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Twelve-year-old Tom Higgins is learning the craft of making whiskey. Even though Prohibition forbids the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, Tom is determined to be a good apprentice. He is, after all, a moonshiner's son. His father has raised moonshining to an art, and Tom wants nothing more than to please this rough, distant man.
Then a preacher comes to the wilds of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to rid Bad Camp Hollow of the "evils of liquor." This is when Tom and his father begin their campaign to match wits with the preacher and try to outsmart the law officers he calls in. Tom's father is eloquent in defense of a way of life long and respectfully lived by the Higgins family. But the preacher and his pretty daughter make a powerful case against it. And when drink causes a tragedy in the community, Tom Higgins is torn....
As he works with his father making moonshine in the remote hills of Virginia during Prohibition, twelve-year-old Tom learns about hard work and honesty.
Tom lay flat on his stomach in the laurel thicket. He blew at the gnats that had been pestering him all day and tried to ignore the high-pitched hum of the sweat bee hovering around his ear. A towhee scratched in the leaves a few yards away, chirping its "Sweet bird-eeee!" I call at regular intervals. The only other sound was the bubbling and spitting of the barrels of mash fermenting beside the creek, screened by the branches of a fallen tree.
"If they're comin', they'd better come soon," Tom muttered. He didn't want to spend a third day like this, and Pa couldn't relish another night hunkered down, waiting to see if who ever had shortened his last run of whiskey by pouring salt into one of the mash barrels was going to do it again.
Who could it have been? Tom went over the possibilities in his mind for the hundredth time. A revenuer wouldn't have advertised his presence by tampering with the mashhe'd have kept watch and caught the moonshiner and then destroyed the still. Tom frowned. What kind of man poured salt into a mash barrel, anyway? An angry man would have smashed it open. And a coward — or Eddie Jarvis, who coveted Pa's customers-would have told the sheriff where to find the still and let the law do his dirty work.
For a moment Tom wondered if someone could have done it as a joke, but he quickly discarded that idea. Messing around with a man's still was no joking matter. It wasn't something you did if you wanted to keep on living.
Suddenly a squirrel's scolding chatter made Tom's heartbeat quicken. Listening now, he heard splashing. Somebody was coming up the creek, and not even to be quiet aboutit!
Tom blinked in astonishment as a piebald horse came into view, making its way up the gravelly creek bed. Peering through the laurel growing near the bank, Tom could see the rider's high black boots. He held his breath, hoping the horse would pass him, but it stopped and the rider dismounted.
Tom's mouth dropped open. It was a girl! And she was wearing fancy riding pants like the ones in that mail-order catalog he'd seen at the Rigsbys' house. Tom watched, scarcely breathing, while the girl unbuckled the flap of her saddlebag and lifted something out. Tom raised his head a little. It looked like-it was! It was a five-pound sack of salt.
Ignoring the branches that scraped along his spine, Tom scuttled backward fill he could stand up. Then he forcedhis way forward through the almost impenetrable greenery until he stood on the low creek bank, looking down at the girl.
She let the salt fall to the ground and stood facing him, an opened penknife in her hand. Tom grinned. You'd never see a knife like that at old Man Barnes's store down in the settlement, he thought, looking at its tiny blade.
"Don't you come any closer," the girl warned. Her dark hair was pulled back into a thick braid, and her wide brown eyes were steady.
Suddenly conscious of his rumpled shirt and overalls and his unruly mop of sandy hair, Tom slid down the sloping bank and stood on the damp ground, opposite the girl. "You don't belong here,"he said, trying to sound authoritative, like Pa. "Put away your pretty li'l knife an' go on back to where you come from."
Slowly the girl lowered her arm, but she made no move to leave. The horse, its nostrils quivering, was trying to force its way through the branches of the fallen tree that hid the mash barrels, and Tom quickly took the reins and turned the animal away. "Now git on, an' git out of here," he told the girl.
"I'll leave when I've done what I came to do, and not before," she said, her chin lifted defiantly.
In one swift movement, Tom leaned over and scooped up the sack of salt.
"Give me that. It's mine!" the girl demanded.
Tom shook his head. "I'm gonna"— he searched for the word-"confiscate it. Now git!"
The girl's eyes blazed with anger, and she didn't move.
Tom shrugged and tossed the sack into the shallow creek. "Folks hereabouts don't take kindly to anybody messin' 'round near their stills," he said sternly, jurning back to the girl.
"Stills are illegal! Haven't you heard of Prohibition?"
Tom scowled. He'd heard of Prohibition, all right. How he hated the 1919 law that sent even more law officers into the hills to look for stills to destroy and moonshiners to arrest. Until two years ago, federal revenue agents had searched out moonshiners because they paid no taxes on the whiskey they made in secret. But now the revenuers came to enforce the new law against making or selling alcoholic drinks anywhere in the United States.
"I've heard of Pro'bition, all right," Tom said, "but maybe you ain't never heard of trespassin'. Trespassin's illegal, too," he said, "an' you're on my pa's land." He saw a flicker of concern cross the girl's face and pressed his advantage. "What would your people say if they knew you was trespassin'? An'if they found out you was foolin' 'round somebody's still?"
"They aren't going to find out," she said, but she didn't sound so confident now. She turned away from Tom and mounted her horse. "Anyway," she said, looking over her shoulder, "running a still is a lot worse than trespassing."With that, she tossed her head and rode downstream without looking back.Tom gave the girl a long head start before he set off for home, glad he didn't have to lie hidden in the laurel thicket any longer...