The Venable Boys

Rafe Venable kicked a fat rock in the red  dirt road.  It  scooted like a frightened jackrabbit into a ditch and disappeared in a miniature whirling dust storm. Most every morning he walked  the mile from his shotgun, sideboard house on Fancher Road to  where it runs smack into Interstate 75, a characterless stretch  of highway snaking southward from Cedarville, a hilltop Tennessee  town that tetters on the edge of poverty along the Georgia line.
Rafe enjoyed watching the big boatlong cars sail down I75  toward Daytona Beach. Sometimes women laughed and men pointed to  the lanky, redheaded country boy sitting on a wood crate beside  the busy interstate highway. At times Rafe answered by hurling  mouthfuls of unintelligible words at the faces blurring past him.  That was all right. Rafe knew they couldn’t hear him, but it made  him feel better to clear his lungs and holler in the face of the  rushing wind from the fast moving cars. He felt big and  important. His head waggled arrogantly as if in victory over some  unseen foe.
“You should have seen the traffic today,” Rafe said to his  younger brother, Odie. “They was so many of ’em it looked like a  herd of cattle moving down 75. One of these days, Odie, we going  to be in that herd, heading south for Daytona. We gointa come  outta these hills and head for Daytona. I read the other day in  Bullhead Johnson’s barber shop in one of them True Detectives  about racing dogs in Daytona.”
“You got so you stay out on that road all the time now,  Rafe, countin’ ’em cars.” Odie looked at his brother from across  a rickety table that rocked back and forth each time his elbows  moved.  He sopped redeye gravy with a fat buttermilk biscuit  stuffed with a piece of fatback that still had several stiff hog  hairs protruding from its skin like a threeday stubble.
The hot kitchen, where the Venable boys’ mother, Maude,  worked when she wasn’t washing someone else’s clothes, smelled as  if the dough, fatback, gravy and coffee had been mixed in a large  iron kettle, the kind used for making soap and boiling shirts.  This  steamy mixture hung in the air and covered the room in even  aromatic layers, like a fogbank on the Catalpa River.
“Yeah, I’m going to stay on that highway ’til I come up with  a plan of how we can get outta this sawdust pile. Get us down to  Daytona,” Rafe said, easing himself behind Odie’s chair to get at  the stove. He flipped a piece of cold, gray fatback onto a plate  and dripped brownspeckled gravy over the curling fat striped  sparsely with lean.
Rafe said, “I bet ever one of them cars has rich people in  ’em. I bet they got more money than People’s Bank. I heard Rudy   say t’other day that he know’d of a man once’t who came in for a fillup in one of them lizardlong black cars. He said that  feller had a wad of money big enough to set a wet mule on fire.
“He was talking about how much cotton he had bought that  day, Rudy said, and how much money he had made on futures.  Remember that, Odie! We got to get us some futures.
“Anyway, Rudy said this fella had made a thousand dollars  that very morning while he was driving to Daytona! Why, he wadn’t  even in his office, Odie!”
Odie grunted, looked at his brother and licked a brown  splotch of gravy that had dripped to his chin. He sniffed hard,  then he half emptied his iced tea glass, holding the longhandled   teaspoon to one side of the glass with his index finger. Odie  always left his teaspoon in his glass. It helped to keep his tea  cool, or so his grandfather had said. Whether it did or not  didn’t matter; it was the tradition that counted.
Rafe continued, “Rudy said he paid for his gas with a  hunnert dollar bill. Rudy said he had to send Muley over to  Leonard’s Feed and Seed and then to Ruby’s Cafe to break the  hunnert.
“That’s what I want, Odie! A hunnert to pay for gas. Make  Rudy sweat to break it.
“Whooooee!  Ain’t that somethin’, Odie. Ain’t that some thin’?”
Odie gulped the rest of his tea and then drug his sleeved  arm across his mouth and under his nose, the sleeve performing  several functions at once.
“Well,” said Odie thoughtfully, “if’n you so smart, how you  suphose we gointa git to Daytoni so we can git all them hunnerts?  And what we gonna do for money once’t we get there? You ever  think on that, Rafe? You ever think what we gonna do?
“And while you’re working on that one, why don’t you think of  somethin’ for us to do right here and now, now that the sawmill  is closed. What we gonna do ’bout that? You gonna get one of them  fancy folks in one of them lizard cars to tell us?”
