On the Midnight run
Damn, he really is fast! Jodell Lee thought as he maneuvered through the last curve that dumped him out level at the foot of the mountains. Ahead of him, out there past the hood ornament, the road ran straight as a bullet’s path for a good ten miles or so. Shoot, I’ve gotta get a move on and some kind of quick. Come on, baby, let’s see what that old boy back there can really do.
The car trailing him had closed to within a couple of hundred yards at the most. Jodell kept a close eye on his rearview mirror. He imagined that he could almost catch a glimpse of the luminescent glow on the man’s face from the dashboard lights. And he was beginning to wonder what in the world was under the hood of that car back there. Man, it had closed in on him so quick and had hung so close the car almost seemed to be chained to his own rear bumper, in town.
Suddenly the front grill of the training car erupted in an explosion of flashing red lights. The law! No surprise at all.
“Hmmm, this makes things real interesting,” Jodell whispered out loud, through a big grin. “This could be some fun.”
But it was a furrowed look of concern that crossed his face next as the trailing car eased a bit closer. He gripped the wheel a little tighter as he concentrated on the familiar roadway that spun out ahead of him, looking, thinking, trying to plan a way out of this fix.
As son as he was on the longest, straightest stretch of highway, Jodell dared to take one hand off the wheel and reached beneath the dash, fumbling until he found the lever for the exhaust bypass. The voice of the engine changed noticeably, from a throaty roar to a deep, resonant rumble. And there was the distinctive crackle and pop from the set of straight pipes, allowing the exhaust to now come directly off he headers beneath the car’s hood. It sounded for the all the world like a large swarm of very angry bees.
He kicked down hard on the throttle and the car leapt ahead like a freed deer. It cleared the next small rise as if it might actually take flight and then sailed down the strip of narrow, unlined blacktop highway into the night.
This was the best time, the almost mystical time. Sometimes it felt as if he were not merely driving the car, but that the car had become a part of him. His hands were the steering box, willing the wheels which way to turn. His arms were an extension of the gearshift lever, linked straight to the transmission, determining which set of gears would mesh best. His feet on the gas and brake pedals were no longer simply a part of his body, but were now welded to the car itself, doing his will.
Sometimes he felt the car might take off like an airplane and soar over the valleys and mountains. He wouldn’t have minded if it had. Grounded or flying, he was always certain that no one, not even the Feds, could any more catch him than they could capture a hurricane in a croaker sack.
Jodell knew that in the still, cool night air, the howl of his engine could probably be heard for miles up and down the hollers and coves.
A young boy sitting on his front porch halfway to Chandler Mountain could certainly hear the deepening of its bellow, in sequence, as each of the three deuces sitting on top of the manifold kicked in, and the boy might long for the day when he, too, could make such a machine sing such a powerful song.
Or a grandpa somewhere, long since gone to bed for the night in his cabin at the top of a deep holler, might be awakened by the din, maybe roll over and smile, and wish that he still had a smidgen of his own youth left, and that he could once again feel such tingling, throbbing power working beneath his loins.
Jodell’s flathead V-8 surged with power like a caged cat. She clearly wanted to prowl, begged to be set loose. And when he did set her fee, the old Ford raced off down the straight open stretch of road as if shot from a cannon, immediately putting serious distance between herself and the following sedan.
Jodell smiled. The motor work he and his cousin, Joe, had done on the engine had already paid off in the last few seconds, just as it had so many times before.
He fiddled through the gears expertly. Behind him, the sedan was now struggling to keep up, fighting to stay between the ditches on each side of the narrow blacktop, in real danger of being long since left.
Jodell found the switch under the dash that disconnected all the tail and brake lights. The lead on the sedan had grown to a good half mile, but he knew that might not be enough. The Feds could be maddeningly tenacious, hanging on like an old snapping turtle. This was their job. They had no other priorities.
