Big Melvin Chapter 3 "When The White Raven Flies"


Elk.Mt.StringBand1930The family moved to Jenkins, Kentucky in 1911 from their home in West Virginia. The newly formed town was soon bustling. The jobs in the coal mines were there for the asking, especially for Big Melvin's father, Wesley. It had been an arduous trip for the family. Everything they owned had been piled into one heavy wagon pulled with four mules and Mama, the little ones, her rocking chair and her mother's china safe in a  wood soap box were crammed into the buckboard, wheels bumping along over puddles and ruts in the oft traveled mountain roads. The going was slow, but Irma was excited about having a brand new house to house her growing family. Three rooms, a brand new shiny black cook stove with three ovens and a hot water tank right at the touch of a spigot. There even was a pot belly stove in the bedroom to keep them all warm. The winters would be damn cold in Eastern Kentucky, come November. Her children could hardly hold their excitement while on the journey. Especially Big Melvin, who was six years old. "Can I go to work with Pa when we get to Kentucky,"he asked incessantly. They called him Big Melvin, because he had weighed nearly 12 pounds when the midwife caught him in grandma's quilt after Irma had finally squeezed him out like a new calf. Sister Rose placed him on Irma's bare belly. "He hadn't started just a hollering' afore he was a sniffin' for that teat, jes like an ol' hound dog," boasted Wesley with a grin as wide as the Ohio River. As soon as he was sure all involved in the actions were healthy and safe, sure that Big Melvin had ten working fingers and toes and that his little pink pecker was intact and in the right place, he lit out to meet his fellows and celebrate the doin's with some of good West Virginia moonshine. He was staggering and pretty happy when he finally came home. Irma could not get angry with him. He got tight only on the occasion of the birth of one of his children. There was also the time on November 8, 1904 when Teddy Roosevelt got elected president. That seemed like a proper time also.

Big Melvin was the middle child of twelve. He had five sisters and six brothers. Being six years old, he was expected to help his Mama and the girls get situated in their new company house. It had a big front porch, smelled of fresh paint and had real glass windows, not lard soaked newspaper as was in their old house in West Virginia. Mama made sure the kids kept the windows  spotless and had them clean them daily. She loved sitting in her her new house, comfortable in her old rocking chair, smoking her pipe, while she nursed little Wesley. Gazing out and enjoying the sunlight, the rolling hills and forests, not yet ugly and soot blackened from the mines that would blanket the land, in just a few short years.

 She carefully planted a garden to grow all the favorite greens and vegetables that would supplement the credit she had at the company store. The sweet apple saplings would not bear fruit for pies and Brown Betty for a few years, but she had room for one, and it was hers. That made her proud. The older boys would go back up the hollers with Pa's old 22 single shot. If their aim was true that day, they would bring back some fat squirrels, three or four rabbits or a possum or two for the stew pot. Irma planned to barter for a couple of goats for milk for the children, and the they would eat all of the kitchen scraps and the trimmings from the garden too. It would be some time before they could afford a milk cow. Wesley has sold their old cow, Darla to help pay for their journey to Jenkins.

Rachel was the oldest girl. She did most of the cooking, but Mama made the cornbread, had the final say with all of the seasonings and her turnip and raisin pie was a big favorite of her husband and all of the kids. Irma's garden would contribute all types of vegetables. Mustard greens, sweet potatoes, black eyed peas, fat, sweet white onions, red beet roots, and much more would show up on the Henry table in one dish or another. Her sow did not have her litter yet, so lard and bacon grease was scarce, requiring her to barter with Mrs. Todd for some extra, trading whatever she had extra on hand. Big Wesley had to give the boys a hand with making sure their new smoke house was built straight and true. "If the damn thing falls down, we will lose our hams, all the bacon and hog jowl. That is one thing I ain't a havin'. No way those young 'ins know what they are a coin' with a hammer, some iron nails and a square," he bellowed.

"I believe that you are a askin' a whole bunch from these boys of our'n. How many smoke houses has they built lately," Irma asked while tapping out her pipe on her boot and refilling it with tobacco. He just wrinkled up his nose and bit off another chaw, agreeing with her by saying nothing.

