Sample text for The Town on Beaver Creek : the story of a lost Kentucky community / Michelle Slatalla.


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chapter 1

When he was seven, my uncle Jack saw a man dying of rabies on the county courthouse lawn. The man wore bib overalls, and as he convulsed and choked, his boot heels flung divots into the air. He begged for water. Someone brought a dipper cool from the pump, but he could not swallow. After an ambulance took the farmer away and Hesta reappeared on the concrete steps in a rush to catch the next Sparks Bros. bus, Jack tried to forget the strange scene. But as he leaned against his mother on the vinyl seat and the bus hurtled past steep, rocky hillsides on every hairpin turn, he could not help feeling parched.

Not long after, Jack was playing with a stick in the vacant lot across from his house. It was a hot summer in Martin that year, but not unusual. Eastern Kentucky tends to turn miserable by August, and in the 1930s an icy RC Cola was the only sure cure. But cold pop was a rich kid’s pleasure. There was none at home, where Hesta had no ice and no plans to part with fifty cents for a fifty-pound block, not with seven mouths to feed on Fred’s railroad wages. For Jack, who spent most days playing in the miserly shade of a single tree in the lot, the only possibility of relief was the hardware store, where Gardez Dingus ran an electric fan for the convenience of shoppers and idlers. He started across Main Street as a shimmer of heat rose. The wooden sidewalk burned like a branding iron on bare feet, Jack started across Main Street.

Something caught his eye over at the Pure Oil. J. C. Stephens’s yellow bulldog, paws powdered gray, wandered in the dust near the gas pumps. The dog lived around the corner and was rarely seen on Main Street. His job was to lie in the yard and wag a greeting when J.C. emerged from his billiards hall across the street from his house. The poolroom had a reputation for fair play and level tables; customers who exited tipped hats at the dog. Too lazy to bark, the dog was never seen chasing his tail. Except now. Jack hoped for the tail’s sake that he didn’t catch it; the dog had a powerful jaw.

The bulldog was walking funny. He ambled lopsided past wooden buildings that sported movie-set false fronts in a vain attempt to appear taller than a single story. The dog favored his right side as if he had a thorn in a paw. Model A Fords crawled past him, competing with farm wagons for parking spots at the hitching posts. Two centuries were clashing on Main Street. In front of Dermont’s grocery, a farmer’s wife in a flowered bonnet and button-up shoes wore an ankle-length skirt and chose potatoes from the same burlap sack as a young woman with hair bobbed like a flapper’s. A blacksmith’s shop was next door to the service station, where an auto mechanic worked six days a week. Downtown Main Street had as many houses as stores. Front yards were small, reserved for the show of a prize climber or a magnolia, but backyards were big enough to put fruit trees—apple, cherry, and mulberry—to work for jelly.

Jack knew he should stay away from the dog. But a strange fascination lured him on. The dog took a few tentative steps toward the barbershop. Jack followed at a respectful distance. It stopped. Jack stopped. The dog peered into the dust as if looking for answers. Jack kept his eyes on the dog. The dog growled at nothing.

Jack wanted to call his mother to come take a look. He turned toward the house, then stopped. Take a look at what? At a dog acting peculiar? Plenty of Martin’s citizens survived the humidity by snarling through the entire month of August. Hesta, in her current frame of mind, would ask a lot of unwelcome questions about why he had left the vacant lot without permission. She didn’t want Jack wandering around Martin, an uncivilized dirt-poor dirt-road town that in her opinion the family had had no business moving to a few months back. She compared Martin to the high standards of what she’d left behind a hundred miles west in Mount Sterling, a town that had boasted a business square, fancy Victorian porches and cupolas, and a fire department. Martin, with sidewalk boards laid across railroad ties, could not measure up. Here kerosene or gas lamps still reigned and indoor plumbing was a rumor. The creek flooded in the spring and in the summer developed dangerous sinkholes that could suck a child to the bottom. Coal miners poured into saloons on Friday nights, to spend their pay on taxed whiskey when they could afford it and on moonshine when they couldn’t. The county deserved the nickname Bloody Floyd. Most men—as well as some women—carried pistols and nearly every day there was a senseless murder in the jurisdiction; at the current rate, within ten years 90 percent of the county’s forty thousand residents would be dead. As Hesta could have pointed out to Fred, if she were the sort of wife to nag, she had barely had time to unpack before two men died in a gunfight over a school trustee election a few miles away. The unfortunate vacancy’s effect on the curriculum was unclear, but it had an immediate impact on the mood of her household. The violence proved Hesta’s point that Floyd County was not a safe place to raise a family. Decades might have passed since the Hatfields and the McCoys had made eastern Kentucky notorious for fools’ feuds, but on nearby Middle Creek farmers were still hoeing one another to death over a disputed acre.

