The retired moonshiner said, “The secret of living to ninety-three is a swig of corn likker and a pipe of tobaccy in the morning. Gets your heart started, Professor.”
The “Professor” was R. L. McCloud, a wiry, bearded man with a hawk nose, a remnant of West Texas in his voice. R. L. immediately liked the old man. Jeb Cooley had a way of smiling that conveyed more than he said, the charm of mischief from long ago.
R. L.’s tape recorder was placed unobtrusively to one side. He did not take notes while he listened to people tell their stories. He’d write in his notebooks when he was out of sight down the road. R. L.’s visual memory clicked the pictures his eyes took in. Ninety-three years of deviltry, and Jeb Cooley had shrewd blue eyes and wrinkles that wreathed up in smiles. Duane and Junior Cooley, Jeb’s grandsons, watched R. L. suspiciously. R. L. felt they would jump him if they took against anything he said to their grandfather. Thin, fidgety men, they ran a car repair shop on the edge of town. Kix Cooley, a deputy sheriff, in civies, looked back and forth from Jeb to the brothers. No relationship there had been mentioned; R. L. wondered. Not to seem high-toned in the backwoods, R. L. wore an old shirt, jeans, cowboy boots; the other men were dressed the same. They sat on cane-backed chairs on Jeb Cooley’s long front porch. A wood and stone farm house built around a log cabin, a satellite dish, spotted hounds, hog pens in back, a weathered split rail fence, a paint pony in a pasture, an erratic rock outcrop, a ridge that dropped away into a narrow valley, steep-sided hills, dense woods that clung to every crevice and crag, 350 million year old rock, and against the sky the dark Ozark Mountains.
“Got any of your merchandise left?” R. L. asked with his own sly humor.
Jeb chuckled and shook his head.
The beverage in their Mason jars was Coca-Cola poured from a plastic two-liter jug.
The retired moonshiner reminisced about the old days.
“It’s called ‘moonshine’ ‘cause mostly it’s brewed at night. Takes a lot of heat to boil the alkyhol outen the mash, and that naturally makes a lot of smoke and steam. Course if them Revenooers was really after you, they’d look for the fire at night. Unless you set up your still in a shack or cave. That ain’t safe ‘cause vapors build up and might explode.
“I built my stills outen copper. It gives a good taste to the likker. I set ‘em up deep in the woods off the roads, and I made a firebox outen stones to keep ‘em off the ground and hide the fires. I ended up with quite a few stills. I made upwards of 600 gallons a week.
“By the way, Professor, if you see a long stream of smoke rising out of the woods, don’t investigate.
“I got started when I was eighteen. Pap died in the Great War. Times was hard on the farm. We didn’t know nothing ‘bout no Great Depression – back here was always Depressed. Some folks asked me if I knew Pap’s recipe. It’s a family tradition we brung with us from Tennessee. The way it ended up, I supported just about all my kith and kin – twelve people and their families.
“I used mules to tote the ‘shine out to a road and loaded it in a pickup. Then I got me some hopped-up cars that had tanks built right under them. One of my runners got into stock car racing. You’d know his name. Running ‘shine is how all that got started.
“Course it’s true some ‘shine was bad. It’d make you blind or half paralyzed, if it didn’t kill you. The thing is to know who brewed it. Ever’body named his brew. Mine was Pride of Carroll County, ‘cause I always take pride in my work. It’s the very first and the very last of a batch that gets the poison. A decent man throws them parts away. You need to run your brew through the still three times. You make a X on the jog for each time the likker’s been through the still.
“If you learn a ‘shiner makes his still outen car radiators, don’t touch a drop – it’s got lead in it, antifreeze.
“The best way to judge if a batch is good is to dare the moonshiner to drink it his own self. I never refused a dare. Another thing you can do is pour a little of it into a spoon and set it on fire. Safe brew burns blue. Bad stuff burns yeller. Really bad stuff burns red. You want old sayings, Professor? Here’s a true one: Lead burns red and makes you dead.
“Folks knew Pride of Carroll County was good likker. I sold to lawmen, judges, and politicians. God’s truth.
“Distilling corn likker does make a stink. I kept hogs around to cover the smell. That’s how I got into hog farming.
