The Green River Punkin' Chunkin' Contest
When it was all over and done with nobody was quite sure who had thought up the idea. Was it Johnny Lancer and his Prankster Posse pals? Kevin, Rico, Willie and Johnny were always up for a good time and this definitely fit into that category. It was destructive, in a way, but it was also harmless fun.
Was it Jim Talbot who was blessed, or cursed as some would say, with a sense of humor every bit as warped as the prank-playing quartet? His wife, Maura, would say he was quite capable of thinking something like that up but he didn’t really own up to suggesting it.
Was it Murdoch Lancer? Nobody could believe that the thrifty Scotsman would come up with an idea like that. Murdoch was not the kind to waste time, money or energy on things that were so outlandish but there he was having the time of his life laughing at the contestants – as were his ward, Teresa O’Brien and handyman Jelly Hoskins. In fact, Jelly had been one of the contestants.
Nope. Nobody knew just exactly how they came to be there on that chilly, damp and muddy field that day but nobody really cared either – unless you counted Mayor Josiah Higgs who was definitely somewhat the worse for wear by the time things were over and done with.
Halloween was over. It was the first weekend in November and quite chilly by California standards. It had rained for a couple of days after Halloween and things were quite muddy in some of the fields.
There were crops to get in before they were completely ruined and that included the pumpkins that hadn’t been used for jack o’lanterns. Some of them were too small for pies; some hadn’t quite ripened in time to be of use. Jim Talbot would say that he knew thrifty New Englanders that would find a better use for them than what was about to transpire.
“Hey Mr. Talbot!” Johnny Lancer greeted their neighbor as he and his pals rode into the yard.
“Hey yourself, Johnny,” Jim grinned. He was quite fond of these young men – and Johnny’s older brother, Scott. Murdoch Lancer was his best friend and his boys were always welcome in his home. Even the Prankster Posse was welcome for they weren’t really bad – they were just young and full of energy and mischief. That mischief and energy sometimes had to be harnessed into something productive but if anyone could do it, Maura Talbot certainly could. Either that or it was the thought of her taking her broom to them that kept them under control.
“Where do you want us to start?” Kevin Millar asked as they turned their horses loose in the small corral next to the barn at the Bar T.
“I have just a small field about a quarter mile from here that’s got some pumpkins in it to pick,” Jim explained. “But the Pittmans and a few of the others have larger fields. We’ll go over to the Pittmans’ farm tomorrow. The wagon is right over there.” He pointed to the right side of the barnyard. “If Willie and Rico will hitch up the team you boys can get the baskets and boxes out of the storage shed to put them in. I’ll go in and get the lunches and such from Maura.”
The young men hustled to do what he said and within ten minutes, the team of draft horses was hitched to the wagon and they were on their way to pick pumpkins, squash and the other vegetables that remained in the field. Normally Jim would have managed this himself, for his wife was busy putting up the last of their preserves and such, or had some of his hands do it. He might have hired some of the local teenagers to do it so they could have some pocket money of their own. However, at Halloween there had been some serious damage done in a couple of the local cemeteries. Johnny and his friends, due to their reputation as jokesters, had been the prime suspects. It was an unfair accusation leveled, in part, by Josiah Higgs – the mayor of Green River. He was not overly fond of Johnny Lancer and even less fond of Johnny’s friend Sheriff Val Crawford and had been quick to point fingers at the four young men now laboring with their neighbor. Jim had discussed it with their fathers and all had felt it would be a good idea to see that they all kept busy for a while until folks got used to the idea that it had been the Cormack twins and Peter Quinn who had actually done all the damage and not Johnny and his friends. The pumpkins waiting to be harvested were simply an excuse to keep them out of the public eye for the time being.
“Gee, Mr. Talbot,” Willie said. “Some of these pumpkins are so small I could throw them like a baseball!”
“Yes, I know,” Jim replied. “I’m afraid I planted some just a little late and they didn’t grow very well. Fall and winter here may not be as cold as back in New England but you still can’t always count on a good crop when it gets late in the year.”
“Mind if I throw this one?” Willie asked indicating one the size of a baseball in his hands.
“No,” the rancher said. “Be my guest. Let’s see how far that thing will fly.”
Willie let fly and the orange sphere landed as far away from him as if he were throwing to home plate from center field on a baseball diamond – something he’d accomplished on occasion the summer they’d had the inter-town baseball league.
“You call that a good throw?” Rico asked. “Watch this.”
Rico took a small pumpkin about the same size as Willie’s and threw it slightly farther. Then Kevin had to have a go at it and the next thing Jim knew he had a regular little contest going on among the boys as to who could throw the unwanted/unneeded pumpkins the farthest. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of boasting as well as hoots and challenges as Jim also joined in. He let it go on for about ten minutes before calling a halt to it. After all, they still had other vegetables to get in.
