Billy McCall had probably driven the 18-wheeled big rig down steep mountain roads like this one hundreds of times before, but something felt different about today. He couldn’t place his finger on it. It wasn’t mechanical, at least he had hoped not. It was more of an instinctual feeling, and he didn’t like it.
He had gotten this feeling out of the blue, a few times in the past, during his nearly 40-year trucking career. It always turned out to be a bad thing. This time he had been coming over the steep passes and sharp curves of Mounteagle Mountain on I-24 just north of Chattanooga. The 800 horsepower of his custom-built Catepillar engine whirred as he crested the mountain top. The corners came sharper then he had remembered them, and the hood of the metallic purple Peterbilt bounced on its harness as he applied the jumpy Jake-break. The sun was barely cresting the horizon due East, so a blueish-pink light of morning had just kissed the road tops. It was still quite a long ways off from full morning. A fine dew had left a thin veneer of moisture on the surface of the oily tar, just enough for him to be concerned about a potential load shift.
That’s when he saw it. The flashers of the log-hauler on the very thin shoulder before him, let off timed signals of amber warning, almost too late. A bright white sheet off of the old truck’s cramped sleeper had been placed over a form, just off to the side of the road, and a large patch of crimson was still spreading from its center. A hairy armed dangled from the sheet, and was laying in an awkward position on the pavement. A shiny gold watch was still firmly fastened onto the balled up wrist. It looked expensive. In those few moments, Billy knew two things. The first was whatever happened to the gentlemen under the sheet, was not motivated by theft, and secondly, whoever, he was... — he was dead.
Billy brought the truck to a full stop about 50 yards in front of the hauler. It had taken that amount of time to slow the truck down safely, without jack-knifing it. He parked the truck, setting all it’s breaks and safety mechanisms, before dismounting and walking back toward the incident. He left the truck idling, as truckers often due, when the weather was a little on the frosty side. He didn’t want to take the risk of having to do a cold start on a mountain top, anyway, especially given the current circumstances.
John Bell had led over 700 Cherokee Natives over the Mounteagle 5% downgrade during the “Trail of Tears” exodus in October of 1838. Many of them had died. It was no coincidence that the pass over Cumberland Plateau had plenty of ghost stories about dead Indian wayfarers, who had traipsed through the hills at ungodly hours trying to reconnect with their corporal forms. Hell, Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed had both written popular songs about the area. These were the thoughts that made there way through Billy McCall’s mind as he made his way towards the dead man.
As he approached the idling log-hauler, which was a much older Kenworth —the kind with the big beveled circular headlights that looked like eyes— he made a wide birth. Something didn’t yet sit right with him about the body, and he didn’t want to be tainted by its juju. He made his way to the cab. Its door was still ajar. The power of the old titan heaved on the entire mount with rhythmic purrs. Billy called around, to see if anyone else was around. That definitely couldn't be the driver in the road could it? If so, then who would have laid the sheet over him? The guy must be around somewhere, thought the seasoned veteran of the road. After a few more calls, and some high-pitched whistling, Billy thought he’d make his way around the entire circumference of the rig. Maybe there would be some additional clues there. The fellow was probably pissing his nerves out somewhere, or trying to get a signal to call for help. Billy was spooked, but not really afraid. He had seen everything in his days, from biker gangs, to extreme cases of road rage, and Highway Patrol officers who seemed to have extremely large chips on their shoulders. Plus it was clear that the body, laying face down on the road, could do him no harm.
Billy rounded the entire truck and found nothing for his troubles. He had made up his mind that if he hadn’t found the driver soon, he would make his way back to his rig and try to piggyback a police scanner. This road didn’t get much traffic at this hour, under these driving conditions, but another semi would definitely be along sooner or later. As he rounded the passenger side of the Old KW, he looked at the body again, lying under the makeshift cover. He could have sworn the arm had moved to another position, but it was hard to tell. The fog was still slightly rolling in. Maybe he was just seeing in from an opposing angle. It’s not like he had tried to memorize it; it just looked different for some reason.