Jodell ran over in his head the significant features of the countryside from memory, looking, searching in his mental picture for a good place to pull of that would have thick enough vegetation to cover a chance glint of starlight off a chrome bumper, or maybe a building he could dart behind and hide like a fox in its lair. He knew the law could simply radio ahead and have a roadblock waiting for him if they wanted him bad enough, so it was best to go to ground.
And by this time, he figured, the law wanted him powerful bad.
It looked now as if he had put a little more distance yet on the cop car, but he was never able to get completely out of sight of the sedan. Without his rear lights to gauge, the cop would have a hard time judging the distance between the two of them. But without the curve in the road that he would have had if he had been jumped back up there in the mountains, he would have a hard time hiding his headlights, shaking the chaser long enough to turn off the road somewhere.
His best shot was to make the next series of hills and dips that lay ahead, at the end of this stretch of straight roadway. And he had to do it before they could steer him right into the inevitable roadblock. If he could get to the dips and curves near Caney Creek Church, there would be a series of dirt roads and fields that would allow him to cut through and get away, disappearing like last week’s paycheck in the moonless darkness.
Then there suddenly appeared on the horizon one more thing to worry about.
Ahead of him only a couple of miles, the next stand of mountains would take the road on a twisting , bucking climb. Jodell began began to sweat at the very thought of it. Outrunning the cops down here in the valley wouldn’t be easy, but he had a better than even chance. However, if the law ran him all the way to the mountains, it might be a different story. The sedan would have a much better chance of outmaneuvering him in the sharp switchbacks that ran up the sides of the bluffs, and there were too many places where a single lawman’s car could block the road, leaving him the choices of climbing a rock bluff straight for the sky, diving off a sheer cliff, or surrendering.
None would appeal to him.
Now Jodell was feeling every bump and sway in the road. The Ford was running high and tight because of the set of truck springs he and Joe had installed on the rear wheels. With the heavy load of white lightning already delivered, though, the stiff rear springs had already served their purpose and were no longer needed. Instead, they now kept the car from handling as well in the turns, caused the rear end to seem to have a mind of its own sometimes. Every bump and dip threatened to bounce the back of the Ford all the way around to swap places with the front end.
“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary! What I wouldn’t give for a plain old set of passenger springs back yonder right about now,” he said out loud to himself, his voice raspy, parched. “And cold soda pop about the size of a fifty-five-gallon drum, too!”
Then something else disturbing caught his eye high one the mountainside ahead. It was another car, winding back and forth, heading downward, coming to meet him and the law enforcement officer still on his tail. And though the oncoming car was still several miles away, Jodell could easily see the flashing red light on its roof.
More company. Damn!
“Lord, it’s sure nice to be so popular,” he said, but he didn’t bother to laugh. The strong, cool wind through the windows would have only whipped it away anyhow.
He shot a glance in the rearview mirror. At least he was beginning to lose sight of the sedan’s headlights and red flashers for several seconds at a time now. It was getting to be time, one way or the other. Decision time.
He scanned what he could see of both sides of the road as they swirled past, looking for something familiar in the inky darkness beyond the headlights. He needed to spot somewhere to whip off the roadway while still speeding along at over a hundred miles an hour.
The distance between Jodell and the sedan behind had stabilized, but the cop car coming to meet him was closing much too quickly for comfort. If Jodell was going a hundred and the cop was oncoming at sixth, that was a hundred fifty miles per hour, closing speed. It wouldn’t take long to kiss.
Then Jodell knew what he had to do. Off to his light, he knew, there were the ramshackle remains of an old farm, long since abandoned when someone had finally given up harvesting more rocks and Johnson grass than they did corn or tobacco. The highway dropped sharply directly ahead, dipping down to a small, bamboo-choked creek bed. Just beyond the stream, he remembered, there was an old gravel road running nowhere in particular. Probably once leading to an old house place or a fallow field, it was mostly used now as a lovers’ lane. Then, a couple of hundred yards past that, on the opposite side of the road, was an old barn that sat in the middle of a five-acre, freshly mown, open hayfield.
