The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Beauty Of Silent Compassion

By Robert G. Back © 1986

Issue: August, 1986

Editor's Note: Robert G. Back is the author of the book "Hear My Laughter, See My Tears". It is available by writing Robert G. Back, Box 123, RR # 1, Medarryville, IN 47947. The price is $7.50 plus $1.00 for shipping and handling. There is only a limited number still available.

Every morning at exactly nine o'clock, he came through Dwarf, Kentucky pulling a battered, squeaky wagon. Regardless of the weather, he always showed up with the promptness of an unwanted bill. A gnarled little man, who stood barely five feet tall, he picked up chunks of coal that had fallen off of coal trucks. He always wore a floppy brown hat, an oversized, thigh length denim jacket and one brown brogan and one black one. Everybody called him Shorty Whiteoak.

Shorty Whiteoak wasn't the little man's real name, but considering the fact that he didn't know what it was himself, it was as good as any. The story was that as an infant, he was found abandoned under a white oak tree in some old widow's backyard somewhere near Hindman, Kentucky. And, as if to add insult to injury, he was born with a deformed larynx and never uttered a sound during his entire life.

Because of the child's spooky silence and the fact that he grew uglier by the day, the superstitious old woman believed that he had been sent as a millstone to hang forever around her neck as punishment for some forgotten sin. Nevertheless, she bore her burden with true Christian martyrdom and managed to raise the boy to the age of fourteen before dying in her sleep one night.

After the old lady's funeral, Shorty picked up the tongue of his red wagon and hit the road.

Through different towns and coal camps at different times, he pulled his squeaky wagon and picked up coal alongside the road to be sold for 25 cents a load. Nobody knew where he came from or where he was going. They just knew that at a precise time of day he would come shuffling through their town or coal camp. They could set their clocks by him.

Because of his near grotesque ugliness, practically all of the children along Shorty's route were both fascinated and terrified of him. His eyes set wide apart on either side of his lumpy nose and the left one seemed to set higher than the right one. The left side of his face was pulled down giving him the appearance of wearing a perpetual snarl and yellow, chipped teeth draped over his lower lip like damaged fangs. All of his facial features seemed to be slightly out of their natural order - like unmatching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle jammed together by an impatient child.

Although most of the kids were scared to death of him, that didn't stop them from taunting him from a safe distance whenever he passed by. They called him names, stuck out their tongues and threw stones at him. Shorty withstood their abuse without so much as turning his head to look at them. As far as he was concerned, they simply didn't exist.

As he passed through Dwarf one morning, a small group of young boys from between the ages of nine and twelve were hiding behind a cluster of bushes alongside the road waiting for him. When he came within firing range, the boys jumped up and began yelling and hurling stones at him. Slingshot sized rocks bounced off the tiny man's shoulders, back and legs, yet he didn't even bother to alter his pace. He stared straight ahead and pulled his rusty wagon onward as though getting it to its destination was the only important thing in his life.

Sparky, a little black mongrel that belonged to ten-year-old Buddy Pitts, one of the assailants, decided to get in on the fun and dashed across the highway to take a piece out of Shorty's pant leg. Halfway across the road, however, a pick-up truck roared past and hit the excited dog. There was a loud yelp and two or three short whines, and Sparky lay dead in the middle of the hot highway. Buddy stood in shock for a minute then sobbed his heart out.

Shorty stopped and dropped the wagon tongue. Very slowly, he walked to the middle of the road and bent down to pick up the broken animal.

"Git away from my dog!" Buddy screamed and sailed a rock at him.

The stone struck Shorty just above the right eye, ripping an inch-long gash in his flesh. The little man straightened up and raised a gnarled hand to the wound. He stared quizzically at the blood for a few seconds and then bent down and lifted the dog from the pavement. With blood streaming down the side of his face, he walked over to Buddy and handed the lifeless pet to him. He then turned and walked back to his wagon. Without so much as looking back, he picked up the wagon tongue and began his slow shuffling journey again.

Buddy dug a small grave beside a babbling creek behind his house, wrapped the dog in a flowered feed sack, and buried it. He made a crude cross from two pieces of old boards and cried brokenly as he hammered it into the ground at the head of his beloved pet's grave. As painful sobs hammered against his chest, he swore to get even with the ugly, little man if it was the last thing he did.

When Shorty approached Buddy's house the next morning, the boy stood defiantly beside the road waiting for him. In his right hand he gripped a rock the size of half a brick and had every intention of bouncing it off Shorty's head. As the little man came closer, Buddy's muscles became more and more tense. He couldn't wait to avenge his little dog's death.

Shorty came within thirty feet of Buddy and stopped. He dropped the wagon tongue and turned to point at the contents of his wagon. Sitting atop the lumps of coal was a burlap sack. Buddy looked curiously at Shorty, not quite sure what to do next.

As the confused lad looked on, the silent man lifted the burlap sack out of the wagon and began to drag it toward him. When Shorty reached him, he opened the top of the sack and motioned for Buddy to look inside.

Tentatively and not without suspicion, the youngster stepped forward and peered into the sack. Looking up at him was the cutest black puppy he had ever seen. Buddy looked at Shorty and the little man pointed down at the sack and then to him. The closest thing to a smile that he could muster wrinkled his craggy face and added immensely to his ugliness.

Buddy pulled the puppy out of the sack and held it up to his face. The puppy responded with a long, wet swipe of its tongue up the side of his face. Buddy turned to thank Shorty, but the little man was already on his way down the lonesome highway again. There was a lot of coal to be picked up and quarters to be earned. He had no more time to waste on puppies and happy boys.