Crowder Tales

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A little while later, as I passed the convicts on my way to school, I came upon Mr. Kicklighter, the mayor and peace justice of Crowder, and Lazy Dog Johnson, the marshal. They and several other men I recognized were standing over a convict who was sprawled, face up, in a ditch. His chest was covered with foamy blood, and the ground about him was stained red. I did not stop, but walked on with my heart thumping wildly.

“Hi there, young ‘un,” came a friendly voice.

I swung my head and saw Peggy. He was standing on the roadside, his good foot and peg leg spread apart, with his shotgun cradled in his arms. He wore a broad grin that showed his snaggled teeth. He was more cheerful than I had seen him since he had become a convict guard.

 

“Hi, Peggy,” I answered weakly.

In Crowder the shooting was the main topic of conversation. And so it was in school. Peggy, I heard, had done the shooting. The convict, so the story went, had gone after him with an axe, and Peggy fired two loads of buckshot into his chest at close range. That afternoon I stopped at Monk’s Garage to pick up the latest information.

“That man Johns is a killer,” said greasy Monk Cartwright as he assembled a carburetor. “He just as soon shoot you as look at you.”

“Yeah,” said Rufus Buckhalter, “I hear he’s killed more convicts than any other guard in the state. He killed two convicts in one month a little over a year ago. He got laid off for that. And that’s why he’s been here, living with his brother.”

“Even the other guards say he’s too quick on the trigger,” said Fidley Tootle. “The convicts all hate him. I hear that the man he shot this morning—a fellow doing life for murdering a brother-in-law—had told other convicts that he aimed to get Peggy, even if it cost him his life.” “Well, Peggy was laid off the job at noon—until they can make an investigation,” said Monk.

It was getting late as I approached the place where Peggy lived. I was adjacent to the faded yellow house when he called out:

“Hi there, young ‘un.”

I was startled, for Peggy was sitting on the opposite side of the road, partly hidden by a patch of dead dog fennel. I turned to see him grinning. He folded his whittling knife and dropped it into his pocket as he got to his feet.

“Come around on Saturday and let’s play some marbles and shoot a slingshot some,” said Peggy. “And bring some of them good shooting rocks from near your house. The rocks here ain’t much good for a slingshot.” “Yes, sir,” I said nervously, and without stopping.

“See you Saturday, then,” said Peggy

“Yes, sir,” I said.

But as I walked on I knew that I would not be back on Saturday.

3. Juddie Matlock

Juddie Matlock had his twenty-first birthday a week after Crowder Elementary School opened. I was in the third grade, and Juddie started in the primer. For the first time I realized it was possible for a grown man to be unable to spell such simple words as cat , rat , and dog .

Juddie was a tall, lanky cracker from the flatwoods. He hardly knew what to do with himself during recess. Our teacher, Mr. Beaseley, must have sensed Juddie’s uneasiness, for he spent a lot of the recess periods talking to him. At other times Juddie would just stand around and watch our games, and when we played baseball, he sometimes would play with us. But he had never played games before, and he wasn’t any better at baseball than the smaller kids.

It surprised me to see how awkward a grown man could be. As time passed, though, we all got to like Juddie a great deal. He was quiet, maybe too quiet. But Juddie would do anything he could to please others. He had a lot of consideration for the kids.

One thing Juddie didn’t like to do was to umpire baseball. It embarrassed him to discover that he had rendered a decision that someone objected to. He would stutter and stumble over words as he hastened to change his decision, only to discover that the other side was now displeased. In the end, he found, an umpire couldn’t satisfy everyone. After that he refused to umpire.

Juddie had to walk several miles to school, and when it rained, he had to wade through the flatwoods most of the way, carrying his shoes over his shoulder. He would stop on a footlog at a branch near the school and put on his shoes. For some reason he didn’t like the kids to see him barefoot. I never saw Juddie’s folks, but they must have been very poor. He wore overalls that bore several patches. They also were about three inches too short for him. His shoes had been half-soled with the fiber lining from an automobile tire.

The classes sat in groups in the oneroom school. Juddie sat with the primer class. Although his desk was among the largest in the room, like those used by sixth-grade pupils, his legs stuck out on either side, his sharp knees standing at the level of his desk top. He looked rather comical, the way he sat there clumsily but methodically writing c-a-t and r-a-t and biting his tongue in a concentrated effort to get the words right.