The False Knight on the Road
She stood and she stood
And it’s well because she stood….
~~Scottish and Appalachian traditional ballad
Heather Burke lifted her cycling shoes off the pedals of her bike, and coasted for a bit. She was on Old Logan Road, once a part of US-119 now a bypassed connection between the current US-119 and Route 10. She was heading for the intersection where Old Logan merged with Route 10 and disappeared, at which point she planned on turning around and returning home.
In this part of Logan County, West Virginia, there were swatches of forest and wilderness, small cities, former coal towns, broken down and abandoned houses, a lot of manufactured homes … and rising from the clutter of hopelessness and poverty new housing developments, exclusive enclaves, boasting homes that cost above three-hundred-thousand dollars.
Heather Burke lived in one of these restricted and elite subdivisions, east of Chapmanville, south of the Guyandotte River. Her father’s family had once owned a major coal mining concern. Although the business had been sold, her father, Jefferson Burke, had been one of the few descendants to remain in Logan County. He had become one of the founding investors in the area’s only locally owned bank. He had married a local girl, a “coal miner’s daughter”, and the family had settled nicely as a part of what her grandfather had called “the ruling class.”
Twenty-year-old Heather was tall and tanned, athletic and intellectual, and currently enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She was home for the summer, the first time she’d been back since the election the previous fall.
She was going slightly uphill once more, and easily pumped the pedals, rising slightly on her glistening white and sky-blue Cannondale Feminine Synapse 5 bicycle. Standing on the pedals, she guided the bike as it leaned inward around one of the road’s many curves. She loved cycling; it took her mind off her problems, eased her tensions. And one of her problems at the moment was a man. A young man her own age, whom she had grown up with, and who she had rejected repeatedly over the years. A young man who was a scion of an old Southern family, a prince, a perfect example of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, according to his own assessment. He had been phoning her obsessively since she had returned.
Old Logan Road followed the loops and meanderings of the Guyandotte River, but there was a thick wall of greenery between the river and the road, and now Heather reached a portion of the road where forest and underbrush closed in on the other side, too. The air was warm but not humid; it was May and some white and coral-pink blossoms could still be seen on the dogwoods and redbuds. Birdsong was coming from all directions. Unseen honeysuckle vines were blooming, and their fragrance wafted. The leaves around her were young, new, and scented the air with a spring freshness. There was a slight breeze. She recognized the white oak and red oak, the red and sugar maples, and the water maple seeds fluttering around her. And a slight rumble, a steady mechanical noise under it all.
Heather shook her head as she pushed her way upslope once again. What is that? she thought. It had been so low and steady, that she hadn’t paid any attention to the sound. Cars and trucks passed her infrequently, but she had learned to recognize the Doppler-effect of a vehicle’s approach, and how the sound shifted as the car or truck zipped by and receded before her into the distance.
This was different. She braked, and straddled the bike with her feet on the ground. She turned to look behind her, and saw just then the front end of a truck nose around the curve. The truck stopped. It idled. Heather felt only a moment of fear before she felt very, very angry. This is my home, my road, I grew up here, she thought, and began pedaling once more, picking up speed as she rounded another turn and lost sight of the dark-silver Ford.
But as she expected, the Ford-150 pulled into sight once more, and now came on more quickly, tailing her. She refused to look around. She had recognized that Ford truck, a 2009 model, because it had driven by her house for the last several days, several times each day.
The truck now pulled along side of her as she gripped the handle bars and pushed against the pedals as hard as she could.
“Hi, Heather,” a male voice shouted. It was Randall, as she knew it would be. Randall Stephenson. And he wasn’t alone. Two of his toadies, his squires were in the cab with him.
Heather shouted back without turning her head or reducing her efforts on the bike, “I do not want to talk to you. My family has told you to stop calling, stop driving up and down the street in front of my house. I am riding my bicycle now, so leave me alone.”
“Heather, Heather, you are just asking for trouble,” said one of the men in the truck with Randall.
She refused to even glance in the direction of the voices. She glided downhill once again, using gravity to give her more of a push — she pulled away from the truck for a moment. The Ford braked, revved forward, jumped a bit, and then tires squealed as Randall Stephenson put foot to the accelerator, caught up, and sharply turned about fifteen feet in front of Heather, blocking her path. The truck jerked again as it came to an abrupt halt. Heather nearly fell over her handle bars then hopped both feet to the ground to balance and steady herself. She was about five feet away from the truck. She thought about a cycling escape , evading the truck as the three men began tumbling out of the cab, but knew they would just catch up to her again, and she would get more and more tired as this game continued. She knew she wouldn’t make it to the next stretch of houses and businesses. It was better to face this now.
Randall stood in from of her, all six feet and blue-eyes and shiny brown hair, his hands on his waste, laughing. “What is the matter, Heather? You do realize you’re the luckiest girl in Logan County, and West Virginia for that matter. I’ve chosen you.”
She felt a burst of rage as she saw him eye her tight black and blue gym capris, her sweat-drenched tank top. She lowered the kick-stand on her bicycle and stepped off, face to face with Randall Stephenson.
