Elisha scowled at the jug of clear liquid George pulled from under the drip-spout. Gingerly, he raised it to his nose and sniffed. George guffawed loudly and slapped his thigh as shock, revulsion, and amazement vied for dominance of Elisha’s face. “Aw, ‘Lisha, them’s jes th’ singlin’s! Gotta run it back through again ‘fore it’s done!”
Elisha wasn’t sure if his shivering was the result of the damp, cold early December weather or of the powerful odor of the “singlings.” Either way, he was ready to be back in front of his fireplace. “How long’ll that take?” His voice came out a hoarse growl escorted by a cloud of his breath’s steam.
“Have a batch done by mornin’, I reckon,” George said. He gestured at the other still, where the low fire generated barely enough heat to warm the ankles of a man standing next to it. “This’un’s working through its second run now. You got them jars?”
Elisha nodded. “Omer’s gon’ bring ’em up when he gets done stringing that east fence.” With that, he turned and hurried back down the path home.
That first batch filled a dozen quart jars: six for Elisha and six for George. By the time the second batch was ready, George had “sampled” one whole quart and gave another away to a friend, while Elisha’s six jars sat quietly in his springhouse. The second batch yielded another six jars apiece, and before Prohibition went into effect that January, Elisha had thirty quarts of the clear liquid stashed away. George had sold twelve of his jars around town, sipped his way through eight, and given away another four. A meager six quarts comprised his entire stock.
On a crisp, clear morning in February, Elisha and Omer rose before the sun and, under cover of the pre-dawn gloom, loaded fifty quarts of White Lightning into a hidden compartment in the back of Elisha’s old Model A Ford. By sunrise, they had left Bienville Parish behind and were well on their way to Columbia.
A week earlier, Elisha had made the same trip carrying only a single jar of corn squeezin’s. In Columbia, he had looked up an old school friend of his and George’s who ran a saloon. Since January, Jack had taken his business “underground,” converting the building’s front to a small feed and seed store. In the back, business as usual continued unabated — in fact, with all the other saloons in town closed, business for Jack was booming. What he needed, he told Elisha, was a source of high-quality liquor. When he opened the jar Elisha presented and took a whiff of the contents, a broad grin spread across his face.
“More where this came from?” Jack had asked. Elisha assured him there was, and in minutes a bargain had been struck. Both men spat into their right hand and the deal was sealed with a handshake. Now, Elisha was about to make good on his end of the arrangement for the first time.
It was nearing noon when the Model A rattled to a stop in the alley behind Jack Horton’s Feed ‘n’ Seed Shop. The drive had taken longer than it ordinarily would, in part because Elisha was being careful not to draw attention and in part due to the fragile nature of their cargo.
Jack met them outside the back door. When Elisha pulled the panel covering the hidden stash, Jack’s eyes lit up. “Looks to be…” he counted rows and made a quick calculation. “Fifty quarts! Well, I’ll be a mule’s ankle! You want that hunnert dollars in gold? Or notes?” The tone of Jack’s voice made it clear he would rather pay in notes. When he heard the amount, Omer’s eyes bugged and he stared at Jack with his mouth open.
“Gold, Jack, and put your tongue back in your head, boy,” Elisha snapped at Omer.
Jack shrugged resignedly and turned to go inside the building. Over his shoulder, he called out, “He’p yore Daddy unload, Omer, don’t jes’ stand there like a bump on a log!”
Omer snapped out of his stunned attitude and grabbed a flat of a dozen jars. Elisha glanced around quickly. Seeing no one else in the alley, he picked up another flat and followed Jack inside, with Omer trailing behind. By the time all the jars were inside, Jack had re-emerged from the storefront carrying a small oilcloth package. He handed it to Elisha, who hefted it and nodded in satisfaction.
“Thank ya kindly, Jack. We’ll be back in a month with another load, Good Lord willing and th’ crick don’ rise.” He shook his friend’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder. He looked at Omer, then gave Jack a wink and a sly grin. “Say, Jack, you reckon I oughta let the boy drive home?”
