Uncle Sagamore and His Girls, p.1Charles Williams
Uncle Sagamore and His Girls
POLITICS WAS THE LAST thing in the world you’d think Uncle Sagamore would get mixed up in, but there was one thing—people said after it was all over it was the most exciting election they ever had in Blossom County. Maybe you remember reading about it. It was in the papers clear across the country, what with all the hullaballoo over the turpentine business and the hog feed, and the people shooting at each other, and the Governor threatening to call out the National Guard. Along toward the last it was so mixed up you couldn’t tell who was electioneering for who.
Oh, he wasn’t running for any office hisself. Uncle Sagamore, I mean. As Murph says, he wasn’t a candidate; he was the platform. He made a few speeches here and there, but generally they ended in such a fuss he just spent most of his time tinkering with the turpentine machinery and trying to figure out why the hog feed acted so funny. But it seemed like they just had to keep dragging him into it, and what started the whole thing was people getting mad at him. First, it was the Sheriff’s men, when they dug up that aluminum canteen in the front yard, and then next it was this Curly Minifee that wanted to sell him some tires for his truck. But that’s getting ahead of the story. I better start at the beginning....
Aunt Bessie had just left Uncle Sagamore again.
She does, ever so often. This last time was about three days ago. She took her egg money and walked down to Jimerson’s that’s on the party line and called for the taxi man to come after her.
“I’m a God-fearin’ woman,” she says to Pop, “and I know he’s the cross I have to bear, but sometimes I reckon I’m just weak. Anyhow, I can’t believe the Lord would really expect a Christian to live with Sagamore Noonan. Even in the Bible days, all they done was throw ’em in a pit with the varmints.”
“Bessie’s a fine woman, Sam,” Uncle Sagamore says after she was gone. “But I reckon they’re all like that. It’s that there female nature they got in ’em. Ever so often they get a burr under their crupper an’ go dashin’ off to hell-and-gone like a heifer in flytime, and there jest ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. She’ll be back soon as she gits a bellyfull of hearin’ about Viola’s gallstone.”
Anyway, we was all laying on the front porch in the shade about one o’clock in the afternoon. It was hot and sunshiny, and up the hill toward the sand road that dry-weather bug was yakking it up with that buzzing sound they make. It was real nice and peaceful. Sig Freed—that’s my dog—was out under the big oak tree in the front yard, and we could hear Uncle Finley nailing boards onto his ark down the hill toward the lake. Pop and Uncle Sagamore looked off up the hill, resting and sort of thinking.
“Things is sure quiet,” Pop says. “You reckon we might start up a business of some kind?”
Uncle Sagamore thought about it. “Hmmm,” he says. “I wouldn’t rush into nothin’, Sam. It bein’ election year, and all.”
“Don’t recall I seen any smoke-watchers around the past few days,” Pop says.
“Likely they’re around somewheres, Sam. Them Shurf’s boys is real conscientious workers.”
“You think they might be up there right now?” Pop asked.
“Why, I wouldn’t be none surprised,” Uncle Sagamore took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket and rubbed it on the leg of his overalls to get the lint and dust off it. There was a couple of roofing nails and a beer bottle cap stuck to it, and he pulled them loose and tossed ’em out in the front yard. He bit off a chew.
He’s a big man, taller than Pop, and he always dresses just in overalls and an overall jumper without any shirt. Most of the time he goes barefooted. His feet are big and flat and rusty-looking, with tufts of black hair on the toes, and the bottoms of them are so tough they go whusk, whusk, whusk, when he’s walking on hard ground. He has a big hooked nose like an eagle, and small coal-black eyes that are kind of shiny, like buttons, and when he grins they make you think of a wolf grinning at you. His hair is black and gray mixed, growing kind of wild and bushy over his ears, but he has a big bald spot that goes from his forehead right across the top of his head. He nearly always has a thick crop of black whiskers about a quarter of an inch long across his face.
“Matter of fact,” he says, shifting the chew of tobacco around in his cheek, “they’re probably lookin’ down this way right now with them big double-barreled spyglasses they got.”
