The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Tale About Bootlegging, Part 2 of 2

By Wm. Axley Allen © 1984-2012

Issue: February, 1984

(Our story up to this point….. Last month in part one, young Ike and Clem Sutphin were trying to catch old Ben Perkins making illegal liquor; they were trying to get jobs as deputies and the Sheriff told them if they could accomplish this assignment, the badges were as good as theirs. Ike and Clem found that it was something easier said than done. The Sheriff didn’t tell them that Ben was impossible to catch. Ben Perkins had sent every Sheriff and revenue officer that ever went looking for him high tailing it home. The methods Ben used to “send them packing” had convinced them all, including the Sheriff himself, they’d give up “sheriffing” rather than tackle old Ben again. Ike and Clem had to find out the hard way. As our story ended last month, old Ben had caught the boys instead. After hearing their story, old Ben decided to take a few days off just to relax and enjoy himself. Here’s what happened……)

The Sheriff almost had a heart attack when he walked into his office and saw old Ben Perkins sitting there between Ike and Clem Sutphin. He figured by now the boys would have give up on trying to catch Ben. It’d been nearly a month since they had come by the office looking for jobs and he had sent ‘em off after old Ben. He figured for sure that Ben would have sent them packing in a day or two, anyway.

But here they sat, with old Ben between ‘em and him acting as meek as a lamb. This sure wasn’t the Ben Perkins he’d tried to catch or at least wasn’t acting the same.

Ike was the first to speak up, “Well, we got ‘em, Sheriff. You want us to go ahead and lock ‘em up, beings we deputies now? You O.K. Sheriff?” he asked, after the Sheriff didn’t answer him right away. After several more minutes of standing with his mouth dropped open, the Sheriff managed to nod yes and pitch them the keys to the jail’s only cell. The boys led old Ben over to the cell, opened the door and asked him to step inside. Ben didn’t even pause, just did what he was told. The Sheriff still couldn’t believe his eyes. It looked like Ben Perkins but the Ben Perkins he knew would have been harder to get in a jail cell than a bobcat would’ve been to put in your shirt pocket. The Sheriff just couldn’t believe his eyes.

Clem was the next one to speak up and he told the Sheriff that catching old Ben was tiring work and he ‘lowed as how him and Ike were going to take a few days off ‘fore they “settled into deputying” full time.

“Yea,” agreed Ike, “We’re going over on Big Reed and try to catch the world’s biggest catfish.”

The Sheriff thought to himself that they better take a wagon and team with them if their luck at catfishing was anything like their luck at catching bootleggers.

Before he said a word, the boys were both heading toward the door. Then he realized that if they left, he’d be alone with Ben Perkins and locked cell or not, he didn’t want to be by himself with old Ben a minute. “Wait,” he hollered after the boys, “You can’t leave, you’ll have to stay here and testify before the judge.”

Clem said, “I almost forgot to give you this.” He reached into his bib overalls and pulled out a piece of neatly folded paper and handed it to the Sheriff. “That there’s Ben’s confession, signed and sealed. You won’t need us to testify.” Then before the Sheriff had time to open his mouth, Ike and Clem had opened the door and left. The Sheriff just stood there staring at the paper as if he was in a trance. Finally, Ben said, “Them’s good boys, Sheriff. You lucky to find that kind of help.” At the sound of Ben’s voice, the Sheriff jumped straight in the air and landed with his back against the door and his hands held up in front of his face.

“Calm yourself down, Sheriff,” said Ben. “You got me fair and square and I’m just gonna settle back and enjoy a little time off. The Missus got it in her head awhile back that she wanted to go to Paris, France and I ain’t had a minutes peace since. She’s up ‘fore daylight every morning, firing up my still and if I quit work ‘fore dark, she’s let it be known I better have good reason. Now don’t get me wrong, Sheriff. She’s a good woman but when she sets her head to something, there ain’t no turning her back. Yes sir, I’m sure looking forward to a nice quiet stay in your jail.” Old Ben then proceeded to fluff up his pillow and lay back on his cot to take a nap.

Just as the Sheriff was starting to peel his backside off the door, Old Ben spoke up and said, “By the way Sheriff, what time you serve supper? You won’t mind waking me up will you?”

At the sound of Ben’s voice, the Sheriff jerked back against the door again. Finally, after 15 or 20 minutes, he calmed down enough to answer old Ben but by then, Ben was snoring loudly.

By the end of the second day, the Sheriff had gotten to the point that he barely jumped when old Ben spoke, but he still used the broom handle to push old Ben’s tray up to his cell. By now word was all over town that he’d caught Ben Perkins and had him locked up in the county jailhouse. He’d become a local hero of sorts and there was even some talk of him running for mayor. The Ladies Social Club had even nominated him for “Man of the Year.”

