• Danny Thomas

Excerpt from Clinch River Pearls: Jeter Buckley, Chapter 1

Here's an excerpt from Clinch River Pearls, set in Clinton, TN during a tumultuous period in American history when schools were no longer racially segregated and 12 brave black students were the first to test the new law. This was a time when bigotry and fear raged across the Anderson County landscape, when teachers, farmers, law enforcers and even white students would be tested.

This book centers around events and people in Clinton in this period of turbulence and violence, and at the core lies Linda Lockwood the indomitable mother of six children who operates the family's farm while her husband manages Magnet Mills in Clinton. Interconnected with Linda's life are those of her workers Jed Powell, an industrious, multi-skilled laborer trying to earn enough money to buy his own place, Jeter Buckley a drunkard and petty thief hindered by his distaste for hard work, and Fletch a hardworking black man who has to deal with the narrow-mindedness of racial hatred.

When Mrs. Lockwood dropped her keys into Buckley’s open palm, that was when he started thinking he could steal from her. She had hired him that morning, saying, “I need you to drive my truck up to Andersonville to pick up a load of cross ties.”

Buckley’s Momma always said, “You can’t never tell when a break is gonna come yer way, so you got to be ready for anything.” Here it was January, '57, and she was dead now these forty years, but he still abided her words. She always said time works in a circle instead of running straight out of the past through the here and now into the future, which none can truly see, so he was careful to watch for patterns. For how things came back around again, if you were patient. If you knew what to watch for. This was what was running through his head as he went about planning to steal copper wire and welding tools from the cabin on the Lockwood property.

Mrs. Lockwood had looked closely at his face when she gave him the keys, and he thought, Uh oh, she’s picked up on something. I best be careful. He returned her stare, taking in those intense brown eyes, her dark hair, the inquisitive expression on her face.

Then she chuckled, “I couldn’t remember if I gassed up the truck for you. Now I recollect Sammy took care of it. You drive careful, and I’ll see you in what? Maybe three hours? That sound about right?”

“Might take longer,” he said, wanting to lower her expectations for how long he’d be gone.

Driving down her driveway, he started calculating how to do it. He decided to head down Tennessee Highway 61 like he was heading toward Clinton, but instead he would double back and take Sulphur Springs Road out to Bush Road. He had done some work for Mrs. Lockwood three weeks earlier with Ed Powell and the nigger, Fletcher Jones. That’s when he found copper wire stored in the ramshackle cabin the Lockwoods had in Dutch Valley. He saw it through the window while she deliberated with Ed and Fletch about getting her truck out of the ditch in front of the cabin. Her oldest boy, Sammy, had let it slide in, not knowing how to straddle the ruts on the dirt road. When they finished dragging the truck out of the ditch, they stored the old tractor in the lean-to, and that’s when he saw the welding equipment. He just filed away that information, calculating its value, and now, damned, if he wasn’t going to take advantage of it. He would run get that wire and the tools, carry them to Spessard’s store, where he could leave them with Woods, who would keep it all quiet until they could sell it, maybe in Rockwood or Knoxville. They’d done that kind of thing several times before. No problem there. Then he’d drive up to Andersonville and fetch those cross ties.

No. Better yet, he’d run the truck off the road before he got the cross ties. Just let it slide into another ditch or something. He could blame the boy, saying the truck was running funny, not answering the steering wheel. Might have been damaged when the kid ran it into the ditch the first time.

Hell, yes. That’s the way to do it. No sense straining himself loading cross ties. As he was working this out, he got a thirst and pulled the pint bottle of Old Crow out of his jacket and took a swig, letting that golden burn slide down inside him. Ooooh, that’s nice.

He turned off Bush onto the dirt road, which was slick because of rain they had been getting. He was tickled driving up through the pines to the Lockwood place, laughing quietly about what Mrs. Lockwood’s face would look like when she found out the wire and the welding gear was gone. He’d give just about anything to be there when she drove up and saw it was long gone.

But I better not do that, he thought.

