Well sir, you can sure tell that winter is over and spring is officially here: The tourists are returnin’ to Barren County and, sooner or later, most of ’em stop over at the Plumtree Crossin’ General Store for a bottle of Nehi orange and a Moon Pie.
Generally, of course, the fellers whittlin’ out in front of the place get along right well with these folks. But every once in a while, one of the pilgrims that’s passin’ through takes it upon his self to what you might call “engage in a battle of wits” with the gentlemen lined up out there on the liars’ bench. And that’s always a mistake. I mean, those ole duffers may look quaint and colorful and as innocent as fresh-laid eggs jest a’sittin’ there in their bib overalls and straw hats … but when it comes to serious lyin,’ well they jest don’t give no quarter, if y’comprehend what I’m gettin’ at.
As good an example of this phenomenon of nature as any, I reckon, was the jasper who stopped by last summer on his way from Poughkeepsie to Abilene — Kansas, not Texas — by what he referred to as “the scenic southern route.”
Now it ain’t no reflection on either one of them fine towns I jest mentioned, but this particular bird-of-passage was somethin’ to see. He was all fancied up with one of them there razor-cut hairdos and suede leather leisure suits and he was wearin’ $150 boots that had been very carefully sewed together to look like $12.95 brogans and — all in all — it was hard to tell whether he was an anchor man for the evenin’ news on some big city TV station or a used car dealer.
Whatever he did for a livin,’ though, it was obvious that he was experienced in misplacin’ the truth from time to time … and it was also obvious that, as familiar as he was with this age-old pastime of the human race, he’d never really developed a talent for falsifyin’ with any kind of an accomplished flair.
Oh, this feller could stretch the truth, misstate the facts, or outright lie about as good as any city person … but he had never learned to do it with the downright good humor and affection of the average country prevaricator. In other words, he could tell the mean little lies that’d cheat you out of money … but when it came to the really heroic, groundpawin’, ripsnortin’, throw-back-yer-head-and-beller, false witnessin’ that was so good and so basically innocent and so entertainin’ that folks’d actually rob banks to get the money to pay for … well, this peckerwood wasn’t even in the runnin’.
But — naturally enough, like most tinhorns — this one was so wrapped in his own glory that he didn’t realize the true facts of the matter. And, jest as naturally — once he’d sauntered out of the General Store with a Clark bar in one hand and a club soda in the other — he proceeded to address himself to the sly old Barlow knife-wielding reprobates who were doin’ sech a good job of holdin’ up the front of the buildin’ with their tippedback straight chairs.
“Tell me now, hayseeds,” said this lightweight pettifogger in what he seemed to think was a becoming downhome tone of voice, “do you ever catch any big fish around here?”
Well, neither Lafe Higgins nor Clarence Smithers nor Skeeter Ridges nor Newt Blanchard — the four wolves in sheeps’ clothing who happened to have parked the hip pockets of their Levis on the shady side of the store that afternoon — turned a hair. But they all knowed that the honor of the Plumtree Lyin’ and Old Timers’ Drinkin’ Society had just been laid on the line.
In short, this was one of those occasions where it don’t pay to be polite and warm up with sociable little frog-in-the-pocket fibs. There was only one way to fight this match: Let your opponent think he has all the advantages, give him an opening for his best shot … and then, while he’s congratulating himself and blowin’ the smoke outta his popgun, jest roll back with the heavy artillery and blast him clean into the next state.
It was a sight to see, the way those boys played their hand to perfection. Lafe and Clarence and Skeet all knowed that Newt was the real heavyweight hyperbolizer among ’em so they all jest set there lookin’ as blank as a Channel 13 test pattern at three o’clock in the morning to give him his openin’.
And Newt took it. But he never even glanced up. He jest cleared his throat a little, run his tongue over his gums, and hawked an oyster out past the Poughkeepsie Prince’s $150 boots. A shot across the bow, so to speak. “Well, I don’t know, stranger. Jest what do you call a big fish?”
“Why, you old hick! I mean something like that 10-pound bass I caught a couple of years ago down in Arkansas. Let me tell you now, that was some fish. But I was up to him … I was up to him! I was fishing with a fly rod, see, and I musta been flicking that yellow popper out a good 25 yards if I was casting it an inch. When all of a sudden this big old bass — he hadda be 2 to 2 1/2 feet long — came boiling up out of the water and inhaled that bait.
“Now I knew the light line I was using would never turn that fish, so when he went hauling up the river, why I just went splashing upstream with him as best I could. Figured I’d wear him out after a while and land him. But then, as I was churning up the river, damned if I didn’t run smack into an overhanging tree limb. Musta been six inches in diameter and I hit it so hard that I broke it right in two. That knocked me down — But not out! Not out! — for a few seconds … and when I got back up, I could see that that old bass was gone. But he was huge. He was just huge! If I’d landed him, he’d have been a record for that river. He was a monster. That’s what I mean by a big fish! “
Newt puckered up and spit again. This time the stream whizzed past the other side of those $150 boots. The stranger didn’t know it, but he’d been bracketed.
“Oh, so it’s minners you’re talkin’ about. I thought you wanted to palaver about fish. Hell, mister, you say you was castin’ 25 yards with a fly rod. Why, I’ve seen a hen lay eggs further than that. And, besides, around here we usually go after channel catfish — 50-60 pounders — and we use Number 9 wire for line, hooks bent up outta semi truck overload springs, and three chickens wired together for bait.
“And we don’t let ’em get away, mister. Leastwise, we’d never admit it to someone who was jest passin’ through. And, shecks, that little mishap you had with the twig hangin’ over the stream there warn’t much. I’ve been hit in the lip harder than that and never even stopped whistlin’.”
It was obvious by this time from the glazed look in his eye and the way he was edging toward his car, that the splendiferous stranger from Poughkeepsie already realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
Newt spit for the third and final time. Only — perhaps because the stranger was shufflin’ his feet around or possibly because Newt seemed to be having a little sudden trouble with his pucker — the tail end, just the barest corner, of this stream ticked the toe of one of those $150 boots. Old Man Blanchard was closin’ in for the kill.
“The closest thing I can recollect to your experience was the time I was fishin’ for channels off the Missiloggie Railroad Bridge and jest as I hooked into one of ’em, why the 5:17 came around the turn there and flat knocked me off the trestle — you remember when that happened, don’t you Skeet? — and down into the river 100 feet below.
“Well mister, I was pretty stove up after that fall but the catfish was still full of fight so I proceeded to have it out with him right there in the water. Rassled him for damn near two hours barehanded before I brought him in and, what with him tryin’ to stab me with his barbs and all, that wasn’t easy.
“But I got him and I thought I had me some fish, too. Even after we’d skun him out and gutted him and cut that cat up into pieces we could handle, he completely filled a Number 2 washtub. But hell’s fire and brimstone, bedamned if Chalmers Carren from up around Bent Creek didn’t go out the very next day and catch a channel cat even bigger’n that one. Why, his was so big that … “
It was along about then that Newt finally looked up just in time to see the Poughkeepsie Pipsqueak ease into his car, hit the starter, and roar out of the drive while the gettin’ was still good. And, bein’ the accomplished liar that he is, that’s also when ole Newt shut his story off.
“Well, fellers,” said Newt as he looked around at Lafe and Clarence and Skeet — all of whom were vitally interested in the final punch line of his fabrication but none of whom was about to tip his hand by askin’ him to go on — “I reckon I’ll jest save the rest of that particular tale for the annual Barren County Liars’ Convention comin’ up this fall.”
It’s like I said earlier: The liars around here don’t give no quarter.