The Living Still (Part Two)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A thriving Kentucky whiskey distillery in the early part of the 20th century seems to make its own opinions known when prohibition takes hold.

Submitted: April 11, 2011

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Submitted: April 11, 2011

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“I WON’T DO IT!” came the initial insurgent conviction as Wayne Alcott stormed into Oyle’s office. “Not until I get a good explanation as to why I should, and why the finest worker this side of the Appalachians was fired.”

“Sit down, Mr. Alcott,” with razor sharp firmness. “And I do strongly suggest that you watch your tone with me, young man, or you might find yourself pickin’ cotton with your friend.”

Wayne sneered.

“Mr. Rufus Brown was let go due to mounting circumstances, that, I might add, are none of your concern. Now, you’re aware of warehouse procedure, Mr. Alcott. If you’re interested in holding on to your job, I suggest you find a way to cover both bases.”

Although he entertained the thought of suggesting the impossibility of such a task, Wayne thought twice, realizing it would not be tenable to do so. It could be done at this reasonably small distillery, and, furthermore, he could not risk any further standoffs with this larger than life baron.  Like it or not, wearing his heart on his sleeve, he would report to work tomorrow with an added workload, but minus a dear associate.

It was the idea of Juliet, Wayne’s wife, to attend the open-air sermon at Calvary Baptist that summer Sunday.  Already, when they had arrived, a certain Reverend Rennett was circling the lawn of the seated and helpless congregation, wide-eyed, lashing in the air, and foaming at the mouth about the dreadful sin of the demon rum, warning men to ‘turn from their sins and crush with their heels the serpents that came from the whiskey bottle.’ The animosity in the air was something that could be cut with a knife, and the sermon had most likely been fashioned for the sole purpose of bringing to light the recent murder of a wayward townsman at Old Gibbon’s the previous week.

Leaving the bombastic demonstration was only the beginning, however, as apparently, along the hillsides, the message was sinking in. The result of the religious outcry was instant. It was called ‘high rolling’ and Wayne had seen it once before—members of the congregation, seeking atonement for their wicked ways, were throwing themselves into the ground, and rolling down the slopes, over stones and giant stumps. According to their testimony, based on what Wayne had read in the papers, there was never any pain because ‘God took care of the hurt.’ All hurt, that is, except by the hurt that must have been experienced by the hill person that decided to roll out in front of Wayne’s car. Fortunately, the tires stopped shy of the muddy suspenders, and the only real injury was to Wayne’s nerves. All he could think about on the quiet drive home through the briar patches was: “Is this really what I’ve devoted my life to?”

By the early months of 1919, prohibition and the 18th Amendment under the Volstead Act had reared its ugly head, and its fine words were enforced: Thou shalt not distribute liquor in any way, shape or form. Iron Anchors had been given notice that it had six weeks to stop production, or ‘face the consequences.’ The southern states had been the first to vote dry, and with no help from a considerable and long known rise in mob violence and opposing organizations, the outcome seemed inevitable. But Benjamin Roberts Oyle would not go down without a fight. Spitting on the grey, concrete floors, he continued to talk tough, the Anti-Saloon League, those righteous, rich ladies of purity, the primary target of his wrath.

“Iron Anchors Distillery will not go dry without a fight, and these weak, inflexible, Anti-Saloon League tramps aren’t gonna com in here and destroy what I’ve built with their pretty little faces. They should drink their milk and mind their own business!”

The outburst, of course, made the Louisville newspapers, and suddenly the Anti-Saloon League was a force in which to recon—their first attack being the Old Gibbon’s Saloon. All ‘abuzz, hordes of the feisty Anti-Salooners raided the place with protest signs, and the horrendous chants of ‘a nation better off dry,’ had shut the doors to the place within a week.

All the hoopla was not doing any great wonders for the temperament of Benny Oyle, and the once haughty baron was now disheveled and jumpy. A week to go before the feds literally sunk his ship, and he had nowhere to go. Seeing his prospects impossibly grim, one Tuesday afternoon, he made the decision to have a talk with Lyle Corbey. Ready or not, it was time to go to the races.

