GON Fall Fiction: White Lightning Part 2

Duncan Dobie | September 1, 2015

“Even if we don’t get us a big ol’ he-buck today, it won’t be a total wash-out because we’ve got plenty of time to chow-down at Jake’s,” Coach Smart told us as we rolled northward through the predawn darkness. Jake’s was a legendary diner on the main drag in Dahlonega that always catered to deer hunters in November.

“Will they be open this early?” Willie asked.

“Lord, yes,” Coach answered. “Jake’s opens early-early this time of year; they’re always open by four anyway. And bein’ that today is openin’ day, you can count on seein’ a lively crowd of redcoats in Dahlonega stuffin’ themselves with the best dern breakfast fixins this side of Brasstown Bald. Why if deer season was open year ’round like some folks think it oughta be, I’d probably be 50 pounds heavier, and you two would never make the wrasslin’ team because you’d never make weigh-in. That’s how good Jake’s is!”

It was the fall of 1961, and this was our first trip to Sheriff Knob with Coach Smart. We didn’t know what to expect. Back then, there was only one good way to reach the high country of Union County from Atlanta—Highway 9 north through Roswell and Alpharetta and then up to Dahlonega. It was always exciting to ride that twisting and turning blacktop with Coach Smart in the dark hours of early morning because he liked to drive fast in his old faded green Willys Jeep station wagon. And he was a natural-born story teller. That man could flat spin a yarn. He loved that old station wagon because it would go just about anywhere, and he could take out the back seats and sleep in it any time he wanted to spend the night in the woods.

We knew we were backtracking one of the most famous roads in all of north Georgia. Moonshiners had used Highway 9 back in the ’40s and ’50s to drive their loads to Atlanta. The real-life auto chases between revenuers and trippers—those gallant mountaineers who drove the souped-up cars loaded down with white lightning, the nectar of the mountains—had earned it the legendary name of “Thunder Road.” They had even made a hit movie about it with the same name starring Robert Mitchum. Any southern boy worth his salt had seen that movie at least three or four times and knew the words by heart to the song that Robert Mitchum wrote and sang, known as “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”

Now let me tell the story, I can tell it all,

About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol,

His daddy made the whiskey, Son, he drove the load,

When his engine roared, they called the highway thunder road


It hadn’t been all that many years since that winding highway—complete with several dead-man’s-curves—had become legendary. Coach told us several spellbinding tales about high-speed chases involving trippers with a full load of mountain dew headed south to Atlanta to some drop-off point being chased by revenuers. More than one of those daring drivers had met his fate on one of those deadly curves at 70 or 80 miles an hour.

Coach Smart knew all the stories ’cause he was good friends with a retired revenue agent named Duff Floyd, who had worked the mountains back in those days of bootlegging during the ’40s and ’50s. Coach told us Duff was one of the best deer hunters around, and that he had a knack for two things in his life—catching moonshiners and killing old mountain ridge runners.

Killing a trophy buck in the mountains was no easy feat, but Coach Smart said they were there if you knew were to find ’em, and Duff had a whole wall full of impressive trophy mounts to prove it. His biggest was a beautiful 11-pointer taken in Union County not far from where we’d be hunting.

Once he got wound up telling one of his yarns, Coach Smart would have Willie and me sitting on the edge of our seats the whole way to Dahlonega…

“I reckon if you spend all your time lookin’ for moonshine stills you’re bound to run up on some good deer sign sooner or later in some of them hard-to-reach coves where big ol’ he-bucks like to hide out ’til the season’s over,” Coach told us in his southern drawl. “The day Duff shot that ol’ 11-pointer, he was huntin’ down in a holler within sight of a right good-size still he had busted a couple of months earlier. He liked to go back in there from time to time and make sure those ol’ mountain boys hadn’t tried to sneak in and fire things up again. When he did, that ol’ buck was standin’ about 50 feet from the twisted metal heap where the still had once been percolatin’ pure mountain delight.”

Coach had sort of a twinkle in his eye when he said that, and I figured he’d probably indulged in that throat-burning liquid more than he cared to talk about.

Before we knew it we were in Dahlonega.