It was a damp and chilly, but exhilarated, group that called it quits around two o’clock that afternoon. Maura was ready for her chilly “farmhands” though. She had hot coffee on the stove and bread fresh from the oven for them to slather with butter and raspberry jam. The boys alone demolished two loaves of bread and part of a third one. When they had warmed up some and eaten their fill the boys went on their way, headed for their respective homes.
“Betcha I can throw a bigger pumpkin farther than you two ever dreamed of,” Kevin said to Rico and Willie. “And that goes for you too Johnny!”
“Yeah?” Willie was ready for the challenge.
“I don’t think so, Señor Smarty Pants,” Rico said as he rose to the bait.
“We’ll see who’s got the best throwing arm,” Johnny said. “Tomorrow we’re helping Mr. Pittman. I’ll get Scott to come with us and he can measure just how far we really do toss those pumpkins. I’m sure Mr. Pittman would let us have a few of his pumpkins.”
“Johnny’s right,” Kevin said. “I saw Mr. Pittman in Spanish Wells the other day and he said that he had quite a few pumpkins that hadn’t been sold or used by Mrs. Pittman or the kids. Bet he would let us have some.”
The discussion as to who had pumpkins that could be used for the contest continued until the four young men parted ways. Kevin headed home to the Rocking M and Johnny to Lancer while Rico and Willie headed for Spanish Wells and their respective homes.
Despite having had several thick slices of Maura’s fresh baked bread before leaving the Bar T Johnny managed to eat several helpings of the chicken stew and biscuits that Maria and Teresa had prepared for supper that night. His brother watched in amusement as Johnny made short work of his meal.
“You keep eating like that, little brother, and we’re going to have to roll you up the stairs to bed and roll you back down in the morning as well as out to the barn and use a pulley to get you on Barranca’s back.” Scott’s blue-gray eyes danced as he teased his younger brother.
“I doubt we have a pulley strong enough,” Murdoch said with a wink at his older son as Teresa tried, in vain, to stifle her giggles. “I do hope you did some work to merit Maura’s favor,” he added. “I’m sure she fed you boys long before you came home.”
“We had some bread and jam,” Johnny said defensively, “that’s all.”
“If you had bread and jam at the Talbots’ before you came home,” his brother asked, “how can you possibly be hungry now?”
“Juanito is a growing boy!” Maria declared as she came out to collect the empty dishes. “He needs much nourishment if he is to stay healthy and strong.”
“Gracias, mamacita,” Johnny said with a grin. “That’s what I was gonna say.”
“Oh brother,” Scott said as he rolled his eyes before wiping his mouth with his napkin and getting up from the table. “You’ve really got her fooled haven’t you, little brother?”
Johnny just grinned at his brother as he, too, finished his meal and got up from the table. Teresa giggled as she rose and started to collect the rest of the dishes and took them out to the kitchen. Maria was waiting to wash them before she finished cleaning up and headed for her little cabin down the road from the main house.
Settling in comfortable seats in the Great Room took but a moment. Murdoch picked up a book he’d started while the boys set up the chessboard. Johnny was a rather unorthodox player but he’d managed to beat his tactician brother more than once much to Scott’s chagrin.
“Hey Scott,” Johnny paused in making his move briefly, “you comin’ with us to the Pittmans’ tomorrow?”
“I was planning on it,” was the reply. “Why?”
“Well, me the fellas have a game goin’ and we need a fair judge.”
“What kind of a game would that be, little brother,” Scott asked. “And why me?”
“Just a game,” Johnny replied vaguely. “We need someone who can measure real good and that we know we can trust. Will you do it?”
“We’ll see,” Scott replied noncommittally. “I’ll have to see just what it is you four are up to before I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Murdoch looked up from his book, “Sounds like a very wise decision Scott. Your brother and his friends could be up to their eyeballs in mischief and have decided to drag you along with them.”
“No, Murdoch,” Johnny replied innocently. “Mr. Talbot said it was ok when we did it at his place this afternoon. If Mr. Talbot says it’s ok how can it be wrong?”
That was Johnny’s trump card for Murdoch knew that Jim Talbot wouldn’t let them do anything that was hazardous to themselves or anyone else. Scott wasn’t so sure he wanted to know what the boys were up to. He’d been on the receiving end of more than one of their practical jokes and it would be very easy for them to invoke Jim Talbot’s name when they tried to sucker him. Scott agreed, not knowing that Jim Talbot was getting into the spirit of the “game” as much as the boys were. There were times when he acted no older than they did.
