Rich Men


I DON’T mean to be braggin’,’ says Pa, ‘but Lester, you can ask your Ma there and she can tell you we started from scratch. She can tell you that I’ve been a sharp trader in livestock. I take it atter my Pap. He ust to be one of the best buyers on Big Sandy. He bought droves of cattle. I remember ridin’ a pony and goin’ with Pap. We took a big shepherd dog with us. He helped us drive the cattle home. We’d come home sometimes with a hundred head of cattle. When the buyin’ in Kentucky got scarce we crossed the Big Sandy and bought cattle in the state of West Virginia.’

Pa rocked in his chair in front of the big fireplace. Ma was knittin’ Pa a pair of socks. She listened to Pa talk about cattle buyin’. Sister Nell was poppin’ corn over the bright flames that leaped up from the forestick. Ma never said a word when Pa was talkin’ about cattle buyin’. She didn’t say he was the best trader on Big Sandy. She didn’t say he wasn’t. Ma only looked at the fire and knitted Pa’s socks.

‘Lester,’ says Pa, ‘I want you to be a cattle buyer. I’ve paid for four thousand acres of land. I’ve got it in grass. I’ve got one of the finest grass farms on Big Sandy. I ain’t sayin’ I’m exactly a rich man. And you can judge from the neighbors around us I ain’t a poor man. When they haf to sell a cow to get a little needy money, they know where to come. They know old “Hen” Blaine’s got the money. They know when he ain’t got it he can mighty quick find it. I’m allus ready to buy and sell cattle. I love the looks of cattle. I allus have a purty drove of cattle around my barn. You know that, son. We ain’t been without them since you’ve been a little shaver and I rocked you on my knee.’

Pa knocked the ashes off his big cigar. Sister Nell finished poppin’ the capper of corn. She shoved back the lid. She passed it around to us. The capper of corn didn’t go very far. Nine of us got a handful of corn apiece. ‘I’ll not take any popcorn,’ says Pa; ‘can’t you young’ins see that I’m smokin’?’

‘What do you think about my tradin’, Tibithia?’ says Pa, looking over at Ma. He was trying to make Ma talk. He wanted Ma to say he was the best trader on Big Sandy.

‘I don’t think about it,’ says Ma. ‘I don’t think it’s a great thing to skin poor people out’n their cattle. I think there’ll come a time when you’ll reap what you sow. You sit there and brag, and my Pap allus told me that pride comes before a fall. I think you are headin’ for a fall.’

Pa took his thumbs down from behind his vest. He looked hard at Ma. Then he turned his head. He looked at the blazin’ fire. Pa’s black eyes danced in his head. He was riled the way Ma talked to him. He watched Sister Nell shuffle another capper of popcorn over the fire. Ma just kept on knittin’ a sock like nothin’ had happened. I hated to see Pa mad at Ma. I think she told him the truth. Pa couldn’t see himself as others saw him. I didn’t know whether he was the greatest livestock trader on Big Sandy or not. No one but Pa had ever told me that he’d swum one hundred head of white-faced cattle from West Virginia across the Big Sandy to Kentucky at one time. After Pa told me this he said the old-timers used to call him Tradin’ Hen Blaine. I’d never heard Pa called that in my life.

‘I think I’ll turn in,’ says Pa. ‘Seems like any more I’m not a welcome man around my own fireside. Seems like my wife has turned my children on me. I’m one of the most upstandin’ men along the Big Sandy River. If I’ve not made my family a respectable livin’, then who has, I’d like to know?’

Pa looked at Ma for an answer. Ma kept on knittin’ socks. She never spoke to Pa. Pa walked out of the room. He went in the back room to bed. We stayed up a long time and popped corn. Ma put her knittin’ away. She pulled off her glasses and laid them on the stand table. ‘Children, it’s bedtime,’ says Ma. ‘Lester, you got to got up at four in the mornin’ and help your Pa with all this feedin’ before you go to school. You ought to be in bed right now.’

