moonshiner’s downtrodden wife. A federal agent in search of illegal stills. A
love neither expected. A situation about to explode.
When her cruel husband, Hamp, kidnaps Mac, an FBI agent
working undercover as a whiskey revenuer, Merdie Lee is given the job of caring
for him. Against all common sense, Mac and Merdie Lee, a midwife and aspiring
country-western singer, fall in love. Mac becomes determined to rescue her from her dangerous, abusive
situation. Tensions boil out of control
after a blackmailing sheriff pushes Hamp over the edge.
Daugharty’s 1997 novel, EARL IN THE YELLOW SHIRT, (HarperCollins), was
nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels and
two short story collections. She serves as writer-in-residence at Abraham Baldwin
in Tifton, Georgia.
Visit the author atwww.janicedaugharty.com
Daugharty is a natural-born writer.” – Pat Conroy
tension and drama.”—Publishers Weekly
"Nothing is as it first appears in this odd but engaging love
"Sensuous, swift, full of sparkling twists, [Daugharty's] is a
voice so rich that a single page can be thrilling.”—The New York Times Book
Soon as I heard the whistle of the six o’clock
train at Tarver crossing, I went to listening out for Israel’s old
piece-of-a-car, sorting its roar from the train’s rumble across the woods. And
I knew Hamp, at his shine still out back, was listening too, for revenuers, for
any break in the humming quiet of locusts at sundown.
I sneaked out of the kitchen to the open hall,
looking up and down for Hamp, who was bad to turn up when you thought he was
gone. Through the tunnel of sun, blackgums stirring on the back yard seemed the
only movement for miles, and in the oaks out front, the seesawing ring of
katydids, the only other sound. No sign of Hamp.
Still, my chest felt tight as I eased up the hall
and around his long-bodied dog, laying slung like a black overcoat. He opened
one eye and twitched his ears, warty with ticks, then went back to sleep, paws
flat out before him on the wide boards. Gave off a warm-thick smell, like fever
on a baby.
In mine and Hamp’s room, up front and off the
hall, the clock ticked on the mantelpiece in time with the squeak of rotten
floor joists. I thought it said six o’clock. Now that dark was coming quicker
with fall, I doubted the clock, doubted the timing of the train, but I didn’t
doubt what Hamp would do if he ever found out I sang with the boys.
Be that as it may, if they didn’t get a move on,
we wouldn’t never make it to Valdosta by seven, where we were supposed to sing
for some charity at the city auditorium. We always sang on weekends, either
free for charity or for next- to-nothing at some nightspot. To get
experience—that’s how I put it to the boys. But tonight was special; tonight we’d
be singing with the local big groups. Either way, gearing up to sing on
Fridays, I’d feel something loose within me fixing to form.
Once, just once, I’d have liked to be on my way to
sing without a knot in my gut. But Hamp would always stop by the kitchen and
start his bull: If the boys’ sanging ain’t bringing in no cash money, they
oughta stick to the business. I knew "the business” could turn anytime, turn on
them, just like gator hunting had turned on Colin—Hamp’s first born by his
first wife—fresh out of the pen. Last week, the same bunch of agents that put
Colin in the pen come begging him to hunt down gators across the
Georgia/Florida line, gators somehow coming to be the enemy in back yards of
houses going up on Florida lakes. Law was like that. And tomorrow bootlegging
could go just as honest, just as sour, the sheriff could turn just as quick,
sic the revenuers on Hamp and the boys to clear hisself.
Lately, Hamp had got to where he suspicioned
everybody, and he kept relocating the still. After those agents come by to get
Colin to go hunt gators, Hamp moved it from Tarver to the woods behind the
house. Why he kept moving it closer, I didn’t know, but it made me juberous. I
hadn’t never before paid mind to making shine being anything but one more way
to make a living. No worse and no better than shooting a deer for dinner.
I’d let Hamp have his way with Colin and J.B.(John
the Baptist), but my three were mine to shape or shame. Though the truth was,
Hamp wouldn’t have let the least ones go sing if the trips hadn’t been a good
front for running shine.
From the front porch, I watched Israel’s car slew
dust along the curve of pines and skid to a stop in the stand of oaks. In spite
of being loaded, the backend of the maroon Chrysler set level from the six-ply
tires and the helper springs put on when they’d souped up the engine. Cars
changed on the place about once a month to throw off the revenuers, who the
boys hadn’t never laid eyes on but had been warned about since they went to
peeing off the porch.
Going down the doorsteps, I watched Bo Dink slip
over next to Israel on the front seat and make room for me. Little Noah was
setting high in the back, scratching his head. Israel and Bo Dink had that hard
chiseled look, like Hamp, where Little Noah was all soft and round. Had a
tendency to lean forward all the time, like he couldn’t see good, or was
listening with his eyes. But all their hair was black as the blackest bear’s in
the Okefenoke out there. Thousands of acres of pines, palmettoes, cypress and
gums turning to black-water swamp—pulse of the Okefenoke.
I didn’t turn around to look, but always expected
Hamp to pop up and order me back inside, my needing to sing a tug on my heart.
Three years I’d been singing with the boys—Merdie and the Boys—and three years
I’d been looking for Hamp to find out and stop me. Maybe kill me. The lower the
sun, the lower the season, the more the feeling seeped into my soul. But he
didn’t never leave the place, and unless somebody—say, the sheriff for
instance—told him I sang, he probably wouldn’t find out. Not that the sheriff,
Hamp’s bootlegging buddy, would think to tell. They talked business or nothing,
never messed around outside of Swanoochee County. Strange thing was that when
me and the boys sang at Bony Bluff Church, just up the road apiece, I worried
least because neither the old man nor the sheriff would set foot inside a
I opened the car door, letting out a ghost of
cigarette smoke, and got in. Nobody opened their mouth till we were good and
clear of the place, making time up the dirt road.
Israel, the biggest worry-wart in the bunch,
smoked and drove, one arm hooked on the steering wheel. For some reason, he’d
took a notion to grow out a mustache, straight and black as hog bristles.
Looked like he was making up for the hair sliding on his high forehead. He wore
it long on the neck and cut high over the ears, and it was gapped up bad in the
back from where the barber got hold of him. Come to be gapped up that way
because the barber, Alvin Nabors, wasn’t really a barber, just another
bootlegger with a front.
"Old man was sampling bad when we picked up the
load,” Israel said.
Gazing out the bug-crusted windshield, I bit on
the rubber band between my teeth and bunched my straight black hair in a low
ponytail. "Better get a move on; sing starts at seven.” When I did get away
from the house, I didn’t want to be talking about Hamp.
Israel passed the faded no-trespassing sign nailed
to one of the tallest pines and tore west up the hardroad, rocks shooting like
buckshot under the hot car. The sunk orange sun made his and Bo Dink’s faces
look like wet clay. "Gotta swing by Tarver to drop the load,” Israel said.
"Do it coming back.”
Israel’s black gaze stung like guinea wasps. "Can’t
go up yonder with no load of shine.”
"Do like I say.” The way I talked going to gigs
was different from how I talked at the house. There, I’d humble down and let
them boss me around, just like Hamp.
I stared straight at the setting sun, road opening
fast in stripes of sun and shade. From the house to Tarver, to Cornerville,
there was nothing to see but long-leaf pines, scrub oaks, myrtle bushes and
palmettoes, now and then giving way to bar pits of shrunk black water, choked
with lily pads. Wire grass in the shallow ditches was parched from the long hot
summer just come to a close. Tiered streaks of woodsmoke hung above the
top-heavy pines from control burning done by the big paper companies, who owned
most of the flatwoods now. Hamp and my mama had somehow managed to hold onto
their homeplaces, in spite of hard times. And I thought about how we used to
burn woods every fall, the way the smoke smelled clean but smothery. Times
seemed better then, but they weren’t. The nose tricks the mind.
"I’d as soon set at the house,” Bo Dink said, "as
go sang in front of that big bunch of people.”
