by Paul Maitrejean
“Gumption, son—it’s the one thing you gotta have if you’re gonna get anywheres,” Gramps Purpicott said. He leaned back in the old rocker he’d been using all morning, stuffed his pipe again, and lit up. “Gumption is the key to everythin’.”
I sat on the front step of Gramps Purpicott’s Ozarks cabin, listening to his words of wisdom. Usually, all that talk about being ambitious—going to school, in my case—would have had me feeling guilty, but I figured if Gramps didn’t let it bother him, I wasn’t going to let it bother me.
“What’s gumption, Gramps?”
“Well, like I said, it’s the key to everythin’. When I was young, I had that key. Used it to get into everythin’. When I got older, I done what most folks does with their keys—misplaced it somewheres and never got a new one.”
“When was that?”
Gramps considered for a minute. “Oh, I was probably your age.”
“How did you lose it?”
“Played hooky, for one—sorta like you is right now.”
I frowned and shuffled my feet. “Now don’t you get after me, Gramps. I get enough about playin’ hooky from Pap.”
Gramps’ eyes got big, and he looked at me as if I’d accused him of stealing. “I ain’t gettin’ after yeh. Heck, it’s high time you started losin’ your gumption.”
“Sure.” Gramps started rocking and blew a big cloud of smoke.
“But Gramps, if gumption is the key to everything, won’t I get locked out if I lose it?”
“That goes without sayin’,” Gramps replied. “But if you get locked out, it means you ain’t expected to do the chores.”
I thought about that for a while and looked around. Gramps Purpicott’s yard, cabin, clothes, and smell proved he knew what he was talking about—he probably hadn’t done chores of any kind for about eighty years.
“Gramps, don’t most folks expect other folks to have gumption—y’know, like work and go to school and stuff?”
“You bet they does,” Gramps said. “See, that’s why you should lose your gumption. It shocks folks. Makes you stand out as an example, and makes them sit up and look. Before you knows it, you’re makin’ converts to your own ways of livin’.”
“Really, Gramps? Do you have converts?”
“No.” He winked at me. “But I’m makin’ ’em.”
“But Gramps, look at George Washington and Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison. They had gumption, didn’t they? And they got famous.”
Gramps shrugged. “I don’t know about them. Never knowed ’em. But some folks I knowed—Gun-Totin’ Vic, the Alabama Kid, and Jailbreak Jake and the rest—they had plenty of gumption, and look what happened to them.”
“Who were they?”
“See, son? They had gumption, but they never got famous. They was gangsters, back in ’35. Didn’t have time to get famous, they had so much gumption. All ended up in jail or shot down in a gunfight or somethin’.”
“You knew ’em?”
“For a while, sort of.”
“You were friends?”
Gramps chuckled. “Heck, no. They just came here now and again to hide out in my cabin.”
My eyes bugged. “Really, Gramps? Didn’t you tell the Feds?”
He looked at me, disgusted. “No.”
“You didn’t try to fight ’em off?”
“Of course not! Son, ain’t you listenin’ to a single word I’m sayin’? Doin’ that stuff takes gumption!”
I hung my head, ashamed. Gramps was showing me how hard it is to break nasty habits and natural reactions.
“Now, now,” Gramps soothed. “Don’t feel so bad, son. You’ll catch on in time—you ain’t a bright boy. Now listen. You mosey inside and grab the jar of cookies off the table. Should be right next to that pheasant I never got around to dressin’ out. Then come back out and I’ll tell you more about losin’ gumption.”
I dashed inside, holding my nose while I ran to the table. I found the cookie jar beside the festering feathers, but I had to use both hands to pick it up. I was gagging by the time I ran out again.
Gramps waggled a warning finger. “Take it easy, son,” he said. “You’re usin’ gumption.”
I settled down, grabbed a handful of cookies, and handed Gramps the jar. The ginger snaps were still pretty fresh—hard, but not spoiled.
“I suppose you don’t make your own, Gramps.”
Gramps broke a fragment off his cookie and let it soften in his mouth. “That’s kind of a dumb question, ain’t it?”
“Then does somebody bring them to you?”
Gramps shook his head. “Nope. Nobody bothers. I don’t think some of ’em is so sure I’m alive yet.”
“Then how do you get ‘em?”
“Oh, they turn up here and there. Under rocks, up in trees, on windowsills—places like that.”
“Really?” Gramps impressed me more every minute. “Wow! How do you find ’em?”
“Oh, I just kind of runs acrost ’em now and then.”
I thought for a bit. “Y’know, Gramps, I’ll bet you’ve been finding the Swamp Fiend’s hiding places.”
Gramps glared at me. “The what’s hiding places?”
“The Swamp Fiend’s. That’s what folks have been calling it.”
I struggled to get a bite out of my cookie, gave up, and chucked it off the porch. It hit a rock with a clack. “Haven’t you heard? There’s something creeping around, swiping things like eggs and chickens and bread and all sorts of stuff—mostly food. Mrs. Tibblehead says she saw it one night a few weeks ago, making off with a pan of ginger snaps she’d set out to cool. She swears she saw the horns and the spiked tail.”
“Folks should know better than to talk like that!” Gramps burst out, his face a funny shade of red. “The durn rascals! Horns and tail, eh? They should know better than to talk like that about me.”
“Oh, they ain’t talking about you, Gramps,” I said. “They’re just talking about the weird old critter swiping their stuff.”
“Weird old critter! Why you—well—oh.” Gramps calmed down a little. “Well, now.” He chuckled to himself. “Folks does have themselves funny imaginations, doesn’t they?”
“But they seen it, Gramps.”
He went on chuckling. “Maybe, but I get a kick out of it, anyways.”
I didn’t see what was so funny about it, but I let him laugh and tried another cookie.
Suddenly, the brush on the edge of the yard crackled, and big Russ Cumberson, the local steer farmer, walked up along the place where the path should have been. He was a big man, and mean-looking—but maybe that was because he was scowling and growling, huffing like one of his steers and red in the face.
“All right, Purpicott,” he bellowed, walking up to the porch. “We’ve had it! We know who this blamed Swamp Fiend is, and I’m gonna stop its stealin’ everything.”
“Well, good, Russ,” Gramps said. “I was gettin’ a mite concerned myself. I was just tellin’ Rex here the Fiend prob’ly snitched my gumption. Ain’t seen it in a while.”
“Shut up and listen, Purpicott!” Russ Cumberson snapped. “My boy seen you last night, makin’ off with the puddin’! There was no mistakin’, Purpicott! The moon was full, which explains why you was out there, and it lit up your face clear. I don’t care if you’re an old coot, either—I’m gonna learn you to—hey! Get back here!”
Gramps’ rocker still rolled back and forth, but Gramps was gone. Somewhere behind the cabin, something crashed through the brush and faded into the distance. Me and Russ Cumberson listened to it a while.
“I’ll get him later,” he muttered. “I got work to do.” Then he looked at me. “And if you don’t light out for school now, I’ll be tellin’ your pap you been playin’ hooky.”
Well, I don’t know which of us ran faster that morning, but I do know one thing—both me and Gramps had sure found our gumption again.