"Ol Gooseman's Lost Likker"
By Billy Don Baker
First in a series of chapters from the novel by Billy Don Baker
Jody McCracken is a seventeen year old boy growing up in the hills of East Tennessee in the autumn of 1959. Fishing and squirrel hunting pretty much provides him and his best friend, Pone, with all of the entertainment and excitement that they need. But, when they accidentally stumble onto a lost cache of moonshine, three hundred gallons of "some shore 'nuff, some account, top quality drankin' whiskey" their little easy-going world quickly changes. With the help of Jody's feisty great-uncle they scheme to sell the whiskey to a big-time bootlegger and get rich. As luck would have it though, their well-laid plans come unraveled and they soon realize that, "gittin' rich just ain't all that easy".
OL' GOOSEMAN'S LOST LIKKER
He was a big'un. As a matter of fact, he was probably the biggest hog-sucker that anyone had ever seen in Caney Branch. And slowly ...very, very slowly, he was working his way upstream, heading in a straight beeline towards the boy's waiting bait ...a juicy gob of night-crawlers. All the pint-sized angler had to do was be patient, still, and quite ...the snare was laid ...the unsuspecting quarry drew near.
From his hiding place behind a clump of water alders Little Earn watched, held his breath and waited. His eyes, set in a sideways stare, peered hawk-like from underneath the low drawn brim of his hat. Cool mud squished up between the toes of his bare feet. Daring not the slightest movement of head nor limb, he stood as stiff and unflinching as a wooden Indian on the bank of his fishing hole.
Lazily the big brindle striped fish swam against the current, putting forth only enough effort to slowly inch his body forward along the bottom. Working his sucker-snout methodically across the pebbles and silt of the creek bed, he vacuumed up morsels of nourishment so small that the spying lad couldn't even tell what they were.
Little Earn quickly surmised that if the fish liked the taste of plain old mud, he would suck up his gob of worms like a starved dog eating bacon.
The little fisherman was so engrossed in his sport that he didn't hear the far off whine of the over-revved Ford engine being unmercifully downshifted as it turned off the blacktop of Sinking Creek Road, onto the narrow dirt and gravel lane that ran up Caney Branch. He didn't hear it, but his mama did.
Irma McCracken looked up from the bowl of potatoes that she was peeling at the kitchen table. Intently, she cocked her head and listened. In the next instant she jumped up and ran to the screened front door carrying the bowl on her hip.
"Lil' Earn! 'I she called out to her son across the road. "you git on back over here in th' yard now Honey! I hear one 01 them 01' crazy Baumgardner boys a' comin ‘! "
Her words fell on ears that had might as well have been deaf. Little Earn, with his back to his mother, remained motionless on the bank of his fishing hole.
"Did you not hear what I said young'un?!'1 Irma hollered as she swung the screen door open. 'iI mean for you t' gitch your little hin' en' back over here on this side 0' th' road! Right now! ! "
She knew he heard her that time. Little Earn grimaced. The whopping hog-sucker was within two feet of his bait now, and closing in. He wasted very little thought trying to figure out what to do. He couldn't give up his chance at catching the biggest fish that he'd ever seen. No, he was sticking it out and staying put ...in spite of Mama, and them crazy Baumgardners too. He set his jaw resolutely and pretended not to hear his mother's caterwauling.
Turning up the narrow mountain valley, the 156 Ford's motor screamed like a banshee set free from Damnation as Wimpy Baumgardner slammed the column shifter up into second gear. He scooted the car broadside into the first curve on Caney Branch Road ...a tight right-hander. Feathering the gas pedal, he balanced the car's power with the hurtling momentum of its weight and brought it charging out of the curve in a full power slide. Gravels flew from the back tires, riddling the dusty weeds that grew beside the road like bullets from a machine gun. Ahead lay a half-mile stretch of straight country road. The speedometer hand swept past ninety and was steadily climbing upwards halfway through the straight. The two tone Crown Victoria rocked and rolled on its suspension while a turbulent plume of dust boiled out from under her rear bumper. Climbing up and spreading out, the dust cloud engulfed everything that lay in the speeding car's wake.
