A Ride on the Short Dog

Poet and short-story Writer, JAMES STILL, tins dour much of his creative writing in that remote. picturesque stronghold, the Kentucky mountains. For years he was the librarian of the Hindman Settlement School at the forks of Troublesome Creek, and he has been the laureate of the mountaineers. In 1940 he shared honors with Thomas Wolfe in the Southern Authors’ Award, for his novel River of Larlh.


WE FLAGGED the bus on a curve at the mouth of Lairds Creek by jumping and waving in the road and Dee Buck Knglc had to tread the brake the instant he saw us. He wouldn’t have halted unless compelled. Mal Dowe and I leaped aside finally, but Godey Spurlock held his ground. The bus stopped a yard from Godey and vexed faces pressed the windows and we heard Old Meg Hyden cry, “I’d not haul them jaspers.”

Dee Buck opened the door and blared, “You boys trying to get killed?”

We climbed on grinning and shoved fares to Boscoe into his hand and for once we didn’t sing out, To Knuckle Junction, and, I’islol City, and, 1’wo Moots. We even strode the aisle without raising elbows to knock off hats, having agreed among ourselves to sort of behave and make certain of a ride home. Yet Dee Buck was wary, He warned, “Bother my passengers, you fellers, and I’ll fix you. I’ve put up with your mischief till I won’t.

That set Godey and Mai laughing for Dee Buck was a bluffer. We look the seal across from Meg Hyden and on wedging into it my bruised arm started aching. Swapping licks was Godey’s delight.

The Inis wheezed and jolted in moving away, yet we spared Dee Buck our usual advice: Reed her a biscuit and see will she mend, and. Dock her tail and teach her manners. The vehicle was scarcely half the length of regular buses — “The Short Dog” everybody called it. It traveled from Thacker to Boscoe and back twice a day. Enos Webb occupied the seat in front and Godey greeted, “ Hey-o, chum, flow’s your fat?” Kuos tucked his head, fearing a rabbit lick, and he changed his seat, He knew how Godey served exposed necks. Godey could cause you to see forked lightning and hear thunder balls. Though others shunned us, Meg Hyden gazed in our direction. Her eyes were scornful, her lips packed sour. She was as old as a hill.

Godey and Mai couldn’t sit idle. They rubbed the dusty pane with their sleeves and looked abroad and everything they saw they remarked on: hay doodles in Alonzo Tate’s pasture, a crazy chimney leaning away from a house, long-johns on clotheslines. They pointed toward the mountain ahead, trying to fool, calling, “Gee-o, looky yonder.” But they couldn’t trick a soul. My arm throbbed and I had no notion to prank, and after a while Godey muttered, “I want to know what’s eat ing you. ”

“We’d belter decide what we can do in town,” I grouched. Boscoe folk looked alive at sight of us. And except for our return fares we hadn’t a dime. The poolroom had us ousted. We’d have to steer clear of the courthouse where sheriffs were thick. And we dare not rouse the county prisoners again. On our last trip we’d bellowed before the jail, “ Hey-o, you wife-beaters, how are you standing the times?" We’d jeered and mocked until they had begged the turnkey to fetch us inside, they’d notch our ears, they’d trim us. The turnkey had told them to be patient, we’d get in on our own hook.

Godey said, “We’ll break loose in town, no two ways talking.”

I gloomed, “The law will pen us the least thing. We”ll be thrown with the meanest fellows that ever breathed.”

Godey screwed his eyes narrow. “My opinion, the prisoners scared you plumb. You’re ruint for trick-pulling.” He knotted a fist and hit me squarely on my bruise.

My arm ached the fiercer. My eyes burned and had I not glanced sideways they’d come to worse. “Now, no,” I said; but Godey’s charge was true.

“Well, act like it,” he said. “And pay me.”

I returned the blow.

Old Meg was watching and she blurted, “I swear to my Gracious. A human can’t see a minute’s peace.”

Godey chuckled, “What’s fretting you, Mam?”

“Heat and battle is all you think on.” she snorted. “You’re meaner’n snakes.”

“We’re not so bad we try to hinder people riding the bus,” he countered. “Aye, we heard you squall back yonder.”

Old Meg’s lips quivered, her veiny hands trembled. “Did I have strength to reach,” she croaked, “I’d pop your jaws. I’d addle you totally.”

Godey thrust his head across the aisle and turned a check. “See your satisfaction,” he invited, He didn’t mind a slap.

“Out o’ my face,” she ordered, lifting her voice to alert Dee Buck. She laced her fingers to stay their shaking.

Dee Buck adjusted the rear-view mirror and inquired, “What’s the matter, Aunt Meg?”

“ It’s these boys tormenting me,” she complained. “They’d drive a body to raving.”

Dee Buck slowed. “I told you fellers —”

“What’ve we done?” Godey asked injuredly.

“Didn’t I say not bother my passengers?”

“1 never tipped the old hen.”

“One more antic and off you go.”

Godey smirked. “ Know what ?" he said. “ We’ve been treating you pretty but we’ve done no good. Suit a grunt-box, you can’t.”