“It wouldn’t be proper to celebrate Openin’ Day without stoppin’ by Jake’s to fill up our tanks,” Coach repeated with a grin as we pulled up in front of the restaurant on the main drag at about 4:30 a.m.

Even though it was still the middle of the night to us, it was like Grand Central Station everywhere we looked. Cars and trucks were parked everywhere, and some of the men had on red-checked or plain red coats. This was long before the days you had to wear hunter orange, and a lot of the men were wearing pants to match their coats and long calf-high leather boots. A few just had on overalls with two or three layers of flannel underneath and heavy outer-coats on top like Willie and me; whatever it took to stay warm.

Coach had emphasized that it could get awfully cold up on the Knob in November.

“It’s the kind of cold that separates the men form the boys,” he liked to say, and he was right about that. In those days, we didn’t have the kind of insulated clothing made to order for deer hunters that we take for granted today. So we paid a heavy price. Over the next few years, we would tough-out more than one frigid morning when it got so cold our brains seemed to get addled, and we couldn’t think straight, much less, make a good shot on a buck if we had to. At least, that’s the way the cold affected Willie and me on more than one occasion.

It was a right good haul from where we lived in Atlanta up to Union County. As time went on, we didn’t always have time to stop at Jake’s, especially if we were running late, but we made a point to stop there whenever we could. Climbing the Knob and walking those ridges all day long had a way of wearing you down to the bone. Breakfast at Jake’s always helped us make it through a particularly cold day without plumb freezing to death. We grew to love that old place.

Sometimes we hunted for a single day, usually on Saturdays. But we preferred to hunt the whole weekend whenever we could, camping at Lake Winfield Scott or Vogel State Park whenever we had more than a day to spend in the mountains. On special occasions, we’d stop at the Smith House for supper on our way back through Dahlonega after a long day in the woods. Even if we’d eaten at Jake’s earlier that morning, we were always half-starved by nightfall, and those mouth-watering platters of green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, fried chicken and homemade biscuits dripping with butter disappeared as quickly as they were put in front of us. Willie and me had to watch our weight since we were on the wrestling team, but some days we ate to our heart’s content and worried about dropping a pound or two later on.

While we were waiting for our breakfast to come that first morning at Jake’s, I couldn’t help but notice three over-sized men next to us as they wolfed down plates filled with bacon, eggs, grits, sausage and large biscuits smothered in gravy. A lively group at another table had piles of pancakes stacked up smeared with syrup and oozing butter. How those men could go out and hunt all day long after eating all that food was beyond me, but I had to admit that the combined sights, smells and sounds of everything we witnessed at Jake’s became a happy memory that has always been close to my heart.

After the hunters around us finished stuffing themselves, they’d refill their coffee cups, sit back for a minute or two and light up a cigarette. Then they’d start telling stories about last year’s adventures, making up all kinds of tall tales about how their guns had jammed right at the moment of truth or how some little tree got in the way of their shot. Seems like everybody smoked in those days. Thank goodness, Willie and me hated the smell of it, and Coach had never smoked in his life because all three of us wanted to stay in shape.

One man laughingly said, “Yeah them little trees have a funny way a’ jumpin’ right in front of a buck just as yer’ pullin’ the trigger!”

His partner shook his head in agreement and said, “Wal, Homer, I ain’t got that problem this year ’cause I got me one of them new Ruger .44 Magnums that just come out. They say that big ol’ .44 slug will go right through them little trees and still hit the buck if yer’ aim is good.”

When we heard that, all three of us rolled our eyes.

“Some hunters believe anything,” Coach said under his breath.

The mention of the Ruger .44 Magnum immediately struck a chord deep inside me. The new five-shot .44 Ruger carbine was my dream rifle. They had just come out that year, and I had read about them in all the outdoor magazines. Ruger called it the “Deerstalker,” and it retailed for $108. Dale Masters’ dad had recently bought two of the popular rifles for his oldest sons—he had three teenage sons including Dale, the middle brother, who all loved to deer hunt. The day Dale told me about those new rifles, I went over to his house after school to see and hold one. What a beauty it was! To me it was the crown jewel of whitetail hunting if ever there was one! I would have given my right arm to own that rifle. I didn’t like having to use a borrowed rifle, and I’d been steadily saving up to buy my very own Deerstalker.   