The Lancers arrived at the Pittman farm just after ten o’clock the next morning. They’d had a few chores of their own to do and it was about an hour’s ride from Lancer to the Pittmans’. The sun was out but it was rather cool as evidenced by the vapor that appeared when the men and animals exhaled.
“Hello Mr. Pittman,” Scott said with his hand extended to shake the other’s. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Scott,” Dave Pittman said with a smile. “I’m sure glad you fellows could come out and give me a hand. Martha’s had her hands full with the little ones – them being sick part of the time and in school too.” The farmer ran his hand through his dark brown hair. “Times like this I surely do miss Tim but I wouldn’t begrudge him that college education for the world.”
Jim Talbot arrived with Kevin, Willie and Rico right behind him. The later arrivals took their horses over to the corral by the barn and unsaddled them. The horses were then turned loose to graze on what grass was left or the pile of hay that Dave had forked in just for his visitors. The watering trough was full. The horses would not, however, get any grain, as they were not going to be working other than to provide transportation back to their homes. Dave Pittman’s Belgian draft horses would haul the wagon full of vegetables around the fields and carry the children who were not sick as well. There was no way that those children would be separated from their pals, Johnny and Scott, if they could help it. Having the Prankster Posse as well just made things even better as they were friends with the posse’s younger siblings.
“I sure hope you have a lot of pumpkins to spare, Mr. Pittman,” Johnny said with a glance at his buddies.
“As a matter of fact I have far more than we can ever use and I’m just going to have to find a way to get rid of them – especially those that didn’t ripen,” the man said. “I’ve sold a lot of them but I still have a lot left even though we saved some for pies and made jack o’lanterns for the kids.”
Martha Pittman, a small blonde, came out of the house just then. With her were six-year-old Dan, seven-year-old Ricky and the nine-year-old twins Billy and Bobby. Excited little boys immediately surrounded the two Lancer sons, and the Prankster Posse.
“Johnny! Kevin!” That was Dan. He adored Johnny, and Kevin being Johnny’s pal was all right in his book too.
“Hi Dan,” Johnny grinned. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. You gonna work for my pa today?”
“Yep. That’s what I’m here for.”
Johnny, Kevin and Scott gave the twins and Dan a boost into the wagon. Eleven-year-old Holly, and twelve-year-old Judith, along with fourteen-year-old Dan were in school. The girls had helped their mother prepare platters of thick sandwiches, which would be served to the “farm hands” when the time came. There would also be milk, coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert.
It was during a lull in the work that Johnny and the Posse proposed another round of pumpkin tossing. Scott looked askance at them when they started but, somehow, their enthusiasm was contagious and he couldn’t help but get in on the fun.
“What on earth is going on here?” Martha Pittman came upon them as the older men were getting involved in the pumpkin tossing.
“Just a little high spirited fun, Martha,” Dave Pittman assured his wife. “These pumpkins didn’t ripen for all they grew so big. The boys are just testing themselves, and each other – or is it us? They want to see how far the pumpkins can fly.”
“Sounds like a whole lot of nonsense to me!” the farmwife said with a shake of her head. “I’m glad Tim’s not here to see this.”
Taking the lunch she had for them, Dave sent his wife on her way back to the house. All the way she muttered about overgrown children and men acting like boys. Her husband just grinned as he was having as much fun as the younger men. In reality he wasn’t that much older than they were.
“Ya know,” Scott said idly. “We could make a real contest out of this if we had other participants – and enough pumpkins.”
“That’s a great idea, Scott!” Johnny said to his brother. “Why not make a contest out of it? I bet a lot of the farmers and ranchers have pumpkins that they’d like to get rid of. We could maybe get ‘em to give them to us and we could have us a real contest.”
“With prizes!” Kevin added. “Maybe we can find new ways of throwing the pumpkins so that they go farther.”
“Like what?” Rico asked.
“Catapults!” That was Willie who’d been reading something of Medieval history recently at Scott’s suggestion.
“Where would you get catapults?” Jim Talbot asked.
“We could make ‘em!” Willie declared. “I’m sure my papa could make one for us. If we got enough people interested I bet there would be all kinds of ways to make these pumpkins fly!”
The younger men, including Scott who was skeptical at first, were soon making plans for what they were calling the Green River Punkin’ Chunkin’ Contest.
“I know I’m going to regret asking this,” Jim Talbot said with a mock shudder, “but why Green River and why ‘punkin’ chunkin’?”
