WHENEVER OLD TIMERS got together up our way and began to talk, the conversation might begin with the weather, it might begin with religion, or it might begin with politics. But whatever it began with, it always got around sooner or later to old Newt Harrell. Old Newt was the practical joker of our neck of the woods. Sometimes you wanted to kill him, but he was funny and you couldn't stay mad at him very long at a time. And besides, after he had played one of his jokes on you, you were glad to see somebody else catch it, and so you egged him on.
Take the joke he played on the politician. That was a good one. This man had made some remark that did no credit to Newt's intelligence. So when the time came for him to run for office and he came out to see Newt and get him to vote for him, Newt was ready for him.
He took the candidate out to see his hogs. There was a little shelled corn in a barrel and Newt asked the candidate to reach in and give him a handful to throw to the hogs when they came up. When the candidate reached, Newt up-ended him in the barrel and yelled for his son to bring a rope. They tied the candidate up and Newt laid him out in the middle of the lot, scattering corn all around and then calling the hogs. Newt grabbed up two pigs and ran right over the candidate, the hogs right after him, squealing and chomping their jaws. The candidate was scared out of his wits. He cursed Old Newt coming and going and swore that when he got up he would kill him. Old Newt, thoroughly enjoying himself, said then he would never let him up. And he didn't—not until the candidate said he was not mad any more and promised not to hurt Newt.
Most of Old Newt's jokes were thought up on the spur of the moment. He went into Austin one day and ordered some lightning rods. On the day they were being delivered, Newt happened to be on his way to town again and met the delivery wagon not far from his home. He thought it would be a good joke to have the rods delivered to his neighbor, a widow.
“The house is just over the hill,” he told the men, “and you go on over and put the rods up. I've got to go to town—but I'd better tell you about my wife,” he added. “She's dead set against gettin’ any lightenin’ rods and might try to keep you from puttin’ them up. But don't pay no ’tention to her; she's not quite right, and I've bought the rods and paid for them and I want you to put them up. Now, whatever she says, you just go right ahead and put them up.” And he drove on.
The men found the place and started to work. With the first sound of their hammers, the widow came out and asked what they were fixing to do. They told her they were just going to put up some lightning rods. She said that she didn't want any lightning rods and would not buy any. The men went on with their work, telling her soothingly that it was “all right.”
“Now, I told you I don't want those rods and won't pay for them, and I meant it. You take them down and away from here.”
The men assured her that it was all right, that the rods were paid for, and kept on working. This was too much. She went back into the house and brought out her old shotgun and levelled it on them.
“I don't know what's got into you all,” she said in measured tones, “but I told you I don't want those things and won't have them, and if you don't take them down right now and leave, I'll blow your brains out.”
This was more than the men had bargained for, but they made one last effort.
“Lady, your husband bought these rods and paid for them and told us to put them up, regardless of what you might say.”
“Why, I've been a widow for twenty years,” she exclaimed.
“What did he look like?”
“Well, he's a great big man with red hair and a bushy red beard all over his face.”
“Old Newt!” the widow exclaimed. She lowered her gun and directed the men to Newt's place, taking the joke good-naturedly, since Newt was a fine neighbor in every other way.
In view of Newt's appearance, it is not hard to believe the success of his prank on the little Adcock boy. On a cold winter day, Old Newt, a school trustee, was unloading wood near the schoolhouse when the youngster came by. He was alone, the teacher having let the little ones out early on that bad day. Just as little Joe got to the wagon, Newt glanced up and saw the boy, and decided to scare him. He grabbed a stick of cord wood, and drawing it back, said in his most threatening tones, “I've just got a good mind to knock your brains out!”
The child was terrified and ran all the way home. As soon as he could speak, he gasped out an incoherent story about how a crazy man had tried to kill him. Mr. Adcock asked what the man looked like and recognized Old Newt with the boy's first words. He told the child that was Old Newt Harrell. He wouldn't hurt a flea.
Once Uncle had been out looking for his horses since before daylight and came to Newt's house just after dark, worn out. He was glad when Newt said, immediately after supper, that his guest's bed was ready any time he wanted it. Uncle made ready at once, but just as he started to step into bed, he heard a fierce growling and snapping and felt jaws closing on the calf of his leg. He jumped right into the middle of the bed and yelled, “Newt! Come get this damned dog out from under the bed—he's done bit me!”
Newt was in his element. The “dog” was his son, whom he had put up to the trick.
On one occasion Newt had ridden up to the fence row to talk to Papa, when a stranger came by, inquiring the way to the next house. They told him, and Newt, who was riding a horse that would pitch like fury if expected to carry double, said, “Get up behind me and I'll take you there.”
But Newt, with a look of injured innocence, protested that he could not imagine why John wanted to say such things—that horse was gentle as a kitten and all the kids in the country could ride him. The stranger got up behind. The horse very promptly and violently threw him into a patch of bull nettles. The stranger got up sputtering and brushing himself off, demanding to know why Newt had lied to him.
