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Authors: Reavis Wortham

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BOOK: The Right Side of Wrong
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Chapter Seven

Deputy Sheriff John Washington was waiting for Ned on the side of the two-lane road not far from the little community of Direct, pronounced Dye-rect. The almost mythical black deputy from Chisum, he usually handled issues among his people on the south side of the tracks, but was always willing to help his good friend Ned whenever the constable called.

The radio transmission only an hour earlier was cryptic. “John, meet me at Reeves' store in Direct. I'll be there directly.”

Instead of waiting at the store, though, John stopped a hundred yards away. He knew the presence of a black deputy might attract attention, especially since he was a mountain among men. The familiar sight of a sheriff's car on the side of the road barely turned heads, most of the time.

Direct was another shrinking farm community about the size of Center Springs. The name came from a traveling preacher who held a revival there back in the 1880s. He was so shocked at the depravity of the little hardscrabble community that sold liquor and tolerated cathouses, in his sermon he shouted that if the residents didn't change their ways, the whole kit'n caboodle would go “Dye-rect to Hell!”

His sermon must have done some good, in John's opinion, because the community was usually quiet whenever he was called out to help Ned. He hadn't been there more than five minutes when Ned's sedan stopped on the highway beside him. Cody was driving.

Ned rolled his window down. “Did you bring an ax?”

“So that's why we're here. You know I keep it in the trunk with my shotgun.”

“All right, then. Foller us.”

Cody accelerated and John smoothly pulled in behind them. They traveled only a couple of miles before Cody steered onto a red rock road leading south. John was surprised, because most of the whisky-making took place down on the river, in the opposite direction.

The road wound through the country, past farms and pastures that gave way to thick hardwood bottoms as they neared Sanders Creek. Gravel became dirt and John was surprised to see an increase in shacks full of folks that looked like him. He didn't know any colored families lived in that part of the county, and it concerned him. Keeping up with his people was part of the job.

As they passed the last house, far enough in the country that John wondered if it was still in Lamar County, half a dozen barefoot children dressed in not much more than rags stopped playing in the yard to stare in open-mouthed amazement at the
two
cars on their skinny little shaded road at the same time.

At the sight of a uniformed colored deputy driving the second car, their screams of excitement brought out still more children. They popped up in a surprising number of places, from under the porch, out of barrels, and from small doghouse-like structures made of rusty sheet iron and cast off boards. John slowed to wave and try for a head count. An attractive but tired-looking woman in a shapeless shift appeared at the open entry to the house, a baby on her hip and a pig at her feet.

She didn't register any emotion whatsoever at the sight of the black deputy waving through his open window. Vowing to come back for a visit, John accelerated to catch up and the house disappeared in a cloud of red dust. The ground sloped toward the creek bottom and the dirt road petered out into nothing more than dim tracks leading into a meadow. It reminded John of the last time he and Ned busted up a whiskey still.

Killing the engines, the men stepped out of the cars without slamming the doors. “None of these tracks look fresh, Mr. Ned.” John quietly opened his trunk and took out both an ax and his shotgun. They'd polished their routine through the years. Only Cody's presence changed things. John handed the ax to Ned.

“No, they don't, but that don't mean the still ain't back there. Cody and me'll foller this little path here. John, slip around back past them shin-oaks and we'll catch 'em in the middle.”

Without a word, John stepped around a briar patch and disappeared into the trees. Ned gave him a few minutes, hefting the double-bit ax in his hands and staring back the way they came.

Cody watched John's huge frame disappear into the woods. Only months before, he and the big deputy shared a horrific experience in the Cotton Exchange, and Cody felt they had reached a different level of their relationship. Inside the Exchange, they faced a monster, and during that time, they shared the same fears and emotions, conversing in a way that brought the two men together. Cody was surprised that since that time, John had fallen back to their old ways of talking, and his traditional, respectful ways of dealing with the Parkers.

