Across the state line in Kentucky the Pineville newspaper carried a routine listing of misdemeanor convictions in the district court.

Thirty of the 40 cases involved public drunkenness -- which is interesting, because alcoholic beverage sales are outlawed in Bell County.

Some of the contraband drink could have come from legal stores here in wet Claiborne County. But, more likely, most of it came from a friendly bootlegger in dry Bell County, where America's failed experiment with Prohibition still echoes.

Whatever the case -- or the brand, for that matter -- booze is available, although not openly. Drinkers somehow find it. The forces of temperance decry the lawbreaking, but wink at it, tolerating a system that is at best curious, at worst pernicious.

Across the Gap, in Middleboro, a busy Bell County coal town of 12,000, a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous thrives. The county has a full-time alcohol-abuse caseworker, as well it should. With votes regularly purchased with half-pints of bourbon and teen-agers chuckling about the easy availablity of beer and spirits there is plenty for him to do.

Well, you pay your money and take your choice. The Rev. W. B. Bingham, a Baptist preacher who has successfully fought the Bell County wets for years, insists that Prohibition on the local scale has been an enormous success.

"There is no comparison to the vice now and then it was wet around here," he said. "I saw the Lord save two cities [Middlesboro and Pineville] and a county [Bell]. You still get crime and unsavory people in public office. But it's easier to catch it in dry territory -- it sticks out like a sore thumb."

One of Brother Bingham's flock at Binghamtown Baptist Church is Irvin Franklin, the Bell County alcohol and drug-abuse caseworker.He worries about the see-no-evil school.

'The ministry is blinded," Franklin said. "None of them will come to the grand jury and say the local [dry] option is being subverted . . . . The entire political life style around here is colored by alcohol."

It takes no special genius to understand that the country's liquor laws are a crazy hodge-podge of contradiction -- dry here, wet there. But one has to come to this place, where Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky converge, to grasp just how crazy and contradictory it is.

Cumberland Gap, the breach in the Appalachians that led Daniel Boone and thousands of poineers to the new frontier over the Wilderness Road, is at the center of the crazy quilt.

Just below the Kentucky-Virginia border, two restaurants (one fittingly called "The Oasis") and two busy beer outlets make wet Clairborne County a sort of mecca for the beer drinker. Legal hard liquor is more distant, some 80 miles north in Cumberland, Ky., or about 60 miles south in Knoxville.

Of the 433 dry counties in the United States, three-fourths of them are within a day's drive of Cumberland Gap. That is to say that the bulk of the dry counties are in the southeastern corner of the country.

Eight-four of Kentucky's 120 counties are dry; 58 of Tennessee's 95 are dry; 14 of Virginia's 95 are dry, mostly in the southwestern wedge of the state that nestles up toward Cumberland Gap.

Theorists of American ways have their explanations for this regional phenomenon: that it is rooted in fundamentalist religion, that it is a product of mountain education and politics, that it reflects the conservatism of basically rural areas.

Whatever the answer, in an earlier time the easy way around a county's legal abstinence was moonshine, the illegal whisky that helped make Appalachia a fount of American folklore.

Moonshine continues to be made in backwoods stills, of course, but more recently the moonshiner has gone the way of legends. Commercial booze, illegal or not, is no more costly and often more readily available than white lightning in a dry county.

The flow of moonshine has so diminished that the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concentrates its power on weapons. In Kentucky, alcoholic-beverage-control agents have become zealous pursuers of bootleggers and drug traffickers.

The moonshiner's place has been taken by the bootlegger -- the vendor of beer, wine and distilled spirits who operates behind the front of a gasoline station, a grocery store or even a living room. In other words, things are not all that different from what they were during Prohibition.

People in these parts understand one of life's realities. The bootlegger would not survive long without at least the nodding acquiescence of public officials.

"It corrupts the entire legal system -- magistrates, sheriffs, deputies -- the court system itself," said Stephen C. Cawood, a young Bell County attorney just elected to the state legislature.

The stories of official collusion with the bootleggers are legion. Bell County's former sheriff, for one example, was indicted on federal conspiracy charges a couple of years ago, and was acquitted. His father and his deputy were convicted.

"There's a lot of money to be made in bootlegging," said a Bell County teen-age girl, who told of buying beer in Cumberland Gap for her younger brother. "The law is not going to touch those people -- officials do their business with the bootleggers."

The most clebrated of the local money makers probably is 75-year-old Maggie Bailey.Asutere tennis shoes and a grandmotherly air belie an enormous success in peddling booze from her modest little home on the edge of dry Harlan, 40 miles from here.

Bailey is appealing a liquor conviction stemming from the latest of the dozens of raids on her home that may have slowed her, but not put her out of business. Her niche among the greats was assured in 1965, when a state police raid turned up more than $200,000 in a footlocker. Internal Revenue hit her up for back taxes, then settled out of court for around $100,000.

Like other bootleggers, she has operated for decades, pestered from time to time by the law but never dealt the knockout punch. How does it happen?

"Politics," offered Irvin Franklin, the Bell County alcohol counselor. "The misdemeanor statistics don't tell the whole story," he said, "because those are only the ones who are caught.

"People around here are exploited politically. It is true of any sheriff in eastern Kentucky. They need to take care of 'Joe' if he is drunk or out of line, they need his family's votes."

Friendships and political connections always have counted for something, in dry county or wet, but the bootleg element introduces something special.

"It's unique in all of eastern Kentucky," said Sid Douglass, a circuit court judge in Harlan County, about 50 miles north of here. "Bootlegging has corrupted the political system and the system of justice. Bootleggers are politically powerful and very influential in their precincts."

No one argues much with that, but dramatic changes are coming to Bell County as a result of a statewide judiciary reorganization two years ago.

Non-lawyers no longer can sit as judges, and a new system of case-accountability on alcoholic-beverage cases and others means that a judge can no longer gloss over a friendly defendant's scrape with the law.

In Bell County, for example, District Court Judge Kelly Clore, a former U.S. commissioner elected to the bench two years ago after the reorganization, has handed out mandatory sentences in all but two alcohol cases.

One involved a 90-year-old man up on a bootlegging charge; the other a 53-year-old diabetic-epileptic who was transporting liquor illegally. All the other bootlegging cases before Clore have brought a minimum of 30 days in jail and a $100 fine.

The upshot, according to lawyer Cawood and others around Pineville, the county seat, is that more violators are going to jail, and bootleggers are having a tough time finding friends and storekeepers willing to front for them.

Even with the stories of contemporary corruption and abuse, memories of the wet 1950s in Bell County are powerful enough to make even the middle-class social drinkers wary of voting against the dry option. Gambling, prostitution and booze-related crimes were endemic and synonymous with wetness.

Middlesboro voted 3 to 1 to remain dry a few years ago. The city of Harlan voted to turn wet, but the referendum was overturned on a technicality. Drys then came out in force and won the rerun.

There are some who talk of an unholy alliance between those who preach against the evils of alcohol and the bootleggers, who, in their own interest, finance the campaigns to keep a town or county dry. Legal liquor, of course, would put them out of business.

From his place on the Harlan circuit bench, Douglass sees an easy way out of the contradictions that abound in the debate between wet and dry.

"A simple bill to authorize the sale of liquor in state-controlled stores would change it. People are going to drink and they are paying higher prices now for bootleg alcohol," he said.

"I testified for this three or four years ago in the state House of Representatives, but no bill was introduced. Honest to God, this whole thing would be changed overnight, but we're just not very intelligent."