The old house loomed over the valley of the Toenail Ridge, sitting on its headland above the pristine waters of Lake Wallace.
It had weathered well, having been built by Emmet Selby back in the days immediately after the Civil War and with various additions made over the decades now sprawled in all directions around the original core. He had based the design of the house on the typical Iowa farm-house he had know as a child in Mt. Joy, but being the patriarch of the community and the valley, he had built in a more grandiose style, so that while the heritage of the structrure was obvious, the size and ornamentation of the house gave it a presence that would have done justice in a later age to the best Hollywood horror movie.
The valley of the Toenail Ridge was blessed in many ways with the excesses of the earth, and one of these blessings was an overabundance of rain and verdant soil, with the result that even fence-posts had been know to shoot.
So the house was overshadowed with magnificent trees and surrounded on all sides by bushes and shrubs, the overall result being to leave it in a sort of perrenial damp, dripping, musty twilight. Its roof had taken on the mossy patina of the permanently moist, its eaves showed the lack of paint in recent years, its gables reflected the presence of generations of pigeons and owls living in its ornamental gimcrackery.
The current inhabitant of the old place was not a face familiar to a lot of the valley populace, he preferring to keep himself to himself.
His name was Charles Terrence Strathmorton and he had purchased the residence at the turn of the century and taken up abode after, as rumor had it, making a fortune in gun-running in the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Originally Selby had added a number of residences and out-buildings behind the main building to house his seamstresses from Seattle and to provide locations for the pursuit of their employment with the local miners during the gold rush years. These buildings had over the years fallen into disrepair and been demolished or, in a number of cases, had been shifted to different locations in the valley and now served the community in entirely different ways. The school-house of Mrs. MacKellar (nee Daykey), for example.
(Her applications of birch to bent-over bottoms were not the first episodes of that occuring in that structure, but originally the applications had not been for the purpose of furthering the recipient's education.)
The old house now stood alone in its past splendour, accompanied only by a dark and ill-used stable, within which stood a phaeton carraige, falling into disrepair after a lifetime of service to nobility.
Charles Strathmorton rarely took it upon himself to leave his house, and these days never by horse and carriage, rather in the rather fine motor vehicle owned by the town lawyer, hotelier, mayor, printer, financier, New Jersey Jack Lazyacre. Lazyacre provided his car as a courtesy to Strathmorton, purely out of the goodness of his heart and because Strathmorton knew where some of the bodies from the old days were buried.
Whenever a locale has an old house tenanted by an old recluse rumors spring up among the surrounding populace regarding them, especially amongst those of tender years.
Almost as big an attraction to the boys of Selbyville as Lake Wallace was the house on the headland overlooking the valley. It was almost an initiation or rite of passage that would draw these boys up to the grounds of the old place on gloomy Saturday nights, there to prowl and snoop and basically scare the bejesus out of each other. Now and again one or other of them would go too far and alert Strathmorton to their presence, at which time he would rush as fast as his aging body would let him out onto the front porch, there to wave his shotgun or his cane at the fleeing lads, all the while roaring at them at the top of his voice and threatening them with the intervention of Sheriff Dillon and the most dire threat of reporting to their parents.
Now it so happened that one quiet Monday afternoon while school was on summer vacation that young Bart Shay was snooping around by himself and he found himself in the close vicinity of the old stable behind Strathmorton's house.
He clambered around and through bits and pieces accumulated over decades and reached the back double doors of the building, where to his mild surprise he found a smaller access door, and it stood a little ajar. Well, put yourself in Bart's shoes (although, as was his usual habit, he wasn't wearing any...), would you turn away and continue about your normal habits? Hmm.... Well, he didn't. This was Bart, after all. He squeezed his slender frame through the gap around the door and peered into the ill-lit and dust-hazed interior.
Old furniture, hay bales, saddlery, harness, hessian bags, all lay in a jumble and covered with a thick insulation of the dust of years. No animal lived in the stable's interior but the olfactory memory of animals from years past caressed the back of the nose, that dusty, musty, warm, slightly flatulent memory of an odor.
The wooden floors creaked ominously as Bart crept around the dim cavern of the stable, his eyes darting hither and yon as he took in the scattered jumble around him. The things that appeal to the eyes of a young lad lay in profusion wherever he looked... baling hooks, harness buckles, rope, old pictures faded to yellow behind their smoky glass, kerosene lanterns and lamps, cobwebs.
Standing up in the corner, behind a dustcloth covered old wardrobe, was of all things a wooden Indian, still in its carved hands the tray in which cigars had been offered to the passing pedestrians when it graced the sidewalk outside the tobacconist emporium in Portland way back at the start of the century.
