To keep food on the table during the Great Depression, thirteen-year-old Cub helps his widower father illegally distill and sell moonshine, despite Prohibition. However, their relaxed business is interrupted when a gangster named Salvatore arrives and offers a once-in-a-lifetime distribution deal to Cub's father. Eager for a safer lifestyle, Cub decides to interfere with the gangster's negotiations and end the deal. However, this broken arrangement backfires, forcing Cub to make some business decisions before things turn deadly. In this coming-of-age historical adventure by a debut author, Cub must race against time to not only save his father's life, but also their future.
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I swore off drinking whiskey the night before I turned thirteen. I made that decision while throwing up my first glass of moonshine out in the woods where Pa and I secretly made the stuff. It was a test of sorts between him and me, and I guess I flunked it.
It was just hours until my birthday, but Pa didn’t think that was reason enough to miss a night’s work. As usual, we headed into the woods at what he called the “witching hour.” At that time of the evening, right when the lightning bugs showed up, I could feel a change in my blood. The night made me feel alive, and being nocturnal was of course a natural benefit for us moonshiners.
That night, I mixed the mash as we worked around the fire, circling the big copper pot like the hands on a pocket watch. Pa dumped a half sack of sugar into the cornmeal mash, and right as everything got to bubbling and boiling, I snugged the lid on top of the pot. Soon enough, all that steam off the mash would start shooting through the copper pipes, finally spiraling down the worm. The worm was a coil of pipe that looked like a giant spring and went down into the condenser barrel full of cold creek water. When that hot steam corkscrewed down the worm, the cold would shock it back into a liquid. It was like magic, though, because it wasn’t just any liquid, it was our own brand of corn whiskey.
The wind skipped over the edge of the condenser barrel with a whistle. Through the smoke, I could see Pa staring into his clear glass of shine, thinking hard.
He looked across the pot at me. “It’s your birthday now,” he said.
I glanced up at the sky. The crescent moon sat lopsided over the tops of the pines. That meant it was around half past midnight.
“I figure it is.”
“And I got a surprise for you, Cub,” he said.
We had never been ones to over-celebrate a birthday, but we usually made do.
“A birthday present?”
Pa shook his head, his long gray hair swinging over his shoulders.
“I don’t know you’d call it that exactly.”
I stopped scraping off the mixing stick and looked at him. He was up to something.
“What do you mean, Pa?”
“I mean now that you’re thirteen you’ve got to go to the schoolhouse. No more classes with Miss Avery.”
I didn’t go to school with the other kids. Never had. Miss Avery had been my teacher since I was four or five, giving me lessons right there in our cabin. She had been a teacher at some big school up in Virginia, probably about a hundred years ago, and Pa had gotten special permission for her to teach me at home a couple hours a week so I could be around to help him farm. Of course, farming for us meant brewing big potfuls of whiskey on the sly, but I was still getting an education.
Between Pa and Miss Avery, I had learned animals and sums and could even read a bit. The classes weren’t overly long, and Pa only had to pay her a half-gallon a week for tuition. It had been a square deal for all of us. The fact was, though, that I’d always thought of my book learning as a temporary thing. I’d already mastered a trade.
“I don’t need any more teaching, Pa. I always figured I’d be a shineman like you.”
“You’d make a fine one, no denying that. But that government lady has been by twice now, and she says you’ve got to start this year. If you don’t, she’ll send the sheriff. You know we don’t need the law coming around here.”
Staring at the flames crawling up the copper still, I thought on this school business. Some mornings I’d catch sight of a group of students slinking off to classes all sleepy-eyed, looking sorry like a pack of beat dogs. Then in the afternoons they’d make their jailbreak and run out of that schoolhouse whooping like a bunch of savages. I was supposed to trade my days sleeping and nights under the stars for that? Whatever school was, I figured I’d been smart to avoid it so far.
Pa said, “It ain’t so bad. And don’t tell me you’ve never been curious about it.”
I suppose I had been a little curious. More than that, I had wondered what the kids there were like. I spent my time with Pa or by myself mostly. Thinking about it, I realized those town kids probably had lots of experience with schooling, probably had it down cold. And I imagine they wouldn’t exactly go out of their way to welcome an outsider.
Pa seemed to read my mind because he said, “And it’s about time you met some folks your own age. I can’t be raising a wild animal out here. You remember what happened with our pet coyote.”
Just thinking about that coyote made me laugh, and I felt a bit better. Pa had brought that pup in to pull buckshot out of his hide when I was about eight. We had a fine time playing with him while he healed up. But once he was walking again, that thing went savage and tore the whole house to shreds. If Pa yelled at him, he would run into Pa’s bedroom and pee right on the bed. I thought that was hilarious and a good sign of smarts too. That was until I tried to punish him and he did the same thing on my bed. A week later during a full moon, he howled once and jumped right out the kitchen window. We had not been sad to see him go.
“Quit your daydreaming, boy. Help me get the fire going hot again.”
I started feeding the fire, but in my head, I kept imagining a class full of students and some fancy professor laughing as I bumbled my way through a lesson. Before I realized it, I’d pitched about a dozen trees’ worth of deadwood under the pot. I was standing close enough to catch my overalls on fire, but all I felt was an ice chunk in my stomach.
“Pa, we’ve just got too much work for me to go off to school.”
I rushed over to rinse all the glasses in the rainwater barrel so he could see how busy I was helping him shine. How was Pa going to get by without me?
“And don’t kids go to school an awful lot?” I asked. “It’s every Monday and Thursday, isn’t it?”
Pa bit his lip and gave me a worried look.
“Uh, it’s a little more than that. But you’ve still got three weeks of summer. And you’ll do all right. I promise.”
The fire was crackling good, and as I passed it an ember popped up onto my overalls. Brushing at it, I took a step back and almost knocked Pa’s jar of moonshine off the top of the condenser barrel. I grabbed it and leaned against the still, staring hard into the glass like I’d always seen Pa do when he was thinking.
Pa squatted down, his knee bones popping like twigs, and he flicked at the drip tube as the shine trickled out. He looked up and saw me holding his glass.
“No need to drown your sorrows about school,” he said with a grin.
I kind of smiled and started to hand him his glass, but then stopped. That whiskey was still in my hand. I had spent nearly every night of my life back here in the woods making the stuff for folks to drink. I should at least be able to try it. Then maybe Pa would see I was man enough not to be bothered with school.
I lifted Pa’s moonshine up to have a little sip, but before I could even put my mouth to the glass, the fumes off the stuff punched me square in the nose. My whole head nearly jumped backwards off my shoulders like I’d smelled an old dead mouse.
Pa shook his head but kept smiling at me. He wasn’t going to stop me from drinking it. He was waiting for me to stop myself.
“That’s a good batch to try, boy, our secret flavor too. Finest in Tennessee. And it tastes even better than it smells,” he said with a laugh.