As Melvin got older and the places at the table increased, it became more of a chore to feed everyone. Melvin had a knack for mechanical things. It seemed he could fix most any machine or rig they had around town. Consequently, he was able to earn extra money to put in the big green cookie jar where his Mama kept her household money. He was very excited to bring home that money. "Here is another two bits for the green jar, Mama," he announced proudly. "I helped Mr. Jakes, the company maintenance boss, with some angle iron that needed a sawin'up. I be thinkin' he will soon trust me to do some more. Some  harder tasks that he needs a doin' . When that time comes along, I might be comin' home with a silver dollar, maybe more!" Irma couldn't be more proud of her middle child. Wesley would just grunt when Big Melvin would boast of his new accomplishments, but Irma knew he was just as proud as she was. He may have a gruff manner, but he loved all of his children.

Mr. Jakes continued to have Melvin work on more projects as he was learning, each more complex than the previous ones. Soon heavy trucks came rolling in, replacing the wagons and mules. The crew would show Melvin just once about a new task and he would know the order of each part and how it fit into the whole assembly. It seemed no detail escaped him, soon the other workers were getting him to help them and Melvin was not getting paid for all the work he was performing. He would often stay late when a new manual or a piece of machinery would be delivered to the building, peering over the details, learning the names of the parts, wanting to become more proficient. When the latest equipment got delivered from the rail siding, it was always a big affair in the yards. All of the mechanics and workers in the department would gather and be on hand for the big day. Those were the days that Big Melvin loved the best. Now he was part of the crew and they treated him like he was vital and very important. Melvin quit going to school when he was 12 years old. The eight grade was about all anyone needed, most people would say. He knew his arithmetic, he knew about George Washington and the American Revolution. He scored high with his reading examinations and had learned about the Rocky Mountains, the California gold rush in 1849 and about the Pacific Ocean. He hoped one day to see the Pacific Ocean. That would mean seeing the Rocky Mountains on the way there.

Big Melvin had been working in the maintenance yard full time since he was twelve. He was considered one of the top young mechanics. His family had benefited from that extra money. It was now 1925. During World War I in 1918, his brother Andrew had come home from fighting for the Army in France. He had been horribly disfigured from mustard gas attack by the Germans and he only lived about six months after coming home. He died a very painful death. Big Wesley had had an accident in the mines the previous year and was walking with a cane and a bad limp. He was in pain most of the time, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night screaming. Mama had been especially strong through all of this. Wesley was now 14 and was working in the coal mines to help the family. His Mama and Pa had hoped he would finish high school and get a good job, not have to go into those black hell holes six days a week like his Pa had done for so many years. Jenkins was a much bigger town now and there were many good jobs for a clever boy to take advantage of for his betterment.

Melvin had not ever had a girl friend, although plenty had shown an interest.  They thought he was good husband and family material. He seemed so serious and was always working hard for the company, and that impressed them. He just loved his job, and he was well suited for the tasks. "Hey Melvin, when you gonna git yer self a girl," Jakes was often to ask. "I ain't got no time for  girls an' such, Mr Jakes. I want to have yer job someday. I need to keep a workin' hard to do that," he said firmly. His boss would just get a curious look on his face when Melvin's answer was the same every time he brought up the subject. Big Melvin kept with his habit of coming to work early, and continued to often stay late. Even on Friday night, when all the young fellows in Jenkins were out on the town, looking for a connection to a young lady or going to the weekly dance at the school gymnasium, he was usually toilin' on a twin axle transmission , trying to figure out how to take it apart and put it back together. One night ,he could be seen in the repair garage, shiny gears and gaskets strewn all over the floor,two kerosene lamps turned up bright close by , squinting in the light as he thumbed through the tattered manuals. He was so relieved, when he was finally able to get it back together and there were no odd parts left on the floor. "Yipee! I done it,Mr Jakes. I done it ! , " he directed  quietly as if Mr. Jakes was there to give him a verbal reward for his determined work. That was a time when he wished he had gone to the dance like the others. An Appalachian string band had driven over from Berea way and was a plain' at the dance or maybe it was Hindman, he couldn't remember just which town it was.  A rousing rendition of Barbara Allen or Wings of a Dove would have been the best thing for him that night. He was pleased he did learn about that transmission. He washed the grease from his hands, rubbed the smudges from his face and just tumbled onto an old tattered truck seat the dogs used in the corner of the shop. That is where Jakes found him at sunrise, when he was making a trip to the outhouse from his room. Jakes just shook his head, covered Melvin with an old tarp and let him sleep.

