Copyright is held by the author.
CALEB McKINSEY smelled the smoke before he saw it. He jerked his head up, shading his eyes and scanning the cloudless blue horizon. There it was, a black cloud shooting out of the mountain, curling in on itself and thickening. The smoke flew upward, expanding into the sky before bursting forth with an explosion that rocked Caleb under his feet.
“Son of a . . .” he stared, catching his balance and unable to look away. Fire on the mountain could only mean one thing. He hoped to hell it wasn’t Charlie O’Hearn’s stills burning, but the fire was roiling forth from the right direction. Caleb high-tailed it toward his truck to help his friend. Another blast stopped him; a detonation of this size was surely self-sabotage. Charlie was beyond his help now. Nothing burns like a fire fuelled by moonshine.
Caleb reached for a cigarette in the pocket of his overalls. The swivel head wrench he had been using was still in his hand. He turned suddenly and flung the wrench hard, feeling a pull in his shoulder as it struck his tractor with a dull metal clang and fell to the ground.
“Don’t need ya,” Caleb said, flexing his sore shoulder muscle and turning his back on the old John Deere. He lifted his ragged grey fedora, wiping sweat from his forehead and smoothing his long silver hair back before replacing the hat. With a slight tremor, he lit his cigarette while watching Charlie O’Hearn’s life go up in flames. Charlie would be smart enough to get out of his own way, Caleb hoped, but this was an act of desperation. Lot of good bourbon going to waste. Instead of sorrow, though, Caleb felt a prickle of envy.
Lonny Allan shuffled up behind Caleb and coughed. Lonny had been with Caleb since his hill-trash parents took off one day when he was seven and forgot him. Over the last 30 years they had both stopped waiting for someone to come looking for him. He coughed again. Lonny worked hard, but he had trouble with conversation.
“You seen the fire,” Caleb nodded toward the sky.
“Charlie?” Lonny asked. “You think it’s all gone?”
“Hell, I know it is.”
“You think Charlie’s all right?” Unlike Caleb, Charlie had not bought licenses, built warehouses, or given in to the tax man. He didn’t brew as much as Caleb, but he didn’t have to, without taxes. This was always the gamble, and Charlie had not drawn aces this time.
“Sure as hell hope so.”
“You going over to help him?”
“Me being there will only make it worse.”
Lonny was quiet. “Well, you, uh, you got that doctor appointment.”
“Piss on that,” Caleb said, returning to pick up the wrench.
“Third one,” Lonny said.
“Don’t care if it’s the 33rd one. Ain’t going.”
“Well, insurance company cares if you go.” People often took Lonny for a dimwit, but Caleb knew he never missed a thing.
Caleb dropped the newly dinged wrench into his toolbox. Jesus H. Christ on a cracker, the things you’d do to protect your liquor. Used to be you might have to threaten to shoot someone; now you had to bend over and grab your ankles for the board of directors. Hell of a thing, that. Caleb didn’t know which was worse. Add that to Charlie’s disaster, which Caleb knew was just the beginning. He wished Charlie had told him it was going to happen, but he also knew why he didn’t. The less you know, the more honest your denial. Maybe now they’d leave Caleb alone.
Bourbon Sweet Tea was Caleb’s claim to moonshine fame. The old family recipe, going back over a hundred years, had started with a clear corn mash cooked in spring water filtered by limestone, then tinged with juice from Virginia’s native peaches. It was passed carefully down through generations of McKinseys, from legal to illegal to deadly when the government stuck their hands in. Prohibition revenuers had forced most of the old shiners to close down their operations when the government got ruthless about throwing people in prison for the vicious crime of tax evasion. Old Popcorn Sutton was well into his sixties when the feds decided to pop him for a two year stint even though he’d just been hit with cancer. Before being fitted for prison issue britches, Popcorn decided he’d go on his own terms and sat in his garage one day and swallowed a tailpipe. The government always underestimated the bullheaded moonshiners.
Caleb took note, though. More than 20 years ago, it had taken nearly every cent he had to buy the federal licenses rather than give in to the Department of Justice. More money to build the warehouse for the stills that were up to code; codes which changed every couple of months just after Caleb had met them. On top of that, every year the tax man took more money than he let Caleb keep. Caleb knew that’s what it was really all about, from the beginning – chasing the almighty dollar.
