Authors: Tabor Evans
Tags: #Westerns, #Fiction
said, "They're agents from the Treasury Department that come around where whiskey gets made to make certain that the revenue tax gets paid on every gallon."
Longarm tried to sound wondering. "The hell you say!"
By now, they had begun entering the foothills that rose to the northeast of the town. They were forced to pull the horses down to a slower gait. Carson said, "You mean, you've never heard of Treasury agents?"
Longarm said, "Where I come from, we don't have such, because we don't make no whiskey. Ain't much except rocks, cactus, and sand in Arizona and ain't none of them make a very good blend of whiskey."
said, "You're going to have to keep reminding me that you haven't seen civilization in a long time."
They rode in silence for about ten minutes, and then Longarm ventured to ask, "Is it any of my business where you're taking me?"
"Well, if you have to know, I'm taking you tonight to a member of the Colton clan."
They were walking the horses now and Longarm suddenly pulled back on the reins and stopped. It was a second or two before Carson reacted. He stopped his horse and looked back. He said, "What the hell is the matter?"
Longarm said, "In case you didn't notice, that was a man by the name of Morton Colton that was fixing to have two deputies hold me while he beat me to pudding."
"Yeah, I know."
"And you're taking me to his family?"
chuckled and waved Longarm forward. "I expect I better explain something to you. The Colton family, to a man and a woman and a child, despise Morton Colton more than you or me. He is an outcast. The son of a bitch has done every low-down trick on his own family that there is to do, but at the same time, he's still a Colton."
Longarm said, "If they despise him so bad, how come he's doing their work in town?"
"That's just what I'm telling you. He's still a Colton, but they don't want him anywhere around the place. They don't want him handling the whiskey, they don't want him around any of his female cousins, nor do they want him around anybody while he's got a gun in his hands. You saw him cheating in that poker game. Well, he's cheated them on every deal he's ever handled, but he's still a Colton. You've got to understand that these mountain folk stick together like glue, so they put him out of the way in town and said, 'Now handle this. This is your last chance. If you screw this up, we're going to hang you.'"
Longarm said softly, "Well, I'll be damned. You mean they would protect me from him?"
laughed softly. He said, "They would protect the devil from him. You've got to understand these clans that live way back here as they do without much outside intercourse--and I mean that in more ways than one. They don't trust strangers, and even though Morton is a low-down, no-good son of a bitch, he's still a Colton, so they trust him to do this job, which he does very well, by the way. The son of a bitch is just a natural-born greasy cheat. He's a liar, he's a snake, and he's just the kind to handle a payoff to the law."
Longarm said slowly, "I see. So now you're taking me to the family? Are you going to tell them that I just had a run-in with Morton?"
"Oh, hell, yes. That will set you up just fine with them. In fact, they might even get nearly hospitable. Well, no, that's going a bit far, but they might get nearly to where they tolerate you."
Longarm shook his head. He said, "This is the damnedest place I've ever been in. I thought the Texas-Mexico border was bad, but this is worse."
looked at him quickly. He asked, "What were you doing near the Tex-Mex border?"
Longarm said, "Oh, buying cattle." He smiled to himself, wondering if Carson thought he could be caught out that easily. Carson said, "Oh, I forgot you're a cattle rancher."
"Was a cattle rancher."
They rode in silence for a few more minutes. Longarm said, "Tell me one thing. There's something I don't understand. Yesterday, you wouldn't give me the time of day. Today, you're going to a considerable amount of trouble to keep me out of jail. You got a reason for that? Why would you help me?"
said, "What you don't understand is that I'm not so much helping you as I'm hindering Morton Colton. I can't stand the son of a bitch; I hate him. One of these days, I'm going to let some air through him. If I wasn't such a peaceful good old boy, I'd already have done it."
"I didn't think you knew him. That day at the poker game, you acted like you didn't know him. You acted like you wanted to beat the hell out of him."
laughed slightly. "Oh, I know him. He just doesn't know that I know him. So far as beating the hell out of him, you were standing there with a fistful of a big revolver and I didn't figure you were going to let me or anybody else do anything. By the way, I noticed you used that revolver with a good deal of ease."
Longarm said, "I noticed that you wear a cutaway holster, yourself."
"Comes in handy in this business."
"Well, you've all but told me that you're in this business, but the other day you claimed to know nothing about it. Now I find out that you not only know Morton Colton, but you know the family, at least you know where they live because that's where we're headed, according to you. What is it exactly that you do?" Longarm said.
gave him a glance. He said, "You'll find out soon enough, so I might as well tell you. I reckon if I can go to the trouble and the risk of pulling your bacon out of the fire, I can trust you with some information that's pretty nearly common knowledge among those in the know around here. I'm a whiskey buyer. I buy whiskey from these moonshiners here in Arkansas for my family's distillery in Tennessee."
For a moment, Longarm didn't speak. He didn't know much about the whiskey business except he knew what he liked, but what Carson had just said didn't make much sense to him.
By now, it had come good dark and the first stars of the evening were beginning to get up. They had ridden through the lowlands of the foothills and were now into some occasionally severe little hills and hummocks. As they crested the top of one of the steep hills, Longarm pulled his horse up to give him a blow. Carson did likewise. Longarm turned in his saddle and looked back. He could clearly see the lights of Little Rock from the heights of the little hillock. It was difficult to tell how far away the lights were, but judging from the time that had passed, he estimated they had come a good ten miles. The horse was as good an animal as Carson had claimed it was.
