Murphy, North Carolina, 1855
The warmth of the shed had us both in a mucky sweat as Jackson stoked the fire. Jackson was my only brother, handsome, a bit older and rough at the edges. No stranger to trouble. Me, on the other hand, I looked to staying on the straight and narrow. As I peered out the window, toward the house, I saw a cabin in need of repair—our home on a mountainside where the Maloney family had lived long before Jackson and I came into this world. Pa was up at the house with our sister, Molly, both tending to Ma, who’d been wasting away to a whisper since fall. My pa would sometimes sit with Ma, sit by her bed for hours, then he’d carry grain to the shed and make sure we’d kept the still running. Pa now held his foot in two worlds—one was his livelihood and the other, attending to his wife’s departure— and for the time being, he’d left the running of the business to me and Jackson. Our business was moonshine.
Jugs lined the wall, waiting to get filled and delivered by the end of the day. Talk was sparse as the two of us focused on the work. Pa farmed a bit of land around the cabin, sold some vegetables to the general store in town and corn for milling. He had to look presentable to the law, which seemed odd to me, for even the law was making and partaking of the firewater. Through the window, I saw the snow still fall and was comforted by the rumbling noises of the still, a contraption created by Pa and revamped and refined over the years since we boys were tots.
“Hey, Miles, the fire’s going out. Throw some wood on it,” yelled Jackson.
My mind fell back to the work, and I grabbed two logs and threw ’em into the stove. Picked up the fire iron and stoked the glowing ashes in the stove. There was no time for lollygagging, orders to fill. Seems all I did was work this still. I remembered wanting more, more than staying in these mountains, yet Pa’d pulled me out of school when I was sixteen. I loved school learning, but, now nineteen, I only yearned for all I found in the books.
“Get to work, son. There’s money to be made in the business ... not sittin’ in some classroom,” Pa had said. Jackson had left school when he was only fourteen, seven years ago. He’d had little use for schooling, but I’d learned reading and writing before I’d left. I wanted to get out of the hills around Murphy for there were no jobs to be had in these mountains. Just moonshining and a bit of farming was what we knew. The books I’d read revealed there was a big world to see.
A couple years ago, Pa had taken me north near Wilkes County to visit an old friend of his, or rather the friend’s son, Bluford McGee. Pa called him Junior. I still remember the stories Pa told as we rode horseback for days along the edge of the mountains, camping midst the trees. Washing in the streams. The land we traveled was unspoiled, uninhabited ’cept for the Cherokee that came and went, always leaving the land as they’d found it.
“Son, that friend of mine, ole Blu, was some’n else. When he died, wrote right in his will that his two sons get that still of his. We’re gonna see how they make that apple whiskey.”
“Instead of corn rye, Pa?” I asked.
“Oh, we’ll still use corn, but we’ll add some apples to it for the flavor. Plenty of apple trees aside the mountains. No use lettin’ ’em go to waste,” said Pa.
Junior’s cabin sat on a hillside where apple orchards lined the valley, and he even had a mill aside the narrow river weaving through the land. Whiskey was his livelihood, and his oldest son ran the mill. It was a glorious place, a paradise measured against the hardship in Murphy where too many struggled to sell their goods, even the whiskey. A mountain town filled with judgment.
While we visited with Junior Blu, I met a young fella by the name of O’Hairen. Just a kid, but he talked of big plans. He told me he was going to dig up the ginger root that grew deep in the forests and cook it into his whiskey back home in Boonville, eastward of McGee’s holler. This boy talked of the fragrances of soils and knew most every plant we came upon as we walked through the woods, and some of our sightings excited him. He had a love of the earth and the moonshining like I’d never seen before.
We’d stayed with Blu for over a week, and after our visit, Pa and I rode on east to see the ocean. We planned on coming back through Wilkes County and packing some of McGee’s jugs on our horses before heading home. The ride to the Atlantic Ocean was long, and I had not known North Carolina was so wide, but at last I stood next to Pa in the sand along the Carolina coast. The two of us looked out to sea, staring at the huge water that looked like it went to an edge of something. The sight filled me with awe and wanderlust.