“I never hurt no one. I just sold people what they wanted. You can’t make laws against human nature.
“Them Revenooers said I was in the top ten most wanted in the state. I did three stretches in the federal penitentiary. When they caught me, I went quietly. We had a code back then.
“I got no regrets.”
Kix drove R.L.’s pickup, a Ranger with a dented fender, so that R. L. could write notes while his impressions were fresh. R. L. put his hunting rifle, a slide-action Remington, in the gun rack for his trip to the back woods: Men looked at weapons, it got them talking. For the same reason, he carried his guitar with him. It was a Larrivee Dreadnaught hand made of spruce and rosewood for a warm tone. If they knew songs and ballads, it encouraged them. That morning, a lady brought out her dulcimer and sang with him.
R. L. closed his notebook. “Can you do the bootlegger’s turn?”
Kix grinned. “Sorry, not in a pickup – not in no county car neither. You got to have special work to do that.”
“Thunder Road is the coolest movie ever,” R. L. remarked. “If you don’t think too much what it’s about.”
“Damn shame the Colonel wouldn’t let Elvis make that movie.” There was a world of regret in the deputy’s voice.
R. L. McCloud taught history at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He spent summers in Austin, Texas; he was a songwriter with connections there. This summer, he had an NEA grant and a contract from a small Southern press for a book about Ozark folktales, songs, buried treasure, ghost stories, and unsolved mysteries. He’d probably need to drive the back roads tracking down stories at least one more summer, and he knew he would have to publicize the book himself. “This damn book will cost me money,” he said to his friends. He talked about it as seed corn, but he simply wanted a book.
R. L. picked a small town near the state line as his base. The local hotel was a two-story wood building with unworked stone trim. When he walked in, he saw behind the desk waves of bright blonde hair and slim hips in jeans. The desk clerk set the radio on a classic country station and turned with a smile. If the first thing he saw was a true backwoods beauty with an oval face, brown eyes, and a golden tan – what an omen! – this book project was bound to succeed. While she waited for the simple computer to run his card, she glanced over the desk at his guitar case.
“I’m Helen Cooley,” she had a firm handshake. “What do you play?”
He showed her the Larrivee and let her strum three chords.
A keen expression crossed her face. “Are you in a band? I sing and write songs.”
After his divorce, R. L. was always on the prowl. He told her about his Austin connections and the songs that had been recorded by Americana artists. It wasn’t Nashville, but she was interested.
“Let me show you what I play.” She lifted a ragged old case up to the desk. “This was Paw’s. He played in a string band that was popular around here.”
R. L. recognized a Martin D-28 herringbone, the original Dreadnaught, a guitar made big enough to hold its own with banjos and fiddles.
“Would you sell that old thing?” R. L. tried to sound casual but felt his throat tighten.
“Ump-umm. I know what I got.” A smile played at the corners of her mouth, amused and friendly. “Nice try.”
After cleaning up, R. L. went down and explained to Helen about his book. “I’m sure I can’t just drive up to someone’s house and knock on the door.”
She nodded. “Folks around here don’t take to strangers right off. Especially not if they’re going around asking questions.” She considered, and he could tell that she was really thinking about it. “I’ll tell my boy friend – “
– R. L. felt dashed –
“ – and he can introduce you to ever’one. He’s the deputy sheriff.”
The boyfriend turned out to be Kix Cooley. R L. wondered about the relationship, but names could be a coincidence. Kix agreed to take R. L. around to meet people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to outsiders – obviously to please Helen.
“After you talk to folks,” Kix said, “they’ll get on the phone to ever’one they know. That’ll get you started.”
As it did.
When R. L. finished the day’s talks with people, he’d often swing by Jeb Cooley’s farm. He thought the retired moonshiner surely knew stories he wouldn’t want to tell with a lawman sitting on his porch. R. L. hoped he could distill Jeb’s rascally charm into prose.
R. L. made a wrong turn on a barely-paved road. He was lost in endless mountain woods. He saw a dirt road, little more than a track, breaking the stretch of hickory, oak, and pine. A line of smoke rose over the treetops. There would be a house back in there where he could get directions back to town. He turned onto the dirt road.