Jakes had a well appointed room in the back of the huge building where he lived. He had a radio and Melvin liked to listen to the string bands from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Jakes, not being married, often invited Melvin to eat with him. There would be some squirrel stew, boiled potatoes and ham hocks and greens he had made for supper. Of course, the kid would not pass on having some of Doggett's shine that also was offered. Illegal, but everyone knew that Doggett made the best shine in the county. One night he got pretty lit and did not go home. He and Mr. Jakes listened to the radio, sang along and  finished off two or three Mason jars of Doggett's concoction. Melvin woke at dawn and found he was in Jakes' bed, and both were naked. He was startled. He did not remember anything from the night before. Jakes had a hold of his privates and was rubbing on him and making groaning noises. Big Melvin slapped Mr Jakes on the side of the head with powerful force and then leaped to his feet, scrambling to scoop up his clothes and putting them on as fast as he could. His eyes were burning red, he had a terrible headache and he couldn't breathe right. His brain was swirling about from the liquor. No one said a thing. When Melvin finally looked at Jakes, he saw the bright red welt on the side of his face and the look in his eyes was sad and pleading. He started to speak. Big Melvin pursed his lips, put his forefinger to them and said quietly, "shhhh. Quiet, you asshole. It is a good thing I didn't get my hand on a monkey wrench or you would have had your miserable brain splattered all over the that there side wall, right now." Jakes started to speak again. Melvin put his finger to his lips again and repeated, "shhhhh. Say one word and you are a dead man. I don't care if they hang me out in the rail yard fer the whole town to gawk at for a week. You will be a dead man, and fer that I would be glad!"

He pulled on his boots without bothering with stockings or lacing them up. Grabbed his coat and was out the door. Into the bright sunshine, walking briskly away from the repair yards, he started to breath a bit easier. His stomach was turning over and over. He felt sick. His head was still pounding. "Should he head on home? That was not a good choice, for his Mama would keep after and pester him until she found out what trouble had been brewing. Mamas have that knack, especially his. He decided to head out of town,  walk down past the mines and find a spot on the river to do some thinking. The soothing sounds of the water, rushing and gushing over the boulders would bring him some relief. He could rinse off his face. Hell, he would just stick his face in the water like he used to do as a young kid when he got angry and frustrated. All the times when his older brothers would tease him, without giving up, because he had such a big head and giant feet. They would say relentlessly,"you shore 'nuff gots feet like a Barnum and Bailey clown, Melvin. That is a fact to see fer sure.  Ever body knows that. I mean ever body!"

He soon found an inviting boulder, not too jagged and smoothed over by eons of cold, rushing water, that rose above the waterline. He climbed up, slipped of his loose boots and tossed them back on the bank, one by one. He plunged his feet in the freezing torrent all at once.  The shock almost knocked him into the water. His feet felt like your head does when you eat too much Paw Paw ice cream at once. His Mama made the best Paw Paw ice cream around the county he figgered, but she only would make it when she could get some fresh lemons for the juice. "Cider vinegar did not work too well," she would say. At the same time, it felt wonderful. He loosened his shirt, pulled up the top of his long johns and let the sun beams bake and warm his face. It was early fall, and soon the sun would find it's way out of the hollers and valleys,  earlier and earlier every day. Melvin stayed there the rest of the day. He slowly started to feel better. "Ma belly is a growlin' like a treed coon," he thought. He was, all of a sudden, very hungry and he needed to do something about that. His Pa said he could always handle himself in the woods, was a damn good shot with Pa's old double barrel Greener 10 gauge shotgun. That firearm had a kick most grown men could not handle. Pa let him learn early, about six years old or so, with his .22 cal. single shot squirrel rifle, but only his younger brothers used that now. His Pa got that shotgun from a man that owed him money for digging a well back in West Virginia. Pa always said, "that fancy English gun is worth a lot of money. I reckon that feller that I dug that well for, wasn't too durn honest. He used to hang out down by the train station, doin' what for over ta Richmond and figgered he needed that fancy wood case more'n that English feller did. I was plumb surprised when I opened it up after I jumped up into an empty boxcar. I pried open that case with my pocket knife and that's when I saw that gun. All scrolled up, shiny and fancy, it was. Curly hammers shaped like birds a flyin'. Polished stock looked like a slim woman's body, it did. Let me tell ya," he often has repeated the story.

