Rise 'n Shine
A Whateley Academy Vignette
Rise 'n Shine
Rural Eastern Tennessee
Old Joe Johnson felt tired. His seventy-five years wore heavily on him; his arthritis was flaring up, and his gout flared up often enough that he didn't get around as much as he used to. Rocking in his chair on the rickety cabin's front porch, he seemed to be in a whole different world. "Sara!" he called firmly, defying momentarily his fatigue.
The screen door banged against its frame, causing the old hound dog to lift an eyelid in a display of surprise; the dog, like Old Joe, was old and had seen better days. "Yes, Pa?" an attractive woman clothed in a plain, old dress asked as she stepped out onto the porch.
"I think it's time," the old man said with a sigh, "that I showed you a few of my secrets."
"Shouldn't you be showin' Fred?" Sara asked warily.
"Hmmph," the old man snorted. "I never did like that bum you went and married," he said bluntly. "Boy's got less sense than a possum. A _dead_ possum at that."
"Pa!" Sara protested. "He's a good man, and he provides for ...."
"He don't provide crap, and you know it!" the old man retorted in a surprising display of anger. "Cain't hold a steady job, and wouldn't know sour mash from grits." Old Joe closed his eyes and rocked a couple of times. "Gotta pass my secrets to someone who can remember," he said.
"You should be tellin' Fred," Sara countered again.
"He ain't never around," Old Joe said, surprising in the level of vitriol in his voice.
"He found hisself a job in Nashville," Sara defended her husband. "Says it's too long a drive to do every day, so he got hisself a trailer there for the week."
"Yeah, and he don't come home every weekend, like a good husband should. He leaves you alone to tend to me and your young-un." Old Joe rocked back again, closing his eyes for too brief a rest. "Mark my words, girl, that bum is havin' hisself an affair or somethin' while you're stuck up here in the hills tendin' to things here."
"Pa! That ain't fair! He ain't never cheated on me ...."
"How do you know, girl? He tell ya? Like any fool's goin' to tell his wife he's foolin' around!" The old man rocked forward, using an arm of the chair and his cane to struggle to his feet. "Git your stuff, girl. I'm goin' to show you my secrets."
"I cain't leave Bobby Earl here alone! He's just eight!"
"Then bring him along!"
Forty minutes later, after a wearying climb up into the hills with the boy and Sara carrying sacks of grain, Old Joe stopped by a pair of large boulders protruding from the side of the small mountain, leaning against them as he lit his pipe and glancing around warily as he did so.
"Why are we stoppin' here, Pa?" Sara asked, holding the hand of the gangly boy to keep him from running off exploring.
"Hush," the old man hissed. After listening for a bit while peering around, he slipped between the two mammoth rocks. "Follow me," he said softly.
Puzzled, Sara towed her mop-headed boy after her pa between the two rocks. Surprisingly, the narrow gap widened and the path sloped down. From seemingly nowhere, Pa had produced a lantern and lit it, illuminating stairs down into the mountain like a mineshaft. After a couple dozen yards, the path leveled out and widened into a large room-like cavern.
"Wow, Gramps!" the boy called excitedly. His attention was drawn almost instantly to a large fixture on one side of the cavern, a large home-made still. "Is this where you make your 'shine?" the boy asked.
Near the still were two large containers, one of which squatted over a fire pit, and the other had an improvised one-way air valve to keep oxygen out of the fermenting mash. Several garbage cans lined the opposite side of the cave, each lined with a plastic garbage bag and containing the various grains used in Old Joe's recipes. He added the various grains they'd lugged up with them into the appropriate containers. Next to the garbage cans was a rustic work table on which was mounted a hand-cranked grain mill. A nearby stream had been diverted through a pipe into a faucet in the cave, providing cooling water for the still head and water for the mash.
The old man smiled. "Boy's got the knack," he said, looking at his grandson as the kid examined the distilling apparatus. "Wouldn't surprise me none if he takes up 'shinin' like me."
"No, Pa," Sara said firmly. "He's goin' to high school. He's gettin' a proper education, like you and me never got."
"Ha!" the old man scoffed. "He cain't walk thirty-five miles over these back roads every day to school, and you cain't drive him, not with tryin' to keep everything tended to here." He turned to a stack of what looked like ammo cans. "I've kept notes all these years," he said proudly. "Everythin' I know 'bout makin' 'shine is in my notes. Read 'em and do some learnin'."
Sara's eyes narrowed. "Why are you tellin' me all this now, Pa?" she asked uneasily.
"I'm tired, girl," he replied. "My joints are all achey, and I cain't get up and down the mountain like I used to. I figger I'm nearly done making 'shine, and someone's got to know my secrets." He paused and stared lovingly at his old still. "I don't know how much longer I can run my still.," he said, his voice curiously devoid of emotion.
"Pa," Sara said, alarmed at the hints that her father was giving, "you been runnin' this still since I can remember, and you're goin' t' be makin' 'shine long after Bobby Earl is all growed up."
The old man snorted as he pulled a home-made rustic bench away from a wall. "I'm gettin' old, girl. Now, sit and pay attention. You're goin' to learn how I make 'shine. I'm goin' to show you how to start a batch of mash, and then I'm goin' to show you how to run the still." He saw his daughter take a breath to protest. "Hush, girl. You're gonna learn."
"How are you goin' to run a fire in here?" Sara asked, displaying some of her underestimated intellect. "You'll choke us all out with smoke."
Old Joe smiled. "Me and my brother Rafe, God rest his soul, drilled a hole behind the fire pits and lined it with drain pipe. That lets air in to the feed the fires. And above them, we've got big holes goin' up into some tree stumps like chimneys. If there's any kind of a breeze outside, there ain't no smoke inside here even when the fire's roarin'."
For the next week, the trio hiked slowly up the mountain every morning, taking advantage of each trip to haul up grain for the mash. Old Joe had started a batch of mash the first day. From then on, he educated his daughter on the fine art of running the reflux still, distilling a batch of white lightning as Sara and Bobby Earl watched, staying awake through the distillation process through copious amounts of extremely strong coffee which Old Joe brewed in his cave. Bobby Earl, in particular, was paying rapt attention and seemed to be getting the most out of the tutoring sessions.
At the end of the week, after yet another weekend during which Sara's husband hadn't come home, the trio hauled several gallons of moonshine, in pint mason jars, down the mountain.
"There. Now you know the basics," Old Joe said, rocking on the front porch the morning after they'd returned with the hooch. "You can run the still to keep earning some spending money."
"Now what?" Sara asked, fearful that her pa was about to give up and just let himself die.
"I'm too tired," Old Joe said. "I cain't keep goin' up to the still forever, y'know."
"So you're gonna just sit on the porch 'til we plant you?" Sara demanded, hoping to goad her stubborn father into not giving up on life yet.
"Oh, I'll keep goin' t' my still," Old Joe said with a smile. "But one of these days, I ain't gonna' be able to hike up the mountain, and when I cain't tend my still, you might as well plant me." He chuckled. "Besides, Old Lady Larimore cursed me."
"She ... what?" Sara asked, astonished.
"Way 'fore your time, we was engaged. I ... was busy with a batch of 'shine, and I plumb forgot. Left her at the altar."
"That weren't a smart thing," Sara replied. "Word is she's a witch."
"Yeah, so's I hear. Anyway, she didn't take too kindly to it. Said she put a hex on me. Said I ain't never gonna find rest 'cause my still was more important to me than getting' hitched. Said I was gonna be bound to my still for eternity." Old Joe chuckled.
Three days later, when Old Joe didn't return from the still, Sara took Bobby Earl up the mountain. They found the old man's lifeless body in the cave, next to his beloved still. The strange thing was that the still, untended, was still cooking away perfectly, still making the 'shine that the old man had been making when he passed on.
Rise 'n Shine
"You're goin' to be late for school," Sara called over her shoulder as she tended to breakfast on the stove.
"Ain't goin," Bobby Earl replied. He was a lanky boy of thirteen sitting at the rickety table in the cabin. His mop of sandy-brown hair was unkempt, as usual, and he was a moderately good-looking boy. His hazel eyes sparkled with energy, since the boy was as carefree as they came, and made the most of life. "Got to tend to the still."
"You should go to school to get a proper education."
"I finished seventh grade," Bobby Earl answered smugly. "Ain't no need for more than that. That was enough for Gramps and for Pa. 'Sides, someone has t' tend it t' make money."
Sara turned on him angrily. "Don't you _dare_ mention that man in this house! You know that!" As Old Joe had predicted years before, her husband _had_ been having an affair, and he left her several years earlier, divorcing her shortly after announcing that he was leaving. "A boy needs a proper education," Sara continued.
"Why?" Bobby Earl argued. "There ain't no jobs around these parts. 'Cept moonshinin', and I'm already good at that."
"Bobby, I want you to make more of yourself than Grandpa or ... him. You need a education to do that."
"Why? I'm happy doin' what I'm doin'. It's a good life, and we make enough money from the 'shine."
"But you should get a education," Sara protested again. "You ought to at least finish up eighth grade."
"Ma, someone's got to hunt critters for food and tend t' the still," He grinned
"A man oughta better hisself," Sara countered. "You can do better, and we can figger out somethin' to get you to school _and_ tend t' the still."
"Why? Gramps never went to high school, and he was a genius. Everyone in these parts knows it. Best moonshiner in three states."
Sara nodded wistfully. "He _was_ a genius with that still of his. He could make it work better'n anyone, and he seemed to have a knack for getting more and better alcohol than anyone else." She stared at her son. "But you'd get more attention from Becky if'n you got an education. I hear she's got her eye on Gabe Norton these days."
Bobby Earl blushed. "I ain't interested in girls," he said defensively.
"Yeah, right. I 'member when I was your age," Sara said with a wry smile. "If you haven't noticed her yet, you will pretty soon. But I saw you in town the other week makin' moon eyes at her."
The boy knew it was time to change the subject. "Those 'speriments he did with aging whiskey were awful good. I need to get me some barrels so I can try makin' me some bourbon," Bobby Earl said confidently. He dug into his bowl of grits, and then scarfed down a few slices of bacon. "I'll see you tomorrow evenin', Ma. Goin' to start a batch in the still today, so I'll be stayin' at the cave overnight."
"You be careful," Sara cautioned him. As a mother, she couldn't help but worry, even though there had _never_ been an accident with her pa's still.
Bobby Earl slung a sack of grain over his shoulder, and grabbing a sack lunch, walked out the door with his casual, loping stride. As usual, he had a carefree sparkle in his eyes, and he whistled as he climbed up the mountain. Pausing, as he'd seen his grandpa do so often, he scanned the surroundings. Revenuers could be sneaky, and on more than one occasion, he'd spotted someone watching him and had bypassed the cave to lead them on a wild goose chase. For that reason, he always took a roundabout path to the cave, never duplicating his route. It gave him more time to spot followers, and it also let him hike around a bit and enjoy the mountains.
Satisfied that no-one was shadowing him, he slipped into the cave and, after closing a curtain on the inside of the tunnel, lit a lantern. The pungent smell of sour mash fermenting was an aroma that made him grin in anticipation; like his grandpa, Bobby Earl enjoyed working with the still, and the reward of a nice clean white lightning was worth all the trouble, even if he hadn't been making good money selling the moonshine.
Eager to get a batch of white lightning cooking, Bobby Earl lit a good-sized fire. He knew he'd have to scoop out a lot of the logs once the pot was put on the fire, but the extra wood now would hasten getting the hot coals he needed. Next, he decanted the liquid off the mash, remembering to save some for starter for his next batch. He sighed to himself when he couldn't find the vat where he kept his starter; sometimes, like his Grandpa Joe before him, he could get distracted and misplace things. A few minutes of searching for the container threw off his entire routine.
Having decanted the liquid, he heaved the large, heavy distillation pot onto the fire, and then fastened on the reflux column, putting a catch jug under the output. This was a tricky part - keeping the temperature of the still in an optimum range to boil off as much alcohol with as little water vapor as possible. The still seemed to almost work by itself; regardless of how he'd been firing it in the preceding couple of years, it produced the same high-quality hooch. Now, with practice, he could keep the temperature very consistent.
Soon, condensate started to dribble from the outlet into a small collector bottle Bobby Earl had set in place. He let it run free for a bit, and then swapped containers. Without a second thought, Bobby Earl tossed the firsts drippings onto the fire, making it flare momentarily as the nearly-pure alcohol burned. Satisfied, he put the small jar directly under the outlet, and after collecting a bit, took a cautious sip. A grin spread on his face as he let the fire spread in his belly. The condensed liquid still had a bit of sour mash taste; it was, to Bobby Earl, a signature of his work, and a minor annoyance that a charcoal filter would eliminate.
He looked at the still again to watch it, and he noticed that in his minor distraction, the device was hotter than it was supposed to be; the mash was boiling furiously, and the liquid dripping from the outlet was colored and no longer nearly pure.