A shot hit the windshield high on the passenger side. The safety glass crumbled around the impact.
R. L. backed out the dirt road, raising a cloud of dust, not caring about damage to the truck’s undercarriage. When he reached the paved road, he headed back the way he’d come. He kept his foot down on the pedal.
He remembered Jeb Cooley’s warning not to investigate a stream of smoke rising over the backwoods.
R. L. realized how shaken he was when he got back to the hotel and saw Helen’s smile change to an expression of alarm. He told her what happened and she called Kix.
The deputy examined the windshield and dug the shot out of the seat back. R. L. duct-taped some cardboard over that corner.
“Professor, don’t follow a back road to smoke,” Kix said.
“Are there stills back there even now?”
Kix gave R. L. a kindly look, tolerating his ignorance. “In Arkansas, the moonshine stills mostly been replaced by meth labs.”
“That’s worse. They explode.”
“I expect one of ‘em to set off a wildfire some dry summer.” Kix looked grave.
“When folks live off to theirselves,” Helen put in, “they generally got their reasons. Better not bother them.”
Hannie Ridge, the night clerk, had an apartment behind the front desk. She was a garrulous older woman who was happy to tell R. L. her whole family history. He’d use her story about a buried Confederate payroll. She filled him in on all the local gossip, so he asked her about the Cooley relationships.
“Helen and Kix are second cousins. She was going with Jeb’s grandson, Duane, before she started going with Kix. They’re all second cousins.”
“Is that still…legal?”
Hannie seemed shocked by his question. “Second cousin don’t hardly count.”
R. L. was attracted to Helen, but he decided he better not make a move on her that might upset locals with rifles.
Helen remained interested in R. L.’s music industry connections. “My family’s been local musicians for generations. I want something more.” She considered his advice in a way that was businesslike but not inviting.
R. L. was used to the adoration of undergraduates. He wasn’t having any luck back in the mountains. Maybe he should bring a grad student along next time—help her with her thesis.
Some people who had been guarded when he first arrived began to open up and tell him their stories, sing him their songs, while other people shut him out with undisguised hostility.
Now and again, odd things happened that gave him a sense of unease.
Duane and Junior Cooley, in their pickup, passed by him frequently when he was walking around town. He noticed them driving by the hotel. They trained their glares on him like they were drawing a bead. He could almost feel the hatred they aimed at him, despite the friendliness their grandfather always showed.
Another day, a lady sidled up to him with furtive glances around. “God bless you and your work,” she whispered quickly. “I’m praying for you.” She hurried away.
R. L. thought it better not to follow her with questions.
The town was built around a square without a traffic light. The stores that made up downtown faced the square on all sides: grocery, general merchandise, feed and veterinary supplies, hunting and farm equipment, diner, clothing, bank, doctor and lawyer and dentist, video.
R. L. strolled around looking in windows. Duane and Junior Cooley advanced on him shoulder to shoulder across the narrow sidewalk. At a loss, R. L. could only observe their air of menace – until they backed him against a brick wall. They moved in close and kept their shoulders at an angle so that he could not see past them. No one would see him clearly. Muscles jumped in their cheeks.
“Watch yourself,” Duane said. “That’s all I got to say.”
“You sure you want to stay around here?” Junior made it more a threat than a question.
The Cooleys backed away, shoulders together. When they turned, they watched him over their shoulders.
“Watch yourself,” Duane shot back at R. L.
Slightly alarmed, R. L. wondered what to do. Jeb Cooley was always genial and talkative. Yet R. L. did understand that he should not say anything to the grandfather that might be construed as casting aspersions on the grandsons.
He asked Helen and Hannie for their angles on the men. Uncharacteristically, Hannie did not want to say anything and Helen wanted to know why he asked. He told her about the incident, trying not to seem wimpy.
“Two against one don’t make them boys into big men,” she said. “I’ll tell Kix.”
R. L. dismissed the sense of unease that shadowed him.
Walt Hutchins, an old farmer, talked cheerfully about his days running ‘shine. Walt poured two glasses of clear liquid out of a Mason jar. Very curious by then, R. L. didn’t hesitate. It was strong and raw-tasting, like good whiskey that had not been aged.