"Sing,” I said. "You gotta start sometimes singing
with the big groups if you want to get to Nashville.” I had all ideas he was
heading down the same wrong road Israel took a few years ago. My teeth felt
tight and gummy, like I was biting on a rubber band. "You do your Elvis
tonight, Bo Dink,” I said.
"God, Ma!”—he laid over on Israel, knee jam up
with the hot gutted dashboard—”I ain’t no good at Elvis.”
"Yeah, you are.” Looked like he wanted me to beg
him into living. Used to, he loved Elvis better than anything, but now all he
thought about was how he looked, what they thought about him at school.
"Ain’t that kind of sanging, ain’t rock,” said
Little Noah. "It’s church stuff.” He was setting flat in the back on a humped
bed of croker sacks that hid jimmy-john jugs of shine, packed tight from the
cooter hull to the front seat. Guitars surrounding him.
"Gospel—slip it in on ‘em.” I looked at my
fourteen-yearold baby, a mite on the chunky side, with blue eyes and wavy hair
of all things, then over all three part-Indian faces. "Little Noah, y ‘all, let’s
sing like we mean it tonight.”
I always said that, but tonight I meant it more
than ever. "Step on it, Israel.”
The red needle on the speedometer fanned across
the row of numbers, from 80 to 95, and I knew we were going faster than 95. My
Soon as we got in sight of the auditorium, the
boys went to fussing with one another.
"You reckon we at the right place?” Little Noah
scooted among the guitars, bad chords strumming about the car.
"Don’t stop at the front where everybody’s going
in.” Bo Dink shouldered Israel. "Go yonder at the back where that fellow with
the banjo’s going.”
Israel gunned along the curb, then braked for a
dressed-up man and two little girls to cross in front of the car. White smoke
from the tail pipe caught up and overtook the car, fogging the group going
through the double glass doors.
"Now, you got everybody looking.” Bo Dink tilted
toward the long curved windshield.
Israel propped one arm in the window, set up tall,
and motored along the shrubs to the opening of the back lot where three women
in red fringed vests and skirts crossed to the stage door.
"Go on and park the damn thing, for Chrissake!” Bo
Dink shrunk up to nothing; legs weren’t big around as my arm in them tight
"There’s the law, Mama.” Little Noah slooped low,
knees pressed into the back of the woolly front seat.
"Shut up, Little Noah,” I said. "Y’all making
Israel seized up and stopped at the place to turn
in, like he was trying to pick out a parking spot. The police car went on by
and up the street, between the hospital and the auditorium.
"Go on, Israel,” I said, "he ain’t noticing you.”
He pulled up, the big Chrysler wedging between two
teenitsy cars. When he cut the engine, its simmering roar still sounded in my
"I want to tell you something, Ma,” he said, arms
crossed on the steering wheel. "If the law was to get us up here, we everyone
gone set tail in jail, and the old man...”
"I ain’t studying Hamp,” I butted in. "Y’all get
your guitars and get out.”
sooner got the stage door swung
open than a man in a plaid shirt with a turquoise on a string noose popped out
of the shadows backstage. "You folks here to sing or to see the show?”
I could hear the boys behind me back off, feet
scraping sand on concrete and guitars bumping.
"We’re singing.” I looked him square in the eyes. "Merdie
and the Boys.”
Four more men in black rhinestone-studded suits
shoved past the boys, then me. "Johnny Cash,” the tallest man joked and bowed
his black head.
About that time, Katy Land come frisking through
the door, smiling ear to ear. Dressed in a white cotton shirt and a long denim
skirt and dangly gold earbobs. She was about half my age and half again my size,
one of those women made it look like a light had come on—twinkly green eyes and
fluffy brown hair that bunched like fur on her shoulders. She stretched high
and hugged the one called Johnny Cash and they went to talking and laughing. I
knew her good, Katy Land. Got first chance at all the gigs about town; when
they couldn’t get her, they’d call on us or one of the other groups. Not having
no telephone, me and the boys would generally just show up, praying Katy Land
didn’t. But I had to hand it to her, she could some sing. None of that copy-cat
stuff like everybody else. Was I jealous? Some.
She looked up and saw me and said, "Hey, girl, how
you doing?” and flirted off with Johnny Cash along the tunnel of curtains. The
light backstage was a red-blue color that turned everybody purple, the sound of
tuning guitars, banjos and fiddles a hellish rake on the dead air.
The man with the turquoise noose went down a list
on a white piece of paper. He was a long-tall man with a sway back and tan hair
that out of the purple light would be the same shade as his skin. "Ok, ma’am,
you go on down those stairs there and get dressed and we’ll call you when it’s
I set out with the boys following me down the
stairs where a swarm of jabbering rose to the down-clop of boots. I didn’t need
to check; I couldn’t have lost the boys if I tried. They’d get used to a place
only after we’d been there a dozen times. Toot’s, where we generally sang on
Friday nights, was like home. They’d march in that smoky, low, candle-lit room,
set up, and sing from the heart till two in the morning.
The sway-backed man called after us. "You fellows
can go to the end and wait in the men’s dressing room.”
Well, maybe I could lose them after all. "We’ll
stand yonder by that side door,” I called, taking the last of the stairs to the
well of closed concrete, hotter the deeper we went.
"Ma,” Bo Dink yapped in my ear, "I can’t believe
us to think we’re good enough to sang with these fancy groups.”
I stepped clear as a bunch of giggling girl
cloggers in stiff crinolines and red gingham dresses tapped upstairs, brushing
my boys to the wall. Then I waited by the open basement door that led up more
stairs to the parking lot.
The boys edged down the stage stairs and headed
for the outside stairwell where a generator’s roar cut the other racket.
Israel gazed up at the frame of dusky sky, more
worried about the load of shine than the singing. He wasn’t bashful in front of
a crowd, but then him and Little Noah didn’t sing much by themselves, like me
and Bo Dink. There’s a difference in
crowd boo at the group and boo at you by yourself.
waited for better than a hour in
the outdoors stairwell, listening to the set-back thrum of guitars and banjos
and the doubleshuffle tapping of cloggers on stage, to the hisses and sighs up
and down the stage stairs.
Katy Land, of course, went on four, five times
before us. Everytime she got called upstairs, she’d bust out of the dressing
room door with her hands on her flushed cheeks, bright as the mirror behind her
fired by naked lights.
Bo Dink and Little Noah set on the outside stairs
and tuned their guitars, peaceful as on the porch at home, while Israel paced
and smoked between the stairs and the generator.
"Merdie and the Boys,” somebody called down the
I flapped my frocktail. "Y’all look alive,” I said
and walked off. I never looked back, even going up the stage stairs, could hear
them breathing hard behind me. "Let’s sing, boys.” A sweet burning built in my
chest with every step up, the red light and the puffing no-color curtain, the
last divider between me and the crowd, between me and the bright lights. I felt
like stopping and shoving the boys ahead, but knew they wouldn’t go on without
me, and I felt like Bo Dink said earlier—We oughta stick to Toot’s
and little crowds where people dance and drink and don’t even notice if you
stepped between two of a dozen
side curtains off the lit stage and looked out at the faceless heads that could
go for chalked aughts on a blackboard. I never sang to people back then, I just
sang to the boys to get them going.
They cleared their throats, strapped on their guitars,
and tracked in behind me, while the man with the turquoise noose was still
introducing us. I knew we oughta wait but couldn’t chance stopping because the
boys might turn around. The announcer looked sidelong at us, tromping on, and
cut the introduction to "Merdie and the Boys!” and handed me the mike.
The crowd clapped like they would for anybody
else, a baby cried out, setting another one off, somebody hooted in the back
where a hazy beam of light punched a hole in the dark and hit me full in the face.
When the clapping stopped, I thought I oughta say something but couldn’t figure
what, maybe something I’d heard other group leads say about poor crippled
children and how they were so glad to be a part of something so worthwhile, but
thought only of what my mama would say when asked why she delivered babies for
free out in the flatwoods.
"You do good, you get back good,” I said, "we’re
all in this together.” The mike squealed like a marked hog.
