The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Getting Away With Murder

By Frances T. Craig © 1985

Issue: April, 1985

Editor's Note....We don't usually print stories that tell of the worst aspect of human nature - violence. We decided to print the following story because we think that we shouldn't print only the humorous side of bootlegging when it was sometimes deadly serious, as this true story testifies. Mrs. Craig said that everyone involved in the story except her and her brother have passed away. I imagine it still took quite a bit of courage for her to tell it.

"I wonder if anyone has ever gotten away with murder in Virginia?" my sister asked.

"Not very likely," my brother answered with a quick glance in my direction.

We were sitting in my front yard idly chatting. It was a late hazy September afternoon. A soft wind was lazily stirring the red and bronzed leaves. Few birds were singing, but now and then the raucous cry of a crow drifted across the nearby river.

I suppose the question was prompted because she was looking through the pages of the latest Agatha Christie novel, which I had been reading. The whole family knew of my fascination with murder stories.

A cold chill of half guilt ran over me. My brother looked hard at me. There was sympathy and understanding in the look. We, and we alone in the world knew of one horrible case.

He arose to leave. He lived a few miles out of town. I lived alone and he checked on me every day.

"I'll be seeing you all," he said and left.

The case occurred in the final days of the Prohibition Era. The Great Depression was in full swing, and money in the area in which we lived was almost impossible to get. My father operated a flour and feed mill. He made white and whole wheat flour, bran and corn meal and feed for cattle and hogs. We had lived good until his customers were no longer able to pay their bills. He accepted every imaginable substitute for cash.

My father suddenly started returning to the mill at night. We all thought that he was making hand-made furniture as he often did when harvest time was over.

One night when slipping downstairs for a glass of water, I heard my parents arguing. This never occurred in front of us.

"How can you even think of getting mixed up with those dreadful bootleggers?" my mother hysterically cried.

"I hardly think that grinding up their corn in a special way for mash is being mixed up," he defended.

"Well, I do!"

"Let me tell you this. No one is paying me in cash anymore. Those horrible bootleggers, as you call them, paid me enough last week to pay for Frances' class ring and enough to get new shoes and coats for all of them. Would you prefer that they go cold and barefoot this winter?" I fled back to my room very troubled.

I had known for several months that my sixteen year old brother was hauling whiskey to Richmond for a local bootlegger. I knew where the still was located, and that Justin Marshall was riding with him. I lived in constant fear that they would be caught. I formed the habit of sneaking downstairs every night as soon as I heard my father snoring and unfastening the door.

My parents slept downstairs and he would always lock the outside doors. We had a doorbell that would wake the dead. In this way, father could always check if we were obeying his ten o'clock curfew.

Every morning at breakfast, we went through the same ritual. Father would remark, "Charles, I didn't hear you last night. How did you get in?"

"Frances was still studying and she let me in."

"What time?" he would ask, me.

"A little past ten," I lied. One night I was made to realize what shaky ground we were on. I had been at a friend's house studying and Charles came for me. I noticed a car closely following us.

"There's a car behind us and it won't pass," I told Charles.

"Sit up high. Sit on a stack of your books. You're so short!" he exclaimed exasperated.

"Why, who is it, why do you want him to see me?" I fearfully cried.

"It's that nosey sheriff, somebody must have caught on and tattled."

"Oh Lord", I wailed, "Now we will all be ruined! It's all your fault." I accused.

"Shut up," he ordered. "If he sees you, you're such a perfect little 'do-gooder', he will know there's no whiskey in the car."

The sheriff slowly passed us and tipped his hat in courtly fashion to me. I smiled bravely at him.

"The _________," Charles growled. He won't do anything but tattle to Papa. He owes him about $60 right now for his daily bread. I can't stand the old ________.”

"Well let this be a lesson to you. Promise me you will quit this stuff."

"OK," he cheerfully grinned. Just a few nights later I saw him coming down the wide hall. My younger brother and sister were tagging along behind.

"Where are you going?" I asked suspiciously.

"To Crewe to a movie."

"We want to go too!" the children wailed. Movies were a rare treat for us.

"Take them all. I'll pay for all of it." my father ordered.

"I can't go. I have to study for a Latin test," I excused.

"I've got a double date. I'll take you all Friday night." He went out.

The family soon retired. I stayed up to study. My father gave his customary caution.