In the final days of the Iron Anchors reign, with Oyle away much of the time, business had begun to take a decisive turn for the worse. The first incident pulled Wayne away from a faulty coil on the main copper still. “Come here, you gotta check this out,” it was Doyle Sandholm, bottling supervisor. Without hesitation, Wayne followed the stooped, ruddy-faced toiler to the bottling room. The scene there was nothing like he had ever witness before. The sound of breaking glass inexplicably filled the place, like some crazed marksman at a carnival parlor game. The women along the assembly line screamed and jumped as the bottles they readied for production seemed almost to be crushed in their hands or upon the conveyor belt by some unseen force. An employee was running in a circular frenzy as she cradled her bleeding fingers, mumbling some incoherent babble. Wayne followed Sandholm warily through the incessant outburst, looking to and fro and back and forth, all the while preparing to duck at any time. The thought occurred to Wayne: It was as if the Distillery itself was revolting against the prohibition taken against it. Their feet, traipsing across the shards of broken glass felt like so many clamshells. Bottle tops were even whizzing through the air when Wayne found himself led to Mrs. Sue Landers, the comely bottling senior employee. Her ravishing beauty suddenly seemed haggard in the midst of this unprecedented fury, and she was covering her head to address the voice of her approaching supervisor.

“I just don’t know,” Wayne heard her reply to the first question. “It just started happening. Nothing can seem to account for it.”

Moments later, the mysterious phenomena stopped as quickly as it had apparently begun, and aside from the rubble and the mess, there were no serious injuries. That would have to wait for a few days. For Thursday next, to be precise, when Wayne Alcott was scheduled to meet with one Mr. Paul Sticklemeyer, the gauger from Washington D.C.

Now, gaugers were a necessary evil in the whiskey trade, and were fortunately reckoned with fairly infrequently.  Their primary purpose: To check on distilleries by sampling and weighing bottles and checking proofs for tax purposes.  The little scene I the bottling room had…as Oyle had brainwashed his clerks into saying and believing, ‘never happened…right?’ and there was enough back stock in the distillery’s final days for Wayne to forget the matter entirely. Iron Anchors was within days now of forced closure, but the remaining liquor was still scheduled to make it to market, and this final visit seemed par for the course, especially for Benny Oyle, who behind clenched teeth loved to hate any and all government gaugers.

Today it would be Wayne’s job to show this one around.

“Can I see the warehouse please?” came the formal request.

Wayne agreed to show him without indignation, and together they marched off to what he’d come to call the ‘post Barley Brown Barrel House.’ The chore of the job had indeed been a strain since his friend was acquitted, but doable, and he felt now that his work was acceptable. The last thing he thought, the furthest thing from his mind, was that it could possibly be deadly. They had entered the deepest corridor in the house, that lost land of boozedom, when it happened. There was at first a hardly noticeable tremor. Mr. Sticklemeyer looked about curiously and shrugged it off. There was then, almost suddenly, a rocking accompanied by a kind of deep, wailing and mournful gargle sound. There was no time to react when a thousand voices from a thousand barrels seemed to cry out, the sound of wood cracking and rubbing against metal like walls settling in an old house.

“My God, these ricks are about to give!” Wayne cried. The great rows of barrels swayed back and forth accompanied by a horrible creaking door effect magnified a hundred times. As it gave out in front of them, Wayne and the gauger felt frozen in their tracks. In a very real effort, Wayne picked up one leg in seeming slow motion and then the other, trying to escape the impending disaster. Leaping forward and hitting the floor hard, , he closed his eyes, listening with deaf ears as the giant structure collapsed, sending the hundreds of barrels rolling forward in thunderous tandem. Somehow he had escaped harms way. He would find out later that one Mr. Paul Sticklemeyer, gauger for the U.S. government, was not so lucky. Shaken to a point of shock, Wayne stumbled to the warehouse phone. Dialing the police, he breathed nervously into the receiver, halfway anticipating another great fall. “Police? There’s been a terrible accident…”

 

