“The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them. ” Robert Frost
Well sir, lest the various misadventures the of boys of the Plum tree Crossin’ Gen’ral Assembly sometimes git involved in make you forget that these fellers is all lazier’n Skeeter Ridges’ hound (an’ that critter’s so indolent it won’t scratch its own fleas . . . figurin’ that it’s easier to just wait for the first frost to kill them pests), I think it’s about time for me to describe a more typical event in their lives . . . a friendly session of callin’ the dog.
By the by, in case you don’t know, “callin’ the dog” is a sort of liars’ contest in which the best prevaricator is supposed to win a prize hound for his efforts. Now round these parts, the winner don’t genially git nothin’ more’n a Nehi soda and a Moon Pie (courtesy of the General Store’s proprietor, Sylvester T. Pennywhistle). Nonetheless, the fellers go at it just as hard as if they were lying for a blue-tick hound with a set of pedigree papers big as a Sears and Roebuck catalog!
Lafe Higgins started things of respectable enough by telling about the time he tried to visit a family relation out in Shut-In Gorge. “Uncle Higgins always were a hermit. Fact is, none of the family’d seen him since he run off 38 years ago, when he turned three and a half. Well, I wrote him to say I was comin’ an’ commenced to drive on out. The night were so dark a raindrop knocked on my car window and asked for a light so it could see how to hit the ground . . . the danged road were so crooked a gnat once broke its neck tryin’ to negotiate a curve . . . an’ the hill Unc lived on were so steep the wind had to use low gear to blow up over it. Well, when I finally got to the house, Uncle Higgins weren’t there. They was a sign on the door, though. It read, `Moved to the country. Too many visitors’.”
That yarn set Clarence Smithers mouth to whirring. “Heck, of Uncle Smithers use to like back country living his self. He was a trapper. I recall one day when he come batik home, bare-handed and empty-sacked, and cast his wife what was for supper.
” `Well,’ she replied, `I found a couple of of caters and turnips, and I been boilin’ them up to make a stew.’
” ‘Them’s pretty lean eatin’s for a man what’s wore out like me,’ Unk said. `Why don’t you kill a chicken?’
” `Cause we’re down to our last one, and it lays an egg every day. We’d be fools to kill a bird like that.’ “Well, just then Uncle Smithers heered that hen squawking like a new stringed fiddle. He rushed out to see what’s up, and a big mud ugly possum had grabbed that last chicken and was a-wringin’ its neck. Unk picked up a stick, clubbed the critter over the head, skinned it quick, and brought it in to his wife. `Lookee here!’ he jubilated. `Now, you can make real stew with meat, while I go trade the fur off to another trapper for a bottle of wine. We’ll eat good tonight.’
“So the wife started cookin’ dinner. An’ when Unk got back from his swappin’, she lifted the lid to check in on the stew. Well, that naked animal was sittin’ there just a-lickin’ its chops: It’d done et all the taters, turnips, and hot grease, to boot. Soon as the woman lifted that lid, the critter jumped out the pot, scooted up the table, knocked the wine bottle down to pieces on the floor, darted out the window, grabbed up that neck-wrung chicken, and lit out for the woods. Nobody ever saw that animal aging, either, ‘ceptin’ the other trapper. Seems the possum snuck into that man’s camp the same night . . . just long enough to pull his skin of the stretcher board and put it back on!”
Lem Tucker went on next. “Now I’d agree your uncle weren’t the fortuna test man whatever wallowed in the hogpen of life, but when it comes to real calamities, no one could call up misery the way of Glum Tucker did. Last time I visited him, I cast how his kinfolks were and he just started in a-cryin’. `Kinfolk? Kinfolk?’ he moaned. `Why, two years ago, I had me a wife and at least eight or nine children. Then corn went down and taxes went up till, one by one, I had to send all the youngsters to the Orphans’ Home. That was bad enough, but things kept on gettin’ worse . . . an’ then I had to send my dear, sweet love, my only wife, on back to her daddy’s.’
” `Cuss, Uncle,’ I replied, ‘I’m powerful sad to hear that.’
” `I don’t blame you there,’ he said. `But let me tell you, things is goin’ bad aging. If they get much worse, blamed if I ain’t afeered I’ll have to sell my car!’ “
“Well,” Doc Thromberg started up, “that’s a sad enough story, I s’pose. But my relatives have had a good helpin’ of misfortune, too. An’ none often took worse to it than my uncle, Ferrin Tremlin. Now of Mr. Tremlin was a good coon hunter, but he was also the most superstitious and downright spee-ookable feller you ever could see. In fact, ev’ry time he went out alone, he carried a little pocket Bible with him to calm his fears.