He wondered if John's actions and demeanor were real, or if he felt the need to put on a false front for society's sake. Cody didn't want that. He wanted John to be a true friend, and not just one when no one else was looking.

“Your Uncle Ben told me on the phone that he ran across a still down here last week while he was looking for a good place to catch crappie.”

“We're sure a long way from his house.” Cody examined the surrounding trees, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Redbirds flitted through the branches, and a bushy-tail squirrel calmly loped along the limb of a wide pecan. He relaxed. “He usually takes a cane pole down under the Sanders Creek bridge and fishes there.”

“That's what I thought, too. I don't know why he's stringing off down here. I suspect it might be for another reason, but I'm not inclined to say yet. The thing that makes me wonder about all this is him calling me in the first place. Ben don't usually get mixed up in anything that don't pay him back in some way.”

“They might have cheated him on the price of a gallon of whiskey.”

“Maybe.” Ned abruptly stepped out toward the woods without another word. Cody quickly fell in behind.
A
clear path wound through the shade beneath thick pecans and oaks. Thickets of brambles forced the path to change direction until another tangle bent it once again. Both men were familiar with such trails that could have been made by deer, cattle, or people. Ned suspected this one was made by deer and then temporarily widened by shoes. It was like any other trail stomped down by fishermen heading for a good, deep hole in the creek, but he wasn't convinced.

After a ten-minute walk, Ned glimpsed a boiler through the thin understory trees growing in the dense shade. He stopped and sniffed the air like a wary deer. “I don't smell no smoke.”

Before Cody could comment, John stepped into the clearing on the other side of the still and waved. “There ain't nobody here.”

Relieved, the three met beside the cold tank in the small natural clearing made by a massive oak that had fallen in the not too distant past, leaving a huge hole in the overhead canopy. Cody kicked around the stomped-down grass. “Nobody's been here for a while.”

“Ben didn't say they were cooking when he ran across it.”

“Maybe he scared them off,” Cody suggested.

“Could-a happened.” Ned tapped the side of the boiler with the head of his ax. It rang hollow. “I don't believe I've ever seen anybody set up a still and then leave it behind. This is a good one. There ain't no reason they couldn't have taken it with them and fired it up again somewhere else.”

Cody put his hand against the cold metal and examined the apparatus. He'd seen a lot of disassembled stills through the years after Ned had broken them up, but he'd never seen one all set up and ready to go.

The round boiler was chest high, big enough to hold five hundred gallons of mash. From the top, a copper line dropped into a box called the “thump keg,” designed to prevent what moonshiners called “puke” from boiling over. From there, the line ran to a water bath in a cooling tank covered by a wooden box. A long coil of copper, called the worm, condensed the clear liquid in the loops until it distilled pure 180-proof white lightning.

John scanned the surrounding woods. “I don't like this Mr. Ned. You notice something else about this setup?”

The two older lawmen were suddenly very alert. “Yep. Saw it right off.”

Cody was getting frustrated by his lack of experience. “What?”

Ned copied John's posture and faced outward. “There ain't no car tracks in here, and I don't see any way to get one through all these trees. Nobody's gonna haul whiskey out by the gallon the way we came in. They'd have to carry this stuff along the trail before they skedaddled. Nobody does that.

“They usually find a place where they can drive between the trees, or they'll cut down a few to make a little road wide enough for their cars. This don't look right.”

“I thought this might be Doak Looney's still,” John said. “But I believe I've changed my mind. There ain't an empty jug in sight, no wood is cut and ready to use, and there ain't no trash piles I can see.”

Picking up on their nervousness, Cody rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. “How long you think it's been since a batch of whiskey left here?”

“They ain't. Look under the boiler. There ain't no ashes, nor any signs of a fire.”

“What kind of deal is this?”

“I don't know.”

A blue jay shrieked, its harsh echo a familiar sound.

“Mr. Ned, if I was already shot, I'd say this was a trap. But if somebody's waitin' on us, they sure are taking their own sweet time about it.”

