Solomon McAdoo stepped back; a deep vertical line bisected his forehead beginning where his eyebrows met in the middle. Tending the fire could be touchy business. He needed to get it just right or Big Tom would have himself a duck fit. Too hot and the hooch would be mostly water and the thump keg would fill up with mash. Too cool and you got nothing. The folks from the city who bought his whiskey were particular about what they paid for. Big Tom kept the best for them. The try hooch, the first drippings, he cut with water pretty good and put in mason jars and sold to the nigras for two bits. A jug would set them back six. They weren’t in no position to complain and, anyway, it did what they wanted it to do—get them a Saturday night drunk, so there you go. Now the Lebruns, them that live on the other side of the mountain, they tried watering all of theirs down, figuring them city folks wouldn’t know no better, and they ain’t sold none since. Those Lebruns were always the ones to short the count in a cord so, what did you expect? Yep, if you get a name selling bad corn likker, you are in trouble and that’s the truth. Never could trust the Lebruns. They say some of them might have lit out for Lynchburg or Baltimore where the pickings were easier for anyone disinclined to turn an honest dollar. Good riddance, if that were true.
The blue jays had been sounding their “jay, jay!” when he climbed the hill and ducked into this copse. A light breeze made the leaves dance. The silver maples turned their leaves over. Rain coming, for sure. By the time Solomon reached the still and contemplated what he had to do, the jays quit their squawking. Had they flown away figuring there wouldn’t be any more mash spillage for them?
Across the creek, a limb broke free from an old oak with a sharp crack…Solomon began to shake. He sat on the ground and squeezed his eyes tight shut and hugged his knees. After a minute or two, the shaking stopped. He took a deep breath and stood and brushed the leaves from his mostly out-at-the-elbows Army jacket. The birds were chirping again. Birds were funny critters. Some folks say they can read your mind. How a little bitty bird might do that was a puzzle. Solomon stepped up to the still and slipped a few sticks of oak on the hearth. They flared and then burned easy and clean. No smoke meant no one would stumble on Big Tom’s operation. The kettle rumbled on like nothing happened. He laid a hand on the thump keg, and then the big kettle. It seemed about the right amount of hot for each. He took a deep breath and exhaled. Grandpa would be okay with what he’d done. He thought he heard a footstep behind him.
The shotgun blast took off most of the back of his head. The report scattered the jays and startled the deer further down the creek. Solomon pitched forward. His fall knocked the kettle off its stone hearth. It fell on its side. The out-pipe separated from the kettle and the lid sailed off. The kettle itself rolled into the creek spilling its sweet mash. Like dominos, the thump keg and coil box followed. A day’s worth of corn squeezings and most of the mash spilled into the creek and washed away.
# # #
The shot echoed through the forest and caused Jesse Sutherlin to flinch and turn in the direction from which it seemed to have come. His brother, Abel, lifted an eyebrow.
“Somethin’ wrong, Jesse?”
“No, it’s nothing. I’ve been hearing gunshots in the woods my whole life. Probably just somebody hunting squirrels, though that sounded like a mighty big gun for squirrels. So, okay, nothing to be het up about.” His brother didn’t seem convinced. “See, it’s just, I don’t rightly know, Abel, but since the war, a gun going off when I ain’t expecting it makes me start a bit. Like I need to know where and when, somehow.”
“You and your old war. Seems like none of you all that went into that war come out like you was ’fore you joined up.”
“You got a point there. It did change us some. Me, not so much, but you take Solomon. He’s a proper mess. Anyway, over there, a shot didn’t mean what it does here. In the trenches you want to know who’s doing the shooting and why. If it was the Fritzies shooting and you were sitting in the forward trench, you know, you squared up and got your helmet on if you’d took it off earlier. It could mean they was coming, though usually we would have had mortar rounds and artillery first. Maybe you’d risk a peek through the parapet or use one of them periscopes to see. If it was one of our boys you could relax. He was probably just taking a pot shot at one of them just to keep them honest, like.”
“Did you ever shoot one of them Germans?”
