The Last Laugh: The Mechanical Arbivore

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Decide for yourself whether ol' man Purvis is telling the truth about his wood-cutting machine.

To my mind, March is about the nastiest month of the year. Not only does it smack you with sneak-up spats of cold an’ snow, but the foul weather hits when most folks are out of firewood. In point of fact, just the other day a number of the members of the Plumtree Crossing Truth and Veracity League were sitting around the potbellied stove in Sylvester Pennywhistle’s General Store, lamenting their empty woodsheds when young Billy Parsons up and says, “Gee, wouldn’t it be neat if someone built a machine that would do all your wood chopping for you?”

Ott Bartlett, one of the senior liars of the group (he claims he was old when New Orleans was a blueprint), replied, “Don’t you know, son, that Purvis Jacobs never lifts a finger bringing in fuel because he has just such a device?”

Then Newt Blanchard, the other long-lived prevaricator, chipped in, “That danged doodad doesn’t just split wood, either. It knocks down the tree, chops it, and stacks it nice and neat!”

“Aw, come on,” young Billy said, “ain’t nothing can do that! What’s it called?

“Why, the Mechanical Arbivore, of course,” Ott answered. “Ain’t you never heard a loud wail — kind of like what a wildcat with ingrown claws might make — coming out of Purvis’s place? That’s the toothpick-maker getting started.”

Just then the piercing sound of a shrill, distant whistle reached the ears of the store’s seated assembly.

“There,” Newt said. “It’s cranking up now. Hear how it only give one toot? That means the Mechanical Arbivore is about to do some sawing on another doomed tree.”

As Newt spoke, he, Ott, Lem Tucker, Skeeter Ridges, Clarence Smithers, and Lafe Higgins all started buttoning up their coats and each mumbling something about his own woodpile — the of reprobates headed out the door.

It was about a week later, when Purvis Jacobs was first getting up from setting on his front porch, that a lanky fella — all loaded down with pencils, cameras, pads, and tape recorders — drove up. Out he hops, hands over a business card, gives Purvis one of them non-stop pump-handle handshakes, and says:

“Pleased to meet you, Purvis Jacobs. I’ve come to cover your Mechanical Arbivore for the Courier.  My little cousin Billy Parsons told me about it and I figured its got to be more interesting than anything I’ve seen so far this week. Where is it?”

Well, Purvis set back down a minute before stepping inside to grab a bright red demijohn labeled — in white — with the words “CAUTION: EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE.” Then he led Arthur Scribe a couple hundred feet away from the house to where two recently felled and sawed up locust trees lay in the woods. Right next to them rounds was a pile of iron scrap bits and ends, that looked for all the world like someone had taken a broke crosscut saw, a used crankshaft, a misshapen train whistle, a cracked axe head, a junked gasoline lawn mower, and a whole assortment of levers, pulleys, gears, and brake shoes, dropped them all at once off a three-story building and then just welded the pieces together the way they landed.

“There she is,” Purvis said. “I’ll start her, but it takes an hour er so to warm up in cold weather, so I don’t suspect you’ll get to see it do much.”

Mister Scribe took photographs, from just about every side but the underside of the Arbivore, while Purvis got to work. First he took a big swig from the red jug to test the fuel. Then he inverted the jug over the lawnmower engine’s small fuel tank to provide continuous refill, cranked the contraption up, give two howls on the whistle (“those two toots tell it to split wood, you see”), and turned to walk back to his house.

“Wait a minute! ” yipped Scribe as he hurried after Jacobs. “I haven’t found out everything I want to know!”

Well, that night turned out to be a mighty chilly one, and for Purvis Jacobs — trying to answer the triple-speed queries of Arthur D. Scribe — it was a long one, to boot. By sunrise, the reporter had only just run out of questions, and Purvis took him back out to the Mechanical Arbivore. The machine had stopped, and its fuel jug was plumb empty. But, right next to it lay two locust trees’ worth of split firewood.

Ol’ Art shot a few dozen more pictures, then left to file his story. On the way he stopped in at the Plumtree Crossing General Store to thank his cousin Billy for the great lead. Billy beamed, but — interestingly enough — the rest of the cronies didn’t join in that conversation. Seems they was all huddled around the store’s potbellied heater, yawning, sneezing, and looking a sheet or two to the wind!

The very next evening — first as one of those miserable March snowstorms was starting to commence — another car drove up to Purvis’ house. This time, a tow-sack-shaped feller stepped out and demanded, “You the smart-aleck liar who fed my reporter a bunch of buncombe about some mechanical wood-mauler? I’m Barcan Bite, editor of the Republican Courier, and I’m not about to print that kind of malarky in my newspaper, you read me?”

“Suit yourself,” Purvis replied.

“I can’t afford to waste my reporter’s work, though, so I aim to get a story out of this somehow. Even if it only shows what a lying fool you are! Take me out to this clatter-trap!”

So Purvis got the red jug, led Barcan out to the Arbivore , took a test swig from the demijohn, smiled approvingly, and started to invert it over the fuel tank. But Barcan grabbed the jug from his arm, sniffed it, and took a swig himself.

“Whee-oo! Man, that must be 160-proof liquor!”

He went on to take another swallow, and then another, and then another, before he’d let Purvis set the jug in place. Jacobs cranked the engine, gave its whistle three good toots (“that’s to tell it to haul the wood”), then turned for home.

“I guess you expect me to follow you, too,” Barran shouted, “so’s I can’t see what trick gits pulled out here.”

“Shoot,” said Purvis, “what good’s a wood-cutting machine if I have to waste time watching it work?”

Barcan wasn’t convinced, however, so he perched himself next to the alcohol-sipping contraption and waited. It wasn’t long before night fell and snowflakes started to cover the ground. Feeling the chill spreading clear to his bones, the persistent editor pulled the demijohn off the machine and inverted it over his own fuel tank. Subsequently, he felt a strong surge of warmth, and then — following a few more sips — he become downright electrified with energy!

Seemed the moonshine had give Barcan’s reasoning powers a sharp boost, too, for he quickly decided that — given prime, 160-proof corn squeezing’s — the Arbivore just might be able to do what were claimed for it. And from there it was just a short jump of logic to a decision to haul the wood to the porch himself so as to avoid wasting the hooch on what — work or not — was nothing but a pile of mindless metal.

Purvis awoke next morning to find the fierce March snowstorm over, the peaceful earth clothed in white, two locust trees’ worth of firewood neatly stacked on the porch and one newspaper editor snoring on the kitchen floor with a red jug — empty — by his side.

It was somewhat later on that Mister Bite finally come to, his body aching from hair to heel and his head throbbing fit to bust. He surveyed the scene just long enough to remember exactly what had gone on the preceding night, then stumbled into his car and headed down for town. (At a sharp bend he noticed where a bunch of pickup trucks what had started up the holler had skidded off the road. A passel of blue-faced old locals was pushing the vehicles and yelling at one another, but Barcan was in no shape to stop and cover that story.)

The very next week the Republican Courier ran Arthur Scribe’s article on the Mechanical Arbivore, just as the roving reporter had written it. There was, though, one little addition at the end of the piece. “The Courier,” it read, “will let its readers determine the veracity of this story for themselves. All we know is that there’s a sucker — and a sipper — born every minute. –Your Editor.”