Ned's thoughts flashed back to Cody's wintertime ambush. His eyes flicked from shadow to shadow. Finally, he realized his sixth sense hadn't kicked in, and the hairs on his neck weren't sticking up.

It wasn't a setup. So what was going on?

“Let's kick around a bit, but y'all keep an eye out.” Ned stepped away from the trod-down grass and walked slowly along the length of the downed tree. The lower limbs on the trees were lobbed off to better clear the space as they assembled the still, but they were piled in a rotting stack in the middle of the clearing.

The lawmen split up. None of the three knew what they were looking for.

The surrounding woods were far from silent. Birds called, squirrels chattered in anger at the men's presence, and a slight breeze soughed through the limbs.

John finally stopped deeper into the woods, fifty feet from the clearing. “Mr. Ned, you want to take a look here?” They joined him beside a pile of freshly turned dirt. The cleared patch of ground had only a scattering of debris on top. “I believe sumpin's buried here.”

His hands in his pockets, Ned studied the disturbed ground. He toed a clod. “Cody, run back there and get the shovels out of the trunk. I got a bad feeling about this pile of dirt.”

The feeling was well-founded. John and Cody knew they'd find the secret after the first blade full of soft sand proved the soil had been recently dug to a considerable depth. Cody still wasn't up to full strength and he stopped to rest while John kept digging. Minutes later, he stopped when his shovel encountered something much harder than loam and sand. Cody joined again and digging carefully, they uncovered two decaying bodies lying one atop the other. The stench roiling from the shallow grave drove the two lawmen back.

On the other hand, Ned had the unusual ability to use the velum, the teardrop-shaped flap in the back his throat, to close off the passages to his nose. He was one of the few people in the county who could block smells with this strange reflex, while breathing through his mouth and keeping his hands free.

He stepped forward to stare downward into the grave. Holding his breath, John stuck the blade of his shovel into the ground and wiped his face with a white handkerchief. “I swear Mr. Ned, there's been a terrible lot of killin' around here these past few months.”

“Yeah, and I'm getting a belly full of it. Y'all reckon its Doak Looney planted in this hole? We ain't seen him for a long while.”

Cody faced away from the shallow grave and thought about the corpses they'd uncovered. His stomach clenched and he choked down a gag. “Hard to tell, but I imagine we'll know once they're out of the ground.” He started back toward the cars. “I'll go radio this in and get some help out here.”

“I can think of only one reason for this.” John watched Cody disappear into the trees.

“Yep, someone got rid of the competition before these boys could start cooking whiskey.”

Chapter Eight

It didn't take me and Pepper long before we were at Mr. Bell's house pretty regular. I've always loved building things, but I found out quick that I had a lot to learn.

He put me to work the first day, finishing his porch. I'd showed up right after breakfast. Mr. Bell was already working, adding a rail around the outside. He had a small lumber-scrap fire going not far from the house, and I could smell the rich pine burning long before I came up in the yard.

“I'm ready to work.”

He was sawing slow and steady. With one more solid push, he cut through the board and about three inches dropped off. He bent over with the ease of a much younger man, picked up the chunk, and pitched it into the fire.

He noticed the hammer I'd slipped through my belt. “I can see you are, young man. Grab the other end of this new porch rail and give me a hand.”

He'd already marked where it went on the posts, so while I held up my end, he set a nail with two taps, and then drove it in with three strong blows. “Now, drive in your end.”

Mine didn't go so well. The nail wouldn't cooperate, and when I finally got it started, I had to hammer on it a dozen times. His patience surprised me. He held the rail level and watched as I rassled with the nail, but didn't say a word until I was finished.

I was embarrassed to meet his eyes, because I'd given him the idea I knew how to build, but he picked up a tape, measured the distance between two posts on the opposite side, and then read the tape a second time. He laid another two-by-four across a set of wooden sawhorses and marked it. He stuck the pencil in his pocket, measured the board again, and then quickly cut it with a handsaw.