The Kentucky Derby, for any horse breeder, was the crème de le crème of horse showmanship. In this case, a nervous Benny Oyle sat in the stands, ticket riding on his stallion White Humor in one hand, Mint Julep in the other. It was a day he had been waiting for, albeit, he never hoped it would come to this. Enjoying a little extra cash on the side was one thing, but now, this little horse gig had become a matter of dependence, of survival. A great deal was riding on Corbey and that horse.  For the ‘up-teenth’ time he put his now defunct distillery business out of his mind. Well, at least one part of it. He took another sip from the Mint Julep. At two-o’clock the horses were at the gates. White Humor’s major competition, so the press gloated, would be the two thoroughbred geldings Windswept Warrior and Kentucky Cannon. Crossing his fingers, the gates flashed open and the 12 horses darted out for the quarter-mile Churchill Downs classic.  It was a neck and neck affair, and the three most predicted horses were indeed racing for the roses. The Mint Julep spilled in Oyle’s lap as Kentucky Cannon and White Humor pounded for the finish line, neck and neck. Back, forth, back, forth. Corbey, all put vertical atop the white stallion, grim determination mounting on his face, began to pull in front. It was like pulling teeth. The agony of a tilted bottle of Iron Anchors whiskey empty but for two precious drops, trickling to the bottle neck, trickling to an eager tongue. The finish was seemingly a bang bang tie, but the announcer made it final. White Humor had just won the Kentucky Derby by a half nose at the wire.

 

In the span of just five months, Iron Anchors closed its doors; Wayne had to explain the incident of the deceased gauger to cops and the court, and once done, was obliged to settle into a humbling career in medicine.  Medicinal Assistant, to be perfectly clear—right hand man to the traveling Dr. Morris Brogan.

“Got a call, kid,” the voice said over the phone. “A Myrtle Jones says her husband’s imbibed hisself right to the brink.”

As it was with all these ‘health on the go’ crusades, Wayne met the good doctor at his country house and they were off. Dr. Brogan was a package deal with his Packard. Both were always moving. Brogan himself resembled a mountain-man throwback; his long, gray hair and beard flowed wildly and covered his sunken features. The green Packard pulled into the appointed location late afternoon, and Myrtle Jones was standing at the porch to greet them. It was a secluded place, deep in the Kentucky hills, and as Dr. Brogan grabbed his black medicine bag, Wayne wondered if there was anything in there for the Kentucky ‘heebie-jeebies.’

“He’s in the back,” was the gritty welcoming from the chiseled old woman called Myrtle. They found old man Cedric Jones laid up in a ramshackle army cot in a musty room, sweating bullets and cursing. Wayne, upon the doctor’s orders, took and reported the crusty fellow’s temperature, which was a high fever, and gave his employer a sidelong look, as the good doctor rummaged through his black bag.

“Ma’am,” he finally said, addressing Myrtle and pulling free a small vile of liquid, “I bet you didn’t realize the liquor has medicinal value, but not…” he took a swig. “Not in this case. Drunk as a barrelful of monkey’s, isn’t he?”

Myrtle Jones nodded in the affirmative.

Searching his bag of tricks, Dr. Brogan found what he was looking for. “Ah, here we go.” He handed her a small bottle of pills. “Carter’s Liver Pills for whatever ails you. Hubby’s got the worst case of the delirium tremens I ever seen. Have him take two of them now and two in the morning.”

Leaving that place was a sigh of relief for both doctor and assistant. The place was a pigsty of years of abuse. Laughing it up, driving back, both noticed far off streams of smoke dotting the hills, but neither of them really expected that the Packard would run out of gas in the middle of the Kentucky wilderness at five-o’clock in the evening.

“Not good. Not good at all,” they both quite severely agreed.

Now standing outside the car, they turned their gaze to the smoke in the distance high in the hills among the pines. “What dya think?” Dr. Brogan inquired. “Not any towns for miles. “Wayne was scratching his chin. “That over yonder…that’s moonshiners. No doubt about it.”