‘Yes, Ma,’ I says. I went upstairs to bed. I remember I had dreams about cattle. I had dreams about Pa tradin’. I saw whole droves of cattle on the hills. I saw them run away from Kentucky and swim the Big Sandy River to the state of West Virginia. I thought Pa’s cattle jumped the fence and run back to West Virginia. I was glad. I wouldn’t haf to feed them any longer. Then I thought they come back home and gnawed the bark from the black oak trees. I thought they were so hungry that their sides caved in. I thought when Pa saw them comin’ back he stood by the gate and cried because they were so poor. I was dreamin’ about Pa’s cattle when I heard him say: ‘Roll out’n that bed, Lester. It’s feedin’ time.’


When I got dressed and got downstairs Ma had our breakfast ready. Pa, Ma, and I et our breakfasts together. Ma watched when Pa’s coffee cup was empty and she would take the biler and pour Pa more coffee. Pa would wipe his moustache after he took a sip of coffee. He would press it out against his red cheeks with his hands. Then Pa would take more honey and hot biscuits and butter. He would drink coffee with his honey and his buttered hot biscuits. I could allus tell when Pa was ready to get up from the table. That was when he had finished eatin’ ten biscuits. He would allus drink four cups of strong black coffee. Then Pa would get up and light his cigar. We would go toward the barn. When Pa got near the barn he laid his cigar on a big stump. He’d never go about the barn smokin’.

We had to fork hay for two hundred head of cattle. Pa had one hundred and fifty white-faced cattle. He had fifty pick-ups of all sorts. ‘Scrub cattle,’ Pa called them. We kept our cattle on the outside durin’ purty winter weather. We didn’t have barn room for all of them. When the snow fell, a lot of our cattle laid in the pine grove around from the barn. We’d carry hay from the stacks and throw it over the fence on patches of briars and brush to keep the cattle from trampin’ it under their feet. We’d fork down hay out’n our big barn loft for the cows and cattle we kept in the barn.

Pa walked in front. I could see the fire sparkle on the end of his big cigar when the wind blowed. The frost was white on the ground. The stars were still in the sky. Pa laid his cigar on the big oak stump. We walked in the barn. We climbed the ladder to the barn loft. Pa forked down hay for the stalls on one side of the barn. I forked down hay for the cattle on the other side of the barn. It wasn’t daylight yet. We walked out near the pine grove. We had our hay stacked near the fence. We started to fork our hay and pitch it over for the cattle on the other side of the pasture fence. The stars were leavin’ the sky now. The wind laid. It was gettin’ light enough to see over the pasture fields.

‘’Pears like,’ says Pa, ‘I hear a rustlin’ in that haystack.’

‘Must be the wind,’ I says, ‘shakin’ the hay.’

‘No, it ain’t no wind,’ says a voice. ‘You gouged me with that fork!’

‘What are you doin’ sleepin’ in my hay nohow?’ says Pa.

A man rolled out and shook the straw from his back. His ragged clothes would barely hang on him. His pants were patched until it looked like another patch couldn’t be sewed on. He had a long beard over his face. He had long black chin whiskers. Pieces of brown straw were mixed with his black beard.

‘You wouldn’t scold a old man that found shelter from the ragin’ winds of winter in your haystack, would you?’ says the stranger.

‘Come to think about it,’ says Pa, ‘I don’t guess I would.’

‘ What is your name? ‘ says the stranger to Pa.

‘Tradin’ Hen Blaine,’ says Pa, puttin’ his thumbs behind his vest and danglin’ the watch fob hangin’ to his gold watch chain.

‘Oh, you are that rich Hen Blaine, ain’t you?’ says the stranger.

‘Some people think I’m a rich man,’ says Pa.

‘I’m a rich man, too,’ says the stranger.