Walt offered the kind of detail R. L. tried to coax out of Jeb. “Shore, there’s moonshine stills in operation to this day. Half the price of a legal bottle is tax. Some folks are just set against paying so many taxes to the gov’ment. These days, you don’t even have to raise corn. Hog chow is mostly corn. You got to buy it anyhows, and it’s legal, so them Revenooers don’t take note of how much you buy. Not like they take note of how much cough syrup a meth maker buys.”
R. L. drove back on a dirt road that cut through thick woods. Two long trees lay across the road; no way to drive around them.
He got out of his pickup. The trees were too heavy to lift. The trees had been cut by a chain saw so that they would fall across the road, deliberately, to block his way.
The unease he had dismissed came back on him and he felt the awesome isolation of the backwoods.
Did whoever mean for him to drive back down the road? Did he dare climb over the trees and walk down the dirt road until he came to the paved road back into town? Thinking how exposed he was, he got back in the truck and crouched below the windows to sort it out.
He reached up for the Remington. He got a box of ammo and a compass out of the glove compartment. He pushed his notebook into his belt. He would have to leave his guitar and tape recorder in the truck. He was thankful that his cowboy boots were modified, wider toes and lower heels than classic boots. He stuffed his jeans into the boots; that should keep the ticks off him.
Keeping low, he opened the truck door and peered around. He broke for the cover of the woods. He swung away from the dirt road. He did not walk through the trees along the road because whoever would expect that and be there waiting for him. Unless whoever expected him to turn back and was waiting back there somewhere.
After his noisy rush into the woods, he dropped to his knees and crawled beneath dense underbrush he could not begin to identify. There might be snakes; his ears became unnaturally keen to every rustle.
After he’d crawled a ways, he stretched out beside a fallen tree, under brambles, and listened to the forest. He heard a man; not crashing through the brush, but not silent stealth either. The man was between him and the road. The man shouted something and was answered by another man whom R. L. judged to be across the road.
He squeezed his eyes shut, as if that might sharpen his hearing. The man moved through the woods. R. L. dared to look over the trunk, through the brambles. He saw Duane Cooley carrying a rifle. R. L. averted his gaze, to keep Duane from sensing his presence.
The Cooley grandsons were hunting him. He heard them moving back down the road; they must have decided he had turned back.
He waited until he heard nothing more. Deeper into the woods, he came across ruts; not a road nor even a broken path, just a place where someone drove a vehicle into the backwoods. The ruts would surely take him to the reason why he was hunted. He kept the ruts in sight, until he came to a clearing, just a spot trampled out of the brush. There was a shack made of corrugated tin sheets propping each other up. No sign of a still. It looked like news pictures of meth labs the DEA had uncovered.
Moonshine was legend. Meth seemed different.
R. L. followed his compass back to the paved road. He walked off the road, behind trees, until he saw the deputy sheriff’s car. He stepped out and waved to Kix Cooley, before he thought it might not be safe. Backwoods law was notorious.
The deputy stopped his car. “Trouble? I been kind of tailing you, just in case.”
R. L. got in the car and told the deputy what happened.
“I ain’t surprised,” Kix said.
“I’m surprised I’m still alive. How could I elude two backwoodsmen?”
“Them boys ain’t Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. They’re meth heads.”
“What have they got against me?”
“Ever’one thinks you’re DEA.”
R. L. was speechless. He had no objection to moderate use of herb and thought the DEA was a vast incompetence.
Kix continued, “You kept going back to talk to Jeb Cooley. He runs the business. I figure he sicced his boys onto you.”
“I like to talk to him because he’s an old charmer.”
“Professor, you’re an educated man. Have I got to teach you that you can’t trust charm? A cold heart can wear a warm smile.”
“A man may smile and smile, and be a villain still.’”
“You got it.” Kix let R. L. out at the hotel. “I carry a chain and hook in my trunk. I can haul them trees off the road. I’ll bring you back tomorrow so you can get your pickup.” He smiled. “Early morning. They won’t expect us.”
Ticks were all over him. He tweezed them out and dabbed rubbing alcohol on the wounds.
