Rooster Tail by Sharon Frame Gay

In an isolated Virginia community, 1932, a gruesome murder changes the course of Cam Cluny's life; by Sharon Frame Gay.

Ledbetter, Virginia - 1965

I lock the door to the Ledbetter Gazette for the night and come back to my desk. The sun is setting behind the storefronts across the street, but Bitter Mountain still looms from my window in the coming darkness. As the owner of the local newspaper, I report everything that happens in town and up on that mountain. Weddings, funerals, hog sales, high school football games, and the weather.

But I never wrote about what happened back in August,1932. The year I turned seventeen. The summer where everything I thought I knew changed for good.

I wrestle a sheet of paper into the typewriter, pour the dusky remains of coffee into a mug, and peer up at Rooster Tail, the knob of land that hangs off the top of Bitter Mountain like a question mark. There still aren't many answers. Only God knows the truth. But I figured it was time to write about it, now that most everyone's dead who knew what happened that summer so long ago up on Rooster Tail...

"Don't ever think of leaving this place," Daddy said. He spit a wad of tobacco juice into a jug by the rocking chair on the porch and jutted his chin towards the Loblolly Pines. "There ain't no place gonna treat you better, and ain't no place you belong but here."

We lived up on Rooster Tail, the highest part of Bitter Mountain in Virginia. My family owned the entire eight hundred acres that crowned this mountain. Daddy said it was the cherry on top of the sundae. It was the prettiest spot an eye could rest upon. My great-grandpa Isaac Cluny bought the land long before anybody took a notion that it might be worth something. He chortled all the way up the mountain, knowing he'd made a good deal.

For over a hundred years, the Clunys have lived here. The family had children, and their children had children. When they grew up and married, they took a share of the land. Before long we were a settlement, with over a hundred relatives living on Rooster Tail. And every one of us was told by our kinfolk we should never leave.

Not once did I dream of moving off that mountain when I was a child. Hell, I didn't even go down into the valley until I was fifteen. Life was good here.

But during the summer of my seventeenth year, little Josie Cluny went missing. Now, at first, nobody worried even though Josie was only five years old. Why, we Clunys learned to play and run through the woods from the day we learned to walk. No grownups paid much mind as far as keepin' an eye on us. The kids on the mountain watched out for each other. Josie's parents, Ronald and Polly, didn't even begin to worry until darkness passed over the pines, and then Ron went out lookin' with a kerosene lantern. By midnight, though, he'd stirred up half the mountain to search for Josie.

There are steep cliffs on Rooster Tail. Streams can run fast, especially if it rains, which it had the past few days. The mules complained in the corral as they stood fetlock deep in mud and the sky turned gray as pewter. Most kids stayed inside, or played in the barns during weather like this, which made Josie's disappearance even more mysterious.

We searched for two days before they found Josie's body, halfway down Bitter Mountain, buried under leaves and pine boughs. Her clothes were torn and filthy, there was a piece of rope tied around her neck, and other things that weren't fit to talk about. When old John Becker, the preacher, found her body, Ron and Polly commenced to screamin', and their cries rose through the hills and straight up the mountain. John told us that next to Josie was one of her shoes, and a little wooden whistle she always carried. My daddy was there with the search party, and he bent down and put the whistle in his pocket to take back to his workshop. He planned to sand it down and stain it, so he could give Ron and Polly something to remember Josie by.

Seein' a police car drive up to the top of Bitter Mountain was a moment to remember. No strangers ever ventured up this high. We settled our disputes among ourselves with no help from the constables. The Clunys generally feared the sheriff. We had a still or two up here in the backwoods, and nobody wanted to lose their income. So we all hung back, reluctant to talk to him about Josie. Mama said later it was like Sheriff Clark was tryin' to pull teeth to get any words through our lips. None of us wanted to open our mouths for fear he'd see clear past our tongues into our souls.

They couldn't find who killed Josie. Her murder changed things up here on Rooster Tail. The little kids weren't keen on playing outside for a while. The adults kept trying to figure out her murder, the talks going on late into the night.

"It cain't be one of us," Mama said to the neighbors, shaking her head. "Why, we're all God fearin', and what happened to Josie was a sin!"

As for me, I decided right then and there that I needed to get off this mountain. What happened to Josie got me to thinking about my future. What was I gonna do with myself now that I finished school and Daddy didn't want me to go to town and look for work? Why, I couldn't start a life for myself without earning wages. I wanted a real job, somethin' different.

