Word count 1,611
First Posted: August 7, 2005
Revised for adding to files
on Facebook: August 2014
August 18 of 1873 marked the birth of an annual event in the budding town of Green River, California. Of course, no one expected the poetry contest to have such far-flung notoriety that the entire country would eventually celebrate the day in its honor. The competition was merely a way of raising funds for adding a much needed second room to the schoolhouse.
Jimmy Cricket, a farmer on the edge of town, was the first contestant. His voice was annoyingly squeaky, bringing muffled snickers from a few members of his audience while holding others spellbound by his hearty declaration.
“My ol’ Maude was dumber’n a clod
b’fore I sent her off ta school.
But after one day–what kin I say–
the cow come back a jewel.
Her eyes are dreamy,
and her milk so creamy
that ne’er better butter ya’ve had.
Now surely ya can see
and hafta agree
why I’m so very glad.”
Next, the blacksmith stepped to the podium. He laced his fingers together and stretched his arms full length in front of him, palms outward and knuckles cracking like firecrackers on the fourth of July. Bullwhip Smithy’s voice boomed like thunder.
“The Shoein’ of Muley O’Leer’s Mule.
Muley O’Leer had a mean mule.
He brought it in to be shod.
I tried every tool,
even smacked it with the golden rule,
but that critter just wouldn’t stand still.
So I tied up a leg,
and set about my job.
In a flash I did beg
my wife for a peg
so the mule’s life I could rob,
for O’Leer’s ornery jack
was the meanest in the county.
There was no lack
of strength in that hack,
so I offered up a bounty
to anyone who had the courage
to try and nail one shoe,
or perhaps even two,
with that mule’s feet on the fly.”
Muley O’Leer leaned close to Scott Lancer and groused in his ear. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that mule. He’s as gentle as a kitten.”
Johnny Lancer tipped his head to the right and felt the jostle of his hat as the brim collided with that worn by his older brother. “Nothin’ a bullet wouldn’t fix,” he whispered.
A spattering of clapping and twitters of laughter accompanied Bullwhips departure from the crude stage that was decorated with bright red and yellow streamers of checkered gingham. The blacksmith smiled broadly and returned to his seat in front of the platform.
One at a time a dozen more would-be poets stood before the crowd comprised of their friends and neighbors and a few strangers who were in town for various reasons. Some received a token measure of applause, and others were rewarded with snickers or outright laughter.
The last contestant made his way to the podium. At sight of the small man with a neatly-trimmed, silvery-gray beard, Johnny Lancer choked back a gasp and nudged an elbow into his brother’s ribs. “What’s Jelly doing up there?”
Scott merely shrugged. “I suppose he has in mind to recite a poem.”
Johnny almost laughed before the Lancer handyman even had a chance to open his mouth. He couldn’t imagine Jelly Hoskins making up a poem. The man could barely write.
Seeing Jelly’s warning glare, Johnny ducked his head and momentarily fixed his eyes on his own feet. He was sure Jelly’s eyes were telling him to go ahead and have his fun . . . if he dared.
“Hump,” Jelly said. When he paused, Johnny looked up to see him standing with arched back, thumbs tucked beneath his suspenders, and eyes looking out over the audience.
Jelly cleared his throat and continued.
“Some folks laughed and called him ugly,
but that didn’t matter a hoot to me.
He was big and strong; the best I’d ever seen.
What’s more, he wasn’t mean.”
The Lancer handyman stopped again and took a deep breath, his chest puffing out even more.
“His back stuck up in a big ol’ lump,
which is why I named him Hump.
I knew at first sight
my choice was right,
and that my life’d never be the same.
I’d found my way to fame.”
Again Jelly hesitated. His eyes challenged the younger of Murdoch Lancer’s sons to contradict even one claim of Hump’s greatness. Johnny’s response was a slight grin, and the little man continued in a voice filled with confidence.
“Cattle need strength and resistance to heat
to arrive at the railhead on their feet.
Anyone with a lick of sense
could see Hump’s blood’d do the trick.
Them Brahma cross calves
are bigger an’ smarter’n any critter alive.
With them a ranch can survive.”