Carrying the Remington over his shoulder the way hunters do, he went downstairs to wait for the deputy. Helen, at the desk, wore one of the lacy tops the girls liked that year, one fashion men approved of.
Definitely bringing a grad student next time, R.L. thought.
Though Kix was unconcerned, R. L. was uneasy when they got back to his pickup. Kix looked the pickup over and saw no sign of vandalism. He opened his trunk and pulled out hooks and chains.
“I’ll hook these up. You start the car when I signal.”
R. L. got behind the wheel and craned his neck to watch the deputy work. Kix straightened up and was lifting his hand.
His face blew away. The shot came out of the woods. Another shot whizzed low over the car hood.
R. L. grabbed the Remington and ducked out of the car. Over the hood, he aimed a shot where the shots seem to come, then one to each side. A slide action was almost as fast as a semiauto in practiced hands. He heard a scream and crashing sounds in the brush. He aimed three shots at the sounds.
The deputy was dead.
R. L. got on the county car radio and called it in to the sheriff’s office. He crouched low for whatever cover the car offered. No more shots rang out.
Sirens sounded in the distance; clouds of dust came up the dirt road. Two county cars pulled up. The corpulent sheriff and some deputies got out, with a hound.
Shaking now that it was over, R. L. watched them go about their business. They covered Kix. The deputies, weapons ready, followed the hound into the woods. The sheriff sat on the felled trees and fanned himself with his hat. No one had any time for R.L.
A deputy came back and spoke low to the sheriff. The sheriff gave him some directions and sent him back into the woods. The sheriff beckoned to R. L.
“You done shot Duane Cooley,” he told R. L. “Bled like a stuck pig. He’s dead. My boys are following the other boy’s trail for a piece. Reckon I know who he is.” The sheriff heaved himself up. “I’ll haul them logs outen your way. Get on back into town, boy. I’ll talk to you later.”
Hannie, at the desk, was crying. “Helen’s mama come got her, told us Kix is dead.” Despite her sorrow, she looked curious.
R. L. was still too shaken to talk. In the room, he opened a bottle of tequila and his laptop. He was a writer and it was his way to find words to deal with whatever life threw at him.
Sheriff Jeb Cooley Wolverton sat down with R. L. at the room’s little table. He slapped his hat down and wiped his face with a bandana. Though he accepted a drink, he looked at R. L. truculently.
“My deputy’s dead. Duane’s dead. Junior is wounded. Just grazed, ain’t nothing, but meth takes away your resistance along with your sense. We caught up to him at Jeb’s place. He tried to deny ever’thing, but he’s already infected from that little scratch.
“We run him in and charged him with murder. He rolled over on his own grandpap. Jeb told them to kill you.”
“Jeb!” R. L. was astounded. “He said he always went quietly. There was a code.”
“I reckon he done some meth—scrambles your brain like eggs. Good ‘shine don’t do that.”
R. L. tried to understand why Jeb Cooley, with his humor and stories, wanted to kill him. “I’m not DEA.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Sheriff Wolverton looked at the bottom of his glass and let R. L. pour him another. “This is all that girl’s fault. Helen Cooley. She went with Duane first; then she switched to Kix. Duane tried to get her back, followed her around like a puppy, watched her, called her to let her know he knew what all she was doing.”
“I heard you city boys call it that when a man aims to get his woman back. Kix got so riled he decided to bring the Cooley boys in. Now we’ll get the State and the DEA crawling all over the place. In ever’ corncrib and haystack. The trouble a woman can cause.”
That interpretation left R. L. speechless.
The sheriff had one last word at the door. “Course you got a clear shot at that girl yourself now, if she don’t run off to Nashville.”
R. L. went to Kix’s funeral. The preacher seemed wary of him. People avoided him. Helen, bereaved and beautiful, stood at graveside with family around her. Her face was empty, distant. He slipped his business card, with Conway and Austin information on it, into her palm. She looked at him and some spirit came back into her face. Her fingers closed around the card.
R. L. packed up and made only one stop on the way out of town, the filling station. The clerk inside glared at him while she took his money. Two men aimed disgusted snorts at him. It wasn’t ‘til he was halfway to Austin that he realized they still thought he was DEA.