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A Jury Case by Sherwood Anderson

 

They had a still up in the mountains. There were three of them. They were all tough.

What I mean is they were not men to fool with--at least two of them weren't.

First of all, there was Harvey Groves. Old man Groves had come into the mountain country thirty years before, and had bought a lot of mountain land.

He hadn't a cent and had only made a small payment on the land.

Right away he began to make moon whisky. He was one of the kind that can make pretty fair whisky out of anything. They make whisky out of potatoes, buckwheat, rye, corn or whatever they can get--the ones who really know how. One of that kind from here was sent to prison. He made whisky out of the prunes they served the prisoners for breakfast--anyway, he called it whisky. Old man Groves used to sell his whisky down at the lumber mills. There was a big cutting going on over on Briar Top Mountain.

They brought the lumber down the mountain to a town called Lumberville.

Old Groves sold his whisky to the lumberjacks and the manager of the mill got sore. He had old Groves into his office and tried to tell him what was what.

Instead, old Groves told him something. The manager said he would turn old Groves up. What he meant was that he would send the Federal men up the mountains after him, and old Groves told the manager that if a Federal man showed up in his hills he would burn the lumber stacked high about the mills at Lumberville.

He said it and he meant it and the mill manager knew he meant it.

The old man got away with that. He stayed up in his hills and raised a large family. Those at home were all boys. Every one about here speaks of the Groves girls, but what became of them I've never heard. They are not here now.

Harvey Groves was a tall, raw-boned young man with one eye. He lost the other one in a fight. He began drinking and raising the devil all over the hills when he was little more than a boy and after the old man died of a cancer, and the old woman died and the land was divided among the sons and sold, and he got his share, he blew it in gambling and drinking.

He went moonshining when he was twenty-five. Cal Long and George Small went in with him. They all chipped in to buy the still.

Nowadays you can make moon whisky in a small still--it's called "over-night stuff"--about fourteen gallons to the run, and you make a run in one night.

You can sell it fast. There are plenty of men to buy and run it into the coal mining country over east of here. It's pretty raw stuff.

Cal Long, who went in with Harvey, is a big man with a beard. He is as strong as an ox. They don't make them any meaner. He seems a peaceful enough man, when he isn't drinking, but when he starts to drink, look out. He usually carries a long knife and he has cut several men pretty badly. He has been in jail three times.

The third man in the party was George Small. He used to come by our house--lived out our way for a time. He is a small nervous-looking young man who worked, until last Summer, on the farm of old man Barclay. One day last Fall, when I was over on the Barclay road and was sitting under a bridge, fishing, George came along the road.

What was the matter with him that time I've never found out.

I was sitting in silence under the bridge and he came along the road making queer movements with his hands. He was giving them a dry wash. His lips were moving. The road makes a turn right beyond the bridge and I could see him coming for almost a half mile before he got to the bridge. I was under the bridge and could see him without his seeing me. When he got close I heard his words. "Oh, my God, don't let me do it," he said. He kept saying it over and over. He had got married the Spring before. He might have had some trouble with his wife. I remember her as a small, red-haired woman. I saw the pair together once. George was carrying their baby in his arms and we stopped to talk. The woman moved a little away. She was shy as most mountain women are. George showed me the baby--not more than two weeks old--and it had a wrinkled little old face. It looked ages older than the father and mother but George was fairly bursting with pride while I stood looking at it.

How he happened to go in with men like Harvey Groves and Cal Long is a wonder to me, and why they wanted him is another wonder.

I had always thought of George as a country neurotic--the kind you so often see in cities. He always seemed to me out of place among the men of these hills.

He might have fallen under the influence of Cal Long. A man like Cal likes to bully people physically. Cal liked to bully them spiritually too.

Luther Ford told me a tale about Cal and George. He said that one night in the Winter Cal went to George Small's house--it is a tumble-down little shack up in the hills--and called George out. The two men went off together to town and got drunk. They came back about two o'clock in the morning and stood in the road before George's house. I have already told you something about the wife. Luther said that at that time she was sick. She was going to have another baby. A neighbor had told Luther Ford. It was a queer performance, one of the kind of things that happen in the country and that give you the creeps.

He said the two men stood in the road before the house cursing the sick woman inside.

Little nervous George Small walking up and down the road in the snow, cursing his wife--Cal Long egging him on. George strutting like a little rooster. It must have been a sight to see and to make you a little sick seeing. Luther Ford said just hearing about it gave him a queer feeling in the pit of his stomach.

This Spring early these three men went in together, making whisky.

Between Cal and Harvey Groves it was a case of dog eat dog. They had bought the still together, each putting in a third of its cost, and then, one night after they had made and sold two runs, Harvey stole the still from the other two.

Of course Cal set out to get him for that.

There wasn't any law he and George Small could evoke--or whatever it is you do with a law when you use it to get some man.

It took Cal a week to find out where Harvey had hidden, and was operating, the still, and then he went to find George.

He wanted to get Harvey, but he wanted to get the still too.

He went to George Small's house and tramped in. George was sitting there and when he saw Cal was frightened stiff. His wife, thinner than ever since her second child was born and half sick, was lying on a bed. In these little mountain cabins there is often but one room and they cook, eat and sleep in it--often a big family.

When she saw Cal, George's wife began to cry and, very likely, George wanted to cry too.

Cal sat down in a chair and took a bottle out of his pocket. George's wife says he had been drinking. He gave George a drink, staring at him hard when he offered it, and George had to take it.

