Frank Jamison grabbed a few more pieces of the seasoned hickory and placed them in the bottom barrel of the copper still. The homemade apparatus sat in a remote hollow in which no other human had likely stepped foot. No beaten paths or blazed trails led to this place. The virgin land made for the ideal location.
While Frank stood at a distance smoking his pipe, the fire began to take hold. A physically solid man, he was dressed in his only pair of denim overalls. His once coal black hair, now greying, rested on broad shoulders. His long beard hung to his chest, and, due to worry and despair, the darkness under his eyes had long set in. He had entered his fortieth year this year, nineteen-hundred and twenty-three. Frank had invested thirty of those years into the mysterious trade that became the basic means to his family’s survival. As a boy, he watched and learned from his father. Now, his son stood by his side and observed the family secrets of moonshining.
“See there, Raymond,” Frank said to his son. “You have to get your water boilin’ nice and hot so the steam’ll rise up and out the line.”
Raymond, with his high cheekbones and Cherokee ancestry, was a miniature version of his father. Consumed by intrigue, he stood in bare feet, wearing tattered overalls. The thirteen-year-old boy watched as his father fired the still.
“How much you reckon this’ll make?” asked Raymond.
Frank stirred the corn mash with a wooden oar. “I’d say ‘bout twenty jars or so.”
“We gonna make another batch tomorrow?”
“Doubt it. Not for a few days, anyway.”
As time passed, the mash boiled and condensed into the copper coils, and the liquid trickled slowly into a quart jar. When the jar reached its capacity, Raymond skillfully exchanged the container for an empty one. From the stack on the ground, he grabbed a lid and placed it onto the filled jar, turning it to a snug fit. The jar’s clear contents depicted innocence equal to that of the young boy.
The windy, narrow road that led to the Jamison home snaked for miles through the hills and hollows of what many would consider unknown land. The two-bedroom home sat deeply nestled and secured in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
Inside, Frank’s wife, Mary, sat at the family dinner table. Her belly protruded from her homemade dress prohibiting her from sitting at a comfortable distance. She’d birthed three wonderful children, while the fourth was less than a month away from making its arrival. Her golden hair rested snugly in a bun atop her head, just the way it did every day. Peeling potatoes, she worked intently preparing the evening meal.
“Anna, honey,” Mary said to her daughter. “Go draw the water from the well, please. And take Jake outside ‘til we finish our supper.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Anna. With one last brush stroke to her doll’s hair, the little girl sprang from her seat opposite her mother. “Come on, Jake. Come on, boy,” she said to the Golden Retriever. Jake followed her out the door with a floppy tail wag.
Inside the home were signs of a modest living. In the kitchen, the handmade dinner table was the centerpiece, a gift from Frank to his wife on their first wedding anniversary. It had been the gathering area for many conversations over the last fourteen years. Across the room, the fireplace steadily burned. An unlit oil lamp sat on the mantel, along with the family Bible and reading spectacles. Above the front door was a plaque with the words Bless this Home inscribed into it.
Moments later, Anna returned with the kettle of water and sat it on the table.
“Thank you, dear,” Mary said.
“You’re welcome, Momma.”
“You best get washed up. Your daddy and brother’ll be along directly.”
As the sun dropped behind the horizon, Frank and Raymond made their final climb up the steep ridge. Having placed the liquor into pine crates and securing them on the back of his packhorse, Frank carefully led the animal through the dense forestry, making his way back to the family farm.
Walking along and pleased with Raymond’s willingness to learn, Frank said, “I’m proud of you, son. You did good today. Pretty soon you’ll be able to do this by yourself.”
“Hopefully I’ll be as good as you someday,” said Raymond.
“You’re already good as me.”
The boy grinned, swelled out his chest, and proudly marched alongside his father. Frank saw Raymond’s reaction and produced a smile of his own.
Although Frank felt proud of his son, his moonshining business had brought its share of heartache. The federal revenuers had wreaked havoc on the backwoods distiller—and Frank was no exception. Three years before they destroyed his operation and eliminated his only means of financial stability. That following winter, his oldest daughter, Doris, lay sick with pneumonia and fever. With his funds stripped, Frank was unable to purchase the proper medicine, and after a two-week struggle, Doris succumbed to her illness. The young girl died in the same house that she was born in only eight years before. It was then Frank Jamison vowed that no one would ever come between him and his family’s survival again.
After trekking for some time, father and son broke free of the woods that surrounded their home. Raymond spotted Jake squirming out from his favorite spot under the porch. The dog stood, stretched his stiff muscles, and casually sauntered out to greet them both.
“You go on and tell your momma and sister we’re back and I’ll tend to Sylvester,” said Frank, leading the horse around the chicken coop and into the barn.
“Yes, sir,” said Raymond.
In the corner of the barn, Frank unloaded the pine crates next to a dozen or so bales of straw. After securing Sylvester in his stall, he returned and moved the bales, one by one. He slid the last bail over, kicked away some loose straw and revealed three weather-beaten barn slats fitting firmly side by side. Bending to one knee, he removed the slats and placed the jars into a deep, dug out hole. He stacked his inventory neatly just as he’d done many times before. He returned the slats and bales to their original form and exited the barn toward his house to join his family.
