Starr's Still

John Wolf


Sometimes it would dawn on folks to get together with a few lanterns and go out looking for Starr’s still.  Everyone just plain knew for sure and for certain it was out there somewhere in the Tamarack.  Stories about Starr running off into the swamp and coming back with armfuls of high grade whiskey and moonshine hovered around town like flies around a tin shithouse.  Starr more than got a kick out of those stories.  The fact no one found nothing out there but alligator snappers and mosquitoes didn’t keep the tall tales from coming neither.  It didn’t seem to dawn on anyone that no one found nothing because there was nothing to be found.  Not exactly anyways.  Starr didn’t have no still.  If that idiot tried something like that, he’d more than likely blow it sky high.  Stills can do that, believe me they can.  Starr didn’t have no still, but he had a spot. 
       It was my idea to head down towards Pent on our way outside of Marmont.  Starr’s carpetbagging didn’t tend to make many friends.  Didn’t think Jim Stover meant anything serious though till he got that twelve gauge out of his barn.  That kind of settled things.  Rockford was too far north, and I seemed to recall Jim Stover having relations in Mint Lake.  So, there me and Starr were, going down what I hoped was the right road, and I didn’t even have a bottle to keep me proper company.  Nope, my ears were getting their fill of bullshit.  Starr kept going on about Chicago and how the women were as fast as the cars.  Called them flappers.  The women I mean. 
       I liked the sound of that.  Lord knows I wouldn’t admit that to Starr, but at the time it was hard to think of.  Hell, anything’s hard to think of when you’re being sucked dry by summer mosquitoes.  When I heard something over the damn mosquitoes and Starr’s own flapping mouth it took me a few tries to make Starr shut it and listen.  We stood out there listening to this growling getting louder.  For a minute I wondered if some farmer’s coy dog was going to come on out and jump us.  The gunshots put that idea to rest right there and sent Starr and me into the ditch, alligator snappers be damned.
       Wasn’t too long after that the car came around faster than most of Starr’s flappers.  It stopped pretty damn fast too, then one of the doors opened up and something came tumbling on out into the road.  A real high voice, like a mouse with its balls cut off, screamed out of the car telling Starr and me to get in.  I didn’t move just then, thinking maybe the weeds were covering me up enough.  Starr and me did like we was told after whoever it was in that car let off a bullet over our heads and screamed at us again.  Starr made for the car, but tripped on the road.  I stopped to help him up, that’s when I saw the body of an old man.  Blood kept bubbling out of his mouth like the old man was trying to breath but not having much luck.  Some lights peeked around the bend of the road and I figured Starr could just as soon pick his own self up. 
       I clambered up into the car, and whoever threatened to shoot us wasn’t in the front no more.  That high pitched voice was coming from the rumble seat.  So was the barrel of what I thought was probably a shotgun.  After Starr crawled up I scooted over giving him room and putting him closer to that barrel.  The squeaky voice told us to get moving, then whoever it was gave the shotgun two good shoves into Starr’s back.  Starr began going on how he didn’t know nothing about driving cars.  When them headlights came into full view in back of us and the bullets soon after, Starr’s foot somehow found the right pedal. 
       We took off like a crippled cow, the car jerking and sputtering down the road.  When the shotgun went off in the car it sounded like the whole world was bursting apart all around me.  Still can’t hear all too well out of the left ear.  Once Starr got the car going though, I mean really going, holy hell it went.  There were times between the shotgun blasts, screeching tires, and shattering glass that I was more afraid of the car flipping over on a tight turn and landing us right into the swamp muck on the other side than getting shot. 
       Whoever was in the back kept sending shells into the other car.  We’d hear that squeaky voice cursing like the Devil between the reloads.  I snuck a peek back once the other car let out a screech and landed upside down in the nearest ditch.  It was a hard idea to think we’d been way-laid by some girl.  A young one too by the looks of it.  I could only see blonde hair between the two front seats and turned back then so as to keep my head on its shoulders.  The voice, and the shotgun, came forward again, the voice piping up and telling Starr to head off from Nineteen B till he got to Pickman Lane.  Starr kept driving but somehow managed to get the balls to tell her that we’d be more than happy to let her drive from here on out.  Well, that face came springing out of the back like a jack-in-the-box and that’s when I saw it wasn’t no girl but a young boy.  The pimples and sprouts of hair over the lip sure wasn’t what Starr would call lady-like.  The boy hollered at us to cut that girl shit out now. 
