Read The Choiring Of The Trees Online

Authors: Donald Harington

The Choiring Of The Trees (4 page)

Now, that day Sull Jerram took her brothers to Jasper and wouldn’t take her, she had a fit and cussed and broke up some things in our playhouse. The back of her father’s forty met the back of my father’s forty at a basso profundo oak tree way up on the ridge of Ledbetter Mountain, and beneath that oak we’d long ago carried some planks of scrap lumber from Murrison’s and stacked and nailed them against one another in a shelter against the wind and rain and winter chill, and inside that small space we had our secret home with a few shards of china and mostly stoneware, some chipped glasses and rag napkins, dolls we’d outgrown now and cast-off calendars for the years from 1908 to 1911, when we’d still been children. Dorinda was not a virgin. Sure, I’ve heard the jape that by definition hereabouts it’s a five-year-old girl who can outrun her brothers, and Dorinda was way past five and had six brothers. Ironically, it was the only one of the six brothers who was younger than her. We had invited him to the playhouse, Lewis, when he was just ten, I was nearly twelve, and Dorinda was already twelve. Although she was older than me, I had “accomplished” one thing she had not: I had lost my virginity, and without the help of any brothers, for I had none. He was a cousin, and twice-removed at that, named Every Dill, a year older than me, a year ahead of me in school, and a virgin himself. It had been almost happenstance, not premeditated, one night when I’d been left alone at his folks’ cabin while they and my folks and sisters and everybody else went off to a funeral. Nothing I’d care to go into here, except to say that Dorinda knew about it and envied me it, and now was determined to lose hers too, even if to her own brother Lewis. He was the first boy ever to go inside our secret house, and Dorinda had dared me to do it with him since I already had experience, and I’d taken the dare but lost my nerve while he was trying to position himself atop me, and she’d said, when I got cold feet, that she’d do it herself, and Lewis didn’t care which one of us it was, so long as he had a hole he could enter. Of course he wasn’t old enough to make babies, but he was sure old enough to do it, in the sense of what they actually placed inside of what, and how they moved, and how long it lasted, and the noises they made. I watched, but they seemed to forget I was there. Watching them do it, I wondered if I had looked like that and sounded like that and smelled like that when I had done it with my cousin Every.

There was one big difference, I learned later. I had fooled around that one time with my cousin Every out of curiosity and pleasure and maybe even something approaching love. But Rindy had done it for revenge. She was bloody, and she showed the blood to her mother and told her parents who had done it, and Simon Whitter thrashed poor Lewis nearly to death, and later Rindy told me and laughed and said that was her way of getting even with Lewis because he was his mother’s favorite and got extra dessert when she didn’t.

So when Dorinda told me, much later, that she wanted Sull Jerram, wanted him real badly, my first reaction was to ask, “What’s he done to ye that ye want to git back at him for?”

She laughed and said no, she wanted him because he was a big grown man and would really know how to do it and make her feel good. “Rindy,” I said in exasperation, “he’s married to Irene Chism, and has been for years and years, and besides he’s old enough to be your father.” She didn’t care, and for a long time I thought it was just his automobile she lusted after, the same way, years later when automobiles became common, that most silly girls (myself included, once) couldn’t tell the difference between a boy and his car.

Whatever it was that Sull Jerram took her brothers to Jasper for, they began spending most of their time there, hanging out, if not in the actual corridors of the courthouse, somewhere in the vicinity where mischief was a-cooking. Sull Jerram ran for the office of county judge in 1913, and Irene moved back to Jasper and lived with him during the campaign. Now, I don’t know about other states, but in Arkansas a county judge is just a kind of administrator, not a magistrate, no, not in any way a legal arbitrator; all he judges is whether or not a road ought to be fixed up or a new roof put on the jail. But he’s the most powerful politician. Dorinda’s brothers scoured the county on Sull’s behalf, and some folks said that they used coercion and bribery and ballot-stuffing. Most of Stay More voted for Sull’s opponent, and Sull didn’t like us for it, and he never let us forget it after he was elected.

