Wiley Jeb had been around the block by the time he landed in Hayfork, having holed in just about every cauldron, pot, bath, tub, wash, bucket, pond, lake, and eddy across this great land. During his soaking crusade America had climbed out of the Great Depression and began warring with the Axis powers. Nationalism and fear was rampant, and in the MSOJ there was an increased level of suspicion—and unknown vagrants with deep, leathery tans and no appreciable means were particularly scrutinized. Had Jeb been the type, he could have skirted town and made off for the deep woods and the glorious swimming holes therein without ruffling any feathers, but quiet wasn’t his style. While the years of casual bathing may have soothed his soul they did little to dull his effervescent New York stock man personality. It didn’t matter that instead of trading railroad shares he was sharing bits of cheese and tobacco with other hobos aboard empty cattle cars: there is no denying it, he was a boisterous and vivacious character. Unfortunately, a rumor was running around at the time that the Germans had trained their spies to act like obnoxious buffoons in order to mask any cultural missteps. Sleight of hand at its most rudimentary, their idea being that Americans wouldn’t notice the nuance if they were steamrolled by the obvious.
With this in mind, a couple of Hayfork hayseeds decided to work Wiley Jeb over one night. He’d spent the better part of the day enjoying a few too many whiskeys at the local saloon, having come across a dead man’s wallet a few days prior. He’d been telling stories, espousing the healing properties of swimming holes and, it could be argued, slightly admonishing the rural saps for not giving up on their futile labors in order to take up their own humble quest for hydrophilic nirvana.
"Jeb just couldn’t see why a man would find a few splashes of water on one's face sufficient when there was a whole country of swimming and floating to be enjoyed.”
Now whether these farmers believed Jeb to be a Nazi or whether they simply tired of his blabbering, the history books are of no help. What we do know is that the next morning a local spinster by the name of Ma Elder found him slumped in her horse corral, eyes swollen like two ripe plums, lips split like a burst sausage. She wasn’t normally interested in helping tramps, but there was something to this one. Could have been his tan, or maybe the way the sun poured in on him through a hole in the eaves, or maybe she was just lonesome. She never said, but over the next week she nursed Jeb back to health.
Now Ma Elder may have been aged, but many said she was still a comely woman, and well established: her grandfather was one of the few to strike it rich during the first rush on the gold fields and actually hold on to his money. He’d bought a ranch and raised his family, three sons: Tom, Theodore, and Lil’ John. Sadly, it was as if her grandfather had spent all of his luck panning for nuggets, for his family did not fare well. Tom and his wife Edna passed in a buggy accident when a timber rattler sunning itself on the far bank of a river spooked the horses. Edna, a notoriously voluptuous woman, landed on Tom and crushing him beneath her, only to find her own arms broken to such an extent that she was unable to raise herself out of the water. They both drowned in a mere two feet of water.
Lil’ John’s fate wasn’t much better. He and Theodore had run off to fight the huns in the first world war, but Lil’ John didn’t even make it to Europe. The bolt of his carbine malfunctioned during a training exercise, redirecting the bullet backwards and skewering him through the eye. He died quickly in a North Carolina marsh.
Theodore made it through the war, but the gas and torment of the trenches left him a changed man. And though he did return to marry his betrothed, Ma Elder’s mother Janice, he died soon after the nuptials when he got it into his head that he was a pigeon and threw himself from the top of the local quarry. This was almost too much for Janice and, now being with child, she determined to never be dependent on another man. Thusly Ma Elder was brought up, and she came to distrust and deplore the cruder sex. But as we’ve noted Wiley Jeb was not your average character, and as soon as he could speak again he told her of his travels, the floating and lounging, the easy days and long mornings.
Ma Elder had been courted by all manner of bootstrapping go-getters, but here was a man with no moxie at all, a man whose sole ambition was relaxation. A man completely content to wile away his years in the comforting embrace of a natural pool of water. She was smitten. But it wasn’t meant to be.
"No sir, Jeb couldn’t trade in his quest for a swimming hole Xanadu, not when he was this close. He could feel it.”
So not more than a fortnight after he’d been found, Jeb stole away in the night. He knew Ma Elder couldn’t bear to watch him leave, she’d have found some way to block his way. But the call of the swimming holes was too much. Now Jeb wasn’t heartless: on his way out of town it is said that he carved a heart “WJ+ME” into a stately oak.22The tree would removed some years later when the road out of Hayfork was paved.
As for Ma Elder, she went crazy. Lived out her years plucking chickens, slowly and methodically, one feather at a time. She never bathed and couldn’t stand the sight of any body of water in which one could be submersed. Her foe, her adversary, the bewitching cauldrons that took the only man she ever cared for.