Another story in the Johnny Potter series.
By Bettyann Moore
Let me tell you how I come just a whisker short of bein’ christened Eustace Pitts. Now, can you imagine what goin’ through this life bein’ called Eustace Pitts coulda done to a body? Ever’ time I think on it, the hairs in my ears stand straight out.
Now, I knows that these parts is known for what I heard called “colorful” names. An’ when you knows what folks was up to when they give their children them names, it kinda makes sense in a way. Some cotton to the notion that if you calls a body somethin’ pretty they’s gonna be pretty. And it ain’t too hard to figger out what one preacher had in mind when he called his kids DoGood, Sabbath and Salvation. And it ain’t real hard to figger out what that same preacher’s wife were up to when they done had their fourth young’un and named him Judas. But I done heard of growed folks walkin’ round with names like Fanny Teat (folks just calls her Mama Teat), Crawdad Fisher and Lazy Crisp. And to a person, they were an ornery lot. I woulda gone through this life as Eustace Pitts if Ma Ma had gone and married Grady Pitts like her pa wanted her to.
I be borned in nineteen-aught-four, but back in nineteen-aught-two my Ma Ma, Rebecca Jean Simpson, were gettin’ courted right hard by the onliest smithy in this neck o’ the woods, Grady Pitts. Grady’s biggest dream was to sire a son to carry on his trade, a son he’d name Eustace Pitts, after his grandaddy.
My grandpa, Grover Simpson, were right pleased ‘bout these goin’s on. Besides bein’ the only smithy, Grady were a dang good one, too, and Grandpa were all the time needin’ yokes and wagons and shoes for his mules and horses. He figgered to save a heap o’ cash with a smithy as kin.
Ma Ma used to tell me how when Grady come a-callin’, her pa would set out somethin’ to be mended. If Grady took it and had it back good as new when he come callin’ again, Grandpa’d let Ma and Grady set out on the porch all alone. The bigger the job, the longer the spoonin’. Ma Ma said the night Grady come to find Grandpa’s whole team of mules and a plow horse to be shoed, she feared for her virtue. When she seen the gleam in Grady’s eyes, she were right thankful it’d take a heap of time to finish the job – the shoein’ I mean.
Poor Grady must have been chompin’ at the bit ‘cause he done what he swore he’d never do – take on a ‘prentice to see to the other jobs that needed doin’ while Grady put his whole soul into gettin’ them animals shoed for my grandaddy. Now, the reason why Grady were so good were ‘cause he done everything his ownself – from ridin’ into Hendersonville for the iron he’d be needin’, right down to makin’ his own shoe nails. Givin’ a job to Grady meant you’d be gettin’ mighty fine work, but it meant you’d have to wait for it. Grady were makin’ dang sure this’d be the best he ever done. He didn’t want no mess-ups.
His first mistake were takin’ on a ‘prentice. His second were takin’ on Cotton Cooper’s ol’ man, Stu Cooper, to be that ‘prentice. Stu were just a young’un then, maybe 15 or thereabouts, but he were already stuck fast to the jug. His ma used to say he went right from the teat to the bottle and never let up. Oh, there were some skill hidin’ behind them bloodshot eyes and shaky hands. On a sober day – and they was few – ol’ Stu could swing a sledge with the best of ‘em. Grady were pretty hard up, though, and took who he could get and set Stu into makin’ wagon wheels for a farmer outta Caldoon County whilst he worked on gettin’ into Ma Ma’s petticoats.
Round about this time, a young fella named Seth Potter come back home to the mountain. He been livin’ with some old aunties in Tennessee since he were eight or so and come back to live on his daddy’s farm after the old man passed on. Alvin Potter didn’t like young’uns too much and when his wife Lizzie died of the influenza, he sent Seth off to live with his wife’s sisters. Alvin weren’t a bad sort; he done left the farm to Seth and Seth come back a big, strappin’ man of 19 to work that land and cut hisself a notch on this earth.
‘Fore he could do his own work, though, Seth needed some money, or at least some credit to pay for a team and some seed. He set off walkin’ down the road and stopped at the first place he come to, my Ma Ma’s daddy’s house.
Grandaddy liked the looks of Seth standin’ there in the yard. He looked ever’ bit strong as a horse – and as you may recollect, his own horses was off bein’ shoed.
Ma Ma were a shy sort and hid behind her daddy’s back and peeked out at Seth and couldn’t take her eyes off his hands – they was so big and powerful. Grandaddy put Seth to work right off, pullin’ his plow. Seth were right happy for the work. He seen Ma Ma peekin’ out behind her daddy and gettin’ to see her durin’ the day made the work all the sweeter.
Lordy, how that man musta worked! He done had three acres plowed by sundown. Ever so often Ma Ma brung him some sweetwater from the well and Seth always liked sayin’ he wasn’t sure what kept him goin’ – that cool water, or them cool, soft hands carryin’ that water out to him.