“You ask me that most every day. And I tell you the same thing every day, ‘I can’t say for certain.’ See, mostly you just shoot at the place where they’re at. Only the sharpshooters, the Limeys called them snipers for some reason, them fellers would try to pick off a particular target. The rest of us, hell we just aimed our Springfield in the general direction and squeezed the trigger, cocked and fired again as fast as we could. They called it ‘laying down a field of fire.’ I reckon they figured if enough bullets was in the air, one of them would soon or late hit someone. If you made into one of their trenches, there wouldn’t be much shooting. Fighting there was with knives, bayonets, clubs, or anything handy, even a shovel maybe.”
“All that shooting at what could be empty space seems kind of wasteful, don’t it?”
“Boy, you ain’t seen waste ’til you get yourself in the Army. Food, bullets, hell, even guns. You wouldn’t believe what we left out on them battlefields. Germans, French, everybody did it.
War ain’t tidy, Abel. Anyway, I suppose it is likely that one of them bullets which ended up in a German soldier might have come out of my gun, my rifle. They’re particular about what you call your piece in the Army.”
“So, how come you only check the direction of a gun going off, but Solomon like to have a conniption fit?”
“He’s got what they call Shell Shock. Some of the fellers, mostly from the city, I think, just went to pieces out there. Shooting didn’t come natural to them. All the mortar rounds coming in some days for maybe five hours without stop and then a big artillery shell would knock out twenty yards of trench with all the troops in it. It weren’t a pretty sight and some of them just snapped. The officers and NCOs would try to talk them down, but from that day on, they were pretty much useless. Some they shipped home. Some just went plumb crazy. Solomon, well, he’s got it bad. They sent him back to the field hospital for a bit, but after a week the docs sent him to the front again. They said he just needed a rest. They did that to a lot of tin hats who were afflicted that way, you could say. Well, he did seem some better, but then the shelling started up and he’d fall apart again. Me and a big strapping dairy farmer name of Spence who came from some place up there in Pennsylvania sort of took Solomon on and kept him upright. That way, he did make it all the way through the war and back home and that’s saying something. You need to give him a wide berth, Abel. I don’t want you ragging on him like them tow heads from over the other side of the mountain, the Eveleth brothers, and them other boys do. He can’t help himself.”
“Yeah, if you say so, but it’s a hoot when they sneak up on Solomon and set off a firecracker or a scatter gun.”
“Yeah, well, don’t let me catch you doing anything like that, you hear?”
“If you say so, only I don’t rightly see the harm in it.” “You would if you was Solomon.”
The forest floor with its ferns and this year’s supply of new fallen leaves gave way to a wider, sunlit path and that led to a road. Not a paved road. Nothing in this part of the state had been paved, nor would it be for another fifteen years and not in the mountain for another two decades after that. Dirt in the spring, dust in the summer, mud in the fall and winter. You had to go all the way to the county seat if you wanted to see any paved roads that amounted to anything much. You could find evidence on some of the older ones in the area of the corrugated construction put there when timbering had been big, but that would be a while back. Most of the marketable timber had been cleared and the forests were mostly new growth, young oaks and quick-growing tulip poplars, and pine. The stately chestnut trees which had once sustained whole families and provided a lively business for more than a few in the past, had by now succumbed to the blight and had fallen, or soon would.
“So, you went over there as a private and come back an officer?” “Yep. Things got so bad like we were losing officers right and left and so they figured ‘We need to hang on to these West Point monkeys. Let’s put a couple of the yokels up front instead. We can afford to kill off as many of them as is necessary. Ain’t nobody going to miss them.’ So, they made me an officer.”
“It weren’t like that. Come on, Jesse. How come you got them gold bars and Solomon got a little bitty stripe?”
“Well, it were like this, them officers thought they were fighting in Cuba or Chancellorsville or someplace like that. They’d stand there like they were old Stonewall himself and practically begged to be shot. I reckon it was because of our commander for a time, a one star general from up in New York someplace. We were all part of the Rainbow Division. Well, General Douglas McArthur would walk around out in the open and them Krauts would shoot away but, it was like he was bullet proof or something. He’d stroll along the trench mouth chatting up the boys who were scrunched down as low as we could get and he’d say things like, ‘Evening boys, you getting fed good?’ things like that. So, them Shavetails, seeing the general out there bold as brass, figured they had to be like their hero, only none of them led a charmed life like he done. He finally had to write out an order that said they should stop being foolish ’fore we was plumb out of second lieutenants.”