Odie sniggered, pushed his chair back and eased his large,  lumpy body away from the table, punishing the chair as he  scrapped it across the floor.
Rafe didn’t seem to hear Odie. He never listened to him much  anyway, as Odie wasn’t able to fine tune his thoughts.  Rafe just  looked through him most of the time, as if staring through a  faded window curtain.
Occasionally Odie received a flash from deep in the mulch of  his brain, and each stayed with him until another glow came  along. Measurable blips in Odie’s head were infrequent; when one  did occur, it was a great moment within him.
Rafe walked down to the highway every day now to think. He  kept the wooden orange crate with its gaudy, peeling blue and  orange “Florida Oranges” label, hidden in the tall, brown  roadside weeds. Occasionally he stretched out on his back,  crossing one foot over the other, using the crate to prop his  head. Other days he rested his chin on the crate’s flat, flimsy  top and felt the breezes as the broad beamed vehicles skimmed on  the high winds.
Slowly, an idea began to take shape, emerging from the back  of his mind, walking toward its surface and sprouting into full  flower.
“Hits just another one of your schemes, Rafe,” Odie said  when Rafe began to explain his Daytona plan.
“‘Member the last time? Whooeeboy, you fixed us real good  then. ‘Member?” Odie asked as he stomped the dirt in the bare
front yard of the Venable home. Odie’s dog, Forgot, yawned and  stretched his way from underneath the skinny house, dragging his  hind legs until his rear end cleared the beams. His ribs cast  rippled shadows along his bony sides. Odie clicked his tongue and  Forgot tailwagged toward him.
“The cartopcarryeverythin’ was goin’ to revolutionize  the car industry, you said. Said it would sell like beer at  Betty’s Place. ‘Carry all your belongin’s on the top of your car  in the EZCarryEverythin’.
“Another thang, Rafe. That thang was built out of press board. It was so damn heavy it needed a team of mules to get it  to the car. Then you needed block and tackle to get it on top of   the car.
“Hit just crushed the top of papa’s old car like it was  alumnum,” Odie said.
“What the hell. Papa’s car didn’t run no way. It just set  there on cement blocks. No motor, no nothing. This is different,  Odie. If we can just get to Daytona where we can bet on them  racing dogs. It’s called parimating, or parisomething. Anyway,  the dogs chase this here little rabbit around a track. You bet on  which one of ’em dogs is gonna catch that little white rabbit  first. They’s about eight or ten dogs and one itty bitty rabbit.
“They’s this one race where you figure which two of ’em dogs  is gonna catch the rabbit. We can make a lot of money, Odie.  There ain’t nobody knows dogs like us.” Rafe peered at his  brother through half shut eyes.
“We don’t know nothin’ about no racing dogs, Rafe,” Odie  whined as he dug black dirt from underneath large, fishscale sized fingernails with the blunt head of a broken knife blade.
“Odie, we know dogs. Dogs is dogs. It don’t make no never  mind what size, shape or speed they come in. Dogs is dogs,  whether they chasing birds, coons or rabbits,” Rafe said.
“How many times you and I been huntin’? How many dogs you  trained to point a bird and fetch it oncet it’s shot?
“Anybody that can train a dog to point a bird in a bush and
fetch it in his mouf after it’s been blow’d outta the air sure as  snuff can tell which one of ’em dogs is agoin’ to win a foot  race around a little ol’ track in Florida.”
“I dunno, Rafe,” Odie said scuffing his feet in the dirt. His  forehead wrinkled into a hound dog frown as small mushroom clouds of dust sprang up around his ankles.
“I guess hit sounds right. I know dogs like I was one.  I can look at ’em and tell if’n they birdy or not. It shouldn’t  be any differen’ that with birds.”
Rafe smiled, showing black holes in his teeth.
“Birds, rabbits. They all game. It’s the same, Odie. You  take a dog. He smell a bird or a rabbit. It all smell the same.”
For the next several days Rafe worked on his scheme. Like a  carpenter, he would add here and take away there. Odie watched as  Rafe scribbled notes on bits of paper.
Watching Rafe write set off eruptions in Odie’s stomach for  when Rafe began licking the end of a lead pencil and scratching  on scraps of paper it usually meant that life for the Venable  boys was about to change; not always for the better, but it was  definitely going to change.
Rafe wrote on anything he could find: pieces of brown paper  bag; scraps of paper blowing along the highway; green receipts  from Ruby’s Cafe that said, “Thank You, Call Again. Eat Merita  Bread,” on the back side .