He used the chrome air filter to leverage himself up onto the step over the battery boxes. He again called out, still hoping the driver had just hadn’t heard him before. He knew better than to just enter into someone’s cab without announcing himself. Many truckers carried weapons, and took it as a personal affront if you crossed their threshold without asking. Only passengers, family, friends, or the occasional lot lizard on a lonely night, but never a completely unannounced stranger, were ever allowed. No answer came back. Billy tried the handle and the door opened. He again lifted the weight of his body, pivoting professionally, so the curve of his stomach didn’t impede his entry. Years of coffee, energy drinks, and greasy truck stop food, combined with the sedentary lifestyle, had given him quite the spare tire. It was no secret that the pressures of narroway-timed deliveries made fast food your friend, on the road. The lack of health care often available to independent owner-operators was par for the course, and with these two combined, it was not out of the ordinary that trucker’s like Billy had sacrificed their health.
Inside the cab, a faded blue velour had buttoned upholstery that formed a criss-crossed pattern. Again a sign of a former time. Billy could tell by the aging on the faux wood surfaces, and the shiny glisten on the shifter and dials, that the Old Boy had many miles on it. On the radio, one of Billy’s favorite songs was playing. “Convoy” by Bill Fries, a juggernaut of the CB-craze of the '70s, that had even inspired a hit Sam Peckinpah movie. The insurance salesman turned quirky singer had written under the pseudonym "C.W. McCall", and the shared name had struck a cord with Billy. If it wasn’t for him being a third generation teamster, it would have made for a great cocktail party story, as to the how and why he had gotten into trucking. As it was, though, the former Colorado Mayor’s earwig of a tune and same last name, was merely a coincidence. Spikes of hard static interrupted the catchy diddy, but Billy still found his heart repeating the chorus inside his head, and even let out a chuckle when it mentioned “long haired Friends a’Jesus in a chartreuse micra-bus”, despite the solemn situation, still laying lifeless along the roadside.
Bill called around, once again, for good measure, before leaning the girth of his frame into the cramped space of the tattered sleeper portion of the cab. The yellow stains and dank smell of smoke told him, whomever owned the truck, had liked his cigarettes as much as he did old classic trucking songs. A solitary yellowed dome light cast an ominous feeling over the tiny sleeping quarters, that looked like they were built more for Napoleon, rather than a full-sized man. The purr of the Detroit diesel idled on, as the faded orange glow of the dash lights pulsated rhythmically with its ebb and flow. There was noting else to see here. Billy tried the CB but it was fried. He got more backfire static than a HAM radio over an active volcano, and decided either the mountain peaks, the weather, the lack of traffic, or perhaps all three, was just the right trifecta to keep him getting ahold of anyone with “ears on”.
He decided to scooch his butt over the bench seat and alight on the driver’s side. Maybe he had missed something. As he grabbed the chrome railing along the tall aftermarket mirror, he took a quick glance in it, and saw a figure rapidly approaching him. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him, but it almost appeared like the slender lanky body of a shirtless man, who was carrying some kinds of accoutrements by his side. It was hard to tell in the dim light, as the mountain peak had cast a shadow over the already fogged road, and any chance of sunlight was probably a good hour away. Billy had to look down to get his footing, as the steel of the trucks steps were slippery with condensation, and he didn’t want to trip and spring an ankle, or worse. But the hairs stood up on his arms, and if he had calculated the figure’s stalking sprint correctly, the person would be right on top of him, as he turned around. He instantly spun to address the aggressor head on, but as he felt his steel-toed boots lock firmly on the earth’s surface, he raised his head to address the figure… - no one was there.
That was impossible. Billy definitely had seen someone approaching fast, and the only possible way they could have escaped his field of vision was by darting under the log-hauler to the other side, while Billy had been focusing on his steps. The music seemed to get louder in the cab. Best he could tell it was an 8-track on loop. C.W. McCall’s voice started up again; “Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth pullin' logs”. This started to get creepy. Billy sprinted, the best he could given his size, around the nose of the mighty rattling Kenworth. Its headlights dimmed as if the alternator kicked in for much needed backup, causing it to throw ghastly shadows off the contours of the veiled corpse. The arm had definitely moved, as the wristwatch was no longer visible. Billy second-guessed himself, just long enough to falter his confidence. His mind went to the Stephen King’s classics “Christine” and “Maximum Overdrive”; Was this old KW possessed? He was letting his nerves rattle him, and decided right then and there, that he needed to left off the midnight coffee chugs, once and for all.