Wimpy cackled devilishly, holding a tight grip on the steering wheel of his precious "Vickie" with a pair of greasy hands. The exhilaration of the road being devoured by her souped-up Thunderbird engine made him feel good, and the beer in his belly gave him the nerve to keep his foot in it. He took a quick swig from the bottle between his legs as the curve at the end of the straight loomed up ahead.
Irma heard the throaty roaring and popping of the engine as it backed down. She knew just exactly where the car was and that it would be coming through in but a short moment. She was starting to get mad. What was wrong with that boy? She knew he could hear her. How come he just kept standing there humped up like a knot on a log? She stepped off the porch and quickly walked to the edge of the yard, which was just a few feet higher than the road. With a hand planted firmly on one hip and the bowl of potatoes propped on the other, she screamed across the road at her statue-like son ...
“JAMES EARNEST McCRACKEN JUNIOR! ! ! IF I HAVE T' COME OVER THERE AN' GIT YOU BOY ...YOU'RE GONNA WISH I HADN'T!!!"
Little Earn knew she was really starting to get serious now ...using his whole full name, and putting the "Junior" on it too. Through past experience he was well aware, that the only time his mama ever called him llJarnes Earnest McCracken”, and added the dreaded “Junior" on to it too, was right before she was fixing to give him a good whupping. But, just a few more seconds ...that was all he needed. The hog-sucker was right up next to his worms now ...he was smelling them, savoring their aroma before he sucked them up.
"Be danged if I won't git your attaintion!" Irma muttered in frustration.
Dropping the bowl of potatoes, she hurried over to one of the big box-elm shade trees that grew in the front yard and started trying to jump up and snatch a small branch off of one of the low hanging limbs.
"I'll git me a withe an' flail th, hide off 0' you!!"
All of the commotion and carrying on caught Sputnik's attention. The little coil-tailed Feist trotted out from under the porch where he'd been napping in the cool shade. When he caught sight of Irma, his ears pointed forward and his head cocked sideways. Being the intelligent and well bred hunting dog that he was, seeing a human looking up in a tree while jumping around and hollering, could only mean one thing ...a squirrel!
Two seconds later he was reared up on the tree trunk with both front feet, yipping as hard and as fast as he could. Springing backwards, he sat on his haunches, frantically barking and searching the limbs of the tree for the fuzzy outline of his rodent adversary.
Irma had gotten so involved in trying to get a switch that the thundering car was almost in sight before she knew it.
"JUST STAY OVER THERE! ! ! " she squawked at Little Earn. "YOU HEAR ME?!!! YOU JUST STAY OVER THERE AN' DON'T YOU DARE CROSS THAT ROAD! ! ! YOU HEAR ME? ! ! ! "
Little Earn didn't move.
Irma jerked her eyes towards the curve just a short distance down the road. Here it came ...a screaming, careening, black and white road demon.
As it hurtled out of the curve the car began to fish-tail, the rear end sliding from one side of the road to the other. It didn't seem possible that it could get straightened up enough to make the plank bridge that crossed over Caney Branch, about a long stone's throw below the McCracken house. Irma expected that at any second the car would plummet off into the branch or plow into the mountain on the other side of the road. But suddenly, the tires caught traction on the hard packed dirt. The sheer power of the motor jerked the skidding car around straight and shot it forward, just as its front tires hit the ramp of the bridge.
“KAAWHHAACCKKKKK! ! ! KAAWHHAACCKKKKK! ! !" sounded the oak plank runners as the car's weight slapped them hard against the cross timbers ...the impact driving the tires halfway up into the fender wells. The over-compressed front coil springs shoved back violently, lifting the body, sending the car airborne as it flew off the end of the bridge.
