Southern Legitimacy Statement: There used to be preachers along the North Carolina/Virginia border who ran whiskey Saturday nights and preached fire and brimstone Sunday mornings. I know. I listened to them through the windows of The Holy Way Baptist Church as I smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and sipped some of that very same Devil’s juice.
Charlie Poole’s Night Ride
Charlie Poole, Posey Roper and Dewey Rankin clung weakly to consciousness as the big Dodge ghosted down Shootin’ Creek Road, the bald tires on the vehicle squealing in distress at every switchback. The car was as black as the night they swam through. A feeble light from the headlamps barely pierced the inky darkness.
The trio had played a barn dance outside Floyd, then went on a three-day binge before stashing forty gallons of shine under the rear seat of the Dodge and striking out for Roanoke for another play date and a chance to sell off the load of Floyd white liquor.
Poole, half in the bag, gripped the big wooden steering wheel with both hands and squinted bleakly at the twisty road unraveling before his faltering sight. He shook his head savagely every four or five minutes to ward off the alcoholic daze that tugged at his eyelids.
“Shit, I can do this,” he kept mumbling to himself.
Posey Roper, rocking in the warm arms of a complete stupor, slumped against the passenger door. Occasionally, he inhaled a guttural snore and exhaled a pretty whistle. Poole would have chuckled at his helpless friend if he himself had not been nigh on comatose himself.
Dewey Rankin had the cavernous back seat to himself, stretched out on the hard bench seat that was hollowed out to conceal a freshly distilled load of 120 proof whiskey. The hooch filled forty gallon jugs. While the jugs eliminated the sloshing sounds of the often-used five-gallon cans, they were subject to breakage, a disadvantage when racing county agents down twisty gravel roads such as Shootin’ Creek.
As the old Dodge bottomed out at Wright’s Cove, and Poole began to relax his hands on the steering wheel, a weak beam of lights swept across his rearview mirror. “Oh, shit!” mumbled Poole as the lights floated behind the Dodge. Then, his stomach lurched and his bowels cramped as a spotlight beam suddenly lit the interior of the car.
Poole fought the pulsing river of alcohol coursing through his body, the fog in his brain, squinting frantically, searching for the softer edges of sobriety. He pumped the brakes and brought the hulking machine to a rolling stop. The burping of frogs floated through the open windows; otherwise the night was as quiet as a closed coffin.
The driver rested his hands on the wheel and awaited the arrival of a lumbering, ham-fisted sheriff who bent at the waist and scanned the interior of the car with the calm air of a potential buyer. Poole squinted against the glare of the spotlight echoing off the rearview mirror and tried to smile, but all he could manage was a painful grimace.
“Whachall doin’ out here this time a night,” the sheriff drawled, moving his head around Poole’s profile for a better look at the yawning passenger. Posey, who had been roused from his slumber by the stop, grinned into the darkness, said, “Looking for women.” He chuckled at his own humor, but his offhanded joke failed to pacify the heavy lawman who had left a cheap whore in bed and a pint of good whiskey on the bedside table in an unpainted flophouse when his deputy disturbed him with the news of the big Dodge powering through the main street of Floyd.
The sheriff suddenly pulled on the door handle, grabbed Poole by a bony shoulder and jerked him from the driver’s seat onto the road, holding the man upright with a handful of his shirt. Poole stumbled forward into the sheriff, his arms flailing and aiming for something solid to hold to. The sheriff spun the skinny driver around and slammed him into the fender of the Dodge. Poole’s arms flew outward to hug the bonnet of the car.
Posey sat in the passenger seat, his face screwed up in an alcoholic smirk, the sight of Poole hugging the hood of the car inducing giggles and snorts. The sheriff kicked Poole’s feet wide, his legs spread as if he might bend over to hike a football. “Stay put,” said the sheriff.
The order struck Poole and Posey as hilarious, both entertaining the same thought: “What the hell else you think I could do? Fly?”
The guffaws from the two men failed to lighten the sheriff’s mood. He stepped over to the rear door, slapped down on the handle and jerked open the door. There he met the oil-slicked hair-do of Dewey Rankin, the man stretched across the rear seat, and was greeted by the guttural staccato of a snore followed by a hearty exhalation of 120 proof vapors.
The sheriff’s first inclination was to strike a Lucifer and test the potency of the fumes escaping from Rankin’s sour stomach. Instead, he grabbed a handful of oily hair, wrapped the greasy tangle around his big fist and yanked the sleeping man out of the Dodge.
Rankin dropped from the seat onto the running board and then onto the road like a large burlap bag of potatoes and lay at the big man’s feet like a sodden quilt. For some unspoken reason, Rankin’s cooperation with the law of gravity added fuel to the sheriff’s anger. The lawman reached under Rankin’s armpits and lifted his limp figure upright. The musician tottered on shaky legs.
To give the man his due, the sheriff of Floyd County was seldom satisfied with a simple win, to merely stabilize a messy situation. It was his greatest pleasure to make men, and women, grovel. To wit, he threw a quick jab into the ossified man’s midsection.
The unsuspecting musician immediately and forcefully spewed the evening’s mixed fermentation of pickled eggs, boiled hog’s feet, and an ungodly quantity of Old Nasty white whiskey onto the sheriff’s white rumpled shirt. Small chunks of egg yolk and pork pinged off his face, and an excess of rancid effluvia trundled down onto his khaki jodhpurs
“You goddamn piece of sheep’s dung!” yelled the sheriff, “I’ll beat you til yore grandma cries!” and he reached for his sap, a custom-made beauty of rough cowhide filled with number one buckshot. Poole, still spread-eagle and hugging the bonnet of the Dodge, had maneuvered his head under his armpit to peer at the ruckus and found Rankin’s impressive retch onto the sheriff’s white shirt amusing. He was on the verge of telling Rankin not to drown the man when the lawman swung his weapon.
Rankin didn’t feel the pain of the sap on his head; that would catch up with him tomorrow. The force of the blow, however, dropped him to his knees and called forth a second round of putrid mush over the law man’s laced, knee-high boots.
The sheriff’s face glowed red, and his anger choked off his ability to speak. He flew into a frenzied dance of kicks to the miserable, prone body of Dewey Rankin. He pulled back from his violent ballet to find himself breathing hard, his wet and lank hair in his eyes, and Charlie Poole gawking at him like a surprised rooster. When the sheriff caught his breath, he carelessly flung his arm toward Poole, said, “If I ever catch you rubes in my county agin’, I’ll light yore ass on fire with yore own stump water and drop you in the deepest gorge on Massey’s Mountain.
The stinking long arm of the law clomped back to his black Ford and threw gravel over the prostrate Rankin and the spread-eagle Poole as his tires dug deep impressions in the gravel to find traction. Posey Roper had fallen back into a sound sleep in the passenger seat.