Pop thought about it. “Reckon there ain’t no way a man could find out for sure, is there?”
“Well, I was just studyin’ about that,” Uncle Sagamore says. He got up and walked out in the yard. I started to follow him to see what he was going to do, but Pop shook his head at me.
When he got to the oak tree he stooped down and moved one of the chunks of fireplace wood that was stacked beside it. And doggone if there wasn’t a hole scooped out under it. He reached in his hand and brought out a glass fruit jar, a pint-size one. He unscrewed the lid and took a drink out of it, but it didn’t seem like there was much in it, whatever it was. One swallow and it was empty. He tossed it on the ground, kind of disgusted, and started to come back to the porch.
Then he stopped, like he’d thought of something. He turned around and looked back up the hill toward the pines, and then went over and picked up the shovel that was leaning against the end of the porch. He went out past the oak tree, walking real fast, to where there was a little clump of dewberry vines. I couldn’t figure out what he was up to; he seemed to be studying the ground, like he’d lost something, but it was just bare dirt as far as I could see.
He took another quick look all around, and started to dig, just throwing the dirt out. But it was the funniest thing; he hadn’t any more than got started when there was a big racket up the hill in the pines where the sand road was. It sounded like a car. Me and Pop looked up that way just as it came charging in through Uncle Sagamore’s gate and helling down this way with a big cloud of dust boiling up behind it. You could tell right off it was one of the Sheriff’s cars; they always seemed to be in a hurry when they was coming in here.
Uncle Sagamore saw it too. He jumped and looked around, and for a minute I thought he was going to throw down the shovel and run. But then he started kicking dirt back in the hole. He got it all back and scooted over real fast to another place about thirty feet away and started to dig there, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry any more and he didn’t even look up at the Sheriff’s car again. It bounced down the hill over the bumps and slid about twenty feet when they slammed the brakes on. It stopped right in front of where he was digging. Me and Pop got off the porch and walked over.
It was Booger and Otis, the Sheriff’s two main deputies. Booger Ledbetter is tall and thin, and has a gold tooth that shows when he grins. His nose is nearly as big as Uncle Sagamore’s, and he’s got a long jaw, like a horse. Otis Sears is skinny, too, but not as tall. He has dark hair and one of them funny mustaches that look like they’re painted on your upper lip with a fountain pen. His sideburns come way down on his jaw. They both wear white hats, khaki jumpers, and khaki pants, and pearl-handled guns in leather holsters, and they always act like they was real pleased with theirselves. They got out of the car with big grins on their faces and come around in front to look at the hole Uncle Sagamore was digging.
“Why, Otis,” Booger says, “I do believe Mr. Noonan i
Otis pursed up his lips, real thoughtful. “But ain’t it kind of late in the year for plantin’ time?”
Uncle Sagamore stuck the shovel in the ground. “Well sir, if’n it ain’t the Shurf’s boys.” He turned around to Pop. “Sam, you recollect Booger and Otis.”
“Sure,” Pop says. “Howdy, men.”
They just grinned some more and looked at the hole like they was thinking of some big joke and was having a hard time to keep from laughing right out loud. Uncle Sagamore scooped out another shovel full of dirt and turned it over and spread it around.
“Hey, there’s one, Billy!” he says to me, all excited. “That’s a reg’lar humdinger.”
I couldn’t figure out what he was pointing at. “One what?” I asked.
He shook his head and sighed. “Now, ain’t that jest like a youngun? Hangin’ around here all day because he ain’t got no worms to go fishin’ with, and when you start to dig him some he’s forgot all about it.”
I couldn’t remember anything about any worms, but I didn’t say anything. You never know just what Uncle Sagamore’s driving at.
Booger and Otis looked at each other amazed. “Well, what do you know?” Booger says. “Mr. Noonan is diggin’ fish bait. And here I thought he was plantin’ a crop. Or mebbe harvestin’ one.”