"Don't stay up too late. You will' ruin your eyes." I promised.

I couldn't concentrate. A feeling of uneasiness stayed with me. When I finally cut off the light and went upstairs to bed, my sister asked, "Has Charles come in yet? Ain't it awful late?"

"Yes, it is late. I'm really worried." I whispered.

Hours dragged slowly by. The cold drizzly rain continued to fall. My sister fell asleep. I continued to walk down the hall and peer out of the window.

I saw the car lights go out before he entered the back lane. He closed the car door carefully. In a few minutes he quietly slipped in the door I had left open and crept up the long flight of stairs. He saw me waiting. "Go to Grandpa's room and wait. I'm wet and freezing."

I went down the hall to the room we kept ready for Grandpa's visits. In a few minutes he entered. He was crying and shaking.

"Oh, my god! Have you been caught?"

"Hell no, it's a lot worse than that!"

"What happened? You didn't go to Crewe!" I accused.

"Naw, I wish to God I had."

"Justin and I were loading our car at the still when these three guys from West Virginia came in for a load. They were arguing with Sam (the bootlegger) over the price. Sam told them all to get out. He said that he didn't need them anymore. He told them that he could get a lot better deal in Richmond. This real young kid with them, pulled out the biggest knife you ever saw and started towards Sam."

Charles paused, trembling all over as though he couldn't go on.

"Well," I prompted.

"Sam shot him, dead as a door nail!"

I caught at the bed post to keep from falling.

"Did the sheriff come?"

"Hell no, those other two guys jumped in their car and tore off. Sam took the kid and threw him in that old rock quarry. When he got back, he paid us all he owed us and said not to come back until he gave us the word. He's leaving for a while. He also warned us that somebody would be watching us, and if we so much as breathed a word the same thing would happen to us."

I stared at him in horror.

"What on earth am I going to do now?"

I thought a minute. "Do you know the names of any of those men."

"Naw. All I ever heard Sam call them was Aubry and Bernie. They called the kid 'Slim'. I haven't ever seen him before."

"Well," I advised, "For once in your life, keep your big mouth shut. Make sure that dumb Justin does the same. That quarry is full of water, so maybe no one will ever find him."

We returned to our beds and plotted in our childish minds on ways to keep this horror a total secret. My parents must have suspected that something was wrong. My brother and I no longer quarreled. He stayed home and even took us all to the movies. We waited.

The mail was not delivered in this little village. Every morning as soon as the train from Richmond ran, half the population of the village gathered to get their mail and gossip. You could always get a complete account of everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. I went and listened fearfully. Charles would be watching from the mill window for my return. he would come to the house for a snack. When he thought no one was watching he would look at me and I would shake my head.

Three weeks had passed in this agony, when Papa dropped his bomb. We were all at the supper table.

"Frances, do you know what happened to your boy-friends today?"

"What boy-friends?"

"Oh, you have more than two?" my younger brother teased.

"Jimmy and Austin were swimming in the rock quarry and found a dead body."

We all gasped in horror.

"Who was it?" My mother finally asked.

"No one seems to know. He was pretty well decomposed," he answered.

I ran from the room and was thoroughly sick.

That was all the town talked about for weeks. In those days, there were no drivers license, or I.D. cards, and the sheriff could find nothing to go on. They eventually buried him in a homemade pine coffin in a corner of the Presbyterian Church cemetery. "Slim" was gone.

My father's business, as we had feared, became another victim of the Depression and we moved away. Once in a great while my brother and I secretly discussed the murder. On cold, rainy nights in the Fall, I would dream of it all. We would wonder what became of Sam; and if he ever got his just dues for his sin.

Forty-five years passed before it was brought back to our minds.

I came in from work one late afternoon in my usual state of total exhaustion. I made a cup of coffee and opened the newspaper.

There was the name of our little town, and the account of Justin Marshall walking into the D.A.'s office and telling the entire story. He omitted Charles' name. The D.A. told him that there was nothing to be done. Too much time had elapsed to trace "Sam" or anyone else.

I walked to the telephone on shaking legs and called Charles.

"Have you seen the paper?"

"Yeah, I wish I hadn't. I'd just about managed to finally forget it."

On cold, rainy nights, I still dream of it all. Were we criminals for staying silent? We were simply two frightened teenagers who were too scared to tell.