Chapter Sixteen


Why Boys Shouldn't Drink Apple Jack


Milton gave a little nod with his head. Austin nudged Virgil in the ribs. It was time.

"What?" asked Virgil.

“Shh, c'mon," hushed Austin.

"Where are you boys going?" asked Mother.

"Out to the barn to help Alfred," said Milton.

"Behave yourselves," she said instinctively.

The three exited the house quietly and business-like. "Where are we going?" asked Virgil.

"You’ll see,” said Milton, as they made their way across the snow-covered lawn to the barn. He looked over his shoulder every once in a while to make sure they weren't being watched. Virgil sneaked right along behind them, not knowing why, or caring.  When Milton and Austin beckoned, he followed.  It almost always meant mischief and excitement, and where Virgil went, Tom Brown hobbled along. He was a hound with a sense for adventure. They turned off the path to the milk barn and headed for the haymow. Milton slid the door ajar just enough for them to slip in. He checked to see if anyone was looking and closed the door behind them. It was dark. And cold. But the hay still smelled like summer. Virgil stamped the snow off his shoes.

"What are we doing?” he asked again.

"It should be about ready," said Milton.

"I can't wait to test it," said Austin.

"What?" said Virgil.

Milton moved a bale of hay in the far corner of the mow and retrieved a large jug.  He shook it.  "Sounds like it's ready,” he said. He uncorked it, put it to his lips and chugged. He chugged, convulsed, gasped, choked, coughed and gasped again.  "Whoa, is that good.”  Virgil thought he saw smoke come out of Milton's ears but it must have been all the gasping and coughing.

"Here, let me try it,” said Austin, taking the jug and chugging. He went through the same routine.  "Geez is that good!"

"What is it?" asked Virgil.

"Apple jack," said Milton.

"Like cider?" said Virgil.

"Hard cider - only frozen.  All the water is froze out and only the likker is left.   I've been watching and saving it since it started to turn," said Milton.

“You know mother doesn't let you guys drink likker," said Virgil.

"She'll never know, and besides it can't do any harm.   It’s only apple juice after all.   Try some,” said Austin, passing the jug to Virgil.

Virgil sniffed the jug cautiously and offered a smell to Tom. The hound folded back his ears and shied away.  Virgil took a sip.

"How is it?” asked Milton.  No answer.  Virgil held it in his mouth.   He held his breath too.  Finally he swallowed. Half went down his windpipe.   He gasped and took long draughts of air.   "Good,” he gasped in a throaty whisper.

Milton and Austin passed the jug and chugged some more.  Back to Virgil.   He tried another.  The second shot seemed to go down smoother. 

"Takes a little getting used to," said Milton.

"It's cold!" exclaimed Virgil.

"Sure, it's colder than ice, only it can't freeze," said Milton.

"Won't it freeze our insides?" said Virgil.

"Naw," reassured Milton.

The jug passed around some more.  Tom watched.

"Where'd you learn how to make this stuff?" said Virgil.

"Watching Grampa," said Milton.

"Whew, isn't it hot in here?" asked Austin.

"Warms you up, doesn't it?" said Milton.

"Considerable," said Austin.

"My stomach hurts," said Virgil.

"You ate too much," said Milton.

“That hootch is ice cold. I got cramps," said Virgil.

"It's just gas. You ate too much," said Milton.

By now the jug was almost empty - except for the icy slush.  Milton swished it around.   "Sure doesn't last long,” he eulogized, straining the last mouthful and spitting out the ice.

"My stomach still hurts," said Virgil.

"I'm getting cramps too," said Austin.

"I don't feel too good,” said Virgil.  "Ohh,” he moaned as he let rip a rasping ‘Thrrrpp.’

"See, I told you it was gas," said Milton.

"I think it was more than gas,” Virgil said, pulling at the seat of his pants and shaking his leg.

"Ohh," groaned Austin, ‘Thrrrpp!’  "Ohh!  Oh, no!"

"What's the matter with you?" said Milton.

“A wet one," said Austin.

‘THRRRPP!’   Virgil and Austin rasped in unison, startling Tom. Now it was involuntary and totally out of control. The hound circled them with his tail between his legs. Milton howled. The other two were doubled up with pain. The more they groaned, the more Milton roared. Tom knew something was wrong. He yowled the nervous, curious, bass howl of a big hound, circling the trio, confused by the plaintive moans and hysterical laughter. What was a dog to do in this situation?  The dark wet stain spread through their trousers while they writhed on the floor in agony.

After what seemed a thousand ‘Thrrrpps’ the pain subsided and the weakened boys struggled to their feet.  

“Ohh,” they groaned in contrition.