Once he had a plan well formulated, however, Rafe always had  a hard time finding all the notes he had written. At times it  would take him as long to find the many pieces of paper as it had  to devise the plan in the first place.
After an all night search for the confetti that made up the  Daytona scheme, Rafe laid out the pieces on the table, arranging  the paper slips as if they were parts of a puzzle. Finally, he  was ready to bring Odie into the act.
“We goin’ to Uncle Pete’s place and fix up his moonshine  still. We are afixin’ to go into the moonshine business and stay  in it long enough to get two bus tickets to Daytona and some  spending money.  Venable shine always was the best in Fancher  County,” Rafe announced that morning.
“Odie, I want you to go to the barn and begin tearin’ down  the boards in the mule stall. Let ol’ Buckethaid run loose in the  yard. He ain’t going nowheres anyway. Nobody else would feed  him.”
Odie’s face was as blank as if every single thought he’d  ever had had been erased. Then he smiled. A fire from far off had  been lit and his big neck bulged in and out. It did that when  Odie became excited.
“I heard Roy Rowdecker say just t’other day he could sure  use some good shine at his place on the county line,”
Rafe elaborated with joy.
“The stuff he’s gettin’ now  ain’t worth pouring on the ground. Said he tried to give it away  to the boys over at the ore pits. They spit it out and almost  busted his head in! They cussed him out and said that stuff  tasted like parrot piss.”
“But, Rafe, we don’t know nothin’ ’bout makin’ no shine.  Uncle Pete always made it. Him and papa. They was good at it, but  we ain’t never so much as made a drop.”
Rafe blinked. That was the smartest thing he had ever heard  his brother say. Then he snorted and shoved Odie toward the barn.
“I ain’t got no time for arguing, Odie. I’m going to Logan’s  junkyard to find some tubing. You go to the barn, tear down that  stall and meet me at Uncle Pete’s old place when you’re through.
“The sooner we can get the still up and arunnin’ the sooner  we can sell the shine and get our Daytona money. I figure it will  take a hunnert to get us there, a hunnert to live on ’till we  start makin’ money off’n the dogs and a hunnert to start bettin’  on the dogs.”
The fear and uncertainty lingering in Odie’s mind lifted,
budged at last by Rafe’s confidence and enthusiasm. Three hundred  dollars was more money than either of them had ever seen. And it  was a fact that selling moonshine was about the fastest way of  making big money in Fancher Countyif you didn’t get caught or  killed first!
Odie slapped his thighs at the thought of that  much money and he smiled at his older brother. “Daytoni, here we  come!” he said as he lumbered off in the direction of the barn.  Rafe watched his brother’s big shoulders swaying to the rhythm of  his long legs.
Poor Odie never had been quite right in the head, Rafe  thought as he headed for the junkyard. It must have been because  mama was so weak and tore up inside when he was born. The story  was that Odie had just plopped out of mama like a ripe pear onto  the kitchen floor, like she just couldn’t contain him no more.      That’s why mama always told me to take care of Odie. She knew he  would be able to understand some things, enjoy personal thoughts,  but that complications beyond the physical or on more than two  parallel planes would confuse Odie. And, too, mama had worried  that people would make fun of Odie. They did.
At Logan’s, Rafe foraged through the backs of several tubs,  toilets, sinks and the guts of other plumbing discards in the  junkyard before locating enough tubes for the still’s main  nervous system. To build a really good still, one that would have  the county boys bragging, you had to start with copper tubing.
Uncle Pete always said anybody can make shine, but it takes  right smart thinkin’ to make shine somebody can drink. You do  that with copper tubing. It don’t matter what you put the mash  in. It’s the copper that adds the golden honey touch. And, of  course, Uncle Pete’s recipe.
“That’ll be ten bucks, Rafe,” said Birdie Logan after  weighing Rafe’s selections.
Rafe looked at the price list written in pencil on a smudged  piece of cardboard tacked inside the junkyard office.
“I ain’t buying but just a coupla feet, Birdie, not the  whole damn yard. You don’t need to go chargin’ so much for  copper. Christ awmighty, Birdie, you’d think it was gold!”
“Well, hit is gold, Rafe. I know what price it ought to  fetch. If’n you want it, then it is ten dollars. If’n you don’t,  just leave it where it is. Copper is good for lotsa things, Rafe.  That’s why it costs so much. When nobody wants it, you can’t give  it away, but right now seems like everbody is needin’ copper.