That election made him into “Judge” Sull Jerram at the same time it offered him a way to get rich. It was the same general election when most of the counties of Arkansas voted dry, six years in advance of national Prohibition. Newton County had always been dry, and always would be, so there was always a good local market for Chism’s Dew, and always had been, and there still is. When the first Chism came from Tennessee in 1839, he didn’t intend to break any laws or make a lot of money, he just wanted to do what he knew how to do: make good sour mash drinking-whiskey. There was a time when Seth Chism had some trouble in the 1870s with the government for the manufacture, possession, and sale, but apart from that the Chisms had been moonshining through four generations with impunity, free hands, and honesty. No sheriff of Newton County would come near the Chism place, as long as the product was sold on the premises, which it always had been, or at least not any farther from the premises than “downtown” Stay More, where, in the autumn, a man could buy a pumpkin from little Luther Chism on Saturday afternoon and find a refilled jar or jug inside of it.

Chism’s Dew had a reputation beyond the boundaries of Newton County, and there were even Little Rock politicians, lawyers, and bankers who obtained quantities of it for their personal use and to entertain guests, but the Chisms had never made any effort to market their commodity outside of Stay More…until the 1913 state “drought” created a demand, and the politicians up at Jasper saw a way to get rich from it. At the same time Sull Jerram became county judge, a friend of his got elected the new sheriff, a fellow from somewhere over in eastern Newton County named Duster Snow, who had worked his way up from assessor and surveyor, with a couple of years as a deputy revenue marshal, so he knew the liquor trade inside out. We got a new county clerk and a new county treasurer, and Judge Sull Jerram found himself presiding over a gang of courthouse liars and ruffians and mischief-makers who lost no time in cooking up a surefire scheme for getting rich: marketing Chism’s Dew to the outside world.

Judge Jerram was still Seth Chism’s son-in-law, which didn’t entitle him to a better price than anyone else—he paid the same two dollars per gallon—but he began to buy up every last drop that Seth and his boys could make, as fast as they could make it, and Sull had it hauled off to Jasper, where it was loaded onto a big newfangled vehicle called a motortruck and taken off to Harrison. The Chisms ran out of containers; every jug and gallon demijohn in Stay More had been rinsed and refilled and sold to Sull Jerram, and all the jugs and demijohns that he could bring in from Jasper, Parthenon, Spunkwater, Swain, Nail, Deer—whatever community might have a few—he rounded them up and the Chisms filled them and they found their way to Harrison. When all the jugs and demijohns in Newton County had disappeared, they began to use bean pots, cream pitchers, stone jars, wash pitchers, chicken fountains, soup tureens, punchbowls, compotes, gravy boats, even slop jars or thundermugs.

The Chisms ran out of corn. Or, rather, the Ingledews’ gristmill could not furnish any more cornmeal, having ground up everything the Chisms had raised. My father even made a little pin money selling the hard-dent corn out of his corncrib, and so did everyone else, until all of that was gone, and there were a lot of hungry hogs and chickens that winter. Sull Jerram arranged with whoever was buying the finished product in Harrison to start supplying the raw product, and the motortruck that was transporting the load of containers into Harrison would return with a load of corn or cornmeal.

What the Chisms didn’t know then was that Sull Jerram and his courthouse gang were buying the Chisms’ whiskey for two dollars a gallon and sending it to Harrison, where they were getting four, five, and then six dollars a gallon for it.

But one night in the spring of 1914, the Boone County sheriff and his deputies stopped that motortruck at the Boone County line and confiscated a whole load of whiskey, arrested and jailed the driver, and kept the motortruck. Sull Jerram’s entire bootlegging operation came to a halt. Our new sheriff Duster Snow talked to the Boone County sheriff, but the latter was incorruptible. Judge Jerram tried to work out a deal with the Boone County judge, but the latter was, while not incorruptible, unswayed by Sull’s terms.

Seth Chism, visiting his daughter Irene and her husband the judge at their new Jasper house, had been impressed with their improved standard of living. He himself had built a new barn, put a new roof on his still, replaced his thirty-five-gallon pot still with a hundred-gallon copper still, and replaced the old bedrock furnace with a snail shell furnace, all with the profits from his increased production. And his wife Nancy took to wearing Sears, Roebuck dresses to church. Seth appreciated these improvements, and he was sympathetic when he heard about the confiscation of the motortruck, and he said he’d talk to his boy Nail when Judge Jerram suggested that Nail might be willing to transport a load of whiskey inside his wagon of sheep’s wool, which was going to Harrison anyway.