Otis nodded. “Why sure. When you stop to think of it, Booger, what could you grow on a old sandhill like this, anyhow?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Booger says. “Glass, maybe. They say ground like this is real prime for fruit jars. A good crop’ll run as high as two hundred quarts to the acre sometimes.”
“Hmmm,” Otis says, kind of doubtful. “Sounds a mite high to me, unless a man was to plant right in the dark of the moon. But, hell, we ortn’t to be standin’ here jawin’ our fool heads off. We ort to pitch in and help him dig them worms.”
Uncle Sagamore leaned on the shovel. “Why, shucks, men,” he says. “Ain’t no call for you to get all sweaty over just a little old dab of fish bait—”
Otis held up a hand. “Please! Not another word, Mr. Noonan. Why, the Sheriff would chew us out something awful if he ever heard we just stood around while you got a sunstroke diggin’ like that. He’s always tellin’ us, boys, you help out Sagamore Noonan any way you can. He’s one of our outstandin’ taxpayers.”
Otis took the shovel out of Uncle Sagamore’s hand, and dug up a big scoop of dirt. Uncle Sagamore stepped back out of the way. “Well sir,” he says to Pop, “it’s jest like I was tellin’ you, Sam. You take a lot of them pussel-gutted politicians that’s settlin’ around in the courthouse gettin’ fat off the taxpayers, they could sure take a lesson from these Shurf’s boys. They got the people’s interest at heart ever minute of the day.”
“Sure,” Pop says. “Anybody can see that.”
“And if there’s anything that riles me up,” Uncle Sagamore went on, “it’s ignorant people goin’ around sayin’ a man wouldn’t be in politics without he was a sorry bastard that was too lazy to lift his face out of the trough—”
He stopped all of a sudden and looked at what the two deputies was doing. Otis had stopped digging and they were both staring at the ground shaking their heads. “It’s sure lucky for you we came along,” Otis says. “You been diggin’ in the wrong place. This here ground’s all wrong for worms.”
Uncle Sagamore scratched his leg with the big toe of his other foot. “Why, you must be mistook, men,” he says. “I could of swore I saw a right dandy worm right there jest a minute ago.”
Booger shook his head. “Not a chance, Mr. Noonan. It jest so happens Otis and me has made a big study of worm ground, an’ this here ain’t no good at all. Now, if we was to look around for a likelier spot—”
All of a sudden he stopped and pointed over to the place where Uncle Sagamore had started to dig first. “Sa-a-ay,” he told Otis, “now that there looks more like it.”
“That’s exactly what I was about to say myself,” Otis says. They started over to it.
Uncle Sagamore took out his big red handkerchief and mopped his face, and started to say something, but they didn’t pay any mind. We all followed along after them. They squatted down where Uncle Sagamore had kicked the loose dirt back in the first hole. Booger crumbled some of it between his fingers, and nodded his head real excited, like he’d found gold.
“Now, this here is more like it,” he says. “This is real, prime, honest-to-goodness worm dirt.”
Uncle Sagamore shuffled his feet on the ground and cleared his throat. “Why, boys,” he says, kind of sheepish, “that’s the same dirt. I don’t see no difference at all.”
Booger and Otis stared at each other. “See no difference?” Booger says. “You don’t look at worm dirt. You got to feel it.”
“Here, try some of this,” Otis says. He put some in Uncle Sagamore’s hand. “Feel that there texture, kind of silky like.”
Uncle Sagamore didn’t seem to have much interest in it, though. He let it fall to the ground. Then he mopped the back of his neck with the bandanna again. “Uh—” he says, “seems like I recollect somethin’ about worms likin’ a little more dampness in their dirt. Mebbe if you was to try a little closer to the lake—”
“No, sir,” Booger says. He grabbed the shovel away from Otis. “No use lookin’ any further. This here spot’s a reg’lar worm paradise.”
He put his foot on the blade and pushed it into the ground. We all watched him. It seemed to me like an awful lot of fuss just over a few worms you could dig anywhere, but I didn’t say anything. Booger went on digging. Uncle Sagamore kind of fidgeted on one foot and then the other, and once or twice he opened his mouth to talk, but changed his mind. He seemed like he was uneasy about something, but trying not to let on. Then all of a sudden we heard the shovel hit against something hard. Otis and Booger stared at each other sort of blank.