“And that was why you was made a…what do you call them…a Shavetail? I don’t believe that. That there medal with the cross on it that they pinned on you must have had something to do with it.”
“Well, maybe you’re right and maybe not. Anyway the platoon was shorthanded in the officer department and they figured as how I had the respect of the men, they’d put me in charge.”
“You reckon I could be an officer?”
“Abel, don’t wish for something too hard. You might get it to come true. The Army is no place for a boy with a future.”
“Well, shoot. You think I got a future?”
“If you don’t do something dopey, you do. You keep up with your schooling, get you a real job and most of all, get off this mountain.”
Abel frowned at the last bit. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but right here on Buffalo Mountain.
They walked along the path that led to the sawmill. Where it intersected the road, Jesse paused.
“This is where I leave you, brother.”
“Jesse, are you sure about this? Did you talk to Ma at all?”
“Ain’t nothing to talk about. We’re strapped. Selling moonshine is against the law and ’fore you can say jack-be-nimble some federal man is going to come out here and bust up that still and maybe haul your grandpa off to the poky, Uncle Bob too. Maybe worse, allowing for how folks feel about revenue agents on the one hand and about their stills on ’tother, there could be some shooting. Make that there will be shooting. Then where will we be? No sir, I have seen all the gunplay I care to and ain’t in a mood to fight with anybody no more.”
“Well, if you say so, but working for Old Stick-in-the-Mud Anderson?”
“Why not? He pays a fair wage, twenty-five cents an hour, and after a year he’s likely to bump it up a nickel. That will buy some good eating, Abel.”
“I hear the railroad workers get a whole dollar, maybe a dollar and a half an hour. Twenty-five cents don’t sound like much to me.”
“Yeah, well the railroad doesn’t run through here. I’d have to move over to Roanoke and, besides, they ain’t hiring anyway. I asked.”
“Still, I don’t see why twenty-five—”
“Listen Abel. You listen good. I ain’t got a skill, you understand? I ain’t been to no proper school. I can do a little reading and figuring and that’s it. I can scratch-farm some corn and ’taters. If I had decent bottom land, maybe make a living farming. But we don’t have land like that and the only real schooling I ever got was from the U.S. Army. They taught me the only skill I can rightly claim—how to kill folks. Well, there ain’t a big market for that anymore. I tell you, the dumbest thing I ever done was to turn down a chance to stay over there in Europe. They wanted volunteers to go fight the Russian communists, or anarchists, or whatever they was. I was an officer and they needed them, you know? So, I gave it some thought and then what did I do? I, like a ninny, turned it down. ‘No, sir,’ I said. ‘The government said they would take care of us boys when we got back, yes sir. They was to be finding jobs as soon as we got back to home. It’s 1919 and things is booming.’ Nobody figured on a bust and President Wilson wasn’t saying nothing. Rumor had it he is non compos mentis, which is the way them smart folks who been to college say he’s out of his mind somehow. So, we come back and nobody has done anything. Everybody just wants to forget the war, the deaths, all of it. I tell you, Abel, if I hadn’t been an officer, I would have had to walk home from Baltimore. I finagled me a train ticket to Roanoke and one for Solomon and here we are. We’re back, near a year has gone by, and them that made the promises ain’t done squat. So I will take what I can get, thank you very much.”
“Grandpa says the men who drive out from Roanoke will pay two, sometimes three dollars a gallon for his good drinking whiskey. Two gallons a day, that there is four dollars and near twice what you’d get at the mill and you don’t have to do no work. Just mix the mash, tend the fire, and find you a place to sit under a shade tree and wait. On a good week, Big Tom turns out ’bout ten or maybe even twelve gallons. That’s way better money.”
“Ten is a stretch, Abel. Twelve is a brag. Yep it’s way better and riskier. Listen, I ain’t thinking of stopping that enterprise. I just don’t want to be in on it, see. Them Federal men have Colt six-shooters on their belts and that means they expect they might have to use them and are willing to ’cause the law is on their side. Any shooting back jumps the crime a mile. Well sir, like I say, I seen enough guns to last me a lifetime. I’m figuring on signing on at the sawmill and that’s it.”