“Sure smells good in here,” said Frank, walking through the door of his home.
“Momma’s cookin’ pork stew with boiled potatoes,” said Anna. She ran over to hug her father. “I been helping too.”
“You’re gonna be a good cook when you get older. Just like your momma,” said Frank.
“How’d things go out there today?” asked Mary.
Frank walked over to greet his wife.
“Not bad,” he said, as he placed his arms around her and their unborn child. “Produced about the usual, I guess.”
“Let’s hope they sell.”
“We’ll be fine, dear. I’m sure of it. I sold quite a few jars the other day. Business is good.”
After supper, Frank took refuge in his rocking chair by the small, crackling fire. He mentally observed the day and thought it was a productive one. He would have no trouble selling what he’d made this afternoon. His regulars would be around eventually looking to purchase some of what they believed to be the best moonshine in the region, and possibly in the entire state. The market was a demanding one and Frank had no worries.
Outside, a rattling car engine came up the driveway. Visitors were uncommon at the Jamison residence, so Frank sprang from his chair and grabbed the shotgun hanging above the mantel. Jake let loose a few alerting barks.
“Easy, boy,” Frank said to the dog.
“Who is it?” asked Raymond, jumping to his feet to look out the window.
“Not sure.” Frank gazed from the doorway into the darkness. As headlights advanced, he said, “Looks like John Lytle’s truck.”
John Lytle was a long-time friend of Frank and his family. He was also the Deputy Sheriff. Frank leaned his gun against the wall and walked outside. He struck a match and lit a lamp that hung from a nail on the porch.
“How are ya, Frank?” asked John, as he stepped out of his truck.
“Oh, I’m gettin’ by.” Frank walked over to greet his old friend with a firm handshake. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Had to drop in on Ms. Coburn—make sure she was gettin’ along okay. Thought I’d stop by on my way back through to see how you and Mary were doin’.”
“Come on in. She’ll be glad to see ya.”
“Sure. Okay.” John removed his hat and followed Frank inside. “Look at you. Pretty as ever,” he said to Mary. “Can’t be much longer now. About a month or so?”
“Any day now,” said Mary, placing her hands across her belly. “How you been? And how’s Eliza?”
“We’re both doin’ fine. She’s been gettin’ her preserves ready for the Indian Summer Festival. You all are comin’ I hope? I know Eliza would sure be happy to see ya.”
“As long as this young’un doesn’t decide to come between now and then—we’ll be there.” There was a hint of fatigue in Mary’s voice.
“Only the Good Lord knows the answer to that, I suppose,” said John.
“Care for a cup of coffee?” asked Frank.
“Sure,” said John, kneeling to pet Jake. “Never turn down a hot cup of coffee.”
Mary poured two cups, handing one to Frank and the other to John Lytle. After a few minutes of small talk among old friends, the Deputy finally saw his opportunity.
“Frank, you mind if we step outside and talk for a bit?”
Raymond attempted to follow.
“You stay here, son. Me and John need to talk alone.” Raymond returned to his spot on the floor by the fire. Jake followed and flopped down beside him.
The two men stepped down off the porch and away from the house.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Frank.
“Well,” John began, and positioned his hat back on his head. “I’m really not sure how to go about tellin’ you this but…ah.”
“Go on, John,” said Frank, trying to reassure his old friend.
“Okay then. It’s the damn revenuers, Frank. They’re crackin’ down again.”
With the lamp’s light shining on his face, Frank’s expression turned harsh. “What do you mean they’re crackin’ down?”
“They’re making another sweep.”
“Keep talkin’,” said Frank.
John sighed. “In this region. They’re comin’ for your operation tomorrow. I tried to throw ‘em off, but they wasn’t havin’ it. They’re dead-set on takin’ out your still. Somebody round here must’ve tipped ’em off. But God as my witness, it wasn’t me.” John threw his right hand up declaring his oath.
Frank stood silent for a few seconds as a chill ran down his spine. He thought of his daughter, Doris.
“Frank, please do us all a favor. Don’t show up at that still. I know what it means to you, but it’ll get downright ugly if you do.”
Frank said, “So what you’re tellin’ me is to just go ahead and let them goddamn feds strip my livelihood away?”
“I know how you feel–”
“You don’t know how I feel,” Frank interrupted and his voice trembled. “You ever buried one of your babies, John? Do you know how that feels?”
With his hands in his pockets, John looked to the ground, unsure how to respond.
“You ever had to think of the right words to say to your wife as she lays over her daughter’s grave—cryin’ and beggin’ God to bring her back? What about the guilt and shame a man feels when he can’t provide for his family?”
“Is everything all right out there, dear?” asked Mary, poking her head out the door.
Frank tried to regain his composure. “Yes, honey,” he answered, switching back to his natural tone.
“Okay, I was just checkin’. If you two need anything, just yell.” She closed the door.
“Listen, Frank,” John began, “I’m not here to make life difficult for ya. I’m here ’cause you’re my friend. I don’t want anything happenin’ to you and your family. You think on it.” John opened the door on his truck, but stopped before getting in. “And for what it’s worth…I’ll still respect you and be your friend no matter what you decide.”
Frank’s mind raced with doubt as John drove away. He was unsure of what to do and realized there wasn’t much time to decide.