On a fool’s advice, Wayne agreed to head in that direction. The wooded countryside was thick with vegetation, and the steep incline of the hills, and up and down the ravines made for rugged wear on the feet. It was an hour later, and Wayne wished more than ever for a town, any town, when they came upon the clearing. Still a hundred yards in the woods away from the action, they could make out the primary players, but not their identities: Two men, a rickety old produce truck with a cloth cover, a little brown outhouse, and a makeshift aluminum pipe still. There was something else. Off to the side stood a little gristmill next to a spring, or creek, and some other mechanical “stuff” that the bumpkins must have been using for the distillery. Keep up here in the Kentucky holler, they had stumbled upon it. The famous illicit dirty dollar.

“Can you make it out?” Dr. Brogan whispered, obviously anxious to try his luck and get a closer view.

“No,” Wayne whispered, holding him back. “We dare not get any closer.”

“Come on, it’ll be all right,” and to Wayne’s absolute astonishment, the doctor pulled free a revolver.

“What the…are you crazy?”

“Lets bust this party,” and now Wayne could do nothing to hold back the cracked doctor. It was four steps forward in the underbrush when the first shot was fired.  Wayne ducked down, flat on his stomach, into a tangle of vines and brush.  At first he thought it was the doctor’s shot, but then another ensued, this one hitting his friend, still in sight, who fell helplessly to the wooded ground. Wayne, who could now hear the footfalls and mumblings of the moonshiners as they entered the woods, peered upwards from the horizontal position to see the boot heel of his downed friend. Quickly and quietly, he inched to within reach of the boot and shook it free from the dead man’s foot. A quick and lucky diversion might be his only shot at escaping from the woods and reaching the truck in the clearing.

“Over here, over here,” and “you’re dead men,” kept being repeated between broken sticks, as Wayne shook the boot loose from his flat position. Seeing the forms of the approaching men, he tossed the boot with all his might in a wayward angle from their sight. It’s landing point would hopefully be far enough.

“What was that?” They both turned, but seemed to stay put for the longest time. “Over there,” they repeated. Finally, they moved in the desired direction and were soon out of sight.  Wayne would not have much time. Quickly, he took the gun from the doctor’s hand, and as deftly as his legs would permit, made a run for it to the clearing, and into the back of the covered truck. The wait seemed like an eternity, and he hid behind a single oak barrel to which he had become quite accustomed. After an undisclosed amount of time, he once again heard the footsteps and mumbled voices of the returning bootleggers. From the sound of their conversation, it became apparent that they had found the doctor and…Wayne stifled a gasp, also apparent was their very identities. Unmistakably, now entering into the cab of the produce truck were Benjamin Roberts Oyle and Lyle Corbey. The Runt.

Wayne had no concept of the time when the truck pulled off, but when it finally came to a stop, a good hour later, nighttime had fallen. Furthermore, the stopping place was all too familiar. It may have been night, but beyond that covered cloth that passed as a roof the produce wagon, was the familiar terrain of his previous employment. Here before him, beneath the stars, was the place he’d hoped never to return again. The warehouse of Iron Anchors Distillery. Sparing no time, he hopped out of the truck before his escorts could exit, and made a dash for cover behind a nearby tree. Observing, their crime was in progress.

“Holy Moses. Stealing booze from their own plant,” Wayne muttered to himself, clutching tighter the gun in his hand. Together, they rolled the barrels from the warehouse to the truck. The process continued for several minutes, when something happened.  A break in the action. The two huddled together, close, within whispering distance. After a few minutes of unknown dialogue, Wayne watched as Oyle departed company, and made a line to the main distillery.  He waited for the baron to reach and enter the distillery, before making his next move, keeping a watchful eye on each man respectively. Corbey stayed where he was, resting on a barrel in the night. At that moment, mustering the courage, Wayne made a bead on the corner of the warehouse where he could get a closer view of the action. It was about a thirty yard run from his current place, but, in the night and armed, he figured he was ready to take his chances.  Counting to three, he sprang forth, but this particular dare was not met with the same fortune as back at the moonshine clearing.

“Hey!”

Wayne heard the shout accompanied by two rapid-fire shots that whizzed by his ear, and a third that hit the back of his leg. The Runt meant business.

