When the air smells like apples and walnuts and trees are beginning to shed the leaves they were last to grow, it's harvest time in Missouri and time for me to make my yearly pilgrimage to Blair's Creek, to visit my old friend Zeke Dooley.
This has become a custom for me and a way to keep my perspective in a world of computerization and constantly changing rules. For upwards of 90 some years, Zeke has managed to keep all of his rules the same, his theory being, "Use everything you can in this old world and if in doubt, fry it."
On the porch of the Dooley cabin, strings of leather britches beans, onions and garden peppers hang drying in the sun. A gray curl of hickory smoke wafts from under the warped shingles of a shed where hams are smoking, and Perletta, Zeke's wife, sits on a sunny corner of the porch, peeling apples for a pie.
Zeke himself is at work rubbing neatsfoot oil into the harness worn by "Old Maybe," his mule. With the garden laid by and the winter's wood hauled, the harness will hang on the porch until spring plowing, among the clutter of traps, wash tubs, lanterns and all the other 'porch plunder' the cabin wears.
Zeke and Perletta are always glad to see me, and to make sure they always will be, I bring some city treat that will tickle them, like a gourmet brand of coffee.
Zeke's appreciation is expressed his usual way; he drags a chair out of the shade with one foot and pushes it toward me.
MITCH: Hi folks. You picked a good day to sit on the porch.
PERLETTA: Well, while it lasts. This kind of day breeds weather I allus heerd. "Warm days in September means snow in November," I've heerd said.
ZEKE: If it stays as dry as Perletta, it'll do.
MITCH: I brought some tradin' goods down. Figured I'd swap for one of Perletta's venison recipes and maybe one of your funny stories.
PERLETTA: Why I'm no great hand to cook a deer, but Mamma had a receipt or two you could copy off. All the best cooks is named on tombstones, and venison don't taste like it used to anyway.
ZEKE: Don't know nothin funny off hand, but set anyway. Me and Perletta was jist now figgurin' out what-all we need to winter, and deer meat did come up.
MITCH: It won't be long til November, Zeke.
ZEKE: Reckon why they wait so long to let a man kill a deer nowadays? Daddy allus claimed second frost was the time to hang one.
MITCH: They're still pretty careful about the deer crop, Zeke, but if you want to take up archery, they'll let you hunt in October.
ZEKE: Shoot, if I was young enough to use one of them bow n'arrs I could jist run one down and be did with Öy@'@Üwold and I cr~?-too much like a pulley wheel to get that close to ary deer.
PERLETTA: Ninety-two Ezekial. You was borned the year the new heatin' stove fell out of the wagon and flat mashed my great Uncle Ezry, may his soul rest easy.
ZEKE: Whatever, woman. You kin trust Perletta to keep track of the low p'ints. What I'm'a sayin' is ain't no deer gonna stand there and let somebody squeakin' like a sawmill walk up on him.
MITCH: Okay, Zeke, sit and use a gun. Out here where you live you could probably shoot one off your porch.
ZEKE: Not in deer season you couldn't. First gun that cracks in this neighborhood them things holes-up like groundhogs. They git back in brush so thick you couldn't cock a pistol and lay there 'til the shootin' stops.
PERLETTA: Well you'ns set there and caucus, and I'll see if I caint skeer up some of them venison receipts Mamma wrote out. I believe I put 'em in the Bible, next to the funeral notices of them that's passed on.
MITCH: Now don't go to a lot of trouble, Perletta. Anything you find will do. I'm just curious about how the old timers did things.
ZEKE: Now Perletta's too young to remember, but her mamma knowed. Back when I was comin' up, we canned most of our meat in bear grease when we had it. You couldn't confidence Missouri weather no more back then than you kin now, fur's keepin' meat in winter goes.
MITCH: How'd you do that?
ZEKE: 'Bout like you can anything, cook it some and seal it up right hot. Mamma surrounded it with grease in the jar, ye see, and hit'd keep pretty good in the spring house or the root cellar. Nothin set around long at our place, with a big family using on it.
PERLETTA: Hit's a wonder to me that people wasn't pizened to death ever whip-stitch in them days. Here's these receipts, if you can riddle 'em out. Mamma wasn't no great hand to write.
MITCH: That didn't take long, Perletta.
PERLETTA: Spoiled cannin'd kill off whole families back then. Mamma used to say, "If'n meat's put up in brine have it et by Easter time." I b'lieve that's wrote down there some'ers.
MITCH: Sounds like words to live by. All right, Zeke, I've got my recipes, now you owe me a funny story.
ZEKE: Well, like I say, I caint think of nothin funny offhand. How about if I was to tell Mitch about that deer your sister's boy killed, that you set in to butcher? He might see humor in that.
PERLETTA: What on airth would you want to relate that fer? Aint no humor to it fur's I know, Ezekial.
MITCH: Go ahead anyway. It might be educational.
ZEKE: Well now, I'll garn-tee that part. This boy wanted to kill a deer, hadn't ever been deer huntin, you know, and he wasn't no hand to hunt anyway. So I tuck him one mornin' and put him on a stand and long about daylight I heered his gun crack first thing. Well I thought I'd better go to him, no telling what he'd shot, big looby boy like that. His foot, more'n like.
PERLETTA: Now, Ezekial.
ZEKE: Well, Perletta, he was looby and is, still yit. But I went over there and he'd sure 'nuff shot a deer.
