TRAGEDY IN THE SQUARE
"John, time to get up out of bed and get your chores done."
Mornings usually started early for John, before the sun came up, and this one was no exception. Moving into town did little to make the routine different from life on the farm. His chores were still lighter than the work raising hogs though, so John didn't complain. Besides, John knew better than to complain about the chores. Complaining would bring a swift tongue lashing anyway. The firewood still needed to be cut and stacked, the few animals that they kept still needed to be fed, and if he didn't make his bed neatly, there would be hell to pay. The morning had a bit of a chill and made him hurry to get dressed into his shirt and coveralls quickly. The wafting smell of frying ham and eggs made his mouth water and made him wish that he could eat now, but John knew better than that also. Mom didn't allow anyone in her kitchen when she was cooking, and no one ate until the morning chores were complete. It didn't matter, John had it down to a science now, and by the time she had the first plate of food set on the table, he would be washing up with all his work complete.
"John, you'd best hurry now, we have to go to the store before your father goes to the courthouse to vote."
Dad rarely voted, though he and Mom kept abreast of events. The mayor and sheriff were both men Dad knew. If it weren't for that fact, he probably wouldn't have voted. Allenville was a small town, though by the standards of most of the other communities in the surrounding counties, it was a fair size. Just like all of small town America, everyone knew everyone else. This would have been a day off from school, if he were still in school. A child who left school at the age of thirteen to work and help support the family wasn't uncommon. Dad said the country was doing better, especially since the Second World War was over for three years now, but many areas were still poor, and Allenville was one of those areas. Still, he found enough mischief to get into every day. John went outside and started the chores, enlivened by the cold air and the smell of biscuits hot from the oven. He finished quickly and washed his hands in the washbasin just as Mom put his plate on the table, just as he had planned it.
Dad always sat at the head of the table. He was bringing a forkful of fried potatoes to his mouth as Mom refilled his cup with steaming coffee. Ernest was a tall man by any standards. His thin arms belied the strength that years of hard labor placed there. Even now, in November, the sun and his Cherokee bloodlines set a ruddy cast to his complexion. Collectively, all the Dayly family made up a sizable portion of the population. Dad's opinion carried much weight in the community, and his vote would give clout for the man he voted for, even if he didn't win the election; he was well respected in the town, as was all of the Dayly family. The election was a big affair in the town. In fact, every business and shop would be closed for the festivities surrounding the event.
The town square, where he and his mother would likely spend the majority of the day, would be filled with other women and children waiting for the men to vote and socializing. John looked forward to the chance to play with some buddies that he hadn't seen in a few months. John eagerly ate, finishing off with the last biscuit and washing it all down with a tall glass of cold milk. Dad went outside and started the old truck while Mom and he donned their jackets and coats.
They only lived a short distance from the middle of town, and they were there in only a few minutes. Dad parked the old Ford near the courthouse, where the voting would take place. John slid out the door after Mom and stood beside her, as Dad walked around the front to join them.
"Daisy, you gonna wait out here while I go inside?"
"Yes, I'll be rycheer"
She looked down at John, and watched him stare at a group of boys as they played games like dodge ball against a building next door. Their mothers stood huddled close by. Occasionally they would stop mid-sentence to admonish a boy if he removed his jacket or played too rough. She lightly placed her hand on his shoulder and gave him the lightest of pushes in the boys direction, the signal that he can go and play. John took off in a run, and joined the line of boys throwing the ball. She quietly joined the mothers group and immediately fell into conversation. The voting itself wouldn't start for another hour, which gave the men plenty of time to try and come to a decision as to who to vote for, if they hadn't already done so. John watched his father start toward the entrance, then stop suddenly and turn to face a group of trucks as they pulled up to the side of the courthouse. The women stopped talking and turned to face them also, then the playing stopped. All was silent in the square. John walked slowly to his silent mother and looked up at her face, seeing the worry that cast a shadow across it. She mouthed something, and John stood closer to her. He knew what trouble this could be.
The growing group of men stood in a line near the newly arrived trucks. Their appearance told of the life they led in the deep woods on the mountains, concocting their brew, always on the look-out for anyone to get too close. The younger ones, the sons of the moonshiners, moved around nervously, and took great pleasure in comparing notes as to how many dogs they shot while standing guard over their father's stills. One of the boys took his rifle out of the truck, eliciting a hard slap across the top of his head from his father.
"Put that gun away boy! We don't want the law!"
The boy whimpered a bit, and angrily threw the rifle back into the truck, slamming the door shut with a loud thud. John watched nervously himself as the sheriff walked over to the group. "I'm not gonna warn ya more than once, I don't want no trouble, ya understand?"