“Why, that couldn’t of been a worm,” Otis says. He hunkered down by the hole and pushed some dirt out of the way with his hand. Then he looked up at Booger and shook his head. “You jest ain’t goin’ to believe this,” he said, “but that feels like a fruit jar.”
“A fruit jar?” Booger asked. “What on earth would that be doin’ down there?”
Uncle Sagamore had his handkerchief out again and was mopping the bald spot on his head. “Uh—boys,” he says, “likely it’s some canned garden sass or somethin’ that got spoiled and Bessie throwed it away—”
“Why, sure,” Booger says. “That must be it.” He looked at Otis real solemn, but you could see they was having a hard time keeping their faces straight.
All of a sudden Otis sniffed the air, and held a handful of the dirt up to his nose. “Holy Moses!” he says, and stuck it in front of Booger’s face. “This is what I call sure-nuff rich soil. Must be at least 120 proof.”
One of ’em snickered. And then the other. The next thing they was just howling. They slapped their legs with their hands, and tears run down their cheeks, they was laughing so hard. When they could get their breath again, Otis says, “It must be leakin’. We better get it out and see how much is left.”
Uncle Sagamore shuffled his feet and glanced around downhill like he’d just thought of something he had to do. Booger looked at him. “Why, Mr. Noonan,” he says, “you wasn’t figurin’ on leavin’, was you? Stick around.”
We all watched. They brought the jar out of the hole, still grinning like big chessie cats. It was a quart size, but there wasn’t hardly anything in it, just about a spoonful of something that looked like water. Booger unscrewed the cap. It come off real easy.
“That’s the reason it all leaked out,” he says. “It never was sealed tight.” He sniffed, and grinned, and handed it to Otis.
Otis sniffed. “Man, you could get a jag on just standing close to it. But this ain’t enough for evidence.”
“No, of course not,” Booger says. “But there’ll be more.”
Booger winked at Otis. “Ain’t no tellin’,” he says. “But whoever buried it here sure done you a dirty trick.”
Uncle Sagamore shook his head like it was all too much for him. “Well, sir,” he says to Pop, “it’s enough to make a man lose his faith in human nature. People sneakin’ around buryin’ likker on his place when he ain’t lookin’.”
“When you reckon they could of done it?” Pop asked.
“There just ain’t no tellin’,” Uncle Sagamore says. “Bein’ off in the field like we are from daylight to dark, workin’ our fingers to the bone to try to make enough to pay the taxes—”
Booger shook his head. “Oh, brother!”
They both had another big laughing spell. Then they dried their eyes, and Booger says, “Well, let’s dig up some more and get goin’. I can’t hardly wait to see the Sheriff’s face when we come walkin’ in with him.”
He grabbed the shovel and started digging again. We had to move back to keep from having our feet covered with dirt.
Otis grinned at him. “If you run into a worm,” he says, “don’t take no chances with him. With a whole quart of that panther sweat spilled down there, he might pull a knife on you.”
BUT MAYBE I BETTER go back and tell you how me and Pop came to be living here on Uncle Sagamore’s farm in the first place. You see, Pop’s a turf investment counselor by trade, and we used to travel around to the big cities like Hialeah and Belmont Park printing up the tip sheets and selling them to the clients, but along last year it seemed like Pinkerton detectives kept grabbing him all the time. And then we had this rhubarb with the Welfare Ladies in Aqueduct. They kept me while Pop was away, and threatened to take me away from him and put me in a Home because I was nearly seven years old and couldn’t read anything but the Racing Form. Pop touted ’em off that by promising to bring me down here to his brother’s place for some wholesome farm life, and we’d been here ever since, with Pop helping Uncle Sagamore out a little in some of the businesses he had for a sideline, like the leather tannery, and making evidence. Evidence is about the same thing as whiskey except it generally has less color to it.
Uncle Sagamore and His Girls by Charles Williams / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes