Similar to many small towns, Lake City, Tennessee,1) (The town has changed names several times since its founding circa 1800. For a little Wiki-info, click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_Top,_Tennessee ) residents often brag about interesting animal stories from the town’s annals. The one that stands out to me is the 1931 confrontation between Brutus the bulldog and a monkey named Agile Allen, known as “The Fifty-Dollar Grin.” Old-timers in Lake City say it’s factual. I consider it to be a folktale. But that’s me.
I had heard Dad tell the story a few times when I was a child, and he always rendered an entertaining version. When I was older, I recognized an aspect he and others didn’t consider: The animals are subjected to questionable treatment. Of course, mistreatment that leads to laughter is often a feature of folktales. In fact, human characters experience hardships for this same reason. I suppose it’s a proven way to convey a moral lesson and to be witty.
The story starts with Toothless Bob Jenkins, a man who supplemented his meager income by betting that his bulldog, Brutus, could out-wrestle any other dog.
From 1930 to 1931, men gathered on many Saturday mornings and formed a circle about fifteen feet in diameter, into which they shoved competing canines. No matter how quick or stout the other might have been, Brutus confronted the opponent with sudden aggression and worked his way around to seize its hind legs with his powerful jaws. The victim yelped and submitted, at which time Brutus loosened his bite. On two occasions the loser attacked as Brutus turned away; both times the bulldog retaliated by crushing the attacker’s throat.
Toothless Bob profited from Brutus’ prowess for seventeen months. In fact, the bulldog didn’t lose a match. The men in town reached the point where they no longer betted against a Brutus victory. Instead, they wagered on how promptly he would achieve said victory.
The eighteenth month started on a cold, crisp November morning. The men watched Brutus defeat his opponent in twenty-one seconds.
A stranger stood among the locals that day, and, to everyone’s surprise, he challenged Toothless Bob to match Brutus against his pet monkey. Furthermore, he claimed his monkey would defeat Brutus in sixty or fewer seconds.
Toothless Bob and the other men were astonished by the challenge. They warned the stranger about betting against Brutus. The stranger would not withdraw his wager, though.
“Mister, if you don’t mind losing your money, I don’t mind taking it,” Toothless Bob said, with a confident chuckle.
“All right, then it’s settled,” the stranger replied. “I’ll meet you here this afternoon—let’s say 2:30.”
“Fine,” Toothless Bob agreed, nodding. “You just make sure you bring your money.”
The stranger unbuttoned his denim coat. Everyone noticed a revolver nestled between his stomach and overhauls. He pulled a wad of cash from an inside pocket.
“I got fifty dollars here that says Agile Allen—that’s my monkey’s name—will win within the time I stated,” he said.
The men’s eyes widened. They were not used to seeing any one person carry a handful of cash.
“I don’t . . . I mean, shit, I can’t match your fifty dollars,” Toothless Bob confessed.
“Do you other fellows want in on the bet?” the stranger asked, glancing around.
Eight men stepped forward with money ranging from a quarter to ten dollars, and, along with Toothless Bob’s twenty dollars, they matched the amount. One-Eye Bill Williams wrote down each man’s name and the amount of money he wagered.
At the specified time, the stranger returned leading Agile Allen by the hand. The monkey wore a red vest, a porkpie hat, and cracked shoes.
Brutus growled, and Agile Allen jumped into the stranger’s arms. Toothless Bob held the leash and displayed a cavernous grin.
“Mister,” he said, “I reckon you understand that once we get started, ole Brutus here wins if that monkey of your’n runs out of the circle.”
“I understand the rules,” the stranger told him.
“Just making sure. Wouldn’t want there to be no misunderstanding.”
The money was placed in an upturned hat. The men formed a loop. Toothless Bob and the stranger released their respective combatants.
Brutus wasted no time pursuing his opponent. Agile Allen leaped over and landed behind the bulldog, shedding the porkpie hat while in the air and the vest once back on the ground. Brutus turned and stared at the monkey, miffed by the creature’s nimbleness. As he started to charge again, Agile Allen kicked up one foot. A shoe landed on the bulldog’s nose.
The monkey kicked up his other foot, and the second shoe hit the same spot. Brutus yelped and reeled. Agile Allen maneuvered with deft efficiency and stuck his long fingers between the bulldog’s hind legs, which caused piteous howling and desperate squirming. All the while, the monkey maintained its tenacious grip.
The unthinkable occurred when Agile Allen pulled out his hand: Brutus waddled to Toothless Bob and collapsed in a whimper. The monkey chattered and turned a flip.
“I reckon that does it,” the stranger said, calm and composed.
He stuffed the money into his pocket and gathered up the monkey’s garments.
“Good day to you fellows.”
As the man walked away, Agile Allen sat on his left shoulder and grinned. Toothless Bob and the others watched, even after the stranger passed from their sight.
“Let’s uncork a jug,” one of them suggested.
They passed the moonshine around and indulged themselves. By evening, some had tipped over into a slumber, while the conscious ones sat near a bonfire and cursed their luck.
Shadows preceding nightfall stretched across the landscape. Someone rode up on a mule and informed the men that the stranger was camped a few miles beyond town limits.
Toothless Bob sat up.
“We should pay that shits ass of a con-man a d-damn visit,” he said, and tipped over.
“Yeah,” someone spoke up. “Come on, y’all. Get up off the ground. Somebody help Bob there.”
With clubs or shotguns in hand, the men staggered to their feet and made their way to the site. Upon arriving they stared in silence at the charred remains of a campfire. They searched but found no evidence he was ever there.
“They god,” one of them said.
Then they departed. Some made it home. Others slept on the ground that night.
Richard Yost is a Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee. He has written for two on-campus newsletters and has published an essay, poems, and a short story in literary journals. His most recent publication was a poem in Pigeon Parade Quarterly. He has performed solo music in the Knoxville area and has recorded five albums of his own music.
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