Bobby Earl frowned. Grandpa's notes told him how to handle a still that was too hot; the worst outcome was that the still would explode from pressure that the reflux head couldn't handle. In all the batches he'd made, he had never before gotten the fire this hot. He realized that he'd done something stupid in trying to get the mash boiling quicker, and had too much fuel on the fire. Even as he grabbed a shovel to pull burning wood from the fire, he heard the still whistling ominously. He realized, scooping at the fire, that it was probably too late. Damn - he was going to lose the still, he thought. Without warning, he became very light-headed, and spots danced before his eyes, followed moments later by a bright white flash, seemingly confirmation that he'd goofed and the still had exploded, even though the harsh whistling from the abused boiler continued. As the dizziness increased, he toppled to his knees, and then lost consciousness.
Slowly, spurred on by a high-pitched whistling sound, Bobby Earl pushed away the pain that was making his head throb. He pried his eyes open, his gaze darting around the cave.
Beneath the old still, the fire continued to rage, and the pipes whistled ominously. Realizing that he'd only been out for at most a minute or two, Bobby Earl sat up suddenly, and instantly regretted the move as his pounding head exploded in pain. He closed his eyes for a moment to let the pain abate, but the urgent sound from the still made him open them again. Wincing from the severe discomfort, he scrambled to his feet and grabbed the shovel, and then scooped logs from under the tortured still into a haphazard pile in the middle of the cave. Slowly, the whistling slowed and then stopped as the boiling liquid, without a fire to keep it hot, began to cool because some of the hot liquid absorbed energy from the liquid around it and converted to steam.
A sudden pressure in Bobby Earl's head made him to stagger and trip over one of the grain barrels. He felt ... something ... in his head, a presence that hadn't been there only moments before. And just as suddenly as the presence appeared, Bobby Earl knew how to make the still operate perfectly, and to improve its efficiency in a way his grandpa had, but that Bobby Earl had never quite replicated. Old Joe had never made notes of some of his tricks and special techniques, but Bobby Earl now knew them as if Grandpa Joe's memories were part of him. And he felt like he had as a little boy before Gramps had died unexpectedly, when the old man would hug the growing boy.
He let the still cool, and after the pressure had abated enough, he put on a pair of welding gloves from Grandpa Joe's tool bench and removed the reflux head, pouring what had accumulated in his output container back into the large pot. Smiling and humming, he put the still back together, and then slowly put some of the burning remains of logs back under the contraption. He was going to have to do something about getting a filter in the output as well, something that would save him a step. And he had an idea of just what would do the trick. Oh, and there might be a way to keep the still at a constant temperature to more efficiently convert the liquid into white lightning.
"Hey, Ma," Bobby Earl sang out as the screen door slammed behind him.
"'Bout time you're home, Bobby," Sara complained. "How'd it go?"
Bobby Earl put a cardboard box full of quart mason jars, each of which contained some illicit booze, on the table. "Got almost five and a half gallons."
Sara's eyes widened. "Five and a half? You ain't never got more'n four gallons before!" She frowned as she stirred their dinner - a pot of stew. "You ain't stretchin' it, are you?"
Bobby Earl shook his head. "No, ma'am," he said solemnly. "I tasted it, and it's as good as any Gramps ever made."
"That still ain't made that much in a batch since your grandpa was runnin' it!"
"Well, it just seemed easy and natural to keep the temperature just right for this batch." Bobby Earl shrugged. "I'm gonna have to go back up after dinner t' bring down the rest."
"We'll run the stuff into town tomorrow. I need a few things from the grocery store."
Bobby Earl eased himself into an old, worn chair at the kitchen table. "Good. I got me an idea or two 'bout makin' the still run a bit better."
Sara chuckled. "You're startin' t' sound like your grandpa," she mused wistfully. "He never could stop tinkerin' with that thing."
"Funny thing," Bobby Earl said, staring out the kitchen window. "After the still nearly exploded, I kinda felt like Grandpa was with me. And ... all them notes Grandpa wrote down? I remember _all_ of it, like I wrote it m'self just yesterday."
Sara turned, shocked. "The still nearly ... expl ....." Her words were cut off, and the spoon she'd been stirring the stew with clattered to the floor. "Your ... your eyes!" she said, her mouth dropping open and her eyes wide with shock.
Bobby Earl frowned. "What about my eyes?"
"They ain't hazel colored no more," Sara stammered.
"What? Eyes don't change color, ma!" Bobby Earl protested. Seeing the look on his mom's face, though, made him nervous. "Do they? What color ... are they?"
Sara stepped a bit closer, hesitantly. "Kind of ... I guess straw-colored. Go in the bathroom and see for yourself."
Filled with uncertainty, the boy rose and went to the bathroom. A few moments later, he came out, looking as if he'd seen a ghost. "What ... what happened to me, ma?" he asked plaintively.
"I don't know," Sara replied. "Wait, you said ... you said the still almost exploded? D'ya think maybe you got burned or somethin' in your eyes?" She was grasping at straws.
"I don't think so," the boy replied. "Nothin' got in my eyes, and the still didn't explode or nothin'."
"Maybe we should get you to a doc to look at it."
"It's too late to drive to all the way to the doc today," Bobby Earl said with a shrug. "Besides, I feel fine, and on top of that, we cain't afford it anyway." He slid back into the chair, seemingly having dismissed his ma's concerns, and within seconds, was lost in thought.
Sara didn't like the eye-color change, nor the casual way her son dismissed things. And she certainly had never seen him so lost in thought, except when he was daydreaming about Becky. She watched for a bit, dividing her attention between the boy and her simmering stew-pot. After several minutes, she couldn't take any more. "What cha' thinkin' 'bout?" she asked.
Bobby Earl seemed to have a hard time bringing himself out of his daydream. "Huh? Oh, I was just thinkin' 'bout a couple of things I could to do make the still work even faster and better." His mind drifted again. "Next time we get to the city, I want to go to the library," he said without warning.
"The ... library?" Sara was stunned at that request. "What fer?"
"I got an idea 'bout somethin' that'd make the still even better," Bobby Earl said. "But I figger I oughta find out a thing or two 'bout some metals and temperature and stuff like how hot alcohol boils and such."
Having just picked up her spoon and cleaned it off, Sara nearly dropped it again. Bobby Earl never cared about learning anything. In grade school and junior high, he'd been content to just 'go along' and scrape by. Now he was interested in something that sounded like science? At least it was something.
"Bobby Earl," Sara said sternly, "you tell me this instant what happened up there that's makin' you behave all strange."
"I don't know, ma!" the boy whined. "I was just tendin' the still, and I felt a little woozy, and I ended up puttin' 'bout twice as much wood on the fire by accident. Next thing I know, the still was whistlin' and bangin' and jumpin' all over somethin' fierce. I picked up the shovel to take some of the logs off the fire, but before I could do that, I musta passed out or somethin'."
"Did you hit your head on somethin'?"
The boy shook his head. "I don't _think_ so, but when I woke up, it sure felt like I had. My head was achin' and poundin', and the still was still whistlin', so I tended the fire and got it back cooled off, then I started over."
Sara walked to the table and felt Bobby Earl's head. "You don't feel feverish," she reported, before feeling all over his head. "And you don't got no lumps like you whacked your head on somethin'," she added. Stepping back to think a moment, she came to a decision. "I don't want you goin' up to the still again today or tomorrow," she pronounced. "In case you hit your head or got the flu."
"I may not remember a lot from school," Bobby Earl said defensively, "but I do remember that flu don't make your eyes turn color."
"Hmm," Sara pondered. "Maybe it's jaundice. That makes a person all yellow-like."
"Jaundice don't make the colored part of your eyes change, Ma," Bobby Earl replied, rolling his eyes. He frowned - how had he remembered that? It was something that was covered in science one year, but he hadn't really paid attention. Had he? "It makes the white part of your eye yellow."
"Aw, hell, son," Sara snapped, "how many people know that? We can tell everyone you have jaundice and they won't ask no questions."
September, 2005, two days later
"Mornin', Bobby Earl." The hardware store owner greeted the boy even during the tinkling of the bell over the door, interrupting his jawing with the two older men sitting on stools beside the counter.
Smiling, the boy stepped into the store. "Mornin' Mr. Williams."
"Ain't seen you around much lately," one of the two older men said.
"'Course not, Tom," the other man joked. "He's been busy runnin' Old Joe's still."
Mr. Williams gave Bobby Earl a wink. "Now Rick," he chided, "we all know that's agin' the law. Ain't that right, Bobby Earl?"
"That's right," Bobby Earl answered with a grin. "I wouldn't know the first thing 'bout running no still."
"Even one as fancy as Old Joe's, right?"
"What can I help you with, Bobby Earl?" Mr. Williams got back to business.
"I need to pick up a few things," the boy replied.
"You didn't go and break it, didja?" one of the men asked, worry in his voice.
"Nah," Bobby Earl answered with a smile. "It's workin' as good as ever. But I got me a couple of ideas to make it better."
Mr. Williams chuckled. "You're just like your grandpappy - always tinkerin' with things that are workin' just fine." He glanced around the store. "Whatcha need?"
Bobby Earl shrugged. "Dunno. I figger I'll know when I see it." As the trio of men guffawed, the boy ignored them and began wandering through the aisles of the store. Every now and again, his face would light up and he'd grab something from a shelf or bin. After nearly a half hour of rummaging around, interrupted by trips to carry an armful of things to the counter, Bobby Earl seemed satisfied. "I think that'll do it for now."
The men stared, wide-eyed, at the pile of miscellany heaped on the counter. "What in tarnation are you doin', boy?" Mr. Williams finally said. "Buildin' a space shuttle or somethin'?"
"Or somethin'," the boy answered grinning. As Mr. Williams rang up his purchases, he noticed the two other men staring at him, their facial expressions showing concern and puzzlement.
"Pay the same way as normal?" Bobby Earl asked when Mr. Williams was putting the hardware into bags.
"Yup," the proprietor said. "Tell your ma I'll stop by after work." He peered more closely at the boy. "Somethin' happen to your eyes?"
Bobby Earl shifted nervously, realizing that the two other men had been staring at his eyes as well. "Ma thinks it might be jaundice."
"Hmmm. Well, you better get it looked at," Mr. Williams replied, and then he grinned. "Cain't afford to have my favorite moonshiner laid up, you know!"'
The boy smiled, sighing with relief. "Yeah, I sure will. I don't like bein' laid up neither." With that, he took his bags of parts and gear out to the family truck. He'd no sooner put the three bags into the back of the truck than he spied a girl walking on the other side of the street. Hastily, he trotted over to her.
"Hey, Becky," he said, but the affable, carefree boy from the hardware store had vanished, leaving behind a teenager who sounded shy and nervous.
The girl turned and as soon as she recognized Bobby Earl, she smiled pleasantly. "Hi, Bobby," she said. It was easy to see why she'd caught his eye - even without a hint of makeup, she was pretty. Her silky blonde hair hung in a ponytail, and beneath the jeans and tight T-shirt, the developing curves of a girl turning into a young woman were visible, starting to show a shapely rear end and delightfully curved small breasts that, if genetics was to be believed, would continue to grow into generous mounds of feminine delights just like her mother and older sister.
"Um," the boy said nervously as he stepped closer, "I was wonderin' - you know the dance in a couple of weeks?"
"Well, I was wonderin' if you'd like to go with me," he blurted quickly, not letting himself have time for second thoughts and nerves to interfere. It had taken a couple of weeks to get up the nerve to ask her as it was.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Bobby," Becky said, wrinkling her nose. "Gabe asked me three days ago, and I already said I'd go with him."
"Oh," Bobby said, dropping his gaze in defeat. All that time to work up the courage to ask Becky, and he was too late.
Becky reached up and touched his cheek, startling him. "But there'll be more dances," she said with a smile, "and besides that, if'n someone was to ask me to go on a picnic or somethin', I might be real tempted to say yes."
Bobby's eyes widened, and he looked into Becky's soft, blue eyes with hope. "Uh, yeah," he stammered, "I mean, yeah, it'd be nice ...."
Becky frowned. "Is there somethin' wrong with your eyes?" she asked, sounding concerned.
"My eyes?" Bobby Earl asked, astonished at how quickly she'd changed the subject _just_ when he was asking her out for a picnic, just as she'd suggested. If he didn't know better, he'd have sworn she was toying with him.
"Yeah," Becky said, gazing at him. "They ain't hazel-colored, like I remember."
Bobby winced; leave it to Becky to ask and spoil things. "Uh, Ma thinks I might have jaundice." He shrugged like it didn't matter. "Or it might be somethin' else goin' around."
Becky backed half a step away from Bobby. "If'n you got somethin' makin' you sick," she said, wrinkling her nose, "don't give it to me."
"I don't think it's anythin' catchy," Bobby Earl protested. "Ma ain't got it."