Today, Bourbon Sweet Tea was no longer made with spring water or peaches. In a spotless warehouse full of 800 gallon copper stills, a cheap synthetic sucrose flavouring mixed with chemical-filled city water. The bourbon didn’t taste the same, but it sure did fly off the shelves with a label featuring a sexy, juice-dripping peach. There were enough idiots in cities like Seattle and New York that wanted to appear to live dangerously on hard liquor, and Caleb was happy to sell them just that illusion. Caleb incorporated as the company grew, and now a board of shithead directors sat around all day drinking six-dollar coffee and making up rules. Caleb was the chairman and majority stockholder, looking at every business proposal and showing up in his overalls when there was a vote. The newest rule they’d caffeinated their way into was mandatory annual physicals. Caleb knew they were trying to get rid of him. They were even rumours that his daughter, Brigit, had spoken to board members about her ideas for expanding Bourbon Sweet Tea. She had a bit of stock, not enough, but he knew she was coming into her voting rights on her next birthday in a few days. Course, she didn’t tell him, no sir. He’d be goddamned if anyone was going to take his company away from him, not while he still had fire in his belly.
But in order to protect the company, he had to comply with their rules. Caleb honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to a doctor. All the old doctors he knew had long since retired or died, and these new young jackasses were bound to make him run on a treadmill or some happy horse shit like that. He had no time for this. He came from good Irish stock, strong people who worked hard and didn’t whine about it. To prove the point of his obvious good health, he barked out a long, wet cough, then ground out his cigarette.
“Well, shit. Best get it over with, then, so’s I can get back to work,” Caleb said, walking to his truck. Lonny gave a long sidewise glance at the ground near Caleb’s feet. “I don’t need ya to drive me, Christ’s sake. Day I can’t drive my own self I might’s well roll down the mountain and let the water moccasins have at me.” As a child he had once come across a nest of writhing water moccasins near a stream. Coiling furiously around each other, black scales glistened as angry white-fanged mouths struck each other repeatedly as they battled over a man’s severed hand. Who had tossed the hand into the creek and where the rest of the unfortunate soul ended up was just another moonshine cautionary tale.
Caleb rumbled down the side of the mountain in his new pickup truck, his one concession to wealth. He’d walked down this gravel road alone in the winter too many times as a kid. Sometimes he let Lonny drive him, but that was for Lonny’s sake. The boy went almost nowhere by himself, and if Caleb didn’t bring him along, he’d never leave the mountain. Wasn’t good to keep too much to yourself. Caleb knew there were still some old hill people back in the hollers that never came to town. Every so often one of their kids would pop up for supplies, pulling dollar bills soft with age out of dirty hand-me-down pants, suspicious of strangers even in the small town of Touraine. Usually mountain families only hit the news when there was a house fire or a hunting accident. Then town people would tsk and say, I didn’t even know anybody still lived back there.
Caleb pulled his truck into the strip mall that housed the doctor’s office. Hell of a thing, that, to have your medical professional next to a frozen yogurt shop. He walked in, ready to turn his head and cough and get on with his day. But first he had two entire pages worth of medical history to fill out. Caleb wrote in his name and then drew a straight line down the “no” column for the inventive menu of diseases he might have. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but it was the doctor’s job to figure that out. They finally called him to an exam room, and doctor college-boy came bounding in with a smile and a clean white coat.
“How are you today? Mind if I call you Caleb?” he asked.
“Mind if I call you Jack?” Caleb replied.
“That’s not my . . . right, Mister McKinsey.” The smile faded. “What seems to be the problem today?”
“Have to get this damn physical for insurance. Healthy as a horse so if you can just poke the places ya need to and be done I’d appreciate it,” Caleb said.
He’d give the doc credit, he went right to work. He prodded and peered until Caleb was about to lose his patience. Long as he got to keep his pants on, it was fine. Doc frowned when he got the stethoscope out, though, and listened to Caleb’s chest. Then his back. Then his chest again. And his back. Maybe he needed to squirt some Windex on that thing if he couldn’t hear out of it.
“Have you had the flu recently, or bronchitis? Any respiratory related illnesses?” Doc asked, peering at Caleb’s chart. He looked at the long line of no on the chart and saw how much time Caleb had spent giving him a true and thorough assessment of his medical history.
“Nope. Healthy as a horse, I told ya. Are we done?” Caleb asked, buttoning his shirt and re-hooking his overall straps.