Melvin learned some of the old injun' ways to survive out in the wilderness from that Cherokee drunk, Ol' Bear Paw, who hung around the garbage dump at wintertime in Jenkins, right along side with the coyotes and the crows. Ol' Bear Paw liked his liquor a bit too much and one hot summer evening, happy after stealing a slew of Mason jars full of moonshine from a still up in one of the more remote hollers, the moonshiners caught up to him and they cut off his hand . Two of them held him down over a piece of coal slag , pulled out their big knives and sawed it right off. They tossed it to those happy blue tick hounds that helped them track the old injun down as a just reward, Melvin had heard it told. "I imagine that Ol' Bear Paw didn't make a sound, not a whimper when those fellers were a cuttin'. Probably because he had already downed a jar of their mix before he was found hiding in a lean- to tool shed. They  left him to bleed out and die alone," Melvin surmised. That Cherokee soon pulled himself up with one arm when it seemed all was clear of any offended distillers, staggered back into the woods, loosing balance several times and making sure he fell on his good side, getting back to his feet and moving onward. Soon he found a tree oozing enough fresh sap to do the job. He scooped it up with his good hand and dobbed it all over the bloody stump of his excruciatingly painful right hand. From then on he had to teach himself to do everything with his left hand. One painful night about three weeks later, he woke from a terrible dream, trembling, and out of breath. Like a hound dog running in a dream chasing a squirrel, he was being chased by a mama black bear that had cubs. She was about to swipe viciously at his back a second time with those three inch claws, when he awoke from the nightmare. That was his answer! It was late winter in his dream and the bears would be emerging from hibernation, moving very slow,ravenous and weak. He knew just the right spot and the best type of trap to build to set his plan in motion.. He clamored through the woods to a rocky place just above the river where he knew there was a den full of sleeping, soon to be hungry, bear. Over the next 3 days, he rigged a snare of small saplings, well set in an earthwork well woven with a place for heavy jagged boulders that he had carried up the hill from the river, one by one, placed in the structure, perched just so. When she would come out from her den, he would kick out the bough holding the boulders in place and the bear would be buried under an avalanche of stones. Dead bear, he figured. Hopefully, it would give way with one strong kick, otherwise being just a few feet from the entrance to the den, Ol' Bear Paw would become her first meal! Seemed like the plan had been a success. The next time the townsfolk eyed  Ol' Bear Paw, he was wearing a big black paw, claws and all, where he used to have a right hand. With just one hand working the leather and the severed paw and his teeth pulling things tight, he had fashioned a prosthetic hand from a tanned bear paw, a cast off lace up top from an old high topped shoe and several leather thongs. It was as if he had never been without a hand at all. Many were then heard to say, "Ol'Bear Paw is a tough old bird. I don't know if I coulda gone and done that." Some even wrote songs up in the hills and hollers about Ol' Bear Paw and his ordeal. You can bet he made good use of the rest of that donor bear. Traded the bear skin for some moonshine, made jerky with the meat after  roasting the heart, liver and kidneys over his campfire and kept the skull as a reminder to not get caught stealing shine.


"I fashioned a snare, waited about an hour and snagged myself a fat rabbit. Made a substantial fire, and roasted the quarry. It tasted delicious, not like my Mama would put on the table, but good enough to end what had been one of the most miserable days I have ever ever had by filling my belly," Melvin said while he mumbled to himself. He thought about the day, ran the events through his head, as he tore off another leg and started chewing hungrily . Would he go back to his job? That now seemed like a good decision to deal with on Sunday morning. He decided that he would go to church tomorrow. That in itself would give his Mama and sisters a surprise, for darn sure. It had been a long time since he had been in that little chapel. Would God let him back in, he wondered aloud. That was definitely a good plan.  A smart plan. Papa always said that hasty decisions could gather momentum after a good nights sleep on a full belly. Reaching into the pocket of his Dickie's overalls, he pulled out his jack knife, flipped the large blade and locked it in place and cut several boughs in different lengths so he had the right layers in place if it rained, made himself a good soft bed of more boughs for the night. He grinned to himself and agreed that Ol' Bear Paw would nod his approval at it's solid construction. He wondered,"where the hell is that Injun? I could have used some conversation towards the end of this hellacious day." Last task before retiring was to gather a large stack of firewood. He didn't need to have some hungry bear smelling his rabbit supper gettin' to make himself fat for his hibernation after some efficient gnawing on Big Melvin. The golden red rays of the sun were now slipping behind the the lowest ridge. He was damn tired. He slept well and he did not dream, not that night.

