I’ve been working on a novel, tentatively called “The Antioch Curve” (after going through multiple other titles and never finding anything satisfactory). Set in Alabama during Prohibition, it’s the story of an African-American moonshiner who falls in love with the wife of the Treasury Department official who’s looking to put him out of business–or in the ground.
Below is the first chapter. I hope you like it.
Boone crouched behind the wide bole of a pecan tree and waited for them to come. He heard them before he saw them, clumsy cursing city men in the woods. They crushed leaves underfoot, broke branches with their grasping, thick hands. They slid and slipped on the slick old Indian trail, but they came anyway, relentless like the march of time. There were three of them, single file as if they were on parade. They wore dark suits, narrow ties and white shirts. Their shoes were caked with mud and twigs. The suit coats swung open occasionally to show guns in clamshell holsters attached to their belts. Gold badges hung from their lapels. Government men. In their hands they carried tools to break and crush what Boone had built.
Boone wished he had a rifle. The double-barrel shotgun he held was no good at this range. He could wait and watch. And if they found the decoy, everything was all right. But if they found the still – the real one – Boone would kill them. He would do it without hesitation and without regret. A man had to earn a living. The shotgun wasn’t heavy in his hands. After a year of carrying it every day, of shooting snakes and feral hogs, the gun was an extension of himself, a natural appendage. He crept forward, silent as a phantom, and laid the shotgun barrel into the fork of a tree to steady his aim. He was still too far away to do any good with the shotgun, but the act made him feel better.
Around Boone the woods were quiet except for the heavy breathing and clumsy travel of the men ahead. It was spring – green and gold dappled together like a rich tapestry. Here in the shadows of the pecans, the pines and the maples, Boone remained hidden. His overalls were stained nearly colorless, and his heavy woolen work shirt was a few shades lighter than his skin. As the men rounded another bend, Boone saw the leader’s head come up.
He’d spotted the decoy. It wasn’t much – just a single pot still with a lot of worn-out copper tubing. The still itself had never been used, but the tubing had been discarded from Boone’s real still – a much larger and complicated affair. A few ceramic jugs of watered-down liquor were cached nearby. Hidden, but not difficult to find. It should be enough to satisfy them.
The government men went at the still like men who enjoyed their work. They’d brought along axes and pickaxes, and the sound of the blades striking and squalling against the metal still made Boone wince. Soon they had flattened the decoy, shredded it into nothing usable or recognizable. When they were done, the agents wiped their brows with clean white handkerchiefs. Once they had rested, the revenuers went looking for Boone’s cache. They found it after about five minutes, and then put their tools to work breaking glass. There was enough liquor in the jugs so they could smell the fumes, but mostly what was spilled onto the earth was water.
Boone couldn’t help himself. He grinned, his teeth a bright contrast to the dark mahogany of his face. Careful to make no noise, he shifted the gun barrel up and slipped back until he was sure he could circle around the decoy and away from the real still.
His path brought him closer to the agents. One of them scribbled something down in a notebook while the other two sat on a fallen log and picked mud from their shoes.
“They always think they can get away with it,” one of the seated agents said. A pickax leaned against the tree beside him.
“That’s because so many of them do, Max.”
The one who spoke this time was the one with a pen and notepad in his hands. He was taller than the other two, his suit a little better quality. His voice was sharp and nasal, maybe Boston. And Boone noticed that this agent’s shoes weren’t in as bad shape as the other two. This one might know what he was doing.
Boone knew it was dangerous, but he wanted to get closer, wanted to see what the one agent was doing with his pad and pen. He slithered closer, his gun up and at the ready. But by the time he got closer, the revenuer answered his question.
“We seized and destroyed a hundred-gallon pot still and fifteen gallon jugs of unlicensed liquor,” he said. “That seem right to you?”
“Sure,” the one called Max said. “Why not?”
The standing agent shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Something’s just off. We’ve seen decoys before.”
Now the third agent looked up from his shoes.
“Yeah, but copper’s expensive, Ron. You never see that much copper on a decoy.”
It was true, and it was the very reason Boone put the copper tubing on the decoy. It was supposed to lend an air of authenticity. But something had the one agent – Ron – worried.
Now the one called Max took out a pack of cigarettes and shook one out. He lit it with a paper match, which he shook out and dropped on the ground. The smell of tobacco smoke was sharp and acrid in the fresh air. Ron came over and stepped on the match to make sure it was out. No words were said, but Boone thought the gesture showed contempt. Maybe these guys were on the same team, but they didn’t necessarily like each other.
“Do we wait, see if somebody comes up to check this still?”
“You mean stake it out?”
Ron said, “Just for a little while.”
Max and the other agent looked at each other and shrugged. Max smoked one butt down and started on another, lighting the new cigarette from the smoldering end of the first. Ron never sat, never stopped moving. He didn’t smoke. He simply waited.