I pushed up my sweater sleeves and nodded at
Israel. All three boys were gazing at their guitars like they were learning how
to play. Those smoked-brown guitars looked more like family than they did.
Little Noah’s flat lips were lined in blue. He strummed a few bars, and I
started singing "Your Cheating Heart” with the mike squealing so that I couldn’t
tell if I’d chose the right song or not. Had we planned to start with gospel—”Just
a Closer Walk With Thee”? To keep Hamp from finding out I sang, my practice
come only at church and gigs. I sang on anyhow, lifting my baked face to the
The boys caught up on the guitars, weak chords
trailing my natural keen whang. One at a time, their voices filled in, singing
harmony, the mike quit squealing, and the shallow song seemed to bounce back
and scatter to our little group onstage.
Somebody on the front row tittered and I felt
faint-white, knees shivering like the guitar strings, but I kept on, tapping my
feet out of time, and realized that the song sagged more the closer we got to
the end. As Israel chorded down, clapping staggered about the auditorium like
I turned and looked mean at the boys.
Israel, with his foot propped on a straight chair,
picked wild, looked mad, and struck into "Blue Moon of Kentucky,” my usual
I knew we hadn’t planned to do that song, but I
belted it out—sounded like I was begging, a tangling whang—till I could sense
the crowd standing us, all the time thinking only of Bo Dink’s Elvis act coming
up and listening to the boys playing behind me, the last of the song leaking
down like rain off tin.
The crowd clapped, whether because the second song
was good or over or better than the first, I couldn’t tell.
"Now, my middle boy, Bo Dink, the good-looking one
there”—I turned and pointed, making my voice homey like Mother Carter’s on the
Saturday night Grand Ole Opry—”he’s gone do his Elvis for y’all.” I walked over
and handed him the mike. He took it like a snake, face welted from the pout of
his plump Elvis lips.
The crowd laughed like he was fixing to blow on
I walked across the long deep stage to the wings
and stepped back to watch.
He fiddled around a few seconds with his pick,
then lit into strumming and singing "You Ain’t Nothing But a Hounddog.”
"Oh Lord,” I said in my hand. He didn’t even sound
like hisself, much less Elvis, was stiff and wormy-looking, knee cocked like it
was stuck. His guitar strap snagged on his bucking-bronc belt buckle as he
slung it to the side.
The announcer, coming fish-eyed from the shadows
offstage, looked at his watch. "One more,” he said, like he was doing me a
The crowd never let up laughing, but when Bo Dink
got done they clapped. I walked onstage and took the mike. It felt stuck to his
Little anyhow, I felt littler on that stage; still
I held my head high. I turned to the crowd, to the rows of ducking heads, some
walking around or leaving. "We got one more to do for y’all.” The mike squealed
and everybody laughed. "One we do at church sometimes, called ‘I’ll Fly Away.’”
I looked at the boys—eyes down, faces burning under the white light.
Relieved that their part was almost over, they
sang better than before. But it was hard to believe that these were the same
boys born picking and singing, my boys. I sang out strong, pulling them along,
harmonizing with Little Noah’s changing alto, but only on the last part did we
sound anything like at church, backwoods flat but strong-throated, somebody
else’s song sang our way.
As we wrapped up, the crowd sent us off with
clapping anyhow, but stopped before the boys tromped offstage. Boots thundering
to the far-away wings.
"Y’all got one more time to come on,” the
announcer said to me. "Wait downstairs.” His tight face broke out in smiles as
he turned and walked onstage.
"They ain’t enough damned money in the world to
make me go back out there,” said Bo Dink, blowing on my neck.
"Since when did you go to getting paid for
singing?” I took the stage stairs, feet sideways to keep from tumbling.
"I ain’t and that’s just the point.” He clopped
behind me to the basement stairwell.
"You do, cause I say so.” I parked in the doorway,
let the boys pass through to the chilly air and the hammering hum of the
"God, Mama,” Little Noah said, "we ain’t never
sounded no worse.” He set on the stairs and hung his head, staring at his
turned-up boot toes.
"You don’t know nobody up here in Valdosta.”
Israel took a pack of Lucky Strikes from his shirt pocket and knocked one out
on his thumb bone. "We won’t never set eyes on that bunch of fools again.”
"I feel like killing myself,” Bo Dink said. "Elvis.Mama! Elvis is been dead twelve years.”
"Bring him back to life.” Crossing my arms, I
watched the cloggers troop up the stage stairs.
"You bring him back to life.” Bo Dink took
the basement stairs in twos, up.
"Don’t you dare sass at me,” I hollered. "You know
what’s the matter with you, Bo Dink?” He kept right on going and I kept right
on talking. "You give up too quick. Get back here!”
"Let him go,” Israel said. His pocked face looked
bruised and hollow. He spewed smoke through his nose, smoke stacking up the
stairwell to the band of cloud-spun sky.
"If y’all don’t want to go back on,” I said, "we’ll
go to the house and y’all can live out the rest of your born days in the
flatwoods.” With your daddy, bootlegging, I didn’t add.
"Nashville’s your notion, Ma,” said Israel.
"Ok,” I said, starting for the stairs, "let’s go.”
"I want to go to Nashville, Mama.” Little Noah
looked up where I stood beside him. I put my hand on his head and screwed it
round as I stepped down. His wavy hair felt soft as the day he was born.
Scissors didn’t touch it till he was going on five.
Out of all of them, he was the one with the least
talent, couldn’t make it. Israel and Bo Dink maybe. I didn’t know. I didn’t even
know where Nashville was from the house, in which direction—the woods looked
alike north, south, east and west—and now Nashville was just a name I’d always
heard, a make-believe place, something on the radio.
"Hey, Merdie,” a man from the doorway called out. "That
your real name?”
"I’m Merdie.” I walked over to the big-bellied man
blocking the doorway.
He leaned in the frame of light and smoked through
the gash in his bushy brown beard. After each serious suck, he dropped the
cigarette to his side, thumping ashes. He looked like he was fixing to start
laughing, one big pointy-toed boot set sure in the narrow stairwell. "You ain’t
half bad.” He nodded, green eyes closing as he took another draw.
"Thank you.” I stood facing him, a good foot
shorter. My heart felt like it was bleeding. I looked up at the empty stairs. "You
hear Bo Dink?”
"That Elvis crap? Yeah. Ain’t to my liking.” He
sucked on the half-burned cigarette and flipped it to the corner where the
generator puffed at chewing gum and candy papers. "Everybody and his brother’s
doing Elvis. Now, take you...you ain’t like nobody else.
Could be another K.T. Oslin. Got a manager?”
"No.” I wondered right off how come him to make
out like being different was so fine, then right in behind it say I could be
another K.T. Oslin. Then I wondered what he wanted and knew I didn’t have
any—not money, not loving.
"Y’all sang much around here?” he said.
"A little. Here and there, fill in.”
"Next Friday night be over at the American Legion
Post 21 on Williams Street. Seven o’clock. I’ll make it good with them.” He
turned and walked off, sweaty shirt pulling across his big bull back, but he
walked like a baby, belly first.
second go-round that night, me
and the boys went on without Bo Dink. Little Noah and Israel hung back while I
sang my heart out for our new manager, who was either long gone by then or lost
in the crowd. When I couldn’t spot him from the stage, I figured he’d lied, but
sure enough, soon as we got done, the announcer traipsed on and announced that
Merdie and the Boys would be singing next Friday night at the American Legion.
Following the boys to their nest in the outside
stairwell, I felt like shouting the news to Katy Land and the others. Course I
didn’t. For all I knew, that big-bellied man had told them the same thing and,
come Friday night, we’d everlast one show up at the same place.
As we started upstairs to the parking lot, we saw
Bo Dink come spidering down. He waved us back and hissed, "Ma, Israel, the law’s
out there snooping round the car!”
Israel and Little Noah ducked low and turned,
boots tapping like my heart on the concrete stairs. Bo Dink right in behind
them. Katy Land and the three women in red fringe crowded into the stairwell,
blocking the basement door, and the boys lodged around the generator. Shocked
faces switched to fake smiles.
