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tobe-boy (1940) Editors’ Note: This short story, dealing with a Georgia mountain farmer’s hardscrabble life, first appeared in Mountain Life and Work, winter 1940. West also reprinted the story in his fledgling New Southerner newspaper in the summer 1956 issue. While West worked intermittently for years on an unfinished novel, tentatively titled “No Lonesome Road,” he published very little short fiction. Old Shug Cantrell stooped his shoulders to the plow handles.Red Georgia dirt crumbled up and dribbled down under the plow beam. Little clods tumbled out of the furrow like brown field mice stirred out of their nest.Dead ragweeds snapped and lay down under fresh soil. Furrow on furrow the man and the old mule stumbled around the mountain side. A bunch of dominecker hens scrounged into the row, snatching greedily for bugs and grub worms. At the end of each furrow of stubble, Shug kicked the lever that loosed the turner wing.The wing flopped over and was turned down the hill for the back furrow. Shug plowed with a hillside turner—a contrary plow. Sweat ran down into his eyes. It dripped from the mule’s belly in little dirty streams. Down the swag below, his woman grubbed at the sourwood and locust sprouts. She swung an old grubbing mattock. Her long arms reached high overhead in rhythmic circles—the motions of a fiddle bow at a square dance. Now and then a thorny locust sprout slapped back against the woman’s body. She stopped and raised her dress tail. Carefully she pulled the sharp thorns from the white flesh of her thigh. Soft April winds felt good blowing against the smarting scratches. They wafted the scent of peach blossoms from the big plantation across the road. Come dusk, Shug unhitched the trace chains,tied the lines to the gears,and led the mule down to the branch for water. Almost caressingly he smoothed the ruffled hairs where the chains had rubbed. He patted the old mule’s nose and picked a few cockle-burrs from his tail. The mule had tromped the furrows of many plowing seasons.His ear mus01 .Prose.1-blnk 96/West 12/2/03, 11:48 AM 38 selected prose 39 cles had long since ceased to function; the big ears flopped down like the drooping leaves of a tropical plant. His hip bones stuck up as if made for hat racks. One eye was blind. Most of his teeth were gone. The old man fed him on corn meal dough. “Whoa, Tobe-boy. Take it easy.” Shug was currying him down with a corncob . He talked to the mule as he would to a man-person. “Take it easy, Tobeboy .Curryin’s half feed they say.Got to plow a crop with you,Tobe-boy.Many a row we’ll tromp this summer. Thought I wasn’t going to have no mule. But you’re a mule awright, Tobe-boy. Shore, you’re a mule!” The old man pulled the bridle over the flopped ears. The animal staggered into the stable, rubbing a high hip bone against the door facing. Shug heaved a deep sigh. The new mule, it seemed, could pull a plow. Didn’t look so handsome , but he could “shake a plow stock awright!”—as much as Shug could stand anyhow. His other mule had died this spring.Old age and the hard winter had finished him.He just lay down in the stable and passed out.Things looked pow’ful tough for a while.Shug still had four small kids at home to feed.The few acres of rentedhill -sidewasalltheirliving.Hehadswappedhisonliestmilkcowandtheseven layinghens for the oldplugmule.Thekidsneededcow’smilk,butthecowdidn’t plow. Crops must be plowed. Shug turned from the stable door,dragged out a double-foot cultivator from the shed and tightened its handles. He picked up a dull-pointed bull-tongue plow. Holding it on the old piece of railroad track, he hammered the point to a sharp edge with the back of a poll ax. These were his working tools. Sap was up; frogs were croaking. Spring was here and that meant plowing. Dark had already settled when the woman called from the house that supper was on the table. Shug picked up the slop bucket by the pig pen and stumbled up the rocky foot-path. The feeble flicker of a kerosene lamp lit the room. Kids crowded around on the slab bench that ran along one side of the table...


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