"You guys sure can't take it," said Milton.

"How come you didn't get sick?” said Virgil, brushing off the hayseed.

"I can handle likker, that’s all.  Some can, some can't.  You guys can't, that's all.”  He wouldn't let on that he felt a little tightening in his gut.  He would be real careful.

Now that the noise died down, Tom brown stuck his nose in Virgil’s business.

"Get out of there, Tom,” he said, hitting the hound with his hat.  He continued to brush off the hayseed.

"Them hounds are all alike," said Austin, brushing himself.

"How are we going to get in the house without Mother knowing?” said Virgil.

“I’ll distract her while you two sneak upstairs,” said Milton. Milton slid open the door and peeked out. It was safe. He motioned for the others to follow.  As he stepped out, he hit a patch of ice. His one leg shot out from under him and the other buckled beneath him.  As he went down, a ‘THRRRPP!’ echoed between the house and the barn.

Milton pursed his lips and shook his head.

"Good for you!” pronounced Virgil.  Austin muffled his vengeful glee. Milton just sat there, contemplating the injustice of it all. Tom sniffed at him from downwind.  He knew. Was the dog laughing at him too, Milton wondered? He threw a handful of snow in the hound's face. Tom respected the admonition and backed away.

"Will someone please lend me a hand?”  Said Milton, indignantly. They got him to his feet and the three waddled back to the house. Austin quietly opened the door. Their mother was standing at the stove with her back to them.  They snuck in on a gust of cold air.

"Phee-ew!” shouted Aurelia as the sweet, pungent smell of fermented apples filled the room.  She had the awfulest look on her face the boys ever saw when she turned around.  "What in the world did you do?  Turn around,” she commanded.  "Oh, oh. Get out. Get out of this house immediately!”  She grabbed a broom from the corner and attacked them. "Out, out,” she yelled.  The three stumbled over themselves getting through the doorway to avoid her wrath.  Virgil had never seen her like this before.  "Off the porch.  Get off the porch.”  She swept them off the porch, being careful not to mess up the broom. “Now get those clothes off.  Get them off right now."

"But mother, it's cold out," pleaded Virgil.

"I don't care, you’re not coming in the house like that.  Get them off and leave them right there.”

Tom Brown cowered in the background. He was well acquainted with Aurelia's broom and he was as guilty as the rest.   Or at least he shared their guilt in a vicarious kind of a way. Funny, how dogs are like that.

Milton was embarrassed.  Undress in front of his mother?  He didn’t embarrass easily but he was no longer a little boy. Physiologically he was a man. "Mother, really," he started to say. 

"I’ll Mother, really you,” she interrupted and cracked him on the head with the broom, breaking it in two.  "Get busy."

Milton found a shadow somehow and stripped off his ripened clothing along with the others. The three stood naked and shivering in the snow.

"Now wash yourselves off," she barked.

"With what?" said Austin.

"With the snow, that’s what! Get busy,” she said raising the broken broom handle in a businesslike manner. They all grabbed handfuls of snow and scrubbed themselves down. "And keep at it until the snow comes off white!”  She went into the house to put some more water on the stove.

"You and your big ideas,” said Virgil to Milton, his teeth rattling.

"There must have been a bad apple in there somewhere, that’s all I can figure," rationalized Milton.

"I'm freezing.  Are you guys clean yet?" said Austin.

"I don’t think the snow will ever come off white,” said Virgil digging and scraping.

"Remind me not to make any maple sugar candy on the front lawn this spring," said Milton.

"Don't worry," said Austin.

"I’m about done,” said Austin, checking a handful of snow in the light of a window.

"Let's go in before we freeze to death," said Milton.

They danced tiptoe up on the porch and into the house, each cupping his personal belongings.

"Well, my three little boys blue,” said Aurelia inspecting them. "In the tub."

Milton went first, soaped up and rinsed down.   Then Austin.  Next Virgil.

He looked into the dull brown curdled soap scum with apprehension.  "How come I'm always last?" he whined.

"Because you’re the youngest,” said his mother as she plopped him in the tub.

"Phew!”  he complained holding his nose as she soaped him  up. "I can't wait until those two are out of the house and I can take a bath in clean water."

Aurelia whacked his behind as he climbed out.  "Now dry off and get to bed.  And tomorrow you all wash your own clothes, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," they answered.

Virgil crawled into the featherbed and fluffed it up over him.  Tom followed his tail around in a small circle a few times till he felt comfortable and settled down alongside his master's bed. They looked at each other. It could be worse, Virgil supposed. He could have to follow Tom in the tub.

The exhausted little boy thanked God for that little blessing, blew out the candle and promptly fell asleep.

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