“Measure twice, cut once. Have you ever heard that?”

“Nossir.”

“Well, you do that, and you won't have many mistakes, and you won't waste wood, right?”

I'd already realized that he didn't want an answer when he said “right.” It was like Mr. Ike, who said “listen” all the time. It was the way some people talked. Up at the store the men told stories and every now and then the teller might say, “So-and-So got all riled up about it, and you know how he talks, he said…” Then all the men listening nodded their heads and grinned, because they knew how So-and-So talked, and that's what made the story interesting.

“Grab your end and let's nail this one up, but this time use
my
hammer laying there.”

I could tell a difference the minute I picked it up. The poll was deeper and the face was half again as wide as mine.

This time he let me drive the first nail, and it was twice as easy.

He was satisfied. “The right tool for the right job. That goes for all things in life.” I held out the hammer when I was finished, but he shook his head. “I have another one right over there. That'n's yours.”

An hour later we stopped to judge our work. Mr. Tom grunted in satisfaction. “Doing the porch first is backwards, but I wanted to get it wrapped. It looks good. Now, are you afraid of heights?”

“Nossir. I've built tree houses, and not too long ago I fell out of a tree and broke my arm, but I ain't afraid to go right back up.”

“What'd you fall out for?”

“Grandpa and Uncle Cody were in a shoot-out not far away, and I was watching.”

He studied me until it became uncomfortable. I needed to keep talking. “There was this person killing folks and cutting off their heads. When Grandpa caught up with the killer, well, I didn't want him to get away, so I climbed a tree to see where he was headed in the river bottoms, and I got excited and fell.”

“Have you climbed any trees since?”

“Yessir. We've been working on our Swiss Family Robinson tree house for the past while.”

“Well good. I'm glad to hear you've learned to overcome your fears.” He pointed upward. “We're gonna roof this place today, and I can use your help. We'll do the porch roof first and work our way up. It'll be good practice for a young'un with a new hammer, then we'll tackle the house.”

When Uncle Cody and Pepper finally drove down the road looking for me an hour later, we were both high off the ground. We'd already finished the porch roof and laid the first line of shingles along the front edge of the house.

Uncle Cody got out of the El Camino and tilted his Stetson back to look up at us. “I heard all the hammering and knew Mr. Bell couldn't be going that fast all by himself.”

We stopped. Pepper was awful tiny from up so high and it made me laugh. I could tell it made her mad, because she never liked to be laughed at.

I noticed Uncle Cody wasn't wearing his boots. He had on a pair of brogans like Grandpa's everyday shoes, jeans, and a work shirt. He was also wearing his Colt .45 automatic pistol. Without saying anything, Uncle Cody threw a load of shingles up on his shoulder and came up the ladder.

“You don't need to be up here,” Mr. Bell said. “I doubt you're healed up enough yet.”

“It's all right. I'll take it easy.” Uncle Cody must have seen the funny look on my face. “We know each other. Mr. Bell came by the hospital more times than I can count, and we've visited a bunch since then.”

“I want to help,” Pepper said.

Uncle Cody waved a hand. “Come on up here.”

The four of us worked out a system where Pepper and I laid the shingles straight and the men pounded the roofing nails in with one or two hits each. We were a good team and the whole thing moved quickly.

Even though we were busy, every now and then I'd see Uncle Cody kneeling on the roof, looking all around from our high perch, as if checking for something. Then I realized why he was still wearing his .45 while we worked, because he still wasn't sure if the people who shot at him were coming back to finish the job.

You couldn't see much from our perch, parts of the highway through the trees to the north and that's about all. The other three directions were nothing but woods. There could have been a booger-bear sneaking up on us and we'd have never known it.

We could hear, though. Cars swooshed past on the highway, mourning dove cooed from the trees, and quail called from the hidden pastures and meadows. Cows were always mooing not far away, but we didn't pay them any mind.