“Hoddamn Christ Awmighty,” muttered Rafe.
“Tell me, Rafe, what is it everbody’s doin’ with copper  tubing all of a sudden? Am I missing out on somethin’? You think  maybe they’s a war a’comin’? Or is everbody goin’ to indoor  plumbin’?  Somethin’s happenin’,” Birdie Logan said.
A flush played across Rafe’s face. He shifted to one foot.
“You mean lotsa folks been buyin’ copper from you?”
“Yep. Just about ever day. I can’t figure it, Rafe. Can’t  figure it at all.”
Rafe dropped the copper onto a greasy bench. “Neva mind,  Birdie. Don’t think I need this tubing afterall. Be seein’ you.”
Rafe started for home. No wonder Rowdecker is getting bad  shine, he thought. Everybody in the whole damn county must be  making it. On the other hand, if there are that many stills  cooking in the county, the sheriff must be a pretty busy man  these days!
Rafe walked to the Interstate and Fancher Road. He pulled up  his wood crate and thumbed a pencil from his shirt pocket. He  pulled out a scrap of paper he had found  on the side of the road  and began to scribble furiously.
If there are that many stills, then I bet the sheriff’s  running shiners every night, Rafe thought. If he’s out every  night through the swamps, that means most of the time somebody is  taking potshots at him through the bushes. That means he’s  probably going through a lot of runners.
A moonshine runner is a peculiar breed of person. There are  few requirements, but two main elements are that the runner be  fast and not too smart. Some moonshine runners are legend in  Fancher County. Others didn’t live long enough for the word to  spread.
Critical to the runner’s art is that he chase the shiner  until the shiner becomes too tired to continue. Just as a pack of  wolves dog a deer, the runners take turns. Usually the sheriff  starts out with his fastest runners, and as they tire, he works  his way down to the least fleet of foot. That way, he is sure to  keep the shiners moving and as they slow, at least he will have a  runner capable of staying with them until the winded whiskey  maker crumples into a heap. The sheriff then strolls up to a  scene of great heaving and huffing and claims his prize and all  the glory, hauling his catch off to jail, as though he himself  has bagged the big game singlehandedly.
Rafe dusted the seat of his pants and headed toward Cedar ville to see Sheriff Tate, a man of slow and deliberate speed.
“How’s goin,’ sheriff?” Rafe asked as he entered the  sheriff’s office. He often stopped by to chat with Sheriff Tate  and listen to the police radios as they spattered fried electric  chatter.
It made Rafe feel important to carry the conversation at  Ruby’s Cafe with things he had heard over the police radio.  Everyone said Rafe was a good talker, especially when it came to  repeating police lingo. He often ended his sentences with “ten four.”
“I’m fine, Rafe, just fine,” Sheriff Tate said. “What can I  do you for? Odie ain’t drunk and on the loose again, is he? The  last time I had to pick him up he damn near tore up my squad car   and three deputies to boot. You get that big sumbitch started and  it takes a wagonload to haul him in.”
Rafe shuffled his feet and stuck his hands in his pockets.  He was embarrassed by what the sheriff said, but it was true.  Odie didn’t get drunk and crazy often, but when he did he was as  mean as a yelloweyed dog.
“Naw, sheriff, Odie ain’t drunk. He’s over at the barn  working. Building a new hog stall. We afixin’ to get us some  hogs. Polan Chinas and Durocs. Goin’ to fatten’ ’em up, take ’em  to the sale in Cross City.”
Sheriff Tate smiled. He knew the Venable brothers didn’t  have enough money to buy hog feed, let alone Polan Chinas and  Durocs. Hell, nobody in Fancher County had that kind of money  these days. Not since the sawmill shut down.
“Well, Rafe, what’s on your mind?”
“Sheriff I just heard about how you been out a lot at night,  and I was wunnerin’ if you was out chasin’ shiners?”
“Where’d you pick up that load of intelligence, Rafe?” the  sheriff asked with an illdisguised snort.
“I dunno, sheriff.” Rafe ruffled his hands in his pockets as  if chasing down some loose change. “Heard it probably at Rudy’s. They’s always somethin’ big bein’ told there. You know how  it is.
“I just thought maybe if’n you was runnin’ shiners you might  need some good chasers. Me and Odie are waitin’ on our hogs to  come in and we could use a little extra money.  If’n you was  runnin’ shiners, that is.”