Bart worked his way back to the carved figure, gazing up at its wooden features with his mouth agape. And plummeted straight through the missing floorboards and into the old root-cellar ten feet below.
Back in the days before refrigeration it was common for folks in the country to dig into the side of a hill and make themselves a cool-room, lined with thick stone or brick and insulated with sod. If an obliging hill wasn't handy the same construction would be dug as a cellar beneath a stable or barn.
Here would be stored those foodstuffs that would perish rapidly if exposed to the rigours of summer heat. The basement under a house might store preserves but because of the heat put out by the furnace in winter, and the need for windows, this was not the ideal place for perishables that needed cool conditions.
So Bart, when he got his breath back, found himself in a dark, square space surrounded by shelving that ran from ankle level to well over his head, with no source of light other than that meager glimmer that came through the hole in the floor above.
And no visible means of getting back up to the level of that floor.
He slowly got to his feet, waiting for the sudden stab of pain that would tell him he had damaged something in his fall. Fortunately he had landed on a softish pile of he-wasn't-quite-sure-what that seemed to be equal parts of dirt, old bird droppings and bits of dust-cloth that had been blown down through the hole over the years. Feeling no warning twinges or stabs he inched his way around the cellar, depending as much on feel as sight to explore his surroundings.
He found some of the shelves held contents, jars and bottles sealed with corks and wax or glass marbles held in place by wire cages. In the feeble light the contents remained a mystery, the interiors of the jars being obscured by thick layers of dust.
In one lower corner he found a dozen or more bottles, all identical in size, shape and weight. Some still bore a pencil-written label that he could just decipher in the gloom - "Elderberry brew, 1908".
Now it's a bit of a problem, finding yourself marooned in a cellar with no ladder to get out, with no way of attracting attention, knowing that the last person to have approached the place had left years ago, in short, knowing that you are trapped.
Bart had a pretty level head on him, especially since he'd had the top of it hit more than a few times by his father when caught in boyhood excesses so he didn't panic, rather took stock of what was available to him and how he could make the best use of his resources. Typical of his age and sex he could climb like a monkey and it took him only a trice to see that those storage shelves could get him within reach of the hole in the floorboards above.
So with that established he turned his attention once again to the contents of the shelves. Elderberry brew ,..... hmmm ..... brew is what his father called the beer he bought from the saloon or occasionally in cases from the Supremely Healthy Invigorating Truly Tasty Yeasty (SHITTY)(C) Brewery. Wonder what it tastes like...... in a flash he had twisted the cap from a dusty dark green bottle and cautiously sniffed at the open neck.
One of the absolute wonders of organic chemistry is the way that it allows certain reasonably innocuous liquids to take on the properties of rocket fuel if left undisturbed in their containers for long enough. This has been the main principal behind the production of wine since early Biblical times. Elderberry wine is made from the small pink berries of the Elder tree, harvested in Spring and carefully fermented.
The result has a mild, pleasantly peppery taste and contains sufficient alcohol in a quart to perhaps give pause to a mouse.
Elderberry brew that has stood in cool and dark conditions with a little residual sugar for close on twenty years has only one surprise to offer....it's surprising that the mega-proof contents hadn't dissolved the glass of the bottle!
Now Bart may have, in previous communications, come across as a bit of a terror, a trouble-maker, a delinquent.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The male offspring of Clay Shay was more of a trouble-magnet, he didn't seek it, it was just attracted to him.
He did have, however, more than the usual share of natural common sense. He knew what would happen if he tried a drink from the bottle. He had seen a number of the male inhabitants of the Valley of the Toenail Ridge in their cups during his young life and fully understood that one's actions went pretty much out of control under the influence of the demon drink. But he also knew that he had in his almost-possession a commodity worth a considerable fortune to one of his years, especially if offered to the right parties.
He took another sniff of the heady liquid, shook his head to clear it of the fuzz that immediately gripped his senses and once again turned his attention to the means of escape.
It turned out that the storage shelves had been bolted back into the concrete that lined the walls of the root cellar but fortunately for young Bart the years and damp had limed the cement so he didn't have too much trouble working one of the shelves away from the wall and then sliding it towards the centre of the space. Another shelf followed and then a third, arranged in a triangle so that none of them could topple. By now he'd worked up a pretty good thirst and was almost tempted to take a swig of the only drink available but he forced himself to instead climb up his temporary structure and then reach for the hole in the boards above.
At full stretch his fingertips brushed the undersides of the floor joists. He needed another foot.
Descending he peered around in the gloom for something to afford him the extra height. Old glass Mason jars sat under their patina of dust, their hidden contents anything from pickles to pie-apples. Bart transferred half-a-dozen of them to the top of his tower and then ripped a wooden shelf from its supports and placed it on top of the jars. With the addition of this step he was able to get his hands over the edge of the broken floorboards above and with a grunt and a heave he hauled himself belly-first onto the floor of the stable and lay panting until his breath returned.