"Well, you oughta get to the doc," the girl replied. "Your eyes are kinda straw-colored, and they sure don't look natural."
"Ma said unless I come over real sick, she ain't gonna take the time or gas to run into Johnson City," he made an excuse. "'Cause we're real busy with cannin' and puttin' up the garden for the winter."
Becky chuckled. "And you're spendin' all your free time up on the mountain with your grandpa's still, ain't you?"
Bobby Earl shrugged and tried not to grin, but he was unsuccessful. "Folks pay good cash money for a little bit of 'shine," he admitted.
"If'n I was go to on a picnic with you," Becky teased, "I bet you'd take me up to the still so's you could try and get me drunk." She looked at him boldy. "That might be a bit of fun."
The boy's mouth dropped open, and as he tried to think of something to say in reply, his jaw just worked up and down, but nothing came out.
"Ma's comin' out of the store," Becky said, grinning at the helpless state she'd put Bobby into, "so I've gotta go. Call me if'n you want." Without warning, she stood on her tiptoes, her hands on the surprised boy's cheeks, and gave him a quick kiss on his lips, before she turned, and with a warm smile over her shoulder, walked merrily away from the boy who simply stood, dumbfounded and having no clue how to respond to Becky's teasing and rather forward statements.
Half a block away, a boy about Bobby Earl's age leaned against a building, watching the goings on between Becky and Bobby Earl. Gabe Norton had never liked Bobby Earl; the two had fought like cats and dogs all their lives, but this latest display had Gabe's face red with rage.
Early October, 2005
"Ma, I need you to pick up some stuff at the hardware store when you're in town today," Bobby Earl between spoonfuls of his morning grits.
"Bobby Earl," Sara chided him, "I don't know half of what you want me to pick up for you. Every time you give me a list, you send half of it back 'cause you said I got the wrong parts. You're gonna have to do your own shoppin' from now on."
"I cain't go into town," the boy complained. "Last time, everyone was lookin' at me funny-like, and some was makin' fun of my eyes."
"Well, we'll get you a pair of sunglasses to cover them," Sara countered.
"Ma, I aint never weared sunglasses in my life! If'n I start wearin' 'em now, everyone'll notice!"
"It's been a month since you been to town," Sara argued. "I bet everyone plumb forgot about your eyes. Now quit fussin'. You're goin' to town to get your own stuff."
An hour later, after helping his ma with dishes, Bobby Earl sat morosely in the pickup as Sara drove them into town, parking in front of the hardware store. Reluctantly, looking nervously around himself, Bobby Earl walked in, with his ma right behind him.
"Hey, Bobby Earl," Mr. William said cheerfully. "Ain't seen you in a spell."
Bobby Earl flinched. "Yeah, I been a little busy with ... you know."
Mr. Williams chuckled. "Ain't nobody here but us chickens," he said. "Tom and Rick is over at the senior center gettin' breakfast."
"It's almost lunchtime!" Bobby Earl noted, surprised. Inwardly, he relaxed; Mr. Williams and his two friends Tom and Rick were among the few in town who didn't treat him suspiciously because his eyes had changed color.
"Yeah, well they's busy every mornin' late. I figger they's both tryin' to get old lady Smith's eye. Lou left her a bunch of money when he passed, and ...."
Sara and Bobby Earl both laughed. The two semi-retired older men were looking for an easy ride for the rest of their days, and marrying the closest thing these parts had to a rich widow was a ticket to easy street. Or at least easier street.
"What are you messin' with, anyway?" Mr. Wilson asked. "Your ma's been pickin' up all kinds of odd parts fer you lately. Half of it don't seem like stuff you'd use in a still."
Bobby Earl smiled. "I got me a couple of ideas," he said, "and they's workin' out pretty good. I figgered out a way to get better stuff out of the spout, and I rigged in a filter so it comes out nice and clean. And I'm doin' a 'speriment with tappin' off the lower-purity stuff and puttin' it through some charred oak to make sippin' whiskey."
Mr. Williams frowned. "That's gotta age for a couple years," he cautioned the boy. "I don't think you're gonna be agin' whiskey for that long."
The boy chuckled. "Well, now, that's what most people think. I'm pretty sure I figgered out a way to do the same thing as all that agin', bit without havin' to wait so long'."
Mr. Williams chuckled. "Yeah, right. Even your grandpappy couldn't do somethin' like that, and he was the best moonshiner this state has ever seen."
Bobby Earl frowned unhappily. "I _know_ I can make it," he reasserted. "I'll prove it when I make a batch."
"We'll see, son," Mr. Williams said condescendingly. "We'll see. Now, what can I help you with today?"
The boy seemed to have already forgotten the older man's mocking challenge. "I ain't too sure, so I'll have to wander around 'til I find all the stuff I need."
Mr Williams gave Sara a wink. "You keep on like this and I'll have to get one of them fancy shopping buggies for you to haul all your stuff."
"That ain't funny," Bobby Earl groused. "I probably been your best customer for the past couple of months."
"Yeah, that's true," the storeowner said. "I was just teasin'."
Bobby Earl suddenly grinned, indicating that the slight was already forgotten, if it had ever been anything more than an act on his part. "I know. If'n I thought you was serious, I wouldn't be payin' you with my best stuff." He turned and strode down the familiar aisles, while his mom sighed and sat down on one of the stools by the counter.
"What's he lookin' for today?"
Sara shrugged. "Dunno. You know how he is - sometimes he takes a couple of minutes, and sometime, it takes him an hour or more."
Mr. Williams wrinkled his forehead. "Doesn't he have some kind of plan? His grandpappy always sketched up somethin' before he came."
"Nope. He don't seem to need one," Sara replied, looking down the aisle where the boy was rummaging through plumbing fittings like a kid in a toy store. "I think he just sees what he's gonna do in his head." She shook her head, giving a single chuckle. "Funny thing - sometimes he changes his mind while he's pickin' out stuff."
"Yeah, I noticed that," Mr. Williams said. "I wonder ...," he said, his voice trailing off.
"Wonder what?" Sara asked.
"Oh, I was just thinkin'," he replied with a faraway look in his eyes. "When I was in the army, my unit had a kid that was just' like that."
"Yeah. Turned out he was a mutant. Somethin' called a devisor," Mr. Williams mused. "He acted the same way - he'd look at piles of parts, and pull things out at random, and then he'd make the strangest things that we all swore couldn't never work, but they always did."
"You're not sayin' that Bobby Earl's a mutant, are you?" Sara asked defensively, her eyes narrowed.
Mr. Williams shrugged. "I dunno. They say sometimes a mutant's eyes change color, and that's what happened to Bobby Earl, isn't it? And he's taken quite a hankerin' to fiddlin' with Old Joe's still, hasn't he?"
"But ... a mutant?" Sara asked, her mouth open in shock.
"Folks is already talkin', sayin' your boy _is_ one, and you both now they ain't takin' too kindly to the thought," Mr. Williams said softly.
Sara nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I know. Every one of his friends 'cept Becky don't want nothin' t' do with him, callin' him names, tryin' t' start fights."
"Back when I was in the army, there was a lot of mutant kids around, and mostly, nobody said much." He shrugged. "Yeah, there was hotheads, and such, but you always get them. I suspect that most folks around here wouldn't care much one way or t'other, but they's a few bigots."
Sara snorted. "Yeah, like Gabe Norton."
"That boy ain't got the sense God gave a fence post," Mr. Williams chuckled.
Boy never did like Bobby Earl, and since Becky Caldwell is payin' attention t' my boy, Gabe's awful mad," she snorted. "How would we find out?" Sara continued. "If he's a mutant, I mean."
"Well," Mr. Williams thought a moment as the boy carried some assorted tubing and fittings to the counter. He was so preoccupied with his shopping that he didn't see the two adults staring at him with concern. Once the boy had disappeared down another aisle, he continued, "you might could get him tested at a military base. Or maybe in Charlotte, if there's a superhero group there. Or there's MCO offices in Charlotte and Nashville, I think."
Once he'd finished shopping, Bobby Earl put his purchases in the truck, and then, glancing around slipped around behind the hardware store. No sooner had he rounded the corner than he found himself wrapped in a pair of arms as lips eagerly sought to kiss him. Not being a fool, Bobby Earl kissed back.
"I miss you bein' in school," Becky complained when the kiss ended.
"You're gonna get in trouble for playin' hooky!" Bobby Earl chided her.
"Don't matter none. Not if'n I get some kissin' out of it," the girl teased back. "But if'n you was in school, we could kiss a lot more 'tween classes and such."
"I know," Bobby Earl answered, for once genuinely regretting dropping out - not because of schooling, but because he'd see Becky more often.
"Cain't you come t' town this weekend?" Becky pleaded. "It ain't easy sneakin' away from school t' see you."
Bobby Earl sighed. "Gabe's got folk riled up that I'm sick or somethin'," he explained. "Folk are afraid of me 'cause of my eyes."
"They'll forget about that!"
The boy shook his head. "Ain't likely. Not with Gabe runnin' around stirrin' up everyone." He kissed the girl once more. "Now, you better git on back t' school, 'fore you get in trouble."
Becky gave him one more kiss, and then turned away toward the school, pausing to look over her shoulder. "Y' goin' t' take me fer a picnic this weekend?" she asked.
"Yup," Bobby Earl answered with a grin. He watched her walk away, and then turned back toward the street. His mom was probably waiting for him already, and would worry or fuss if he was too late.
The flying tackle came without warning, and Bobby Earl was pinned beneath a boy about his own age, but slightly taller. The boy swung to hit Bobby Earl, but the boy on the bottom ducked and blocked everything the other boy threw at him.
"Gabe, what the hell is wrong with you?" Bobby Earl yelled at his assailant.
"Keep your filthy mutant hands off her, y'hear?" Gabe Norton screamed as he continued to try to hit Bobby Earl. "We don't like your kind, so git on home and never come back here!"
Mr. Williams had heard the commotion and yelling inside the store, and he came running. As soon as he saw what was happening, he pulled Gabe off of Bobby Earl, holding the irrational boy as he struggled to resume his attack. "Stop!" Mr. Williams commanded in a very authoritative voice. When Gabe seemed to be a bit calmer, Mr. Williams continued, "What the hell is goin' on here?"
That spurred a flurry of arguments about who started the altercation, which Mr. Williams shouted to end.
"He tackled me, fer no reason," Bobby Earl shot. "Then he kept tryin' t' hit me."
"Lying mutant!" Gabe screamed back. "He attacked me with his mutant powers, and I was defendin' myself!"
"I ain't no mutant!" Bobby Earl hissed angrily.
"Y' got mutant eyes!" Gabe screamed in response. "You're a mutant, and everyone knows it."
Mr. Williams hauled Gabe to the street in front of his store. "You're supposed t' be in school," he chided the boy angrily. "I'm gonna call the principal t' let her know you was skippin' school, and startin' fights!"
Gabe tried to compose himself. "Go ahead. She'll believe me 'stead of a mutie-boy!" He turned and marched off with as much arrogance as he could muster.
Sara and Bobby Earl emerged from the alleyway beside the store, with the boy still dusting himself off. Bobby Earl snorted and shook his head at the sight of Gabe Norton's back. "Ain't got the brains of a mouse turd."
"Yeah," Sara agreed, "but he's stirrin' up a heap o' trouble fer you."
Mid October, 2005
Bobby Earl tried not to slam the door of his mom's pickup as he slipped out. No sense attracting unwanted attention - not since many people had taken a dislike to him because they feared he was a mutant. He slipped into the hardware store, glancing around nervously.
"No-one here but us," Mr. Williams said to ease Bobby Earl's fears. For the past few weeks, the hostility and suspicion directed his way had been increasing. Friends crossed the street to avoid him, or directly bullied him.
"What'cha got today, Bobby Earl?" Tom asked from his usual stool in Mr. Williams' hardware store.
Bobby Earl grinned at Tom and his friend Rick, the two fixtures of the counter - except at breakfast time. He pulled a small bottle out of his pocket, glancing around. "Give this a try," he said.
Tom twisted off the cap and gave a sniff of the amber liquid inside the bottle. "Smells okay," he said. "What is it?"
Bobby Earl shrugged. "See if'n you can guess."
Tom glanced at Rick, and then back at the boy. "Here goes nothin'," he said, tilting back the bottle and taking a sip. Slowly his eyes widened as the fiery liquid warmed his stomach. His eyes rolled upward, and he had a strange expression.
"Tom?" Rick called in alarm. "You okay?"
Tom sighed, and the corners of his lips turned up in a smile. "Boy," he said, fighting a grin, "this is _good_! Better'n anythin' your grandpappy ever made."
Rick snatched the bottle from Tom's hand and took a sip himself. He had a similar reaction. "Where'd you get this?"
Bobby Earl grinned. "Batch I made up t'other day," he answered.