When he got up to the cabin, he turned off the ignition and sat, listening to the engine tick tick tick as it cooled off, thinking it all through again. He might split a hundred dollars with Wood after they found a buyer for the wire. Maybe seventy for the welding equipment. So half of maybe a hundred seventy dollars. That would go a long way to buying a used truck. It would also buy a shitload of Old Crow. Which made him thirsty again, so he took out the bottle and drained her dry. He tossed the empty bottle into the woods and walked over to look in the window at the rolls of wire. Yup, still here. He checked at the lean-to, and the welding gear was right there. He lifted the tarp away and pulled on the near handle of the welder to see how much it weighed.

“Hod Toe Mitey!” he said. “Heavy as lead pipe.” Realizing that he’d spoken out loud, he looked around. Nobody even close, but he’d been careless talking when he should have been thinking. He didn’t want anybody around, and he stood a minute trying to figure how to load the truck. He’d need to move all this stuff without getting a hernia. That’s when he recollected the old tractor.

“Damn good idea,” he thought, walking over to the lean-to. It wasn’t constructed just right, not exactly level, laid out on a little slope, but the tractor was sitting nose out under the tin roof. He found the key stowed away in the battery box, and he knew Mrs. Lockwood had her boys disconnect the battery every time they put the tractor to bed. Which ain’t necessary, he thought, but if Missy wants it that way, those boys will do like she tells ‘em.

He looked around for the gas can, which, by the heft of it, was about one-third full. He poured the gas into the tank, found the key, and got up on the driver seat. He turned the key as he shifted into forward, but nothing happened.

“Shit!” he muttered. “Got to connect up that battery.”

He shifted into reverse and got down and inched around back to get at the battery, sliding behind the big wheel, contorting himself to reach the cables. He pinched a finger getting the negative pole connected and wasn’t sure it was on right. The bourbon was giving him a woosy feeling. The bottle held more than he thought it did, and he hadn’t eaten since…when? Yesterday?

Lemme jest check on this, he thought, contorting back the other way to reach across the driver seat to the ignition. Something told him that wasn’t right about the same time his fingers turned the ignition.

The engine caught right away, and the tractor lurched back on him, slamming him hard into the post at the end of the lean-to. The tractor was grinding away, trapping him against a post. When he hopped down to check the battery he hadn’t pushed it into neutral, and now, damn! The tractor had him pretty good. His ribs hurt, and he was having trouble getting a full breath. Then he slipped down a little, and the big rear wheel was turning against his hip and his left leg.

Shit! he thought. This thing’s going to grind me into the dirt.

It wasn’t funny, but he heard himself laughing out loud over the droning growl of the tractor engine. He took in as good a breath as he could manage and tried to heft himself back away from the big wheel, which was turning slowly, but steadily, as if the infernal thing had a mind to run him over.

No good. He didn’t improve things one little bit, and he felt something pop in his right shoulder. Something let go under the skin, and he felt the beginning of a dull throbbing pain there. All the while, the big wheel was turning, turning, turning, and his belt was getting hung up a little on the tire treads, pulling his pants down a little bit on every rotation. He could see an angry red scrape on the pale skin of his hip, and that wasn’t where it hurt the most. Down lower on his leg where the tire was grinding away was hurting like the dickens. Burning some, he felt a wetness there, too. Not to mention something gone wrong in his back.

Bleeding, he thought.

And he gave another mighty push against the big wheel to no avail. His heart was beating rapidly, and he couldn’t seem to get his breath. The wheel grinding him down little by little. The rotting leaves and loamy soil inside the lean-to combined into a depressing smell as he wriggled first this way, then that way, struggling to get out from under that big wheel turning, turning, turning.

He yelled loud as he could, “Hey! Anybody! Come help me here.”

But nobody was around to hear, and the only sound was that damned old beat up tractor’s engine running like a top, chugging along like it was taking him to the County Fair. But it was taking him someplace different, banging, bucking against him, whipsawing now and then like it wanted to get out from under the lean-to. He tried again and again to free himself, yelling until he was hoarse and out of breath, and his head started swimming. The pain in his hip, his whole midsection, and his right leg was blurring somehow. Not to mention his back, which was feeling worse. He didn’t know how it could, but everything was blurring, and that old tractor was chugging along, pushing him into blackness.

Blessed, forgiving blackness.

I hoped you enjoyed this small window into the book. For more information and to continue reading, contact me at Dmthomas471@gmail.com.

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On August 28th I was one of four local authors here in Winston-Salem to read from our works at a monthly event sponsored by Bookmarks, an independent book store located on 4th Street here in Winston-S