The next day Bart and a couple of his most trusted cronies crept towards the rear of the old stable from the woods, this time burdened with ropes and hessian sacks and a hurricane lantern. He had worked out a plan to retrieve the dozen bottles from their lair and supply them, for a price, to a couple of the older boys at the school, boys who hadn't yet reached manhood but had certainly attained the age where they had undergone the metamorphosis from precocious young brat to hooligan.
They entered the access door in the back of the stable and Bart whispered his directions, leading them to the hole in the floor by the wooden Indian. In a matter of moments one of the ropes was firmly attached to the axle of the old horse-drawn phaeton and its loose end dropped through the gaping cavity to the cellar.
Without hesitation Bart lowered himself down the rope, a sack draped over his shoulder. Young Andy lowered the lantern, now with its wick alight and rendering a yellow glow to the surroundings, and then dropped another couple of sacks to him. Bart carefully place the old green bottles in them, tying their tops with twine and then attaching them to a second rope with a twist and half-loop. Andy hauled the first bag up and re-lowered the rope for the second load. Finally he retrieved the lantern.
Then Bart scrambled back up his shelving tower and this time with the assistance of his friends crawled out of the root cellar. They swung the sacks and ropes over their shoulders and crept towards the exit in the back of the stable. Within minutes they had reached the shelter of the woods behind the old house and stable and were making tracks back to Selbyville, the load of sacks shared between the three of them.
Within a couple of days the news had disseminated among some of the older lads that Bart had managed to get his hands on some pretty powerful moonshine and was willing to negotiate its transfer from one party to another for the right incentive.
One of the older lads was a nasty piece of goods by the name of Warren, a big, hulking lad with the I.Q. of a sledge-hammer. He approached Bart in a surreptitious way (which, for him, meant grabbing the young Clay by the scruff of the neck in the middle of Main St. and whispering hoarsely to him in a voice that could be heard a block away.)
"Whatya want for the hooch, squirt?"
One of the benefits of carrying Shay genes was an innate horse-trading sense inherited from an elder Shay who had become rich for a short time (until the intervention of a riverboat gambler by the name of Lazyacre) trading supplies to the Indians west of the Missouri. The Indians received fair goods for a price that was fair for the '60's. The unfair thing was that the price was fair for the 1960's, not the 1860's, with the result that the Indians had a balance of payments problem and Great-Grandfather Shay had saddle bags bulging with gold-dust.
Anyway, it meant that when Warren let up on Bart's collar enough for him to resume breathing, he replied that the going rate for a bottle of the Elderberry brew was two dollars and a guarantee that he, Warren, would keep his big mitts off the junior kids for the rest of the school year.
"Tell ya what," replied the Incredible Bulk "you just give me a couple bottles and I won't break both ya arms, how's that for a deal? Haw, haw haw!"
Not of one of life's nice people. Well, about then, Bart's dad Clay, returning from his shift down at the Selbyville yards, came around the corner so Warren let go of the Clay off-spring and sauntered at a dead run in the other direction, leaving young Bart to get his breath back and straighten his shirt collar. He joined his father and stayed close beside him until Clay turned into Chuck Parker's Saloon, then he took off for the safety of his house.
Bart realized that if his business venture was to succeed he needed some physical protection, somebody able and willing to prevent extortion attempts and thievery.
Now for quite a long time Bart had been pretty close to Tiny, the man-mountain who had had the scare of his life put into him by Sheriff Dillon Matthews in the not-too-distant past.
Warren was a pretty big fellow but Tiny was a giant. He had followed his father in build and towered over his peers. He tipped the scales at two hundred pounds and didn't object a bit to using his size to get his own way.
He'd certainly mellowed since the events previously chronicled with the sheriff but was far from a cherubic archangel in his behaviour and demeanour. He listened with interest to Bart's proposal, particularly the splitting of profits part. Bart initially offered him a third but, being good at arithmetic, Tiny insisted he wouldn't settle for less than a fourth, to which Bart quizzically agreed.
The hooch had been carefully hidden by Bart and his cronies in a place impossible to detect, namely under the racks holding the crates of empty beer bottles in the yard of the Selbyville brewery. Security there had slowly lessened following the bottle-deposit racket and the local lads had again managed to open up the access hole in the back fence to allow them egress for their games and scavenging hunts.
The following afternoon after Mrs. Mackella (nee Daykey) had released them from their lessons in the little school house, Bart and Tiny snuck through the fence and approached the racks of empties to retrieve some of the Elderberry brew hidden in the bottle crates.
