Cracker’s Mule by Billy Moore

Year 2000 Honorable Mention Billy Moore’s novel is about a boy’s eleventh summer, set during the 1956 polio epidemic. Sent into isolation at his grandparents’ small farm in Alabama, we follow his adventures in rural America ‘ a world that has all but disappeared today. Based closely on Moore’s childhood. Cracker’s Mule is currently available at Amazon. It’s our pleasure to feature an excerpt from the first chapter:


Velvet Beans and Corn Shucks

“That’s enough,” Papa told me.

I looked up in surprise. The bed of the pickup wasn’t over half full. We’d been coming to the peanut processing plant on the Kinston Highway to get corn shucks three or four times a week. It sounded peculiar to me that the peanut plant dealt right heavy in corn, but they did. They bought corn and ran it through a machine that shucked it and shelled it. The cobs fell out on one conveyor belt and the dried shucks blew out into another pile outside. Anyone that wanted them was welcome to the shucks. The shucks didn’t have a whole lot of feed value, but they filled a cow’s belly.

Grass was mighty slim with this drought. Cows looked more like it was wintertime than summer. We were doing anything we could to stretch feed. The day before, Papa and I had gone to the swamp and cut the oak trees down that he would saw up later for firewood. Cows followed you anywhere you went in the pasture, hoping to get fed. As soon as we cut a tree down, cows would start eating the leaves. Another day, we worked down the branch below the bridge chopping down the brush along the creek, mostly trees some called river birch. Cows followed us there, too, eating the leaves.

“We’re going to the crusher,” Papa told me.

I’d never seen him get plain shucks crushed before, but I reckoned that if you mixed them with molasses, they would make decent feed. We were almost out of crushed hay and crushed corn in the milk barn. We were also getting real low on corn in the crib. I knew Papa was saving a good bit of that for the mules when they worked in the fields and to have a little for the chickens. The chickens run loose all day, feeding on bugs and grass and whatever all they scratched up to eat, but they wouldn’t lay as many eggs or stay in as good shape without some grain.

“We’ll see if there’s any bean shatters,” he said.

He drove to another part of the peanut plant, backed up to a cement loading dock, and climbed the truck body to the loading dock. There was a pretty good pile of velvet bean hulls with some of the beans mixed in.

Velvet beans get their name from the bean hull. Instead of being smooth and green like most bean pods, they are black and look and feel like they’re covered with a thin layer of velvet. Or at least they feel like velvet at first. Before long, if you handle the bean hulls, you’ll start to itch like everything. I had helped Papa pick velvet beans the year before, and, by the end of the day, my hands felt like they’d been in an ant bed. But velvet beans were fine feed. Lots of people planted them in their corn fields and let the bean vines run on the corn stalks.

A man who worked at the peanut plant waved for us to take the bean shatters before Papa could get halfway over to ask him. It was right plain they didn’t want them. Velvet beans were mixed in quite a few types of livestock feeds. When they were loaded, lots of the drier bean hulls shattered, spilling beans onto the floor. They must have left those, harder to load, lying behind.

Papa had been loading shucks with a bean fork. That was a real broad pitchfork with lots of tines close together so that beans won’t fall through them. He also had a coal shovel. It was a lot wider than a regular shovel and had a short handle with a ring in the end of it. When we started shoveling the beans onto the top of the shucks in the bed of the pickup, there turned out to be a lot more than we’d expected.

“They may not know there’s so many beans left here,” Papa told me. “I better check with them again.” He started walking to a man with a clipboard not too far away.

The man looked at Papa and waved. “Clean ’em up, if you want ’em,” he told Papa before he got over close. “There’ll probably be more there by the end of the week, too,” he added and waved again for us to take them.

“Much obliged,” Papa told him and turned back to the beans. When the bed of the pickup was nearly full up to the top, Papa pulled out some of the croaker sacks he’d brought to sack up the feed once it had been ground at the crusher. We sacked beans until all the beans were gone. While Papa was tying the tops of the sacks and setting them up front against the cab and cattle bodies, I picked up a push broom that was laying nearby and swept all the hulls left behind off the loading dock onto the ground. I figured if we made ourselves useful, the people at the peanut plant might keep letting us get the beans.

I wished I’d brought some cotton to stuff in my ears. I did take my handkerchief out of my pocket and put it over my face like a bandit in a western movie. Most of the people that worked feeding the crushers and bagging did that to keep the dust out of their nose. If I didn’t, I’d feel like I had a bad cold for the rest of the day.

