The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Paycoe's Legacy

By Mel Tharp © 1990

Issue: August, 1990

Paycoe Bennett was a shrewd man. There was no doubt about that. His house set right on the border line of Webster and Christian counties. There was always some question as to where the county lines ran in relation to Paycoe's farm. Since the two counties were always arguing about the exact location of the boundary, Paycoe would pay taxes to neither until they settled the matter. On the other hand, when it came to voting, (or so it was rumored) it was a different kettle of fish. Paycoe voted in both counties.

In an area where farmers took great pride in maintaining their farms, Paycoe's place was an anomaly. Any field not in cultivation was always grown up in weeds and bushes. His fences were always in dire need of repair. There was one two-acre enclave of land on Paycoe's farm, however, that stood out like an oasis in the desert. It was almost as if it was consecrated ground. Also, this two-acre plot was prime land - unlike the rest of his stony, nitrogen-starved soil.

This prime two-acre plot was not a part of Paycoe's original inheritance. Would you like to know how Paycoe came to own this choice plot which he called "Little Eden?" It's a bizarre story which reflects all of Paycoe's astuteness.

The richest farmer in the area was Harry Mayfield. The time was around the turn of the century. Harry had two mean, ill-tempered sons, Pete the elder, and Jim the younger. They would fight and squabble all day, until at last Pete grew tired of it. He moved to Indiana where he got a job as a drayman at a brewery. Old Harry grieved about it until he grew sick and took to his bed. Jim kept urging him to cut Pete out of the inheritance. "You should make a will and leave everything to me," Jim insisted.

"Never," Harry said adamantly. His sons would get equal shares when he was gone, and that was that. Jim was persistent but Harry was as obdurate as the Rock of Gibraltar. Far into the night they could be heard quarreling by people passing their house. Being their closest neighbor, Paycoe was the nearest thing to being a friend to the Mayfields as one could expect to be to such a contentious clan.

Then one winter night Paycoe was awakened by a pounding at his front door. Someone was calling, "Paycoe! Paycoe! Let me in." Paycoe opened the door to find Jim Mayfield standing on his doorstep.

"What is it, Jim?" he asked. "What's the matter? Is your dad worse?"

Indeed old Harry was more than worse. He had been dead for over an hour. Paycoe gave Jim some coffee and tried to console him. He soon realized, however, that it was not grief that was troubling Jim, it was greed.

"I want you to help me," Jim said. "I'll give you this twenty-dollar gold piece if you'll help me in my plan. You know you and my father look a lot alike. When he was healthy you and him were often mistaken for each other. I've even heard people in town call Dad by your name."

At first Paycoe was puzzled and frightened at what Jim was getting at. He knew Jim's nature and was troubled at what he might try to inveigle him in.

"I want you to go home with me," Jim said. "You get in bed and pretend to be Dad. You'll say you know you're dying and you want to make a will. I'll go for Dexter Philpot. You know Lawyer Philpot. When I grease his palm, he won't ask any questions. You tell Philpot what to write down in the will. I'll get some neighbors in for witnesses. You tell him you want to leave the farm and everything to me. The lights will be dim and the witnesses will be standing in the back of the room. They'll be just close enough to hear your voice."

Paycoe was basically an honest man. He was, however, a very shrewd one. He saw in this an opportunity of great magnitude. In a matter of minutes they were working out the details. "How about my signature," Paycoe wanted to know. "Will it pass for your dad's?"

"Don't worry about that," Jim assured him. "Dad never learned to write. All you have to do is mark an X under the name."

Paycoe lost no time in falling into the spirit of the thing. He put on his overcoat and slipped on his boots.

Once they got to the Mayfield house, Paycoe took to the bed while Jim went for Lawyer Philpot and the witnessing neighbors.

It was a big dark room. Paycoe lay on a bed at one end of the room. A small table near the bed was cluttered with various bottles of medicines. Lawyer Philpot stood holding a sheaf of writing paper, his pen in hand. The witnesses stood lined around the walls of the room, hardly daring to breathe aloud while Jim put on a brave show of trying to smother his grief.

Suddenly, there was a faint cough. A voice came from the bed, very weak. "Where's Lawyer Philpot? I want to make my will."

"Here, Dad," said Jim, leading Philpot to a place near the bedside.

Write down what I tell you, Lawyer, and be quick," Paycoe said in a feeble voice that seemed racked with pain. "My time is near."

The silence of the room was broken only by Jim's sad chorus of, "Oh, no, no, no."

"I die at peace with all my neighbors and friends," Paycoe said, and Jim wailed another patented chorus.

"To my son Jim - and there never was a better son or a finer boy - I leave all of my two big farms, with the good pasture behind the Crabtree place. I leave him the five acres next to Laurey's farm." Paycoe stopped to clear his throat. "My mouth is very dry, Lawyer. Let me have a taste of that medicine in the brown jug on the table."

The medicine in the jug was choice stuff. Old Harry had brewed it himself at his own private still. The "dying" man took a hearty pull and felt refreshed enough to resume dictating the will. His voice got louder and he began to talk faster.

"Where was I, Lawyer?" he asked. "Oh, yes. I leave Jim the two potato fields that I got on a foreclosure from Sy Denman."

Jim was getting a little jumpy at the sudden vigor Paycoe showed as the tonic went to his head.

"Dad, don't strain yourself," he said. "Aren't you getting a bit weak?"

"That I am, Son," Paycoe said, getting up on his elbows. "Just let me have another taste from that jug."

Paycoe took another generous pull. "Well, I'm near gone now," he said. "There's only one little piece of land remaining. Jim, are you listening? Are you listening, Lawyer?"

"We're listening," they chimed.

"Well, then," said Paycoe, "It's my last will. Give me another little nip from the jug." This time the jug made several gurgling sounds before Paycoe relinquished it. "Now I say," he continued. "I give my choice two-acre lot near the crossroads to Paycoe Bennett. He has been a fine neighbor, and is as honest and hard-working as any man I know. Be a friend to him, Jim. Don't ever let him want while you have it yourself. Did you get that down on paper, Lawyer? The two acres at the crossroads that joins Paycoe's farm. Now my heart feels lighter for it. For a good deed makes an easy conscience. Now we'll all have a good drink to our health and many happy returns."

Jim couldn't hurry his guests out fast enough. "We must let him die in peace, folks," he said loudly to drown out the sound of Paycoe's ribald singing coming from the bedroom.

"Paycoe," Jim said after the last guest was off the premises, "You did fine. That sure was a fine joke about the two acres at the crossroads."

"Sure it was, Jim," replied Paycoe. "Of course, we know the whole thing was a joke. Can't you just hear the neighbors laugh tomorrow when I tell them about it!"

Jim's complexion turned a pallid gray. "Don't give me away," he pleaded in a trembling voice. After a bit he held out his hand. "All right, Paycoe. A deal's a deal. You're a hard man, Paycoe."

So Paycoe slipped quietly home, well satisfied with the piece of land he had left to himself.