A bright crisp and cold day dawned on Jenkins that Monday in October. It had been a month since Big Melvin's overnight ordeal. Work had gone on at the company as in the past. Everyone was looking for the first dusting of snow. When the snow came, work became much harder for everyone not down in the mines. The stifling heat under ground was some relief when the temperature was below freezing for everyone not down below. It was especially uncomfortable for those that worked on equipment not in the repair garage and the sheds. Mr. Jakes had promoted Melvin to maintenance crew on the mine railway - the mine cars and the locomotives that pulled the coal train from under ground. That Monday, new equipment had been delivered to the yards. Not yet in service, Melvin and the crew's responsibility was to inspect all of the wheels and undercarriage that all was properly lubricated and ready for new service in the mines. He was there an hour before anyone else on the crew. He wanted to ask Jakes some questions about the new locomotives that would be running on benzene and alcohol. He walked briskly in the sunshine, his breathe fogging the air in front of his face with every stride, making his way quickly to the repair garage and Jakes office and quarters. Passing behind the building, he glanced into the soot coated windows and was shocked at what he thought he saw. There were odd movements. He stopped and looked around. No one was about or behind him. He pulled down the sleeve of his heavy coat and rubbed a clean spot on a lower pane of the window. There was Jakes, naked as the day he was born, kneeling behind Tommy Watson, the new young kid who worked in the shop after Melvin left. Tommy was also naked and the look on his face, eyes closed and face pained, it was obvious that he was being forced to do something he did not want to do. "What to do," whispered Big Melvin quietly. He could not watch or look one more moment. He thought that if he had stayed in the repair garage, he would have been on that miserable bed where Tommy was now with Jakes.

He was out of breath as he tripped going up the steps. Pa was sipping his morning coffee with chicory . "What is a goin' on, Melvin," he asked. "Slow down now, you will scare your Mama. You got a crazy look in your eyes."

"Pa! I needs the Greener from over the mantle. And some double aught shells,only two , I needs 'em now," he blurted out quickly.

"If you needs the Greener, go ahead. I will get the shells for you, but you better take more'n jes two," he said as he handed him the partially full box. Big Wesley kept the double aught shells for bear, coyote, and mountain lion . He had seen what a 10 gauge would do to a man with a double aught load. "Damn near cut a body in half," he remembered from his past. Wesley did not have a chance to say any more to Melvin. His Mama came out on the porch from taking the biscuits from the oven in time to see him running down the road, stuffing the Greener under his coat and heading back towards work. She thought that odd. It would be hard to run after a bear or a mountain lion with that big gun under a man's coat. "Maybe there's a big 'ol bear causin' trouble up ta Jenkins, Ma."

"He didn't take time to even grab  one of his Mama's biscuits. My Melvin loves my biscuits ," she said wistfully.

Big Melvin cautiously opened the heavy creaky door to the repair garage. "Hello, Melvin," Tommy said with a cheerful smile. He obviously was hiding what he had just endured. "Hi, Tommy. How's it going in here. Mr Jakes around? I would like to speak with him," he said sternly. "I reckon he is back in the office, a doin' some paperwork an' such."

"Tommy," Melvin said looking him coldly in the eye. "I want you to go for a walk for a while. Get some air. Take your dog, Blarney with ya. Go see the new mine cars I looked at this morning."

"But I will get in..."

Melvin stopped him in mid sentence. "Listen to me. There ain't a no trouble here with old man Jakes. I can tell you that, fer sure. No trouble at all. Now grab your coat and that pup and head out to the mines."