       We kind of had a quiet drive after that.  The only noise came from the little boy as we got near the end of Nineteen B.  After some more screaming and hollering, no gunshots thankfully, we came up to a shanty jutting out from a hill on the edge of some trees.  Starr stopped the car but it rolled forward towards the shanty.  The boy squealed about the parking brake or something and wrenched up on a handle.  The car stopped for good then.  Weren’t parked for more than five seconds or so till a lamplight come out of the trees and the two of us got drug out of the car at gunpoint.  The man with the light come up, showing off a face that looked like something that came up  second place in a fight with a steel chain.  The beard he had didn’t help much, and the buck knife in his free hand didn’t calm my spirits none neither.  The little boy kept pushing us forward but the man pushed us right back.  Pretty soon they stopped acting like we was there and just started screaming at each other.
       The man said that the boy was a dumb bastard for bringing folks here and asked about Papa.  I thought about the body that tumbled out of the car.  Starr gave a tug on my sleeve, jerked his head over towards the stand of trees past the shanty.  I got to tell you, Starr sometimes pulls his head out of his ass once in a long while.  The big lummox who come tore up any ideas we had about running.  It was then I got cozy with the thought of rotting face down in a drainage ditch instead.  You live in the gutter, you expect the ditch in the end.  I won’t fight it. 
       Starr though, even as the big sonofabitch put that rail of an arm around each of us, kept flapping about how we’d both just be on our way.  The man with the knife called Junior to bring us on over, to see us better.  Junior, all probably three hundred pounds of him, dragged us to the shanty.  Junior asked the boy about Papa and he said that the McElroys got him.  The man with the knife put a meaty finger in the center of my chest.  I was glad it wasn’t a blade.  He gave a wave to the little boy, called him Davy, and told Starr and me we should call him Mr. Dalton. 
       Starr immediately tacked that name to the front end of his begging.  Dalton actually just raised his hand and Starr shut up.  The man’s face may have looked like something that fell out of a tree but he sure had a gift I envied.  Dalton said we rightly couldn’t just be let go and since they’d lost Papa and found us it was only right that we pitch in a little.  Dense as I might be I found some issues with what he said but I kept quiet just the same.  Dalton had Junior haul us inside where Starr and me got put at a piece of crate chopped into a kind of table.  Davy put his shotgun back in front of my face.  A goat crawled out from under the table, sending Starr scooting back till Junior put his hands on him again.  Davy took the shotgun away just long enough to peer below.  He yelled over to Dalton saying how Daisy had shit under the table again.  Dalton came in from the front and told him to never mind that.
       He took a seat by us, spread his hands like a pastor at some social and then pointed at Starr which made him straighten up in a hurry.  Dalton said we’d just been recruited into the prestigious ranks of the Society for the Retaliation of Prohibition and All Jewish Conspirators.  At the sound of that Starr’s face went a little red around the edges and I prayed as hard as a man on bad terms with God could that Starr would keep himself in check and under wraps.  Dalton went on saying how cause of our new position we were honorary rumrunners, helping take their hard-earned liquor they’d rightfully stolen from the McElroys on up to South Bend.  Starr would be driving the second truck with the whiskey of course, since he seemed to do such a fine job before.  I swear I was tempted to swipe a gun, shoot Starr dead, then myself at the sound of that. 
