Murder in Caney Fork

Murder in Caney Fork

Wally Avett

March 2014   $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-416-7

It's the trial of the century in a 1940's North Carolina town.
Murder and vigilante justice.
War hero and law student Wes Ross has to save his uncle--but hide the truth.

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Taught to shoot in the rough logging camps of the North Carolina swamps, Wes Ross remembers his lessons well. Dodging hostile gunfire with dozens of other young Marines, he storms a remote Pacific island as one of Carlson's Raiders in the first commando-style attack of World War II. He blasts several Japanese snipers from their palm-tree hideouts with buckshot before an enemy bullet sends him home.

The Carolina homefront includes a new girlfriend and a new occupation, learning to be a rural lawyer in his uncle's law office, including courtroom intrigue and what goes on behind the scenes. Wes, like his uncles, is a good man, the kind who takes up for the poor and downtrodden, looking out for those who are easy prey for bullies.

Frog Cutshaw is the storekeeper in the Caney Fork backwoods, a swaggering ex-moonshiner who is deadly with his ever-present .45 auto pistol. Frog's daylight rape of a married woman and the brutal killing of her husband bring on Bible Belt vigilante justice, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

Wally Avett is a retired newspaperman. He lives in North Carolina.




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THE METAL FLOOR vibrated beneath our feet with the constant turning of the submarine’s engines. Other Marines sat humped on the floor all around me, packed like sardines in space usually taken by torpedoes.

Ninety gung-ho Marines were there on the Nautilus, another hundred and twenty on the Argonaut, running somewhere beneath the surface nearby. Stuffed in these steel tubes on top of the regular Navy sub crew, two days out of Pearl and headed west a thousand miles to bring smoking hell on the Japs at Makin Island. Couldn’t see the sun, couldn’t see where we were going, it was almost unreal. So we talked, for endless hours, to pass the time and forget the dangers.

As a Southerner from a family of lawyers, I was a natural-born storyteller.

"Turkey Jack lives with a Geechee woman, on the very edge of the Big Carver Swamp. Because nobody is brave enough to actually live inside the swamp,” I added. "Nothing in there but cottonmouth moccasins and mosquitoes. Scary place, even in daylight.”

"I never seen a swamp,” the boy from Maine said. "In fact I never seen the South ’til Parris Island.”

"Well, Parris was okay but it’s not the whole South. Turkey Jack taught me how to shoot.”

"Yeah, I was around him a lot. My daddy and Turkey Jack were always big buddies and they logged a lot when I was growing up. We’d live in a rough camp way back in the woods, cutting down trees and dragging ’em out with horses.”

"Yeah, I seen a lot of timber cut up in Maine.”

"They taught me how to shoot better’n anything they taught me at Parris Island.”

"What in hell is a Geechee?” Maine asked.

I had to remember to be patient with this Yankee. They didn’t know much. I slowly explained that a Geechee is a colored person who doesn’t speak plain English but rather a chopped-up sing-song language with lots of strange words. Supposed to come from some islands down off Savannah.

Suddenly Maine asked, "Are you scared about the fight?”

"Naw, it’ll come soon enough.”

To tell the truth, I wasn’t really scared about the battle. I didn’t even think much about it. It was the adventure of the war I was interested in. Going places, seeing things I’d never seen before. I grew up in a little county seat town in Eastern North Carolina and Mama died when I was twelve. Daddy and Turkey Jack raised me the rest of the way. Then a big cypress fell the wrong way on Dad, and it killed him.

"So you don’t have any parents, any brothers or sisters?” Maine asked.

"That’s right, nobody left but some aunts and uncles and ol’ Turkey Jack.”

It was hot. The smells of the place were about what you’d expect—the scent of sweating men in close quarters, and oil and moldy clothes and all that. We had to take turns eating when it was mealtime, but thankfully they put the thing on the surface and let us exercise and walk around a little each day.

"Come along men, let’s promenade on the grand deck.”