Papa and I forked the shucks and beans out onto the concrete apron in front of the crusher and let the men feeding the machines push them in. That way we kept a good mixture of shucks and beans, about half and half. I had never seen velvet beans crushed before and went over to where they were bagging the crushed, sweetened feed.

It made me hungry every time we came to the crusher. The molasses smelled as good as some of Bigmother’s baking. I hadn’t done it where anyone could see, of course, but I’d tried sweetened crushed corn and hay both, and they didn’t taste anywhere near as good as they smelled. I wasn’t about to taste this with velvet beans in it. I figured it would itch my mouth even worse than velvet beans itched my hands.

“Mighty good feed, Cracker. Mighty good.” It was Mr. Durant, the manager of the feed mill. He was writing down the weights of the sacks of crushed feed as another fellow sewed the top of the sacks shut and set them on the big scales.

“Cracker?” The man sewing kind of half laughed, making fun of the nick name. I didn’t much like a fellow I didn’t even know chunking off on me, especially a man that looked like he might not be all there in the head.

“Yep. This is Cracker,” Mr. Durant told the peckerwood. “He’s the one rode Old Three C’s mule, Lucifer, all the way from Ephus’ to town. You know Lucifer?”

The peckerwood looked at me right different, I thought. “Yessir. I know that mule,” he told Mr. Durant.

I propped my feet up on the frame of the scale and stood with my hands in my back pockets and looked at the peckerwood as hard as Lash LaRue would look at a badman in a movie. From what I’d heard, Lucifer’s spell as a pet had only lasted from the time the logging chain clobbered him until the next morning. No one but Papa and me knew what had caused Lucifer’s pet spell.

“Your granddaddy’s a right smart fellow to come up with this feed,” Mr. Durant told me. “Hustle’s got a good bit to do with smart. Tell him he might want to check the salvage deck at the depot.”

He winked at me and went to his office.

At the depot they had one loading dock on which they set damaged freight to see if anyone would buy it. This morning they had some hundred pound bags of Robin Hood brand flour that had got wet shipping. One bag was opened at the top so you could see. It was an ugly sight. The flour was crusted hard and turned brown with green mold starting to grow.

“Must figger we got some idjits here in Opp,” a rough-looking man with one gallus of his overalls busted told Papa as we walked up to it. “Oughta give a feller a dollar to haul it off fer ’em.”

Papa nodded at the man and stood around until he was gone. Then he took his knife out of his pocket, opened it, and started jobbing around in the flour. When he had a place about the side of his fist broke up, he pulled the crusted part away. Underneath, the flour looked just like any out of a new sack. He picked up a handful, sniffed it, and let it drift through his finger. It was white and powdery.

“Still don’t think I’d want to eat it,” I told Papa. It bothered me that he was thinking about buying it. I figured even the part that looked good might poison you.

“Me neither,” he said.

I felt better until he started talking to the freight agent. “I’ll haul it off for you if you’ll give me fifty cents a bag,” Papa told him.

“Aw, Newman. Can’t come under the dollar a bag price on it. Lots of flour for a dollar.”

“Looks teetotal ruint to me,” Papa countered. “Got a gully in my field I’m trying to fill, though.”

I felt better. That made sense to me.

The agent counted the sacks like he didn’t know how many there were. I knew there were thirteen and figured he did.

“Let you have them for ten dollars,” he told Papa.

I turned to walk away. That man was crazy.

“Give you five,” Papa told him.

I thought maybe Papa’d had a sun stroke while we were forking shucks. We could fill the gullies with free stuff.

“You’re a tight man with a penny, Newman,” the agent told him. Split the difference. “Seven fifty.”

“Seven,” Papa told him.

The agent shook his head and started away. “Seven and a quarter since Cracker’s with you,” he said.

I looked right sharp at him. I didn’t remember ever seeing this man in my life.

“And buy me and Cracker a cold Coke,” Papa said and grinned.

“You’re a plumb sight, Newman. That’s what you are. I’ll probably get fired over that quarter,” he grumbled, but he was grinning.

By the time we had the flour stacked in the back of the truck with the crushed feed, he had us a cold Coca Cola each. It hit the spot.

Papa gave me a nickel. “Evvie might like one of these, too,” he told me.

I figured he was right, so I went and got another Coke out of the ice. I was still right puzzled at him buying that rotten flour. “We going to eat that flour?” I asked when we were in the truck.

“No, but the hogs will,” he told me and punched me in the ribs. “Had you worried, didn’t I?”

I couldn’t help but grin back at him. That made good sense. Thirteen hundred pounds of hog feed for seven and a quarter was a right good deal.

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