Boone faded back deeper into the woods. He circled the decoy again, going back the way he’d come. He moved on the balls of his feet like a dancer, his moccasins making no noise as he moved through the underbrush.
The real still was only a mile away, nestled in a small hollow beneath an enormous oak. Boone moved slowly to make sure he wasn’t followed, circling back on his own path and taking time to listen. By the time he got to the hollow, Gerald already had the fire going underneath the still. They used dry hickory or birch for the most part, and the little smoke the fire gave off was dispersed through the thick boughs of the overhanging trees. Nearby was a small stream where nearly sixty gallons of high-test moonshine was secured. Boone whistled before he came into camp, a drawn out “bob-white” bird call. After a second Gerald answered with the same call.
Boone stepped into the clearing with his shotgun slung over one shoulder.
“What took so long?” Gerald said. “Didn’t think you were going to make it, so I figured I’d start the next batch without you.”
He wasn’t going to do any such thing, and they both knew it. But sometimes Gerald forgot he wasn’t in charge out here – that making the moonshine was Boone’s one-and-only real job. Gerald was the driver, the front man, greasing palms where he needed, collecting the cash, and outrunning the law when necessary, too.
He was a country boy, opposite Boone in nearly every way. Blonde, with milky skin that burned pink every summer. Gerald’s nose peeled perpetually, and his eyebrows and eyelashes were so light they were nearly impossible to see.
Boone didn’t answer Gerald’s question. He leaned the shotgun against the big oak and got to work. While the fire warmed the still, Boone took the newest batch of liquor and wrestled the big washtub over to a small screen lined with charcoal. He used a hollowed-out gourd as a dipper, pouring the moonshine through the screen to catch any impurities. Occasionally Boone would shake the screen like a miner panning for gold. The shine slid down into a tin funnel where it poured into a clay jar. When the jar was full, Boone would stopper it with a cork and set the jug aside to be cached with all of the other jugs by the stream. It was easy work, busy work for his hands, a chance to let his mind relax after observing the revenuers at the decoy still. Gerald had been working with him for a few months by that point and understood when Boone wanted to be left alone.
“What you get for the last load?” Boone said after a while.
“Hundred and twenty dollars, a ham and a side of bacon,” Gerald said.
“Shit,” Boone said. He kept pouring the liquor through the screen. “Not bad for a week’s work.”
Most folks – the ones who still had a job – were making a dollar a day. Gerald would take a third of the money and half the ham and bacon. All he had to do was drive and keep his mouth shut, and there weren’t going to be any soup kitchens or bread lines in his future. Still, it was in Gerald’s nature to worry.
“Got a lot more folks wanted to trade this time,” he said. “Money’s scarce and getting worse. They read about how bad it is all over, and nobody wants to spend a dime.”
Boone corked another jug and set it aside.
“They won’t spend it in a store,” Boone said. “But their whiskey’s a different matter. We won’t need to do too much trading. Not yet, anyway.”
Gerald nodded, even though Boone wasn’t looking at him. He went away and stoked the fire beneath the still, watched the coals begin to glow white beneath the rounded pot bottom. He could hear the liquid bubbling inside. Boone had something on his mind, and sooner or later he’d tell Gerald what it was. It was the way Boone’s mind worked – he thought a lot, but said as little as possible. At least during the time Gerald had known him.
When Boone finally emptied the washtub full of shine, Gerald took the washtub and set it back underneath the rubberized hose that hung from a length of copper tubing. The tube carried the condensed alcohol away from the heat of the still, and they were able to clamp the hose shut until it was time to pour the liquor into the tub. Gerald undid the clamp and let the shine drip down into the tub while Boone carried the clay jars – all but one – down to their hiding place.
When he came back, he popped the cork out of the remaining jar and hoisted it over his elbow. He looked at Gerald.
“To your health,” Boone said, and tipped the jar toward his lips. He took a long swallow and felt the liquor bloom like distant, warm fire in his chest. When he took the jar away from his mouth there was a smile on his face. He handed the jar to Gerald.
“Go on,” he said. “Ain’t nobody around to see you drink after a nigger.”
Gerald blushed. But he couldn’t help wiping the mouth of the jar with his sleeve. He hoisted the jar in much the same way that Boone did, and drank a deep slug. When he was done he breathed out slowly.
“Go on,” Boone said. “Take another one.”
Gerald tipped the jar toward his face again. As he drank he heard Boone get up. When the hammers eared back on the shotgun, Gerald dropped the jar. Moonshine spilled out on the ground and trailed away as the jar rolled off into the underbrush. Gerald was looking into the twin eyes of the shotgun barrels. He tried to swallow, but he couldn’t. His throat was dry, and the whiskey-fire in his belly felt as cold as ice now.
“I saw some revenuers at the decoy today,” Boone said. “Tell me who you been talking to before I blow your fool head off.”