We had to smile at that. The speaker was another North Carolina boy, a real hillbilly from way back in the mountains. Cornball sense of humor, and we all liked him for his jokes. Hillbilly led us up the ladder so we could all stand and stretch on the little deck. There was a cannon there. I figured the salt water probably didn’t do it any good.

It was late in the afternoon and we were alone in the middle of the big blue Pacific with the big blue sky all around us, nothing to see but water and sky in any direction. It had been like this since we left Pearl Harbor.

That’s what I mean about getting to see places and do things. Pearl Harbor hadn’t meant a thing to me, just a name, when the Japs hit it last December. It was a big thing, don’t get me wrong, but it was just a name. A strange name, like Hawaii.

After Dad got killed, I had floundered around for a while not knowing what to do. I spent some time out in the country with my Uncle Jubal and Aunt Alma. She’s my dad’s sister. And I lived mostly right there in Carverville with my Uncle Herman, my mama’s brother, who is the biggest lawyer in White County.

"So, Flatlander, when the big war come along, you just had to join it, right?” Hillbilly said, grinning like a possum, full of piss and vinegar, as my daddy used to say.

"You got it right, mountain man. I was afraid you’d kill all the Japs and not leave any for me.”

"Well, you just stick close to me when the blood starts a-flying and you’ll damn sure see some Japs shot plumb to pieces. Mister, my gun is gonna do some talking.”

Back in the hold, we rode into the night, not knowing really what time of day or night except by the clock. Hillbilly lay on a sleeping bag jammed in close to Maine and me and we all talked. He told us of the remote mountain county where he lived, named for the Cherokee, and we laughed at his stories of moonshine whiskey.

"I wisht I had a horn o’ white likker right now,” he said.

"Our Indians were about gone in the eastern end of the state,” I said. Some of the Indian blood had been mixed with the white and colored people and we had those who were combinations of all three races. My friend Turkey Jack was one, mostly Indian but with both white and colored mixed in too.

"He taught me how to shoot when I was a kid,” I said to Hillbilly. "I was telling ol’ Maine here about it earlier. He told me better than the instructors at Parris.”

"How’d he say to do it?”

Turkey Jack lived with a coal-black Geechee woman, a towering colored woman whose speech I rarely comprehended, in a one-room shack at Big Carver Swamp.

The so-called "big carver” had been a nameless Indian, last of his breed, who supposedly lived alone deep inside the swamp and came to town infrequently to trade his carvings for salt and stuff at the stores.

The white people had named the mysterious swamp for him while he was still alive. And shortly after his death, to settle a big public uproar which involved the names of several citizens vying for the honor, had likewise named the town for the carver, Carverville. But I didn’t think the Marines would care for that story so I didn’t tell it.

"What did he say, Flatlander? What’s the secret?”

"Forget the sight... bring the stock right up under your cheekbone... hold your face tight against the gun and shoot with both your eyes wide open. That way whatever you’re looking at is your target, automatically. Pull the trigger and you’ll hit whatever you’re looking at.”

"Both eyes open, huh?”

"Yep, that’s all there is to it.”

Hillbilly was lying against the little rubber boats, all folded up nice and neat, that we’d use to reach the island. They smelled too, a funny odor from the rubber and the waterproofing, I guess. I’d been around boats. Anybody from the Cape Fear country would know something about boats. But I never saw one you blew up with air to give it a shape.

Like the boy from Maine, our captain was a Yankee too, lots older than us. We were just overgrown boys, about eighteen years old, but he was a mature man. His name was Carlson and he smoked a pipe. He was the one who trained us, told us all about guerilla fighting.

"How about Roosevelt?” Maine said. "You’d think he would be in Washington. Not with us.”

Hillbilly cackled with laughter at that. "Them damn Roosevelts are unpredictable for sure. His old daddy has dammed up the rivers out where I live, give people electricity even way out in the country.”

