This story unfolds in the Appalachian Mountains during the 1960’s. It is fiction but based on actual events that occurred in the lives of three young boys. The mountains during this time period are still very picturesque and teeming with wildlife. The trees are big and strong, towering over the ground as their tops reach for the sky with beauty and vigor.
Clear water carves its way down the mountainside between the ridges, clean, cold and refreshing. It is good and safe to drink.
Pollution is non-existent here because strip mining, or mining of any type, has not been allowed anywhere in this area. Later, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, strip-mining operations will dominate the region.
The lives that our story touches, and the people who live here, are honest and hardworking folk. They cherish the land, treating it as the precious gift it is. One of those families, the Fergusons, still enjoys a simple way of life in these mountains, reminiscent of the traditions passed down to them from generation to generation – from grandparents to parents – over the years.
Three members of this family play a critical role here. They are Denny, Jake and Ty Ferguson, a trio of unforgettable characters who live off the land in this part of the country.
Their home is deep in a place called Middle Branch. The Ferguson men are humble and generous individuals, and perfect examples of a clan that still looks and dresses like mountain families from a bygone era.
Little do these men realize, though, that their land is rich in coal reserves and other minerals that greedy corporations and corrupt people will go to almost any length to possess.
At the same time, this tale also catalogs the lives and adventures of three young boys who witness a tragedy: Joe, (me), Travis and Billy. Still, while terrible events explode all around them, these boys will find ways to get into some very entertaining mischief.
“Murder Seen through the Eyes of a Child” is their story.
The Fishing Trip
My friend Billy pedaled up to my house on his bike early on a beautiful August morning, screeching to a halt right in the front yard.
Then, he cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered as loud as he could, as if I couldn’t hear him: “Hey Joe, would you like to go fishing today?”
Billy was one of the closest friends I’d ever had. He lived up the road a little ways and like me, he came from a large family. And, like most of the boys my age who lived in our area, he was skinny as a broom pole for 12 and still growing straight up.
We all could spot Billy coming for quite a ways off because his curly brown hair was kinky and crazy and stood straight up most of the time.
In fact, the first thing anyone saw as Billy approached was his hair flapping in the wind and then there was no question for anyone that it was him. He was also the tallest of any of my friends at that time, coming in at a pure five-feet, one-inch tall. On top of that, Billy was always ready for adventure and at the drop of a hat he would be off to find it.
I was so excited about the possibility of going fishing. I loved our fishing hole which was in a beautiful, isolated area in the very head of Middle Branch.
There, the water was so clean and clear you could count endless varieties of fish swimming in schools and by themselves in more than 20 feet of water.
We have fished in a lot of places in our lives – pulling out catfish and crappies and large mouth bass — but of all those fishing holes in all the locations we found on our beautiful mountain as time went on — this one was doubly blessed as the best all-around place to swim, too.
It rested on the top of the highest mountain peak in Middle Branch, reachable only after a strenuous 2-mile hike through a breath-taking, but treacherous, mountainous pass.
The sweat would drip off us as we climbed higher, but we were joyful at the natural beauty around us — the signature of this leg of the Appalachians, a 480-million-year-old system, spanning east to west across the country.
The mountains were steaming with wildlife and each time we hiked them to reach our fishing hole it was like a symphony of songs and sounds of birds and other creatures filled the air. We watched and witnessed deer, wild boar, bear, squirrels, rabbits and many smaller animals feeding and interacting in the verdant, green habitat of ridges and valleys, many within arms’ length as they played and slept. When it came to some of the bigger wild life that we could hear crashing through the more ominous ground cover, well, we knew to keep a good distance for all of the obvious reasons.
We would get tired and stop to rest from time to time as we made our way on, but the long hike was well worth it. I cannot recollect a time when we didn’t catch a lot of fish once we had arrived and gotten ourselves settled.
So it didn’t take a second thought for me to respond to Billy and I hollered back, just as excitedly: “Sure I’d love to go!”
And that was an understatement.
“What do you think, should we go by Travis’s house and get him to go with us?” he yelled back.
“That sounds good to me,” I replied, as I ran out to meet him. I was excited.
“Let’s go get him then,” Billy suggested.
Travis was one of our closest friends. The three of us did everything together and it was rare to see us apart. We were a tight little threesome and Travis loved the fishing hole as much as Billy and I did. So we jumped on our bikes and headed to his house.
Travis didn’t live too far away, just up the road. Unlike us, he was reserved and didn’t believe in taking chances, but we managed to pull him into about everything we did whether it was good or bad.
Travis was short and stocky and heavily built for all four-feet eight-inches of him. Needless to say, he was the strong one of our little group, which came in handy.
Me, I was the bean pole, so skinny that Mom and Dad had a hard time finding a belt for me. They would usually buy one as close to my size as they could find and cut it off. Then, they would take a nail, heat it up over a hot stove, and burn new holes in the leather so it would fit me.
Whenever I didn’t have a belt I would use a piece of grass rope from a bale of hay to keep my britches up so I wouldn’t find them around my ankles. I stood tall at a proud four feet 10-inches tall.