      Oh, how I’d like to say that we drove on up there straightaway.  That there weren’t nothing to it, and I’m sure I could have said just that if the still out back hadn’t gone up in flames just then.  Like I said before, stills will do that sometimes.  I’ve seen one man’s skin peel off like a glove after one particularly nasty still fire caused on account of him being an idiot, but I think the shotgun blast outside is what did it this time.  A few pellets came through the wall too, taking Davy in the shoulder.  Poor thing just crumpled up on the floor like a dog with all the fight kicked out of him.  Dalton was up and moving then, heading for the door.  Starr beat him to it and vanished outside, probably to make off for those trees again if he didn’t get shot first.  Dalton was waving and shouting at Junior who was just standing there by the table, looking at Davy.  Dalton was yelling for him to shoot us for bringing McElroy’s men right to them.  Junior gave that a try, put that pistol right up to my head, but another shotgun blast put a big ass hole through the wall and Junior fell flat on the ground. 
       Dalton didn’t seem to care much after that since he was up and out the door before that still went up proper.  The night lit up with fire, spitting and licking up at the dark sky.  I smelled some of my hair burning and took that as my invite to leave.  Davy was still on the floor, head resting right next to Daisy’s pile of shit.  I’ve been witness to a lot of awful things, some more informal than others.  But the sight of a boy, who’d five minutes ago wanted to open my brains, now lying with his blonde hair in goat shit brought out the preacher in me.  I picked him up trying my best to hurry since two of the walls caught fire now.  The night seemed even colder when I pulled Davy out of the burning shack.  I looked around for Starr and I found him alright.  He was in a truck and trying his best to get it down the road.  I screamed at him to stop, and I think I could have made it over there too. 
       But wouldn’t you know it, Starr found his driving feet.  I watched those rear lights speed off down the road and I didn’t feel like doing nothing else after that.  Just thought it’d suit me to lie down and die.  Dalton must have read my mind since he come out of the dark and put gun in front of my nose, wearing a look on his face that could have froze beer.  He didn’t shoot.  Just told me to get moving.  I did like he said and started to bring Davy along with.  But Dalton pulled the boy out of my arms, threw him to the ground, and shot him without so much as stopping to blink.  He cursed the boy's name and said it was his own fault for bringing in such outsiders, and with that he took me by the collar around to the field alongside the shack.  A scruffy looking fellow, a McElroy I figure, come rushing around towards us.  Dalton let loose another bullet from his gun and laid the man down. 
       The bastard didn’t so much as pause, just kept right on walking and dragging me along.  Davy’s, Lord bless his small murdering self, car sat still in one piece hidden away in the bushes.  Dalton shoved me into the driver’s chair.  I just sat there like Junior in the burning house hoping that this child-killing, ground beef-faced, crazed gunman wasn’t expecting me to drive a car. 
       Well, as you know by now, my luck ain’t exactly the greatest and Dalton told me that was what he wanted me to do.  I figured the keys he handed me were supposed to go somewheres, but I hadn’t the first idea where.  All I saw was knobs, buttons, and more knobs.  Not even Dalton’s gun could get my thinking cap on, so I decided to just pray to whoever was listening and scramble around with my hands in the dark. 
       Whichever worked, I felt something catch and the car started up.  Not that I’m full of myself or nothing, but I’d say I drove out pretty damn good.  Course it wasn’t too fast and Dalton kept screaming in my ear.  I kept expecting to see some more bullets come shattering through what was left of the back window, but I didn’t see nothing but the flames from the burning still.  I figured the McElroy’s were busy getting their whiskey back.  I was so focused on those flames in back of us I didn’t even see the back end of the truck on the rise of the hill till Dalton screamed for me to stop the car.  My feet found every pedal down there, hit the wrong one instead, and took the car through the fence post into the swamp off the hill. 
       My head hit the steering wheel and set off a whole tower of bells in my head.  Bet I would have stayed slumped in that seat all night if the cold muck and swamp water hadn’t come flowing in over my ankles.  The car shifted a little as it sunk lower into the muck.  I didn’t see Dalton, didn’t rightly care about him or Starr or any of the whole business.  No, I was more worried about being buried alive in mud and so pulled myself on out through the broken back window fast as lightning.  The dirt and gravel of the back roads never looked so good to me as I crawled up through the weeds.  I must have kissed every bit of dust around me.  Then I seen Starr, just standing by the truck looking around like nothing was out of the ordinary.  That about did it for me.  I come up off that ground and just about flew at Starr, more than prepared to kick my mucky boots right through his skull.  Got us stuck out here in the first place, got me shot at, nearly drowned, half burned!  Course, I thought I could let Starr off the hook when Dalton come up out of the swamp.  A chunk of glass was stuck into his forehead, and looking at the moonlight glinting off it my head didn’t hurt so much anymore. 