MITCH: Well good for him.
ZEKE: I aint done yit. I come up and looked over that deer and I says, "Buford, this deer looks like he has jist now put in and died of old age." They wasn't a mark on him and it was flat out the oldest deer I have ever saw in all my put togethers, which is several. It didn't have but the one antler, favored a club, and that deer was grey all over like an old monkey. Besides which it had more bob-wire scars and missin sections of hair than a cowboy, and one of its years had been shot off, missin since Hoover times I reckon. Plus it was blind in one eye, and its teeth was wore down slick as buttons, and it was poor as ary whippoorwill. I never seen a harder lookin deer, and it had the skinniest lags I ever seen only on a giraffe and wouldn't have weighed a hundred pound. I says, "Buford, you've done nature a good turn here and startled this relic to death. Go fetch a shovel and we'll give him a decent burial." But you know what that boy wanted to do? He wanted to check him and take the deceased home to eat.
PERLETTA: Well it was his first deer, Ezekial. He was proud of it. Don't tell me you aint never been proud.
ZEKE: Yes Ma'am. I'd be proud to dig up a mummy, if that was what I had set in to do, but I sure wouldn't haul him in to no deer checking station. Besides, Buford hadn't even shot that deer!
MITCH: C'mon Zeke, are you sure about that?
ZEKE: I could have give one of these here corner's reports on the critter. Hit'd been shot upwards of a hundred times but nary one more recent than the Civil War, fur's I could tell. That shotgun of Buford's jist startled him so bad he had a heart struggle and keeled over like a old man at a parade. But well then, anyway, I says to Buford, "If you aim to check this deer we'd best to dress it out here, so's at least it'll have a honest wound of some kind," and he done it and taken it in and checked it. Buford he told me that them checkers was shore a grim lookin bunch, and I expect they was all so well tickled they had to be. Now you tell him, Perletta, what that fool boy done next.
PERLETTA: Well, I felt sorry fer Buford. My sister Pearl, she wouldn't have nothing to do with anything as ornery lookin as that old deer. She said it looked like hit'd starved in the woods and petrified. So he come and asked me would I work it up to where they could use on it. So we hung it and Ezekial hepped me to skin the thing, and my land! I couldn't believe the racket of shot fallin out of that hide. Sounded like hail on the outhouse roof.
ZEKE: We skun it out over a tub, ye see, and best I kin remember, they was ought-buck and double ought and b-bs and I don't know how many .22s and a half dozen .30-30 slugs looked like had bounced off somethin and burrowed under the hide. There was about a tobaccer poke of bird shot, which I figgurd was folks running the critter out of strawberry patches and sich over the past century. Couldn't have been nobody shot at him fer meat, white headed as he was and I begun to suspicion that packin all that weight around since mebbe World's War Two, t'was a stroke was what killed it. But tell about butcherin' it Perletta.
PERLETTA: Well, I've been a butcherin' most of my life, and I'm a better hand than Ezekial at it if he'll keep my knives whetted, but you couldn't no more cut that meat nice than you could a truck tire. 'Hit'd roll up under the blade and kink seemed like. So I tried choppin the tenderlines out with the axe and feedin that to the sausage grinder. Hit was dangersome choppin, fer the axe would bounce off that meat like hittin a gum stump and jump back at me, you know. And when I did manage to gouge off a piece, that wouldn't do neither, fer the grinder would take a chaw of it and wrassle with it a spell and then jist kindly bog down and spit it right back out.
ZEKE: Like to put a knot in my arm crankin that rubber stuff. I decided to fling some to the pups to wool and they couldn't make nothing of it neither.
PERLETTA: Now that was the saddest part to me. Them pups would git holt of opposite ends of that venison and pull and tug like it was a inner tube, and when one was to let go, it'd knock t'other down, poor little things. Half of them staggerin around addled from bein slapped silly you know. All of Ezekial's hounds taken turns worryin that venison, but they couldn't make nothing of it neither and fell to just layin there studyin it, all discouragedlike and some fell asleep on it.
ZEKE: Why Mitch, you know my hounds would eat a sawhorse if you garlicked it good, but they couldn't eat nothin that was sawbelting plumb through! There wasn't a way on earth any critter could have eat that old residenter. And a human bein' couldn't have stuck a fork in the gravy if you pressure cooked it a year. Hit'd a been like eatin roofing off a smokehouse.
MITCH: I believe you. What did you end up doing with it?
ZEKE: Well we done what I told Buford we should have did in the first place. We loaded it in the truck and took it back and give it a decent burial in the woods. I even said a few words over it, I disremember what I said.
PERLETTA: Nobody don't crave to know what you said, Ezekial.
MITCH: But why bury it, Zeke? Why not just leave it for the scavengers to clean up? That's nature's way.
ZEKE: Son, I got a way too much respect fer nature to do that. Possums needs what teeth they got and nothin else woulda stood a chaince. I bet you could dig that deer up today and aint a worm's tooth-mark on it. Be like borin' into a cylinder block.
MITCH: Well, I thank you folks for the conversation, even if you couldn't remember anything funny. I'll come down first frost and help you strip your sorghum.
ZEKE: You do that. I'll try and study up something comical stid of all this here grim stuff.
PERLETTA: And I'll set my mind to remember, case Ezekial should say somethin' droll while you're gone.
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