In this chapter, Kimball (originally Tommy) and Jimmy are a few years older. Kimball’s father has passed on, and with the Chestnut trees mostly dead, the boys are under pressure to make a living. They have resorted to the ways of their Uncle Buddy, and Kimball is making his first delivery. The chapter is coming in a little short compared to most of the others, but I might let it stay that way. As always, let me know what you think. Any and all feedback is welcome.
A Close Call
A single lantern glowed faintly beneath the Cherry Street bridge. Kimball turned back the throttle so the boat held itself against the current, as he scanned the bank carefully. Keeping to his right, he eased up river between the island and the tall cliffs along the south bank. Rounding the upper end of the long island that split the river into two channels just upriver from the bridge, he shut off the motor and pulled it out of the water. Moving to the middle of the boat, he took up the oars and controlled the boat slowly downriver towards the bridge abutment.
There moon had not yet risen, and high clouds kept starlight to a minimum. Timing was perfect. Rowing backwards, Kimball ferryied the boat towards the north bank. As he neared his destination, he looked hard into the shadows on either side of the abutment. Everything was dark–too dark, perhaps. It would be nearly impossible to see anybody who wasn’t carrying a light.
The dim lantern beneath the bridge swung left, right, and left again, went dark for a few seconds, then reappeared—the “all clear” signal he was looking for. Kimball rowed silently towards the light.
There were no words exchanged as he tossed bowline to the gentleman on the shore. The man receiving him did not tie the boat off after hauling him in. Should anything go wrong, there would be no time for untying knots. Instead, he piled the rope on the deck of the boat and watched Kimball pull back the tarp at his feet to reveal twenty one-gallon glass jugs arranged neatly on the floor.
Kimball didn’t know the man he was meeting personally. He and Mr. Hellis, and they had never met face-to-face, communicating through notes left in small mason jar beneath the Turbid Creek bridge at the mouth of the gorge. That was where Mr. Hellis, after tasting a small left for him, had delivered a down payment for this first batch. The quality was everything Kimball and Jimmy had hoped for. They had made high-end liquor and it would be sold to wealthy white customers, mostly in the Carriage Hill neighborhood.
Pulling up to the shore now and seeing the shadowy figure before him, he smiled nervously. Being a criminal was new to Kimball, and his hands were shaking visibly as he stowed the oars, tilted the boat out of the water to avoid the rocks, and stood up in the boat.
He took a single step forward, and was suddenly blinded by lights coming from multiple sources on shore. Several voices were yelling all at once: “Federal Police! Put your hands over your heads!” Kimball jumped to the back of the boat and fumbled for the release lever to drop the motor back in the water.
Blinded, it was hard to tell exactly what was happening on shore in front of him. Somebody, perhaps Mr. Hellis, bumped the boat, sending away from the bank, just enough to set it adrift, but not enough to prevent an agent from jumping from the riprap on shore to the prow of the boat.
The agent steadied himself on the front deck of the boat that was drifting farther from the shore and beginning to catch the current. “Put your hands on your head and turn around!” the agent commanded. “We don’t want things to get worse for you than they already are!” The agent was drawing his revolver as Kimball released the motor into the river. Kimball was not about to give up. “Turn around, and put your hands on your head,” the agent repeated. “We’ve got you red-handed and we know who you are, Kimball Tucker.” When he heard his name, Kimball’s hands shook even harder, and he struggled with the release lever on the Evinrude. The agent reached with his left foot from the deck to the bottom of the boat, but the stowed oars and twenty jugs of liquor prevented him from making a quick easy path to the back of the boat. Kimball had never looked down the barrel of a gun other than when cleaning his shotgun. The officer gripped his pistol tight and shouted again, “Put your hands over our head Kimball! We’ve got you! A the officer shouted, Kimball managed to release the outboard motor and quickly slap the lever into reverse. He twisted the throttle wide open, and took a firm hold of the handle on the starting rope. One hard yank, and the 18 horsepower Evinrude roared to life. Kimball threw the steering lever hard away from him, causing the boat to launch into a backwards clockwise circle and throwing the off-balance agent over the left side of the boat, his revolver splashing several feet beyond him and his hat floating downstream. Kimball jerked the steering lever back towards him to avoid running over the man in the water.
Kimball eased off the throttle and shifted the motor into neutral. Seeing the officer had his head above water with only his pride wounded, he slapped the shift lever to forward, cranked the throttle, and disappeared into the darkness. Having no boat, the agents were unable to give chase. All they could do was listen to Kimball’s Evinrude fading into the night and shout commands Kimball couldn’t hear over the racing Evinrude. No shots were ever fired.