And found to Tiny's puzzlement and Bart's abject horror that the whole area had been cleared!
Not a crate in sight!
The racks stretched gaping and empty, devoid of even one bottle crate!
They surreptitiously snuck to the end of the nearest rack and peered around the corner towards the loading dock of the brewery itself. There to Bart's despair were lined up five delivery trucks, loaded to the tops of their stake beds with the crates of bottles. As they watched the lead truck started up and departed through the yard gates, heading towards town.
The boys retraced their steps to the hole in the fence and then both broke into a dead run for the loading dock gate.
"Hey! Mister Dan!" called Bart. "Where are all the bottles headed?"
"Young Bart, ain't it?" said Dan. "Well, seems like that Mr Lazyacre got a real good deal on some new fancy type of container for our beer and is sending these here used bottles to Portland to be melted down and dumped. Reckon we gonna be drinkin' our beer outa tin cans from what I hear. 'Sides, them fools in Gummint reckon we got a health hazard here, what with re-using them same bottles all the time, reckon we gonna kill folks with germs.....shoot! Be a pretty tough germ could live in OUR beer! HAWHAWHAW!"
With downcast eyes and sunken spirits, young Bart turned away, his visions of a new bike and some spending money evaporating in his mind. Tiny followed him like a semi-tame Rottweiler, having absorbed some of the gist of the conversation and coming to the realization that his opportunity to legitimately thump Warren may have been taken from him.
They moped into the main street of Selbyville where they saw the five brewery trucks lined up out the front of Chuck Parker's saloon. The quantity of empty bottles intimidating him, Bart looked half-heartedly at the crates visible through the slat sides, knowing it for a lost cause but hoping he would spot at least one of the Elderberry brew bottles.
The empties filled crate after crate without end and the more crates he inspected the lower fell his heart until in the end he turned to Tiny and said "Well, looks like we ain't gonna find nothin' at all. Might as well give it up." and turned towards the lake.
And spied, out of the corner of his eye, the dozen bottles of brew sitting nestled on the passenger seat of the truck, clearly visible through the cab opening where a later generation of Ford trucks would boast a door.
"Tiny! Quick! Grab these" he hissed and thrust bottle after bottle at his friend. With the dozen booty under their arms the two scooted across the street and away as fast as they could scuttle, with their tinkling burdens.
Now, it was a mightily puzzled truck driver in the form of grizzled old Dave Shaw who eventually emerged from the smoky and dark and alcoholic confines of the tavern to find his wonderful discovery disappeared. He had noticed the brew bottles when his truck was being loaded and had chanced to have a sniff of the contents, just like Bart had done in the root cellar. A hearty, hidden swig convinced him that here was a find worth purloining, so into the front of the truck they went. And now they'd gone again!
He'd actually taken a few ales aboard in the tavern so his brain wasn't in a totally fit state to dwell on the mystery, and he figured there sure wasn't any point in complaining to the sheriff, that just might lead to more questions, e.g., why bottles the purported property of the brewery were in the cab of his truck instead of in the crates where they belonged. Well, he reckoned that since he was finishing the day with nothing more nor less than he'd begun it with, it wasn't worth fussin' about. He turned to his truck, decided that he wasn't in a fit state to start the journey to the railyards to deliver the bottles for trans-shipment on the Toenail Ridge Shortline, and turned back into Chuck Parker's tavern to re-join his fellow drivers and fortify himself further for the trip. Now it so happened that when the time came for Bart to deliver his booze to Warren and some of the other youths hovering in the no-mans'-land between puberty and delinquency that purely by chance (once again, the odd Odds of the Gods influences life in the Valley of the Toenail Ridge) the commercial exchange was witnessed by none other than Ken Blunt, the fireman from Ol' Number 9.
His son and heir was one of the lads gathered to imbibe the illicit offerings and as soon as he saw his old man turn the corner the son took off at a dead run for other pastures. With guilt tattooed on every face the rest stood turning their toes in the dirt and aw-shucks-ing while Ken approached.
He'd been know in the past, in fact in the recent past, in fact, last Saturday, to put down the odd bottle of his own brew so his cultured and refined sense of smell pretty quick let him jump to the right conclusion and without so much as a by-your-leave the burly fireman grabbed Bart by one ear, Warren by the other, shook both of them 'till they saw stars, and all the while extolling the virtues of a life spent in the refraining of alcoholic indulgences.
Then, fixing Tiny with a steely stare (and even Tiny wouldn't gainsay Ken...) he ordered him to carry each and every one of them bottles filled with the liquor of the Devil straight around to his house and set them in an orderly fashion right on the table where Ken could, at his leisure, dispose of their contents in a fit and proper way, down the privy.
After passing through his kidneys first, of course.
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