“It sounds like you’ve got some fluid in your chest. Not even a cold lately?”
“No, sir. I’d like to get on back to work now if it’s all the same to you.”
“You need to have a chest x-ray,” he scribbled on a long yellow medical form and handed it to Caleb.
“What the hell for?”
“Just to make sure your lungs are clear. Come back on Friday, the imaging centre is just a few doors down. It won’t take long and then we’ll be certain you are healthy.”
“Goddamn it, I told ya I was healthy. This is what you do, you Yankee doctors. Order up all these expensive tests thinking us damn rednecks won’t know no better,” Caleb barked.
“Mr. McKinsey, you don’t have to have the x-ray. It is entirely up to you. But then, I don’t have to sign the form for your physical.” He clicked the pen and put it back in his chest pocket. “You have a nice day, sir,” and out the door he went.
Caleb sat on the examining room table, slightly stunned. People didn’t usually talk back to him, but this young doctor didn’t know that. Caleb had to respect that; man had a job to do, after all. People didn’t usually make him wait, either, but it would be two days before he could have the damn x-ray. He shoved the yellow form into his pocket as he walked outside into the sunshine.
Caleb looked up, shading his eyes once again. Two cheap black suits, government issue, stood in front of him. They’d been driving around all week, dusting up the town, about as subtle as a pair of African elephants. He was surprised it had taken them this long to get to him. One was a tall drink of water, strands of blond hair plastered against his forehead by the midday heat. The other was shorter and round, jacket straining to close over his middle. He’d be the one with something to prove, Caleb knew.
“Caleb McKinsey?” said the tall one.
“What do you want?” Caleb said.
“I’m Agent Mark Peterson, this is my partner, Julian Miller. We’re with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.” Peterson held out a badge. He nudged his partner, who grudgingly dug a wallet out of his back pocket and flipped it open and shut too quickly to see anything.
“So?” Caleb replied.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“No,” Caleb said as he continued to walk to his truck.
“Charlie O’Hearn had time to talk,” said Miller.
That stopped Caleb, and he turned back to them. He knew Charlie would never talk to these agents except to tell them to go to hell.
“You got what you wanted, now why don’t you hit the road before the stink gets too bad.”
“Mr. McKinsey, we just need . . .” Peterson started.
“We know there’s more, McKinsey,” said Miller as he wiped his brow.
“Talk to my lawyers. Mine’s all legal.”
Caleb turned to Miller. “You got a problem with me?”
“If we could just sit down and talk I’m sure we could clear this up,” Peterson said.
“Even if it is legal, regulations change. Laws are updated, licenses revoked,” Miller said.
“I had this good old dog once,” Caleb walked slowly right up to Miller and stood nose-to-nose. “Bit by a rabid raccoon. Shame. Had to shoot the cur myself.”
“Are you threatening me?” Miller said.
“Yes, sir, I am.” Caleb turned and walked back to his truck, climbed in, and blew a good cloud of exhaust in their faces as he screeched out of the parking lot.
He wailed out to the street, barely missing old June Hunnicutt waddling back from her chicken and biscuits lunch at the cafe. She raised an angry fist until she recognized Caleb’s truck, then she quickly lowered her hand and looked away.
Caleb drove straight toward the river, halting abruptly at the banks of the blue water and throwing the truck into park. Charlie hadn’t said a word to the feds, Caleb was sure of it. But this is what they did, planting doubts, watering them with gossip until they grew into suspicion and accusations. He needed to keep quiet now, no matter how much he wanted Charlie’s reassurance.
Caleb jammed a cigarette into his mouth and reached into his overall pockets for his Zippo. A sharp slice nicked his thumb against the fingernail and he withdrew his hand. A drop of blood taunted him as he carefully extracted the offending yellow x-ray form which had cut him.
“Son of a bitch!” He crumpled the form in his fist and tossed it on the floor of the truck. As if he needed this to add insult to injury. He stuck his thumb in his mouth to clean it off. They wanted him to have a goddamn x-ray and waste more of his time and money, those bull hockey board members. Did they really think this would stop him? Did they think it would be so easy to take Bourbon Sweet Tea away from him? Hell no. Also, did this board of idiots have any idea how the government was dogging him right now, with these god-damn federal agents? They did not. He was the only one who could save Bourbon Sweet Tea. He’d done it before, he could do it one more time.