‘A rich man?’ says Pa. ‘Then what are you doin’ sleepin’ in people’s haystacks? ‘

‘I ain’t got no good clothes,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t ast to stay in your fine house.’

He took his hands and raked the straw from his beard. Pa bent over and laughed and laughed. Pa started laughin’ again. ‘A rich man,’ Pa would say; then he would laugh and laugh. ‘A rich man sleepin’ in my haystack!’

‘Why, I own big farms,’ says the stranger. ‘I just love to own land, I’m goin’ to live my life on this earth. I’m goin’ to die. Then in seven years I’ll be back on earth doin’ my business!’

‘The man’s off, Les,’ Pa whispered, ‘lie’s a funny old man.’ Pa bent over and slapped his knees and laughed. I thought Pa would die laughin’.

‘No, I ain’t off,’ says the stranger. ‘I’m in my sound mind. I’m tellin’ you the truth. I’ll be back here seven years atter I die takin’ care o’ my business. People won’t believe me, but it’s the truth. They won’t believe I’m a rich man, either.’

‘What is your name?’ says Pa. ‘I don’t think I ever heard of you.’

‘I don’t guess you have heard of me,’ says the stranger, ‘but you will hear o’ me some day. You will hear of me atter I die and come back seven years later to run my farm. My name ain’t worth knowin’ now, but it will be.’

‘Man talks crazy,’ says Pa. ‘I never heard sich foolish talk.’

‘No, I ain’t crazy,’ he says. ‘How many times do I haf to tell you I ain’t crazy? I’m just cold from sleepin’ all night in your haystack. Why don’t you invite me to your house? Why don’t you give me a good warm breakfast? That is the way one good neighbor should be with another.’

‘I wouldn’t have a dirty tramp like you in my house,’ says Pa. ‘Not only dirty, but you ain’t all there in the head!’

‘You tell a man straight to his face,’ says the ragged stranger. ‘You ain’t a bit nice. You’ll never be back runnin’ your purty farm seven years atter you have left this world. You’ll be dead as a lizard.’

‘So will you, too,’ says Pa. ‘You look like you have one foot in the grave now and the other one about to slip in!’

‘You’re so mean to me,’ says the strange man.

‘Don’t talk like that,’ I says to Pa.

‘Your father is a very rich man,’ says the stranger to me. ‘I am a very rich man, but your Pa won’t believe me. He thinks I’m a tramp.’

‘I don’t think any more about you,’ says Pa. ‘ Clear out’n here now. I’ve got to finish feedin’ my cattle. I ain’t got time to be bothered with you. I have work to do.’

‘Have you got cattle?’ says the stranger. ‘I have cattle. I love cattle. I have big farms filled with cattle. I cheated people to get my cattle. I am a rich man.’

‘Cheated people?’ says Pa.

‘Yes,’ says the stranger, ‘and you’ve cheated people. Ain’t I heard of you before? You are Tradin’ Hen Blaine!’

‘Right,’ says Pa. ‘I’m Tradin’ Hen Blaine.’

Pa bristled up. He looked over his frost-covered fields. Pa looked as big as I’d seen him.

‘I’d like to walk down to the fence with you and look at your cattle,’ says the dirty beardy man.

‘Just so you don’t fall down, you old plug, you,’ says Pa. ‘If you do I’ll fasten a drag chain around your legs and haul you to the bone yard with the rest of my old plug stock.’ Pa laughed and laughed. Pa bent over and laughed at what he had said to the strange man.

‘I’ll make it, all right,’ he says. ‘I get happy when I go to look at purty cattle. How many head of cattle do you have?’

‘I have two hundred head,’ says Pa. ‘I have one hundred and fifty whitefaced cattle and fifty scrubs.’

‘Lord,’ says the old man. ‘You’ve cheated a lot of people buyin’ that many. You are a great trader. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that you cheated for to buy all these cattle?’

‘Yes,’ says Pa. ‘My wife did.’