In high water, the snaking Muskogee River gorge was filled with hazards, and the water was not particularly high that night, so any boatman would be challenged to navigate, especially at high speed, and especially in the dark. Even if the feds had brought a boat, they would be at a huge disadvantage trying to catch a teen who was raised on the river like Kimball. Rumors were afoot that Tennessee Valley Authority was making plans to dam the Muskogee at the bottom of the gorge to make it more navigable for larger boats and to control flooding, but for now the river was still wild, and Kimball was in charge. He knew the river well, and navigated the boulders and rapids perfectly—keeping right until he came to the pier across from the foundry, then cutting hard left to avoid a strainer and following the left bank around the bend at the foot of the mountain. Even below Uncle Island where Turbid Creek flowed off the plateau creating a hydraulic legendary for sucking boats under and pinning their crew to the bottom of the river, Kimball knew just where to make his line. He was just below Turbid Creek when reached forward, twisted the lid off the nearest jug, lifted the jug out of the boat, and lowered it into the black river. One by one, he did the same with the other nineteen jugs. By the time Kimball was safely within the steep walls of the Gorge, whatever felony he might had committed was diluted a million times over by a raging Muskogee River.
An hour after fleeing the fiasco under the bridge, Kimball pulled his flat bottom boat up to the dock, where Sheriff Charley Saylor was waiting. Kimball smiled, both because it was always good to see his father’s friend, and because there were no federal agents with him. He tossed Sheriff Saylor a line, which he secured to a cleat on the pier. Then, with a handshake, the sheriff helped his old friend out of the boat. The whole time, the sheriff’s lantern had been illuminating the empty boat. Now, he knelt down and lifted the canvas. As he assumed, there was nothing there tying Kimball to what everybody knew he had just attempted to do. The only things left in the boat were the oars, a life preserver, and a lantern. Both men were relieved by the lack of evidence. Sheriff Saylor did not want to handcuff his friend—not on that night, especially not so soon following his father’s death.
Kimball told the sheriff he had been out doing a little night fishing. “The mayflies are hatching,” he said. “Makes for good fishing. We should go sometime… like we used to with Papa. We used to have some good fishing on the river, didn’t we Charley? I would have stayed out later, but I was getting hungry.” The sheriff nodded in agreement that they did indeed have some good times fishing together. He did not bother asking Kimball why there was no fishing equipment in the boat.
They both knew the feds did not want Kimball arrested on a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge that would do little to stem the flow of liquor out of the gorge, so Sheriff Saylor gave Kimball a symbolic warning, then he asked him to give his regards to his Mama, and to please be careful. “You know if that agent had drowned back there under the bridge, there would be nothing I could do for you, Kimball.” Kimball assured the sheriff he didn’t know what he was talking about, but thanked him for his advice, anyway, and told him he would, indeed, be careful.
“Would you like to come in for a bite? You do’t have to rush off. You came all this way, after all.”
“No thanks, Kimball. Another time,” he responded.
They walked together to the cabin where Kimball watched from the porch as the sheriff continued on to his car. Sheriff Saylor turned around as he opened the car door for one last word with his friend. “Think about what happened tonight, Kimball. You pissed some people—people with badges, guns, and something to prove. Things are gonna get a lot tougher on you and your cousin if you keep this up. Think about calling it quits before it gets ugly for you. I don’t want to see you ending up like your Uncle Buddy, and sure don’t want that happening to your Mama. You know there ain’t much I can do for you when it comes to federal agents, Kimball. You aren’t just another tax-evading moonshiner in the county anymore. You are wanted by the federal government now. The feds have you marked, and they will come after you with or without my help.” Kimball waved goodbye from the porch, and Sheriff Saylor got in his car and drove away.
As soon as the sheriff’s car was out of sight, Jimmy emerged from the barn. “You alright? What happened?”
Kimball told his cousin the whole story. He was somehow calm while speaking with the Sheriff, but now his whole body was shaking again as relayed the details of the evening.
“Well, we can’t go back to that drop site. We’ll have to come up with a new plan,” said Jimmy. “Did they arrest Mr. Hellis?”
“I don’t know,” said Kimball. “I doubt it since he hadn’t even touched the liquor when they came after us. I don’t know what they could arrest him on other than helping a fellow beach his boat in the dark, and I don’t think that’s a crime. The feds really screwed up, you know. If they had waited until we had a jug or two on shore, I don’t think I’d be standing here.”
