The Canary’s Song

Deputy Sheriff Sam Garrison was finishing up his usual breakfast of cooked oats and black coffee a little before daylight Tuesday morning at the kitchen table with his wife, Ellie, when he was interrupted by an unwelcome telephone call. On the line was Superintendent John Daniels of the Pioneer Coal Company, put through from the switchboard operator at the Bell County courthouse.

“First crew found a miner alayin’ dead outside shaft number two up here at Kettle Island yesterd’y mornin’, Deputy. Appears the man was shot through the head, and we ain’t sure yet who he is nor who done the shootin’.”

Sam did not react to the news as the Superintendent continued.

“As always, we wanta cooperate with the Sheriff’s Office, but I need to get that mine back in operation soon as you can investigate and file your report. We done lost half a day’s production on account a this mess.”

Typical, Sam was thinking, Sheriff’s the last one you call and the first one you blame if the case ain’t solved by sunset so’s you can get back to business as usual. But to the mining boss, he simply replied, “I’ll be on up later this mornin’, soon’s I can,” and hung up.

What the Superintendent didn’t know was that the Pineville Police Chief, Virgil Helton, had already called Sam the previous evening to tip him off to a small second-page story in the Monday afternoon edition of the Middlesboro Daily News:

KETTLE ISLAND MAN SHOT
DEAD AT COAL MINE

   Pineville, Ky., March 31—The body
of an unidentified man, the victim of an
apparent gunshot wound, was discovered
early Monday morning outside a Pioneer
Coal Company mine at Kettle Island in
Straight Creek. The body was found at
approximately 6:00 A.M. by the first-shift
crew, this according to Mine Superintendent
John F. Daniels in a telephone interview
from his office. Mr. Daniels stated that the
matter will be investigated by Pioneer Co.
security agents in cooperation with the
Bell County Sheriff’s Office.

“Superintendent’ll likely be acallin’ ya ‘bout this if’n he ain’t already,” the City Police Chief had warned the deputy, “an’ ya might wanter come inta the jail in the mornin’ first thing ta talk with a miner we locked up Saturd’y night fer tryin’ to stab a feller here in town. Prisoner’s name is Lee Avery, and the particulars could be related to the Kettle Island shootin’.”

As a result, within fifteen minutes of Sam having hung up from the Superintendent’s anticipated call, the two lawmen met at the city jail and soon stood facing a visibly nervous Lee Avery alone in his cell.

“Whar you’uns atakin’ me?” was the prisoner’s response to their arrival.

“We ain’t atakin’ you nowhere,” the Chief’s replied. “Sheriff Garrison here has a few…”

“He ain’t the Sheriff. Brock boys shot the Sheriff dead at the rail crossin’ last year.”

“Which means,” Chief Atkins countered testily, “Sam here is the official, appointed actin’ sheriff ‘til the next ‘lection. Which also means you might wanter keep a civil tongue in yer head ‘til you find out what’s this about. ‘Tempted murder is frowned on in my town, son, so you’ll need all the help you can git when you come up fer a hearin’ afore the judge.”

The Chief turned to Sam, silently indicating that he was handing the prisoner over for interrogation.

“You was arrested at Wallsend Saturd’y evenin’ fer tryin’ to stab a man by the name a Luther Hodge with a jackknife,” Sam began without prelude. “That right?”

“Yes, sir…Sheriff,” Lee answered a bit more respectfully than before. “But I never got the chanc’t ta gut ‘im proper, so’s I reckon I’ll be free a the charge a’ter they find the bastard.”

“I got a couple a questions ‘bout that night,” Sam continued.

***

Immediately following his parley with Lee Avery, Deputy Garrison left the courthouse and spent the next hour in the former Sheriff’s patrol car, bumping slowly along the ten or so miles of rutted, creek-washed slag road up Straight Creek to Kettle Island—a right-of-way first built some forty years before by the railroad and the coal company within the shadowy hollows of Pine Mountain.

The drive gave him time to contemplate the information he’d solicited from Lee Avery and to decide if it could be turned to useful advantage to counter the stonewalling he would likely face at the mining camp. In his limited experience with mining companies, he knew they would make it clear right off that they did not welcome outside interference. But murder’s murder, even in these law-averse mountains and the mines were in Sam’s jurisdiction, like it or not.