      He threw Starr forward into me and together we stumbled towards the end of the road.  Dalton stopped in front of the truck, the car lights washing him out to just a big lumpy shadow.  That gun cocked and I could tell it was about time.  Starr spoke up, asking if we couldn’t just leave, how it wasn’t any fault of ours.  Dalton laughed at that and said he’d be damned if he’d let two fucking teetotaler sympathizers and conspirators slither away.  At least, that’s what I thought he said.  I stopped listening when the truck started rolling forward.  Starr must have forgot what Davy said about the brake.  Dalton turned in time to have a whole ton of truck crack his head open like a muss melon, finishing what the piece of glass had started and ramming it clean through his head.  Didn’t have too much time to dwell on it considering the truck and what was left of Dalton were both rolling down to Starr and me.  We sprang off to the side and watched the two crash down off to the side and sink into the swamp. 
       The truck turned up on its head probably smashing that bastard Dalton to the bottom.  The flap on the back popped up just before the truck bubbled down.  For the single time that night, it was quiet.  Course you can guess Starr was quick to fix that.  Said how we better get going since whoever was shooting back at the still might come back down this way.  I took a look back down the road.  The rise the truck rolled down hid the burning shack but an orange glow rose up in the sky. 
       I asked Starr if shit like this happened in Chicago along with the flappers and such.  Me and Starr had a good laugh at that, I even halfway forgot that he tried leaving me back at the shack.  I remembered well enough though and promised to shoot him in the eye next time he tried that.  Starr kept on laughing and saying how I seemed to be doing just fine with Dalton so he didn’t see no harm in it.  Would you know it?  The man who got us out in the swamp made me laugh a little more. 
       Some gunfire from back at the shack shut us up soon after and we made off for the main road.  Only thing is, as we got started we heard something come bursting out of the water.  Starr and me must have probably jumped a foot into the air.  I took my time turning around, just knowing I’d be looking back to see Dalton with his head cracked open, broken teeth, blood, and muck covering what was left for his face,  He’d have some bullets left to do for me and Starr.  You can guess that’s not what we seen, since I’m here telling you this whole thing.  No, it was a barrel.  A barrel with McElroy stamped on it.  Yes sir, a barrel filled with Tennessee whiskey.  The barrel got some company when one, then two, then finally three bottles total jumped up and out of the water to bob at the surface.  Starr and me were back at the edge of that swamp and though it took some doing we got that barrel out of the mucky water.  We must have stretched our arms to taffy, but the bottles were less of a chore.  So after a bit of struggling there we was, two bastards hauling a load of re-stolen liquor wrapped up in Starr’s shirt.  I’d never admit it to Starr and you might call me crazy for saying it, but that night seemed worth it after all.          
       Every so often Starr would wander back into the Tamarack around Pent.  Every time he’d come back with a grin touching each ear and a bottle in each hand.  I went with a few times.  Starr and me would come down the road, past the burned out husk of a shack, and we’d be off down at the edge of the water.  The barrels stopped coming up a long while ago but the bottles just keep on coming.  I wonder just how full those McElroys stuffed that truck.  They must have thought this Prohibition was going to keep on forever.
        It’s strange to me that Dalton, or at least pieces of Dalton, don’t float up yet.  You’d think being crushed under a truck would only keep a body part down for so long.  Especially after being picked apart by alligator snappers and moccasins day in and day out.  I suppose the liquor will run out eventually and the stories around town along with them.  In the mean time, the moon is up and I think it’s high time for me to go get some of those bottles.  What Starr don’t know won’t hurt him none.