The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Tale About Bootlegging, Part 1 of 2

By Wm. Axley Allen © 1984-2012

Issue: January, 1984

It had sounded like a simple enough task when the sheriff had explained it to them but the boys were finding it to be a little more complicated than they had been led to believe. The sheriff had told them all they had to do was catch Ben Perkins making liquor. It had sounded easy enough ‘cause everybody knew old Ben bootlegged. It weren’t like he tried to hide it, why, he’d done everything ‘cept advertise in the local paper. According to the sheriff, all they had to do was find him, handcuff him and bring him in. And tear up his still, of course.

When Ike and Clem had approached the sheriff about jobs as deputies, he’d looked them over with a grin and said, “I appreciate men who try to get ahead in life and I’d hire you boys in a minute but what with y’all having no experience or nothing, my hands are tied. But if you’ll take on this special assignment without pay, just to get experience mind you, I’ll go ahead and deputize you both and just as soon as you’ve caught old Ben, why you’ll be experienced and I can put you both on the payroll as fully fledged deputies.”

By the time he’d explained it to the boys, they were “chomping at the bit” to get started on old Ben’s trail. Figuring to themselves that they’d be full fledged deputies on the county payroll within a week. They thanked the sheriff for the opportunity saying it suited them fine and they’d be back tomorrow or the next day with old Ben. Then they raced out of the sheriff’s office heading toward Ben Perkins’ place.

They were no more’n out the door till the sheriff was laying on the floor, on his back with his knees held up to his chest by his arms and laughing. Not just an ordinary laugh but a once in a lifetime, laughing fit. What he hadn’t told Isaac and Clement Sutphin was that old Ben didn’t hide the fact that he made liquor ‘cause he figured he was tougher and smarter than all the revenuers alive and so far, he’d been right.

The sheriff had spent two months and a nervous breakdown trying to catch old Ben right after he was elected and he’s finally decided old Ben wasn’t worth the trouble of catching. Actually, he’d decided to quit if he had to keep trying to catch old Ben but the board of supervisors had promised he wouldn’t have to go after old Ben anymore if he’d only finish out his term. (The supervisors were getting “fed up” by having to find a new sheriff every six months. The last three couldn’t handle old Ben any better’n this one could so the board decided to leave old Ben alone if he’d leave their sheriff alone.) He’d agreed to staying on as sheriff and that had been a little over a year ago.

Now don’t get the idea that the sheriff wasn’t capable as a lawman. He’d caught murderers, armed robbers, even mobsters, when he’d worked in the state capital for the state police, but old Ben Perkins had made ordinary criminals look like a ladies social club. That old man was mean and tough and determined not to let no two-bit sheriff interrupt his bootleg business. After his encounters with old Ben, the sheriff was more than happy to leave the old man alone. The more he thought about Ike and Clem catching Ben Perkins, the harder he had laughed. One thing for sure, he thought, by the time they catch old Ben, they’ll be experienced. Just the thought had brought on a whole new fit of uncontrolled laughter.

Well, all that was history now as Ike and Clem sat contemplating the capture of their elusive quarry, old Ben Perkins. The sheriff had no more’n got over his laughing fit till old Ben had filled both the boy’s britches with buck shot. They immediately high tailed it back to the sheriff’s office to round up a posse. The sheriff seemed down right indignant saying, “Who does that Ben Perkins think he is, shooting men of the law?” He’d told the boys to have a seat (which they hastily declined) and make themselves to home while he went over to the magistrate’s office.

He had returned in a few minutes with a warrant for the arrest of Ben Perkins. He had waved the warrant in the air and said, “We’ll show him not to mess with lawmen!” Then, to the boy’s dismay, he had handed the warrant to Ike and told him and Clem to get old Ben and haul him in so that justice could be done.

That was three weeks ago and old Ben weren’t no closer to the jail now then he ever was. The boys had tried everything they could think of to catch old Ben but trouble was, old Ben had thought of it first. These last few weeks had been awfully hard on Ike and Clem. They had been shot with buckshot, scalded with boiling mash, nearly killed by a rock slide and now, for the last three days and nights, every time they’d stuck their heads up over the rock they were hiding behind, old Ben had been there to take a shot at it.

Finally, Ike said to Clem, “Clem, do you really want to be a deputy?”

“Not like this I don’t, Ike,” came Clem’s reply. “Right now all I want to do is live long enough to eat a bowl of Mama’s pinto beans with some fresh cut onions and a chunk of hot cornbread,” he continued.