I stepped to the foot of the stairs and propped up
next to Israel. The women, still grouped in the doorway, started talking among
themselves, reshouldering their pocketbook straps, and waited for us to go up
first. Katy Land looked like she wanted to jaw with me, but I cut her short. Me
and the boys hemhawed around a few more minutes, hoping to go out the blocked
door, and wouldn’t you know it, the cloggers bunched behind the group.
I started on up, hearing the boys’ bootclops
against the cloggers’ taps. Like me, I figured they were scared to death the
law would grab us the minute we reached the landing: a storm of lights and
sireens, car doors pried open and croker sacks flung and jugs of clear boiling
shine set out to view. But when we got to the top, overlooking the cool dim
parking lot, no sign of the law.
The loud bunch on our heels scooted past and
struck out across the lot, while me and the boys hung close to the curb, behind
a line of parked cars. Israel’s Chrysler, facing a strip of trees off the main
street, now set off to itself like a wreck on display at the fair.
Israel leaned against a skimpy tree, growing out
of the sidewalk. "Let’s get out from here, leave the damn car.”
Little Noah hunkered, like he was dodging bullets,
toward the slanted shadow of the building, where Bo Dink had ironed hisself to
the wall, then circled wide and scrunched behind me. "Buddy,” he hissed to
Israel, "we can’t just run off and leave the car here.”
"How come you think we buy them old two-hundred
dollar cars?” Israel, tall and braced to look brave, stepped from the tree. "Let’s
"I don’t see no sign of the law,” I said. "Besides,
y’all want to walk home? Know anybody up here might could give us a lift?”
everybody had left the lot before
Israel cranked up to go, his souped-up Chrysler blasting and smoking.
"Ease on out of town,” I said, and he was, so slow
that cars backed up along Main street in a string of lights like Christmas. "Bo
Dink just thought somebody was checking out the car.”
"I seen him.” Bo Dink was gazing out the rear
glass with Little Noah. "A man with a mustache was bent down checking the tag.
Had on a red and blue streaked shirt.”
"Go on, Israel,” I said, knowing in my heart Bo
Dink saw what he saw, but no point in worrying the other boys.
"Tag’s about how come them to suspicion us,” said
Little Noah. "Big old car with a Swanoochee County tag up here in Valdosta
always looks like moonshine.”
Bo Dink sounded like he was primping up to cry. "Couldn’t
nobody tell we got a load; somebody must of turned us in.” Then looked like he
went to doubting. "We setting level—wait! What about the tires, Israel?”
"Shut up!” Israel said. "Any fool happening by
could tell we running shine. Tires ain’t all they is to it, and we ain’t got no
tag.” He took two or three side roads, some twice—either lost or trying to
throw off the law.
I looked back. "See, nobody ain’t following us.” A
couple of cars behind us turned in at the Burger King. Down the side street,
puny pine tops made perfect cones on the light-tinged sky, how Little Noah
would’ve drawed them.
"They don’t show theirselfs like that.” Israel lit
up a cigarette and held it to the wheel, shaking. "If they there, they’ll
likely let us get to where we gone drop off, then bust us. Or follow us home
I gentled them through town, like I’d gentled them
onstage. "Just keep going like you going,” I said, and he was mashing the gas,
chugging like a stock car before the race.
When we got out of town, shooting east along that
foggy, dark twenty-mile stretch to Cornerville, we didn’t meet even one car,
not a light to be seen in the fog sealing off the road behind us. The boys were
setting quiet. Too scared to talk, I guessed.
Soon as we got close enough to see the red light
blinking at the crossroad in Cornerville, Israel slowed, then just about
stopped on the Alapaha bridge. Over the gapped concrete railing, I could see
the creek-width river, parting the dark woods with a live pewter glow. "Now, I
don’t know where to go on to the house or stop off and drop the shine,” he
"Go on,” I said, not knowing which away to go
either. "Go on and drop the load.” If the barber had done come looking for his
delivery and it not there, he’d go straight to Hamp and there could be a
throat-cutting. Hamp’d swear Alvin was lying, trying to cheat him out of the
cash. The delivery man, in this case Israel, always set the jugs out in the
bushes along one of the dirt roads, and another man would come to pick them up.
Cash changed hands later. A system based on trust, a understood, twisted kind
of trust that carried over to trusting one another to kill one another if
either got caught cheating.
If we were fixing to get nailed, I’d as soon it be
out in the woods as at the house where the revenuers would get Hamp and J.B.
too, causing a bigger ruckus. At least we’d try to get shed of the shine, maybe
clear the boys with Hamp.
J.B. camped on the homeplace in a house trailer,
parked by the still. Every evening, come dusk, he’d go out and circle the
trailer and still with sewing thread, so he could tell by the sag or break in
the thread if anybody had been messing around. Come morning, he’d check the
thread and check for tracks in the raked dirt of the circle, and sometimes,
specially if he was drinking bad, he’d shoot a good round of buckshot in
Israel drove on through the blinking red light in
Cornerville, where even the new Minit Market was done closed. You could buy
beer there, except on Sundays and election days, but if you wanted legal
liquor, you had to go to the joint on the Florida line, two miles south. Not
that Swanoochee County was voted "dry”; nobody couldn’t afford a liquor
license. Back in the sixties, when Hamp got big into shine, the county was dry,
and you could make a killing in whiskey, but now dope had the bootleggers
smelling the patching. A lot of them had switched from outsmarting the law with
shine, to outsmarting the law with dope. Not Hamp. He kept his mindset from the
good-old-days like a woman does her hairdo.
Nobody was hanging around the red light, where
boys were generally bad to gang up at night. Not a soul around the flat brick
courthouse or the cement block store across the way. Israel drove on, louder
than fast, past the Methodist churchhouse with its white steeple poking through
the fog, past the same old hip-roofed schoolhouse I went to as a girl. Then he
picked up speed on the lonesome, open road to Tarver.
All those dirt roads, forking off from the
hardroad, went by initials or names of bootleggers, and the boys knew right
where to drop what load: Old J.B. Cowart Road, Alvin Nabors Road, C.C. Road,
and so forth.
Israel, easier now that he was in Swanoochee
County again, looked back once and cut down the fourth road on the right,
bucking over a washout in the sandy ramp. Headlights opening the ribbed vee of
pine trunks. Just before he got to the Florida line, he veered left, skirting
the graded ditch, and braked, pitching us all towards the dash.
I rolled down the window to the cool pine smell of
the dark, buzzy woods.
"Ok, boys let’s unload and get gone.” Israel’s
sound white teeth were shining in the fuzzy orange dash light. What little
smiling he did looked like he was laughing at hisself, at the messes life could
make. He got out, Bo Dink sliding right in behind him, and Little Noah grunting
and shoving at the car seat, then stumbling out—too chunky to be quick on his
feet. Bo Dink reached around him and went to slinging croker sacks to the
ground, while Little Noah walked in circles, trying to look busy.
"Here, fatso,” Bo Dink said, passing behind the
first croker-wrapped jug. Little Noah took it and passed to Israel, who hobbled
off to set it among the fanned palmettoes in a pine clearing. If you looked at
those old heavy glass jimmy-john jugs they’d break.
Hamp’s two oldest boys had been putting in to use
plastic jugs and hauling bigtime like everybody else, get in with the big gangs
and quit little-town dealing with the sheriff. Huh uh! Hamp, at sixty-five,
wasn’t fixing to change, and I knew, knowing J.B. and Colin, that they were up
to more than changing jugs. I couldn’t put my finger on just what, but
something was in the making.
When the boys got the last jug unloaded and
chunked the croker sacks in the car, they brushed out their tracks with a
gallberry and got in to go, breathing easier as Israel turned around and took
off toward the hardroad. Still not a soul in sight. I felt sleepy, wished I
could doze during the ride from Tarver to the house, but I had to stay awake to
keep Israel awake, knew I’d be up for good when I got to bed. I didn’t sleep
much since I’d started going through the change.