"Jakes! Jakes! You in there, you bastard," he hollered as loud as he could. He glanced out the window at Tommy heading to where he sent him towards the mines and the new mine cars. He noticed the sparkle of the first snowflakes falling. The black soot covered town was soon to be covered in a blanket of white,  transformed into a picture worthy of a Christmas postcard. "In here, Melvin. Whatsa matter with you, huh? How come yer a hollerin' that loud. Did you jes now call me  bastard," he asked as he finally looked up from the tally sheets on his desk. Big Melvin slowly pulled the Greener from under his heavy coat where it had been hidden. He carefully leveled it at Jakes midsection." Stand up really cautious like, you little boy fucker." He knew well that Jakes kept a Smith and Wesson break front .44 caliber revolver in his top drawer. It had lost it's former bluing and the ivory handle was broken on one side, but it fired a big bullet straight to it's target. At this close range, it would be a contest to see who got of their rounds the fastest. "Step slowly forward and make sure those arms are up in the air. I remember that big ol' Smith and Wesson ya got hid in that top drawer, " Melvin cautioned. It was cold in the office, but the sweat was rolling down Jakes' face and was stinging his eyes. "Can I take offen ma specs and wipe my eyes? They is a stingin' powerful bad."

"Mr. Jakes, I once promised you that you would be a dead man, even if I had to hang by my sorrowful neck in that yard for all to see for a week. You member that day. Do's ya?"

"Look here Melvin. We has bin friends , hasn't we? I made a big mistake that day. We was both drunk on Doggett's shine. 'Member? I got you a better job an' more money straight from my purse. Didn't I? "

"Mr. Jakes, the time for palaver is a comin' to an end in this here life fer you."

"But, but... Melvin..."

The next sound was the report of that shiny antique English Greener 10 gauge shotgun with a load of double aught balls.  Melvin had aimed right at Jakes' midsection and pulled both triggers from less than eight feet away. The blood, dungaree, and body bits and pieces were splattered all over the office. Jakes' top half of his body was blown back into the metal mullions that separate the window panes on behind his desk .  They were bent where his body hit them and the glass was shattered all over his desk and the tally sheets. Melvin stood there looking at the sight. The lower half of the body had tumbled to the floor, blood was draining out towards his boots from what had been Jakes' privates .

He finally came to his senses, grabbed a clean shop towel, wiped off his face, his coat and the Greener hurriedly and tucked it away. He reached up on the top shelf where the records were kept. He was looking for the pipe tobacco can that Jakes always kept there. He found it and opened it, fumbling at first. He shoved the wad of greenbacks in his overalls and tipped the can up. There were three twenty dollar gold pieces and several silver dollars which he also pocketed. He was thinking clearly now. Tommy would not have to endure this shit again. Melvin would never see his family again. Better grow his beard out real heavy. He will look older than his twenty years. He could sell the Greener for some hard cash. He heard shouting and footsteps running towards the garage. He quickly needed to head for the river, out the back way. Camp for a day or so. "No," he said to himself. "I better keep on a movin' out of these parts. Out of these mountains." He wondered where he would go. That planning had not been part of his day. Mostly, he was not going to let some fool ruin that boy's life. He had accomplished that. What was the price ? Maybe it was the price of his own life. He would keep on moving, only to stop for an hour or two, eat something and move on. Night was the best time to travel. He could hold up during the day. First stop should be to try to find Ol' Bear Paw. For a silver dollar, he would lead him out of the mountains and head... Where? "California," he shouted out loud breathlessly as he was running towards the river right past the mines, ducking in and out of the buildings, hoping no one sees him. The company will surely have their influence and money in play with the county sheriff. He needed all the edge he could muster. Ol' Bear paw was his edge. "How far is California," he thought to himself. "Must be pretty far." He wondered if the trains ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He knew it was a fer piece way to the Pacific Ocean. He'd seen that on the old leather globe Jakes had in his office. They must have railroads there, and they will have trucks for sure. And cars too. He could fix all of them. He would have grown out his beard out by then and no one would know him. He would tell people he met was from West Virginia. That wasn't a lie. It was settled. "I 'm a headin' fer California. I wonder if they have string bands in California."

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