Copyright
Sam Elmore

ARKANSAS TRAVELERS


"What's the name-a that tune y'all used to play?....went somethin' like...tum-te-tum-tum-tum---," hummed my big sister Betress (nick-named "Tink"). Barge and Baucum both turned to me. For some reason, unbeknownst to any of us, if you could hum a little bit of almost any tune, I could get a-holt of it right quick. (Back then, I mean; now-a-days, I have to look at my driver's license every morning just to see what my own name is).

"That's 'Billy-in-the-low-ground'", I said, and "the Baby" commenced pickin' the tune on the "tater-bug" mandolin. Me and Todd chimed in; Todd playin' a guitar and me playin' a regular, flat mandolin.

The three of us had taken our instruments that afternoon and walked the two miles down the road to Tink's house. She'd been askin' us for a long time to come down and play for her. When she "sweetened the pot" with the promise of fried chicken for supper....wa'al, that clinched the deal, for sure.

It was only recently that Mama would allow the three of us boys to venture off very far by ourselves, because we were still just kids. Todd was pushing thirteen, I was almost eleven, and Baucum was just a tad over eight years old.

Mama knew we'd mind her, though; even if we were two miles away at Tink's house. She always put Todd in charge when we were off on our own. Mama also knew that Tink would keep us on the straight and narrow, once we got to her house.

"Let's sing some gospel songs", Todd suggested. We could harmonize pretty good back then, and it just made it sound all the more better when Tink'd join in on the alto part, with her sweet-as-an-angel voice.

We must've sung a hundred gospel songs, making up the words if we couldn't remember all of 'em. When we'd get a little "hoarsed-up" from singin', we'd go back to straight pickin' to give our voices a rest. It came as a surprise to all of us when Tink jumped up from her chair:

"My STARS! It's after 9 o'clock! Mama's gon' skin me alive for keepin' y'all down here this late."

"Nahhh, she ain't gon' say nothin' ", avowed Todd...."we been out a lot later'n THIS before".

Which was a bald-face lie; or it almost was. Sure, we'd been out on our own after 9 p.m. before....ONCE. To me, that wasn't the same as comin' an' goin' as we dang-well pleased, which was the impression Todd tried to give. Plus, the one time we HAD done that, Papa had met us half-way down the road, usin' a goose-neck hoe for a walkin' stick (and as a substitute for a 'simmon switch).

On the way back to the house, he'd "goodge" us in the behind with that hoe-handle every other step, while he chastised us for "worryin' ye' Mammy". More'n likely, it wasn't our "Mammy" that he was concerned about....Papa purely didn't like to be out there lookin' for us....after dark.

"I s'pect I better walk back up to the house with y'all, it bein' so late and all", Tink said.

"Aw, naw....ain't no call for that", Todd affirmed; "we'll be all right. Shoot, we'll be at the house 'fore ye' can say Jack Rob-uh-son".

(He didn't know how close to the truth he really was).

We slung our instrument-straps (hay-balin' twine, actually) around our shoulders, like we'd seen pictures of the Grand Ol' Opry stars doin' it. Tink hugged our necks and thanked her "Travelin' Troubadours" for the ump-teenth time, an' we hit the road.

It was dark as Egypt once we got away from Tink's house; but the road was straight as an arrow, and we shuffled along in the middle of the road, side by side, with Todd in the middle. The sun had been so hot during the day, we could still feel the road heat against our bare feet, even that late at night.

Ever once-in-a-while, Todd would drag the guitar around from where it was hangin' on his back, hit a chord, and hum a little of a song we'd forgot to sing; but it was a half-hearted effort, at best. We'd been pickin' an' singin' from three in the afternoon until after nine at night, stoppin' only to eat fried chicken, then startin' again.

Our throats were a mite rough from singing so much, and our fingers were stove up a little, too; 'specially mine and the Baby's. I tell ye' true....playin' them double-stringed mandolins can run into work 'fore ye' know it.

We were movin' along real quiet and peaceful, when the "Baby" broke the silence.

"Did y'all hear that?"

"Hear what?", asked Todd.

"Sounded like somebody screamin' or somethin' ".

"Boy, don't you start up with nothin' like 'at", I warned him; an' I was serious, too.

"I ain't startin' nothin'. I jest thought I....ye' hear it? There it goes again!"

"I ain't heard nothin'!", Todd said; but 'y ganny, I sure had.... an' it sounded like a scream to me, too; way off out yonder, to the left of the road.

Now, up to that point, everything was jest fine....an' it would-a STAYED fine, if the Baby had-a just kep' his mouth shut; but, he wasn't ap' to do that ver' often.

"Papa always said a panther'll dig a hole in the ground an' put it's face in it when it screams, so it sounds like it's waaaay off, then it'll jump out at ye' an'...."

While he was talkin', a hoot-owl (an' we KNEW it was a hoot-owl) screeched; but it didn't tack the hoots onto the back end of it's screech; not quick enough to do any good, anyway.

Without a word spoke, all three of us broke into a run at the same instant. I mean, we went from amblin' along to flat-out, all at the first step. No sooner than we'd broke and run, that owl started hootin', but he was just wastin' some good hoots. We couldn't stop now even if we'd-a been LOOKIN' at him when he screeched.

The sad part about all this is that, full speed for SOME of us wasn't the same thing as full speed for everybody else. The Baby got the jump on us, 'cause he'd already talked his-se'f into third gear before the owl screeched. So, in nothin' flat, Baucum was way on OUT yonder, jest a-gittin' it!

I passed him before I ever hit my top speed. 'Course, if you consider that his legs was shorter'n mine, and that he had to put his feet down more often than me to cover the same distance, then he really wasn't doin' too bad a-tall.

Papa had installed a set of wooden steps (he called it a stile) across the bob-wire fence, up by the road in front of our house. We had to cross an oat field to get from the road to the house. The stile had three steps up, a flat board on top, and three steps down the other side.

I hit the stile just once. From the gravel road to the top of the stile was no more'n about five feet, an' I made it with room left over. I was half-way across the oat field when I heard Baucum's feet hit the stile. At his size, he had to use every one of the steps, and each time he'd hit one, that half-round "tater-bug" mandolin would bump him 'tween the shoulder blades, and give off an "open G-chord" sound.

Between the edge of the oat field and our front yard was a little narrow slough; no more'n a foot deep, but full of muddy water. Papa had laid a 3-by-12 plank, 16 foot long, across the slough, so we wouldn't have to walk all the way around it to get to the road. N'air one of us, includin' Mama an' sister "Jack", ever had any problem walking across that 3-by-12 plank; but, that's because the plank was always layin' STILL when we walked across it.

I hit that plank at top speed, takin' just two steps to cross it. The Baby hit it close behind me, in the same rhythm. That's why, when Todd finally came a-huffin' an' a-gruntin' across the oat field an' went for the plank, he didn't stand a Chinaman's chanc't. The plank was already floppin' up and down a foot in the air from the vibrations set up by me an' Baucum.

Pore ol' Todd....he hit that plank just once with each foot 'fore it th'owed him. I mean, it was like he'd been tossed off the back of a brimmer rodeo bull....CHUGGG. Head first in the slew! The only thing stickin' out of the mud was his behind. The guitar was pretty well chugged, too.

By the time Mama and Jack got through scrubbin' that blue gumbo mud off-a Todd, me an' the Baby had been in bed, sound asleep, for more'n a hour.