|Where I'm From|
by Jim Allen
There are some people you just don’t mess with. The Stovalls were among those people.
Back where I’m from you’ll occasionally see an old raggedy pulp wood truck headed toward the mill, or see several mountain-men-looking people in town in the same truck buying provisions or hauling large clay demijohns of water. I’d never met one of them but I was told that they never spoke, don’t have credit anywhere (they pay cash for everything), don’t have electricity or running water, and didn’t bother anybody except when someone was fool enough to provoke them.
The first time I saw a Stovall was on a stormy day in early September. It was a week before school’s fall semester started and my last week as a summer employee for the highway department. We hauled gravel, mowed the sides of the roads, patched potholes or leaned on our shovels during good weather. But when it rained, we played dominos back at the headquarters’ breakroom. At about 10 o’clock that nasty morning, our game was interrupted by a great big hairy fellow wandered through the mechanic’s bay roll-up door, soaked to the bone. He had to be pushing seven feet tall and nearly as big around in the chest as an oil drum. He looked like someone had put a bowl on his head and cut his hair, a handful at a time, with a butcher knife. His matted, jet-black beard hung down nearly to the bib of his coveralls that had been cut off just above the knees.
"Angus Stovall," he announced to our road foreman, not extending a hand of greeting, not smiling…just the monotone pronouncement of his name and a piercing stare. He pointed out a window to the frontage road, and in as few words as possible, conveyed to my boss that his pulp wood truck had broken down. He and my boss went out in the downpour to get him on his way.
I had noticed several dozen white dots about the width of pencil erasures all over the back of the man’s calves. A co-worker in his late sixties told me what he knew of Angus Stovall.
The Stovall clan didn’t take to outsiders and largely kept to themselves. My buddy told me that the family had come over way before the Civil War from Scotland, before statehood and before our native populations had been moved west. They had married aboriginal women and had been in those primeval woods ever since, taking what they needed from the land (and need be, from neighbors).
Being mistaken for a coyote in the distance one day past dusk, Angus had been shot in the back of the legs while stealing a man’s watermelons. The man with the shotgun was a widower and had moved there to retire, acquiring forty acres after a foreclosure. He didn’t bother to learn who the people were who owned and resided in the several thousand acres of swamps and occasional rises that flanked him to the north and south and bordered the rear of his property to the west.
The poor man came in from night church a few days later to find all his watermelons gone, vines and all; all his corn and corn stalks gone; all his tomato plants gone; all his chickens along with metal laying boxes gone; his sow and pigs gone; his beagle gone; his tractor’s fuel tank sugared and his well salted.
He went into town to the diner the next day where he knew he’d find the sheriff. When the man tried to air a complaint it fell on deaf ears. The lawman knew who was responsible and wanted no part of it. "Those people will skin you alive if you mess with them! My advice to you is to stay clear of them until this blows over," insisted the sheriff. But, it never did blow over. After six or eight months of not being able to go into town without having his house’s doors nailed shut, windows broken out, chimneys mortared shut and dead possums or live water moccasins stuck in his mail box, the man moved.
Angus and his family didn’t worry with hunting seasons either. When they needed meat, they killed something. If they found it easier to kill whatever they were after at night, so be it. They sometimes "accidentally" strayed off of their land. The sheriff had answered a complaint about the Stovalls soon after he’d moved into town and was leery of them from then on.
A Stovall hunting party had killed several deer on a soybean farmer’s land a mile off Stovall property and the new county lawman had been called to look at the remains. The sheriff hesitantly followed the hoof prints of at least a half dozen mules the perpetrators had ridden in on. At the outer bank of a creek that flowed down one side of the Stovall woods they found where a mule had been shot between the eyes and field dressed. Fearing for his life, the interloper hurriedly got back to his truck. About two o’clock the next morning he heard a loud slamming noise on his front porch. He grabbed his pistol and investigated only to find a crude note written on a piece of what looked like brown butcher’s paper wrapped and tied with jute twine around a horse apple (Osage orange). He took the scribbling inside and read (translated from broken colloquial text):
Sirrah, Do realize that I loved my mule. But also realize that a mule that won’t cross a creek will eat just fine on a Stovall’s dinner table.
Don’t come back.’
Last I heard, no one has.