The dog snarled again. At any other time of year in Martin, where unconventional behavior was not a condition that automatically required intervention, the dog could have wandered forever without attracting attention. Laws against eccentricity would have gotten a lot of humans thrown into jail ahead of a canine. Next door to the Mynhiers lived a girl whose foibles had prompted her nickname, Emmy Who Takes Off Her Underwear. Her nearsighted mother stepped to her porch rail several times a day, squinted toward the vacant lot, and bawled, “Emmy, you put your ba-l-o-o-o-o-mers back on, right now!” Humans got away with acting strange for years. But an oddly behaved dog faced tougher scrutiny during rabies season.

The dog wandered past the barbershop, foaming at the mouth.

Mad dog!

One of Jobie Click’s customers, with a shave in progress, was staring out the window.

Rabid dog! Get inside! Shouts came from every direction at once.

The dog spun around, angry at the noise, ready to attack the source. Jack hid behind an oak with a convenient low branch. From there, he could see a thick white lather around the dog’s muzzle.

The dog confronted a suddenly deserted street. Downtown looked as empty as dawn on New Year’s Day. Shop doors were shut, windows were closed, people who minutes before had been conducting business had disappeared. Judge Bush and his honey wagon were nowhere to be seen. Nor was Granny Crisp, who moments earlier had sailed by in one of the fashionable hats she bought in Prestonsburg to avoid trading with Farl Ratliff, whom she considered a foreigner. For once, even Jack’s older brother Walter wasn’t playing penny poker with pals in the alley behind Kiser’s.

It was rare to feel lonely on Main Street. Dick Osborn, who had once owned most of the land on which the town now stood, usually could be counted on to wander around his dominion absentmindedly carrying on a conversation with himself. (Dick said he liked to hear a smart man talk.) If there was a report of someone walking down Main Street in a bathrobe, carrying a pot of steaming turnip greens, that person could only be Dick. At the depot, he spent hours searching the platform for the reading glasses he’d lost; he always found them inside the crown of his fedora. But today he was restocking the shelves at S. D. Osborn Farm Supplies, around the corner and out of harm’s path.

Also missing was Doc Walk Stumbo. Although Beaver Valley Hospital was at the southern end of town, Doc Walk spent as much time stalking around Main Street in riding pants and boots, checking the collection status of the slot machines he rented to merchants, as he did examining sore throats at his walk-in clinic. The town’s most revered citizen by virtue of being the only person capable of saving everyone else’s life as well as the only doctor in the county with a moonshine still in the cellar beneath his office, Doc Walk rode his horse where he damn well pleased. This included the sidewalk and in the aisles of stores. He bought tobacco without dismounting. Today not being tonsillectomy day at the hospital, Doc Walk was caught up in a poker game in his office.

A man on a horse appeared from a side street. The dog spun, moved instinctively toward the horse, growling, snarling, ready to attack. The horse spooked and ran in the opposite direction with his rider whipping his flanks.

The dog hesitated. He shivered, the only creature in the state of Kentucky that felt cold at that moment. He paused at an intersection, unsure of which way to turn. The dog’s house lay down a side street. If he continued north along Main Street, he would reach the Elams’ restaurant. There the dog might encounter Bess, who had been running the place alone since Orville got shot to death at a honky-tonk “tourist camp” near Pikeville, as she swept out the doorway. In that direction was Pone Branham’s house, with little Magdalene playing in the front yard. Beyond lay the schoolyard, full even in summertime of kids intent on Red Rover.

Getting attacked by a rabid dog would be an unpleasant fate, but not a surprise to any of them. So many sick dogs were staggering around the county that, years later, everybody would remember a different case of rabies. There was that time when a big dog with slobber just streaming out holed up under the clothing store and had to be dispatched with a shotgun from a distance of twenty-five feet. There was that dog that bit the seventeen-year-old boy from Weeksbury. One bad year, the health commissioner imposed a dog quarantine after forty people, mostly children, were assaulted. A rabid dog was a reminder to a town that was trying its best to appear modern and enlightened that sophistication was still an illusion in eastern Kentucky. Dick Osborn owned a newfangled Model T Ford and Doc Walk was offering radiation therapy to cancer patients. Ratliff’s was stocking the latest dress styles alongside the usual galluses for overalls. Lula Slade brought an Italian cook from Ashland to make spaghetti at her restaurant, and the Canary Cottage had the prettiest booths anyone ever saw, flamingo-colored and each with its own lamp. Clotheslines and outhouses were out of sight, relegated to backyards. But civilization meant nothing to an unlucky dog, bitten by a feral raccoon and looking for a place to lie down where the sun wouldn’t hurt his eyes, willing to attack anybody who stood between him and a place to die.