Mr. Williams took the bottle and took a sip himself. "No way!" he protested. "This is good sippin' bourbon. Ain't no way you made this and aged it a few days ago!"
Bobby Earl just shrugged. "Well, I did."
"How?" the three older men asked as one.
"I figured out a way to make a batch age in a few hours instead of a few years," the boy answered.
Mr. Williams frowned. "How? That ain't possible!"
"I made me a long filter tube with some charred oak in it, and a couple metal screens, and, well, it just works."
"Okay," Mr. Williams said hesitantly. "But where'd you get the recipe for the mash?"
Bobby Earl shrugged. "I kinda snuck into Pa's old stash of sippin' whiskey. Didn't take but two or three tastes, and I knew 'xactly what t' put in the mash."
Mr. Williams exchanged glances with Tom and Rick. "Wait there a second," he told the boy before ducking into the back of his shop. Right behind the shop was his trailer, where he rummaged through his small stash of liquor. Extracting a bottle like a prize, he smiled and walked back into the store. "Here," he said, holding out the bottle to the boy, "do you think you can make a batch that tastes like this?"
Bobby Earl uncapped the bottle and sniffed it. "What is it?"
"Let's try t' see if you can make it without me tellin' you what it is," the shopkeeper said. "D'you think you can make it?"
With a shrug, the boy took a sip and rolled it around in his mouth. One eye closed as he thought, and he wrinkled his face in concentration. After a few seconds, he repeated the process, and as the amber liquid rolled around in his mouth, he started to nod. "Sure, Mr. Williams," he said after swallowing. "Ain't no problem. I can bring you a batch next Monday if'n I can find some sugar maple."
"Monday?" the men asked, astonished. "It'll take four or five days just to cook and ferment ..."
Bobby Earl shook his head, wrinkling his nose. "Nope. I figgered a way to cook and ferment the mash in a few hours 'stead of a few days." He smiled broadly. "Get more out of the mash, too. And I end up with more liquor."
"But ... runnin' it through the still? And filterin' it?"
"One of the doohickeys I added to the still will do a batch in a few hours 'stead of havin' t' tend the still for days. Shouldn't take me more'n a couple of days to make up a batch for you. How much you want? Couple of gallons?"
"Sure," Mr. Williams said. Smiling, the boy wandered back into the store in search of more hardware in what was becoming a weekly ritual.
"Somethin' wrong with that boy," Tom said after taking another sip from the bottle.
"Maybe, but he makes damned good 'shine," Rick agreed. "Better'n his grandpappy."
"And if he can make whiskey and bourbon," Mr. Williams added, "_I_ sure ain't gonna do anythin' to discourage him."
"What'd you give him to try makin'?" Rick asked.
"Tennessee whiskey," the storekeeper answered. "Did y' notice - he knew straightaway that he'd need t' filter it in sugar maple."
Tom shook his head. "Boy's a mutant or alien or somethin'," he declared. "He ain't normal."
Rick nodded. "Probably one of those mutants like everyone is sayin'," he said, nodding. "But I ain't tellin' no-one. Not as long as he keeps givin' us hooch."
"Amen to that, brother," Mr. Williams said with feeling. "Amen."
Behind the store, Bobby Earl stood in Becky's embrace, enjoying the kiss she was giving him. Everyone else in the town might be an asshole, but Becky was friendly enough. More than friendly enough, he thought to himself with a grin.
"There's the mutant!" the kissing couple heard yelled from a ways off.
Bobby Earl and Becky turned toward the noise, and she gasped when she saw Gabe and two of his friends running toward them, their faces contorted with rage and hatred. "Go!" Becky urged Bobby Earl with a push. "Get out of here 'fore they hurt you."
Bobby Earl paused a moment, staring at the oncoming boys, before he turned and sprinted around the store, into the main street. Turning, he ran toward the edge of town. From the shouts and yelling, he knew that Gabe was still chasing him, so he continued to run, surprised that he wasn't tiring. The boy chuckled to himself; he knew he could run faster than Gabe, and much further; hiking up and down mountains every day had given him good stamina. Shaking his head, he continued to run for over half a mile before his pursuers gave up.
October, 2005, a week later.
Whistling happily, with a box of mason jars, Bobby Earl let his feet dance across the fallen debris on the floor of the wooded hillside. It wasn't steep, and since he'd been on these mountains since he was walking, he was a sure-footed as a mountain goat, even with a boxful of liquor balanced on his shoulder.
The boy had had a good couple of days of experimenting; it took almost a dozen small test batches until he had the grain mixture balanced properly, and then he had to fiddle with the strength at which he put it into his 'aging filter'. More fiddling adjusted the output strength of the beverage, but at the end, he was certain that he had matched the sample that Mr. Williams had given him.
Fortunately for Bobby Earl, he'd decided some time before that he should make a small-scale fermenting tub and still, so he _could_ experiment much more easily, and while the main still was busily distilling a batch of plain 'shine.
Something raised the hairs on Bobby Earl's neck, causing the boy to pause and look around, both puzzled and concerned. There was something out of place, something that felt ....
Not quite understanding why, Bobby Earl dropped to crouch behind the cover of an ancient tree stump, but had only moved a few inches when the jars inside the box shattered, the supersonic crack of a bullet barely audible above the noise of the breaking glass. Hydraulic shock transmitted easily from one jar to another, until by the time the boy was behind cover, only three jars remained unbroken inside the whiskey-smelling container of shards of wet glass.
"Dammit!" Bobby Earl said loudly in frustration. "You done ruin't a good batch!" he snapped out as he looked around the tree stump in the direction the echoing of the rifle report seemed to indicate was the origin of the shot. He ducked back again, before another bullet dug into the tree stump, sending a shower of wooden splinters flying.
Bobby Earl set the remains of the box on the ground so he could think. Whoever was shooting at him was most likely on the other side of the small valley he was descending toward. It would be an awkward shot, he realized as he thought of what he'd have done, but definitely not impossible, nor, for kids as young as ten, particularly difficult. Kids in these parts hunted rabbits and squirrels practically from the time they could walk.
The big question was _who_ would be shooting at him. He figured it wouldn't be a revenuer; they usually carried only handguns, which wouldn't have been useful at these distances, and they almost never shot before trying to make an arrest. Besides, they preferred to catch and arrest people so they could haul their suspects in front of the public to make examples of them so as to deter others - not that _that_ ever worked. Revenuers just didn't understand hill folk. But other federal agents?
The boy quickly discounted that possibility. He knew from years of experience that the bullet which had struck the tree was 30 caliber or so from the way it had splintered the dead wood, but most of the feds carried that wimpy little .223 rifle, which was useless for critters like bear and big deer - and people. On top of that, the dinky bullets were easily deflected by underbrush. Even though the feds had bigger guns, in hilly and mountainous terrain, they _hated_ carrying anything big and heavy. Except the military, and the military had no reason to be in the woods shooting at a teenage boy.
That left someone local, which mean the shooter mostly likely had a bolt action gun, or, more likely, a lever-action 30/30. Bobby Earl had a healthy respect for what a decent marksman could do with a 30/30; he had to get some distance between him and the shooter before he was out of danger. He carefully pulled the intact jars of liquor from the box, and as silently as he could, tipped the glass out onto the ground, leaving the box empty. Looking around quickly, he decided on the path he was going to take, and after taking a deep breath, he hurled the box from behind the tree in the opposite direction.
As soon as he heard the crack of the rifle, he bolted toward a small outcropping of rocks, which he dove behind, moments before a second shot splattered off the rocks near him. There was no doubt that whoever was shooting at him was very _deliberately_ shooting at him, and hadn't mistaken him somehow for some animal being hunted.
While Bobby Earl may not have been the brightest bulb in the classroom, he was full of woods-smarts, and he started putting them to use. If someone was hunting him, it was time to turn the tables. What his pursuer may not have known was that the outcropping Bobby Earl was behind fell off to the rear, allowing the boy to scamper, unseen, down the mountain and around a large bluff. He used that to clamber quickly up the mountain, and then patiently, slowly worked his way back to where he could see down on where he'd been, and across to where the shooter must have been.
Presently, he saw a figure moving across the narrow valley, and as the figure, gun slung over his shoulder, trudged down the mountain, Bobby Earl did the same on the opposite side. He _knew_ where the figure was headed - to his home; Bobby Earl had to get there first.
Fifteen minutes later, as a boy with a rifle slung over his shoulder rounded a shed, a fist met his jaw.
"Damn you, Gabe!" Bobby Earl swore, grabbing the gun from off the other boy's shoulder as the recipient of the fist fell to the ground, "What the hell is wrong with you, shootin'' at me and all?"
"Bobby Earl!" the boy protested as he sprawled on his butt. "What ... what are you talkin' 'bout?"
"You, you asshole," Bobby Earl snarled. "What the hell is with you, shootin' at me and ruinin' a perfectly good batch of 'shine?" He hurled the gun away from the two and stood over the one on the ground menacingly.
"Shootin' at you?" Gabe protested weakly. "I was just up huntin' some rabbits."
"You never was a good liar," Bobby Earl snapped.
"If'n I was tryin' to shoot you," the boy on the ground said angrily, "you wouldn't be walkin'."
"Bullshit!" Bobby Earl scoffed. "You cain't hit a barn from inside the darned thing!"
"You stay away from Becky," Gabe snarled as he tried to get to his feet.
Bobby Earl rolled his eyes. "What the hell has Becky got to do with anythin'?"
"She's _my_ girl!"
"She ain't your girl," Bobby Earl laughed. "And she ain't my girl, neither."
"Why is she goin' to the dance with you and not with me, then?"
"Because her pa is hopin' I'll bring a little 'shine for him when I pick her up for the dance," Bobby Earl explained. "Don't take no rocket scientist t' figger out that much!"
"So why are you goin' with her, then?"
"You idiot!" Bobby Earl chuckled. "'Cause she's purty, that's why! And she kisses real n nice. Sheesh, ya' think I'm one of them gay boys or somethin'?"
Gabe frowned. "No," he said firmly. "I think you're one of them mutants," he snapped. "You and them weird eyes of yours. Everyone knows you're one of them."
Bobby Earl's blood felt like it was freezing at Gabe's words. It had been several weeks since his eyes had changed color. "I ain't no mutant!"
"Yeah, you are," Gabe said, pulling himself to his feet and standing face-to-face with Bobby Earl. Gabe was a couple of inches taller, but wirier, so it wasn't clear which boy would come out on top if a fight started - as looked inevitable. "What'd you do, mutant boy? Use your mind rays t' control everyone so's they don't run you off? What d'ya think Becky's gonna say when she finds out you's a mutant? Bet she won't wanna kiss no more! Ain't no sensible girl want's t' kiss no filthy mutant!"
"You know I ain't a mutant! You take that back!"
"Or what? Gonna' fry me with your laser-beam eyes?"
"What do you think everyone's gonna say when I tell Sheriff Higgins that you was tryin' t' shoot me?" Bobby Earl asked.
"Go ahead and try," Gabe challenged him. "Now git off our property!"
Bobby Earl stared at the boy, and saw that Gabe was actually trembling with fear, despite his brave act. He spun and marched to the rifle, picking it up and hoisting in over his shoulder.
"Hey, leave my gun!" Gabe protested, running toward his rival, but as soon as Bobby Earl turned his head to glare at Gabe, he froze.
"So's you can shoot me in the back when I walk off?" Bobby Earl demanded. "Ain't likely. Ma didn't raise no fool." He strode back the way he'd come. "I'll leave your gun by the mailbox by the road."
"This ain't over, Bobby Earl!" Gabe called out after him.
"Bobby Earl!" Sara called out, walking quickly out of the fenced-in garden plot toward the man striding through what was left of a hard winter's snow, and up their driveway. "We got company again." As she closed the garden gate, she heard the screen door slam.
"Good morning, ma'am," the man said as he neared Sara. Unlike the others who'd been giving them grief for the past couple of weeks, this man wasn't wearing a dark suit like a revenuer, but was instead wearing dockers and a knit polo shirt under a casual - but warm - jacket; after all, early spring in the hills could get a bit chilly.
"What do you want?" Sara demanded impatiently.
"You don't have time to say good morning?" the man asked with a pleasant smile.
"We're busy, and don't take kindly to no trespassers," Sara replied. She glanced over her shoulder, reassured at the sight of Bobby Earl on the porch with a rifle held casually. Looks were deceiving; if trouble threatened, Bobby Earl could shoot the eye out of a squirrel at eighty yards before a man could blink twice.
"I don't mean to cause any trouble," the man said. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Larry Easterbrook."
"You're more polite than most revenuers," Sara answered, still not smiling. "Now you've spoke a piece, so git."
"Trust me, ma'am," Mr. Easterbrook said easily, "I'm not a federal agent."
"Why should I trust you?" Sara asked cautiously. "Had more'n our share of revenuers snoopin' around, trespassin', knockin' down fences, leavin' gates open."