Nail said he didn’t have any room, that his fleece wagon was loaded down with fleece and the axles would break if he took on a cargo of concealed whiskey. He was just telling the truth. He didn’t really object to his brother-in-law’s bootlegging, although he had resented the extra time he’d had to spend working the still, time spent away from his sheep, who needed him, especially now that shearing time had come. Nail liked making whiskey, and he liked drinking it, and he liked selling it, or he liked seeing his father sell so much of it that the farmplace was getting some improvements. But he just couldn’t see his way to risking a broken axle or two by carrying a load of whiskey inside the load of fleece.

“You’re jist afraid of gittin caught,” Sull Jerram taunted him.

“No, I aint afraid of that,” Nail protested. “Who’d stop me anyhow?”

“What’s wrong with makin two trips?” Sull wanted to know. “Or twenty, if you have to?”

“Yeah,” Seth said to his son, “you don’t have to take it all at once, and you could bring us back a load of corn.”

So Nail agreed to take a load to Harrison inside his load of fleece, although he’d be delivering only half as much fleece as the wool agent was expecting, and he’d have to explain that to the wool agent, and he’d have to deliver and unload the whiskey beforehand. He took his kid brother Luther for company and whatever help he might need, the two of them riding side by side on the buckboard the long trip, Nail telling the boy tales or entertaining them both with his harmonica, playing “Red Wing,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “Paddy on the Turnpike.”

They didn’t have any problems on the trip into Harrison; but coming home, with the wagon piled high with sacks of cornmeal, a wheel broke and came off, and while they were trying to repair it, a sheriff’s deputy rode up and offered some help and then observed, “Thet shore is a mighty heavy load of corn you’uns is haulin. Whar ye headin with all such as thet?”

Luther, who was fifteen, answered politely, “Stay More,” before his brother could nudge him into silence.

The deputy laughed and said, “I hear tell Newton County is plumb out of corn. The eatin kind, that is.” The deputy helped them fix the wheel, and then he said, “I jist hope you fellers aint aimin to bring none of this here corn back to Boone County in another form. The sherf is real sot in his ways and he’d th’ow ye in jail so hard you’d never git out.”

They drove on and crossed back into Newton County. On the last stretch of road between Parthenon and Stay More they met Judge Sull Jerram in his automobile. Sull didn’t stop. He only waved, and he had a girl with him. The girl was Dorinda Whitter, on her way to Jasper at last. A cloud of thick dust billowed out from the rear end of the Model T and obscured the disappearance of the couple.

“Rindy,” I said to her later, “you were jist out of your fool haid. Don’t you know that everbody in Stay More is talkin about ye?” I guess I knew better than anyone else, except Miss Blankinship, just how dumb Dorinda could be.

“You should’ve seen them boys over to Jasper,” she said. “They hung their mouths open like they never seen a pair of tits before! And I jist wiggled my bosom at ’em! And Judge Sull, he jist took me ever place like he owned the town, and I do believe he does!”

There were some folks, later, who speculated that Nail Chism had had a crush on Dorinda for a long time. If that was true, he was certainly keeping it to himself. As far as I know, he never spoke to her before that June. Some folks were inclined to wonder if he had been “following” her, or at least itching for her. The fact that he was, at twenty-seven, still a bachelor did not of itself raise any eyebrows; we had plenty of single men in Stay More. It ran in families, even: all of the sons of banker John Ingledew were unmarried, six of the most eligible and handsome bachelors in town, and not one of them could get up his nerve to court a girl, let alone propose to one, and all six of them were past marrying age, except for maybe Raymond, the youngest, and I had my eye on him and was cooking up ways to get him to speak to me, or at least notice me. Nail Chism wasn’t like the Ingledew brothers, who were congenitally so shy of any female they couldn’t talk to their own sister Lola; at least Nail was able to talk to Irene…and he did talk to her and asked her if she knew that Sull Jerram was fooling around with Dorinda Whitter, and Dorinda not but thirteen. Irene told her brother that all she knew was what everybody else seemed to be talking about.

Nail found Sull at the courthouse, and right there in the lobby, within earshot of lawyer Jim Tom Duckworth and Sheriff Duster Snow and whoever else was paying them any attention, Nail told Sull, “I aint runnin any more goods fer ye.”

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