Crowder Tales

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He would plow from daylight until dark six days a week, and when there wasn’t work to be done in the fields, he would find something else to do, such as hoeing the fencerows or, in the winter, chopping wood and splitting rails. Then one day—it was on a very hot day in July—something happened to Uncle Zenus. It had rained for nearly two weeks straight, and the weeds were as high as the cotton. Uncle Zenus was sweating and thinking as he followed the mule and guided the cultivator. During the past couple of years cotton prices had been so low that he had barely broken even. And now it was the weeds. The rows seemed longer and longer, the field bigger and bigger. Uncle Zenus knew he could never catch up with those weeds; they were just too far ahead of him. At the end of a row he shouted at his mule:

“Whoa!”

Uncle Zenus unhitched the mule and led it to the barn, where he removed the harness and bridle. Then he went to the house.

“What on earth are you doing, putting up the mule and coming to the house at this time of morning?” asked his surprised sister. “Anything wrong?”

Uncle Zenus didn’t answer, but as he stepped onto the porch he removed his weather-beaten, sweat-soaked straw hat and, with all his might, flung it upon the floor.

“Dad blamed if I ever hit another lick of work as long as I live, so help me!” he shouted.

And he didn’t.

2. Peggy

Soon after Mr. Johns, a peg-legged man, came to Crowder, a small boy called him “Peggy.” Mr. Johns laughed loudly at the name, slapped his good leg, and said he liked it. Thereafter everybody called him Peggy.

Peggy had moved in with his brother and family who lived in a weathered yellow bungalow on the roadside be- tween our house and town. He was a tall and rawboned man with deeply wrinkled, weather-beaten skin. Tobacco juice drained down his chin from the corners of his mouth and stained his beard stubble. He showed a mouth full of yellow, snaggled teeth when he laughed. When the weather was warm, Peggy used to sit on a bench in the front yard under a big sycamore tree and whittle, and when the weather was cool, he would sit inside beside a fire and whittle. When he grew tired of whittling at home, he would hobble downtown to Monk’s Garage and whittle with the rest of Crowder’s loafers.

Peggy used to carve fancy slingshot handles for me. He liked slingshots and could shoot one better than anybody else I have ever known. His gray, hard eyes were very sharp. He could hit a sparrow on the wing or hit a running rabbit. I once saw him knock a bullbat out of the sky. He could play marbles well, too, though he had trouble getting into shooting position because of his peg leg. I seldom ever won a game from him. He tried to teach me how to put english on a marble, “like you put english on a pool ball,” but I never got it.

“Your thumb just ain’t long enough, young ‘un,” said Peggy.

About a year after Peggy came to Crowder, a convict camp was set up beside the road about half a mile from our house. The striped-suited convicts began the laborious handwork of improving the road through Crowder, using some mule power but mostly back power. I had to pass the convicts on my way to and from school. They were about equally divided between blacks and whites, but all wore leg chains—chains long enough to permit them to walk but not long enough to permit them to run. Several guards stood about with double-barreled shotguns cradled in their arms. They were stout, grim men who, the way they looked at you, made you fear them more than the convicts. Occasionally a guard would shout an order in a gruff voice.

One morning as I walked past the laboring convicts I was surprised to see my friend Peggy. He was leaning against a fence post near the road, with a double-barreled shotgun in his arms.

“Hi, Peggy,” I greeted him.

“Hi, young ‘un,” he answered, not unfriendly, but in a reserved manner that discouraged talk.

With his left jaw distended by a “chaw” of tobacco and the brown juice draining down his stubbled chin, Peggy looked as grim as the other guards. The convicts Peggy was guarding were a rough-looking lot, too. They were as slender as soldiers in combat and they gave me hard glances after I had spoken to Peggy. I imagined that they snarled silently, and I felt frightened as my eyes met theirs. Thereafter when I passed Peggy’s convicts, I walked on the opposite side of the road, feeling a little queasy as I passed. If Peggy was looking in my direction, I would raise a hand and smile halfheartedly, but said nothing. He would nod his head without smiling.

Work on the road progressed rapidly. Soon the convicts were working within sight of our house. We could hear the clanking of the chains as the men shuffled about and hear the drivers shouting at the mules, and sometimes we could hear the guards as they cursed at the convicts. One morning while we were eating breakfast a shot rang out, then a second shot.

“A shotgun, I gad,” said Pa.

Man-screams followed from the direction where the convicts were working, then an uproar of confused voices, together with the shouts of orders from the guards. We rushed to the window to look, but we could see nothing unusual. The convicts seemed to be working as rapidly as ever, so we returned to our meal.