Language had begun to fascinate me, in what I heard from Maine and in Hillbilly’s drawl, which was really not as slow as mine. He spoke like the mountain folks, not as drawn-out as East Carolina. And I noticed he said "you’uns” a lot too, in places where we naturally said "y’all.”

"My grandpa Dockery always calls him ‘that dam Roosevelt’ and says he ain’t saying a bad word cause Roosevelt built so many dams,” Hillbilly said, laughing at his own joke. "My grandpa Dockery is a yellow dog Republican.”

"What’s that?” Maine asked.

"That’s a feller that would vote for a yellow dog if the dog was running on the Republican ticket.”

Most people pronounced Roosevelt so the first part of the name rhymed with "rose.” But Hillbilly said it so the first part sounded like "ruse.” I noticed he talked about some sort of fierce wild hog that roamed his home mountains too and he called it a "rooshun.” It was some time before we got out of him that these hogs had been imported from Russia.

James Roosevelt, the President’s son, was going with us on this raid. None of us knew him very well, but he was second in command to Carlson and we knew he was important. A tough Marine sergeant was his personal bodyguard and carried two Colt .45 automatics, one holstered on each hip. The scuttlebutt was that his orders were to shoot Roosevelt if he were in danger of being captured by the Japs.

Hillbilly spent a large amount of time sharpening and re-sharpening his Marine-issue belt knife, honing it on a little whetrock he carried. He would test it on his shin, shaving off leg hairs to prove its fine edge. He seemed skilled at this, and seemed to enjoy it, so I gave him mine to sharpen, too.

"What does yore Indian friend—the one that taught you to shoot—what does he say about knives?” Hillbilly asked.

I told him, "Turkey Jack had no use for a knife, contrary to the fact that most white people believed most dark-skinned men all carried knives and razors for self-defense.” I told them about Turkey Jack fighting three drunk loggers at a bootlegger’s shack in the swamps, all three of his assailants armed with deadly hawkbill knives. Turkey Jack had calmly picked up a hickory ax handle and whipped all three of them.

"Witnesses said he broke collarbones, he broke wrists, he poked out eyes, and, as the last was falling, he brought down the butt of the ax handle on the man’s exposed temple, killing him cleanly.

"The law wasted little time in the investigation and Turkey Jack was never even taken to the courthouse for questioning. The deputy sheriff sent to the scene pronounced it self-defense, just another killing.

"Turkey Jack always told me that if you had to use a knife, you’ve let an enemy get too close to you,” I told them. "A knife is good for cutting up your food, that’s all.”

"Tell us another story,” they said. They liked my stories, especially the ones with violence. "Shut up and go to sleep,” I said. "We’ve got a long ride to go. And if you don’t shut up and go to sleep,” I chided them, "the Big Carver will come and get you. That’s what my mama used to tell me—he’ll come up dripping with water and mud from the swamp and carry you away.”

"I don’t believe in haints,” Hillbilly said.

The boy from Maine just looked at us both—he didn’t know what to think.

ABOUT A WEEK later, we finally got to Makin Island.

The two subs surfaced just off the beach of the island and we loaded out in the rubber boats with little gas engines and went in that way. We were all dressed in regular khaki that had been dyed black, to make us harder to see, Carlson said.

There was a mountain between us and the main settlement. We started around the shoulder of that mountain, easing through the trees and brush. It was about daylight.

I think they knew we were coming. We didn’t surprise them, especially after a Marine let a gun fire accidentally. That whole morning was one big long rambling fight.

The Japs had snipers hidden in the tops of palm trees and they killed several of our men before we realized what their game was. I never did pray a lot, but I said a little prayer as we went in, asked the Good Lord to spare me if it was his will and make me strong and quick.

I was putting my faith in the Lord and that good Winchester 12 gauge pump the United States Marines had issued to me. Old Turkey Jack had taught me how to shoot a shotgun years ago and now my life would depend on it. It was loaded full with heavy buckshot and I could feel the weight of about a hundred shells I was carrying on me. I felt good.