But Newt was busy jerking and spurring the horse and saying “Why, you old son-of-a-gun, what do you mean pitching like that? I never saw the beat. I'm goin’ to sell you if it's the last thing I do, you old fool!” Then, turning to the stranger, he vowed it was the first time in his life that that horse had been anything but meek and gentle.
Once when Newt went to Dave Hunter's store at Fitzhugh to get a bill of groceries, Dave turned the tables on him. Newt's wife had put a quarter's worth of beans on the grocery list, and when Dave put the groceries up, he substituted a quarter's worth of jelly beans. Later, when Mrs. Harrell started to cook beans, she discovered the sack of candy beans and scolded Newt roundly. The joke was on Newt, but it never stayed on him long. He paid several boys in the country to gather birds’ eggs for him, and when he had several dozen of them, he took another trip to Fitzhugh. He bought a big bill of groceries, and, after loading them in his wagon, said as an afterthought. “By the way, I almost forgot my eggs. Give me credit on my bill for fifteen dozen eggs and I'll bring them in.”
Dave gave him credit, but when he saw the eggs, he yelled to Newt, who was already back in his wagon, “Wait, here, Newt, these are bird eggs. I can't use them.”
But Newt called back over his shoulder, “Well, you've paid for them. I couldn't use candy beans either, but I kept them.”
Old Newt was not above corrupting the youth.
Uncle Fred always milked his gentle old cow just before dark, sitting on a three-legged stool and taking his time, secure in the belief that Bessie would stand meekly, as she always did, until he finished. But Old Newt had put an idea into his sons’ heads: he told them to climb up on the cow shed before Uncle Fred came out to milk, and, after he had started to milk, to drop highlife slowly through a crack, letting it drip on Bessie. The boys were game—all of a sudden Bessie jumped and whirled, knocking Uncle Fred backward and kicking the milk bucket as she fled out the cow shed and down the hill, snorting, jumping, and bawling frantically. Uncle Fred picked himself up, amazed, and ran toward the house, yelling to his wife, “Cynthy, Cynthy, bring me the shot gun quick—I've got to kill that blamed cow—she's gone plum’ mad!” Aunt Cynthy came running out with the gun, but smelled the highlife which Uncle Fred, in his excitement, had not smelled, and advised him to get a halter and go after the cow. The boys hid out until they were sure Uncle Fred's anger had cooled enough for him to appreciate the joke.
Newt did not like to get up early in the morning and his children rarely finished with their work early enough to get to school on time. What was worse, Mr. Stevens, the teacher, was strict, never failing to punish tardies. So Newt decided to teach the teacher a lesson. He told his son to invite Mr. Stevens to spend the night at his house. Immediately after breakfast the next morning, he asked the teacher to go out to the barn and look at a fine team of mules. Mr. Stevens went into the stall and up to the mules’ heads in order to look into their mouths and give his opinion as to their age. But just as he opened one mule's mouth, Newt picked up a stick and began to jab the mules in the flanks and hips. They started to kick and jump wildly, and the frightened teacher had to jump into the manger for safety. From this vantage point, he could see what Newt was doing, and started out of the stall at once, berating Newt for his foolishness, but every time he climbed out of the manger, Newt would poke the mules again. Mr. Stevens, getting mad as a hornet, started to untie the mules, but Newt hurriedly warned, “Don't turn them mules loose; I'll fasten the gate and they'll turn their heels to you and kick the daylights out of you.” The distracted teacher scrambled back into the manger. He tried to reason with Newt, telling him he would be late to school; this was exactly what Newt wanted. He said he wanted the teacher to know that sometimes people could not help being late.
Before my father, whom Newt called John, had learned to be wary of Newt's tricks, he was the victim of one of Newt's pranks. One day my father and another young man, on their way to see their girls, went by Newt's house. Newt, always generous, insisted that they catch up a pony apiece to ride. He pointed out a good-looking one to Papa, saying, “Now, there's Obie; he's a good horse. There's just one thing wrong with him: he's spoiled to pitch if you catch him by the check of the bridle and pull his head around as you mount.” So John carefully caught up the reins to mount; but no sooner had he left the ground than the pony did the same, and he hit the saddle only by accident. He never got his other foot in the stirrup. Obie swallowed his head and started pitching down the slope. He pitched into a bee gum near a small live oak, turned it over, and in an instant both horse and rider were covered with bees. On down the hill went the horse and through a pasture full of scrub brush and covered with honeycomb rocks, nearly tearing the young man's Sunday clothes off. He declares that the only reason he managed to stay on the horse was that there was no place to fall. When Obie was finally pitched down, John rode back to the house to find Old Newt rolling in the yard, helpless with laughter.
Later, John and his best girl (who became my mother) were walking home from church one night. Old Newt came riding along behind them on Obie, pretending to eavesdrop, just for aggravation. He wanted to appear casual, so he crossed his feet up over the horn of the saddle and rode slowly along, whistling softly, and letting the reins dangle. John whispered to Esther to walk on quietly, and then he jumped back quickly and scared the horse; Newt rolled off like a ball. He called to a boy to catch Obie and rode the rest of the way ahead. Now, Papa will not tell me whether Newt ever got back at him, but you know how fathers are.