The country-style roof only had two sides, angling up from the porch to the ridgeline, and then down the other side. It was simple work, and the day finally warmed up enough to be called hot.

Before you knew it, we were finished with the front slope and back on the ground.

Mr. Bell picked up a few short pieces of lumber and pitched them into the fire. “I sure appreciate y'all's help. Once the other side is finished, I can get started on the inside.”

Uncle Cody wiped his sweaty face with a bandana, reminding me of Grandpa's habits. “Well, you can't work on an empty stomach. Kids, get in the back of the truck and you climb in up front with me, Mr. Bell. It's dinner time and I 'magine Miss Becky has the table set.”

“Well, I…”

“She's expecting us.”

“In that case, let me get my hat.”

I was hungry all right, so Pepper and I climbed over the El Camino's tailgate and we drove the short distance to the house.

Uncle Cody was right. Dinner was ready when we got there, and I smelled it all the way out in the yard. The table was loaded with my favorites: creamed peas, pinto beans, green beans, stewed potatoes, creamed corn, chicken, chicken fried steak, and homemade biscuits.

Mr. Bell took his hat off when he walked into the steamy kitchen and Miss Becky hugged him like he was kinfolk, even though she'd never laid eyes on him until that minute. I guess him saving Uncle Cody made him part of the family, and he settled right in.

Grandpa was up at the barn and came in right behind us. He was glad Mr. Bell was there, because he was grinning from ear to ear.

“Sit right there at the other end of the table, Tom.” Grandpa settled into his chair at the head and we filled the rest. There wasn't much talking, because we were all hungry. Mr. Tom put away more than his share. He didn't shame us, though. We all ate like field hands too. Shingling is hard work, and I didn't realize how hungry I was until we dug in.

As usual, the phone rang halfway through dinner and I thought Grandpa was gonna throw his fork at it. Miss Becky hurried into the living room and answered.

“Daddy, it's for you.”

“Who is it?”

“I didn't ask. You know that.”

He sighed his way from the table as the talk quieted down, partly so he could hear, partly because we wanted to listen, too. There wasn't much to hear.

Two minutes later he was back in the kitchen. “Constable Parker, you ready to get back to work?”

“Sure 'nough.”

“I need to go pick up a prisoner from Roxton and take him to Dallas.”

Mr. Bell put down his fork. “Mind if I tag along?”

Grandpa frowned. “Tom, I'd enjoy the company, but this is law work, and I cain't take no chance you gettin' hurt. You can ride with me one night when I have to make the rounds, if you'd like.”

If it hurt Mr. Bell's feelings, he didn't show it. “That's all right. I'll finish my cake here and get on back to work.”

Uncle Cody plucked his hat off the rack beside the door. “We can drop you off on the way out.”

“No need. I'll walk my dinner off.”

“You ready?” Ned asked.

“Sure,” Cody set his hat and started for the door. “Who we picking up?”

“Carl Gibbs. They got him after he blacked Tamara's eye last night and lit out to hide at his mama's house. A sheriff's deputy is holding him 'til we get there.”

“Why can't they take him in?”

“Because I want to, that's why.”

From the tone of Grandpa's voice, I knew he was done talking about it.

“Cody Parker, you ain't going nowhere until I give you some sugar.” Me and Pepper snickered when Miss Becky grabbed Uncle Cody and gave him a kiss on the cheek. It broke up the tension in the kitchen.

Uncle Cody wasn't embarrassed to be kissed by her in front of Mr. Bell, but instead of saying anything, he and Grandpa hurried off the porch with Miss Becky hollerin' for them to be careful. The house got really quiet after they were gone, and before long we were finished eating and Mr. Bell struck out on foot for his house.

Pepper went into the living room and clicked on the radio. The Beach Boys were singing when we laid down on a pallet made of quilts and took a long nap.

It was the first day we'd worked like a full hand to rebuild a house, but it was far from the last.

BOOK: The Right Side of Wrong
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