. There was no way both of them, all of them, could be dead. "And some fella the plane hit when it crashed."
"It hit somebody on the ground?" the clean-shaven man said.
"It did unless he was up in the air flying around the plane." This made him flash back to whatever Guy had seen just before the accident, but of course there was no way it could have been a person.
The man in the top hat said thoughtfully, "I might need to go up there and take a look. You got any biscuits or hardtack on you, John?"
The other man felt around and pulled out something wrapped in a napkin. "This is all I got."
"I need to get ahold of somebody," Byron interrupted. "Let 'em know what's happened. Where you reckon I could find the nearest phone?"
"Well, ain't no way to get down off the mountain in this fog," the bearded man said. "That's why we're sittin' here. Have to wait till daylight or we're likely to walk off a cliff." He raised the jug and offered it. "But that don't mean we can't be sociable. Reckon you need a drink, son."
Byron squatted on the log, his bad leg out straight and his other knee nearly up to his chin, and gratefully took the jug. He winced as the moonshine burned his gullet and exploded in his belly. It took him a moment to get his breath back, but the two men didn't laugh at him. "Thanks," he croaked.
"Whoo-ee, you sure is a big ol' feller," the man called John said. "How tall is you?"
"Six foot four," Byron said as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He was used to questions about his size. "Weigh about two-twenty."
"Your mama must've had a hell of a time feeding you."
Byron laughed. "Well, she did say we needed to have our own truck patch just to make my school lunch." He passed the bottle back to one of the others. "I can pay you if you'll take me down the mountain right now."
"Ain't got nothin' to do with money, son," the bearded man said.
"You don't know the way?" Byron asked.
He grinned, his missing teeth clear in the firelight. "I know the way just fine. But 'tween the fog and this moonshine, I wouldn't trust myself to find my pecker with my left hand." He laughed at his own joke.
Byron said nothing. Now that he was reasonably safe, he felt numb, the evening's experiences too extreme for his mind to absorb.
"My name's John," the better-dressed man said. "Yonder sits Eli. And that's his ol' hound dog, Acrasia."
"Will he bite me?" Byron asked.
"Might slobber you to death," the bearded man said.
Byron scratched the dog between his ears. He'd owned a similar dog as a boy, and after recent events, it was comforting just to touch the short, bristly fur. The animal let out a satisfied whine. "My name's Byron."
"Where you from?" John asked.
"California. Born in Albert Lea, Minnesota."
"Down close to the state line with Iowa."
"They done give towns two names like a person now?"
"Not sure how it got that name. Didn't live there long. Moved to Virginia, then out West."
"Either way, you're a long way from home," Eli observed.
"That's the truth," Byron agreed. The liquor's warmth spread through him, muting the panic and urgency he'd felt since the crash. When the jug came his way again, he took another swig.
John reached down behind the log he sat on and produced a fiddle and bow. With no preliminaries, he began to play "Be Kind to a Man When He's Down," its long, mournful notes filling the quiet forest. Byron had heard that song all his life, from a scratchy old record his dad treasured. He and the bearded man sat in silence, listening, the fiddle giving voice to emotions too strong to be expressed any other way.
When he finished, John nodded at Byron's guitar case. "You play that twang plank?"
"I've been known to pick at it," Byron said.
"You know 'The Brown Girl'?"
"About that girl that gets her head cut off and kicked against the door?"
"That's the one."
Byron had an unfailing memory for tunes, and could recall almost anything he'd ever heard, and certainly anything he'd ever played. "I reckon I can find my way around it."
"Why don't you two pick a little," Eli said as he stood, "while I go attend to some business. Be back before you know it."
He wandered off into the dark. Byron assumed he was going to pee, but if he'd been more aware, he'd have noticed that Eli headed off uphill, toward the plane crash.
Byron took out his guitar. When he looked up, John let out a long, plaintive wail from his fiddle, and Byron strummed along.
"Who's gonna sing?" John asked.
"I'll give it a shot," Byron said, and when they began the next verse, he did:
Come riddle me, riddle me, Mother, he says,
Come riddle me all in one,
Whether I'll go to court fair Helen,
Or fetch you the brown girl home.
If it registered on Byron that neither of these men seemed overly concerned with the plane crash or its victims, that neither had inquired about whether Byron was injured, and that the moonshine jug never seemed to get any emptier, Byron pushed it aside. Right now the most important thing was that he was jamming with a great fellow player. And if that seemed impossibly odd as well, out in the middle of the Tennessee woods, he'd just deal with that later, when they'd finished playing.
Unfortunately, he had no idea how long that would truly be.
Copyright © 2015 by Alex Bledsoe