“Take that helmet off,” he ordered. “I can’t see you.”
“No, I don’t want to take my helmet off,” she said steadily.
One of the other two with him repeated, “He said to take the helmet off.”
“Or what?” Heather said loudly. “What are you going to do, Randall? Beat me up? Rape me? That would be great for your ‘organization,’ wouldn’t it?”
His expression changed and his face darkened. “Where do you think you’re going, you bitch? Who do you think you are? Smearing your heritage, betraying your own kind.”
Heather felt an incredible sense of euphoria. She knew she was facing something horrible, but a rush of understanding filled her, and it made her feel like she was floating. “Because I voted for Barack Obama? Because I took time off from colledge and came back here to campaign and knock on doors and beg the people of this state and this county to join the future and get out of the middle ages? Or because I saw that you were a selfish, racist, sociopath years ago and refused to have anything to do with you and your little Klan?”
Randall pulled his mouth back, either grinning or snarling, Heather couldn’t tell. The other of his lackeys who had not spoken yet, a big man who she remembered was nicknamed “Elephant,” was turning rose-purple. He tottered back and forth from one leg to the other, and said, “Are you going to let her talk to you like that? We need to teach her a lesson.”
Heather felt as light as the air. “You call yourselves ‘knights.’ The ‘Appalachian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.’ You are scum. You use all the forms of chivalry, of honor, in service of violence, hate, and evil. You seize populist discontent and pretend you’re on the side of the ‘people’ but you are really only out to get power for yourselves. A bunch of goose-stepping thugs …” She saw it coming but her mind couldn’t register what was happening. She was on the ground, her face beginning to burn and feel tight and hot. Randall was standing over her, his hand raised as if to strike again.
“Just the flat of the hand, there boy, just the flat of the hand. A man has the right,” Elephant said excitedly. “A gentleman, a gentleman, he’s a gentleman. He should have popped you one in your mouth, bitch.”
“Shut up, Elephant,” Randall said like it was all a joke. He looked composed again. He reached down to help her up.
Heather ignored the hand, got to her knees, then sprang to her feet, still feeling weightless. “I heard from my friends how you are organizing, how you are going into the high schools and recruiting impressionable and troubled teenagers. It makes me ashamed to be from Logan County, not because of you, but because of the teachers and parents who don’t do a thing about it.”
Randall shot out his arm and grabbed her safety helmet by the strap, yanking it so hard as he pulled it off her face and head, that she fell to her knees in front of him. He tossed the helmet into the underbrush. “We could do anything we wanted to you, and dump you in the river,” he said through his teeth. ”
She tried to stand, and he took his fist and punched her on the back and knocked her back to her knees. She tried to stand again, and he punched her again. “The first people who the brown-shirt thugs turned on in Germany,” Heather said to him, looking up, “were their fellow Germans who they knew would never accept their evil.”
“We’re just trying to make you see the light, Heather.” Randall sounded like a little boy again, like they were on the playground in elementary school.
She stood once more, concentrating full attention on remaining steady. She looked him in the eyes and said loudly, “You and your friends and all of your Nazi and Klan buddies can go to hell, no, you ARE going to hell!”
Randall calmly pulled back his fist. Heather felt contempt. “You piece of garbage,” she whispered at him. He aimed to hit her full in the face as Elephant and the other Klan member made grunting noises. Just then they heard a horn. A big rig was rumbling and trundling into view, belching exhaust, its horn braying as they were blocking one lane of the roadway. Randall lowered his arm, shouted, “Get out of the road,” to Heather. She just stood there, smiling at him. “Get out of the road….” Randall leaped to the overgrown shoulder, his followers right behind him, as the 18-wheeler slammed on the brakes, sliding, folding into an L-shape. It came to rest just inches from Heather’s bike, which remained propped, untouched, in front of one of the huge wheels.
Heather slowly pivoted and looked up, making eye contact with the driver of the tractor trailer. The driver was a middle-aged man, and he glanced at the gang of three on the side of the road, then at Heather. She fully expected him to do what most usually did in America, drive on and not get involved. But instead, he climbed down and said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it had better not be what I think it is.”
Randall said nothing. He and his friends stood off in the vines and bushes at the side of the road, glaring at the truck driver. Like a good bully, Heather thought as she calmly took a few steps to her bike, place one foot on the right pedal and almost simultaneously swung her other leg around and braced herself on the left. The truck driver was squinting at her, and he said, “I don’t like to get involved in your business ….” Heather tried to keep from shaking, to maintain calm and focus. “If you wouldn’t mind called the police,” she said. “I don’t have my phone with me. Those three were trying to assault me.” She knew the sheriff’s deputies would probably believe any good-old-boy lie that Randall told them. “I’m going back home, now,” she said to the trucker. And she pulled the bike around facing back towards Chapmanville, raised herself up and began pushing the pedals as hard as she could.
She didn’t look back. She didn’t wait for an answer She knew she would be dead if that rig hadn’t shown up. But for all that, she knew she had won. “And a good boat unto me,” she sang to herself as she felt her hair unfurl and fly on the wind as she sailed home.