The dog took a few steps toward the school. He stopped. He turned. He stumbled past Kiser’s and then lurched toward Skeans’ Restaurant, where a thirty-five-cent hot-plate special (dessert and drink included) awaited the lunch crowd, past the service station across from the drugstore.

The dog turned the corner. He was headed home.

Through windows, dozens of people saw the dog pass. They saw him hesitate at the edge of Stephens’s yard. Then, as if pulled by an invisible string, he walked straight across the grass toward the dark, cool crawl space in the back.

The dog vanished beneath the house. With the immediate danger over, the curious emerged. Jack crept up to join a crowd that was gathering at the edge of Stephens’s property, wondering what to do. Neither J.C. nor his wife, Lori, was anywhere to be seen. The house looked closed up and the curtains drawn, which was too bad because Lori knew how to handle any situation. After her first husband, a pharmacist named Oscar Preston, had been killed in an unfortunate shoot-out at a dance, she’d gone ahead with plans to open Preston Drug Co. in a little wooden shack that sat on cinder blocks. The drugstore had made enough profit for her to pay Dick Osborn for a prime lot on which she’d built this house, one of the town’s earliest.

Although the crowd outside her house would have been happy to cede the decision-making to Lori, in her absence nobody got hysterical. Stoicism was required to live in a town that had rickety swinging bridges, rattlesnake season, and floods that swept away livestock. So was patience. People were used to waiting for the last reel of the Saturday night western to arrive by horseback from another town where the same movie had started playing an hour earlier. They waited for the mail to arrive over the mountains. They waited for the creek to go down so they could go home to throw away the water-bloated furniture.

A large man appeared like a bad omen at the end of the block. He was in no hurry as he walked toward the Stephens house. He weighed well over two hundred pounds, looked taller than he was, and despite the heat wore a suit coat to hide the fifteen-pound bulletproof vest beneath. It was a metal vest, and it looked like armor except for lacing under his arms like a ladies’ corset. Police Officer Tavis Flannery had ordered it from a catalog.

“Where is he?” Flannery asked. Flannery was the full extent of the law in Martin and nobody liked to summon him on purpose. Even with a rabid dog terrorizing the town, there was a legitimate question about which was preferable to have on the street. Tavis was cordial to everyone but loyal to nobody. When merchants greeted him heartily, Tavis lifted a hand to acknowledge the homage. He didn’t stop to chat because he liked everyone to keep moving. If there was trouble, Tavis could pick up a man by the collar and hold him off the ground for as long as necessary. In addition to a pistol, Flannery carried a blackjack, but that was a visual aid. He rarely needed to use it to arrest a troublemaker. Usually it was enough for him to say, deadpan, “Let’s go.” He only said it once. Those who cared to live did not resist.

Tavis walked around the house, assessing the state of affairs. He shone a flashlight toward the crawl space. He couldn’t see anything under there. But he wasn’t afraid. Tavis had been taking care of himself since the summer before his fourteenth birthday, when his father had died in a gunfight with a neighbor and ended up beneath a headstone that said, “Killed in a shootout with Abbott Barnett.” A large part of Tavis’s childhood had been spent on target practice; his aim was equally true with pistols and rifles and shotguns.

A low, menacing growl came from beneath the house. Not having observed the dog himself, Tavis couldn’t say for certain it was rabid, and without knowing, he hated to shoot J.C.’s dog. He and Stephens got along well, as J.C. never allowed overt liquor in the poolroom. Killing a man’s dog could lead to grudges, and grudges meant enemies, and Tavis had enough of those already.

“Keep back,” Tavis said.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Martin (Floyd County, Ky.) -- History -- 20th century.
Slatalla, Michelle -- Family.
Martin (Floyd County, Ky.) -- Biography.
Martin (Floyd County, Ky.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
City and town life -- Kentucky -- Martin (Floyd County) -- History -- 20th century.