This Moonshining Business

And it chanced (or was it chance?) that I had no more than finished supper, that evening, when a man called at my lonely cabin. He was the one that I knew best among my scattered neighbors. I gave him a rather humorous account of my reception by Madame Kirby, and asked him what he thought she was yelling about.

There was no answering smile on my visitor’s face. He pondered in silence, weighing many contingencies, it seemed, and ventured no more than a helpless “Waal, now I wonder!”

It did not suit me to let the matter go at that; so, on a sudden impulse, I fired the question point-blank at him: “Do you suppose that Tom is running a still up there at the head of that little cove?”

The man’s face hardened, and there came a glint into his eyes such as I had noticed in Mistress Kirby’s.

“Jedgmatically, I don’t know.”

“Excuse me! I don’t want to know, either. But let me explain just what I am driving at. People up North, and in the lowlands of the South as well, have a notion that there is little or nothing going on in these mountains except feuds and moonshining. They think that a stranger traveling here alone is in danger of being potted by a bullet from almost any laurel thicket that he passes, on mere suspicion that he may be a revenue officer or a spy. Of course, that is nonsense; but there is one thing that I’m as ignorant about as any novel-reader of them all. You know my habits; I like to explore—I never take a guide—and when I come to a place that’s particularly wild and primitive, that’s just the place I want to peer into. Now the dubious point is this: Suppose that, one of these days when I’m out hunting, or looking for rare plants, I should stumble upon a moonshine still in full operation—what would happen? What would they do?”

“Waal, sir, I’ll tell you whut they’d do. They’d fust-place ask you some questions about yourself, and whut you-uns was doin’ in that thar neck o’ the woods. Then they’d git you to do some triflin’ work about the still—feed the furnace, or stir the mash—jest so ’s ’t they could prove that you took a hand in it your own self.”

“What good would that do?”

“Hit would make you one o’ them in the eyes of the law.”

“I see. But, really, doesn’t that seem rather childish? I could easily convince any court that I did it under compulsion; for that’s what it would amount to.”

“I reckon you-uns would find a United States court purty hard to convince. The judge ’d right up and want to know why you let grass go to seed afore you came and informed on them.”

He paused, watched my expression, and then continued quizzically: “I reckon you wouldn’t be in no great hurry to do that.”

“No! Then, if I stirred the mash and sampled their liquor, nobody would be likely to mistreat me?”

“Shucks! Why, man, whut could they gain by hurtin’ you? At the wust, s’posin’ they was convicted by your own evidence, they’d only git a month or two in the pen. So why should they murder you and get hung for it? Hit’s all ’tarnal foolishness, the notions some folks has!”

“I thought so. Now, here! the public has been fed all sorts of nonsense about this moonshining business. I’d like to learn the plain truth about it, without bias one way or the other. I have no curiosity about personal affairs, and don’t want to learn incriminating details; but I would like to know how the business is conducted, and especially how it is regarded from the mountain people’s own point of view. I have already learned that a stranger’s life and property are safer here than they would be on the streets of Chicago or of St. Louis. It will do your country good to have that known. But I can’t say that there is no moonshining going on here; for a man with a wooden nose could smell it. Now what is your excuse for defying the law? You don’t seem ashamed of it.”

The man’s face turned an angry red.

“Mister, we-uns hain’t no call to be ashamed of ourselves, nor of ary thing we do. We’re poor; but we don’t ax no favors. We stay ’way up hyar in these coves, and mind our own business. When a stranger comes along, he’s welcome to the best we’ve got, such as ’tis; but if he imposes on us, he gits his medicine purty damned quick!”

“And you think the Government tax on whiskey is an imposition.”

“Hit is, under some sarcumstances.”

My guest stretched his legs, and “jedgmatically” proceeded to enlighten me.

“Thar’s plenty o’ men and women grown, in these mountains, who don’t know that the Government is ary thing but a president in a biled shirt who commands two-three judges and a gang o’ revenue officers. They know thar’s a president, because the men folks’s voted for him, and the women folks’s seed his pictur. They’ve heered tell about the judges; and they’ve seed the revenuers in flesh and blood. They believe in supportin’ the Government, because hit’s the law. Nobody refuses to pay his taxes, for taxes is fair and squar’. Taxes cost mebbe three cents on the dollar; and that’s all right. But revenue costs a dollar and ten cents on twenty cents’ worth o’ liquor; and that’s robbin’ the people with a gun to their faces.