"Fair enough," the man said disarmingly. "I guess you _don't_ have reason to trust me, or any other strangers."
"State your bizness and git."
"I hope after hearing what I have to say that you'll be a little more hospitable."
Mr. Easterbrook smiled. "I hear talk in town about a boy who's got a gift for making liquor."
Sara frowned. "That'd be agin' the law," she said flatly. "Why would we do somethin' like that?"
"Lots of folk up these ways make their own moonshine." Mr. Easterbrook smiled. "It's not for me to say whether it's right or wrong."
"So what _are_ you doin' up here then?"
"My company likes to poke around the hills from time to time," he replied easily. "We were, apparently, a little too late to find a world-class moonshining genius in these parts. An older gentleman that most folks called Old Joe."
Sara frowned deeply at that. "I heard of him," she said cautiously.
"Well, guys like him can bring something special to the distilling industry, especially to smaller companies like mine. We often find tricks and recipes in these hills that are, to be honest, very marketable."
"So you're lookin' to find someone you can take advantage of. Find someone with a good recipe, give 'em peanuts, and then make a fortune off of it with your company, is that it?"
Mr. Easterbrook smiled thinly. "Well, ma'am, that's how _most_ companies operate. They get a little greedy and try to steal what rightfully belongs to the inventor."
"I told you, we ain't got nothin' you'd be interested in," Sara said firmly, indicating by posture, expression, and tone of voice that she was done with the conversation.
"Well, that's not what I hear," Mr. Easterbrook said with a smile. "To start with, I understand that Old Joe was your father."
"Maybe. What's it to you?" Sara asked warily. This man was visibly making her nervous.
Easterbrook smiled. "My company spent two years chasing through the hills trying to find him. As I understand it, he was a genius with the still. Wily old fox, too."
"I wouldn't know."
"Let me put my cards on the table," Easterbrook began.
"I heard tales about a moonshiner in these parts who's a genius with the still, even better than Old Joe. Word is he's got some gadgets or inventions that let him make bourbon that tastes like it's been aged for years."
Sara schooled her expression to avoid giving away anything. "Sounds impossible."
Easterbrook chuckled. "Yeah, it does. Except for the other rumors."
"Yeah," The man glanced at Bobby Earl on the porch. "Some folks in town were talking about a boy who was practically living in the hardware store, right up until he got chased out of town for being a mutant."
Sara stilled her heart. "Oh? That sounds like a wild tale made up by a bunch of kids with a grudge. Or adults."
"Or it's true, and the kid _is_ a mutant." Easterbrook smiled. "A special type of mutant called a devisor."
"What's a ... devisor?"
Easterbrook chuckled. "A devisor makes things with his or her mutant powers that _can't_ work, or shouldn't work. But they do. The thing about a devisor is that what they make is impossible, and nobody can recreate it, but it works for the one who made it."
Sara snorted derisively. "Sounds like some kinda kook story, if'n you ask me."
"Well, it's too bad that you two don't know anything about it," the man said with a sad smile. "If this boy is really as good as the folks around here claim, he could make a fortune. Even if they are devises and not something he could patent." He grinned. "Especially because he can't patent them. Nobody could steal his inventions." He nodded. "I guess I'll be going then. If you _do_ hear anything ...." He pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Sara before turning and ambling back down the driveway.
After he was out of sight, Sara climbed up on the front porch and sat down, gesturing for Bobby Earl to sit as well. "You heard?" she asked simply.
"I dunno," Bobby Earl said slowly, reaching under his chair for a small jar, which he uncapped and sipped from. He passed the container to his mother. "He ain't a revenuer."
"How can you be sure?" Sara asked before she sipped.
"When he was talkin', I didn't get no tinglin' in my head, like I did with all them revenuers that been pokin' around for the last few weeks," Bobby Earl said plainly. "I dunno how, but I could just tell they was up to no good." He thought a second. "Kinda like the day last fall wne Gabe was shootin' at me."
Sara frowned. "Good thing he wasn't tryin' to hit you."
Bobby Earl shook his head. "I think he was, Ma," he replied slowly. "He's a better shot than most people 'round these parts give him credit for, even if he is dumber than a stump. If I hadn't had the tinglin', he'd have drilled me square in my head."
"You didn't tell me that," Sara chided him.
Bobby Earl shrugged. "Wouldn't do no good if'n I had. He got everyone all fired up agin' me 'cause I'm a mutant. Runnin' around spreadin' lies that I'm dangerous and I attacked him. I bet that li'l asshole is why revenuers are comin' 'round so much. He prob'ly called 'em on us."
"Well, he done messed up your life." Sara shook her head sadly. "And mine, too, I figger. I cain't get the stuff you want in the hardware store."
Bobby Earl flinched. "Sorry, Ma," he apologized. "I try to tell you what I need, but sometimes ... I don't know myself until I'm lookin' at it."
"So what do you think?"
"I dunno," the boy said with a shrug. "We ain't getting' rich sellin 'shine," he said morosely. "Not since folk quit buyin' it after all them rumors started. We had a tough winter, and people ain't buyin' as much 'shine 'cause they're scared of me. Woudn't hurt t' see what he's got t' say, I s'pose." He looked at his mom. "Do ya trust him?"
Sara sighed. "Ain't really trusted no man since ... since your Pa left."
"I ... I get the feelin' that Mr. Easterbrook's okay. Maybe we should talk a bit more t' see what he's got t' say." Bobby Earl smiled at his mom. "Why don't you run into town t' see if you can catch him? I'll tend t' the garden while you're gone."
"I wish Gabe woulda kept his mouth shut," Sara said, her voice sad. "I wanted you t' get a education like I never got. Like Grandpappy never got neither. Now, that ain't very likely, is it?" She took the jar and had another sip of liquor before pulling herself out of her chair. "I'll see if'n I cain't find him. At least we can listen."
"Yeah, I suppose."
Late March 2006
"Is all this necessary?" Mr. Easterbrook asked as Sara tied a blindfold over his eyes.
"What do you think?" Bobby Earl asked wryly. "I ain't takin' you up there without bein' careful."
"I feel a little naked without my cell phone," Easterbrook joked.
"Too many gadgets," Sara chided him. "You forget how to be sociable-like with real people."
"Yeah, maybe. Okay, I'm all blindfolded and stuff. Now what? You going to tie me up and haul me there all trussed up?"
Bobby Earl laughed. "Nope. Too much work. If you wanna see, you gotta work a bit fer it."
Thirty minutes later, including a few stops to make sure they weren't being followed on their very circuitous route, Bobby Earl led Easterbrook into the cave. Once the curtain was closed and the lantern lit, he took off Easterbrook's blindfold.
"Well, here's my little playroom," Bobby Earl said with a smile.
Easterbrook didn't reply, because he was stunned, looking around the cave at the assortment of gadgets and equipment. The still was recognizable - barely - inside a tangle of tubes and pipes, with some strange fixture arranged on its output spout.
"What the heck is _that_ thing?" Easterbrook asked in astonishment as he stared at a very strange vat with all kinds of tubes and pipes in and around it.
Bobby Earl shrugged nonchalantly, as if the answer was patently obvious. "That's my fermentin' tank," he said.
"It's boiling - like a coffee pot!"
"Well, yeah, it's fermentin' a batch right now." Bobby Earl looked at an improvised sight glass made of clear plastic tubing and mounted on the side of the vat. "This batch should be almost done." He frowned. "I'm not too happy with it, though. The mash don't taste quite right. Got a couple of ideas 'bout how to make it better." His frown deepened. "Might take a pinch longer to ferment the mash, though."
"How long does it take you to ferment a batch?" Easterbrook asked hesitantly. At the rate the vat was bubbling, he was certain it couldn't take long.
"Never timed it," Bobby Earl said, staring at the apparatus. "But I ain't never had a batch take more'n a few hours." He shook his head, wrinkling his nose at it. "I know - it takes too long." Then a grin crept over his face. "But it's a darn sight better'n when I started. On Grandpappy' old rig, it took dang near a week t' cook and ferment a batch of mash."
"And that ... thing?" Easterbrook pointed at the strange, large horizontal tubes with copper coiled tightly about them, hanging off the end of the still.
"Oh that? That's my whiskey-makin' rig," Bobby Earl said, bored at explaining what was, to him, obvious.
"How does it work?"
"It'd be better t' show you, but I got set up for a plain batch of 'shine, so let me show you on my test rig." He turned to a small workbench that was cluttered with gear.
"Can we start at the beginning, where you mash your grain, and you show me _every_ step of the process?"
Three hours later, having watched in astonishment as the boy ran a sample of mash through his small-scale test still, Mr. Easterbrook was shaking his head. "That _can't_ work!" he exclaimed softly. "None of this can! The laws of physics and chemistry say it's not possible."
"Good thing I ain't never read them laws," Bobby Earl said with a grin.
Easterbrook watched the amber liquid dripping from the test still and whiskey rig. "This is impossible - except for a devisor." He held his finger in the trickling stream of whiskey for a moment and put the drop of liquid on his tongue. "This is better than the bourbon we age for over five years!" He thought a moment. "Can I take ... a sample back to my company?" he asked.
"I want our professional whiskey distillers to taste this." He glanced around the cave. "I can see from your workbench that you can make the rig smaller, but can you make it bigger?"
"Bigger? Probably. How big?"
"Your still produces, what, two or three gallons at a time?"
Bobby Earl nodded. "At least four. Takes a few hours - less'n a day. Sometimes more if'n it's too chilly." He chuckled. "When I started, it took dang near two days t' distill a batch."
"Could you make a rig that would fit on a still that produces twenty to thirty gallons an hour?"
Bobby Earl looked at the ceiling, scratching his chin. "I dunno," he said after a moment's thought. "I guess I'd have to see the still first."
"And that, gentlemen, is what this young man can do with a still," Mr. Easterbrook said, concluding his talk. Around him, two master distillers gazed at the boy, one with disbelief, and the other warily. Four other men, executives of the small distillery, sat at the table as well, listening intently as they stared at Bobby Earl, who was seated to Mr. Easterbrook's right.
"It doesn't sound right," one of the distillers said. "I've been distilling bourbon for thirty years, and this ... this sounds impossible."
"Well, Fred," Mr. Easterbrook said easily, "I didn't believe it either, until I saw it, and more importantly, _tasted_ the product." He looked to the side, where an intern sat next to a tray. "Javier, could you please serve the beverages?"
"Yes, sir," the intern said, leaping to his feet. Picking up the tray, he circled the table, pausing to set it down so he could put two cups in front of each of the gentlemen. As he came past Mr. Easterbrook, he shook his head, waving the intern on, but Bobby Earl put up his hand, finger raised, to signal the intern.
The intern's eyes widened, and then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but it's against the law to serve minors."
Sara lowered her head, shaking it as she chuckled under her breath, knowing what was to come.
"'Scuse me," Bobby Earl said, "but I _made_ this, part of it, anyway. If'n you ain't gonna let me have a drink, I might as well not bother."
"Serve him," Mr. Easterbrook chuckled.
Shrugging, the intern put two cups in front of Bobby Earl, each containing a shot of bourbon. The only markings on the cups were the letters A and B. He continued until every person had a pair of cups.
"Gentlemen, one of these cups has a sample of our best five-year aged bourbon. The other has a sample of what Bobby Earl made last week in his ... special ... still."
"That won't be any contest," one of the distillers scoffed.
"Fred, Even I don't know which is which, and the bottles Javier poured from are unmarked," Mr. Easterbrook continued, a sly grin on his face. He held up an envelope. "The answer as to which is which is sealed in here, so we have a true double-blind experiment here."
The men looked uneasily at the glasses, until the distiller Fred picked up his "A" cup, sniffed, and then took a small sip, rolling the liquid in his mouth to release the aromas before letting it slide down his throat. After a bit, he repeated the process with the "B" cup.
After watching the master distiller sample the beverages, the other men sampled the beverages themselves. Bobby Earl sampled them, too, but he just downed the shots the way it was done in westerns, following which he sat back, content.
"A is definitely our aged bourbon," the distiller said firmly. "I can detect a bit of smoky taste from aging, and it's a little smoother. There's no contest in quality."
"I'd have to agree," the other master distiller echoed. "Our bourbon is A." One by one, the other gentlemen at the table agreed.
"Let's find out, shall we?" Mr. Easterbrook opened the envelope and took out a card. After reading it, he started chuckling.
"Gentlemen, you unanimously picked the bourbon that was made in this young man's still and aging apparatus _last week_!" He held the card for those around the table to see.
"Impossible!" Fred and the other distiller said in disbelief. "That bourbon is finely aged. It _can't_ have been made last week!"
Mr. Easterbrook looked like the cat who'd eaten the canary. "Bobby Earl, why don't you go to the whiteboard and sketch what you've done to your still?"