For a split second everything seemed like a bad dream to Irma. Glancing back towards Little Earn she saw both of his arms jerk upward. The cane pole he held in his hands bent double. From the corner of her eye she could see the dreadful car hurtling through the air. In that heart stopping instant she hung, suspended in limbo ...paralyzed by fear. The screaming wide block engine, free of its connection with the road, revved to its absolute limit ...
"kkkkKKKKKKKRRRRRUUUUNNNNCCCCHHHHHH! ! !" the flying Ford bottomed out on its frame, slamming into the heaped up line of gravel in the middle of the road, exploding it into a gritty barrage of dust and granite.
Little Earn turned to look at his mama. Her eyes caught his as she grabbed her face between her hands and began screaming,
“STAY THERE! ! ! STAY THERE! ! ! "
The howling hot rod passed between them like a chrome and steel comet with a tail of dust.
"YOU DANGED CRAZY FOOL! ! ! " Irma futilely yelled at the driver of the car, shaking her balled up fists at him.
Sputnik forgot about the "squirrel" and took off after the speeding car, his legs stretching out so far and pumping so hard and fast that his belly seemed to drag the ground. He darted off up the road yipping in pursuit ...and in a few seconds, was lost to sight in the car's billowing wake. The ear-splitting roar slowly faded into a distant drone, echoing down the narrow mountain valley, until finally ...all that could be heard was the belligerent barking of the little dog, far up the road.
Irma stood breathless as the rolling cloud of dust engulfed her. Batting her eyes, she strained to see through the drifting veil. A long moment passed, and then, faintly, she made out a small form emerging through the haze. Wiping her eyes with the back of the hand that she held her hard begotten switch in, she weakly muttered, "Little Earn. ..?”
"Mama. ..?'1 a small voice sheepishly answered from out on the road.
"Come on up here son. " she commanded , quite calmly, but with authority.
Little Earn didn't like the sound of her voice.
Holding the butt of the cane pole against his belly, the boy struggled with both hands to keep his prize fish from dragging on the ground, its weight bending the pole double as it flopped about.
"Look at' im Mama. I' the little fisherman beamed, trying to smooth things over a bit. "Ain't he th' biggest hog-sucker y' ever seed ? !"
“I see ‘ im ..." Irma answered dryly.
“you an' him git on up here in th' yard . Now.”
Reluctantly, Little Earn jumped across the shallow ditch between the yard and the road, then struggled up the bank.
With the butt of the fishing pole poked into his belly below his overalls bib, Little Earn stood before his mama with downcast eyes.
Irma knelt down in front of her son and laid a hand on both his shoulders. The bent cane pole lowered until it rested on her shoulder, letting the fish flop around on the ground behind her. Little Earn was painfully aware of the green switch in his mother’s right hand.
“Do you know what you done?” Irma implored. “you nairly skeered me t' death James Earnest. That’s what you done .”
She was looking him straight in the face ...but Little Earn didn’t dare look back. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground between them. Irma took hold of the brim of her son’s old felt hat and set it back on his head so that he couldn’t hide under it. Now he felt plumb naked and out in the open.
“you look at me when II m a-talkin' atlchoo.” There was a tremble of emotion in her voice. "How come you didn’t answer me when I wuz a-hollerinl and a-screamin’ my head off?”
Little Earn didn’t answer. He just kept his eyes focused on the patch of ground between his feet and his mama's knees.
“How come?!” she demanded, giving him a little shake that made him look up at her face. Her eyes were damp ...she looked like she was about to cry.
“But Mama ...” Little Earn pleaded, “if I’d a-moved or’d hollered, it wudda skeered th’ fish off .”
“Better fer him t’ git skeered than me! 'I she yelled. “That 0' fish weren't worth you a-gi ttin ' killed wuz he?"
Little Earn pondered the question. Before he could answer though, his mother wrapped her arms around him and started sobbing.