George took four or five stiff drinks, not looking again at Cal or at his wife, who lay on the bed moaning and crying, and Cal never said a word.

Then suddenly George jumped up--his hands not doing the dry wash now--and began swearing at his wife.

"You keep quiet, God damn you!" he yelled.

Then he did an odd thing. There were only two chairs in the cabin and Cal Long had been sitting on one and George on the other. When Cal got up George took the chairs, one at a time, and going outside smashed them to splinters against a corner of the cabin.

Cal Long laughed at that. Then he told George to get his shotgun.

George did get it. It was hanging on a hook in the house and was loaded, I presume, and the two went away together into the woods.

Harvey Groves had got bold. He must have thought he had Cal Long bluffed. That's the weakness of these tough men. They never think any one else is as tough as they are.

Harvey had set the still up in a tiny, half-broken-down old house, on what had once been his father's land, and was making a daylight run.

He had two guns up there but never got a chance to use either of them.

Cal and George must have just crept up pretty close to the house in the long grass and weeds.

They got up close, George with the gun in his hands, and then Harvey came to the door of the house. He may have heard them. Some of these mountain men, who have been law-breakers since they were small boys, have sharp ears and eyes.

There must have been a terrific moment. I've talked with Luther Ford and several others about it. We are all, of course, sorry for George.

Luther, who is something of a dramatist, likes to describe the scene. His version is, to be sure, all a matter of fancy. When he tells the story he kneels in the grass with a stick in his hand. He begins to tremble and the end of the stick wobbles about. He has taken a distant tree for the figure of Harvey Groves, now dead. When he tells of the scene in that way, all of us standing about and, in spite of the ridiculous figure Luther cuts, a little breathless, he goes on for perhaps five seconds, wobbling the stick about, apparently utterly helpless and frightened and then his figure suddenly seems to stiffen and harden.

Luther could do it better if he wasn't built as he is--long and loose-jointed, whereas George Small, whose part in the tragedy he is playing, is small, and, as I have said, nervous and rather jerky.

But Luther does what he can, saying in a low voice to us others standing and looking, "Now, Cal Long has touched me on the shoulder."

The idea, you understand, is that the two men have crept up to the lonely little mountain house in the late afternoon, George Small creeping ahead with the heavily loaded shotgun in his hands, really being driven forward by Cal Long, creeping at his heels, a man, Luther explains, simply too strong for him, and that, at the fatal moment, when they faced Harvey Groves, and I presume had to shoot or be shot, and George weakened, Cal Long just touched George on the shoulder.

The touch, you see, according to Luther's notion, was a command.

It said, "Shoot!" and George's body stiffened, and he shot.

He shot straight, too.

There was a piece of sheet-iron lying by the door of the house. What it was doing there I don't know. It may have been some part of the stolen still. In the fraction of a second that Harvey Groves had to live he snatched it up and tried to hold it up before his body.

The shot tore right through the metal and through Harvey Groves' head and through a board back of his head. The gun may not have been loaded when George Small brought it from his house. Cal Long may have loaded it.

Anyway Harvey Groves is dead. He died, Luther says, like a rat, in a hole--just pitched forward and flopped around a little and died. How a rat in a hole, when he dies, can do much flopping around I don't know.

After the killing, of course, Cal and George ran, but before they did any running Cal took the gun out of George Small's hands and threw it in the grass.

That, Luther says, was to show just whose gun did the killing.

They ran and, of course, they hid themselves.

There wasn't any special hurry. They had shot Harvey Groves in that lonely place and he might not have been found for days but that George Small's wife, being sick and nervous, just as he is, ran down into town, after Cal and George had left their place, and went around to the stores crying and wringing her hands like a little fool, telling every one that her husband and Cal Long were going to kill some one.

Of course, that stirred every one up.

There must have been people in town who knew that Cal and George and Harvey had been in together and what they had been up to.

They found the body the next morning--the shooting had happened about four in the afternoon--and they got George Small that next afternoon.

Cal Long had stayed with him until he got tired of it and then had left him to shift for himself. They haven't got Cal yet. A lot of people think they never will get him. "He's too smart," Luther Ford says.

They got George sitting beside a road over on the other side of the mountains. He says Cal Long stopped an automobile driving past, a Ford, stopped the driver with a revolver he had in his pocket all the time.

They haven't even found the man who drove the Ford. It may be he was some one who knows Cal and is afraid.

Anyway, they have got George Small in jail over at the county seat and he tells every one he did the killing and sits and moans and rubs his funny little hands together and keeps saying over and over, "God, don't let me do it," just as he did that day when he crossed the bridge, long before he got into this trouble, and I was under the bridge fishing and saw and heard him. I presume they'll hang him, or electrocute him--whichever it is they do in this State--when the time for his trial comes.

And his wife is down with a high fever, and, Luther says, has gone clear off her nut.

But Luther, who acts the whole thing out so dramatically whenever he can get an audience, and who is something of a prophet, says that if they have to get a jury from this county to try George Small, even though the evidence is all against him, he thinks the jury will just go it blind and bring in a verdict of not guilty.

He says, anyway, that is what he would do, and others, who see him acting the thing out and who know Cal Long and Harvey Groves and George Small better than I do, having lived longer in this county and having known them all since they were boys, say the same thing.

It may be true. As for myself--being what I am, hearing and seeing all this . . .

How do I know what I think?

It's a matter, of course, the jury will have to decide.

 
 
 

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