Gunfire began to crackle constantly to the left and right of me as we walked into the Japs. Carlson was very informal in his methods and officers were right in with us enlisted men. We had little squads ranging here and there, taking on the Nips where we found them.

"Look at that,” Maine yelled, pointing at a ragged charge by five or six Japs toward the left end of our line. The enemy soldiers yelled as they ran toward the Marines and a quick burst of fire put them down.

Hillbilly was off to my right, carrying his heavy gun at waist level, ready in an instant to level a horizontal burst into the bushes.

"I’m hit,” he yelled.

I had heard a sharp crack and out of the corner of my eye, saw Hillbilly topple to his right, the muzzle of his automatic rifle pointing to the sky as he fell. Later, I would realize the sound I heard wasn’t the report of the Jap sniper’s rifle, but the flat impact sound of the slug bouncing off Hillbilly’s steel helmet.

"Hold on, we’re coming.”

I didn’t even think, just hollered to him and ran toward him. Hillbilly, don’t die on me. I was talking to myself. It was all confusing. But in the middle of all that, all my senses on full alert, out of the side of my vision I saw movement in the top of a palm tree about twenty-five yards to my left.

"You sonuvabitch,” I said calmly, and felt the pump gun coming to my cheek and shoulder. The front bead found the middle of that palm crown and I shot three rounds in about a second. There was a convulsion up there in the palm fronds and a little Jap soldier in dirty khakis tumbled out and fell like a sack of grain on the ground, his rifle still grasped in his hand and his cap still on his head.

"Good shooting, man,” Hillbilly said. Maine was helping him to his feet and he looked groggy but he was apparently all right. There was a fresh shiny crease on the side of his helmet where the bullet had hit at a shallow angle and deflected.

We walked over and kicked at the dead enemy, turning the corpse over on its back. I pulled my belt knife.

"You gonna scalp him, country boy?” Hillbilly asked, laughing.

"Naw, I just want to see what the buckshot did.”

We cut the shirt off the Jap and he was a pitiful little wiry thing, probably didn’t weigh much over a hundred pounds. There was an odor about him, rice and fish maybe, but his skin was clean. My three loads of buckshot had shredded his upper chest and he’d also caught a couple of big pellets in the head.

The boy from Maine got sick and had to puke in the bushes. Hillbilly gave him an odd look but didn’t say anything. Then we walked on toward the settlement. There was sporadic shooting all around us.

Around the middle of the day, the Japs staged the only thing that looked like an organized battle. Not paying any attention to us, they formed a line and came toward us, several dozen of them advancing through the thin brush.

We had linked up with several other small fire squads and when the Japs got close, we let them have it with everything we had. There were Marines shooting guns, M-1s we had gotten from the Army, shotguns, Thompsons, old bolt-action Springfields, everything. We killed every one of the Japs.

I used the shotgun to ventilate the tops of any suspicious palm trees and you could tell they were learning about buckshot. Several times in the distance, too far to shoot, we’d see snipers bailing out of their trees and running away.

The Japs had a little town there on the bay and we ran them out of it, shooting everything in sight. There were some natives, too, who were friendly to us. Then we saw what seemed to be artillery shells kicking up big sprays of water around a couple of Jap boats.

"Jimmy Roosevelt is up on the goddamn mountain,” a sergeant told us. "He’s spotting for the deck guns on the subs and they’re shooting the shit out of this harbor. Look, look.”

A shell from one of the unseen subs on the beach side of the island landed right in the middle of one of the boats, sending pieces of it high into the air. Soon, another shell hit a Jap flying boat, some sort of a funny-looking seaplane the enemy had there.

It was like a scene you’d imagine from hell, all the dead people and the shooting and the smoke and the noise. The Japs had a building we called Government House, sort of a combination headquarters place and hospital. We took the flag down, the Jap "meatball” rising sun thing, and it was along about then that I got shot.