Sam knew full well that the mining company would only be calling the Sheriff’s Office if they needed him to clean up a mess they couldn’t ignore. Like the one last year when Carlos Buell’s wife Mossie blasted the widow Stella LeFevers in the chest with a double-barreled twelve-gauge, the one her philandering husband kept loaded and hid behind the bedroom door of their rented house in the coal camp.

Mossie arrived home on the camp bus in time for church that Sunday, but earlier than expected after visiting her sick sister overnight in town. Poor Stella never even had a chance to get up out of the woman’s bed before taking a full load of shot to the chest at close range. Meantime, Carlos cowered naked behind a chest-of-drawers and wasted his last breath begging for his life. Hillbilly justice having been served and her ammunition spent, Mossie set the shotgun aside and sat quietly out on the front porch swing awaiting the sure arrival of Sheriff Joe Atkins and his deputy.

Sam had yet to work a coal camp killing all on his own during his first year and a half on the job. Until five months ago, he’d been able to rely on Sheriff Atkins, his predecessor and mentor, for direction. But the duly elected sheriff was killed in the line of duty in the fall—gunned down without warning while attempting to arrest two known bootleggers who were loading crates of liquor into a pick-up at the railhead outside Pineville. Sam learned then the hard lesson that sheriffs in Eastern Kentucky work with a target on their backs, especially those with the integrity and temerity to uphold the law in the face of defiant outlaws. Joe Atkins had been one such sheriff, and sworn deputy Samuel Eli Garrison was determined to uphold that legacy.

***

Pulling into the Kettle Island camp, Sam parked in front of the commissary, grabbed a pop from the red Coca-Cola cooler just inside the double entry doors, and asked the apron-clad clerk at the counter inside if any strangers had been loitering about the store or at the Superintendent’s office in recent days—maybe an unfamiliar company man?

Sam did know that the commissary is always the best source of mining camp news. Problem is, only half of it’s true on any given day, and figuring out which half is the trick.

“Only a ‘bull’ from up Harlan the Superintendent calls Yeager,” the clerk offered, pausing to wipe his spectacles. “He was in here jus’ this mornin’ fer a plug a ’backer and askin’ me if I knowed anythin’ about the man what got kil’t. That what you here fer?”

“Yep,” was the clipped response from Sam as he dropped a nickel on the counter and turned to head out toward the Superintendent’s office next door.

“So who was it got hisself shot, Sheriff? And who done it?”

The clerk pressed Sam for information to share with his customers, leaning forward over the countertop with both hands on the heavy glass in a last-ditch effort before his visitor got out through the screen doors.

“No idee,” Sam trailed off as he pushed through to leave.

Predictably, the clerk couldn’t have been more anxious to confirm a lack of details in the camp about the shooting and to point out the coincidental presence of a suspicious company agent—a security ‘bull’ hired to keep the peace by whatever means necessary.

Sam found Superintendent Daniels next door at his desk and quietly talking with a man leaned back in a cane chair in the corner opposite.

Must be Yeager, Sam figured, sent to make sure nobody gits in the way of business.

“Glad you’re here,” Daniels greeted the acting sheriff unconvincingly. “It’s a bad business, and we just can’t have this sort of thing goin’ on.”

“We?” Sam queried for effect as he looked in the direction of the man in the corner.

“My apologies, Deputy. This here’s Frank Yeager out of the Pioneer office in Harlan. He’ll make sure we handle this investigation the right way, you know, and help you any way he can.”

Yeager barely acknowledged Sam’s presence and continued to work a whittled toothpick back and forth along his front teeth with his tongue. His thumbs were locked in his vest pockets, and he made no move to stand or shake hands.

Sam ignored the snub and pressed on without delay: “Where’s the body?”

“Over in the hospital at the doc’s office,” the Superintendent offered. “You know where that’s at?”

“I’ll find my way,” Sam replied in a manner intended to ensure they both knew he did not want an escort. “Any idee who the dead man is yet?”

“Workin’ on it, Deputy,” the Superintendent replied, “but the bullet took out most of his recognizable features. The man didn’t have his token on him—the one he would hang on the tote board if he was goin’ in the mine to work.

