Last Laugh: The Mud Season Contest

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Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
Everyone in Plumtree Crossing had trouble keeping their temper during mud season.

He who laughs, lasts.Mary Pettibone Poole

Well sir, what we call the mud season surlies round these parts is that tow sack of perturbability everyone lugs when them ol’ perspiring rains make roads impassable and tempers intolerable. You’d a knowed what I mean if you’d braved a wettin’ down the other day to make your way up to the Plumtree Crossin’ General Store. Inside that leaky establishment, the local reprobates was all hunched around the potbellied stove, wearing raincoats, and sporting a few just-sprouted watercresses in their beards.

And surly … well, it were enough to make you want to toss a firecracker in a midwinter bear den just to meet some good-natured company. There was Ott Bartlett and Newt Blanchard playing checkers … almost regular-like ‘cept that ever’ time one piece reached the other guy’s side, that fella’d acknowledge the feat by flingin’ the whole board to the floor. Meanwhile, Lafe Higgins were busily grindin’ his pipe into the floor with his foot ’cause the fool thing was too wet to light, an’ August Carmichael were breakin’ the store’s hat rack into kindlin’ sticks and shovin’ them into the stove jist ’cause he didn’t like the way it’d been lookin’ over his shoulder.

An’ them goin’s-on kept goin’ on till Doc Thromberg came in. Now, I suppose it may be because a fella in his line of work sees plenty of real cause for unhappiness, but whatever the reason, a spat of foul weather don’t never seem to ruffle Doc none. Fact is, oftentimes he serves as peacemaker when the rest of the crew put on their wet-weather uglies.

Doc decided the remedy for this partic’lar case of the surlies might jist be a sportin’ proposition. “Boys,” he said, ploppin’ down in a soft, soggy seat, “I just visited a patient over in Erosion Junction, and that reminded me of the big Easter Parade that town’s going to have two weeks from now. You see, they’ve invited me to drive the ’37 Packard I keep stored up” (Doc used a beat-up four-wheel-drive for regular transportation) “at the head of this year’s parade.”

“Well, ain’t that the biggest thing since the Head Lice Banjo Players,” snarled Lafe Higgins.

“And I’m sure you boys also know that the driver of that lead car traditionally escorts the county beauty queen in the parade and to the Spring Ball that night. Well, I’m willing to bet the privilege of driving my prized, spanking-clean Packard and escorting its passenger to the parade and dance against any soul here who can keep his temper as long as I can. But if I win, the loser is gonna have to drive me on my rounds at all hours of the day and night until the roads are dry again.”

The prospect of winnin’ a bet, drivin’ Doc’s cherished Packard, and escortin’ Lisa May Applebaum, the prettiest girl in Barren County (she always won the beauty contest), made for a mighty attractive lure. Ol’ Ott Bartlett (who weren’t too old he couldn’t appreciate a pretty girl) bit first. “All right, Doc,” he agreed, “the first one of us to lose his temper loses the bet. But you’re gonna feel mighty bad watchin’ me escortin’ your date.”

The deal was struck: Bartlett had two weeks to put the bee on the doctor. He started by calling the Thromberg residence at 3:00 AM an’ hollerin’, “Doc, Doc! Hurry on over here! It’s an emergency!”

Well, the M.D. struggled out of bed an’ up the hollow to Bartlett’s place, havin to get out an’ walk the last half mile of that two-laned quagmire. Then, soon as he got there, Ott led him out to his chicken coop, he showed him a hen that were all speckled over with red paint, an’ said, “You got to fix my bird, Doc! I’m afraid she’s got the People Pox!”

Well, you could see the steam startin’ to rise offen Doc’s rain drenched hat. “You mean you drug me out here in the middle of the night for a made-up alarm about some blamed fool chicken?!”

“That’s right, Doc,” Ott said smugly. “Why, you mad?”

“No, no, I ain’t a bit mad,” Thromberg said, pulling his hat over his eyes an’ startin’ the long trudge back to his jeep.

A few days later, Doc made a house call up to August Carmichael’s place. When he opened his black bag to pull out some medication, though, he saw that every jar in it was full of little round candies — the kind sold at the General Store — ‘stead of medicine. Doc raced back to the store as fast as his mud-caked vehicle would carry him.

“Looking for your pills, Doc?” Ott said when the physician stormed in. He handed Thromberg a grocery bag. In it was a heap of totally mixed-together pills and capsules. “I reckon they may have got a little messed up,” Ott teased. “But you ain’t mad about it, are you?”

“No, I’m NOT mad,” Doc crackled, tryin’ his best to keep from starchin’ and ironin’ Bartlett’s skull. “I don’t have the slightest desire to stuff all these down your gol-durned gullet. I don’t want to —” Then, sensing what was happenin’ to himself, he jist grabbed the bag an’ stormed right out.

Things went along in that manner till there was only one day left before the parade. Ott knew that if he couldn’t get Doc’s goat good and proper before the followin’ noon, he’d lose the bet an’ enough face to more’n make up for the suffering Thromberg had been going through. So Bartlett thought up one last, surefire ploy.

The next morning when Doc went out to start on his rounds, all four of his jeep’s tires were flat out of air, and Ott was sitting in the front seat, grinning wider’n a cat in a bird nest.

“Guess you’ll have to use your Packard on your calls today, Doc,” he said. “Shame to muddy it up on the day of the parade. You ain’t mad about that, though, are you?”

Doc lunged at Ott like a bitin’ sow. “You’re @a#!%&* right I’m mad!” he bellowed. “Mad enough to perform a brand-new operation: the Ottolectomy!”

Ott fended him of long enough to cash his chips. “It’s all right, Doc. Now that you’ve lost our bet, I’ll let you use my car this mornin’. That way you won’t have to muddy up the Packard I’ll be escortin’ Lisa May Applebaum in.”

Soon as Ott said that, Doc let go of him. “Fix my tires and it’s a deal,” he said in a downright agreeable tone of voice.

Ott did. He jacked the car up onto four blocks, took all the wheels off, drove ’em down to a gas station, inflated ’em, drove ’em back, and put ’em all back on. Then to show what a really good sport he was, he escorted Thromberg on all his mornin’ rounds. (0′ course, he did manage to tell all Doc’s patients why he was driving it.)

When the time come to get ready, the two drove over to the storage garage to get the Packard. Then, as Doc handed beamin’ Mr. Bartlett the keys, he said (almost as an aside), “You know, Ott, it doesn’t look like Lisa May’s going to make it to the parade today.”


“Seems she’s got a right bad case of mononucleosis.”

Ott sensed a sudden tightening of a noose he hadn’t even known was around his neck. “When she get it?”

” ‘Bout exactly two weeks ago, as I recall,” Thromberg answered. “But don’t worry. They decided to let the chairwoman of the parade committee take her place … Sodie Sallyratus.”

“Sodie Sallyratus, that chatterboxin’ snippet what switchboards for the phone company?!” Ott was heating up fast.

“Why, yes. An’ isn’t she the one who whupped you in that tale-telling contest about two years back?”

“That cheatin’ motormouth! Do you really expect me to drive that two-tongued viper in the parade?”

“Yes, and looks like you’ll have to take her to the ball, too,” Doc answered with the true laughs-last smile.

Well sir, ol’ Ott was buildin’ steam quicker than a plugged-up pressure cooker, but Doc jist shook his head sorrowfully. “I’m afraid it won’t do any good for you to get mad now. You see, you already won the bet.”

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