The cattle come to the fence for their hay. There is a big drove of them. The woods are full of cattle.

‘Go turn the rest of the herd out’n the barn,’ says Pa. ‘I want a tramp just to see my herd all together. Says he’s a rich man. I just want him to see a real herd of cattle.’

‘All right, Pa,’ I says.


I run to the barn to turn the cattle out in the pasture. The frost was goin’ up in streaks of fog to the mornin’ sun. The air was clean and sweet to smell. I run over the frosty road to the barn. When I come back from the barn I saw Pa talkin’ to the man with his hands. The old man was leanin’ on his cane. He was noddin’ ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the words Pa said. He was agreein’ with all Pa said. Pa felt pleased. I could tell by the way he put his thumbs behind his vest.

‘You have a great herd of cattle,’ says the stranger. ‘Just what would you take for all that herd of cattle?’

‘Oh,’ says Pa, ‘I’ve had three buyers already. I was offered $5500 by one. Another offered me $5700. The last offer I got was $6000. I’m holdin’ to spring to get my price.’

‘Then you sell in the spring,’ says the stranger.

‘No,’ says Pa, ‘I buy of a spring and sell in the fall. Then I buy in the winter when people’s feed gets scarce. I sell in the spring atter I’ve wintered the cattle. That is the way I make my money.’

‘You’re a smart man,’ says the old man. I looked at the patches on his pants. I could see the hide through the patches. His flesh was blue. His bowed legs were quiverin’ with cold. The cane shook in his tremblin’ hands.

‘How much would you take fer them cattle?’ says the old man.

Pa started laughin’. Pa bent over and laughed and laughed. He lit a new cigar. He puffed smoke and laughed. He pulled at his vest with his thumbs and laughed. ‘You wantin’ to buy all my cattle?’ says Pa.

‘I thought you might make me a price,’ says the old man.

‘Why, I’d sell them to you, if you’d pay me right now,’ says Pa, ‘fer $3500.’

Pa started laughin’ again.

‘Just a minute, Tradin’ Hen Blaine,’ says the stranger. ‘You’ve just dealt with “Ginsang” Tootle from Bruin. Ain’t you heard o’ me?’

‘Lord, yes,’ says Pa, ‘I’ve heard o’ Ginsang Tootle. You ain’t him, are you?’

The stranger just reached down and started tearin’ a patch from the knee of his pants.

‘I can give you three one-thousanddollar bills,’ says Ginsang, ‘and a fivehundred-dollar bill — or I can write you a check fer it!’

‘You ain’t doin’ neither,’ says Pa. ’I was just jokin’. ‘

‘Oh yes, you are Tradin’ Hen Blaine,’ says Ginsang. ‘Men don’t back out on you when you deal with them. You ain’t backin’ out on me. People don’t do me that way. You’ve traded with me. I’m drivin’ your cattle off.’

Pa’s face turned red. His blue eyes got as big as dollars. Pa couldn’t speak. Pa had been tricked.

‘I’ve been layin’ fer you, Tradin’ Hen Blaine,’ says Ginsang. ‘I heard you’d never been cheated. I heard you’d cheated everybody you’d ever traded with. So I’ve laid fer you. I laid in your haystack! My helpers are waitin’ fer me out by the big road. They have the shepherd dogs and the horses. I ain’t been in your haystack all night.’

‘But I’m a ruined man,’ says Pa. ‘I’m a ruined man, for all I have is in my cattle.’

‘You’re a rich man,’ says Ginsang, ‘and I’m a rich man. We are both rich men. You know how I got my start? ‘

‘No,’ says Pa, ‘and I don’t care.’

‘I laid before a man’s fire one whole week and carried a little mattock through the woods and dug ginsang. One mornin’ I got him to price his cattle. I had the money ready. I took ‘em. He tried to back out like you did. But I wouldn’t let him no more than I would let you. I got the name of “Ginsang” atter that. So I’m Ginsang Tootle from Bruin Creek. Remember me by that name?’