Payroll master’s checkin’ the rolls and the weighman at the drif’ mouth is matchin’ up tokens from the board, but it’ll take awhile to work it out by process of elimination, what with near two hunderd miners workin’ day in and day out on diff’rnt shifts and some of ‘em travelin’ in from diff’rnt hollers.”

Even with his limited experience as Sheriff, Sam knew the man was blowing smoke.

“Let me know when you git it worked out, then,” he responded to the mine boss’ weak assurance. “Meantime, I’ll do some scoutin’ on my own.”

The Superintendent shot a warning glance toward Yeager that did not escape Sam’s notice when he turned on his heels to leave the company men behind. It was a reaction he’d expected.

***

At the ‘hospital’—a euphemistic term for a two-bed clinic—Sam was unsure if he’d wasted his time by separating himself from the Superintendent’s authority in the camp, but the doctor stepped out of his washroom just moments after the bell on the door jamb announced the deputy’s presence.

“You’re here to see a body, I reckon,” Dr. D. C. Herndon began, bypassing any unnecessary preliminaries as soon as he spotted the badge.

“Yep,” Sam acknowledged. “Where ‘bouts was he shot?”

“Up at the mine,” the doctor deadpanned.

“No, I mean, where…,” Sam began to recast his question.

“I know what you mean, Sheriff,” the doc chuckled at his own little joke. “Come on over here and see fer yerself.”

Doc Herndon led Sam to a flat wooden table on which the fully clothed body had been laid out as if the man were merely taking a rest from his labors, except for the fact that the head was covered by a white surgical towel grown stiff and discolored from a profusion of dried blood.

“The way the bullet plowed through his brainpan, I doubt the poor devil had any time to confess his sins before he met his maker,” the doctor offered, by way of giving his permission to examine the wound.

Sam winced despite himself as he pulled back the towel and tried not to look away from the grossly swollen, disfigured face. The effect of the head wound was dehumanizing, but after a long swallow of air during which he held his breath, the deputy dropped the covering and addressed his expert witness.

“So, whaddya reckon happened to ‘im, Doc?”

“I think he got hisself shot in the back of the head by somebody who didn’t much care for him, if you want my official medical opinion.”

“Right…,” Sam responded drily, acknowledging the doctor’s fondness for gallows humor but cocking his head in an obvious bid for a more useful explanation.

“Look here, I was a field surgeon in Flanders during the great war, Sheriff, so I’ve seen my share of bullet wounds. I can say with certainty that this man took a large-caliber round to the back of his head. It was fired at point-blank range, likely from a pistol—judging by the gunpowder residue on his scalp and the size of the entry and exit wounds—but I could find no remaining slug in the cranium to confirm it.”

“Any idee yet on who the man might be?”

“Not yet, Sheriff, and ain’t nobody come in here lookin’ fer a missin’ son nor husband since they found ‘im, which is a mite unusual in a mining camp.”

***

Back at the Pineville jail that morning, Sam had easily gotten the why from Lee Avery about his attack on the recalcitrant Luther Hodge.

“It was on account a my sister, Lily,” the young miner began, head hanging low between his hunched shoulders. “She’s the school teacher at the camp in Kettle Island.”

Within minutes, Sam had the full story of how the black-eyed devil in the form of a stranger showed up at the mining camp a month or so before, looking for work. Soon, he took a shine to young Lily and started coming around the house on Sundays after church.

“At first, he were a reg’lar gentleman,” Lee summed it up for the deputy, “but one Saturday night, I was gone to town with my Joann, and he caught Lily alone without nobody else ‘round the house. Even with the marks on her arms and neck, I knowed it’d be his word agin our’n. Besides, he’d done run off from the camp by the time we got back an’ fount out what he’d done.”

“And that’s when you decided to chase down Hodge an’ stick a knife in ‘im?”

“Yes, sir, Sheriff,” Lee had responded readily. “Some fellers at camp tol’ me they heered he was in Pineville near ever’ night drinkin’ an’ playin’ cards at Wallsend by the river, ‘crost from the cemetery. An’ that’s where we fount ‘im. I woulda stuck ‘im like the pig he is, woulda kilt him sure if’n the Police Chief’s boys hadn’a showed up when they did.”