The chasing sedan was still a good three quarters of a mile behind him. The approaching police car was not in sight for the moment. That was not good. Clearly the government man had reached the bottom of the mountain already and would soon hit the straight, coming his way.
Beneath him, Jodell felt the black Ford drop heavily down into the dip of the creek, ready to take on the narrow bridge. He jumped on the brakes hard to ease the car from well over one hundred miles an hour to something close to slow enough to take a hard turn. The front end dipped sharply as the brakes immediately took hold with a squeal of metal against metal. He pumped the pedal quickly, up and down, trying to keep the brakes from locking, to keep the car from sliding out of control into the cold little creek, or off the road into a water oak tree or a muddy ditch. Then all the law would have to do would be to fish his carcass out and haul him, or what was left of him, off to jail.
Brakes or not, the car flashed across the one-lane bridge and was immediately at the gravel road that veered off to the left. Jodell was still moving so fast he slid right on past, the wheels now locked hard, trying to stop. He did a perfect one-hundred-eighty-degree spin in the road and was headed the opposite direction when the car finally came to a stop. The tires had squalled as if in agony, leaving a heavy cloud of blue smoke and swirling dust hanging over the roadway.
Jodell swallowed hard, caught his breath, killed his headlights, and goosed the gas again as he turned in to the side road. He steered behind the first wall of honeysuckle bushes he came to, thankful there were no kids parked there tonight.
“Please, Lord. If you could just send me a little breeze to blow away that tire smoke…” he prayed out loud.
Then he grinned in the deep darkness. Grown man, talking to himself all the time. But he spent so much time along, there behind the wheel of the Ford, driving along through the night. After all, who else was he going to talk to?
He looked up then just as the Federal man in the sedan flashed by on the highway, not thirty feet away through the brush, never slowing. Jodell held his breath as if the guy might could actually hear him. He watched the rearview mirror, listening, still afraid the cop would see or smell the tire smoke and know his prey had turned off here to hide in the bushes.
Jodell didn’t breathe again until the dark sedan had roared on down the highway a half mile at full throttle, engine growing quieter with distance, his grill lights still strobing.
When he could once again hear the crickets and the hooting of an owl, Jodell threw the Ford into reverse, popped the clutch, and backed out onto the highway. He followed the sedan, his headlights still off, searching the pitch dark night again for the nearly hidden offshoot that led to the field.
“Gotta be here somewhere, Hortense,” he said to the dark dashboard in front of him. He called the Ford a different name each night. Tonight she was Hortense. “Gotta be within the next couple of hundred yards or we’ve missed her already somehow.”
He had to find the turn before the two police cars met up ahead. Even a jackleg rookie revenuer wouldn’t take long to figure out that Jodell had somehow snookered them, and then they would backtrack, looking for some sign of him. There would be some, of course. A tire track, a stretch of bent grass, a snapped limb beside the road…That was all it would take to betray him.
Fast as those old boys were moving, he figured he only had a couple of minutes to find a better place to hide the car and his own butt.
Then there it was. The long field he’d been looking for.
He tried to look ahead, to see if he could spot the cop cars’ headlights coming back, but there was nothing yet. Didn’t mean they weren’t coming, though, because there was another series of dips and bridges in the next few miles, and the highway ahead was lined with big water oaks and banks of honeysuckle. Then he saw the cut in the tree line where the hardly visible farm road crossed the ditch and entered the field. And there was the rusty old gate guarding the field and the long-abandoned barn from God-knew-what.
Jodell stood hard on the brakes again, slowing the car in the darkness, looking for rocks or stumps in the turnoff, anything that might puncture an oil pan or slice a tire. He closed the straight pipes to drop the engine rumble to a minimum. No use waking up some old sleeping farmer who might come out shooting, or risk getting somebody’s coon dogs riled up. Any kind of ruckus could lead the government men right to him. He swung the wheel sharply and pointed the car through the narrow gate, thankful it was left open. Otherwise, he would have had to plow right through, hoping the Feds didn’t notice it had been busted.