My family had food in our bellies and a roof over our heads, even though it wasn't anything fancy. I know my Daddy had his eye on Sissy Frasier across the hollow as a potential wife for me. Hell, I'd known Sissy since we were both running around half naked in our drawers as toddlers. I had about as much interest in Sissy as I did in Mama's old tick hound who sleeps under the porch and farts all day long.

I wanted something better. I only had the clothes on my back and a huntin' knife, a pair of good boots and a comb. That didn't seem like much when a young man wants to set off to make his fortune. But one evening after supper, I announced I was leaving the mountain, my mouth set as stone.

Daddy was quiet that night. I know he was disappointed in me for leavin'. I expected a lot of hollerin', maybe even a fist fight over it, but he just pursed his lips and sat at the table with a wrinkled brow. Mama, of course, cried. But she knew better, living in these hills, to argue with the men folk. It wasn't tolerated. Even though I was just a kid, I still held a higher hand in the deck of cards. It might seem unfair to think about it now, but back then it was the way of things.

I packed my few belongings in a musty rucksack, along with a torn plaid jacket, some jerky, and a handful of apples. Then I went to bed, starin' out the window at a sky that I knew would look different from that night forward.

The next morning, I set off to explore the world below Bitter Mountain. I yearned to see what was beyond these hills. My feet led me down the twisting path, past the two-room schoolhouse, and along the ridge to town.

I passed several cabins along the way. People viewed me with suspicion. Up here in the Blue Ridge, we didn't cotton to strangers, and for the first time in my life, I was one of 'em. I felt their eyes on me as I cut across the fields and melted into the woods. It was gettin' dark, so I built a little shelter with pine boughs and sticks, then crawled inside for the night.

When I opened my eyes at dawn, I was staring at a pair of muddy boots.

"What the hell are you doin' on my land, boy?" A voice rang out above those boots and my hand went to the knife I wore on my belt. "Get the hell out of there!"

I dragged myself out and stood up, brushed the leaves off my trousers and looked dead into the barrel of deer rifle.

"I ain't done nothing wrong," I said. "I live up on Rooster Tail and was just here exploring."

"Rooster Tail? Then you must be one of the Clunys."

"I am. Cameron Cluny. Cam. Orvis and Marla's boy."

"Huh. I know of 'em. But that don't explain why you're wallowin' around in these woods."

He'd lowered his rifle, so I felt a little braver.

"I already told you, I was just lookin' around the mountain."

He squinted and shuffled his feet, the rifle resting across his arms. The stranger wore an old stained shirt and a pair of pants with frayed cuffs. His gray hair hung long, brushing against his shoulders. There was a coil of rope tied to his belt, and a flask hanging by a cord around his neck. Next to him on the ground was an old duffle bag.

Something didn't seem right. "Is this your land?" I asked.

"What the hell do you think?" he snarled. " Of course it's my land! And you ain't welcome."

"What's your name Mister?" I asked, figuring I'd heard of his kin.

"None of your damned business." He nudged me in the belly with the rifle and jerked his chin to the right. "Now, get off my property, kid, or you'll be seein' God before your time."

I took one step back, and another, then lit off down an old deer trail. The forest rang with the sound of a rifle blast, and I felt the ground underneath me shake like the mountain was tryin' to fly. It was a warning shot, but it scared the hell out of me and put some pepper in my step.

I figured that man had a liquor still close to where I slept that he was guarding. Then I remembered that this was near where little Josie Cluny was found last month. A chill ran over me like walkin' into a cave. I half expected to see her ghost hiding behind the trees, watchin' as I scrambled over to the road.

There's only one main road on Bitter Mountain. It goes from the base all the way to Rooster Tail. Rutted and narrow, almost anybody you ever met on the mountain would pass this way at one time or another. As I loped past Webster's Store, the road widened and smoothed as I left the switchbacks behind and found better footing.

I wasn't sure where I was going that day, but my feet kept moving. By nightfall I was closing in on the base of the mountain. Up ahead was a paved road that led into the small town of Ledbetter. I walked along the shoulder until I reached a river with a bridge. Right next to it was a railroad trestle spanning the water. Sliding down the bank, I ducked under the bridge and decided this was a good a place as any to spend the night. I had little food, and no plans for that matter, but by now my heart was yearning for an adventure. I already knew I wasn't going back up that mountain after what happened in the woods.

A train whistle jarred me awake the next morning. Fine mist had settled over the river, and the smoke from the engine married into it, lookin' like a dream. Only I was wide awake. Peering up, I watched as the train trekked across the trestle, some boxcar doors open, gaping in the morning light like a little kid who lost his front teeth. That's when I knew what I was gonna do, and it didn't take me but five minutes to climb up the bank and walk over to the tracks. I figured trains had to slow down before they crossed the river, so it might be a good place to hitch up into one of those cars. Who cares where it went - which direction, or at what speed.