I looked back at the gravel, red in the tail
lights, and rested easy that nobody had followed us. Bo Dink was curled on the
bed of croker sacks with his hands folded under his cheek, and Little Noah was
setting with his head on his knees. "You sang real good that last time we went
on,” I said to Israel, whose eyelids drooped like he was dozing.
He lit a cigarette, didn’t answer, cut his red
eyes in the mirror. All our eyes stayed blood-shot from those smoky dance halls
and staying up. No smoke in the auditorium tonight; his red eyes worried me. (I
always got to worrying more late in the night, like when I did get still I had
to come up with something else to do.) "You believe somebody’s still tailing
us, don’t you?” I leaned a little closer, like it would make us close again.
He aimed the lighter at the socket and jabbed it.
No need for me to stay awake; Israel wouldn’t fall asleep driving now, not
while he was scared and mad. I yawned and laid over on the door, the engine
jarring in my ears, but my eyes kept flying open. My sleepy time was over.
When we got home, the old dog come barking from
the woods behind the house, and I felt satisfied that J.B. was looking down the
barrel of his shotgun at us. The least boys crawled out of the back and
scattered across the yard, pissing on the humped oak roots, while I went on
inside. Then Bo Dink and Little Noah come in and went to their room.
First thing, Little Noah turned on the TV to one
of those all-night ghost shows where a woman screams and a monster grunts. The
boys must have seen the same one a dozen times. I’d moved the TV in there from
the kitchen when I figured they weren’t never going to turn the dern thing off
anyhow. Least I wouldn’t have to watch it. I’d give up trying to wean them;
they’d watch it no matter what. And moving it in their room had made Little
Noah feel like a king. He could wallow in bed while watching cartoons and game
Maybe watching TV would keep him from storying so
much, I’d decided, keep him out from under my feet too. Else, he’d be drawing
and showing me his pictures. Pictures I’d loved when he was little, but now
that he was growing up—my big fat baby—I was in hopes he’d quit drawing so much
and start studying his lessons.
Israel come on in, plucked off his boots in the
hall, and went in the bedroom too. They all slept in the same room, Bo Dink and
Little Noah in the same bed, and generally fussed till they fell asleep.
What I needed to do was move Israel in the middle
room, between the boys’ room and the sideroom, off the back porch. But I kept
junk in there, trunks of old clothes and pictures—not just mine, but Hamp’s
dead mama’s and his first wife’s—and cleaning it out would take more time than
I had. Besides, that was the one place I could take a bath and be by myself,
and sometimes when I couldn’t get to sleep for Hamp’s snoring, I’d wander off
and doze on the single bed among the treasures of the other two women, my junk
Israel bellered, "Cut off that shit so I can get
some shut-eye.” The TV blared loud, then got low, loud and low again. Bo Dink started
fussing at "Fatso” for hogging the bed. The monster grunted.
I did my
business, slid the slopjar under
the bed, brushed my feet and snuggled under the quilts. The room smelled like
fresh deer and wood smoke, dark except for firelight dancing on the
tongue-and-groove walls. I laid listening to Hamp snore in the other bed. His
on one side of the tall room, mine on the other, the fireplace in between where
a litard knot he’d set fire to earlier had rolled to the edge. Used to, he
never got cold; lately he built up a fire whether he needed one or not. One of
these days, I figured, he’d set fire to the house and burn it down around him.
Thinking about the house burning, it come to me
that my mama’s house was still home to me. This was Frieda Jean’s, Hamp’s first
wife; his Mama’s house before her. I even used their pots and pans. Did my business
in Frieda Jean’s slopjar. Took over mamaing her two rough, scrapping boys, me
nothing but a youngun myself.
My mama had pitched a fit, said the first wife
died of worryation—Hamp claimed she died of heart trouble—but daddy thought my
marrying was a good idea, Hamp being industrious and kin, no loafer like so
many of the sawmill men that hung around daddy’s store, playing poker till the
timber ran out and the sawmill moved on to the next woods settlement. Well,
Hamp still weren’t no loafer.
Turning to face the outline of his bloated body,
round-toed brogans set by his bed, I thought about the big-bellied man, our new
manager, and wondered if he was after me or after money. I smiled. Neither one.
One look at us and he’d know we didn’t have no money, and me, I was dried up.
Hamp hadn’t touched me since right after Little
Noah was born. Whether because his prostrates were bad or because I wasn’t
young and pretty no more, I didn’t know. Used to, he’d love on me in his animal
way, taking what was his. No love meant, none took. But he was proud of me
then, like he was proud of his land. Proud of his boys—roosters, he called
them. Proud when I got swole up round and went out mornings to hang clothes on
the line, a barefooted girl with boy-babies hanging to her frocktail. Him and
all six brothers might be standing around the grapevine, swapping notions, and
he’d strut and pack his shirt while they all watched me. I was young and
half-pretty, proof of the mustard he could still cut.
He was still snoring like a bull frog, but I was
too tired and anxious for day to get up and switch beds. So, I laid there,
running off thoughts in my head till the east windows over Hamp’s bed turned
from black to gray. My last thought before I dozed off was of what could go
wrong to keep me from the American Legion next Friday night, and I counted the
weeks till Jean Stover’s baby would come due.
The old rooster woke me, crowing a circle around
the house; every morning he made his round like the hands on a clock. Just as
the sun broke through the turning leaves of the woods, I heard J.B. and Hamp
quarreling out in the kitchen. They got loud then low, the way they’d done
every morning come sunup since I could remember. But this time, I figured, they
could be hashing over some real mess.
I got up and slipped on the first frock I come to
on the broomstick rod in the corner at the foot of my bed. Put on my shoes and
combed my fingers through my hair, then tipped out and up the hall. Old floor
boards would creak under a ghost.
"Who’s that?” Hamp hollered.
"Just me.” I went to walking fast to the
watershelf, running water and dashing it cold to my face. I dried on the sour
towel, hung it on the nail and went to the kitchen.
At the cookstove, I put on fresh coffee and
started the grits water boiling. Hamp made his coffee too strong, claimed mine
was too weak. "How you, J.B.?” I said.
"Ain’t worth a shit.” He was crouched, smoking, on
the long bench, with a full hubcap of cigarette butts before him on the eating
table. His face was squat and stuffed, black hair growing low on a slick white
strip of forehead.
Creek-Indian run strong in all the Lees,
especially Hamp—busyeyed and blooded, solemn to the bone—but every now and then
there’d be a throwback, like J.B. and Little Noah. Where Hamp, Colin and Israel
were sharp-faced, dark and hard, J.B. and Little Noah were pale, soft and
chunky, quick to make light of what was dead serious. Bo Dink took after me,
stringy and tough as a pineywoods rooter.
Hamp rocked his chair from the hot ticking
woodstove, to his end of the table, glittery black eyes grazing me. "Somebody
come messing around the still last night.”
"Broke the thread clean in two,” J.B. put in.
"Gotta move it.” Hamp placed his hands on his
legs, like he was fixing to raise up, but rared instead.
Nothing new. I whacked off some slices from the
side of smoked bacon a old man at Needmore had paid me and mama with for
doctoring a growth on his neck.
J.B. crossed his pudgy arms on the table. "Let’s
load it up on the two-ton tonight and set up on the Herring old place for a
"We’ll move it in broad daylight.” Hamp’s chair
legs clanked to the floor, jarring my window full of daybreak over the sink. "Besides,
we ain’t moving it all that far.”
"Old man,” J.B. said, "you making a mistake. Can’t
keep moving it closer to the house.”
Hamp’s sleep-thick voice got gruff. "We’ll move it
where I say move it, and we’ll do it by day—keep from making folks suspicious.”
"Man, you can’t do that...”
"Always have.” Hamp stood up, shoulders stooped
like a shrunk giant’s. He poked off down the hall to the yard, where the light
was thinning gray over the woods.
"He’s gone get everlast one of us landed in jail.”
J.B. swung around on the bench. His legs looked shorter with his low-riding
dungarees. "Well, I ain’t moving my housetrailer this time.”