We made quite a pack, we three. Each of us individually was scared to death of his own shadow, but together we thought we were invincible. There was no way we were going to back down from anything.
Once at Travis’s house, Billy, Travis and I rode off toward Fog Hollow to start the long journey up through the mountains to our favorite fishing hole. We arrived at the old, rutted dirt wagon road that leads to Fog Hollow, a path that was smooth in spots while other places were so bumpy it would bend the rims on our bikes if we hit them too hard.
We could go fast on the smooth places and make good time. And we did, right past the bootlegger’s house at the end of the road in the head of Fog Hollow. The sun was hardly up that day and no one was stirring as we zipped by. The bootleggers were a family that sold moonshine, whiskey and home brew to all the locals. They were called bootleggers because we lived in a dry county where the selling of alcohol was prohibited.
When we got to the spot we hid our bikes out of sight and followed a small stream into the woods. We picked up the trail that leads to our fishing hole and started walking, deep into the mountains. A soft breeze caressed our skin, moving the branches in the early morning air. They swayed gently back and forth in the sunlight, a prism exploding in blinding color through the leaves. It was fall, and the hint of orange on the tips of green from the temperatures beginning to cool at night just magnified the glorious panorama around us.
The path that led up the mountain is worn down by centuries of travelers. Cut into the earth, parts of it now resemble a set of stairs that fit our feet thanks to the water that has steadily dripped down, year after year. It follows the formations of each outcropping now protruding up and out of the earth.
We had to be careful on some parts of the trail, especially those spots where the spring had found its way up and out, trickling across the rocky steps and then down the mountain side. One wrong step, one slip, and you were gone.
As we climbed, we heard the swoosh of gray squirrels bouncing and swinging off tree limbs in the distance. Then the sudden rustle in the brush as a deer ran up the ridge, its white cottontail swaying from side to side. The animal stopped at the peak, turned its head back toward us, ears perked high, before it strutted proudly — head in the air — out of sight over the top. It had succeeded in getting away from us.
The silence was mystical as we peered up and into the huge towering canopy of oak, hickory, walnut and beech trees resting against the skyline. These huge trees comprised a virgin forest whose tops reached for the sky during their long lives with arms outstretched in an embrace. A woodpecker broke the silence as it pounded its beak with impunity on a nearby tree, searching for food. Other birds chirped, stealing our attention as they filled the air, and our ears, with their songs.
My mind filtered such incredible sights and sounds, a tranquil symphony that echoed throughout the mountains filling my soul. Even though I’d heard and seen it before, I never tired of the beauty, and how it made me feel.
Finally, after a nice, long two-mile hike, we came upon our favorite fishing hole, a pond about five acres or more in size that twisted, wound and cut its way through the top of the mountain between the ridges.
The best part about the pond is where it was located, right between the top of the two highest ridges in the very head of Middle Branch. As we approached, we could see the mist of a morning fog slowly rising from the water and disappearing before it met the sky. Smiles crept across all three of our eager, young beaming faces as we imagined the fish that would be jumping up out of the water as the mist disappeared and more of the pond came into view.
There, the water is so clean and clear you can see the bottom easily. Cattails are scattered along the edge on one end of the bank. As they sway back and forth in the morning breeze, humming birds and insects are by their sides, eager to grab an early morning meal at the cattail buffet.
Portions of an old fence still stand along one side of the pond, part of a long and winding wooden barrier that encircled the orchards that the Ferguson family had planted and cared for on the property they owned on the mountain top. It was just a short distance from the pond, whose back side had a backdrop of rock outcroppings that rise about 20 feet above the water.
We used those rocks as a diving platform in the summer months when we went swimming there. Parked upon the bank on the right side near the back of the pond was an old boat that the Ferguson family had made.
Rumor had it that Denny Ferguson built the boat so he could use it as part of his ploy when he courted Betty Lou, a clerk at the local country store who he often brought her up there on picnics.
In the morning, the pond is very still and doesn’t have a ripple even though wild black ducks are silently cutting through the water on the other side. It is quiet and peaceful and even the crows heard in the distance with their famous calling sound are a welcome comfort.
We all hurried to our favorite spots along the bank of the pond to get our poles in the water as soon as possible. But as we started to cast, the piercing sound of a gunshot deafened us. It bounced from one ridge to another throughout the mountains, straight to our eardrums, breaking the golden silence that early morning. It scared me so badly I thought I was going to jump out of my skin.
The shot came from just behind the pond and the three of us, all at about the same time, raised our eyes from the water and looked toward the direction of where it had come.
We spotted Jake and Denny Ferguson walking toward us carrying their rifles and what appeared to be a big red fox. They had just shot it and had pulled it from one of their traps. The fox was lifeless, its body limp as it hung down toward the ground from Denny’s arm.
The brothers gazed over our way and saw the three of us fishing. They changed direction immediately and headed over to us and stopped. They were older, with Denny about 30, and Jake a little younger, at 27.
“How’s the fishing going, boys?” Jake asked.
Denny looked unusually eager as he asked, “Catching any good fish today?”
Billy was trying not to appear as terrified as he was but I could tell his knees were shaking.