Jack chuckled at the excitement on the young man’s face. “Sure, ‘Lisha, I think that’s a right fine idea!”
Elisha nodded at Omer and walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. “You know how to work the crank, right, Son?”
In response, Omer enthusiastically grabbed the crank handle and started winding. When the engine roared to life, he leapt in next to his father and proudly put his hands on the wheel.
Elisha managed to keep a straight face as Omer put it in gear and tried to back out of the alley. Jack, on the other hand, did not. For several seconds he roared with laughter at the confused look on Omer’s face. Finally, taking pity on him, Jack held up his hand for the boy to wait. Puzzled, Omer let off the gas. When he did, Jack reached under the rear wheel and pulled out the wheel chock. Omer’s face flamed red, but he had the good grace to smile and thank Jack.
They hadn’t hit the edge of town before Omer let out a whoop. “A hunnert dollars!! In gold!! Hoo-wee! And again next month? You think we can make that much whiskey again by then?”
Elisha gave his son a stern look. “Boy, you gotta remember to keep this secret. No goin’ on, gettin’ all excited and runnin’ your mouth. If Patty wants to know where th’ money come from, you tell that woman to mind her place and stay outta men’s bidness. Y’hear?”
Omer nodded solemnly. “Yes, Daddy. Don’t worry none ’bout Patty. If it’s not about the baby comin’, it don’t pass her mind, these days.” He paused, then went on, “But d’ya really think we can produce another fifty jars in a month?”
Elisha looked thoughtful and didn’t answer. Omer kept driving and waited for his father to process the figuring he was obviously working through. A couple of miles later, Elisha spoke. “Well, if we’re t’have fifty jars, that means producin’ a hunnert — fifty for us, fifty for George and Junior. If you and Junior stay busy and don’t slack on makin’ the mash, y’all can get two quarts a day outta each still. At that pace, we oughta be able to have sixty jars next month. But fifty’s all I’m askin’.” Anything past that y’all make, and the rest is yours t’ sell. But – and I’m only gon’ say this one time – first time I catch you with liquor on your breath, your part in this is done. I’d rather run the still m’self and have you breakin’ up ground for spring plantin’ than have my son be a drunk. Understood?”
Omer didn’t hesitate. “Yessir. I ain’t got no interest in drinkin’ that stuff, Daddy. I done seen what folks think o’ Mr. George. I don’t wanna have ’em look at me like they look at him.”
Elisha nodded. “Good boy. Now, for this run, most o’ th’ gold goes into the farm. We buy seed and equipment and fertilizer and such. Next run, we’ll see about buyin’ some nice things for th’ womenfolk. I’m gon’ give you a little piece o’ this…” and here, he patted his pocket, “but I want you t’ put it back and not spend it.”
The sun was flirting with the tops of the trees as they pulled back into Elisha’s place. Omer remembered the wheel chock this time and set the Model A facing the road. Omer followed Elisha inside, where Ada and a very pregnant Patty were busily preparing supper. Elisha slipped off into his and Ada’s bedroom, where he weighed the gold to make sure Jack had been square with him. Satisfied, he pinched out a small nugget and a few grains which he secreted in an empty shotgun shell. After placing the “dummy” shell in a box of real shells, he carried the box out to Omer.
“Here’s them shells for your Winchester, like we talked about.” He gave Omer a pointed look, which, to the boy’s credit, he understood.
“Thank ya, Daddy. I’ll put ’em up for now, just like you said.”
Elisha turned to his daughter-in-law and raised an eyebrow at her distended belly. “How many young’uns you reckon you got in there? Bound to be two or three!”
Patty smiled and hugged him awkwardly. “Jes’ one, I think, Mr. ‘Lisha. And I think it’s a boy. Come April, you’ll have yoreself a grandson!”
Elisha settled himself into his big chair and smiled contentedly. “That’s mighty fine, Patty, mighty fine indeed.”