“Of course, I ain’t so ignorant as all that—I’ve traveled about the country, been to Asheville wunst, and to Waynesville a heap o’ times—and I know the theory. Theory says ’t revenue is a tax on luxury. Waal, that’s all right—anything in reason. The big fellers that makes lots of money out o’ stillin’, and lives in luxury, ought to pay handsome for it. But who ever seen luxury cavortin’ around in these Smoky Mountains?”

 He paused for a reply. Even then, with my limited experience in the mountains, I could not help wincing at the idea. Often, in later times, this man’s question came back to me with peculiar force. Luxury! in a land where the little stores were often out of coffee, sugar, kerosene, and even salt; where, in dead of winter, there was no meal, much less flour, to be had for love or money. Luxury! where I had to live on bear-meat (tough old sow bear) for six weeks, because the only side of pork that I could find for sale was full of maggots.

My friend continued: “Whiskey means more to us mountain folks than hit does to folks in town, whar thar’s drug-stores and doctors. Let ary thing go wrong in the fam’ly—fever, or snake bite, or somethin’—and we can’t git a doctor up hyar less’n three days; and it costs scand’lous. The only medicines we-uns has is yerbs, which customarily ain’t no good ’thout a leetle grain o’ whiskey. Now, th’r ain’t no saloons allowed in all these western counties. The nighest State dispensary, even, is sixty miles away. The law wunt let us have liquor shipped to us from anywhars in the State. If we git it sent to us from outside the State it has to come by express—and reg-lar old pop-skull it is, too. So, to be good law-abiding citizens, we-uns must travel back and forth at a heap of expense, or pay express rates on pizened liquor—and we are too durned poor to do ary one or t’other.

“Now, yan’s my field o’ corn. I gather the corn, and shuck hit and grind hit my own self, and the woman she bakes us a pone o’ bread to eat—and I don’t pay no tax, do I? Then why can’t I make some o’ my corn into pure whiskey to drink, without payin’ tax? I tell you, ’taint fair, this way the Government does! But, when all’s said and done, the main reason for this ‘moonshining,’ as you-uns calls it, is bad roads.”

“Bad roads?” I exclaimed. “What the——”

“Jest thisaway: From hyar to the railroad is seventeen miles, with two mountains to cross; and you’ve seed that road! I recollect you-uns said every one o’ them miles was a thousand rods long. Nobody’s ever measured them, except by mountain man’s foot-rule—big feet, and a long stride between ’em. Seven hundred pounds is all the load a good team can haul over that road, when the weather’s good. Hit takes three days to make the round trip, less’n you break an axle, and then hit takes four. When you do git to the railroad, th’r ain’t no town of a thousand people within fifty mile. Now us folks ain’t even got wagons. Thar’s only one sarviceable wagon in this whole settlement, and you can’t hire it without team and driver, which is two dollars and a half a day. Whar one o’ our leetle sleds can’t go, we haffter pack on mule-back or tussle it on our own wethers. Look, then! The only farm produce we-uns can sell is corn. You see for yourself that corn can’t be shipped outen hyar. We can trade hit for store credit—that’s all. Corn juice is about all we can tote around over the country and git cash money for. Why, man, that’s the only way some folks has o’ payin’ their taxes!”

“But, aside from the work and the worry,” I remarked, “there is the danger of being shot, in this business.”

“Oh, we-uns don’t lay that up agin the Government! Hit’s as fair for one as ’tis for t’other. When a revenuer comes sneakin’ around, why, whut he gits, or whut we-uns gits, that’s a ‘fortune of war,’ as the old sayin’ is.”

There is no telegraph, wired or wireless, in the mountains, but there is an efficient substitute. It seemed as though, in one night, the news traveled from valley to cove, and from cove to nook, that I was investigating the moonshining business, and that I was apparently “safe.” Each individual interpreted that word to suit himself. Some regarded me askance, others were so confiding that their very frankness threatened at times to become embarrassing.