Catfish Jack’s Jar of Toes: Part 1 of 8
A Summer Short Story Series
Recently a friend asked if I had heard any more river stories about Jack Winkles. He was referring to four-toed Jack, the expert catfish hunter. If you remember, he lost seven of his 11 toes in an effort to catch a large flathead catfish from its hiding place. The monster fish lived in the half-sunken boiler of the wrecked steamer, Big Sky. The adventure nearly cost him his life.
Oddly enough, I do have the rest of the story about Catfish Jack. Last weekend I was sitting in my favorite rocker on the porch. The sun was two fingers above the tree line to the west and heading toward the morning for folks on the other side of the world. I leaned back in my chair to enjoy the fading warmth of the last moments of a fine summer’s day. I figured if I closed my eyes it would help to improve my comfort level. Shortly the perfectness of the evening overtook me in the fading days light…
My thoughts began to drift in the twilight of the evening. Then I detected the aroma of a hand-rolled cigar. Now, I only know one person who smokes that brand. Opening my eyes, I realized Samuel Clemens had joined me. Sam was rolling his cigar in his lips as he drew in the smoke. His full white mustache hides the end of his cigar he held between his lips. Its gray ash had grown long as he looked about for a place to disguard it. He knew Mary would be cross with him if he flicked it onto the porch. He did the polite thing; he flicked the ash into the cuff of his trousers.
Without so much as a “How do you do?” Samuel began…
“Did I ever tell you about Jack and Crow’s get rich scheme?” I tried to answer, but before I could, Sam began his story…
“It happened back in May of 1889. Jack was havin’ breakfast in the Doolin House Hotel, a place of fine dining.”
Samuel pointed towards the river, even though one could not see it past the hills.
He began, “Every Sunday mornin,’ Jack visited the restaurant. Two eggs, three strips of bacon and fried tators. After he finished, he enjoyed his coffee as he browsed the mornin’ paper.”
Sam chuckled as he leaned over from his chair and slapped me on the shoulder and said, “It were one of those places where’s a man was bein’ expected to tuck his napkin in his shirt, and elbows off the table. Jack wasn’t the most refined feller, but using proper manners reminded him of when he was a youngin.’ In those days his momma brought him here each Sunday mornins.’ She hoped to be teachin’ him the finer points of table manners. Jack didn’t mind the fancy ways, cause-in it made his momma proud of him.”
After finishing his breakfast, Jack wiped his face with his napkin to show his good manners. It is about then he saw his cousin, Henry Waken, come rushing through the door. It was obvious Henry was looking for someone, and finding them was of some importance. Jack knew it was most likely himself that his cousin was looking for. He knew he had been found.
“What can I do for you Crow?”
Henry was called Crow by most people. When he was a kid he found an injured young black crow. He took it home and nursed it back to health. After a while it recovered and was able to fly, and so Henry released it to join the others of its kind. The only problem was, the crow did not fly away. It had adopted Henry as a lifelong friend. After that most folks took to calling Henry “Crow” instead of his given name. To tell the truth, Henry kind of liked being called, “Crow.”
Crow was clearly out of breath. At first, Jack had a bit of trouble trying to understand Crow’s words while he was breathing so hard. After a few minutes Crow regained his ability to speak.
“Jack, I been workin’ down river on the steamer, Spring Belle. We took on a travelin’ sideshow and hauled them folks all the ways up to St. Louis a few weeks back.” Jack leaned back into his chair and rocked the two front legs off the ground. Hethen reached over to the chair at the next table and pulled it close so he could use it as an arm rest. He could tell Crow’s story may take a while.
Crow, still a little short of breath, stopped his telling long enough to take a drink of water before continuing. Jack waited and got comfortable.
“That travelin’ side show made some real money in them small towns along the river. Why, the snake charmer told me that in just one night he made almost fifteen dollars… and all he had to do was bite the head offin’ a green creek snake. Fifteen dollars Jack! Do you realize it takes two weeks hard work to make that kind of honest money?”
Jack just sat there, leaning back and not saying anything as Crow rambled on about big money to be made in side shows. Finally he could not hold himself back as he leaned forward and put both elbows on the clean table cloth and said, “Crow, what in glory’s name are you gettin’ to with this here story?”
Crow sat up in his chair and, with each hand, took hold of his coat lapel and said in his proudest voice. “Toes, Jack, your toes.” Jack’s face showed he had no idea what in the world his cousin was talking about.
Crow leaned forward and looked around to make sure no one was listening to his valuable idea. Then, in a whispered voice and with great convictions, he laid out his plan. “Jack, people will be payin’ good money to see odd and unusual things. Take for instance that calf born with two heads that Old Man Perkins’ cow had last winter. Or, do you remember that mummified mermaid creature that came through here in the circus a while back? Looked to me like just a fish with a monkey’s head sewed on it. But, to them folks who paid money to see the oddity, it were a mermaid creature.”
Jack was becoming a bit annoyed as Crow finally said, “Ok, what do we have that people would pay good money to see?” Without hesitation, Crow said proudly, “Toes. You lost your toes to a pair of monster catfish. Supposin’ we caught those monsters and retrieved your toes out of their bellies, just supposin.’ Then we’ll put your toes in a jar of undertaker’s formaldehyde. Next we’ll get that feller who carves wooden head stones to make us a catfish head out of wood. Not any regular-sized head, a real big one. We’ll stretch a piece of hide over the carvin’ and stain it with walnut juice. Stick in a couple of yeller colored marbles for eyes, and we’ll have the head of a monster catfish.”
“We’ll keep the head back from the customers. That’s so-ins’ they can’t be a’seein’ where the hide is stitched together with twine. But, we’ll let them get real close to the jar of toes. They can even touch the outside of the jar, if in’ they want to. Cost them another nickel if in’ they want to touch the jar.”
Crow paused for a moment before beginning once again. “Then you can show them your feet with their missin’ toes. Next you commence to tellin’ them about the monster catfish of dead man’s boiler, and how they tried to eat you for supper. Them city folks will pay good money to be a hearin’ that tale.” Crow’s story got Jacks attention…
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for the July 26 edition of the Wetzel Chronicle for Part Two of Catfish Jack’s Jar Of Toes!