“That’s very simple, Mr. Talbot,” Rico said with a gleam in his black eyes. “’Punkin’ chunkin’ because that’s what the pumpkins become when they land on the ground – chunks. And Green River because we want to see the look on Sheriff Crawford’s face when we ask him to judge it and even more so…”
“We want to see the look on Mayor Higgs’ face when we ask him to give out the prizes,” Scott said catching on. He liked Josiah Higgs no more than the rest of them. To have such a perfect opportunity to expose the man for the pompous old windbag that he was, was just too good to pass up.
“What do you say Dave?” Jim asked the farmer.
“Why not?” Dave laughed. “It’s silly but it’s good clean fun – sort of. I don’t think Val will mind as much as Rico thinks he will but I’d give my eyeteeth, as they say, to see Josiah Higgs give out prizes to people who are throwing pumpkins around.
The next hour was given over to making definite plans for the contest such as choosing a date and a time. They had to find a field that was big enough and make up entry slips and posters. The entry fee would be $5.00 apiece, or $10 a team if several wanted to band together to create their catapult. The money from the entry fees would go toward buying new books for the library that had been built, and dedicated, a year ago. Everyone in the community would benefit from it.
It took some doing, but with everyone pitching in they soon had posters, fliers, a team of judges, which included Mayor Josiah Higgs and Sheriff Val Crawford and a place to hold the contest. The agreed upon date was two weeks from that Saturday and Dave Pittman volunteered his place as the location as he had the biggest field in the area that they could use without worrying about running into stray cattle or running over somebody’s fence lines. His farthest field bordered the Bar T’s furthest boundary and, since it wasn’t used for pastureland, there was no danger of stampeding any cattle.
Maura, once she heard and ceased clucking and shaking her head at her husband and the boys, organized the ladies into having an area where the spectators could get refreshments including hot coffee, tea and cocoa.
The day of the competition dawned bright, clear and chilly. It was also very damp at the site for it had rained for three days prior to the great event. A large crowd from all over the San Joaquin gathered to watch teams compete against each other for the trophy that Scott, that silver tongued devil as his brother called him, had convinced Mayor Higgs to donate. After all if the Mayor, who owned the most profitable business in Green River, couldn’t contribute one little trophy there was a good chance that he would no longer be mayor or have the most profitable business in Green River. And losing Lancer’s business would make a big dent in that profit Scott reminded him.
The competitors, some using slingshots, some throwing by hand or using some sort of a catapult, set up on the driest spot they could find. Rulers and yardsticks as well as a very long tape measure were provided to the judges to measure the distances from starting point to where the pumpkins landed. The arrival of Mayor Josiah Higgs created a lot of stifled giggles and laughter for, as usual, the man was dressed in a suit and tie and a modified top hat. As long as they’d known him, nobody had ever seen Mayor Higgs wear anything but – even on the most informal occasions. He never even took off his coat in the store while waiting on customers and paid a couple of young men very meager wages to move his stock around.
Val Crawford, as scruffy looking as ever and in need of a shave, as always, called for the competition to start. First up would be the youngsters under the age of twelve who would shoot the smallest pumpkins – the ones that had never quite developed. Using slingshots the children, mostly boys, lined up to take their shots. Mayor Higgs’ new suit was about to take a beating. The first two pumpkins – about two inches in diameter didn’t make it more than a few inches. The next one landed only about an inch away from where he was standing. It hadn’t occurred to him that he should stand on the sidelines until the shooting was done and then measure the distance from the “firing line” as Val called it. The pumpkin landed in a small puddle of muddy water and splashed his shiny boots. Higgs frowned as he wiped them off before announcing that the distance had been four feet two inches.
Now the older boys, aged twelve to fifteen, lined up to take their shots. Once again Josiah Higgs stood too close to the firing line and this time he was nearly hit with one of the flying pumpkins. Val just shook his head as talking to the man was a waste of time. He couldn’t see that he was the problem and continued to blame it on the boys deliberately being out to get him. Not that that was far from the truth for Mayor Josiah Higgs was no more popular with the young people in town than he was with some of the adults.
When it came time for the adult competition Jelly Hoskins had the dubious honor of being the first one to compete. Unfortunately for Jelly, the old cannon that he had found was not as firmly settled in place as he had thought. When he touched the match to the fuse it flew forward about two feet and Jelly was disqualified for not remaining behind the line. Jelly took it well though – for him. There was a lot of grumbling but he admitted that he’d forgotten to take into account the recoil and the mud. His pumpkin landed a foot beyond Mayor Higgs who got a bit of mud on his coat that he took great pains to try and wipe off. This, of course, caused more snickering among the spectators.