Mr. Shaw, who loaned me the Marlin .35 Remington I was using, was a good 20 years older than Coach, and he’d been hunting the mountains for years. He had introduced Coach to some of his favorite spots near Vogel several years earlier, and Coach had fallen in love with the ruggedness and beauty of the mountains. Mr. Shaw hunted with us from time to time during our high school years, and we loved being with him. He was a walking encyclopedia on buck behavior, and he taught us a lot about hunting mountain bucks.

At the beginning of that first season in ’61, Mr. Shaw handed me his Marlin lever-action and a box of bullets.

He said, “Here, Buddy. I’m expecting you to kill a good mountain buck this year, so don’t bring this back until you’ve put another notch on it.”

It didn’t really have any notches on it, but Mr. Shaw was a serious deer hunter, and he said he had killed at least five good bucks with that rifle. I used that rifle for three seasons. I would give it back to him at the end of each season after going buckless, and he would make sure it was back in my hands at the beginning of the next. His generosity and trust always made me feel special.

After reading the classic book “Shots at Whitetails,” I daydreamed about having a big mountain buck jump up in front of me near the top of a ridge and making the perfect running shot with my very own Ruger .44, as soon as I could swing it, just like Larry Koller had done so many times in his stories with one of his classic rifles. I had it all figured out in my mind. My first buck was going to be a huge old timer with a rocking-chair rack. As he jumped up from his bed in front of me on the side of a ridge near the top of the Knob, I would bring him down with a single, well-placed shot before he could bound away to safety. And that was only the beginning. Many more outlandish bucks would fall to my trusty .44 in the seasons ahead. Destiny called!

My momentary daydream was broken by a loud voice. One of the men next to us blurted out, “Well Harvey, let’s hope you can hang onto your shirttail this year.”

That got my attention as well. The man named Harvey looked at his friend and answered, “I couldn’t help it that my gun jammed on the biggest buck I’ve ever seen. It was that dang military surplus ammo I was using. Ain’t gonna have that happen again. This year I got me some Remington softpoints.”

Coach and I looked at each other again.

“Just be glad you’re not huntin’ with that bunch,” he whispered to me and Willie. “There are some crazy deer hunters out there.”

“That’s the lamest excuse I ever heard,” Willie whispered.

“You got that right,” Coach agreed. “Ten’ll get you one it was buck fever. It’s always buck fever. And the buck that got away is always the biggest buck that ever existed.”   

We all knew it was buck fever, and we wanted to jump up from our table and scream it out so that every hunter in the room could hear it. But Coach reminded us we needed to be polite.

“You’ll see all kinds in the deer woods,” he whispered, “and you’ll do well to stay away from stump sitters like that bunch.”

Any nimrod hunter not to Coach’s liking was always a “stump sitter.” Willie and me knew how fortunate we were to have somebody like Coach Smart to hunt with. He wanted to make safe and decent buck hunters out of us almost as much as we wanted it for ourselves.

After we’d become regulars at Jake’s during those first few years of hunting the Knob, we’d heard so many of those crazy stories that I promised myself if I ever did get lucky enough to see a good buck with a big rack, I wouldn’t be dumb enough to get buck fever. Not me. I aimed to stay cool and calm. And when I told my big story it would be a masterpiece that might even make the front section of the Atlanta Constitution. No sir; no twig was ever gonna jump in front of my sights, and no ammo of mine was ever gonna misfire! I worked too hard to get where I was to let that happen. I was aiming to be the best dern deer hunter in the state of Georgia some day.


Even though we liked to poke fun at all the hunters around us for eating so much, we were usually guilty of the same thing. Before we left, we managed to put away more scrambled eggs, grits and buttery biscuits than the law allowed on that first trip up to the Knob. Coach finally prodded us outside like a couple of hogs going to slaughter. We fired up the Jeep and headed north on Highway 19. When we got to the turnoff where Highway 60 intersects with 19 about 15 minutes later, Coach slowed down and unexpectedly pulled over.

We were well up in the mountains by now. No matter how cold it was, no matter how hard the wind was blowing outside, and no matter what time of day it was, Coach always stopped and carried out an important ritual. He reached down on the floorboard of the Jeep and picked up a small object. Then he got out and walked over to a pile of rocks about 4 feet high that stood in the small triangle of land where the two highways come together. He placed the object he was holding near the top of the huge rock pile. It was a black rock about the size of a golf ball.