I went on sifting flour for a fresh waiter of
biscuits. I’d get breakfast done, then have to keep it warm for them to mope
around till they got hungry, my own boys straggling in as they woke up.
J.B. headed out, muttering. "Horseshit revenuers!”
I wondered if one really had followed us home. "Can’t
talk nasty in my house, J.B.,” I called after him.
He peeped around the door. "You want to go with
"To pieces.” He laughed and let go of the door
facing and stomped out the back.
boys were eating, I went out
front to the old two-story barn to milk the cow. The shingled loft, smokey gray
against the bluing sky, was sunk into the rotting rafters on the north end.
Inside my milking stall, the dirt was steeped in
cow piss, strong as straight ammonia in the packed-down air. As the sun leveled
across the woods, yellow bars of sunshine rolled up in the cave-brown light,
turning with dust specks.
I squatted to milk without a stool, squeezing one
full warm udder, then the next, milk spraying on the bucket bottom till it
foamed to the tune of muffled rain. The ripe smell of milk covered the rot of
ammonia and hay. When the freckled udders shriveled in my hands, I let go and
caught two more, and my red cow, Filly, switched my face with her wiry tail. "Hoo
now,” I said. She shifted, jerking the spongy tits in my fists. I patted her
rump, went back to milking. She was the best company on the place, the only
other female for miles. It made her jittery when I milked squatted down; all I
had to do was get the stool from the corner and set, take my time, and she’d
gentle. She knew me better than any one of the men that set quarreling around
the breakfast table, and I felt bad for not taking my time, but I had to go on
calls with my mama that morning. We had three women ready to drop babies in the
When I got done, I set the bucket of warm sudsy
milk on the corner shelf and went out to the shed facing the side lot to get a
bucket of shellcorn for Filly—make up for my slack. Hid from the front of the
house by a fencerow of cherry trees, I could hear my boys tussling and
quarreling on the front porch, then Israel’s car crank up and spin out up the
road, toward Colin’s place. I set my bucket down and crossed the lot to the
cherry with a broke limb, hanging this side of the wire fence, tore it loose
from the gray silk skin of the trunk and chunked it over. Cherry leaves are
pure poison on a cow.
Soon as Filly got done eating the corn, I turned
her out in the side lot where the ferny dog fennels were turning wine. She
waddled through the gate and hiked her tail and let go a steaming pile, then
started grazing ahead in a patch of clover, the last, I figured, before the winter
freeze. Already the morning air was cool and thin, the crickets tiring down to
a tight keening cluster in the grass, and the sun had started to arc a little
I closed my eyes to Sunday breaking blue in the
two windows over Hamp’s bed; I opened them to the same shade, like denim fade
in washwater. I must’ve just dozed off.
Hamp’s bed was flat instead of humped, and my
heart was whumping, a backlag of racket ringing in my ears. I set up and
listened, holding my breath. Nothing but a few birds chirping in the woods. I
started to lay down again when a loud boom went off behind the house, the dog
barking wild. Somebody let out a holler.
My face went to tingling, like a foot gone to
sleep. Deer season hadn’t started yet, so I knew it wasn’t deer hunters. It was
one of mine, either shooting at a deer or at one another. Or maybe the still
was being blowed up. I jumped out of bed, slipped on a old frock, and ran out
in the hall.
Israel and Bo Dink were heading out the back, a
few steps ahead of me.
"What the...?” I hollered, but
they just sailed off the porch, barefooted as yard dogs, and trotted across the
yard, taking the woods path to the still.
The dog kept barking like he’d bayed up a snake.
I lit out behind them, bare feet smacking the
packed dirt, damp vines and gum leaves swabbing my face as I took the trail.
The smell of buck passed in warm waves, ripe and thick, over the cool woods.
As I got close to the new spot where Hamp and J.B.
had set up the still, I could hear them shouting at one another, and I figured
they were about due for a knock-down dragout.
Bullous vines and bamboos shed on the path, a
rusty purple shower whispering down. I ducked under a holly limb, the soles of
my feet picking up its thorny leaves, but I kept on going—heart galloping
against my ribcage—till I could see the crook of copper pipes above the
box-shaped vat. Blue gas flames flared end to end under the rusted bottom and
glinted off a cluster of glass jugs set at the mouth of the pipe. I eased up on
the clearing, scared of what I’d find.
Hamp, hid in the woods behind the still, was
yakking at J.B., and the dog, stalking the trace of gums, looked like he was
swallowing barks and coughing them up.
Coming around a persimmon tree, I just about
bumped into Bo Dink and Israel. They were standing off and watching J.B., who
stood to the right of the bush-whacked palmetto clearing. Water trickled from a
black hose hooked to the last pipe, a slow puddle spreading among the palmetto
stubbles. In front of the still, a patch of dirt was tore up from where
somebody’d been tussling.
J.B. had the stock of his shotgun braced against
his fat-padded shoulder and was squinting along the barrel. Looked like he was
aiming for the tall silver propane tank at the head of the vat, against a
background of tree trunks and blurring fall leaves, gold, orange and brown.
From the woods, I heard a rustle of dead leaves,
like a armadillo rooting, and one long heaving grunt. And then I saw the
branches shaking on one giant blackgum.
J.B. got a fresh hold on the shotgun and went to
spouting out cuss words, his stuffed face sweating oil.
"J.B.!” I hollered, stopping next to Israel. "What
you up to?”
He didn’t answer.
Bo Dink and Israel cut their eyes from the shaking
limbs where leaves sifted down, to J.B., gun cocked and ready.
"Turn him loose, old man.” J.B. stood stiff, bare
feet planted in the mud. He had on a black t-shirt and dungarees that rode low
on his narrow hips. A band of white skin shining at the waist like a coachwhip
Hamp stepped from the dark woods to the morning
light and stopped behind the bullet-shaped tank. His white face peeped over the
shoulder of a man with a mustache, in a red and blue streaked shirt.
"Oh, Lord!” I covered my mouth.
The old dog went to barking faster, louder,
lunging at the man whose legs hung like khakis on a clothesline. Brown eyes
buldged in his beef-tallow face, hair sticking up like a funny-paper character’s.
His neat mustache was the same tan color as his hair. Looked like he might be
closer my age than Hamp’s.
"That’s him,” Bo Dink whispered, like he’d just
seen Santy Claus. "That’s the man I seen snooping around the car in Valdosta.”
"Hush up,” I said, creeping toward J.B.
He hollered, "Turn him loose,” squinting at Hamp
and the man.
Hamp’s arms were latched around the man’s chest,
and the man’s arms dangled over Hamp’s like they were broke. Two sets of legs
jigging side to side and back, they danced from the simmering still to the edge
of the brightening woods, and again behind the propane tank. The revenuer’s
eyes seemed to change colors, and now took on the dead light of the puddle that
spread from the trickling black hose. His chest looked sunk-in and weak, and up
against Hamp’s broad body, the man looked somehow not too important—not like a
revenuer. A disappointment.
From the time I was little, I’d seen a blue-dozen
revenue men come by my daddy’s grocery store to check on him ordering so much
sugar and mash. Daddy looked like he plum enjoyed that—kept them wondering
right up to the last minute, just before they got ready to haul him in. And
then he’d show them the bill of sale where he sold sugar to the honey men, trot
them out to his own honey house and hives, and laugh as they shied from the bee
swarms. He’d walk them through the swamp, around gators and moccasins, to show
off his pen of wild hogs. Hogs he baited, trapped and sold—what he didn’t give
away in hog meat. He even had the revenue men help hold the boars while he
marked them, cutting out their nuts and chucking them across the board pen or
putting them in a bucket for supper. Mountain oysters, he told them. They would
turn green as the myrtle bushes. We never once ate mountain oysters, to my
beknowest, but we would have if those revenue men had took my daddy up on his
offer to stay and eat. Daddy was bad to pick at people, but revenue men weren’t
people to us, though those men were different from what we called regular
revenuers. This man right here, checking out Hamp’s still, was a real revenuer,
the kind that snoops around at night. And I reckon I figured a revenuer would
look big and boogery, but this one was little, scared to death.