“I thought we agreed yesterday not to talk about food,” said Ike.

“I know, Ike, and I’m sorry,” said Clem, “but I ain’t never been this hungry before.”

“That’s OK, Clem. I’m hungry too,” said Ike. “But we’ve got to figure a way to get outta here. That old man is mean, Clem. He’s dangerous as a cocked pistol. He’s smart too; smart and sneaky. What kind of man would dump hot mash on a fellow human being?”

“A mad-dog mean one,” answered Clem as he looked at the blisters covering his arms. “He has to be to rig up a trap like that sapling with a bucket of hot mash tied to it. I didn’t know what happened when we first tripped that wire trigger he had rigged up across the path, the next thing I knew, a sapling with a bucket tied to it was dumping hot corn mash all over us. I tell you Ike, that old man is dangerous and mean to the core.”

“We already know that, Clem, but right now we got to figure out how to get out of this fix we’re in,” said Ike.

Ike had no more’n got those words out of his mouth when another shot rang over their heads. The boys both involuntarily ducked even though the bullet was well over their heads.

“You know what I wish, Clem?” said Ike. “I wish the sheriff was here right now so’s we could send him out there to get that old man off us. You know, come to think about it, that old man hadn’t ever bothered us till that no account sheriff got us to chasing him.”

“Yea,” said Clem, “That old man probably ain’t all bad. He just don’t like to be bothered. I tell you what, Ike. Let’s raise a white flag and see if he’ll let us go if we promise not to bother him anymore.”

“Sounds like a better idea than sitting here starving to death,” agreed Ike. “Besides,” he continued, “we ain’t even getting paid for being treated this way. We was better off not working at the sawmill and not getting paid. At least we weren’t getting shot at. But the sheriff was right about one thing, Clem. We’re getting experience; taught me never to pay any attention to that sheriff any more.”

“Me too,” said Clem. “Say, can you reach that stick over there, Ike? If you can, we can tie my handkerchief to it and make us a white flag. Maybe the old coot will let us give up and go home.”

No sooner had the boys raised their make-shift white flag than another bullet whined low overhead. They tried shooting back, then begging, then begging and praying and promising to never bother old Ben again as long as they lived if only he’d quit shooting long enough for them to leave.

After spending half a day waving their flag and pleading, they were both to the point of giving up all hope. Their white flag was propped over the edge of the rock they were hiding behind and they were both laying down wishing the sheriff was close enough to reach. They nearly came out of their skins when the voice of old Ben Perkins, not ten feet away said, “I’ll have your weapons boys. But mind you, don’t be quick in handing ‘em over or I might think you ain’t sincere and have to shoot you.”

Well, you never seen two boys hand over their guns any slower and get it done so quick as Ike and Clem did.

Soon as old Ben had collected their guns, he told ‘em to get up and using his rifle barrel as a prod, he herded them up the mountainside. They hadn’t walked over 50 feet when a bullet whined low overhead. The boys ducked and old Ben laughed and told ‘em to keep going, that he was going to introduce ’em to the fellow that had kept ‘em pinned so long. Ben herded them up the mountainside another fifty feet or so and there, in the windbreak of a big rock was a candle that was at least a foot tall and judging by the mound of the melted wax around its base, the candle must have started out being at least waist high. Old Ben pointed at it and said, Boys, do you see those dark spots in that candle wax? Them’s bullets and them bullets and that old candle been keeping ya’ll pinned down for me. Every so often the wick burns down to another bullet and you boys got shot at again. Weren’t no way for me to be at my still working and here baby sitting you two too, so I asked ‘Mr. Candle’ to keep an eye on you for me.”

And then he laughed and he laughed and he laughed and he laughed some more. Then he got serious. He looked the boys in the eye till they shivered, then he said, “I got some questions for you boys and I ain’t got time or patience so either I get some quick answers real fast or your luck’s gonna change real fast and so far it’s been good! Do you boys understand me?” They both nodded yes.

“OK,” said Ben, “Why you boys been pestering me so much lately?”

Ike spoke up and explained how him and Clem had been looking for a job and he told Ben about the sheriff’s offer to hire them when they brought him in. Ben kinda chuckled to himself and then he explained to the boys how the sheriff had played them for fools.

Well, needless to say, the boys were mad at the sheriff and all set to get even. But they didn’t know how. Old Ben did and he allowed to the boys that ‘fore he was through, the sheriff wouldn’t ever bother him again. Of course the boys agreed to help.

CONTINUED NEXT MONTH. Find out what old Ben Perkins’ version of revenge is like.