by Norris Chambers
In the daytime we hunted for 'possums by climbing trees and looking in hollows. For those who don't know what a hollow is, it is a cavity in the trunk of a tree that has rotted out and left a hole anywhere from a few inches to several feet deep. 'Possums, as well as several other forest creatures, sleep in these places during the day. The holes could be as high as fifteen or twenty feet from the ground,and might even be a hollow stump almost on the ground. Of course we knew every likely hollow in a radius of four or five miles from our place. There weren't many families in this isolated area, and it was a good hunting range. We seldom made the rounds without getting three to five 'possums. We skinned them as we found them and carried the pelts home to put on stretchers. The stretcher was a long tapered board. The hide was turned inside out and pulled over it and hung in the smokehouse to dry.
At night we hunted with carbide miner's lamps that we wore strapped to our heads. They cast a beam several hundred feet, and animal's eyes would shine like fireflies in its light. Most of the 'possums had climbed trees when we saw them. It was an easy matter to shoot them between the eyes with a .22 rifle. Skunks were on the ground, but usually stood watching us until we were within shooting distance. If the shot was accurate, the skunk died before it spread its scent. That was the way we liked it.
It was customary to build a fire for the skinning. The hides were stuffed in gunny sack.
One cloudy, chilly Saturday we were 'possum hunting along Red Creek, three or four miles from home. Our party consisted of myself, two nephews and a friend named Andy.
We were walking along the creek bank in thick leaves when suddenly Andy fell into a concealed hole and went out of sight except for his shoulders and head. Since I was directly behind him, I was quite startled when he disappeared.
Closer examination revealed that he had stepped on a canvas wagon sheet, concealed by the leaves, and had fallen into a buried wooden barrel. He was mouthing some obsene words as I pulled him out. He was drenched from head to foot in some wild smelling liquid, and was already shivering and chattering. It was easy to see that he had fallen into a mash barrel and the smell was overwhelming. For those who don't know, a mash barrel was just a barrel filled with water, grain, yeast and sugar. In a few days the ingredients would ferment and the liquid was ready to distill into moonshine liquor. It smelled like this batch was definitely ready for the still.
"Build a fire!" he chattered, "I'm freezing to death." Clifton, my nephew who was about my age, started gathering small twigs for a quick fire and was looking for a clear place to start it. I told him we couldn't let Andy get close to a fire because the alcohol was very flammable. I suggested that he jump in the creek and get washed off. He saw the wisdom in this suggestion and was soon under the cold water.
"The water seems warm," he exclaimed. "It's real warm." Of course we knew the water was very cold, but no doubt it seemed warm compared to the cooling effect of the evaporating alcohol. Clifton soon had a fire going in a small gulley that ran into the creek. We piled on wood and gathered around the bank to enjoy the warmth. Andy got down in the ditch as close to the fire as he could without burning. When Andy was about dried out, we prepared to cover up the fire and continue our hunt.
While we were discussing what to do about the barrel - whether to cover it back up, leave it open or throw trash in it, a man suddenly appeared out of the brush and spoke.
"Hi, boys," he said. We turned and looked at him. He was dressed in blue denim pants and shirt and a brown cap. The ear flaps were pulled down over his ears. He was wearing a weather-beaten overcoat. I recognized him, and knew instantly that he had a reputation for being a bootlegger. He held some sort of a large caliber rifle under his arm. I didn't know whether to be scared or not, but I answered with a surprised "Hello".
"Looks like somebody's been making some mash," he said, "and it's got uncovered. I hope you all haven't been drinking any of it. It could make you sick."
"Nope, we haven't been drinking any," I told him. "Andy fell through it. We didn't see it because it was covered with leaves. We were just getting him dried out and trying to decide whether to cover it up again."
He grinned a little and continued. "I think I know who it belongs to. I will cover it up. If I were you boys I wouldn't be coming around this place - the sheriff might come any time and haul you off to jail. Or if the man this belongs to comes around, he might get a little rough. He wouldn't like anyone fooling with his mash barrel."
I assured him we wouldn't be messing around the mash barrel. There were several verbal agreements from the rest of our party.
"And if I were you, I wouldn't be telling anybody about this either," he warned. "You don't want to get involved in something that might get you in trouble."
Clifton answered him. "We didn't see anything. We're getting out of here."
And so we turned back. We knew who the bootlegger was, but we weren't talking. I wouldn't be telling it now if that guy were still around. But he's been dead for many years now, and I think it is safe to talk.
The moral to this story is (if it has one), don't fall in a mash barrel and don't drink the mash!
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Copyright © 2007 Norris Chambers