J. W. Hand1
written ca. 1938
(Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Grandpappy Cook had just finished bragging about selling a five-dollar calf for eighteen dollars, so to egg him on I said:
“Grandpappy, did you ever do any horse trading?”
We were sitting in front of my fire. He rolled his cud of twist around over his tongue and squished it a few times with his seven teeth, then sprayed the fireplace from mantle to floor with amber. He studied the freckled effect while he propped his feet across a vacant rocker, my newest chair. I knew the signs, They were the forerunners of one of Grandpappy’s long tales. (But don’t call them tales to his face). He started the chair to rocking, adjusted it to a comfortable speed, then he said:
“Hain’t never done so much hoss tradin’; never did own many hosses. I liked mules. But hit seems to me that I did skin a feller wunst. Hit’s so long ago that I can’t recollect for certain, but I think hit was Betsy that I traded to a feller fer his mule.
“’Pears to me that I had saddled Betsy with a old wore-out saddle that musta’ been no better’n a board covered with cowhide and was ridin’ her over to Bailey’s Mill – hit was about six mile – to git me some corn ground. I had hit layin’ across the front of my saddle.
“Betsy looked pretty good. She was right fat and could pace a little. She didn’t have no scars or sores or no limp.
“Betsy was pretty to look at; and easy to ride, but she had moon-eyes.2
The feller had a brand new saddle
“Atter I had rode along a mile or two, a feller come out of a side road ridin’ one of the prettiest mules I ever see. He was slick as a fattened hog and stepped along like he was running over with pep. The feller was sittin’ on a brand new saddle too.
“Me’n the feller spoke. He rode along with me a little way, all the time lookin’ at Betsy. I could see what was in his mind, but I didn’t let on. You kin tell a trader as fer as you kin see ‘im.
“Just like I expected, the feller said. ‘That’s a good-lookin’ mare.”
‘Yep’, I said,’she’s all right.’
“We rode along, talkin’ about this and that. The feller kept twistin’ about on his saddle so’s I could see hit. I let him keep hit up for a while, then I said, ‘That’s a new saddle, hain’t it?”
“’Yep,’ he said, ‘Jest bought it last week. Hain’t been set on enough to git shiny.’
“The feller slapped the mule’s rump with his hand, and he pretended he had a hard time keepin’ the mule from runnin’ off and leavin’ me. ‘Darn near got that hose-fly,’ he said.
His mule was what I needed
“I could see the feller had a lively mule, jest the kind I needed, but I still didn’t let on. We rode on a ways, then the feller popped out in the worst kinda form: ‘How’ll you swap?’ he asked. Jest like that. No ways a-tall like experienced traders do. They talk about everything under the sun ‘ceptin’ the trade. So I figgered I could take the feller easy.
“’I don’t know as I care to swap,’ I said. ‘I like this mare mighty well. But she wouldn’t suit you.’
“’How come?’ he asked. ‘What’s the matter with her?’
“’Nothin you could lay your hand on,’ I said. ‘You jest wouldn’t like her.’
At this point, Grandpappy, without warning nearly drowned out the fire, an amber mist settled in front of us. I hastily excused myself and returned with a small can which I put in front of Grandpappy.
“As I wus saying,” Grandpappy picked up his story, “when I kept tellin’ that feller that he wouldn’t like Betsy, he commenced lookin’ closer an’ closer to see why he wouldn’t like her. ‘Course he couldn’t see nothin’ becus there warn’t nothin’ he could see. You can’t tell nothin’ about moon-eyes till the full moon, and hit wus a week yet ’till then.”
I saw Grandpappy’s jaw working and mentally patted myself on the back for thinking of putting the cuspidor in front of him. But he worked up his cud and very carefully avoided the cuspidor. The fireplace took on another coat of amber.
I noted the angle and moved the cuspidor a little more to the front of Grandpappy. I didn’t see how he could possibly miss it the next time. He continued his story.