The eldest man spoke up, the patriarch of the group and self-elected spokesman.
"There ain't gonna be no trouble sheriff. Ain't a man gotta right to vote in this here town?"
The sheriff grunted and walked away, joining Ernest near the door. Mayor Jones joined him as well. John walked slowly over to join them. He could see Dad talking to the mayor.
"...and I'm not gonna run an' hide just because a bunch of moonshiners don't want me tellin' em what to do. Sure they can vote, as long as they don't disrupt the process. Who knows, their man might actually win."
This brought a giggle from Dad and the sheriff.
The county clerk opened the doors, which signaled the start of the voting day. John went back to rejoin his mother and the other boys as the men went inside.
After three or four hours of play, even in the cold November air, perspiration and fatigue built up, and was the usual end to any game that was played. All the boys could barely make the ball hit the wall by now, and the women had run out of things to say. Most of the people had voted, except for the few people who drove in from the most rural parts of the county. Ernest had long since finished, and was socializing like everyone else. The moonshiners stayed to themselves, oblivious the strange looks cast in their direction whenever they became the subject of some comment.
"Come on John, I'll get you a cold pop."
His mother's voice cut through his attention. A rare treat, even though money was better. He often made the trip to the store by himself to buy one when his chores were done, if he had a nickel. He eagerly accepted the offer, as did the other boys when their own mother or fathers made similar offers. The polls would close soon, and the counting would begin. The conversations already indicated the winner would be the incumbent mayor, much to the disdain of the moonshiners. They supported the challenger, as he disliked any government interference, and was rumored to be paid to keep the law away from the shiners. An argument near the courthouse entrance stopped every conversation and motion, as if the tension was finally lifted, and released the demon hanging over everyone's heads.
"I'll tell you this, you'll not live to see the day that I go to jail!"
The mayor backed off a little while and then broke into a run as if on cue, the entire group made simultaneous motions to their trucks and behind their coats. John saw his father run to the group of boys, grabbing his mother and pushing her to the ground while yelling just as the first shot rang out.
Most of the shiners were using long-barreled black powder rifles, and they took what seemed to be a long time while re-loading their weapons for the next round. They were well coordinated though. While one shiner was loading, another two were firing, each with a loud "pop-POP!" He felt something grab his jacket. It knocked him off balance as he felt the weight of someone's body cover him. He shifted over, enough to see his as his mother took her hand from him, and motion him to lie still. A constant barrage of deafening bangs and pops seem to fill the entire area. John lifted his head up a little, in time to see a man fall to the ground not two paces in front, a spot of blood marking the entrance of the bullet into his chest. He watched as the man's chest heaved with labored breathing and heard the gurgling sounds as his lungs filled to capacity with fluid until he gurgled no more, and fell silent. There were more pops and screams as blood and entrails splashed about the square and metallic dings as bullets plowed though flesh and bounced off dense automobile metal. John covered his head, tried to bury himself into the ground. He wished that he could become an earthworm, and simply crawl away underground. He waited for what seemed an eternity for the madness to stop and wondered what the bullet would feel like when it marked its passage through him. Suddenly, the gunfire stopped and he heard the rickety trucks speed off, the shiner's anger and bullets depleted. The only sounds left were the sounds of moaning and crying to cut through the smell of spent gunpowder that permeated the air. He lifted his head slowly, looked to his side and saw his mother move. She was unhurt by the hell. His father jumped up then grabbing both of them by whatever clothing he could grab, carried them to their own truck and deposited them in a position of better cover with the truck body between them and the square. Ernest cautiously raised his head over the truck bed, and then lowered down quickly.
"Oh dear Lord. John, get in the truck, and stay there. Daisy, you'd best stay here too."
He sprinted off to the first victim near him and shook his head as he stooped down, then went to the next man.
John stayed in the truck cab for what seemed a very long time. Finally he decided to open the door when the sun had finally heated the inside enough to make opening a window necessary. His mother had long since joined the group in the square, and she did what she could for those still alive. He joined her near a tree, just as she drew a jacket over the head of the sheriff. A hole in the tree indicated the final resting place of the projectile that ended his life. Others just sat or wandered; their minds unable to grasp the significance of what just occurred. The sheriff and his men from Conston had arrived and taken charge. John crossed a patch of bloodstained sod to join his parents. Ernest had motioned them back to the truck.
"We've done all we can, we best leave now."
John had counted the totals by now; afraid to say it aloud, as if the death count would increase if he did. Six people, including the sheriff, whose lives were now extinguished. Many more injured. It would be a very long time before the town recuperated from this tragedy, but they would survive. He pushed the thoughts out of his mind. He didn't want to think any more. He just wanted to go home.