Finally, after an hour or so, it was the Prankster Posse’s turn to compete. Willie’s father had given them the materials to make a catapult much as he had with several of the others. His one provision had been that, in order to make it their entry – and completely fair to all the other competitors – they would have to make it themselves though he might give them some advice.
The four young men pushed and pulled until their catapult was lined up just right, getting damp and muddy in the process. Then they brought out the box of pumpkins that they had reserved for themselves. Willie and Rico pulled the catapult arm down while Kevin fastened it. Johnny chose the pumpkin they would launch first. It was a five pound sphere that he felt would travel far if the catapult worked as well as they thought it would.
Placing the round, white sphere on the catapult arm Johnny steadied it and then stepped back. Upon receiving the signal from Johnny, Kevin released the arm and it flew up into the air. The pumpkin was launched and headed far out into the field landing about twenty-five feet from the firing line. Johnny shook his head as he estimated the distance their first pumpkin had gone.
“We can do better than that,” he said to his pals.
So, once again, Willie and Rico pulled the arm down and held it while Kevin locked it in place. Johnny chose a slightly larger pumpkin because he felt that perhaps the first one had been just a little too light. As he had before, Johnny steadied it on the end of the catapult arm before signaling Kevin to let it loose. It soared into the air in a graceful arc and headed much farther out into the muddy field. Unfortunately for him, Mayor Higgs was standing in an almost direct line of the path of the flying sphere.
Several people, including Val, Jim Talbot and Murdoch Lancer called out warnings to him to move away but he ignored them all. Thus, the consequences were entirely on his head. The pumpkin landed mere inches from him in one of the largest mud puddles in the field and sent a geyser of muddy water flying up three feet into the air. The geyser sprayed Josiah Higgs from head to foot with water and mud, which caused him to howl with rage. Everybody else in attendance just howled – with laughter. An angry mayor spun on his heel to turn back and confront the young men he held responsible for the deplorable condition of his new suit only to slip in the mud and fall flat on his back. Val Crawford valiantly tried to stifle his laughter as he held his hand out to the town official but one look at Josiah Higgs, and a quick glance at the four members of the prankster posse and he was helpless to do anything but laugh himself. As a matter of fact even Murdoch was laughing heartily. Nobody had much use for Higgs and it was a wonder he ever got elected mayor but it seemed that nobody else wanted the thankless job in such a small town.
It was Scott who got himself under control first and, with a little help from a now somewhat sober Jim Talbot, helped Mayor Higgs to his feet again. The angry mayor stormed away from the scene of the game leaving Val to measure the distance from the firing line to where the pumpkin had landed. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the first annual Green River Punkin’ Chunkin’ Contest had been won by Johnny Lancer, Kevin Millar, Willie Mays and Rico Portillo. Val presented his pal, Johnny, with the silver cup that Mayor Higgs had been coerced into donating.
“Congratulations, little brother,” Scott said with a grin. “Looks like the first annual Green River Punkin’ Chunkin’ Contest is a huge success.”
“Yeah,” Kevin said with a grin as he looked at the trophy his pal was holding. “It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“I hate to admit it,” Murdoch said, “but I did rather enjoy that bit of nonsense.”
“Which nonsense was that Señor Lancer?” Rico asked with a wicked gleam in his eye. “The punkin’ chunkin’ or the mayor getting soaked with mud?”
“Now Rico,” Johnny said with a grin, “you know my old man don’t hold with such things as getting public officials dirty.”
“Of course not,” Scott said with a grin of his own as he joined them. “Murdoch would never, ever enjoy watching a man suffer the way Mayor Higgs just did.”
“Not ever?” Val asked with a grin of his own.
“Not ever,” Scott assured the lawman.
“Not much,” Kevin said grinning widely.
“Never!” Willie stated with tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
“Let’s just say that we were put out of our misery when Josiah Higgs left just now,” Jim Talbot said.
“Yes, let’s,” Murdoch agreed before bursting into laughter that was echoed by the rest of the group including Teresa and Jelly.
This story is dedicated to my mother, Faith Elizabeth (Marang) Brayden, born September 5, 1930 and who went home to be with her Lord and Savior on November 9, 2006. A new fan of Lancer she discovered it when I started buying the tapes. She said she didn’t remember seeing it the first time around but at that point in her life she was working nights in a local restaurant. Many were the nights when, asked what she wanted to watch – there being nothing on television that appealed to us – that she would say “stick in a Lancer”. She quickly became the oldest “Johnny Girl” in the group though she never officially joined. She was also very fond of Val and the Prankster Posse. She loved to read the stories that I printed out and, up until a few months ago would eagerly wait for me to arrive finish reading whatever I had printed at work, or at home, every day. She would want me to finish this and continue writing. This story is therefore dedicated to her.