Longarm said, scratching his head, "Now, you know, there's something here I don't exactly understand. Maybe it's because I don't know anything. I came down here with the idea of buying some cheap whiskey and bringing it back to Arizona to make a profit. Yet, here I find myself in the company of a man whose family owns a distillery in Tennessee, which is the next state over, and he's here buying whiskey from these here folks. Do they make that much better a brand of rotgut?"
Frank Carson got a cigar out of his pocket and after offering it to Longarm and getting a shake of his head, stuck it in his own mouth and lit it with a match. When he had the cigar drawing good, he said, "No, it ain't better. Raw whiskey is raw whiskey. We buy this whiskey for two reasons: one, it's cheaper--they can sell it for about a dollar a gallon. It costs us nearly twice that much to distill our own raw whiskey. You get the taste of whiskey and the smoothness of whiskey in the way you age it and the way you handle it, so you see, that's why the raw whiskey they make is just as good as the raw whiskey that we make. But they've got another edge on us. Their raw whiskey is a higher proof than ours. You know what proof means, don't you?"
Longarm nodded, "Yeah, I drink one-hundred-proof Maryland bourbon whiskey. Yes."
said, "I've tasted it, and I understand. I don't think it's any better than the whiskey that my family makes, but every man to his own taste. Well, this raw whiskey that the Coltons make is about one hundred sixty proof, and about all you can make out of whiskey is one hundred ninety proof. That's about as high as she goes, nearly pure white lightning. But they make a higher proof going in than we do."
Longarm said, "How come that?"
"They use more sugar. You've got two big costs outside of your time and labor in making whiskey," said Carson. "That's the corn and especially the sugar. They use more sugar, so they get a higher proof. We can buy their raw whiskey and not only save by the gallon, but we can cut it even more and still end up with an eighty- or ninety-proof finished product. Of course, we lay ours down in barrels anywhere from six to eight years. They're not willing to do that, or maybe they are. Maybe they've got some laid back in the woods, I don't know. All I do know is that they sell a hell of a lot of raw whiskey. This is probably, right now, the whiskey capital of the United States."
Longarm said, "I see." He thought a few moments, not certain he should say the next, but after a hesitation, he decided to go ahead. He said, "But don't you save a little more than just the price per gallon over what you can distill it for?"
"On them federal tax stamps. I've already heard about those. Ain't that what them Treasury folks are down here looking into?"
gave him a small smile. He said, "We don't save anything on the Treasury stamps. Once we get our whiskey ready to age, it goes into a bonded warehouse and there's a federal stamp goes on every barrel. We pay the tax. We ain't got no problems with that."
Longarm smiled back at him. "You mean to tell me that you can buy it here and carry it to Tennessee and there ain't no stamp involved?"
gave him the barest of a look. "I didn't say that, Mr. Long, and if I's you, I wouldn't pursue that line of thought."
Longarm nodded. He said, "I'm in your debt, sir. We'll play this your way."
took his reins up in his hands. He said, "We better get moving; we've still got a pretty good little ride left, and you're likely to be wanting some supper before dawn. I know I will."
As they rode, Longarm said, "Frank, one little question keeps occurring to me. You are carrying me back into these hills where I reckon that every one of these gentlemen that I'm going to meet is going to have a long beard and an even longer rifle. What am I going to do back here, and how long am I supposed to stay?"
"Well, Custis, that's entirely up to you. I done what I thought was necessary in what little time was available. Now, you can turn around and ride back into town as far as I'm concerned, but if I's you, I'd kind of lay down behind the log for a while until things settle down a little bit. I would imagine that they're going to be scouring the country for you for the next week or so. That would be my guess. You did shoot a deputy sheriff, and you knocked the hell out of another one, and you scared the piss out of Morton Colton, which may have been the biggest mistake of all. So if I's you, I wouldn't be in too big a hurry to go flying around the country. I'd wait until such time as it was a little more settled."
Longarm said, "You say they are going to go to scouring the country for me? What's going to keep them from coming back here in these hollers or wherever it is we're going--these whiskey camps--looking for me there?"
gave a sharp bark of laughter. "I can promise you this. There ain't a lawman in the country that is going to come back into this area, not if they expect to come out alive. That's why they are very grateful to do business with Morton Colton right there in town. You couldn't pay one of them to come back here. One smell of moonshiners' smoke is enough to send these old boys running to the Texas border."
Longarm said, "You reckon I could do any business back here? You reckon I could buy me a load of whiskey back here and somehow think of a way to transport it?"
's shoulders made a faint shrug in the dim night. He said, "I reckon anything is possible. They'll freight it Out to the nearest railhead, but whether they'll do it or not for you is another question. As far as I know, they ain't looking for any more new customers."
It had come solid dark and it was only a quarter of a moon. Frank Carson had taken the lead and was following a trail that Longarm had a hard time picking out. He said, "Frank, are You sure you know where you are going? Seems to me that we're just riding between the high places."
Ahead of him, Carson chuckled. "That's damned near the case." He pointed, raising his arm to where Longarm could see. "See that little notch, way up yonder, far off at the top of that mountain? I'm just guiding on that. That will bring us into Salem Colton's place. That's where you can stay the night. I don't think he's going to let you stay more than one night, but he might pass you on up the line toward the old man's place."
"Who is the old man?"
turned in his saddle and looked back. "If they want to tell you, that's okay with me, but I'm not going to be the one to tell you about the old man."
"What did you say the first man's name was?"
"Salem. His wife's name is Bathsheba. They've all got names out of the Bible."