“Yeah, probably not. We’re gonna have to be a lot more careful from here on out.”
“And don’t forget that we have some of his money,” said Kimball with raised eyebrows. “I’ll leave Hellis a message tomorrow, telling him not to worry, and that we’ll have him a new batch in a week.”
“We’ll have to get up on the plateau for more corn,” said Jimmy. “And that’s gonna take all our cash, so we have to get it right this time.”
“Yeah, but more important is the answer to the question we haven’t asked yet.”
“How did the feds know…”
“That’s right,” continued Kimball thoughtfully. After a pause, he added, “Nobody knew about our sale but Mr. Hellis. And nobody else even knows about the still either.”
“Him… and the Sheriff…” added Jimmy.
“Yeah, Mama knows everything.”
“You think Hellis was in on it?” Jimmy asked.
“Could be. I don’t know him. Johnny Baxter told me about him. He’s the one who set up the first communication.”
“So Johnny knows.”
“Yeah, but remember that Johnny is selling liquor too. He picked up Uncle Buddy’s clients when he got arrested. It wouldn’t be in his interest to snitch on us. Plus, he didn’t know about the drop. All he knew was that we talked to Hellis. For all he knows we might not even be cooking yet… unless Hellis told him about the meet.”
“Well we know it wasn’t Saylor or Mama, so it has to be Hellis.”
“I think your right,” Kimball said.
“So what do we do?” Jimmy asked, more to the river than to his cousin, his voice trailing off as he walked along the river bank, thinking.
Kimball picked up a stone and tried skipping it, but the current caught it on the first splash, turning it sideways and pulling it into the water.
Jimmy turned around and walked back to Kimball. “Here’s what we’ll do,” he said. We owe Mr. Hellis some liquor, but we can’t sell him liquor because we don’t trust him now. That means we need to give him his money back, but we can’t do that because we need that money to cook a second batch. So, this is how I see it: You get a message to Hellis telling him to give us a couple weeks for the heat to settle down. Tell him we will cook some more liquor, and let him know when we feel safe. Assure him that everything is okay.”
“But what happens when we don’t deliver?” Interrupted Kimball.
“We’ll cook some more liquor and find a new buyer. As soon as we make the sale, we’ll send Hellis the message that we don’t feel safe, and we are refunding him his deposit. We can make enough on a sale to easily cover him, and set ourselves up for the next several batches. All we need is one good sale to kickstart us.”
“You’re brilliant Cousin,” said Kimball, patting Jimmy on the back.
“I ain’t brilliant yet,” Jimmy responded. “Let’s see if it works.”
“It’ll work. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take the Model T up the plateau and pick up some corn. While I’m there, I’ll do some asking around. Somebody up there will have a good connection, and if we sell in Wright County instead of Weaver, we can avoid Saylor and maybe things will settle back down.”
“Do you think we can sell the good stuff over there, away from the city?”
“Yeah, there’s rich folks on the mountain who want corn liquor.”
“Okay, so we just need to make sure nobody finds the still.
“I’m not worried about the still. There’s no public road out there, so to find us they would have to either come by boat or on the logging road from the other side of the ridge, which would mean using horses, and even then they would have another difficult two mile hike ahead of them to find our spring.”
“I hope your’e right,” said the younger cousin.
“Yeah, me too, Cousin. Me, too.”
“Kimball looked up at the sliver of waning moon rising over the ridge through breaking clouds. “We’ve got a few good dark nights this week. Let’s take advantage of them. You think we can move the mules in the dark?”
“I think so,” said Jimmy. I can finish up the pen in the morning while you are over in Wright County. The new moon is tomorrow, so that will be the best time to do it. We’ll take them over one at a time, then show them the route the next morning.”
“Good. Do you think the pen is far enough from the river?”
“Yeah. I’ve been up and down the river and you can’t see it from anywhere. We might have to move it come winter when the leaves drop, but for now we’ll be fine.”
“Hey, come winter we’ll be out of this business. We do this right and we’ll make enough money off this liquor to keep property taxes paid for the rest of our lives and we won’t have to worry about feds, or taxes ever again.”
“Or your Mama.”
“Or my Mama,” repeated Kimball. “Next summer we’ll take Sheriff Saylor fishing and laugh about all of this…”
“I Don’t know about that, Cousin.”
“Everything is going to work out just fine. Let’s go get some sleep, Tomorrow is another big day.