“Yeah, Rafe, I been runnin’ shiners. But you know run   nin’ shiners at night can be awfully mean work. The last time I used a runner, it was the Hankshaw boy. The shiners beat him bad once they caught up with him. His face looked like he had stuck it inside a sackful of bees. I never did find out who did it, either.”
Rafe shuffled his shoulders. He didn’t say anything at first. He and Odie had never been shine runners before, but he’d never wanted to go to Daytona Beach before. The dogs were calling, hard.
“Well, I just thought if you needed some good runners, me and Odie was available. Just for a little while, though. Soon as our hogs get here, we got to get to fattenin’ ’em up.
“Odie’s a good runner, you know, sheriff. Sometimes he chases rabbits for the fun of it. And he don’t mess around once’t he latches hold to somebody. He just goes ahead and dusts their head for them, then goes out and grabs hold somethin’ else to bust.”
“Okay, Rafe. It’s your hide. I’ll pay you and Odie twenty five apiece for each shiner you run down tonight. Meet me about seven and we’ll head over to Black Duck Slough. The Youngbloods have been over there making some bad stuff in lead pipes.
“They know I know, but I just haven’t been able to catch ’em. Junior Youngblood said the other day that if he caught me messin’ in the slough he’d blow my head off. That Junior is as mean as a swamp moccasin with a toothache.
“Evertime I get close, they signal and move that damn still, which them shrewd bastids got sittin’ on pontoons, back into the marsh just as pretty as you please. The marsh just swallers ’em up. But, you wait, I’m agoin’ to get them boys, or die tryin’.”
“Tonight. Seven.”
As he left the sheriff’s office, Rafe mentally clicked off how many shiners he and Odie would have to chase down to earn the three hundred.
If’n we are lucky tonight, Rafe calculated as he hurried to Uncle Pete’s barn, maybe they will be six of them Youngbloods at that still. We could get our Daytona money in one night!
“You can quit pulling down the stalls, Odie,” Rafe said as he entered the barn. “I got us another job. We goin’t to run shiners tonight for Sheriff Tate. If’n we can get six of ’em that’d be enough for the bus ticket to Daytona and enough to bet on the dogs with!”
Odie stared at Rafe for a moment. When the questionmark completely formed in his mind, he threw down the hammer and began to stomp on it.
“Hoddamn it to hell, Rafe! ‘Bout the time I get the stall tore down so’s we can build our own still, you come in and tell me we gonna break up somebody else’s! Hoddamn! Hoddamn!
“And what’s more, you know damn good and well that we ain’t never run no shiners. What would papa and Uncle Pete think if they knowed we’d become shine runners?”
“Damn it, Odie! papa and Uncle Pete never wanted to go to Daytona, either. ‘Sides, we can get twentyfive apiece for ever shiner we help the sheriff catch. They’s at least ten of them Youngbloods makin’ shine over in Tugaloo Marsh. Sheriff Tate said they was hold up in Black Duck Slough.
For one of the few times in his life, Odie Venable was about to say something that was more than profound. It was a solid gold fact.  “Chasin’ some of them Youngbloods is one thing, Rafe. But when you begin runnin’ after old Junior Youngblood, you done bit off a chunk of trouble. Junior Youngblood, he don’t run.
“He’s tougher’n one of ’em big marsh snappin’ turtles and strong enough to tear up a anvil. I saw him bust up Betty’s Place one night. He chunked Hank Jolley right through the window like he was a spear.
“He grabbed Lud Johnson by the hair of his head and ran him around the table like ol’ Lud was a wagon tongue. Lud was hollerin’, ‘Whoa, Junior! Whoa, Junior!’ It didn’t do no good. Ol’ Junior jest led him ’round and ’round ’till he jest about yanked all the hair outtrn’ ol’ Lud’s head. Lud ain’t got that much hair to lose.”
If Rafe was listening to what his older brother was saying it didn’t appear to faze him, for all Rafe could think of was cashing in on six Youngbloods in one night and then making tracks the next day for the riches of Daytona Beach where fast dogs race for fast money.
Promptly at seven, Rafe and Odie met Sheriff Tate and three deputies on the edge of Tugaloo Marsh. Flatbottomed jonboats banged into each other as the big men tried to ease into them.     “The secret is to be as quiet as night,” Sheriff Tate said as he watched Odie fall and stumble into the bow of the first boat.