“I reckon Luther thought he’d be safe to go back to Kettle Island with you in jail here,” Sam had surmised, half to Lee Avery and half to himself, before turning his attention to who else might have had a reason to kill Hodge. It was then he thought to ask an obvious question.

“Warn’t Lily scar’t ta stay on in the camp without you bein’ there? I mean, afeered Luther might come back ta…”

“Not with my Joann there,” Lee had assured the deputy. “Not with Joann ‘round, no sir.”

“I think you best be tellin’ me ‘bout this Joann of your’n, Lee, afore I head up ta Kettle Island.”

Joann LeBon, Lee explained, was a dark-haired Melungeon girl who showed up at the mining camp in a pick-up truck one day, asking at the commissary for directions to Corbin. Lee Avery, stopping in for a pop after his shift in the mines, was dumbstruck at first sight.

“Purtiest pup I ever saw,” Lee lit up as he told it, “an’ said she were aleavin’ the Wasioto valley an’ never agoin’ back on account a how a preacher down there had took bad advantage of ‘er when her ol’ man left ‘er high and dry.”

The young miner went on to complain to Sam that the ladies at Mill Creek Baptist had suspected the exotic woman of actually being driven out of Wasioto for drinkin’ an’ fornicatin’, as they put it, and gave Joann a hard time of it at first. But his sister Lily took up for her amid the rumors and gossip and supported Lee’s romantic interests. As far as Lily was concerned, Joann LeBon was God’s instrument sent to brighten her brother’s hard life, and that’s all that mattered.

“I’ll be needin’ ta talk with Joann, so where’s she at?”

“I ain’t seen her since Saturday night, Sheriff, an’ that’s the God’s truth, s’ he’p me.”

***

As he headed back from the hospital toward the Superintendent’s office after viewing the body, Sam struggled to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

When he arrived, Superintendent Daniels asked, “Did you get what ya needed from Doc Herndon?”

“All I can git, I s’pose.”

Glancing over at the security ‘bull’—still rocked back in the same disinterested manner as before, but now whittling on a shapeless stick of kindling—Sam began to wonder just how far ahead of him the company man might be.

Maybe Yeager ain’t worried ‘bout what I will find; maybe he’s worried what I won’t find, so he’s makin’ sure I’m doin’ my job. Is that possible? Does he already know it’s Luther Hodge laid out on that table and Lee Avery was out to git ‘im? What if he somehow knows ‘bout Joann LeBon but don’t know where she’s at neither?

At that point, the acting sheriff decided to proceed with the oblique line of questioning he’d worked out that morning after meeting with Lee Avery at the city jail.

“I need to talk with Lily Avery,” he told the Superintendent.

“Lily Avery! What’s the camp school teacher got to do with this?”

The Superintendent had over-reacted. Recovering his customary patronizing manner, he added,“What the hell could she possibly have to do with the shootin’?”

“Her brother, Lee Avery, was in Pineville Saturday night and got hisself arrested for tryin’ ta kill a miner from up here… a man by the name a Luther Hodge.”

“Again, Deputy, what’s that got to do with your purpose here?” the Superintendent deflected.

“Maybe nothin’, but where’s Luther Hodge now?”

“I can’t keep track of ever’ swingin’ dick what goes in or out of these mines, Deputy, and I have no knowledge nor interest in any stabbin’ in Pineville. That’s city police business, so what do you think you’re investigatin’ now?”

“I never said nothin’ ‘bout it bein’ a stabbin’,” Sam pointed out.

The Superintendent, clearly flustered by his blunder, then directed an exasperated barb toward his security agent: “Yeager, you got any idea what this is about? What this actin’ sheriff’s drivin’ at?”

But the thick-necked man in the unbuttoned black vest and starched collarless shirt met the challenge with calm equilibrium, shrugged to indicate his answer, and stayed quietly fixed on Sam. Momentarily, he broke the silence with a wholly unexpected question of his own.

“You ‘bout ready to go find Joann LeBon, then, Sheriff?”