“You heard me,” Dee Buck said.


THE twins got on at Lucas. They were about nine years old, as like as two peas, and had not a hair on their heads. Their polls were shaven clean. Godey cherruped, “Gee-o, look coming,” and he beckoned them to the place quitted by Enos Webb. Dee Buck sealed the two up front and Godey vowed, “I’ll trap the chubs, just you wait,”and he made donkey ears with his hands and brayed. The twins stared, their mouths agape.

Mai said, “Whyn’t we have our noggins peeled?”

“Say we do,” laughed Godey, cocking a leasing eye on me. “They can’t jail us for that shorely.”

I replied, “We’re broke as grasshoppers, keep in head.”

It didn’t take Godey long to draw the twins. He picked nothings out of the air and chewed them — chewed to match a sheep eating ivy; he feigned to pull teeth, pitch them again into his mouth, to swallow. The twins stole a seat closer, the better to see, and then two more. Godey had them where he wanted. He spoke: “Hey-o, Dirty Ears.”

The twins nodded, too shy to answer.

“What’s you little men’s names?” he asked.

They swallowed timidly, their eyes meeting.

“Ah, tell.”

“Woodrow,” ventured one; “Jethro,”said the other. They were solemn as firepokers.

“Hieing to a store to throw a pocketful of nickels, I bet.”

“Sykes,” one said. “To Grandpaw’s,” said bis image.

“Well, who skinned you alive, I want to know?”

“Pap,”they said.

Godey gazed at their skulls, mischief tingling him. He declared, “ Us fellers aim to get cut bald in Uoscoe. Too hot to wear hair nowadays.”

I slipped a hand over my bruise and crabbed, “I reckon you know haircuts cost money in town.” Plaguing Godey humored me.

“Witless,” Godey said, annoyed, “we’ll climb into the chairs, and when the barbers finish we’ll say, ‘Charge it on your short list.”

“They’d summons the law in an eye-bat.”

“Idjit,” he snapped, “people can’t be jailed for a debt.” Yet he wouldn’t pause to argue. He addressed the twins: “You little gents have me uneasy. There are swellings on your temples and I’m worried on your behalf.”

The twins rubbed their crowns. They were smooth as goose eggs.

“Godey’s sharp on noggins,” said Mai.

“Want me to examine and find your ailment?” asked Godey.

The twins glanced one to the other. “We don’t care,” said one.

Godey tipped a finger to their polls. lie squinted and frowned. And then he drew back and gasped, “Oh-oh.” lie punched Mai and blabbed, “Do you spy what I spy? Horns, if ever I saw them.”

“The tom truth,” Mai swore.

“Sprouting horns like bully-cows,” Godey said. “Budding under the hide and ready to pip.”

“You’re in a bad way,” Mai moaned.

“In t he fix of a boy on Lotts Creek,” Godey said. “He growed horns, and he turned into a brute and went hooking folks. Mean? Upon my word and honor, Old Scratch wouldn’t claim him.”

“A feller at Seuddy had the disease,” Mad related. “Kept shut in a barn, he was, and they fed him hay and cornstalks, and he never tasted victuals. I saw him myself, I swear to my thumb. I saw him chew ing a cud and heard him bawl a big bawl.”

Godey sighed. “The only cure is to deaden the nubs ere they break the skin.”

“And, gee-o, you’re lucky tads,” Mal poured on. “Godey Spurlock’s a horn-doctor. Cured a hundred, I reckon.”

“Oh, I’ve treated a few,” said Godey.

“Spare the little masters,” pled Mal.

Dee Buck was trying to watch both road and mirror, his head bobbing like a chicken supping water. Old Meg’s eyes glinted darkly. I poked Godey, grumbling, “Didn’t we promise to mind ourselves?” But he went on: —

“They may enjoy old long hookers, may want to bellow and snort and tear up ground.”

“We don’t neither,” a twin denied.

Godey brightened. “Want me to dehorn you?”

The boys nodded.

Though I prodded Godey’s ribs, he ignored me. He told the twins, “The quicker the medicine the better the cure,” and he made short work of it. Without more ado he clapped a hand on each of their heads, drew them wide apart, and struck them together. The brakes began to screech and Old Meg to fill the bus with her groans. The twins sat blinking. Dee Buck halted in the middle of the road and commanded: “All right, you scamps, pile off.”

We didn’t stir.

“You’re not deaf. Trot.”

“Deef in one ear, can’t hear out of the Other’n,” Godey jested.

Dee Buck slapped his knee with his cap. “I said Go.”

Old Meg was in a fidgit. “Shut o’ them,” she rasped, her arms a-jiggle, her fingers dancing. “Make’em foot it.”

“Old Mam,” Godey chided, “if you don’t check you’re liable to fly to pieces.”

“Rid the rascals,” she shrilled to Dee Buck. “Are ye man enough?”

Godey said, “He’ll puff and he’ll huff—all he ever does. He might’s well feed the hound a bite of gas and let’s travel.”

