Drifting South

Drifting South

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by Charles Davis

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Shady doesn't exist anymore. Neither does Benjamin Purdue. In a single day he lost his family, his love, his freedom and even his name for reasons he's never known. Now after spending twenty-one years in prison for crimes he didn't commit, the young man he used to be is dead. And the man he's become is no one he—or anyone else—would ever want to know


Shady doesn't exist anymore. Neither does Benjamin Purdue. In a single day he lost his family, his love, his freedom and even his name for reasons he's never known. Now after spending twenty-one years in prison for crimes he didn't commit, the young man he used to be is dead. And the man he's become is no one he—or anyone else—would ever want to know.

With only fifty dollars of state money in his pocket, Henry Cole, aka Benjamin Purdue, journeys back to the dangerous outlaw settlement hidden deep in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia where it all began. The only place he's called home.

Instead of answers, he finds only old sunken graves. Now as he drifts southward, he gets closer to the beautiful woman he will never forget—whose untimely visit to Shady that fateful Sunday afternoon ended in a killing. A woman who holds the keys to his past…and his future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A teen imprisoned in 1959 for crimes he didn't commit finds bittersweet justice more than 20 years later in Davis's second Southern gothic (after Angel's Rest). Benjamin Purdue grew up the son of a prostitute in Shady Hollow, a remote Blue Ridge Mountains outlaw settlement. He had hope in the form of Amanda Lynn Jennings, a pretty girl with a dangerous secret, but that, like everything else, withers after he shoots a man in self-defense and gets sent to prison for it. In 1980, when Ben gets out of prison, he heads home and discovers the town he remembers has been replaced by a ritzy housing development. Only the cemetery remains with tombstones noting his family members' deaths. Craving answers and longing to find Amanda, he embarks on a harrowing journey of self-discovery. Davis's depiction of Ben's quest to recoup the life stolen from him is enhanced by a gritty first-person narration that's hypnotic and haunting as Ben learns "you can't fence sunshine." (Dec.)

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Harrisburg Federal Penitentiary

June 16, 1980

"You're not out yet, Henry. Well, keep that in mind, yep," he said.

The guard behind my left shoulder—the head goon who ducked through doorways and always walked behind prisoners with my kind of history—tapped me on the right shoulder with his stick. Tapped probably ain't the right word. He hit me with it not hard enough to leave a mark a day later but hard enough to where I'd feel it a week later, whatever that word is. I was used to him walking behind me, and had come to know his stick in a personal kind of way. My head had put a few dents in it.

Officer Dollinger always ended everything he said with the word "yep," and he was letting his stick tell me that I'd been mouthing off too much to a new guard walking in front of me.

Anyway, the head of the beef squad behind me had never called me Henry before. It seemed the whole bunch of them would come up with new words to call us every few years, same as we'd come up with new words to call them. Lately the guards called all of us convicts either Con or Vic.

Don't see that in movies, prisoners being called Vic. Don't see a lot of things in prison movies, at least the ones they'd shown us in prison, that actually make being locked up look and sound and smell like what it is, which is similar but different in an uglier, more crowded, louder, smellier way.

But mostly the guards just called me and the rest of us "you."After I'd learned to write, I'd signed so many of their forms over the years with that name.


But in D Block, Pod Number Four-B of the Number Nine Building known as the Special Housing Unit of Har-risburg Federal Penitentiary,the few pards I trusted with some things but not all, and had become friends with as much as you can in a place like a prison, called me "Shady."

At some point in some lockup or lockdown, I was feeling dangerous lower than is good for a man to feel, and I decided I might need something to remember who I used to be before I had to live behind tall walls and wire, even if I couldn't feel that way no more. On my last day in prison, both of my arms were covered in fading blue ink, pictures and words. Those prison tattoos read like a book of my youth, and across my back and shoulders in big letters was the word "Shady. "It was the first thing I'd ever had scratched into me. Nobody knew what Shady meant because I never told anybody about my past or what little I knew of it, but it came to be what I was called by the other inmates.

So anyway, given a kind warning by stick standards, I decided to not say anything more to the new jug-head guard in front of me. I just kept shuffling slow and steady, wearing irons on my ankles that I'd gotten used to so much that I'd grown permanent calluses from them. I kept shuffling slow and kept my bearing about me as I tried to ignore the irksome clanking of the chains at midstep, because it wouldn't do me well to raise hell about any of it.

I'd already been through eight hours of a hurry up and wait drill, first in my empty cell with a rolled-up bed, and then sitting outside the warden's office watching the guards keeping an eye on me over top issues of Life, Field & Stream and National Geographic magazines.

An old trustee with heavy glasses on and small shoulders who seemed to have been there before time began and a man who I'd always gotten along with somewhat tolerable came in to say at long last that the head man of the Harrisburg Federal Penitentiary was busy attending to a bunch of local politicians touring the place.

All of the guards laid down their aged magazines, bored, like they'd probably done a thousand other times, and then they grabbed me up and escorted me to another waiting room.After I watched them sip on cold bottles of pop for another hour, I finally had my farewell talk with the assistant warden.

