Buzzy was my best friend. He was not only my best friend but my only friend. He never stayed home. He said his mother was a painted lady. I wanted to ask him what he meant but I only knew she had many visitors.
My name is Ashford Van Cunningham but everyone calls me Ash. Mama says we’re kin to the rich Cunningham’s in Natchez. She says that to make herself feel better. Everyone knows ma was raised on Tolliver’s Mountain. Her pa was a poor coal miner and married her to pa in trade for a mule. I don’t know where pa got a mule. The only work he ever did was making sipping whiskey-the best sipping whiskey that ever came from the hills of Holmes County, Mississippi.
Buzzy was thirteen. I was man grown at fourteen. I had been helping pa make moonshine since I was big enough to hold a scoop. Pa said everything had to be measured. Maybe that’s why pa’s white lighting was the best sipping whiskey for miles. I don’t know why it’s called sipping whiskey. Most of pa’s customers lapped it like a prairie dog finding an oasis in the desert.
Pa’s still was a conglomeration of copper tubes and two old T-model radiators. The whiskey dipped slowly into a metal barrel.
Pa didn’t use shine haulers. Men in beat up cars with souped up engines trying to outrun the law usually ended in jail. Pa just sold his at the still. The ones that came to the still brought their own fruit jars, tin cans, coffee pots, molasses buckets or anything they could salvage.
Buzzy and I sometimes hauled mash and corn to the still behind Jake, mama’s mule. The corn squeezing mash was in burlap sacks marked seed. Anyone who saw us would think ma was planting a garden. While pa smoked and drank, we kept the fire going and watched the gauge. One of pa’s friends let his tank get too hot and parts of him were never found.
After getting enough dried wood for the fire, Buzzy and I played in the woods. Pa’s still was deep in the swamp and a big pipe was used to scatter the smoke. I didn’t know much but I knew pa had an arrangement with the sheriff. Several gallons of his best sipping whiskey were sent every month to Sheriff Brady. Pa always knew when the revenuers came to town hunting bootleggers. Pa would shut his still down till they left the county.
There were a lot of gullies and ditches in the woods. Buzzy and I would make hideouts and play pirates, outlaws and army. Once we put a tin can on top of a stick and pretended we were singing in Nashville, Tennessee. Running out of games to play, Buzzy said, “Let’s hunt buried treasure. Huck Finn found treasure. Remember that story, we read in school. If we don’t find gold we’ll find something.
“Let’s go to the shack on Walton’s hill.”
Ash, I heard ghosts live there.”
The old shack was overgrown with weeds. The roof had sunk. The old house was scary even in the daytime. The house was built on the ground. It was said to have been a hideout for the Beaver gang, bank robbers and murderers.
Buzzy, let’s go in”.
“You go. I’ll start digging near than old gnawed tree stump. Everyone knows treasure is buried by trees.” Picking up the shovel, Buzzy headed for the tree. I went toward the house feeling less courageous. Creeping slowly in the house, I stopped to listen. A field mouse came running out of a boot in the corner. All was quiet. The quietness made the shack even more frightening. Bottles, old cans and garbage littered the floor. Spying a broken pocket knife, I went toward it. There was a cracking sound and I was falling. Dust was saturating the air getting in my nose, throat and eyes. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I found myself in an alcove under the house. Boards had fell on the opening-there was no way out.
I was scared. I started yelling for Buzzy hoping he was still here. Realizing no one could hear me, I knew I had to conserve oxygen. After a long time, I heard voices and scraping noises. Buzzy running to the still had found several men smoking, drinking and passing the day with daddy. My heart was pounding out of my chest as one man said, “The whole thing fell in. Buzzy run get more help. Ash is buried alive.”
Hearing a lot of commotion, I knew they would get me out. Throwing board and debris off the house, they finally reached me. While several men were pulling me out, one man said, “These old houses had an outside door to the root cellar. Let’s look.”
The padlocked door was half buried under pine straw and dirt. Using Buzzy’s shovel, Sheriff Brady broke the rusty lock and used the shovel to ease the door open. He was taking no chance on finding a rattler. Everyone gasped. We were looking at a skeleton. Claw marked faintly showed on the inside of the door. Someone had been locked in to die. Everyone stared in shock until Sheriff Brady said, “This place can’t be touched. I’ve got to notify the F.B.I. in Jackson. Someone stay and watch.” No one moved. The corpse had more watchers than an angel coming from heaven. Darkness fell as several agents arrived and had the skeleton removed to an undisclosed destination.
An old chest was found in the cellar containing old newspaper of bank robberies. Was this the hideout of Pretty Boy Floyd or Bonnie and Clyde? The town was buzzing with weird notions of outlaws and criminals who might have stayed in the old shack.
Buzzy and I were at the still helping daddy. Daddy was sitting on a stump drinking out of a tin can. We heard something. Walking up on a man’s still will get a person killed. Sheriff Brady said, “Easy men, I’ve always known where the still was."
Daddy replied, “Howdy Bob. What brings you here?”
I was hunting Buzzy and Ash. Seems they did find treasure. The man was identified by his ring. He was CIA from Washington. A reward of $5,000 was posted for his whereabouts.”
“Buzzy, we’re rich.”
"Not so fast. Neither one of you have dependable guardians. The money will be put into a trust fund until you are eighteen. Maybe you both can go to boarding school. You will be very rich young men.”
Buzzy and I looked at each other. We knew if that was what it meant to be rich, we would just make sipping whiskey. Pa and Sheriff Martin took long swallows out of two fruit jars while Buzzy and I started running through the woods to make another hideout for our make believe robbers, pirates and cowboys.