“Lawd, laaaaawwddd young'un ...Don't you ever do that t' me ag’in. What on earth am I goin' t' do with you? I ain't never seed nobody that likes t' fish as much as you does. Your daddy must’ve marked you when he skeered me with that 0l' catfish head th' day 'fore you wuz borned. That’s what it is. Laaaaaawwwdddd a-mercy!"
Irma started crying so hard that her whole body shook.
Little Earn looked over her trembling shoulder. A wide grin came over his face as he admired the big bugle-mouthed hog-sucker ...the biggest fish that held ever caught. He figured everything was going to be alright now. His mama had caved in and wasn’t going to use the switch on him after all. He was glad that he had held his ground, now.
" I nairly gave up th' ghost! I wuz so a-feared that you wuz gonna jump out in front 0' that car ...or that it might wreck an' turn off in th' branch right on top a 1 you! "
Irma was starting to get all worked up. Her voice was beginning to sound almost hysterical.
“Dad-blame ...what a-body has t’ go through just t' try an' raise an 0' young'un'!" she squalled.
Suddenly, Irma was off her knees and standing. Holding Little Earn's left arm by the elbow, she began steadily applying her switch to the seat of his overalls, which were covered with dirt from sitting on the bank of his fishing hole.
Every lick brought a whiff of dust. "Oouch! l' Oouch! '1 Little Earn yelped, trying to sound as pitiful as he could, because he'd found out that that always seemed to help shorten the punishment.
Irma preached to her son between licks. "Spare th' rod ...and spoil th' child! That's what th' ...Good Book sez! This h'
fdt.1'1 ere s ...or your goo ...no mlne.
As they went around in circles, Little Earn hopped and drew up his butt in an effort to soften each lick. All the while, Irma's ankles were becoming more and more entangled in the line of Little Earn's fishing pole, which he'd dropped on the ground.
Sputnik trotted back into the yard, quite proud of himself for having chased off that old loud car. But, what he saw going on now was greatly preplexing to his canine senses. Running across the yard, he grabbed a mouthful of Irma's dress tail and tried to pull her off of his buddie ...Little Earn.
Round and round they went. Irma took a swipe at Little Earn with her switch, then one at Sputnik. Back and forth she divided the licks between them. The boy would jump, and the little dog would dodge, then set back on her dress tail that much harder, growling and shaking his head viciously. All the while, the dirt covered hog-sucker floundered helplessly in the middle of the fracas ...and Irma's ankles became more and more wrapped up in the fishing line.
The running battle commenced on until the struggling threesome came to the spot in the yard where Irma had dropped the bowl of potatoes. The big spuds lay strewn all about. Irma stepped on one that was peeled ...and slick. Her right foot almost slid out from under her. She caught her balance, then stepped on another one that hadn't been peeled. Irma pitched forwards, then backwards, wind milling her switching arm in an effort to keep her balance, the potatoes rolling beneath her entangled feet like balls on a pool table. Suddenly, her dress tail tore with a long rip, her feet flew up in the air, and the switch went sailing.
A long, quiet moment passed ...Irma lay motionless on the ground ...flat on her back ...her eyes staring wide open up at the sky. She didn't blink.
Sputnik stood looking at her, his head cocked at a curious angle, a wide swath of cotton print hanging from his mouth.
"Mama. ..? Are you alright?" Little Earn asked nervously. "Mama?"
The dirt covered fish flopped and floundered amongst the potatoes surrounding her head.
Sputnik suddenly let out with an enthusiastic, " ARRFFF ! ! "
Dropping the cloth, he trotted over and licked Irma on the cheek with his wet tongue. Slowly ...almost insanely, she began to laugh ...and then ...cry. Sputnik stood at her head happily wagging his tail.
Little Earn fell to one knee and peered down into his mother's face. "Mama?" he asked solemnly, "You okay?"
"Just wait t till your father gits home! " she sobbed ...then clasped her hands over her eyes and started laughing again.
To Be Continued Later.....
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