The end of Jelly’s poem was met with silence. Johnny assumed there was more to come, and apparently everyone else thought the same. It wasn’t until the whiskered man bowed and made a move to leave the stage that the hoots and hollers of several Lancer cowhands filled the air.
“Whah-hoo!” yelled young Walt, whose head Johnny could barely see off to his right.
“Good goin’, Jelly,” called Frank, the Lancer’s only black rider, from his perch on the hitching rail to the left of the stage.
When the noise subsided, Johnny again leaned closer to his brother. “Ya think he has a chance of winning?”
Scott shrugged. “As good as anyone, I suppose.”
“Yeah.” The word floated away with Johnny’s breath. He looked directly at his brother and chuckled. “Guess they’re all pretty bad . . . compared to them poems you’re always reading to me. Maybe they should’ve called this Bad Poetry Day instead of Culture Day . . . ya think?”
Scott didn’t have a chance to answer. Val Crawford was calling for Millie O’Leer to return to the platform.
Muley let out a whoop. “That’s my girl! Told ya she’d win. She’s a borned poet, jest like my mama.”
Johnny clinched his teeth against the less than flattering words that rushed to the tip of his tongue. He’d be a fool to rile Millie’s pa. The muleskinner’s sledgehammer of a fist was attached to an arm bulging with muscles. He could punch harder than any mule could kick.
Val handed Muley’s twelve-year-old daughter a purple ribbon with two long streamers attached and asked her to recite her poem again. Johnny’s hands crept toward his ears. Millie’s high-pitched voice tended to cut through his head like a knife. She reminded him a little of Penny Rose, the daughter of his father’s friend who had died earlier that year.
Millie grinned broadly at her pa. Then she sobered and took a deep breath.
“Whitie’s my fav’ert
of all pa’s mules
e’en if she’s so tall
I gotta mount her from a stool.
She’s sweeter’n the apples
I feed her for treats;
and, as a friend,
she can’t be beat.
I can ride her bareback
up hills an’ down.
When school starts,
Ma says I can take ‘er ta town.
Ain’t no finer critter
on God’s green earth,
an’ I sure can’t think of anything
of greater worth.
Whether big or small,
Whitie’s the bestest of ’em all.”
With thunderous clapping of his massive hands, Muley lunged to his feet. “That’s my Millie” he shouted. As he sidled past the Lancer brothers in order to reach the end of the row of seating, the heel of one boot landed on the toe of Johnny’s.
Johnny grunted in pain and silently grumbled that he should’ve stayed home and worked with those colts. Then he rolled his eyes and muttered something about hating poetry, and this being the worst he’d ever heard.
An elbow jabbed Johnny in the ribs. “What was that?” Scott asked.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Johnny hastily replied. Then he grinned and slapped the back of his hand against Scott’s arm. “Come on. We’d better go buy Jelly a beer and console him. If we get him drunk enough, maybe, we won’t have to listen to his moanin’ all the way back to the ranch.”
Jelly looked as down in the mouth as Johnny had expected. However, several beers later, the little man was actually laughing. “Probably never should’ve entered that po’try contest in the first place,” he said as he wiped a bit of froth from his chin with the cuff of his best shirt. “Ain’t a one of them judges knows a good rhyme when they hear it.”
“Well, just look at this way.” Johnny paused and quirked his lips into a sly grin. “Nobody can ever say your poem won the Bad Poetry Day contest.”
“Yeah. Who needs ta be called the worst o’ the worst?” Jelly’s words slurred together while his body swayed away from the bar.
Johnny grabbed Jelly by the arm and steadied him. “Here . . . have another drink,” he said and called for the bartender to bring them another round of beers.
Scott lifted his glass. “How about a toast to Jelly?”
“To Jelly!” rang a chorus of voices.
Once everyone had taken a big gulp of beer, Jelly announced he had a toast to make. He lifted his glass high, Johnny and Scott both steadying him with a hand on his back. “To Bad Po’try Day and the worst rhymes I ever heard.”
Johnny’s voice blended with those of his brother and the surrounding men. “To Bad Poetry!”
. . . and so began a yearly tradition of reciting bad poetry, an event that carries down to this day in the Lancer households wherever they may be found.
(Or should I say, “The beginning?”)
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