***

Yeager had genuinely stunned Sam by offering to pony up the witness he most wanted to question, especially after the Superintendent’s telling misstep. And as the two men left the mining company office together and walked out to the end of town opposite the school house, the security agent coolly divulged that he had not come to Kettle Island to investigate a shooting, as the deputy sheriff had assumed, but, rather, the rape of a young camp school teacher at the hands of a miner on the Pioneer Company payroll.

“They sent me down to find out why the Superintendent hadn’t reported on it an’ done somethin’ ‘bout it. Not much goes on in the camps that we don’t hear about, but I stumbled in on the killin’ a’ter I got here. Didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout it ‘til then, nothin’ atall. Total coincidence, Sam.”

The revelation was so far from his current thinking that Sam was struck dumb while he recalculated the agent’s intentions and his own role in the investigation.

Yeager broke in during the momentary silence: “You know ‘bout the canary in a coal mine, don’t ya, Deputy?”

“Sure,” Sam responded, while he strained to make the connection.

“Well, a school teacher gettin’ beat up in a minin’ camp is a canary in the coal mine, Sam, and the Company wants to know why the Superintendent ain’t done somethin’ about it. Then, when I learn’t Miss Lily had a brother here, I figgered he’d be out fer revenge, so I set out to let ‘im lead me to whoever done it, an’, sure ‘nuf, Lee Avery and his lady friend LeBon led me right inta Pineville on Saturday night.”

Yeager paused just long enough for Sam to catch up and realize that the agent had come down from Harlan well before the shooting and near the same time Lee Avery had lit out to pursue his quarry.

“Then, once’t they got over the Cumberland River bridge, they went ahuntin’ fer Hodge and found ‘im drinkin’ and playin’ cards at the end of town—Wallsend, I think y’all call it—where the flood wall ends.”

“So you already knowed afore I got here that Lee Avery tried ta gut Luther Hodge,” Sam concluded.

“I seen it myself.”

“And LeBon?”

“She never even got outta ‘er truck. Just lit out soon’s she seen the city cops had got ahold a Lee.”

“Why not step in and tell ‘em to pull Luther in, too, then?” Sam asked, as he began to comprehend the full story.

“Two reasons,” Yeager explained. “First, ‘cause it ain’t none of my business what goes on in town and also ‘cause I ain’t got no actual evidence on Hodge.”

Sam had been so engrossed in Yeager’s tale that he only then realized they had walked up to a spot on the hillside where they could view most of the camp houses and the school below.

“I’m aguessin’ yer ‘bout to tell me what happened next or else we wouldn’t be here,” Sam coaxed the security ‘bull’ on.

“Ain’t nothin’ ta tell, Sheriff. I drove back to Kettle Island an’ later on spotted the pick-up behind Lily Avery’s house down there nex’ ta the schoolhouse, where ya see it now.”

Yeager spoke as if he thought it self-explanatory, but Sam responded incredulously to the revelation.

“So you don’t know nothin’ ‘bout who got shot nor nothin’ ‘bout who done the shootin’!”

“That’s what I been tryin’ ta tell ya. Far as I know, LeBon is down yonder in Miss Lily’s house, the Pineville police is holdin’ Lee Avery for ‘temptin’ to kill Luther Hodge, an’ Hodge ain’t nowhere to be found, less’n he’s the one laid out in the camp hospital.”

“And I’m guessin’ there ain’t no use me askin’ to have a look at that hog leg you been totin’ a’nunder yer vest all this time?

Yeager did not respond.

“Fergit it. You wouldn’t be fool ‘nough ta use yer own pistol, even if you did decide to fix this mess yerself.”

“So, you still wanta have a talk with LeBon if’n she’s hol’ up in the house?”

“I don’t see as how it would do much good now.”

Sam surrendered uneasily, yet he was relieved to recall that Chief Helton in Pineville would eventually be forced to release Lee Avery, since it was unlikely Hodge would be found alive.

“I hoped you’d see it that a way,” Yeager offered. “Ya gotta pay close attention to the canary’s song, Sheriff, an’ git clear afore the fire starts in the hole. Might go bad fer the Superintendent that he fergot that warnin’.”

As the two men headed back downhill together toward the commissary, the security ‘bull’ deliberately plucked a brass token—one with a hole punched in it to fit over a peg on a tote board—from a vest pocket and flipped it in the air toward Sam.