“Somebody’s watching out for us, Hortense,” he told the car, and lovingly patted her dashboard.
She bounced and bumped like a boat on rough water as she left the smoother pavement, rumbled over a half-fallen-in cattle guard, and entered through the overgrown hedgerows into the rutted field.
Thankfully, the night was dark and the field relatively level. Even so, Jodell moved slowly, straining to see through the darkness so he wouldn’t drive right up a sapling tree or straddle a terrace he couldn’t get off of. He had just rolled around behind the side of the barn farthest from the road when he saw the lights of the first cop sedan bouncing up and down as it hit once of the dips. He was headed back and Jodell could only imagine the fury and frustration the guy must have been feeling. The red lights on the car’s snout seemed to flash more frantically, as if in rage.
There was a second set of headlights, too. The squad car with its own angrily flashing red light, bouncing along right behind the sedan. And they were both zooming, flying. Jodell could hear the big police special engines straining, pulling in tandem, almost like airplanes revving for takeoff. He could even make out the sound of their radios, squawking madly at each other. Then they were past him, apparently without ever suspecting where he had gone.
As he sat waiting for the two cars to pass, he scanned his surroundings, looking for another way out. There appeared to be another gate in the middle of another fence that cut through a break in the tree line behind him.
But then he noticed again the sound of an engine, quickly coming back along the road. The sedan, this time without the squad car, sailed by on the highway, passing the entrance to the pasture for a third time, still searching desperately for its prey.
But once more it flew by, missing the rough road Jodell had taken. A sliver of a moon had just smiled at him from behind a bank of clouds, finally giving off enough light for Jodell to cross the field to the back gate without wandering into a gully or a random stretch of barbed wire. The Ford bounced roughly across the deep grass and furrows to the gate, even though he eased it along carefully.
“Sorry, girl. I’ll make it up to you. You’ve been a read friend tonight.”
The gate was closed but, fortunately, not locked. Jodell had to climb from under the wheel to pull it open and prop it back with a big rock someone had obviously left there for that purpose.
The cool night air felt good on his wet skin. He was surprised how stiff and sweat-soaked he was. He stretched to try to unknot his kinked muscles, then crawled back into the Ford and cautiously pulled out onto an old gravel road that ran along the fence line at the back of the field.
He took the roundabout route the rest of the way home, minimizing the chance he would accidentally meet either of the cars again. Jodell was still pumped, the adrenaline surging, knowing he had once again successfully outrun and outmaneuvered the law.
He had done his job well. He always did. Another load of ’shine, safely delivered, was now in the possession of some distant nameless bootlegger, ready to be divvied up to a thirsty bunch of parched customers.
Next week, and the week after that, and on and on, there would always be another batch to be run off, a load to be delivered somewhere in the shadow of some dark mountain. And Jodell knew he could get the job done, just as his daddy had done before him and his grandfather before him. Close as it had been tonight, he knew he still had what it took to outrun those who would deny him his heritage. Not only the car but the skill to drive it, too. Man and machine, working together.
Sure, he took pride in getting the moonshine where it was supposed to go. And sure, he was more than
happy to deny the tax men their pound of flesh.
But lately, he had realized more than ever that it was the actual chase that he lived for. He had caught himself taking foolish chances sometimes, only so he could maneuver, drive like the wind, make a cunning move or two, and then manage a clean getaway.
“We had ourselves another good night, Hortense,” he said, as he glided the purring Ford into its spot inside the old barn at home. “We finished ahead. That’s always a good night.”
That, Jodell knew, was what drove him to do what he did. To be ahead, always being chased by everybody else. Not to be back there in the dust, sniffing exhaust fumes, doing the chasing.
Ahead. That’s exactly where he planned to stay.
Copyright © 1999 by Kent Wright & Don Keith