“Odie, you sound like a leadfooted mule walking on a tin floor. You got to be quitern’ that, else old Junior will hear us a mile off.”
The sheriff grimaced, shook his head and motioned for Rafe to untie the boats and shove off for the slough. Rafe tripped over the sheriff’s foot and sprawled into one of the deputies.
The men tumbled inside the boat in an explosion of arms, legs and muffled cries. The boats bucked loudly into each other.
After an hour of rowing, the men could see lights shining through the woods like swamp gas. TheYoungbloods had set up their still on Turkey Island in the hourglass shpaed slough. The fire that made the big boilers glow looked as if it had a halo around it. Sheriff Tate put his finger to his mouth as the two boats glided into the east side of Turkey Island. Rafe and Odie were the first out.
“We’ll get ’em to runnin’, sheriff, and then you just follow in behind and clean up,” Rafe said as he struggled to free first one foot and then the other from the sucking bog that grabbed forcefully at his brogans. Each time he snatched free, his foot made a succulent popping sound.
Rafe grinned at the sheriff and stared down at the dripping mess. Both shoes were covered with muck and each time he took a step a squishy symphony played beneath his feet. The sheriff rolled his eyes and shook his head. He began to wonder why he had ever hired the Venable boys as runners. There are some universal
truths in Fancher County. One is that you don’t employ the Venable boys for intricate jobs that require finesse.
“How many of ’em you reckon they are?” Rafe said as he shook black clods from his shoes. It had not occurred to him until just then that the Youngbloods were plentiful in Fancher County, that there were about as many Youngbloods as there are kudzu vines in Tennessee.
“Oh, I’d say no more’n a half dozen or so,” the sheriff said. “The others have probably already left to make today’s  deliveries.”
“Well, so long as they ain’t no moren’ six or so. Me and Odie can handle that,” Rafe said, silently praying that Junior was in the group taking the new shine to Cedarville, though he knew good and well the Youngbloods would leave Junior behind to protect the still.
“Me and the deputies will move in quick in the beginning and start shootin’ up in the air to get their attention,” Sheriff
Tate said to Rafe and Odie. “That’ll probably scatter some of ’em, and that’s when I want you to start arunnin’ ’em down. We’ll get a few on the first flush, but you and Odie will have to run the rest of ’em.”
The men moved to the outer rim of the Youngblood camp, as sticky fumes from the boiling mash filled the night. Birds roosted in the trees, and a night orchestra was playing softly in the underbrush.     A loud blast from the sheriff’s service revolver tore through the night. A very different and heavy sound quickly offered a rebuttal. Sheriff Tate froze. A cell of doubt beamed in his head, for it was clear that instead of running, the Youngbloods were not about to depart. They were shooting back.
Roar upon roar of double barrel 10gauge shotguns rippled in waves across the island.  Roosting turkeys flapped heavily from the tops of water oaks, shaken from their sleep.
Stunned by the gunfire, Rafe looked around in a panic for
his brother, only to find Odie nearby but up to his chin in stump water. When he managed to free Odie the two began running hard for the boats. Rafe made quick, swift pumping movements with his legs while Odie leaped in long strides.
“I tol’ you ol’ Junior would be trouble,” Odie fumed as they ran for the jonboats. “I tol’ you, Rafe! Them’s 10gauges they’s firing. He’s shootin’ with them ol’ hogkillin’ guns.”
Rafe’s face was white. He hadn’t counted on the Youngbloods using guns. Sheriff Tate hadn’t said anything about gun play. As far as Rafe was concerned, the deal was off. It was time to leave Tugaloo Marsh, Black Duck Slough, Turkey Island, and possibly Cedarville.
As Rafe and Odie drew within a few yards of the boats, a crackling blast parted the sawgrass behind Odie and lead shot sprinkled black holes in his cotton shirt, leaving powder marks on the ragged cloth.

For a few seconds, Odie swayed to and fro as though he had just risen too quickly from a rocking chair.
“Hits awright, Rafe. I ain’t hurt much,” Odie said as Rafe grabbed his brother and tried to pull him along.
“That ain’t the worst part, Odie,” Rafe panted.
“That came from Junior! He’s right behind us!”
Odie’s stride gained new life. His legs began to gobble up the boggy ground as he raced his brother for the jonboats. His arms pounding like tiny pistons, Rafe bounded quickly in a foxlike dash after Odie, who now skimmed across the swampy surface like some great and graceful bird.