Four hours later, after much arguing among the executives about how totally impossible it was that the rig on the whiteboard could work, an argument that had Sara getting more and more upset by the hour, Bobby Earl simply shrugged. "That's what I did with my still," he declared. "If'n you don't believe me, then maybe I should go somewhere where folk _will_."
"There's a simple explanation for why this does what the young man says," Mr. Easterbrook said, looking squarely at the two master distillers.
"And that is?"
"This young man has to be a devisor, a special mutant who can make things work _outside_ the normal laws of physics and chemistry."
"That's ruin our sales with Humanity First and the Goodkinds," one of the executives said with a scowl.
"And that's how much of our sales?" Easterbrook asked with a knowing smile. "Is it enough to offset a ten to twelve percent increase in volume?"
"We can't _get_ that volume increase," Fred complained. "Our stills are running at maximum capacity."
"They are now. If we install this young man's devises on our stills, they would operate fifty to sixty percent faster, with around a ten percent improvement in yield."
"So is making a batch of bourbon a week ago that tastes better than our finest aged beverage," Easterbrook replied.
The men murmured among themselves for several minutes before Easterbrook interrupted. "If this young man's devises work, we should be able to easily improve our volume and quality. I think it's worth giving him a chance."
"What are you suggesting?" asked one man, an older, white-haired gentleman who, based on the way the others deferred to him, was a very senior executive.
"We brought the young man's 'test' equipment down her for a demonstration. If, after that demonstration, our master distillers think it's worth a large-scale trial, we can have the boy modify _one_ of our stills. I think we should also experiment with using his 'aging filter' on some of our existing product, to see if it will improve the quality of what we've already produced. If either experiment is successful, we should be able to increase sales either in volume, or because of improved quality, or both."
Fifteen minutes later, having reached a consensus of sorts, the men - and Sara - walked out to the distillation room. As the master explained the still, Bobby Earl interrupted him frequently, asking serious questions about why they were doing things one way versus another, and what the limits were on each still. It quickly became apparent to all that Bobby Earl knew what he was talking about when it came to distillation. Maybe not the fancy technical jargon, but the common-sense know-how of how stills worked.
"Well, think you can do it?" Mr. Easterbrook asked, standing with Sara, Bobby Earl, and the two master distillers in front of a large commercial still. The strong smell of sour mash permeated the room, making Bobby Earl feel right at home.
"Which part?" Bobby Earl asked, staring at the still. "Makin' the still run better, or puttin' on the agin' filter?"
Fred, having been converted from skeptic to believer, smiled. "You proved that your ... devise ... can make a beverage taste well-aged. I suggest we try that on the output of one of our stills, and also on some of our already-casked bourbon. Let's scale that one up for a still first. Then we can do a second phase where we try to improve the operation of stills themselves."
"If'n you do it right, you can go to a one-still process like I use," Bobby Earl interrupted. "That oughta save you time."
"Agreed. Can you do it?"
Bobby Earl shrugged. "I'm pretty sure I can. I might need a few parts and such."
Mr. Easterbrook laughed. "Get me a shopping list, and we'll get you started."
"And let's set up a workshop for this young man," the senior executive said. "If he's half as capable as what your little demo shows, I'd like to have him thinking up more gadgets and thingamabobs for our stills. And get legal to draw up a contract."
Sara's eyes narrowed. "What kind of contract?" she asked.
"A consultant's contract," the exec said with a shrug, indicating that, to him, it was no big deal.
"What'cha gonna put in it?"
The exec was suddenly wary. "Fees, use of our equipment for lab, reimbursement rate, who pays for experimental equipment. Non-compete clause."
"What's that non-compete thing?" Bobby Earl asked.
"A non-compete clause basically says that you won't work for, or in this case, install you equipment, for a competitor."
"What?" The execs around the table were astounded
"Ain't goin' t' sign anything that'll restrict who I sell to." Bobby Earl's stubborn streak was showing in full force.
"But ... it's standard," the exec stammered. "If we hire you to help us with our products, do you think we want you doing the same for a competitor? Thatd hurt our ... investment in your equipment."
Easterbrook was watching the boy intently, and after having spent a few days with him, was sure he understood the boy. "You can't blame him for wanting to make as much as he can from his devises," he explained to the exec. Then he turned to the boy and his mom. "Bobby Earl, I hope you understand our position. We're a minor brand, compared to the big boys like Jim Beam. Your devises will help us maintain, or even gain, market share. But if a major brand had the same devises, they have an advantage because of size and brand reputation."
Bobby Earl looked back and forth between Easterbrook and the senior executive. "I don't like you havin' a strangle-hold on me and Ma," he objected again.
"We seem to be at an impasse," the senior executive said with a scowl.
"But ...," Easterbrook said, his body posture and facial expression showing the classic 'eureka' moment. "We only make bourbon. But there are lots of other kinds of distilled beverages. What if we limited the non-compete to beverages we currently make and sell?"
The execs perked up at the suggestion. "Hmmm," the senior exec said, scratching his chin. "That might work." He thought a moment longer, and then looked straight at the boy. "But if you're using our facilities for your experimental work, I think it'd be fair for us to get a small percentage of any other products you make and install. Hmmm. Would thirty percent be acceptable?"
"That's almost a third," Bobby Earl said warily. "What about a tenth?"
"Twenty percent," came the counter-offer.
Bobby Earl glanced at his mom, and then back at the exec. "I think we can live with that."
The executives nodded with a smile. "I think we can live with that."
The senior exec continued, "We'll get our corporate lawyer to draw up a contract, then."
After the execs left, Sara looked at Easterbrook. "What's it mean that they's settin' up a workshop for Bobby Earl?"
"It means that he'll have access to any parts or technology or grains he needs to experiment."
"But ... don't that mean he'll have t' be close?"
"Well, yes," Easterbrook answered. "We'll get you two a house or an apartment in town so you won't have to commute back and forth to your cabin."
Sara's eyes widened. "But that's our home," she cried. "You're sayin' that we gotta leave it and move here?"
"It'll work out better. One thing is that the boy's experiments will be covered by our distillation license, so he won't have to worry about the feds."
"Yeah, but that' our _home_!" Sara protested ."And livin' in the city?"
Easterbrook chuckled. "And this isn't exactly a big city, like Nashville or Memphis."
"Yeah, but a 'partment? Where the heck can I do my gardening?"
"And where am I gonna' hunt critters fer food?"
Easterbrook gawked at him. "You get your food at the supermarket."
Sara frowned. "I ain't never got meat and veg'tables from no store," she protested.
"You'll get used to it." Easterbrook smiled, knowing he had one more trump card to play. "Besides, living in the city, you can make sure Bobby Earl gets to school. And we can get a tutor to help him with schoolwork if needed."
Sara looked warily at the boy, whose expression was indifferent. "Yeah, I s'pose that'd be a good thing. Ain't sure if it's worth leavin' our property."
"We'll have someone check in on your place from time to time to make sure no-one vandalizes anything." Inwardly, he was chuckling; he'd been to the cabin, and there wasn't anything _to_ vandalize. But he knew how attached folks in the hills were to their land, and he had to mollify Sara.
"We'll get one of our assistants to help you with shopping until you get used to it, and I would imagine you might like some clothes that are a little more suitable."
Sara's eyes narrowed. "What's wrong with our clothes?"
"Nothing," Easterbrook said quickly. "But people in the city dress a little differently than people in the hills." A thought occurred to him. "City kids dress differently at school. You don't want Bobby Earl to not fit in, do you?" he asked, turning up the charm. "And when you're out shopping, wouldn't you rather fit in?"
Sara frowned as she thought. "Yeah, but these is comfortable clothes. 'Sides, we got our 'Sunday-go-to-church' clothes if'n we need t' dress up."
"Well, we'll at least get something more suitable for Bobby Earl to go to school in." He was already thinking of an aide that he was _certain_ would make Sara competitive in the looks department, and would spur her into changing her attire to something less ... hillbilly.
"You want me t' do what?" Sara asked, astonished.
"I was hoping that we could go see a movie after dinner."
"But I didn't fix 'nuff for three people," Sara protested.
"I was planning to take you out to eat."
"In a rest'rant?" Sara's eyes bugged out. "Y'mean, pay someone t' cook food that I could just as well cook?" Her eyes narrowed. "What fer?"
"Well," Easterbrook said hesitantly, "you haven't really been out of the apartment except for grocery shopping ...."
"And I really hate that fancy supermarket," Sara commented acidly. "Ain't no tellin' how fresh the veg'tables are, and they ain't got no rabbit or squirrel. And the chicken costs so much, and it ain't very good. Not like the chickens we had back at our place."
"Well, if you want to go out tonight, you won't have to cook, and we can see a nice movie."
"Are you courtin' me?" Sara demanded, her eyes narrowed to suspicious slits.
Easterbrook's jaw flapped a couple of times. "No," he stammered. "Since I've been helping you and Bobby Earl with everything, I thought it would be a neighborly thing to treat you to a night out."
"But I gotta get food for Bobby Earl," Sara protested, looking for an excuse.
"Ma, the ice box is full of food, and that micro wave thingy heats things up real good, so I can fend for myself." Bobby Earl smiled. "You been takin' care of things without any rest. Go out and have fun. You earned it."
"Are you sure?" Sara asked the boy.
"Okay, but I gotta put on somethin' a little better'n what I'm wearing now."
"I'll wait." Easterbrook smiled to himself.
The wait took nearly an hour; when Sara emerged from her bathroom, she was very pretty. Easterbrook whistled appreciatively. "Wow!" he said. "You look ravishing."
Sara blushed. "This? Just a little somethin' I threw on."
Easterbrook gazed at the sight. As he had suspected, beneath her rough hillbilly exterior was a dazzling beauty. Rather than the simple country-girl ponytail she'd worn for so long, her dark tresses were layered and feathered, with highlights worked in. A little makeup went a long way, and the maroon dress she wore clung to her delightful figure. She - and the boy - had cleaned up nicely from their former rough appearance.
"It was worth the wait," Easterbrook said admiringly.
Bobby Earl shot Easterbrook an angry glare. "Don't you dare try nothin' funny with Ma," he said, his voice stern with warning. "Or I'll make sure y' regret it."
Easterbrook chuckled. "That's not even on my mind. Just a nice dinner and a movie."
Sara grabbed her jacket, and as she pulled it on, she shot Bobby Earl a strange look. If he hadn't know better, he'd have thought that his mom was angry at him about something.
Sara gazed around the large, decorated great room of Easterbrook's country estate, almost in awe. "You shouldn't have gone t' all this trouble on account of us," she said almost reverently.
Mr. Easterbrook smiled. "It wasn't any trouble. I like traditional Christmases, so I pay someone to help decorate the house." He noticed Sara wiping a tear from her eye. "Are you okay?"
"It's nothin'," she replied quickly. "Cept'n for missin' our simple decorations we always had at our place in the hills." She gazed upon the Christmas tree that reached nearly to the ceiling of the vaulted room in which they stood. Opposite the tree was a large fireplace, and three stockings were hanging.
"Ma," Bobby Earl said, looking at the hanging stockings, "these have your and my names on 'em!"
Sara turned to Mr. Easterbrook, a look of consternation spreading across her features, but he smiled disarmingly. "If you're guests in my house for Christmas, you _will_ have stockings hung by the fireplace. It _is_ traditional, after all."
"This is too much," Sara protested weakly.
"Let me help you take your bags to your rooms," Easterbrook suggested, "and then we can sit down for dinner. We'll have to leave in about an hour and a half for midnight church services." He smiled when he saw Sara frown. "And no, in answer to the question you're about to ask, it's a simple Baptist church, like you have in your home town."
They slept in a little the next morning, because church had run late, and they hadn't arrived back at the house until the wee hours, following which Mr. Easterbrook and Sara shared a toast to Christmas while Bobby Earl was napping on the couch from the long day.
After a light breakfast, which Sara prepared over Mr. Easterbrook's objections, they went back to the great room, and Mr. Easterbrook began to distribute presents.
"You oughtn't 'a gotten' nothin' for us," Sara protested again. "Wouldn't be fair, 'cause I didn't get you anythin'."
Mr. Easterbrook smiled. "Oh, yes you did. Bobby Earl's devises are working spectacularly well on the stills, and I got a nice little Christmas bonus from the company." He carried a box to Sara, and handed Bobby Earl an envelope. "Well," he urged when they sat, unmoving and staring at the presents in their hands, "go on. Open them."
Bobby Earl shrugged and opened the envelope, frowning as he extracted the contents. "It looks like some kinda bill," he said warily.
"No," Easterbrook grinned, "it's your latest bank statement. Look at it."
Bobby Earl looked back at the paper, and then his eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped. "You _cain't_ be serious!" he exclaimed.
"What?" Sara asked. In answer, Bobby Earl just held the statement out to his mom, whose own eyes bugged out when she read the figure.
"Is that a joke?" she asked.
