This short story was inspired by the song Copperhead Road by Steve Earle.
In the middle of the hills in Eastern Tennessee lie the charred ruins of small cabin that dated to colonial times when the area had all been virgin forest except for a tiny settlement of trappers and hunters which banded together for protection from the Cherokee Indians.
In addition to the dangers of Indian attacks, the area was home to a large population of copperhead snakes and the settlement became known as Copperhead. With the rise of Knoxville and Johnson City in the mid 1850s, Copperhead fell off the map and the town was abandoned. But Copperhead Road, which was the main street of the town, still existed in the early part of the 20th century known as the Roaring Twenties, and it’s at the abandoned cabin where our story begins.
Tommy walked quietly on the fallen leaves in the forest with his shotgun held loosely in one hand and a satchel slung over his shoulder. Every now and then he would stop and listen to what the forest was telling him. It was mostly quiet today so he kept walking. Lost in his thoughts, he wandered clear up to the cabin. After a moment, he realized where he was and he gripped his shotgun a little tighter, his senses more attuned to his surroundings.
This is it. This is where his pa had told him never to go to. Bad people lived up here. Godless people who would just as soon take your soul then give you the time of day. He was a little bit scared and a little bit intrigued all at the same time; the way most 16 year olds see danger.
Tommy saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a man pointing a rifle at him. He saw a few more men coming out from behind the trees and he pointed at them from the hip.
“Don’t you raise that pop-gun at us, boy. ‘Less you aim to die today.” Tommy relaxed his grip and let the gun point back down to the ground. His legs started to tremble. “What’re you doin’ in these here parts, boy?” Tommy’s mouth went dry as cotton.
“Uh…just huntin. Sir,” Tommy managed to say. He could hear his father say clear as day, “You stay away from Copperhead Road, son. Nothing good comes from up there.” Tommy thought he was going to die. His father had successfully scared the crap out of him and here he was about to have the crap literally scared out of him.
The man who was talking lowered his gun and the others followed suit. “You’re Bill Anderson’s boy, ain’t you?”
“Yessir,” Tommy said.
“You’re pa ever tell you to stay away from here?”
“Good advice, boy. Why you around here then?”
Tommy shifted his weight nervously. “I, uh, just sorta lost track of where I was I guess.”
“Well you shouldn’t lose track of that around here. Shouldn’t lose track of that anywhere. Now go on, git.”
Tommy shifted his weight again. They didn’t seem like the devil’s people. They’re letting him go after all. He wanted to ask them why they didn’t want anyone nearby. Why did people say they were so bad? “Uh, sir? Can I ask you a question?”
The man stood there perplexed. Nobody had ever stuck around long enough for him to tell them to git, let alone ask a question. “What is it, boy? Ain’t got all day.”
Tommy looked at the man square in the eye. “What do you do here that everyone says you got to keep away from Copperhead Road?”
The man grinned and spit tobacco juice on the ground. “You know why. Everbody knows why. Nobody wants to do anything ’bout it though so we keep on doin’ it.”
“You make good money at it? Is it exciting?” Tommy asked with growing curiosity and confidence.
“You sure do have a lot of questions, boy.” The man walked closer to Tommy to get a better look at him. The other men stayed put.
“Uh, I’m sorry sir,” Tommy stammered, his confidence wavering. “My pa said you was… uh, bad people and you’d kill me if I came up here. But you don’t seem too bad to me if’n you’re lettin’ me go and all.”
The man walked up to Tommy and stood a good three inches taller than the still growing boy. “Well boy, I ‘spect some people think we’re bad. We do bad things from time to time. But I reckon most people do bad things from time to time. Don’t you?” He looked at Tommy with steely eyes before continuing without waiting for an answer. “What we’re doin’ isn’t nothing too bad. What our pa’s did ‘fore us, and their pa’s did ‘fore them. We just have to do bad things ever now and again cause it’s against the law now.”
Tommy processed this as fast a boy could. A million questions came up in his mind and he figured he’d have a million more if only a few were answered. But the one question he wanted to ask the most came blurting out of his mouth before he could stop it. “Is it fun?”
The man started chuckling which evolved into a full-blown belly laugh. The other’s behind him started laughing too. “Is it fun?” he mocked between laughs. Tommy looked embarrassed as his face became hot and red. “Boy, let me tell you somethin,” he said as he regained his composure. “We get drunk whenever we want. We get to drive souped up cars real fast at night with the headlights off. We get paid good money and we get any girl we want. Ain’t that right boys?!” The half-dozen men started hootin’ and hollerin’. One even shot his rifle up in the air. “Yeah, I guess you could say it’s fun.” He spit another stream of tobacco juice on the ground about an inch from Tommy’s boot without even looking. “You wanna see for yourself?”
Tommy’s eyes lit up. “For real? Me?”
The man chuckled at the boy’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, you. Course you know you can’t tell no one at all about our operation. Not your daddy, not your girl, not even your little brother.”
“No sir. I won’t tell a soul.”
“Well good then. You come back here tomorrow mornin’ and we’ll get you started. You’ll start at the bottom of the barrel and work your way up, now. It’s hard work, boy, but you’ll get to play hard when the workin’s done.”
“Yessir!” Tommy was all grins as the man started to walk away from him.
He walked back the way he came thinking about what he had just done. Had he sold his soul to the devil just for curiosity or the chance to have fun? Were these people really bad and just pretended to be ok? He recalled a sermon one time where the preacher said the devil can show himself as an angel of light sometimes. He shivered at the thought that he would go to hell because of this. But his youthful mind was full of money and girls and booze and all kinds of fun. Tommy put a little spring in his step on the way home. He was now in the moonshine business.
To be continued…