“Look at that, son,” Pa had said. “Goes cross to another world. From whence our ancestors sailed. I wish your brother and Molly was here to see it.”
Toward the horizon I saw a ship that appeared small in the distance, its tall masts held sails swelled with the wind. From where I stood, it moved as slow as a fat turtle across the distant waters. I dreamt for a whole week about what it’d be like sailing the worlds, living on the swells, the rise and fall of the water. I remembered the maps I’d seen back in the schoolroom, in Missus Jones’ lessons about England and Morocco and Asia. Now that I’d seen the ocean, I only wanted even more to see the world, but I was tied to Pa’s business. To family and a small town in the Appalachian Mountains.
Since Ma’s illness, Pa’s profits had gone to doctors who’d done nothing to help Ma. Before that, the money went to Pa’s gambling and tobacco. Suddenly, Jackson’s voice brought me back to where I stood in front of the still.
“Dammit, Miles. Help me move this sack of barley. All you’re doing is standing ’round, just woolgathering. Here,” said Jackson, his voice carrying impatience. He handed me a rag. “Stop your daydreaming and go check that mash. See if it’s ready.”
As the sun started to ebb behind the mountain, we left the fire to burn down to ash in the stove, and I stirred the mash pot. After we ran the mash through the thump barrel, we finished up by filling some jugs and jars. We ran through the cold and into the warm house to find that Molly had some hot chicken stew with dumplings and a basket filled with biscuits on the table, and little was spoken in winter’s gray where a somber mood edged over the dinner table. Our sister was only fourteen and had quit her schooling to help Pa care for our ma. Molly was a quiet girl, pretty, but didn’t seem to know, or care, that there was a life beyond the cabin. She had no friends to come visit, and there was one fellow, the Harper boy, who’d once seemed fond of her, but we’d not seen much of him since Molly quit going to school.
Then there was the cave. That damned cave Pa loved so much, imbibing much of his own products as he would sit within the bowels of the mountain, old Fain Mountain. Pa had outfitted it with lanterns and wooden stairs lined with stacked jugs, held ’em hidden deep in that mountain’s hole so the law couldn’t find it. He probably didn’t need to worry much about the law since the government had ceded taxing the whiskey, but Pa loved that cave, and he would have had the still in there if he could have found a way to run water and vent it.
“Pa, we’re going to deliver those twenty-seven jugs late tonight, when there’s nothin’ but some dim moonlight,” said Jackson. I was pretty certain that I’d be bringing the cart home by myself because Jackson was certain to head over to the Baileys’ cabin in the holler and dive into Nora Bailey’s window. Nora was a beauty, with wavy black hair falling to her waist and lips that called to any man, lips that I’d heard quite a few had tasted. My brother had been lovin’ on Nora for almost two years, even had her pa shoot at him one night, the bullet grazing his leg. That didn’t stop him. Not much stopped Jackson from doing what he wanted, not even the law. The sheriff had hauled him off to jail for a night last year after it was reported he’d stolen a customer’s handgun, and the sheriff found it in my brother’s waistband.
“Sorry, Judd, I jus’ picked up the wrong gun,” he told the sheriff, and off he went home. Gave the gun back and stole another one the next week, but no one noticed, ’cept me.
“How’s Mama?” I asked Pa, still at the dinner table.
“Doing poorly,” he said. “Not much different and s’pose she won’t be livin’ in this world much longer.”
Molly cleared the table and walked over to the dishpan before Jackson and I walked out to load the cart. Late that night, just as I’d expected, Jackson left me alone to take the empty wagon home.
“I think you need to go through the creek on your way to the Baileys’ cabin,” I yelled as my brother disappeared into the dark. “Wash off some of that stink.”