He sucked in air as he rounded the front of the cab once again, ignoring the feeling in his gut, and the voices in his head, which informed him that the body had definitely been repositioned. Again, no one was there. He drew in a sharp breath. If that were true, it would mean that the figure had been playing cat and mouse with him, and what is more, was nimble enough to dart from under and out of the belly of the low-lying trailer, without being caught in Billy’s field of vision. It was disconcerting to say the least.
Billy had finally decided he had about enough of this. His old ticker had already went through a couple of bypasses, and decades of Large Marge’s cheeseburgers and chilli-cheese fries hadn’t helped his cause any. He was too damn old to get upset like this. There was a reason why roller coasters and horror movies were for his grandkids, and no longer for him. He stepped backwards from the Kenworth. Did he he imagine it or had the engine revved? He stepped back again, tripping on the corner of the white, blood-stained sheet, but this time no body was there.
It was clear at this point that foul play was amiss. Billy jogged back to his Peterbilt. The faithful steed still stayed at the ready, pumping teams of mighty thoroughbred horses through its turbocharged diesel coffers. The parking lights stuck out like a beacon of hope, and their amber glow jutted out like sharply spiked tendrils into the pre-dawn fog. He could see the names of his grandchildren airbrushed on to the back of his cab, and for a fleeting moment, had a glimmer of hope in his heart.
He grabbed the custom step-up handles so hard that he sprained his wrist pulling his full weight into the cab. He didn’t care right now. As the door slammed, and the vacuum of the pressurized cab settled, he had a brief moment of panic, wondering if the potential assailant was in his sleeper. The automatic locks depressed, as he slowly averted his eyes into the rear view mirror, to see if he could see the outline of the thin man behind him. Then, for no reason other than his frazzled nerves, he turned the interior lights on in the full of the cab. His heart nearly turned in on itself, with the thought that he wasn’t alone, but turned into an immediate sigh of relief, once he knew that he actually was.
The problem being, however, that the sharp contrast of the interior lights, now meant that everything outside the cab was pitch black. There was no way for his eyes to adjust in time to see even the slightest of delineation of varying shades of color in the billows of fog before him. Billy forced the truck into second gear, causing the the cab-over-Pete to lurch forward with an abrasive jolt. The entire cockpit shook, as the transaxle nearly snapped with the weight of the torque he had so swiftly applied. The Cat engine didn’t care about the wheels beneath it. Billy flipped off the interior lights, so as not to blind him, to the guardrail which was so close up ahead. Going over the bend on one of the most treacherous roads, at this time of night, could mean there would be more than one fatality on the roadside that night.
As he did, only inches from his face, the cold hardened black eyes of a Cherokee warrior met his. Their faces were mere inches apart, separated only by a thin pane of glass. The Indian looked as real as the road in front of him, but when Billy looked again, the apparition was gone. Billy was numb with fright, and he let the weight of the heavy load practically guide itself down the rest of the incline to the bottom of the slalom. He wouldn’t have stopped for anything, even if his brakes had given out. Halfway down, the FM radio got frequency again as an ethereal “CONVOY” once again surfed the airwaves, before giving out to static, followed by an eerie dead silence, once more.
Billy didn’t feel safe again until he was well within the sodium vapor lights of downtown Chattanooga. He finally got the nerve to dismount his truck, in full public and lighted view, giving it several once overs, until he felt confident that no one, nor any Native American apparition, had hitched a ride on his rig. Once safely in the diner, he discussed the accident with several truckers who had been there all night.
No reports of any accidents, and certainly no roadside corpses, had come across the scanners. Billy saddled up to his forth cup of coffee, a triple cheeseburger, and a large order of chilli-cheese fries. It was just the hearty kind of breakfast he needed to kick his heart back into gear. He never found out about the incident, nor ever spoke a word of it again, outside of the small audience that had been there at the diner that night. It was the last longhaul trucking gig Billy McCall ever did.