“One night, Uncle Ferrin was holed up in an abandoned cabin, waitin’ out a rainstorm. The wind was a-howlin’ like a pack of lost bloodhounds, and the rain was peltin’ on the roof like a thousand bats was a-tryin’ to git in. To ease his jitters, Uncle built up a roaring fire, sat down alongside it, and started in to readin’ Genesis.
“By and by, a cat blacker’n a stack of midnights walks right in the cabin and sets down next to the fire. Then it picks up a bright red coal and licks it all over with its tongue. Ferrin’s eyeballs wanted to flee all by themselves when they saw that, but he tried to calm them — and the rest of hisself — by forcing them back to their readin’.
“A few minutes later, in comes another cat, blacker’n the first one and bigger than a good-sized mutt. It sits down to the fire, picks up a glowin’ coal, and dusts its cheeks with it . . . both sides. Then it turns to the first cat and says, `Are we ready?’ And the first cat says, `No, we better wait till Martin comes.’ Well, at that, Uncle jumps from Exodus clean over to Isaiah . . . he’d never heard any cat talkin’ before.
“A few more minutes pass, and in comes a cat that’s the blackest yet and bigger’n a wild boar. It walks over, picks up a fist-sized coal, and dusts its eyeballs with it . . . left and right, right and left. Then it turns to the first cat and says, `Shall we do it now?’ The first cat says, `No, we’d better wait till Martin comes.’
“Well, Uncle closed the Book . . . cried, `Goodnight, friend cats. You tell Mr. Martin I was here’ . . . and bolted out that door so fast those tabbies likely didn’t hear his words till he’d crossed three county lines. Why, even his clothes had to race to keep up!”
Doc leaned back to grin over this well-received bit of exaggeration
. . but his satisfaction was cut short. A bit of forced hemming and coughing by Plumtree’s crustiest of liars, Newt Blanchard and Ott Bartlett, made Doc and the other fellers realize that it was time for Barren County’s two most renowned truth-benders to dust of their tonsils and get down to some serious fabrication. Sure enough, Newt cleared his throat for a moment, and then commenced to begin.
“Seems to me your uncle were sittin’ on a full larder . . . at least, compared to a gent on my mother’s side of the family. Bad luck covered Uncle Mort like kudzu. He finally got so plum overgrown with calamities that he decided to kill hisself. He got to thinkin’, though, what with his powerful poor luck and all, his pistol might not do the trick. So he went down to the store and bought a gallon of kerosene, a strong rope, and some `Mrs. Ree’s Belly Up’ rat poison. Then he went down to the river, got in a boat, and rowed down to where some trees hung way out over the water.
“Well, Uncle Mort tied the rope around his neck and over the limb of a tree, soaked hisself in kerosene, ate the rat poison, and set his clothes afire. Then he kicked the boat out and pulled the trigger to shoot hisself.
“The pistol went of and shot the rope in two. Consequently, Uncle Mort fell in the water, and that put out the fire. Then he got to chokin’ and gulpin’ so much tryin’ to drown hisself that he threw up all the rat poison.
“By that time, the poor feller figured his luck was so mizzerble he might as well give up. So he swam on into shore and ran for the legislature. His bad luck held there, too . . . he won!”
Well, that drew so much laughin’ from the assembled fellers that ’twasn’t till one of them cracked, “Newt, maybe you should wait till Bartlett has his say afore you gloat too much!” that they all remembered there was one more teller left to tell. So, with a set of skeptical faces — ‘twern’t one of them believed anyone could top Newt’s whopper — they all turned their chairs to listen to Ott.
Ott didn’t say nothing.
They all waited awhile, polite-like.
Ott still didn’t say nothing.
This went on for several more minutes, till finally Young Billy Parsons couldn’t stand it anymore. “Ott,” he said, “ain’t you going to tell a story?”
Ott spit into the cuspidor, looked back up, and replied, “Why, ho, can I, Billy? I ain’t never told a lie in all my life.”
Yes sir, the other day, the fellers all got together for a session of callin’ the dog . . . and of Ott Bartlett won hisself a Nehi soda and a fresh-off-the-shelf, cream-filled Moon Pie.