Mr. Easterbrook shook his head. "No joke. Currently, Bobby Earl has four million dollars in the bank."
"Four ... _million_?!?" Sara exclaimed. She looked at the paper again. "I ... misread it," she stammered. "I thought it said four hunnert thousand!"
"And you're adding a few hundred thousand every month in royalties," Mr. Easterbrook added with a smile.
"Ma," Bobby Earl stammered, "we're ... we're rich!"
"You ain't gonna go crazy with your money, y'hear?" Sara scolded the young man.
Chuckling, Mr. Easterbrook retrieved another box from under the tree - a large box - and handed it to the boy. "You're not done."
With a wary glance at his mom, the boy opened the package. "Nice!" he said simply as he displayed a new pair of dress-casual pants, a nice knit polo shirt, and a new pair of dress shoes.
"You ain't gonna get them dirty now, y'hear?" Sara chided him. "Them's fancy clothes, not like what you wear workin' on the still!"
"Yes'm," Bobby Earl said with a nod.
"And yours," Easterbrook prompted Sara.
Warily, she opened the wrapping paper carefully so as to preserve it for another use. From a box inside, she pulled forth a dress, a nice maroon dress with matching shoes and purse. She held it up in front of herself, her mouth agape at the gift. "You oughtn'a gotten so fancy!"
"I think I should have," Easterbrook said, smiling pleasantly. "You can model that when we go out for dinner tonight. I have reservations at a nice restaurant."
Sara frowned. "You know I don't like eatin' out all the time," she chided. "I can cook just fine without wastin' a bunch of money."
"Indulge me this time," Easterbrook chuckled. "It _is_ Christmas, after all, and we should be celebrating."
"How'd you know our sizes?" Sara asked, cautious again.
"It wasn't easy," Easterbrook admitted. "I had to snoop around a little bit so you wouldn't know what I was doing."
After a pleasant, restful afternoon, which included a nice walk by Sara and Mr. Easterbrook around some of his property, the trio dressed up and he drove them to a restaurant. It wasn't nearly as fancy as something found in Los Angeles or New York City, but for a modest city in rural Tennessee, it wasn't bad.
Easterbrook got a chuckle - and Sara was horror-stricken - when Bobby Earl commented that the food was pretty good, but there wasn't enough of it. Easterbrook noted that was the kind of comment expected from a teenage boy.
Back at Mr. Easterbrook's house - a structure that was palatial to Sara and Bobby Earl, who were used to a cabin barely bigger than his great room - Mr. Easterbrook put a couple of logs on the fire and then opened a bottle of wine. Pouring three glasses, he distributed them, and then raised his own in a toast. "To Christmas among friends," he said cheerfully. He clinked glasses lightly with the two, and then the three sipped their wine.
Watching Bobby Earl, Mr. Easterbrook nearly spit up his wine laughing.
"What's so funny?" Sara asked, puzzled.
"Bobby Earl," Easterbrook replied, grinning. "While you and I are enjoying the wine, I think he's analyzing it."
Bobby Earl noticed the two adults were staring at him. "What?" he demanded as he turned to face them.
"Nothin'," Sara laughed. "Just you was so focused on figgerin' out the wine that we figgered you wasn't enjoyin' it."
The boy frowned. "I cain't help it," he complained. "When I taste somethin' new, I kinda need t' figger out how I'd make it."
"Maybe we should set you up with some wine-making gear," Easterbrook laughed.
Much later, as the fire died to embers, and after Bobby Earl had excused himself, Easterbrook sat beside Sara on the sofa in front of the warm fire. "Thank you for a nice Christmas," Sara said, staring at the flickering orange glow.
"It was my pleasure," Easterbrook said. "I've enjoyed your company. It's nice to not spend a holiday alone."
Sara smiled. "This helps make it worth livin' in the city. This, and you helpin' get Bobby Earl back in school so he can finish eighth grade."
"I figured you'd like it outside the city, where it's not so noisy or bright," Easterbrook said. "I like how peaceful it can be around here." He turned from the fire toward Sara, and saw that she was looking at him. Slowly, he leaned toward her, and their lips met as his arms circled around her body.
Behind the two, in the dark recesses of the hallway, the boy watched his mom kissing Easterbrook, and a broad grin crept onto his face. He crept back silently to his room, thinking how happy his mom was, unlike the misery she'd endured when his pa had left her.
"You're thinkin' of _what_?" Sara demanded of Mr. Easterbrook. She, Bobby Earl, and Mr. Easterbrook were sitting at a small table in her apartment.
"I'm seriously thinking of quitting my job at the distillery."
"But ... why?" Sara asked, astonished. "How is Bobby Earl gonna work with Fred and them folks if you ain't helpin?"
Easterbrook smiled. "I didn't say I wouldn't be helping Bobby Earl," he grinned. "Far from it."
"Then ... what are you fixin t' do?"
"Two things - if you agree. First, Bobby Earl needs a business manager to handle all the licensing and deal-making and travel," Easterbrook said.
Sara frowned. "Like an agent?" She stood, her face contorting with anger. "And you's just lookin' to take advantage of my boy 'cause he's makin' money!"
Easterbrook shook his head. "No, it's not like that. Well, not quite. The distillery agreed to license his devises to other distilleries, and it's spreading like wildfire. There's a _lot_ of demand for Bobby Earl's talents. If he isn't protected by someone who'd got business experience, someone _will_ take advantage of him."
"So you'd be his agent, and take a cut of what money he makes?"
Easterbrook chuckled. "Actually, no. I'd still be paid by the distillery, but doing a different job - managing the licenses for his devises, which would leave me time to help manage your finances and royalties." He looked back and forth between mother and son. "You've licensed your devises to six different distilleries - so far. You get twenty cents a gallon, and the company gets five. If it keeps growing at that rate, Old Man Morris is going to make more from licenses in a year than he would selling bourbon, and he's selling a _lot_ of bourbon. The executive committee is planning on expanding our distilleries." he added with a chuckle. "Do you know that two distilleries in Scotland and three in Ireland have inquired about your development?"
"I know'd we was makin' a bunch of money," Bobby Earl admitted after thinking. "And I know'd I'd put my inventions in six more distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee."
"And if it keeps up, you're going to have a lot of clients, making even more money than you are now." He paused and looked back and forth between the two again. "Do you know how much you earned in the last eight months?"
"Nope," Bobby Earl admitted. "I weren't keepin' track of that."
"And that's why you need a manager. Sara, do you know?"
"Three or four million, maybe?" she speculated, wincing nervously.
Easterbrook chuckled. "Not quite." He took out a small notebook and rifled through the pages. "As of last week, you have earned nine million, seven hundred thirty thousand dollars."
"Nine ... million?" Sara stammered, eyes wide as saucers.
"Almost ten," Easterbrook said with a nod. "That's between direct installation payments and royalties on every gallon they brew using your devises. And royalties alone, from the few distilleries you've installed in, will be another one point eight million _every year_."
"If we get a tenth of the distilleries worldwide to adopt your processes," Easterbrook continued, "it'd earn you tens or even hundreds of million in direct payments, plus more than ten million a year in royalties." He grinned. "And that's just whiskey. There's a winery in California that's asked if your process would work to make brandy." He saw the puzzled look on the boy's face. "That's distilled wine."
"If'n it comes out of a still, I probably could make it," Bobby Earl said confidently.
"You said there was two things," Sara said cautiously, returning the discussion to less speculative grounds.
Easterbrook blushed a bit. "Uh, yeah," he stammered. "The other thing I was hoping to convince you of is to, uh, maybe we could, I mean, that is," he was having problems putting his sentences together.
"Why don't you just say what's on your mind?" Sara said, frustrated.
"Well," Easterbrook winced, "I've been spending a lot of time with you two, since we moved you down here from the hills."
"And I ain't never taken a shine to livin' in the city," Sara protested. "Ain't nowhere to plant a good garden, and they's too many people around ...."
"And nothin' to hunt," Bobby Earl added. "Ain't had smoked boar or squirrel since we moved t' this apartment building."
"Well, I think we can fix that," Easterbrook said, blushing a bit, "if you would, I mean, I've got a place in the country, and there's a lot of land, and ...."
Bobby Earl's eyes widened as he slowly realized what Mr. Easterbrook was hinting at. Sara picked up on it quicker. "Are you askin' me ...?"
"Uh, yeah, I ... I kind of am."
"Either you are, or you ain't," Sara chided him sternly. "Which is it?"
"Well, yeah, I'm asking you if you'll marry me."
Sara glanced at Bobby Earl. "This ain't just 'cause we're rich, is it? I had problems with the boy's pa, and I ain't gonna do that again!" She didn't look at all happy.
Easterbrook paled. "I wasn't," he stammered. "I mean, it's got nothing to do with what Bobby Earl has earned. I'm not interested in his money." He could see that Sara remained wary. "If it'll prove my intentions are honest, I'll sign a pre-nuptial agreement, one that will legally keep me from any claim to Bobby Earl's earnings."
"Well," Sara said slowly, "I'll have to consider it."
"What, my proposal?" Easterbrook asked, somewhat astounded by her lackadaisical attitude toward having just received a marriage proposal.
"Nah," Sara replied with a grin. "Mostly the part about the pre-nup. I'm kinda likin' the proposin' part." She glanced at her son, and then looked warily at Easterbrook. "Couple of things, though."
"We gotta get Bobby Earl into high school so's he can get a proper education," she said. "It was hard 'nuff to get him t' finish eighth grade."
"Ma!" Bobby Earl protested. "
"Somewhere where he ain't well known, and where the kids ain't gonna tease him 'bout bein' a mutant."
"Ma, they ain't ..." Bobby Earl started to protest.
"Hush, boy," Sara ordered. "I hear it from the other moms when they's pickin' up their own young'uns at school," she said unhappily. "Lots of folk around here work in the distillery, and rumors spread."
"Ma, there ain't no trouble anymore. Not much, anyhow"
"What do you mean, not much?"
Bobby Earl winced. "I ... I kinda' thumped Zack Moore," he said sheepishly. "I don't think he's gonna cause no more ruckus with me."
"Again?" Sara cried. "You _know_ they said they was gonna kick you out if'n you thumped anyone else!"
"I couldn't help it!" Bobby Earl said. "If'n all he'd been doin' was callin' me a mutant, I'd a' just laughed at him, like I always do. But this time, he swiped my books and throwed 'em in a mud puddle. With all my homework. What was I supposed t' do?"
"Damn," Sara swore. "Now I gotta find you a school for the rest of this year."
"I think we can get a tutor to finish the year at his workshop in the distillery," Easterbrook offered. "Shouldn't cost too much."
Sara nodded slowly. "Yeah, I s'pose." She glared at the boy. "You ain't _never_ gonna do somethin' like this again, hear?"
"No, ma'am," Bobby Earl said sheepishly.
"And you ain't gonna spend all your time at your workshop fiddlin' around, y' hear? You're gonna do some learnin'! You already got enough doohickeys t' last a lifetime."
Bobby Earl grinned. "Yes, ma'am," he answered, already plotting to get out of homework and make more devises. He was lucky that the distillery let him set up a workshop and an experimental still so it'd be legal for him to experiment, and they let him have whatever he wanted for grains and supplies. If his mom would let him, he'd spend the whole day tinkering with his still.
"And we're going to have to get him to a super group for testing," Easterbrook added. "If he's going to travel anywhere by airplane, he's got to have something called an MID."
"It's a Mutant Identification card," Easterbrook replied. "I've been reading up on the laws and such. Every mutant needs to have a card to travel on a plane."
"So's if my things get sold in Scotland and Ireland ...?"
Easterbrook chuckled. "Or anywhere not close. It's a long drive to the west coast. And it's kind of hard to drive across the Atlantic Ocean."
"Them tests weren't no fun," Bobby Earl complained. "They throwed balls at me to test my reflexes, and them balls _hurt_! And they was testin' me on a treadmill thing, when they throwed balls at my head."
"Which he dodged," a female technician in a white lab coat added.
"Yeah, and I ain't too strong, neither. Them weights measure in tons!"
"We've confirmed that your son is indeed a mutant," the technician said. "He's an avatar."
"What's that mean?"
"It means he holds a spirit, a knot of magical energy."
"They think it's grandpappy's spirit, ma!" the boy said excitedly. "'Cause I know everythin' he knowed about makin' 'shine, and stills and such."
"And he's a devisor, as Mr. Easterbrook suspected," the technician added. "The apparatus he made for the distilleries is a classic devise, something that breaks the laws of physics and chemistry, and _shouldn't_ work, but somehow it does. But only for him."
Bobby Earl grinned. "I know that," he said. "One company tried to copy my still parts," he continued, smiling smugly. "All they did was mess it up, and then they had to pay me t' fix it up. And I gotta go 'round to the distilleries t' tune up the gadgets from time to time," he added. "Ain't nobody else can keep 'em workin'."