"Turn him loose so I can shoot him.” J.B. shifted
and stood flat-footed in the black mud.
"Ain’t no killing gone take place.” Hamp’s gruff,
shaky voice thundered about the clearing and bounced off the woods.
"What you gone do with him, old man?” J.B.
laughed—something mad struck loose.
"I got him.” Hamp got a fresh hold on the man.
"I say, what are you gone do with him?” J.B. kept
the shotgun on them, but his elbows got slack.
Hamp’s face was shore-up to the other man’s, both
tall, about the same height, but Hamp was holding him up so that just the toes
of his tan suede boots touched the scuffed dirt.
"What about it, old man?” J.B. went to grinning,
his wide lips stretched across his soft bearded cheeks.
Hamp looked like he was studying, or listening for
something behind him in the woods. But he kept a grip on the man like he was
using him as a shield against J.B.’s double-ought buckshot.
"You ain’t got no choice, old man, but to let me
shoot him.” J.B. sounded like he was trying to humor Hamp into reasoning with
him. "We turn him loose and your shine business is hist’ry.” He nodded at the
gurgling still, copper pipes glowing as the sun struck suddenly through foamy
Hamp jerked the revenuer’s head like Howdy Doody’s
and snatched him up, stepping back to the trunk of a blackgum. The tree shook and
squirrels sprang branch to branch through the changing woods. The dog followed
Hamp and his catch, barking and lurching.
Hamp got still. "A dead man draws buzzards and
J.B. squeezed the glinting gold trigger and shot
above Hamp and the man, and the leaves of the blackgum scattered to the bluing
sky and drifted down; the dog slunk away, then circled, barking.
Israel and Bo Dink backed up, faces tallow as the
I stood there. "Put the gun down J.B.”
His white jowls went stiff against the braced
stock, eyes on the revenuer and Hamp, lapped like paperdolls.
Hamp looked straight at me, the force of his head
making the man look too.
"Turn him loose, old man,” J.B. said. "I gotta
kill him.” Mud swole over his feet.
Hamp’s fingers turned purple as he gripped the man
tighter around his stove-in chest. "I got him.”
The man grunted, first sound he’d made.
"Everlast one of y’all’s crazy.” I stepped up to
the line you could just about see drawed from the sight of the shotgun to Hamp
and the man. White thread tangled on my feet from where J.B. had set his trap
the night before; I tore it off and went to winding it up.
J.B. shot above Hamp’s head again, a headaching
blast, and I backed away, my ears stopped up good now, then ringing free enough
to hear something crazy come out of Hamp’s mouth.
"I got him, gone keep him,” Hamp said.
"How you gone do that, old man?” said J.B.
Hamp lifted the man and backed up.
J.B. laughed, bent over and went to coughing,
stood and aimed again. "You gone nuss that bastard the rest of your born days?”
Hamp looked like he had to think about that, his
big feet right behind the man’s, planted now, like forever, in the rotted
leaves. "Merdie and the boys will.”
J.B. looked down the barrel another minute, then
cut his eyes at me, at Bo Dink and Israel with their mouths open. Then he
started laughing, bent double, and lowered the gun.
"Run go get my hog rope, woman,” Hamp hollered.
Seemed like now that he’d decided, he come alive. He didn’t look at me, but
down at his thick arms locked around the man’s chest, which looked like the air
had been let out. The man’s head lolled like it depended on Hamp’s to hold it
up. His eyes were wide, hadn’t blinked in all that time.
I wondered if maybe he wasn’t already dead.
"I said go get my rope, woman,” Hamp yelled.
"I will,” Bo Dink said, who never volunteered
nothing. He scuttled off through the woods, hopping palmettoes, toward the
house. The old dog quit barking, went to wagging his tail, and struck out
behind Bo Dink, like we’d switched from danger to games.
I couldn’t take my eyes off Hamp, off the man, the
first real revenuer I’d ever seen. And just what were we supposed to do with a
revenuer? But like Bo Dink, I reckon, I was glad there might not be a killing.
Sorry as he was, I knew Hamp’s heart wasn’t in killing neither.
"Go on to your trailer, J.B.,” I said.
He set in the mud, laughing, shotgun across his
Hamp toted the man up to the vat and sighted down
the heat-wavy pipes of the still to the end where a trickle of shine, like
mica-laced water, ran slow in a jug set to catch it when it come: 200 proof,
first catch—pure shine—to be cut from the last running to 100-proof.
By the runoff time of the shine, I figured we hadn’t
been out there more than fifteen to twenty minutes, but it felt more like a
hour. Hamp’s new set-up, with the shotgun condenser, would run off a batch in
no time, another batch working in the buck vat, ready to run. How come Hamp to
call the condenser shotgun was the dozen or so tubes carrying steam through the
big pipe. Looked like the cluster of barrels on a old-timey Gatling gun.
We all just stood there watching Hamp and the man,
while listening to the slow, trickling tune of the shine. The revenuer’s eyes
cut from me to J.B., then to the side, like he was trying to get a good look at
the face against his, him and Hamp like two people getting their picture took.
The crows cawed, the squirrels scamped back to the
tattered tree, not another sound in the brightening woods but J.B. laughing,
the vat heating, and the jug filling, till Bo Dink come up, slapping branches
and beating the dirt with his bare feet. When he got to us, he stopped, blowing
hard with one knee cocked, and held out the rope to his pa.
Hamp stepped up, wearing the man like a apron. "Bring
it here, boy.”
To keep Hamp off Bo Dink, I took the coil of rope
and walked slow ahead.
J.B just set there, laughing and staring at the
mud swelling between his legs.
Up close, I could see the revenuer’s chest moving
up and down under Hamp’s locked hands.
"You bunch of pussies,” Hamp hollered over my
head, "get over here and help your ma hog-tie this here revenuer.”
Israel and Bo Dink caught up, and we eased along
together, as Hamp walked the man to meet us.
"Get his feet first,” Hamp said, grunting as the
The revenuer’s weak-coffee eyes cut from us to
J.B., then at Hamp, lips parted like he wanted to say something. What got my
attention was the fine brown hairs jumping on the hollow of his throat.
"Ain’t got my pocketknife on me,” Israel said,
tying the man’s ankles together in double knots over his dusty suede boot tops.
Hamp strained, arms still locked. "Bring the rope
up and tie off his hands.” He let go quick, the man’s arms dropped, then he
clamped his arms over again.
Israel brought the rope up to tie the man’s
wrists, now forced together in front, rope trailing along his quaking khakis.
Bo Dink with his mouth open held to one end of the
rope while Israel looped it round the revenuer’s wrists and tied a double knot,
then yanked down to test it, jerking the man and Hamp forward.
Now what? I wondered.
J.B. had quit laughing and set watching us. "Got
you a pet shorenuff, old man.” He laughed like he was wore out from laughing,
but had struck up a interest again.
"Set another jug yonder,” Hamp shouted, jumping
with the man, "then get your ass out from here.” He picked the man up, boots
clear of the ground and dangling.
J.B. got up, mud sliding off his legs, stomped
across the puddle, and set the overflowing jug in the mud with a smack. Then,
legs spraddled, like he didn’t want to get nasty, he set another jug under the
free-singing trickle and stalked off through the tromped-down dog fennels and
cat-claw briars where they’d dragged the still through the woods yesterday.
"Got him good, Pa,” Israel said. "Now you can let
Bo Dink kept holding the end of the rope and
looked like he didn’t know whether to let go or not—had just ended up that way.
Hamp walked the man across the clearing to the
path, still welded to him, while Bo Dink backed along, holding the end of the
rope with just enough slack to keep it from dragging across the mud mix of
water and shine.
As they shuffled ahead, me and Israel come in
behind, and I could smell fear and sour buck and something else along the path.
Now that I wasn’t so worried about a killing, I got mad at Hamp and the
revenuer. Mad. I could smell and taste mad like pennies in my mouth. How in the
name of God were me and the boys supposed to babysit a revenuer and sing?