‘I remember you, Ginsang Tootle,’ I says. ‘Don’t you bring your cattle to the Grant Store at Crossroads and get a load of things every fall before bad weather sets in?’

‘I do,’ he says.

‘I was over there when storekeeper Reece Setser made you a present of a hat if you would throw your old one away. You’d bought three hundred dollars’ worth of stuff from him and had it loaded on your cattle wagon. When you drove away you stopped your cattle and went over the bank and got your old hat, didn’t you?’

‘I did,’ says Ginsang. ‘I’m the man.’

‘You didn’t have a long beard then,’ I says.

‘No,’ says Ginsang, ‘I growed it so your Pa wouldn’t know me. I come to cheat him like he has cheated everybody else. Death is goin’ to cheat me, but I feel like I can uptrip him. That is why I’m building my house now and havin’ furniture put in it. I’ll be back in seven years doin’ business. I’ll be back buyin’ cattle on the Big Sandy River. I can’t stand to leave this river.’

‘Then you did mean what you said a while ago,’ says Pa.

‘I ain’t told you no lies,’ says Ginsang. ‘I own land and cattle and I am a very rich man. It is easier fer me to tell the truth. I can do what I want to do when I tell the truth. It sounds like a lie to everybody. You are one of the best traders on Big Sandy River. But I’ve uptripped you.’

‘You don’t haf to say it. I’ll come again. I’ll beat you if my spirit has to trade with your spirit in another land.’

‘I must get my cattle,’ says Ginsang. ‘I must be on my way. Just turn them out’n the pasture and start them down the road. I’ll feel big behind them.’

I opened the gate. Ginsang walked away with Pa’s big herd of cattle. The road was filled with cattle. Ginsang walked behind — his patched pants would hardly stay on his skinny body. His beard fell to his waist.


‘Why, the man fooled me,’ Pa said to Ma. ‘He acted crazy. Talked about comin’ back to this earth seven years atter he had died to start buyin’ cattle again. He worked me into a trap. I thought he was a tramp.’

‘Ain’t you never heard of old Ginsang Tootle?’ says Ma. ‘He had a house built and filled with furniture for him and his wife. He thinks and has her believin’ they’re comin’ back atter they have been dead seven years. He’s the one that cheated old Fonse Leadingham out’n all his cattle. Stayed there a week and slept like a dog before the fire. Run over the hills and dug ginsang. Asked Fonse what he would take for his cattle. Got him to set a cheap price. Ripped a patch from his pants leg — shelled out the money and bought ‘em right there.’

‘I’m a poor man tonight,’ says Pa. ‘It just took the wind out’n me to lose my cattle like that.’

Pa didn’t smoke a cigar. Pa didn’t brag. Pa looked downhearted.

‘You’ll haf to be more careful,’ says Ma. ‘Watch who sleeps in your haystacks from this on. Everything you’ve told me that he told you is the truth. How could he fool you that way, Henry? ‘

‘Th’ long beard on his face,’ says Pa, ‘or I’d a knowed him. Then he started talkin’ about bein’ a rich man — and that he would die and in seven years he’d be back to run his farm. I thought he was crazy. I thought he was a tramp. I didn’t know I’s talkin’ to Ginsang Tootle.’

‘Wolves will come to you dressed in sheep’s clothin’,’ says Ma.

‘Yes,’ says Pa. ‘That wolf in sheep’s clothin’ has made me a poor man. But I’ll come again. I can see a hundred head of white-faced cattle swimmin’ the Big Sandy River. I’ll beat him yet. I’ll cheat him if my spirit has to cheat his spirit in another world!’

Ma looked at Pa and laughed. Pa lit his cigar. He put his thumbs behind his vest.

‘Tradin’ Hen Blaine,’ says Pa; ‘still the best trader on the Big Sandy River.’