As they reached the boats, Rafe pushed Odie into the nearest one.  Odie sailed through the air and bellyslid headfirst and crosswise into the boat, banging across the first seat, ripping a two inch gash in his chin.    Odie flailed his arms and legs like a pinned bug, kicking free the sheriff’s second boat, which had been carelessly tied to a rotten stump.
Rafe plunged into the water, shoving ahoy the jonboat containing his brother.  “Keep your head down, Odie!” Rafe whispered needlessly to his dazed brother as the boat slithered toward open water.
The other jonboat had begun to bob gently, its nose caught on a slight breeze blowing through the sawgrass. A snatch of current moved it from shore and toward the Catalpa River.
“What we goin’ t’do for Daytoni money now, Rafe?” Odie said as he stretched, trying to look over his shoulder at the many pellet marks. Failing in that contortion, he held his bleeding chin with one hand and his shoulder with the other. He looked like a swami in prayer as opportunity outpaced ability.
Rafe pushed hard on his paddle, using it now like a pole in the shallow water. Off in the distance came the clean, sharp reports of the sheriff and his men firing revolvers at the Youngbloods. Boom! The big 10gauges thundered in response. Rafe winced each time he heard a boom. He whistled in reverent respect at the firecracking pop, pop, pop of the revolvers.
“That sure is some fight the sheriff and the Youngbloods have goin’,” Rafe said with awe. Odie had finally begun to survey with his fingers the dents scattered from his shoulders to his waist.
Rafe listened intently as the firing intensified. He could tell the sheriff and his men had begun to make their way to where the boats had been tied up. It sounded as though the revolvers were firing less and the Youngbloods’ 10gauges were letting all hell fly loose. That must mean, Rafe thought, the sheriff is running out of ammunition. The Youngbloods, on the other hand, were obviously well armed.
“What we gonna do now, Rafe?” Odie repeated.  “We done lost our Daytoni money.”
Without missing a beat in his poling rhythm, Rafe looked down at his older brother whose shirt was in tatters.
“I been thinkin’, Odie.  Chickens.  We goin’ into chickens, Odie.” Rafe worked the pole in the night, moving the Venable boys further away from noise in Black Duck Slough.
“Chickens?” Odie shouted. “Hoddamnit way to hell and back. We don’t know nothin’ about no chickens, Rafe. Except that you fry ’em up real good and eat ’em. What we gonna do with chickens, Rafe? Just answer me that.”
“We gonna get us a rooster and a hen and we gonna start raising’ little chickens, Odie. That’s what. There’s just a whole lot of folks eat chickens, Odie. Ever Sunday all you see is women fryin’ up chickens.
“Interstate 75 is loaded with chicken trucks, headin’ north. What you think all them chickens is for? We are gonna open us up a chicken stand on the side of 75 and sell fryin’ size chickens.”
Rafe poled the boat into the Catalpa River, and though he didn’t know exactly where they were, he knew the river would eventually take the boat downstream to Cedarville.
By dawn Rafe and Odie reached the bridge below Cedarville where they pulled the boat up onto the bank.
They had been nearly consumed by carnivorous mosquitoes on the trip home. Rafe tried to joke that the mosquitoes had been the size of chickens, but Odie hadn’t appreciated the humor. The mosquito bites made worse the peck marks in his back from Junior Youngblood’s 10guage loaded with birdshot.
Rafe bought some used crankcase oil at Rudy May’s and treated Odie’s back before they walked into Cedarville to see about buying some chickens from Ruby Walker.     Ruby always kept several chickens in her backyard to cook for her cafe customers. Once before, Rafe had worked a chicken deal with Ruby, until she learned that Rafe was selling her the same chickens over and over. After she bought a chicken from Rafe, he would return to Ruby’s chicken pen, steal another chicken and head back to consumate another sale.
Ruby almost took Rafe’s head off with a meat cleaver when some regular customers told her what Rafe was up to. Everybody got a big laugh out of Rafe’s chicken selling abilities, even Ruby after a few days.
As Odie and Rafe walked along Main Street they learned that Sheriff Tate and his deputies had not returned from Black Duck Slough. The mayor of Cedarville had called the state police headquarters in Cross City and had asked for a search party.
There was a rumor the sheriff and his deputies had been killed. Someone had found an empty flatbottom boat near the Cedarville bridge and there were splotches of blood on the boat seats.