Whilst Seth and Rebecca were workin’ on fallin’ for each other, Grady were workin’ like a mad man on them shoes. Stu Cooper stayed pretty much sober while workin on them wheels ‘cept at the very start – it were his birthday and he celebrated for three days. So, when he’s chiseling the mortises for the hub of them wheels, he done forgot to slant ‘em. By the time he sobered up and seen what he done, he didn’t dare tell Grady and he stuck them spokes in anyhow, hopin’ no one’d get wise to it.
Grady’s third mistake were trustin’ Stu to do the job right.
By and by them horses and mules was shod and the wagon wheels done – in their fashion. Grady were so all-fired anxious ‘bout gettin’ them critters to Grandaddy Grover, he didn’t see no problem with them wheels. Him bein’ a fussy type, that’s right surprisin’, but dang lucky for me.
By the time Grady come to see Ma Ma to get his due, she had done forgot ‘bout him, she were so smitten with Seth Potter. Grandaddy seen it comin’, but didn’t do nothin’ to stop it. He liked Seth an’ didn’t see no harm in havin’ two suitors for his Rebecca – ‘long as he got the best farmhand on the mountain and his critters shod to boot.
‘Course I weren’t there, but I reckon when ol’ Grady showed up with them animals and finds some stranger courtin’ his gal on the porch swing, there musta been some sparks a-flyin’. Grandaddy Grover feared both fellas would walk off and leave Rebecca and him high and dry. He figgered the onliest way to work things out was to have some sorta contest ‘twixt the two – a wagon race, he decides – from his place to Hendersonville, the hilliest, rockiest patch of country you ever run across.
“Full wagons,” he says, ‘cause it just so happens he’s got to get a load of hay and corn likker to Hendersonville, “and the first one that gets their wagon over the town line gets the right to ask for my Rebecca’s hand in marriage.”
Ma Ma told me that if it were up to her, she knowed who she’d run off with right then and there. Seth were a righteous man, though, and figgered to have her hand fair and square. Grady didn’t care how he done it, he were feelin’ mighty deflated after shoeing all them critters and comin’ out empty-handed – he didn’t care how he won.
Poor Seth didn’t have no team to pull no wagon and no wagon neither, so Grandaddy Grover loaned him the lot. Everbody thought it right white of Grady to take a look at the team’s shoes aforehand “to make sure they’s up to snuff,” he said.
The race were set for the next day at sun up. Grady had a fine team of horses, of course, but he were hard-pressed to come up with a good wagon. He did have some good wheels, he thought – the very wheels Stu Cooper made – so he worked through the night fixin’ them to an old hay wagon.
That was his fourth mistake.
Grandaddy Grover called the mark and Seth and Grady were off. When they’s finally out of sight, Ma Ma says she were cryin’ buckets ‘cause Grady were out in front.
It were hard goin’. There be only a handful of spots where it were wide enough for one wagon to pass the other. Steep mountain passes made the wagons tilt so far to one side or t’other, they be apt to tip over. Granddaddy Grover had nestled his ‘shine down into the hay to save breakin’, but by the time they was through, there’d be more’n one cow drunk on likkered up hay.
They was runnin’ pretty much neck and tail when they come to the top of the last hill, with Hendersonville spread out below. It’s then that Seth’s horses start to buckin’ and neighin’ like they’s in powerful pain. Seth pulls off and checks their shoes and, sure enough, they ain’t but one nail holdin’ them on – and some come off altogether. Grady done checked them all right.
That devil snickered and slapped his knees as he drove past poor Seth, leavin’ him chokin’ in his dust.
Well, now, this here part be a might hard for a body to swallow, but I tells it like I heard it and my Ma Ma ain’t never lied.
Seth were so crazy with love, he done strapped hisself to that wagon and set off down that hill, fixin’ to win hisself a bride. Grady looked back and cackled mightily to see such a sight and whipped his horses all the more. He weren’t laughin’ for long.
See, if the mortises of a wheel ain’t slanted, the wheels ain’t dished. And if the wheels ain’t dished and the load shifts to the downhill side of the wagon, it are certain them wheels are gonna bow out and split apart – it just be a matter of time. And about a hunnert yards out of Hendersonville, Grady Pitts’ time were up. Them ol’ wheels started to bowing and Grady hears a sickenin’ crack and there she goes, in a dozen pieces.
While Grady’s scratchin’ his head at the side of the road, here come Seth round the corner, sweatin’ and puffin’, and passes him, crossin’ that town line first. He were right grateful Grandaddy Grover never said nothin’ ‘bout gettin’ them horses there, too.
Grady didn’t have no cause to raise a fuss, given what he done to them horses. Seth sure coulda raised a stink, but he were just happy to have his Rebecca.
Truth be told, Ma Ma woulda never married ol’ Grady anyhow. She said she woulda talked Seth into runnin’ off sooner or later. She said she couldn’t wrap her head around the notion of one day havin’ a son named Eustace Pitts.