I picked a spot behind an old hickory tree about a half-mile down the tracks and settled in to wait for the next train. The sun was burnin' off the mist when a whistle sounded, miles away. A train was coming through the tunnel cut into Bitter Mountain, which meant it would get here in a short while. I stood and pissed against a tree, then crouched along the tracks in the grass, tryin' to make myself as small as I could so the engineer wouldn't see me and sound an alarm. The ground trembled. Then a great black engine rounded a hill and headed straight towards me. There must have been thirty cars hanging off the back of that engine, shootin' sparks of cinders off the tracks. It was so loud I couldn't even hear my pounding heart.

Just as I figured, the train slowed down. Stepping out of the grass, I raced alongside the tracks. I let several boxcars go by, then grabbed at one with the door open. I felt the tug of the door handle. It almost pulled my arm off and tossed me under the train, but I used every ounce of strength and rose up, then flopped into the car like a fish on a hook. It was the scariest thing I'd ever done in all my seventeen years, and I lay there on the floor of the car with my face planted in the wood, panting.

We didn't slow down as we passed through Ledbetter, the powerful engine pulling the cars along in a snaking arc across the horizon. Like a fool, I stood and hung on to the doorjamb, waving goodbye to a town I never really knew at all. But somehow it tugged at my heart and gave me a sensation like my soul was flying out of my chest. I almost felt reborn in the gaping womb of that empty boxcar.

But the elation tired soon enough, and I sat down in a heap and tried to figure out what to do next. Hell, I wasn't even sure which direction we were heading until we passed a sign announcing Richmond.

I'd only heard about Richmond from my daddy. He and Mama spent every penny they had for their honeymoon in the city. They always spoke about the soft-shell crabs they had for dinner, and the musty, humid air when they walked arm and arm through town. Daddy said the bright lights at night were something to behold. They blocked out the stars, but shone so much that the sky weren't even necessary.

"And there ain't no moon there, neither, 'cause I gave it to your mama as a wedding gift."

This is when Mama always laughed, covering her mouth with her hand so as not to show all her missing teeth. What a time they had, she'd say, then chuckle to herself and walk over to the hand pump in the kitchen and get herself a cup of well water.

My mouth salivated thinking of that water now. It came straight from the belly of the mountain, and so clear and crisp that Mama said you could see your future in it.

I figured Richmond was as good a place as any to make my fortune, so when the train slowed down as it approached the city, I jumped. I hit the bank hard and rolled down a hill, eating some dirt on the way. I was sort of glad to be off the train, though. At least I wasn't too far from home. How strange to feel these heart tugs, just two days out, I thought. How will I get by if homesickness rains down on me?

Richmond was feelin' the Depression. I passed two breadlines before I humbled myself and stood with other folks in line for a handout. They gave me a cup of soup with a crust of bread. I devoured it on the spot and wanted more, then remembered the apples in my rucksack, and sprawled under a tree in a park. An old man sat near me, pulled out some cigarettes and offered me one.

"No thanks, sir," I said, "Never have developed a taste for tobacco."

He nodded and stretched his legs out, lit up, and pointed to the throngs of people walking along the sidewalk.

"Can ya believe it? Here we all are, in the middle of this Great Depression, and some folks are still swanning around like nothing ain't wrong."

I nodded, thinking about Rooster Tail and how we weren't hit so hard up there in the Blue Ridge. We had deer and turkeys to shoot, vegetable gardens and wild berries. Our bellies were never empty. Why, just three nights ago, Mama made a good stew with turkey, taters and peas in it, and a rhubarb crisp for dessert. My stomach rumbled.

"Do you know of any work around here, sir?" I asked, tossing my apple core over towards a squirrel and wiping my hands on my filthy pants.

He laughed and stubbed his cigarette into the ground. "Son, there aren't nothin' for nobody. My own boy's been looking for work for months now. He finally moved his family up to Washington D.C. and got a job up that way." A black man walked past, and he pointed. "It's even worse for the Negroes. They cain't hit a lick at a stick findin' a job. All the white folks who thought cookin' and cleanin' was beneath them have pushed these poor souls out of the way now."

The old man sighed and stood up, flicking ashes off his shirt. "I'm tellin' you son, it's likely best you leave town if what you're lookin' for is a paycheck." He tipped his hat, shuffled back to the sidewalk and joined the parade of people.

Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do, I thought. I come bustin' out of Bitter Mountain with my tail on fire, only to find myself in the middle of a drought. My mind flicked back to Mama's turkey stew, and I figured maybe I was the dumbest person in the world to think of ever leaving.

I dug into the rucksack, lookin' to see how many apples I'd stuffed in there. I found two more, plus a twist of jerky and a book I hadn't read yet. Down at the bottom of the bag was a bundle of paper with a short length of rope tied around it. I didn't remember puttin' it there. Curious, I pulled it out and untied the rope. To my amazement, two whole silver dollars fell out and landed on the grass next to me. I smoothed out the paper and saw a note in Daddy's writing, huge block letters that looked like somethin' a child wrote. But it was the words that set my hair to standin' on end.

"Don't you never come back to Rooster Tail," Daddy wrote. "I knowed what you done."

I was confused. What had I done that made Daddy so mad? Then I looked at that length of rope and felt a flush commence from my boots to the top of my head. I'd taken some rope from Daddy's workshop last spring to set up a tire swing over the pond for my friends. And they'd found a piece of rope around Josie's neck.

Daddy figured I'd killed Josie Cluny. He thought that's why I left. Maybe Sheriff Clark thought so, too.

I stood up so fast the squirrel dropped the apple core and scurried away. Fear thundered through my body, and it felt like I was sittin' on a tree branch starin' down at myself. After the shock came grief that my father thought so little of me. And after the grief came an anger more fierce than a winter wind. I had to do somethin', so I started walking as fast as I could, as though I was trying to step outside myself and become another person. I needed to think, and it seemed that my legs churnin' along the sidewalk helped my mind come back to order and sift things through.

I did not kill Josie Cluny. But I thought I knew who did.

It was that man in the woods. I remembered the rope looped around his belt and the duffle by his side. If that had been his property, why was he carryin' a duffle bag with him? I recalled that he wouldn't tell me his name. But he knew who I was, so he couldn't be a complete stranger to Bitter Mountain. My head was swirling. He wasn't protectin' a still! He was living wild in those woods, and he murdered little Josie Cluny.

I had to go back. I had to clear my name with my Daddy and help find the killer, but how?

The trip back to Rooster Tail seemed a lot quicker than when I left just a few days ago. I rolled off the train near the trestle and started the long walk back up the mountain. All the time, I was ruminating on the stranger in the woods, Josie, and my Daddy.

The man was probably long gone by now, especially once he saw me that morning. He might've figured I'd tell somebody, or go see the sheriff in Ledbetter. I thought of stopping at the police department in town before settin' off for Bitter Mountain, but that ain't the way we do things around here.

I figured the first thing I needed to do was go back to the woods and see if I could find the man. I thought if I saw him, then I'd go down into town for help, or home to fetch my father.

I spent the night at the base of the mountain, then made my way up at first light. My stomach was crampin' with hunger, but I didn't want to go home first and face Daddy, so I followed the road until I saw the deer trail carved into a hill and climbed up the path.

It was quiet. Even the birds were hushed. It was as though the mountain was holding its breath as I ventured deeper into the trees. There was a scuffling sound off to my right, but it was just a bull snake slitherin' through the leaves. I saw the little spot where I spent the night and looked around for clues or footprints. Everything was tamped down by my boots, and those of the stranger's, too, but I noticed some broken branches and a print leadin' down a ravine. I stopped and took my knife out of its sheath, held it in my hand for comfort. Every little noise set my heart to racin'.

I lost the boot prints in the brush, and was about to turn and head up to Rooster Tail, when a voice behind me caused me to drop my knife and spin around.

"I told you before to get the hell out of here, boy." The stranger had his rifle pointed at me again, only this time his finger rested on the trigger and the barrel nestled up against his cheek. Like a snake, he was ready to strike. Instinct took over, and I jumped behind a pine, just as the rifle let loose, blowin' the bark off the tree and lancing my cheek with a splinter. I figured I was as good as dead, so I started running like hell, when all of a sudden I heard a blast from a shotgun.

"Freeze right there, Mister, or I'll shoot you in the back. Drop the rifle."

It was my Daddy's voice. I thought I was dreaming. He came out from behind a bush, his eyes never leaving the stranger. The man tossed the rifle off into the leaves and Daddy motioned for me to pick it up, all the while aiming the shotgun at the stranger's back.

"Get behind me, Cam" he said, and I hurried over to his side and ducked behind his shoulder.

"Sit down," Daddy hollered, and the man crouched warily. "All the way down, dammit, with your legs out in front of you. Don't try anything, or I'll pull this trigger."

Daddy spoke to me, his voice dead calm. "Run on down to Webster's store and call the sheriff."

"Daddy, what happened? Why are you here?"

"Get the hell outta here, Cam. Don't give me any of yer lip! And take that rifle with you."

I turned and raced through the bushes, straight down the hill, and on my way to Webster's. It wasn't far. As soon as I busted through the screen door, Mr. Webster looked up and said, "What's the problem?"

"Call the police!" I yelled. "My daddy's holdin' a stranger halfway up the hill. The man took a shot at me!"

It seemed to take forever for Sheriff Clark to arrive. I jumped in the car and pointed the way, all the while jabberin' about what happened.

We reached the deer trail, stopped, and got out. I was still holding the rifle, and he reached for his double barrel on the gun rack.

"Stay behind me, son" he said, and I didn't need much convincing as we stepped on to the path.

Just then we heard another powerful blast. I could tell by the sound it was Daddy's shotgun.

"Hurry" I yelled. The sheriff clicked off the safety of his shotgun and lead the way.

I saw Daddy in the distance and called out his name. He dropped his gun so the sheriff wouldn't think he was gonna shoot at him, then his knees gave out and he lowered himself to the ground.

Next to him was the stranger. The man was on his back, his shirt covered in blood. He wasn't breathin'.

Daddy looked up at the sheriff. "This man shot at my son here, and then while I was holdin' him at gunpoint, he jumped me. We tussled, and I pulled the trigger. I think this here is the person who killed Josie Cluny. His name's Jack Todd. Lives down the holler in a cabin by hisself."

I was full of questions but didn't open my mouth. The sheriff was full of questions, too, and he had no trouble askin' them. Turns out, Daddy said, he'd been searching these woods every day since Josie died, wondering if he could find the killer. It seems that his boy Cam ran right into him in the woods here today. Daddy heard the ruckus and ambushed the stranger.

It was nightfall before things settled down. More deputies arrived, and they took me and Daddy down to the police station in Ledbetter for questioning.

After that, the whole mountain seemed to hush up that night. Mama said to go to my room and keep quiet. The sheriff and deputies went door to door, from the top of Rooster Tail to the base of Bitter Mountain over the next few days, talkin' to the neighbors. Nobody had any answers. It was the code of these hills. Don't see nothin'. Don't tell nothin'. Just hunker down like a fawn in the bushes and don't blink.

I still wondered why my daddy was in the woods that day, and how he came upon us. Why would my father leave Rooster Tail and wander down the mountain? It was a mystery. Just like everything else that summer.

It was an open and shut case, Sheriff Clark said. Jack Todd had a length of rope in his duffle that matched the rope found around Josie's neck.

But what really convinced 'em was they found Josie's whistle in that duffle, too. Nobody seemed to question why it was sanded, stained, and polished til it gleamed.

Daddy and I sat on the porch the night the sheriff came and told us the case was closed. He said he gave Ron and Polly Cluny little Josie's whistle.

Sheriff Clark walked off the porch, then turned around. He tipped his hat back on his forehead and wiped at his brow. Then gazed hard at the both of us and slapped at a mosquito. I stared down at my boots, studied the frayed laces.

"It's terrible, the things that happen in this world, Orvis," he said, "Nothin' surprises me no more. It's crazy what folks do sometimes. Or what a man might do to protect his own. Why, some might even commit murder." He shook his head, then walked to his car and drove away.

I peered into the darkness and listened to his engine until it faded past a bend in the road. Then the only noise was the cicadas in the trees and a dog barkin' across the hollow. I took in a breath of night air, let it out slowly.

Daddy lit his pipe and stomped on the match. "Don't never think of leaving this place, Cam," he said. "There ain't no place gonna treat you better, and ain't no place you belong but here."

I nodded and leaned back against the porch railing. It was carved from wood right here on Rooster Tail, strong and solid, as though it meant to hold on to me forever.


  1. No one can write them like you, Sharon. Loved this story!

    1. Thank you Dawn so much. So glad you read it and liked it!

  2. I always love your stories. Your language is rich and your voice is unique. My favorites are "Snakebit" and "Vampire Marriage."

    1. Hi Nancy! I am honored that you took the time to read "Rooster Tail"! Thank you so much!

  3. What a captivating story Sharon... Couldn’t stop reading...

    1. Thank you so much, Tim. I am honored that you read it. :)

  4. I'm new to your fiction, but I'm already hooked. What wonderful use of language and pace. I love your structure in terms of the paragraphs, the sentence rhythm. There are stories out there that have great language, but are let down by clunky structure. This whole piece has terrific harmony. Couldn't stop reading once I started.