The Sheriff wasn’t necessarily a vain man, but his humbleness stopped just short of telling folks it was Ike and Clem Sutphin that had really caught old Ben. So, by the second morning, he was basking in a hero’s glory, among the breakfast crowd at Clyde’s Café. One thing led to another till finally he had been “forced” to explain how he heroically captured old Ben single-handedly. Just as the “Ohs” and “Ahs” were dying down, the front door of the café burst open and in walked a skinny little gray-haired lady that couldn’t have been over 5 feet tall or under 65 years old. It didn’t take a detective to tell she was ill about something. She made her way straight for the Sheriff. The thong of his admirers parted before her and the Sheriff couldn’t help but think of Moses parting the Waters.

She came to a halt when her nose was no more’n an inch from the Sheriff’s. With one hand on the back of his chair and one hand resting on his table, she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I didn’t come here to jaw with you, Sonny, so I’ll get straight to the point. You got my man locked in that jail over there and that’s messing up my plans.” She proceeded to pour his fresh cup of scalding hot coffee straight into his lap. Well, the Sheriff came up out of his chair like he was jet propelled and after his agonizing screams had died down so he could hear her, she looked at him again and said, “Ben better be home for supper.” Then she turned and walked out.

After a trip by Doc Johnson’s for some ointment salve, the Sheriff took Ben his breakfast. He carried the tray right up to the cell and handed it to Ben this morning without using the broom handle. Then he headed straight for the back room where he changed pants. When he came back out into the main room, Ben said, “I heard you screaming. Matildee’s got a mean streak when she’s riled. She done me that way once years ago and I still don’t like coffee. She’s a good woman, but I can tell you, Sheriff, she’s a little bit headstrong.”

While Ben was taking to life as a jailbird like he’d been born with feathers, the Sheriff spent the morning in agony. By mid-afternoon, however, he was thinking mad! Who did she think she was, coming in Clyde’s acting like that and treating him that way? Didn’t she realize he was the Sheriff and a hero besides. He’d show her. He’d keep Ben Perkins locked up so long there wouldn’t be a Paris, France when he got out!

After feeding Ben his supper, he headed home about seven o’clock. First thing he noticed when he pulled in his driveway was that his barn was gone, so was his front porch and his pasture fence looked like a bulldozer had straddled it leaving 10 acres of fencing laying flat on the ground and 15 yearling steers munching their way through his neighbor’s garden. It took him most of the night to round up his steers and get them into another neighbor’s pasture. He could hear roosters crowing as he made his way over the rubble that had been his porch, to the front door. There on the door was a note that read, “Ben better be home in time for the noon meal.”

Ben was hungry by the time the Sheriff got his breakfast over to him and he listened in dismay as the Sheriff recounted the events of the night before. When the Sheriff had finished telling Ben what all had happened he said, “Ben, I been thinking maybe I ought to try to get you home for lunch.”

“Now, Sheriff,” said Ben, “I’m caught fair and square and you got to do your duty. You can’t turn a criminal loose on the streets. You got your sworn duty to uphold. ‘Sides, if you took me home, Matildee would work me to death to get her enough money to go gallivanting half way around the world; course if I was to live through it, she’d drag me along and I’m happy right where I am. No siree, Sheriff, you can’t turn me loose. You got to do your duty. ‘Sides, I ain’t gonna pay that much money to go nowhere. Matildee or not!”

The Sheriff tried to reason with Ben but to no avail as the clock hands moved toward noon, his hands started to shake and sweat. Finally he just sat in silence and stared at the hands of the clock. Ben took a nap.

Ben woke up about 1:00 and started right into asking for his lunch. By 1:30, he was demanding it so the Sheriff convinced himself that Matildee had figured he couldn’t be bluffed and headed over to Clyde’s to get Ben some lunch. It was 5:15 when he finally returned. His uniform was covered with a substance that looked like soot and so was his face. Only his eyes were not black but they were red like he’d been crying.

First thing Ben said was, “I heard the blast go off. I’ve told Matildee time and again she’s gonna get hurt messing with dynamite.”

The Sheriff didn’t say a word. He just walked across the room to the peg where the cell key hung. He got the key and headed straight for the cell door.

“Now hold on here, Sheriff,” said Ben, “I got my rights as a criminal to stand trial and you can’t go letting me loose.”

The Sheriff didn’t say a word, he just unlocked the cell door and grabbed Ben by the shirt collar. He dragged him to the front door with Ben grabbing on to anything he could reach to keep from being thrown out of jail. The Sheriff moved like a man possessed.

Once he got Ben onto the street, he held him with one hand and reached into his soot covered pocket for a packet of papers. He looked Ben straight in the eye and said, “Here’s two bus tickets to New York on the 9:15 bus tonight. There’s two tickets for a steamer that’s leaving New York on Monday. Here’s you some travelers checks for spending money. I’da got more but the bank wouldn’t loan me no more. Now you put that woman of yours on that bus then you put her on that steamer and the moment you get to Paris, you call me cause Ben, I don’t think I can go to sleep till I know there’s an ocean ’tween me and her. You hear me Ben Perkins…..” Then his voice stopped short as the town clock struck 5:30. With panic in his voice, he hollered over his shoulder as he ran for the jailhouse door, “Hurry Ben, it’s almost supper time! Hurry!”