The tall shiny wooden sign sitting on top of his desk yelled that his name was Theodore Donald O'Neil, the Third. And he was young, a good bit younger than me, and I wasn't that old. He seemed proud of himself sitting behind his long name and polished oak desk in a way a young man is until he's really tested and finds out what's really inside of him.

But like this old Chinese lady had come in to teach us once, I kept focusing on my breathing. I took in air slow like it was the gift of life and let my lungs fill up with the gift before letting it out,just as I'd done over and over from years of trying to let out what was about to make me explode, or eat my insides away to nothing.

The assistant warden told me to sit.

I sat.

He looked so serious, and then he grinned.

He leaned back carrying that grin and stared as hard as he could for what seemed a decent long time until his eyes started to get watery.

"If it were up to me,you wouldn't be leaving. I've scanned your file and sitting here looking at you, I know you're still a threat to society. It's written all over your face."

I kept staring at him because my eyes had dried up years ago when something deep down in me turned the water off, and I could now stare at anybody until I just got so bored with it that I'd decide to stare at something else. It was written all over Mr. O'Neil that he wasn't quite yet the hard man he'd need to be in this new job, as his eyes left mine and he began talking again and fiddling with a pencil that had teeth marks on it.

"Besides not making parole several times for various violations, you've been involved in several serious altercations. You even managed to kill an inmate here."

"I'm sure it's in the file what I did and why," I said.

"Actually, the file only has your version of what happened, being the other man is dead."

"I had to defend myself if I wanted to keep living is the short of it."

"Yes…you never did say why the man tried to kill you, as was your story."

"Don't know."

He looked over the papers at me. "Well, we can't ask his version of what happened, can we?"

"You could dig him up but I suspect he wouldn't say a whole lot," I said.

He kept looking at me for a good spell, then at the head guard before he eyed his watch. Then he turned his attention square back at me.

"The warden doesn't have any other recourse than to let you go. I'd like to believe that you'll begin leading a decent life, but your nature toward violence will lead you right back into incarceration, if you don't get killed first, of course. But you're a hard man to kill, aren't you, Henry Cole?"

"This damned place hasn't killed me yet."

"This institution didn't try to kill you, it tried to rehabilitate you. And we failed in that task. The taxpayer's money has been wasted in that regard.You are living, breathing proof that some men cannot change their behavior, and therefore they should be restrained and kept from society that they will naturally prey on and do harm to. It's my opinion that you should be kept here for as long as you have the capacity to continue to be a threat to others, which would be until you are either a feeble old man or until you die. But as you know, even though you still have evil in your eyes as you sit there staring at me, I lack the authority to keep you here and throw away the key, as they say. I did want you to know my feelings on the matter, however."

I couldn't hardly stand to be quiet anymore with that young man with not a scar on him judging me the way he was doing, but I kept trying to sit on my temper best I could. It was starting to catch my ass on fire.

"What're your plans?"

"Don't have any," I lied.


"Not a single one," I lied again.

"What do people like you think about in here for… what was it… eight years?" he asked.

"I've been here a lot longer than eight years."

"Didn't you ever think about what you would do when you were released?"

"What do you think about in here when you're locked up behind the same rusty bars as I am, day after day?" I asked back.

The assistant warden tried to grow another grin but it slid away.

"I can leave here whenever I want.You can't. But to answer your question, I think about how to make sure predators like you stay here where you belong," he said. "It's very, very satisfying."

He looked like he meant what he said, and I respected him more than I did when I'd first laid eyes on him, but still not much. He went back to scanning and flipping page after page of I guess what amounted to my life in prison, which amounted to all of my adult life. He stopped to read one section with a lot of care.

"You've been housed in protective custody most of your time here. Why?"

I didn't say anything as he kept reading. He finally looked up.

"Why the attacks?"

"If it ain't in there, I don't know," I said. "I was actually hoping you might."

"You don't know why inmates on two other occasions tried to kill you?"

"I didn't even know them."

"This is a complete waste of time." He closed my file and threw it onto a stack of other files.

I noted mine was the thickest and an old pain shot through me in a thousand old places.

"The reason we received the order to release you two days early is certainly not because of good behavior, it's because the Bureau of Prisons has red-tagged you a security risk.The unannounced change of date reduces the threat of another violent incident just before, or on, your actual court-order release date. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

I nodded.

"Your file reads that either you have a very difficult time playing with others, or someone has wanted you dead for quite a long time. If it's the latter, we would rather that not happen on our grounds, especially the moment you walk out of the gate unprotected.You will be a standing duck for anyone who may have been waiting for such an easy opportunity. It's happened before and we don't need the mess or paperwork." He started showing what looked like his first real smile. "Your safety will very soon be your own responsibility. I do wish you good luck with that."