Singing at church tonight was out; Friday could be out. I watched Hamp shuffle
the man towards the house like a dead gator snugged to his chest.
In the yard, Bo Dink backed around the far end of
the clothesline, dodged the washpot, then the pole tripod, and around the
crumbling brick well, us all following like mules on a line. "Where you want
him, Pa?” Bo Dink swagged the rope before him as he backed up the doorsteps.
Hamp grunted, lifted the man and toted him up the
steps to the back porch. His face turned old-petunia purple.
Bo Dink backed along the porch, glancing now and
then behind at the open hall. A dull slice of light cut the house in half.
Feet scuffing hollow across the floor, Hamp stood
the revenuer on his feet, still holding to him, husky Sear’s denims bagging on
his flat behind.
"Put him in the sideroom,” I said, going around
the dog and the boys, and standing away from the door. The room was dark as a
cellar. Without thinking, I’d put him in there, like company. And it looked
like the narrow room had been built in case we caught a revenuer: across the
hall from the kitchen, where we stayed most of the time. No windows. My babies’
room. It still had the cot Little Noah slept on last and still slept on
sometimes. Anybody else took a notion to nap went in there; I wouldn’t let them
lay down on the beds during the day after I made them up. I hoped the sheet was
Hamp lugged the revenuer into the room, up to the
bed, and let him go, both of them breathing hard. The man stood there stiff, so
did Hamp, like now they were apart they didn’t know what to do next.
"Lay on down,” I said, coming just inside the
The man turned—seemed bigger now that they were
separated—and hobbled around on his roped feet to face Hamp. Hamp stared at
him, elbows cocked. He jerked his head. The man looked at me and the boys and
the dog, standing in the doorway. Then he set, still watching us watch him in
the dim cool room.
I crossed my arms, wondering how long we could all
stand there. Could we go now? My mouth tasted like dirt.
Hamp turned around, shoved past us, and ambled
out. "Get him settled in, Merdie.” He went to wash his hands at the watershelf,
and water gushed through the drain to the dirt on the outside wall of the
Israel stepped out in the hall. "I gotta run down
the road for a minute...check on something.”
"Like hell you will!” Hamp tromped to the door,
wiping his white face on a white towel, white the way white is when you’re bout
to faint. "Get your gun and go to setting guard.” His eyes were black glittery
and fixed. "You too, boy,” he said to Bo Dink. "Merdie, trim the rope so the
revenuer can lay down a spell. Here.” He chunked me his pocketknife and shambled
off to the kitchen.
Bo Dink and Israel pounded down the hall to get
their shotguns, come back and squatted, one on each side of the door.
Staring at the end of the rope coiled on the
floor, I went to the bed and trimmed the long pieces, sawing with the knife
blade, and chunked it aside, then cut the rope below his wrists and above his
feet. I could feel him breathing quick. My eyes flew up and met his, clear
green and sharp, not brown like I’d thought. His face was square cut, a smooth
beige with that kind of colorless bloom that fear brings, a good face,
even-featured and brotherly but not the kind of good looks you daren’t trust.
"One slip of the knife and you go free,” he said
"You mean you—you go free.”
"No,” he said, eyes darting at the door. "You let
me go and turn state’s evidence, your daddy and the others serve a little time
and you go free.”
"Hush up,” I said, my eyes darting too. "Hamp’s my
After I got done, I turned around and went out. "I’ll
go fix breakfast and y’all can take turns eating,” I said to the boys.
Hamp come out of the kitchen with a leftover
biscuit and a strip of sidemeat. "He talking in there?”
"No,” I said and pushed past him in the door.
He moped off to the back porch and set in the
cowhide rocker, brogans turned on their sides.
My rooster hopped up on the porch, catching the
edge with his waxy-gold claws, flapped his wings and crowed. After so much
quiet in the house, it sounded like Gabriel’s horn.
"Get out from here, you son-da-bitch!” Hamp stomped
the floor, jarring the windows.
The rooster flew up, squawking, and landed in the
watershelf runoff where Princes Feathers grew, the same crimson color as his
cone. He flapped his blue-black wings and crowed again.
"Bo Dink,” Hamp said—just as calm. "Shoot that
son-da-bitch for me.”
Bo Dink stood up, turned around and stuck the
barrel of the shotgun in the door at the revenuer. His hands were shaking, his
hips about as wide as a boy doll’s.
"No,” Hamp hollered, leaping up, "the rooster, you
I come out of the kitchen with a dishrag in my
hands. "You shoot my rooster, Hamp Lee, and you’re a dead man.” My nerves had
Hamp chunked out the rest of his biscuit to the
mud bed of Princes Feathers and stomped down the doorsteps, watching the
rooster and a flock of white hens gather and peck it to crumbs.
dinnertime, stone-dark cloudspeaked like mountains in the east and spread to a thick gray hull of sky. Flies
swarmed over the back porch, hall and kitchen. Everything in the house felt
damp and sticky, smelled like rats, and my brassiere was glued to my breasts.
We could look out for a cold front to come through after the rain.
Two meals. I’d cooked two meals and spoon-fed the
revenuer. Gave him water every hour, scared to death I’d forget.
Hamp had come back and pulled up his rocker where
he could watch the revenuer through the gap between Bo Dink and Israel. They
set, leaning against the wall on each side of the door, knees drawed up, taking
turns dozing. Both shotguns lay on the floor—Bo Dink’s finger hooked on the
The revenuer laid still, looking up at the aged
About two o’clock Little Noah finally got up,
ambling sleepy-faced down the hall, and stopped when he saw everybody camped
out before the sideroom door. "What’s going on?” His changing voice cracked the
even sound of slow rain on tin.
Nobody said a word, like they couldn’t decide who
or how to tell it. Rain pelted the tin like acorns and misted the hall.
"Your pa caught a revenuer.” I was carrying a
glass of water into the room.
Little Noah stopped in the doorway, gaping. "I bet
that’s the same one Bo Dink seen...”
"Hush up,” I said, knowing what he was fixing to
say. I slipped one hand under the man’s warm neck—his hair felt like chicken
feathers—picked up and put the glass to his lips. When I felt his head hold
steady, I cupped under his chin and water trickled to my hand. "Go get you some
dinner,” I said to Little Noah. "Chicken gizzards and greens.”
Little Noah looked from me to the man, his sleep-shrunk
eyes speaking instead. He didn’t have on a shirt and his chest was dimpled fat.
A patch of dark fuzz was starting between his swole breasts, and I knew how
come he never went bare-chested like the other boys. He rubbed his eyes,
stepped back, and looked at Bo Dink and Israel. Hamp, snoring in the rocker,
scraped his feet on the floor, snorted and snored again.
The revenuer gazed up at me, like a man just come
to from a lick on the head. "He who comes to the table first eats best.”
"Hush now, you’re feverish,” I said. "That’s Into
whatsoever city ye enter and they receive you, eat such things as are set
before you. New Testament.” I dropped his head and turned my back on his
puzzled face. Let him think I was stupid if it would shut him up.
I followed Little Noah to the kitchen, where the
light on made the hall look darker.
"Ma,” he whispered, "don’t you bet that’s the same
"Hush up and set down.” I got a plate and started
helping it from pots on the stove. "J.B. tried to shoot him; your pa said we’d
keep him here instead.”
"Mama,” he hissed over my shoulder, "how we gone
"I don’t know.” I dipped him a big helping of
stringy turnips, rich green and tart as vinegar in the musty air.
He seemed to think all at once how the revenuer
might affect him. "This mean I can quit school?”
He scratched his head, thinking. "Well, I could
shore be a help to you if...”
"No.” I stared him in the eye. "You’re
going to school.”
"Ok.” He turned around. "But I gotta...”
"And I gotta cow to milk, wood to tote, washing,
cooking, babies to deliver...”
"Ma”—he set on the long bench, waiting for his
food—”how you gone look out after him and you a woman?”
I knew he was thinking about the revenuer getting
away from a weak woman; I was thinking something else. I remembered that even
revenuers have to be-excused. "One of you boys go take the revenuer to the