"What’s the matter?” Hillbilly asked.

"I been shot... in the ass.”

Sure enough, one of their snipers shooting from way, way off, had popped one in my right cheek, low and deep. I never heard the gunfire, just felt a sudden push and a warm burn spreading through my hip. When I felt back there, it was my own sticky blood soaking my leg.

Two Navy doctors had come from the subs with us and one of them put some medicine on my wound. Even on a battlefield, you get kidded about the spot the bullet hit. I reckon a person’s hind end is just naturally funny.

"Shot in the ass, huh?” the medic said. "That’ll look great on your record, won’t it?”

"By God, I wasn’t running away.”

"I know that,” he said kindly. "You were standing out there watching them take down that flag, like everybody else, weren’t you buddy?”

I nodded, but it hurt. Physically and emotionally. Here I had come halfway around the world, rode in submarines underneath the ocean and killed Japanese men on a jungle island, only to end up shot right in the ass, of all places.

The rest of it was a blur. There was a Jap plane that came over and strafed us, but it didn’t amount to much. As the afternoon wore on, the pain from my wound got worse. My hip and leg got numb and I couldn’t walk very good. Luckily, we’d killed all the Japs.

That night we tried to get back on the subs but the waves were running too high and the little outboard motors wouldn’t work and some of us didn’t make it aboard until the next day.

"I shore hate you got shot in the ass,” Hillbilly said. "You probably saved my life, shooting that sniper out of the tree. Hell, he mighta shot me again if you hadn’t got him.”

"Well, us Carolina boys got to take care of each other.”

"You need to go to the doctor,” Maine said. "He’s operating on Marines on their eating table. Here, we’ll help you walk.”

I told them to tell the Navy doctor I would wait until everybody else had been treated and then he could look at my ass. We waited for several hours while various wounded Marines were treated on that table.

Finally a submarine officer, a Hogan from Canton, Georgia, came to our end of the boat looking for me. He introduced himself and kidded me a little but I could tell he was concerned about all of us.

"Where’s the tarheel that got shot in the tail?”

"Right here, sir, ready and willing.”

"You Marines did a good job,” he said, and told us that they’d already gotten word over the radio that Admiral Nimitz himself would be waiting on us when we got back to Pearl.

"Just help me get to the table, sir.”

They laid me down on their dining table, just Hogan and the doc and me, in a small room. They pulled my pants down, stiff with blood and salt water from the rubber boat trip. Then the doc said, "This is going to be easy. It’s not in too deep.

"There it is,” he said, squeezing and bringing out a slug, which he tossed to Hogan. The Georgian was standing in the doorway, amused at the sight he was seeing.

"Gimme that,” I told him. "I gave birth to it, and I want it for a souvenir.”

Hogan grinned and handed over the Jap bullet. It looked to be about a .25 caliber, only slightly deformed.

I limped back to my space at the end of the sub and showed my prize to Hillbilly and the solemn boy from Maine.

"One of these almost got into my brain,” Hillbilly said, holding the bent bullet up for everyone to see.

"So that’s what’s wrong with you,” hooted a kid from West Virginia, good-naturedly kidding him. "I wondered about you.”

"Look who’s talking, ridge runner.” Ol’ Hillbilly gave it right back to him.

The trip back to Pearl was a week or more, just like the front part except we didn’t exercise much. I couldn’t. The pain in my hip was like a toothache, a dull hurt that never quit. The Navy doc shot me full of morphine and I know my eyes must have been glazed, the way people looked at me.

We, the returning Marine raiders, stood on the little narrow decks of the two subs as they slid into the dock,.

"There’s Nimitz,” whispered the boy from Maine. "He’s saluting us...”

They said our raid on Makin had helped the morale of the American people, showed the Japs we could surprise them. Medics helped me to a Navy ambulance and took all us wounded to the hospital. That’s all we cared about.

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