The technician nodded. "He tests like a baseline for physical strength and stamina, but his mental abilities are enhanced, probably due to his avatar spirit."
"What about me dodgin' them balls you was tryin' to s'prise me with?" Bobby Earl asked.
"The other thing is that he's got what we call a 'danger sense', where he can feel, or sense danger to himself."
"Which is probably how I kept from gettin' shot by Gabe," the boy added with a chuckle.
"Now what?" Sara asked.
The technician handed her a sheet of paper. "Now, you take this to the MCO office, and they'll get him an MID." She glanced at the boy. "You'll need a code name," she said. "All documentation of your abilities and such goes under a code name, so if you just live an honest life, no-one has to know you're a mutant."
"I don't see why's I need a code name. I ain't gonna be no superhero or nothin'," Bobby Earl protested.
"You don't have to have one," the technician replied. "It's not legally required. But it can help hide your identity from people who don't like mutants."
"Maybe. But I cain't think of a cool codename," the boy said, frowning.
"How about Moonshine?" the technician asked sarcastically. "Since you tried to bribe me to take it easy on you with some of your moonshine?"
Sara's jaw dropped fractionally, and then she glared at the boy. "Hand it over," she said sternly.
Hanging his head, Bobby Earl reached into his jacket pocket and took out a flask, handing it to his ma.
"And I would strongly suggest you _don't_ try that with the MCO office," the technician scolded him. "They aren't known for having a sense of humor."
"Okay," the boy replied reluctantly. "If'n I need a code name, how about just plain 'Shine?"
"I think that'll work - if it isn't taken," the technician replied. "We'll look it up before you go."
"Do you have any ideas where I can send him to school?" Sara asked. "I want him to get a good education, but he got hisself kicked out of school because the kids was teasin' him that he was a mutant."
"Fighting, eh?" the technician asked with a smile.
"Yeah, a little," Bobby Earl answered in a subdued voice. "But it weren't my fault," he added. "The other boy tossed my books in the mud."
"Well," the technician thought a bit, "there _is_ a school that he might fit in, a place that would make the most of his devisor talents," she said.
"It's a private boarding school, in New Hampshire."
"Some damned Yankee school?" Sara sputtered. "And the kids wouldn't make fun of him none?"
"Well, you know how kids are," the technician said, "but the fact that he's a mutant would make him just another student. But it's kind of expensive."
"Oh, is that all?" Bobby Earl asked with a wicked grin, as if money grew on trees. For him, it didn't grow on trees, but it did flow out of whiskey barrels ... or at least seemed to.
"Bobby Earl," Sara called out from the kitchen when she head the boy come into the apartment and toss his books on the sofa.
"What, Ma?" he asked, starting to slump down in the sofa.
"You got a letter. It's on the kitchen table."
"What's it say?"
"Dunno. It's addressed to you, not to me."
"Who's it from?" Bobby Earl asked as he levered himself back up from the sofa.
"That school you applied to," Sara answered, trying to keep her voice calm.
"Whateley?" The boy slid into a seat at the table and rifled through the mail until he found an envelope addressed to him. "Yup, it's from that Whateley school." He tore open the envelope and pulled out a letter, poring over it.
"Well," he said with a philosophical tone, "I guess high school ain't meant fer me."
"What?" Ma asked, puzzled and a little worried by his reaction.
"It says, Dear Bobby Earl. Thank you for your interest in Whateley Academy. As you know, we specialize in students with special needs." He looked up at his mom. "They ain't giving away any secrets in their letters, are they?"
"Cain't say as I blame them," Sara observed, trying to still her nerves.
"We receive nearly one thousand applications every school year, and because we are a private academy with limited resources," Bobby Earl continued reading, "we are not able to accept every student who applies."
"This don't sound good," Sara said, her eyes narrow slits.
"Your academic achievements are below those of the average student we admit, and your special needs are not judged to be very dire. For those reasons, we respectfully have to turn down your application for admittance to Whateley." The boy dropped the letter on the table. "I ain't goin'."
Frowning, Sara picked up the letter and began to read. "Wait, it says here that if'n you have any questions, you can call the school" She set the paper down. "That's what we's gonna do, then."
Without another word, she picked up the phone and sat back down at the table, dialing the number as she read it from the letter.
Presently, the phone was answered. "Whateley Academy, Admissions Office. How may I help you?" The voice on the other end was friendly enough, and Bobby Earl could hear plainly because his mom had switched it to speaker-phone.
"Afternoon," Sara said simply. "I'd like t' talk with someone 'bout my son's application. We got a letter that says he wasn't accepted."
"I see. If you give me his name, I can look it up on our computer."
"Bobby Earl Fields," the boy answered before his mom could.
"Okay. If you give me a moment, I'll get his records, and ... okay, here's his file now." She paused, obviously to read. "It shows that his academic performance is inadequate, and that his powers and family situation are not hardships, unlike some of our students. Because of that, you don't really need the unique education Whateley has to offer."
"Are you the headmistress, Mrs. Carson?" Sara asked.
"No, ma'am," the woman on the other end answered. "I'm the administrative assistant.
"I'd like t' speak with Mrs. Carson, if'n we could."
"I'm sorry, but Mrs. Carson is in a meeting with the school trustees at the present time."
"Is there anyone else we can talk to?"
There was a pause on the other end. "Hmm, it looks like Mrs. Shugendo is free. Let me try to connect to her. If you would hold for a moment." The line switched to dull background music. Almost a minute later, the music clicked off. "Mrs. Shugendo is in her office, so I'm transferring your call now."
"Thank you," Sara said politely.
"I'm Mrs. Shugendo, Dean of Students. How may I help you?" a pleasant voice sounded from the phone speaker.
"My son sent in his application, but y' said he weren't in need enough t' go there," Sara summarized quickly.
"While we wait for the computer to show your records, let me ask a question. Why does he want to attendour school?"
Bobby Earl shrugged. "Ma wants me t' get a education, so she figgers I should go to a real good school."
Mrs. Shugendo gave an audible gasp at his atrocious hillbilly grammar. "Why choose Whateley?" she asked. "There are many very good schools around the country."
"We've had more'n our share of problems with regular kids teasin' Bobby Earl," Sara said, her voice tinged with distaste. "Callin' him a filthy mutant and such."
"Yeah," the boy said, still smiling. "But it don't bother me much. They's just words."
"It's the other kids startin' the fightin' that's caused a heap o' trouble," Sara continued.
"Fighting?" Mrs. Shugendo sounded a little concerned at that bit of data.
"They's always startin' it," Bobby Earl said with another shrug. "Mostly, I just ignore 'em, but when they tackle me in a mud puddle, or swipe my books ...."
"Hmm. Your academic performance isn't ... stellar."
"Cept'n for the last year," Bobby Earl said in his own defense. "Ma and Mr. Easterbrook made sure I studied hard t' pass eighth grade, and Mr. Easterbrook hired me a tutor so's I could get good grades."
"Yes, I see that," Mrs. Shugendo answered. "And your grades have improved to the point that we would admit you, but grades are only one portion of our entrance criteria." She paused a moment. "It says here that your ratings are avatar-2 and devisor-2, is that correct?"
"Yes'm," Bobby Earl answered promptly. "I got myself tested. They says I'm a devisor, and something called a avatar. They says I got me a spirit in me, like maybe my grandpappy's spirit." His grin couldn't be seen by Mrs. Shugendo through the phone, but she could hear his tone of voice.. "Some say he got hisself and his spirit cursed by an old witch t' be stuck in his still."
"I see," Mrs. Shugendo said calmly. From her tone of voice, she'd heard even more fanciful stories before. "One of the things we provide is a safe place where students with ... dangerous ... abilities can learn to control them. Other students are admitted because they have nowhere else to go, because they've been rejected by family or community."
"Ain't got no dangerous powers," Bobby Earl admitted. "And my family ain't kicked me out. All I got is my grandpappy's spirit and some kind of knack for makin' 'shine. They says that when I was makin' 'shine once, grandpappy's spirit got sucked clean out of the still and got stuck in me."
"Anyways, everthin' grandpappy knew about ... makin' white lightnin' and whiskey I knowed right then."
"And ... were you making ... liquor when you manifested?"
Bobby Earl grinned. "Yup. I was makin' a batch of plain ol' 'shine. Since then, I figgered out some things t' make my still work better, and I made some things to make the whiskey taste better, too."
"Moonshine," Bobby Earl said with a laugh.
"I see. That doesn't sound dangerous." She paused. "Let me be honest. As a private school, we have only limited space in our housing, and in our classrooms. Further, because of the special needs students we are teaching, we spend a lot of money in special equipment and facilities. Your mutation is not a danger to you or anyone else, so we're reluctant to spend our limited funds on a student who has financial need but not a powers need."
"Financial need? Like you're not expectin' me t' pay the whole thing?"
Mrs. Shugendo chuckled. "Your family financial statement shows that your mother has very limited assets - certainly not enough to cover tuition and expenses at Whateley."
"Ma, didn't you tell 'em 'bout my money?" Bobby Earl complained to his mom.
"Bobby Earl, the form asked for my earnin's and savin's. Not yours."
"You have some assets that aren't listed?" Mrs. Shugendo asked.
"Yeah. My doohickeys been makin' me and Ma a ton of money.
"My son done licensed use of his devises to a few distilleries," Sara said proudly. "They been payin' him real good. If'n this is 'bout money?" Sara asked bluntly. "'Cause Bobby Earl's got a whole bunch of money. How much you got, Bobby Earl?"
The boy shrugged. "Right 'bout fifteen million, or so Mr. Easterbrook says. And we's gettin' 'bout two million or so every month from all the distilleries that's usin' my rigs."
A knock on the apartment door interrupted the discussion. "Can you 'scuse me for a minute?" Sara scooted her chair back and went to the door. "Hi, sweetie," she said, lifting herself on her toes to kiss Mr. Easterbrook on the cheek. "We was just talkin' with a lady from that school we was lookin' at sendin' Bobby Earl."
Mr.Easterbrook sat down at the table. "I'm Larry Easterbrook," he said in greeting. "I'm Bobby Earl's agent, and Sara's fiance."
"We ain't planned a date yet, though," Sara said with a broad smile, closing the door and reseating herself. "But we's probably goin' t' get hitched 'fore long, 'cause I cain't stand this city livin', 'specially in this little 'partment. Ain't got no garden, ain't got no porch. It ain't livin' right."
"Mrs. ...." Bobby Earl frowned at not remembering the nice lady's name.
"Shugendo," she reminded him. "Dean of Students at Whateley."
"She was just tellin' us that Bobby Earl prob'bly weren't gonna get into their school," Sara said with a bit of a frown.
"I was just explaining," Mrs. Shugendo corrected, "that we only have a limited amount of space, and we have to save our resources for those students who will most benefit from what we have to offer."
"The school isn't exactly well known," Mr. Easterbrook commented. "So I would suspect that you always have certain ... financial needs."
"We make do," Mrs. Shugendo replied stiffly.
"Bobby Earl has had difficulty in public schools, because he's a target for those who know he's a mutant. His income can more than pay for his fees, and a ... generous donation to your scholarship fund, if necessary."
"Larry," Sara cautioned him, "you cain't promise away his money."
"Not to worry, dear," Larry said to Sara with a smile. "I just got a letter of intent from a major Irish whiskey company that wants to use his equipment. It'd add another four and half to five million up front, and probably close to three million a year in royalties."
"Three ... million? A year?" Mrs. Shugendo sounded quite curious. "What precisely did he develop? He couldn't have patented it," she added. "Not if he's a devisor."
Easterbrook smiled. "That's the beauty. It only works for him, so nobody can steal his process or ideas. If you've had any bourbon or Tennessee whiskey in the last five or six months, chances are you've been the recipient of Bobby Earl's processes. His devises make stills much more efficient, and greatly speed the aging process to make whiskeys smoother and better tasting." He chuckled, "You can imagine how much demand there is for _that_ product."
"If'n it was about money," Bobby Earl interjected, "I could always help out some of the other kids who cain't afford t' go."
"That's ... generous."
"Ma always taught me t' be kind t' strangers, 'cause you never know when it'll come back t' you."
Mrs. Shugendo thought for a few moments. "If you would give me a moment," she finally said, "I'd like a moment to have a private conversation with our headmistress."
Sara glanced at Easterbrook, and then shrugged. "Sure. We can wait."
The phone went back to the soothing music for a considerable time. When the trio at the table were just about ready to give up, Mrs. Shugendo's voice came back on the line.
"Well," Mrs. Shugendo said, her voice a little more cheerful, "Mrs. Carson was ... pleased with the offer to help our scholarship fund. She reminded me that the school is only at about eighty percent of capacity, so if a student is completely self-supporting, it would be no additional burden on our resources, especially if they are willing to help sponsor another student or two. Congratulations on your acceptance into Whateley, young man. I think you're going to enjoy what we have to offer you."