“Well sir, the more that feller looked at Betsy, the less he could see wrong with her. He let me git in front of him so’s he could see her hind part and he got in front so’s he could see all of that end. He switched sides of the road. I jest waited and finally he said”
“In spite of what you say, I don’t see nothin’ wrong with that mare.”
“’I didn’t say she had anything wrong with her’. I told him. ‘All I said was that you wouldn’t like her.”
“Is she shy?’ he asked.
“’Scare her and see for yourself,’ I said.
He checked out Betsy
“He rode up close and jerked his hand across Betsy’s eyes. She dodged just a little bit. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that shows she hain’t blind. And she ain’t shy either. Has she got sores under the saddle?’
“’Nope,’ I said. ‘But you can look for yourself.’
“’I’ll take your word for hit,’ he said. ‘Anyhow, she don’t act like she’s sore the way she’s carryin’ you and the saddle and corn.’
Once more I saw Grandpappy get set to spray the termites but this time, I had no worries. The can was in good position. The cloudburst came, but the can remained perfectly dry. Once more I took the angle and moved the can. Next time I thought even the law of averages would be on my side.
“The feller didn’t seem to notice how I was lookin’ at his mule. He was the best-lookin’ mule I ever saw, and I was gittin’ anxious to swap, but I knew hit wouldn’t do to let the feller know about that.
Let’s swap even
“All of a sudden, the feller said: ‘Let’s swap even.’
“’Nope,’ I said. ‘I won’t swap for lessin fifteen dollars boot.’
“The feller studied a little bit, then he said: ‘I’ll give you five dollars boot.’
“’Nope,’ I said. ‘You’re the one what wants to swap. Its fifteen dollars or nothin’.:
“’I can’t trade like that,’ the feller said. We rode on a piece and I could see that he still wanted to trade mighty bad. Some people jest can’t stand to own a mule when they think they can get a hoss. Finally, he said: ‘I’ll give you my new saddle and five dollars boot for your hoss and saddle.’
“I told him all right. That suited me. In fact, I was tickled all over. We swapped right there and he even helped me move the sack of corn offa Betsy over to the mule.
“But when we was all set again, I said: ‘This is a trade. You won’t like Betsy, but I told you before we swapped.’
“He didn’t say nothin’; jest looked at me like he thought he had skinned a crazy man and rode off.
Grandpappy stopped to roll his chow around and I took advantage of the pause. I said: “Well, Grandpappy, it looks to me like he did skin you.”
“Oh, no he didn’t. Didn’t I tell you Betsy was moon-eyed?”
Under the accusation, Grandpappy spat viciously at the fireplace, clearing the can by two feet. I moved it again. Grandpappy said:
“Iffen you don’t stop movin’ that can around in fronta’ me, I’m a’gonna spit right in it!”
That set me back a pace, but I said: “Well, it still looks to me like he skinned you.”
“No, he didn’t. A moon-eyed horse can’t see nothin’ a-tall durin’ the full moon. He’s plumb blind till the new moon. But the feller couldn’t tell nothin’ ’bout that a week before the moon fulled; and he didn’t ask me.”
1During the 1930s, Great Depression era, many writers were employed to interview people and write stories about life in the United States. The program was named the U.S. Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project and it gave employment to historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. The story above is a transcribed, unedited story from a WPA writer J. W. Hand, Alabama
2Moon-eyed or moon blindness” is a chronic, painful eye disease, and it’s the most common cause of blindness in horses. It was named Moon-eyed because in the 1600s people thought recurring attacks were related to phases of the moon.
ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS – Settlement: Lost & Forgotten Stories is a collection of lost and forgotten stories of the first surveyors, traders, and early settlements of what would become the future state of Alabama.
A Russian princess settling in early Alabama
How the early settlers traveled to Alabama and the risks they took
A ruse that saved immigrants lives while traveling through Native American Territory
Alliances formed with the Native Americans
How an independent Republic, separate from the United States was almost formed in Alabama