Dee Buck blustered, “I’ve got a bait of you fellers. I’m offering you a chance to leave on your own free will.”

“Collar and drag’em,” Old Meg taunted. “A coward, are ye?”

“Anybody spoiling to tustle,” Godey challenged, “well, let him come humping.”

Dee Buck flared, “Listen, you devils, I can put a quietus on you and not have to soil my hands. You don’t want to be aboard when I pull into town. I can draw up at the courthouse and fetch the law in two minutes.”

“Sick a sheriff on us,” Godey said, “and you’ll wish to your heart you hadn’t. We paid to ride.”

“Walk off and I’ll return your fares.”

“Now, no.”

“I won’t wait all day.”

“Dynamite couldn’t budge us.”

Dee Buck slammed his cap onto his head. He changed gear, readying to leave. “I’m willing to spare you and you won’t have it.”

“Drive on, Big Buddy.”

The bus started and Old Meg flounced angrily in her seat. She turned her back and didn’t look round until we got to Roscoe.

We crossed two bridges. We passed Hilton and Pot Tomlinson’s sawmill and Kingry and Thorne. Beyond Thorne the highway began to rise. We climbed past the bloom of coal veins and tipples of mines hanging the slope; we mounted until we’d gained ihe saddle of the gap and could see Roscoe four miles dist ant. Godey and Mai cut up the whole way, no longer trying to behave. They hailed newcomers with, “ Take a seat and sit like you were at home, where you ought to be,” and sped the departers, “I’ll see you later, when I can talk to you straighten” The twins left at Sykes and Godey shouled, “Good-bye, Dirty Ears. Recollect I done you a favor.” We rolled through the high gap and on down the mountain.

I nursed my hurt and sulked, and eventually Godey growled, “I want to know, did you come along just to pout ?”

“You’ve fixed us,” I accused bitterly, and I openly covered my crippled arm.

Godey scoffed, “Dee Buck can’t panic me. You watch him turn good-feller by the time we reach town, watch him unload in the square the same as usual. Aye, he knows what suits his hide.” He grabbed loose my hand and his fist shot out.

It was too much. My face lore up, my lips quivered and tears smeared my cheeks. Godey stared in wonder. Uis mouth fell open. Mal took my part, rebuking him, “No use to injure a pal.”

“I don’t give knocks I can’t hand e myself,” Godey said; and he invited, “Pay me double.

Throw a rabbit lick and make me see lightning.” He leaned forward and bared his neck.

I wiped the shameful tears, thinking to join no more in Godey’s game.

“Whap him and even up,” Mal said. “We’re nearly to the bottom of the mountain.”

“Level With me,” said Godey, “or you’re no crony of mine. You’ll not run with my bunch.”

I shook my head.

“Hurry,”said Mal. “I see town smoking.”

I wouldn’t.

Mal advised Godey, “Nettle him. Speak a thing he can t let pass. Make him mad.”

Godey said, “Know what I’m in the opinion of? Iladn t it been for Mal and me you’d let Dee Buck bounce you. You’d have turned chicken.”

“I’d not,” I gulped.

“Jolt him,” Mai urged.

You re a chicken leg,” Godey said, “and everybody akin to you is a chicken leg, and if you’re yellow enough to take that I’ll call you ‘Chicken Leg’ hereinafter.”

I couldn’t get around Godey. Smite him I must, and I gripped a fist and struck as hard as I could in close quarters, mauling his chest.

“Why, you couldn’t punish a flea,”he belittled. “Anyhow, didn’t I call for a rabbit lick? Throw one and let me feel it; throw one, else you know your name.” Again he leaned and exposed his neck.

“He’s begging,” Mal incited.

I’d satisfy him, I resolved, and I half rose to get elbowroom. I swung mightily, my fist hitting the base of his skull. I made his head pitch upward and thump the seat board; I made his teeth grate. “That ought to do,” I blurted.

Godey walled his eyes and clenched his jaws. He began to gasp and strain and flounder. His arms lifted, clowing the air. l ight as we wore wedged the seat would hardly hold him. Mai was ready to hack a sham and he chortled, “Hark, you folks. See a perish.” But none bothered to glance.

Then Mal and me noticed the odd twist of Godey’s neck. We saw his lips tinge, his ears turn tallow. Mis tongue waggled to speak and could not. And of a sudden we knew and we sat frozen. We sat like posts while he heaved and pitched and his soles rattled the floor and his knees banged the forward seat. He bucked like a spoiled nag. . . . He quieted presently. His arms fell, his hands crumpled. He slumped and his gullet rattled.

We rode on. The mountain fell aside and the curves straightened. The highway ran a bee line. We crossed the last bridge and drew into Roscoe, hailing in the square. Dee Buck stood at the door while the passengers alighted and all hastened except Old Meg and us. Old Meg ordered over her shoulder, “Go on ahead. I II not trust a bunch o jaspers coming after me.” We didn t move. She whirled and her eyes lit on Godey. She sputtered, “What’s the matter with him?”

Mal opened his mouth numbly. “He’s doing no good,” he said.