Shock rolled through Rafe. He looked up to see Odie heading for Ruby Walker’s chicken pen. Just then did he realize that he and Odie had left Sheriff Tate and the deputies stranded in Black Duck Slough with one boat. Or, at least he thought there had been one left. He had not noticed the sheriff’s boat floating off as they escaped the hot blasts from Junior’s shotgun.
Rafe knew that Sheriff Tate was not a very understanding man in these matters, and that once he finished with Junior Youngblood, he would come looking for the Venable boys with a vengance.
“Odie,” Rafe yelled. “We gotta go. Leave ’em chickens be.”
“Hoddamn, where we goin’ now, Rafe? I thought we was goin’ into chickens. How we gonna get Daytoni money if’n we don’t get some chickens to sell, Rafe?”
“Drop them birds, Odie. We gointa Daytona right now,” Rafe hollered as he started for Uncle Pete’s, waiving his arms for Odie to follow.
“Right now, Rafe? How we gointa to get there, fly? What we gointa do for dog money once’t we get there?”
“We are gointa get Uncle Pete’s old mule. We are gointa ride Buckethaid to Daytona, Odie. That’s what.
“We are gointa ride that old mule to Daytona, then sell him for glue. Then we gointa bet on them dogs, Odie.”
Odie dropped Ruby’s chicken and began to follow his brother.
“What if’n Buckethaid don’t want to go to no Daytoni, Rafe?
That possibility had not crossed Rafe’s mind. He was too busy thinking about two other pressing matters: Sheriff Tate and Junior Youngblood.
Both of them would be after the Venable boys now the echoes had surely died on their war in the marsh. Furthermore, Rafe didn’t want to be around when Junior learned that it had been his idea to go into the shiner running business, starting with the Youngblood still.
And the sheriff, Rafe figured, would be mad enough to lose the keys to every door in the jailhouse once he found his way out of the marsh and recuperated from all those mosquito bites and any damage from Junior’s 10gauge.
“‘Sides, Rafe, you know how Buckethaid is. He can’t go for long without taking a crap. We won’t be two miles before he will be producing them big piles. Once’t he starts, there’s no stoppin’ him. You know that.”
“Then,  Odie, we will go into the mule manure business right there on the side of I75. We’ll roll them chips up into little squares and let them get real hard. And then we’ll sell them to them tourist in them lizard cars for genuine Tennosea dried elk turd key chains.”
Odie blinked and looked at his younger brother with great wonder. He shook his head in admiration.
“Whoooeeboy! Mama always said you was a smartun’, Rafe. I know’d you’d come up with a way for us to get to Daytoni. Who else but you would ever think of makin’ money off’n mule shit!”


About tennwriter

FRED BROWN is a retired Senior Writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He has been a journalist for 45 years and is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. He is a recipient of the Malcolm Law Trophy for Feature Writing and in 1983 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Journalism to study at the University of Michigan. He has published both fiction and nonfiction. Brown has a B. A. Degree in English Literature from Presbyterian College. Other highlights of his career include: Books and Stories Authored: Marking Time: East Tennessee Historical Markers and the Stories Behind Them, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn. 2005. Discovering October Roads: Fall Colors and Geology in Rural East Tennessee, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn., 2001. Co-authored with Harry Moore. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, published by John F. Blair Publishers, Winston-Salem, N.C., May, 2000. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald. Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers, published by Emerald House/Blue Ridge Publishing, Fall, 1997. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald "We Can Eat Sparrows," New Millennium Writings, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Fall & Winter, 1996. "The Devil's Roost," Voices From the Valley, Knoxville Writer's Guild anthology, 1994. Snake-Handling Believers, 2 chapters in book by Dr. Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press, 1993. History of Commission on Religion in Appalachia, 1992-93. "Seniors: Telling Tales to Life's Upperclassmen," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, fall 1992. Coker Creek, Crossroads to History, history of a mountain community and its people near Tennessee-Georgia border, 1991. "Character Building," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, fall 1991. The Faces of East Tennessee, a history of East Tennessee Counties, 1990. "Tillman Cadle, Memories of the Coalfields," Now and Then, The Appalachian Magazine, Center for Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University, Vol. 7, No. 7, fall 1990. Trader Jon, a biography; Castle Books, Memphis, 1986. "Mining Reform," Sierra, Vol. 71, No. 5, September/October 1986.
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