Administering the Law with Promptitude

One day there came a ripple of excitement in our settlement. A blockader had shot at Jack Coburn, and a posse had arrested the would-be assassin—so flew the rumor, and it proved to be true.

Coburn was a northern man who, years ago, opened a little store on the edge of the wilderness, bought timber land, and finally rose to affluence. With ready wit he adapted himself to the ways of the mountaineers and gained ascendancy among them. Once in a while an emergency would arise in which it was necessary either to fight or to back down, and in these contests a certain art that Jack had acquired in Michigan lumber camps proved the undoing of more than one mountain tough, at the same time winning the respect of the spectators. He was what a mountaineer described to me as “a practiced knocker.” This phrase, far from meaning what it would on the Bowery, was interpreted to me as denoting “a master hand in a knock-fight.” Pugilism, as distinguished from shooting or stabbing, was an unknown art in the mountains until Jack introduced it.

Coburn had several tenants, among whom was a character whom we will call Edwards. In leasing a farm to Edwards, Jack had expressly stipulated that there was to be no moonshining on the premises. But, by and by, there was reason to suspect that Edwards was violating this part of the contract. Coburn did not send for a revenue officer; he merely set forth on a little still-hunt of his own. Before starting, he picked up a revolver and was about to stick it in his pocket, but, on second thought, he concluded that no red-headed man should be trusted with a loaded gun, even in such a case as this; so he thrust the weapon back into its drawer, and strode away, with nothing but his two big fists to enforce a seizure.

Coburn searched long and diligently, but could find no sign of a still. Finally, when he was about to give it up, his curiosity was aroused by the particularly dense browse in the top of an enormous hemlock that had recently been felled. Pushing his way forward, he discovered a neat little copper still installed in the treetop itself. He picked up the contraband utensil, and marched away with it.

Meantime, Edwards had not been asleep. When Jack came in sight of the farmhouse, humped under his bulky burden, the enraged moonshiner seized a shotgun and ran toward him, breathing death and destruction. Jack, however, trudged along about his business. Edwards, seeing that no bluff would work, fired; but the range was too great for his birdshot even to pepper holes through the copper still.

Edwards made a mistake in firing that shot. It did not hurt Coburn’s skin, but it ruffled his dignity. In this case it was out of the question to pommel the blackguard, for he had swiftly reloaded his gun. So Jack ran off with the still, carried it home, sought out our magistrate, Brooks, and forthwith swore out a warrant.

Brooks did not fuss over any law books. Moonshining in itself may be only a peccadillo, a venial sin—let the Government skin its own skunks—but when a man has promised not to moonshine, and then goes and does it, why that, by Jeremy, is a breach of contract! Straightway the magistrate hastened to the post-office, and swore in, as a posse comitatus, the first four men that he met.

Now, when four men are picked up at random in our township, it is safe to assume that at least three of them have been moonshiners themselves, and know how this sort of thing should be done. At any rate, the posse wasted no time in discussion. They went straight after that malefactor, got him, and, within an hour after the shot was fired, he was drummed out of the county for good and forever.

But Edwards had a son who was a trifle brash. This son armed himself, and offered show of battle. He fired two or three shots with his Winchester (wisely over the posse’s heads) and then took to the tall timber. Dodging from tree to tree he led the impromptu officers such a dance up the mountainside that by the time they had corralled him they were “plumb overhet.”

They set that impetuous young man on a sharp-spined little jackass, strapped his feet under the animal’s belly, and their chief (my hunting partner, he was) drove him, that same night, twenty-five miles over a horrible mountain trail, and lodged him in the county jail, on a charge more serious than that of moonshining.

In due time, a United States deputy arrived in our midst, bearing a funny-looking hatchet with a pick at one end, which he called a “devil.” With the pick end of this instrument he punched numerous holes through the offending copper vessel, until the still looked somewhat like a gigantic horseradish-grater turned inside out. Then he straightened out the worm by ramming a long stick through it, and triumphantly carried away with him the copper-sheathed staff, as legal proof, trophy, and burgeon of office.

The sorry old still itself reposes to this day in old Brooks’s backyard, where it is regarded by passersby as an emblem, not so much of Federal omnipotence, as of local efficiency in administering the law with promptitude, and without a pennyworth of cost to anybody, save to the offender.