Catfish Jack’s Jar of Toes: Part 3 of 8
Samuel sat back in his chair, enjoying his cigar, as he began telling his story once again. He remembered Crow’s cousin, Birdy, and how he had found them a cow hide to cover their wooden fish. Trouble was, Birdy did not trust Jack and Crow to pay him for the hide. Crow had cheated him out of money before on his get rich schemes. Not this time! He wanted the money in hand instead of the promise of payment down the road.
The hide was worth no more than three dollars to the tannery. But Birdy claimed he had given it an extra treatment to make the skin easier to stretch. Jack didn’t believe him, but had little other choice but to come up with the twenty dollars Birdy wanted, and time was running out. The hide would only be stretchable for a short time. Keeping it in the tanning solution too long causes it to become less pliable. The widow Hendershot was waiting to begin stretching the hide around the wooden form. She had worked with leather before, covering buggy seats. She knew that the leather shrank when it dried. And that fact had to be taken into consideration when she did her job. Wait too long, and the hide would not stretch right. Time was important for a believable monster catfish.
Jack and Crow needed money, but a quick twenty dollars was hard to come by, even when times were good. After thinking about the situation, Crow finally said, “We could go to work for Himple.” Now Jack was immediately repulsed by Crow’s suggestion. But, he realized with no money and short on time, this was the only way. The two set off toward the lower end of town. A place where even on bright days it smelled of stale beer and things best not talked about. Near the end of the street. that ran past the city limits. stood an old shack of a house with a shed attached to it. Under the shed was a horrid old wagon. It had writing on the side, but it had been partly covered by what it hauled. Three words were readable: Himple’s Honey Wagon. The mere thought of the wagon gave Jack a bad feeling in his stomach.
As they approached, Himple came out of his house. A disgusting-looking man with tobacco chewings dried in his beard. Clothes that were probably never clean when he first put them on. And hair pulled back into a dirty gray pony tail. He grinned at the two men with all three of his teeth. “Well, lookie here. I reckon you boys be a needin’ money sinces you be a’comin’ to see old Himple.” He laughed with a disgusting sound.
Jack spoke first to the dirty man. “Yes, Himple, we be needin’ to make some money. Figured you might be a’havin’ some work in these warmer days. You still payin’ three dollars a load?”
Himple grinned as he said, “I might be a payin’ that much, but I gots a job I’ll pay five dollars each load, if you stay till the job is done. But, I need it done in the next two days, before the weekend. You two fellers think you might be a’ interested?”
Jack and Crow looked at each other, knowing if Himple was paying that kind of money, it was not good. They indicated they were, before even knowing what it was. Himple went on to explain the uptown theater’s privies needed cleaned, clean to the bottom. Then lime poured in to finish the job. Jack knew the traveling New York Opera was scheduled to stop by the town for a performance at the theater. He hadn’t realized it was in three days. The theater’s owners did not want to offend the fine ladies of the town with foul smelling privyies in warm weather. They offered Himple good money to solve their problem. Now, Himple had two men in need of quick money that were desperate enough to take on the job.
Early the next morning, Jack and Crow hitched up Himple’s broken down old horse to the honey wagon. The smell was so bad they were glad they hadn’t eaten breakfast. They knew the wagon was nothing compared to what they were about to experience.
The two did not like to admit it, but this was not the first time they had taken on this kind of work. Desperate times require desperate jobs. This was about as desperate as it got. They wrapped their faces in pieces of cloth soaked in peppermint oil. It burned their faces, but did help to kill the smell, at least for a while. Finally they began their job. Most of the outhouses’ contents could be removed with buckets on long wooden poles. Trip after trip, they made with the wagon from the privies. By early afternoon they had made three trips to the small holler south of town empting their load. It was the final load they were not wanting to do at all. It required one of them to go down a ladder and gather the last of the privy’s contents. Then scatter lime around until it was white as snow. Except it still didn’t smell like snow.
As they pulled up to the privy the last time, Jack said to Crow, “You be the smallest, and remember the last time we did thi,s I was the one who made the trip into the darkness. This time it’s your turn.” Crow knew Jack was right and accepted his fate. Shortly, the ladder was lowered and Crow wiggled his way in through the opening in the wooden seat. He would not let his mind think about where he was entering.
Once inside, he did not dally around. Quickly, he began his jobs and motioned for Jack to lower the lime. He did not want to open his mouth to speak. After fifteen minutes he was done. One last wagon to dump and the two would return for payment from Himple.
As they replaced the wagon into the shed, Crow said to Jack, “I thought it was one of us, or the wagon, that smelled really bad. It’s this here darn horse. He must be the foulest smellin’ critter on this green earth. The two men laughed at the thought of the poor old horse.
Himple may be a disgusting person, but he was a man of his word. As Jack and Crow walked up to his porch, he held out twenty-five dollars. “Here, you two sure needed to make twenty dollars. Figure a job like that should be payin’ more. After all, them theater people payed me extra, ifin’ I could get them privies done in time. Until you two came along, I thought I was gonna’ have to return their money.”
Jack and Crow looked at each other as they accepted the money. Each realized a trip to the boarding house baths was now in order. The extra five dollars would come in handy for a bath and some new clothes. Tomorrow they would go pay Birdy and get their cow hide.