He acted like he was waiting for me to say something. I couldn't think of anything to say besides wanting to tell him that if the guards were to leave, I'd probably try to mop the buffed floors of his office with his face to get rid of that real smile and the smirk I'd had to stare at. He was lucky because if it were just another day and I had a ton more time to pull, I'd try it even if I was chained up with guards all around me. I'd get one lick in for sure somehow that he'd carry with him for a long time, and maybe he wouldn't smirk at and talk down to the next man sitting in front of his desk who'd pulled his time. He definitely wouldn't smirk at me again.

I kept staring at young Mr. O'Neil, thinking how three months in isolation and catching another charge for assault on a federal officer and two more years on the tally is worth every minute of it, every now and then.

But not that day.

He was lucky.And I figured that I was lucky, too, because my better nature was in charge of me sitting before him.The nature I'd known as a boy. He finally asked if I had any questions.

I leaned forward as far as I could and shook my head.

He shot up all of a sudden."You won't be out for long." He then nodded at Dollinger, and that's when I could feel being let free. I could feel it all over me like I was standing under a waterfall. It made me nervous, and that was a feeling I hadn't felt since I didn't know when. It hit me at that moment how long it had been since I'd felt anything at all except rage or rainy-day late-morning hollowed-out lonesomeness.

The guards stood me in an elevator, facing the back of it, and we went down to the bottom floor of that building and when the doors opened, we all walked like a formation again into a bright room that looked like a poured concrete box. Wasn't anything in it that wasn't colored gray. Even the prison clerk behind the counter wore a gray uniform and he must've been down there so long, his face had taken on the same colors of the walls and file cabinets.

"What hand you write with?" the stump guard beside me asked.

I raised the first finger on my left hand and he took off the one cuff from it, and then cuffed that bracelet through an iron ring mounted onto the top of the long counter. One of the older guards behind me took off the leg irons, being careful to stand clear in case I bucked.

I looked over my shoulder and made sure he was out of the way, then I stretched and shook out the cramps in my legs as the clerk handed me a pen and shoved paper after paper in front of me to sign while telling me what I was signing. But I'd learned to read and write,probably the only good things I did learn in prison, and even though I was in a hurry to get out of there, it looked like they were in a bigger hurry than me to finally get me out-processed. I saw on the clock that it was shift change.

I decided to take my time reading those papers. I read careful and signed every single sheet with the name "Shady." They'd been kicking me all day long. I figured I'd get in one last kick from Henry Cole.

Meet the Author

One late night in the spring of 1999, Charles Davis wondered what he would do if he could do anything he wanted in the whole world. In a moment that changed his life, he then wondered why he wasn't doing just that. A few weeks later, he said a warm farewell to his career as a federal law enforcement officer, sold or gave away everything he couldn't cram into a U-Haul trailer, and with his dog riding shotgun in his pickup truck, drove a thousand miles from Maine to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There he rented a small beach house, got a part-time job framing houses and had high hopes of completing his first novel by giving his old stories the time and energy they'd craved.

Charles is an avid fisherman and outdoorsman, a fair bluegrass guitar picker, thinks his homemade barbeque sauce is something special and is a college football fanatic. His stories tend to wander here and there, but most eventually drift back down the dirt roads of his past to the hills and hollows of Southwest Virginia, the place where he grew up during the 1960s and 1970s. In his old hometown, stories told on front porches were as commonplace as brown beans and cornbread sitting on a supper table.

The author attended Virginia Tech, graduated from Radford University and spent four years as an airborne infantry soldier before beginning a career with the U.S. Marshals Service. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife, two children and dog, and is working on his next novel.

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Drifting South 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MissChixx More than 1 year ago
One should never buy a book only because the previous by this author was so great..."Angels Rest" was an awesome read - I loved that. Thought the same of "Drifting South". The story was disappointing and bothered me. I flipped the last pages to finally come to an end. Waste of money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
He spent two decades and one year behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Now finally in 1980 Ben Purdue leaves the Harrisburg Federal Penitentiary where he spent much of his time in protective custody after two inmates tried to kill him. He knows someone wants him dead; most likely tied back to the felony that led to his incarceration. Still in spite of the danger of going home where the source of his assassin probably resides, he needs to learn the fate of his mom and brothers following the shooting that led to his incarceration; which means going to the place he loathes more than prison, his hometown Shady Hollow, Virginia.

In Shady, Ben learns his family is all buried. Used to being alone due to his imprisonment, Ben mourns their death but easily deals with the solitude. He seeks to learn the truth about that fateful September day in 1959 that changed his world from a teen with hope to a bitter felon. Even more so he needs to know why his family resides in graves. The Shady ¿Keepers¿, people who he should have been able to trust from the girl he loved to the preacher to the law were involved, but someone wants him to join his family before the truth surfaces.

This is a terrific character driven suspense thriller that grips the audience from the moment Prison Officer Dollinger explains to Henry (Ben) that he is being released a few days early so whoever wants him dead will not kill him in the penitentiary. The story line never loses that level of intensity as Ben affirms that you can never go home as the memory never existed and besides what is accurate no longer lives at least in his case. The tension mounts with each revelation as an obsessed Ben needs to know as does fans who will relish Charles Davis¿s strong thriller in one concentrated sitting.

Harriet Klausner