“You two would do well to do the same thing,” he said standing in the doorway.

It was more of an order than a casual statement.

“What for?” Willie asked.

“Did you just put a rock on that big pile?” I asked curiously.

“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Coach said. “Quick, get out, find a small rock along the road here, and put on top of the pile. We need to make tracks.”   

We did as we were told wondering what the deal was.

“Now we’re ready to go kill us a good buck,” Coach said as we all jumped back in the Jeep and headed up 19. I was riding shotgun, and Willie was in the back seat. Seeing the blank look on my face, Coach added, “I don’t guess you two have ever heard of Stonepile Gap or the legend of Trahlyta, have you?”

“No, sir,” I answered.

I looked back, and Willie shook his head, too

Being a three-speed on the column, Coach shifted the Jeep into third gear and plowed ahead into the inky darkness.

“Well, let’s see… Accordin’ to Cherokee legend, a beautiful Indian maiden name Trahlyta (pronounced Tra-lee-ta) lived in an enchanted forest up on Cedar Mountain right near the turnoff back there. One day, a wise old medicine man told her that if she walked along a certain path each day and drank from a certain mountain spring, she would become more beautiful with each sip of water, and she would forever remain young and vibrant.”

“You mean, sort of like a fountain of youth?” Willie asked.

“Yes, exactly,” Coach said. “It was a fountain of youth. By and by, a powerful Cherokee warrior named Wahsega—who was known in these parts to be a legendary slayer of big bucks with his mighty bow—heard about Trahlyta’s astonishing beauty and tried to convince her to marry him. But she rejected all his advances. In a fit of rage, he kidnapped her one day and took her far away from her magic mountain. As time went by, she grew older and weaker from not being able to drink at the spring. She pleaded with him to let her go, but he refused. Finally, knowing she was not long for this world, her dying wish was to be buried in her mountain paradise near the sacred spring. Her last earthly words were, ‘Tell all strangers who pass by my gravesite that if they drop a stone on it in my memory, they’ll forever remain young and beautiful as I once was, and their fondest wishes will come true.’”

“You mean that’s a grave back there?” Willie asked. “Right there in the road?”

“Yep, it sure is,” Coach answered. “At least, according to the legend… After the whites moved in and took these mountains away from the Cherokees, Stonepile Gap became a local landmark. Most everybody who passed by placed a stone on it, hoping it would give them good luck. People still do it to this day. That’s why the pile is so high now. Some people even go down to the spring and drink from it.

“That’s a neat legend,” Willie said. “That rock you put on it… Did you bring it from home?”

“I sure did,” Coach said with a smile. “Makes it even more special to me to do it that way. There’s a lot to some of these old Indian legends. I’m not all that superstitious, but to my way of thinkin’, old myths like this one have a whole lot more goin’ for ’em than some of those old tales they make us teach in school. Who knows? Maybe when we do cross paths with a sho’ nough mountain monarch, we won’t blow the opportunity.”

“Maybe the spirit of  what’s his name will be with us since he was such a mighty hunter,” Willie said.

“Wahsega,” Coach said. “Maybe so. I’m sure his spirit is floating around in these mountains somewhere hereabouts, too.”

“Was he really a slayer of big bucks, or did you just make up that part?” I asked.

Coach smiled. “If he was a mighty warrior, he had to be a mighty hunter as well, don’t you agree?”

“Is the fountain of youth still there?” I asked.

“It sure is,” Coach answered. “Today it’s called Porter Springs, and lots of people hike over to it and drink from it. We’ll stop by there one of these days when we have more time, and you can drink from it yourself. Oh, by the way, the lake at Vogel State Park is named Lake Trahlyta. We’ll be passin’ right by there in a few minutes…”

When it came to our buck hunting, Willie and me were highly superstitious about most things in the woods. I suspect Coach was, as well. We stopped at Stonepile Gap and placed a rock on the huge pile every time we passed. And every time we went to Vogel where we camped sometimes on the weekends, we would throw a special rock in the lake. Coach was right about one thing. We would soon need all the luck we could get.


Read Part 3 of White Lightning

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