“Shit!” Wayne winced, as he hobbled to the backside of the warehouse. Doubled over in pain, he checked the barrel of the revolver, which still had four shots. Guided solely by the single light atop the warehouse that lit the area, he inched his way around the structure to its other side, anticipated Corbey from any possible direction. Presently, he could see the operation now from the other side, but Corbey was nowhere to be seen. Scanning the dark premises, favoring his injured leg, he inched closer to the already rolled out barrels. About the time he figured that Corbey had gone around the place, he popped up into view from the other side, firing another shot, missing Wayne by inches. The short jockey had made himself visible in the darkness just long enough for Wayne to fire his own shot, a carefully aimed shot that brought him to the ground. But something was up. The Runt had fallen amidst five or six exposed barrels on the grass just outside the warehouse, and even from his distance, Wayne could see that he had something else, other than his pistol, in his hand.  Hobbling closer, cautiously, it became apparent. Not in his hand, but around it, was a cloth. Wayne was now close enough to see, and looked down at the dying man between the leaking whiskey barrels. On one hand he had wrapped the cloth. In the other, he had a lit match. Wayne was staring down at him.

“You may be on to us,” the jockey said weakly, “but when I light this cloth…” he coughed. “Well, you see all these barrels of whiskey? And the one next to me that’s been shot…” cough, “and that’s leaking?” Laughing hysterically, Corbey drenched the cloth in the nearby spillage, and dropped the match.

Eyes widening in fear, Wayne turned and hobbled off in the other direction, moments from the Runt’s final threat. “Guess we’re both out of business now, eh, friend?” and the sinister laugh rang out in the night.

Wayne could thank the stars above that the ensuing explosion that came in angry waves of increasing magnitude would put only the helpless Corbey out of commission. Now at the door of the Iron Anchors Distillery, Wayne looked back at the inferno, which by now had razed the warehouse to the ground, and had handily cremated the unlikable rumrunner…in his own brewings.

Although officially closed, it was not difficult to enter the Iron Anchors Distillery. Whether it was a consequence to the nearby flames Wayne did not know, but the hulking building seemed to be vibrating, groaning…reacting somehow. Again. The side door he used to enter was ajar, evidently the one Oyle had used.  Inside was vaguely how he had remembered, yet somehow more destitute, more run down and sickened. He passed the milling room where Corbey had worked, then the furnace room where the large generators and steam engines moaned and belched with unsettling failure. As he came upon the main distillation area, the copper stills were vibrating wildly—shut down, closed down, but somehow, inexplicably, turned on. Alive. As he grabbed a ladder to peer down into the fermentation tub, it seemed the whole place was on the verge of collapsing. Indeed, the vat itself was splitting. Actually cracking in two. Surprisingly, the giant tank was full of early stage whiskey, as Wayne looked down into it from the ladder’s second to top rung. There, floating lifelessly at its surface, face down, was the very man he had come to find. There, marinating in his own fermented juices lay ‘Iron Anchors’ himself: Benjamin Roberts Oyle. Nearly falling from the ladder, Wayne trembling in time with the beloved still, descended the ladder, and to the best of his feeble ability, tried to outrun all that was falling apart behind him. It was then he saw it. A shadowy, unidentifiable form darting by in front of him near the open door frame, and out into the night.

“Hey, you there!” but the fleeting personage was gone, and Wayne’s focus returned to the preservation of his own life, or he, too, would be. Not looking back, he made his way for the marble reception building. If the still would let him out of its grasp. Somehow, in the beleaguered nightmare about him, and his painful and thoughtless forward slow-motion, he escaped the self-destructing building, and made his way, shaken, weakened, into the quiet marble sanctuary of the reception building. But it wasn’t quiet…there was residual upset here, too. Amidst the turbulence, somewhere he would have sworn he detected the faint sound of someone humming. The Overture of 1812 was it? Finding a chair in the corner, he plopped into it. As he sat there winded, looking up at the shaking marble walls, the iron anchor fell.

 

Midnight fell in the New Gibbon’s Tavern, and the bartender once again filled the old man’s drink. It was a nice story, he thought. A nice story.


© Copyright 2019 CP Dawson. All rights reserved.

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