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2007

I was visiting Miss Minnie Sparks at her little house one pleasant summer evening not long before she opened her fireworks stand for the 4th of July season. "Did I ever tell you about my Great-Uncle Buster, who was a miner?" she asked.

"No, I don't think so, Miss Minnie," I replied.

"Well, he lived many years out in either New Mexico or Arizona, I'm never sure which. You know, honey," she told me, "I never thought in those days to write things down. I mean, when Uncle Buster was still alive and telling his stories. Wish I had now."

"What sort of stories did he tell?" I asked her.

"You know how fishermen are always talking about the one that got away? Well, he had a great story about one that got away - one of those gold nuggets, that is. Just sit down there, honey, and I'll bring us some coffee and then I'll tell you about Uncle Buster."

A few minutes later, coffee cup in hand, I sipped and looked expectantly at Miss Minnie. Laughing, she said, "My mother and her sisters used to get so embarrassed at some of these old family stories, but Cousin Sophie and I just always thought they were fun. Who cares if there's a skeleton in the closet? Why, I think having a crook or a ne'er-do-well in the family makes it a lot more interesting, don't you?"

She leaned back in her rocking chair and sipped her coffee, then set it down on the table. "Not that Uncle Buster was either, of course. He just was unlucky. Well," she said, leaning forward and placing her hands on her thighs, "It went like this...."

"Uncle Buster's place was right on the rim of one of those canyons; not the famous one, the Grand Canyon, but one that was pretty darn big, so I always heard. It was rugged, downright primitive, but he liked it because he was convinced that one of these days he would find the mother lode out there somewhere.

"He had a little tree growing right outside his door. I'm not sure what it was, a juniper or something like that maybe, but it was just sort of growing right out of a big rock that was real close to his house. He said it was amazing; made you wonder how a plant could grow out of a rock like that.

Well, one year just as the first spring growth broke out on that tree he had to step outside to visit the necessary before he could eat his supper. You know how it just kind of hits you sometimes?"

"I mean, he said he had to leave his beans and biscuits on the table and GO!

You know, all us Sparkses are good cooks, and so was Uncle Buster. Why, he could make a pot of beans that was as good as his sisters could make, and his biscuits, why they were better'n a lot of women's."

She leaned forward, a glint of mischief in her eyes, and said, "Now don't tell Cousin Sophie I told you, but her biscuits are hard as rocks. Caught my nephew throwing one like a bone to the dog. Yessir, he'd throw it and here would go Brutus just as fast as his legs would carry him to bring that biscuit back."

We laughed, and then she said, "Well, back to Uncle Buster. As I was saying, he was coming back from the necessary when danged if this little green snake didn't appear out of nowhere and slither right between his legs. I don't think I told you that Uncle Buster was deathly afraid of snakes, did I?

"Well, naturally, it scared the hound out of him, and he threw up his hands and his boots slipped in the rocks and danged if he didn't hit that tree so hard he sort of bent it backwards and dislodged a chunk out of the rock it was growing from. And what do you suppose he saw?"

I shook my head. "Another snake?"

"No, honey, it was a chunk of gold the size of your fist and it had flown right into his mining pan with a loud clang. And that scared him too, until he realized what had happened. He looked into that pan and said to hisself, 'It's a miracle!' Here he'd been trudging up and down that canyon looking for gold all those years, and it was right under his nose by his very own tree.

He just stood there, sun going down and his supper getting cold, and stared at that big ol nugget a-laying in his pan. He told me he had to blink several times, but it was there and it was real.

"Well, he hightailed it into his house and stumbled right over his hat and bandana where he'd left them by his bedroll. Then he picked hisself up and laid the nugget real careful like on the table.

"Right next to the biscuits. And there it laid, with him staring at it and it just a-glittering. He stood there a minute and then he said out loud, 'I'm gonna take me a bath and go to town and I'm agonna see Miss Birdie. I know she ain't never seen nothin' like this here nugget.'

So he hauled his bathtub down from where it was hanging on the wall and put it in the middle of the rug.

Miss Birdie was real pretty, so they say, but kind of ummhmm, you know; but she wouldn't even give him the time of day. He said she called all them other fellers Honey but said he stunk like a polecat.

"He got a pitcher from the shelf and a big bucket and went out to the nearby stream to get some water, all the time his mind just going lickety split as he imagined how Miss Birdie would change her tune when he showed her that nugget.

"And he put the kettle on to boil and started pouring the rest of the water into his bathtub.

"He got out his shaving things that he hadn't used all winter and set them on a nearby stool. His heart was just a-pounding, he said, but he was careful with that straight razor.

And then he went over and lighted a candle and set it next to a little mirror that had been his mama's. 'Bout the only thing he had left of hers after she passed on, you know.

"And he hung his lucky bolo tie on the shelf peg so he would remember to put it on before he went to town.

And all this time his supper was getting cold.

"But all he could think about was that nugget, just a-glittering on the table corner.

"Finally the kettle began to steam. He grabbed it and started pouring the hot water into the tub so fast that it sloshed out, burning his leg. "Good Godalmighty!" he hollered. And as he stumbled backward he accidentally stepped into the empty bucket, fell back against the table and the nugget went skittering across the floor.

"So there he was, a-floundering around and next thing he knew his foot in the bucket hit the broom in the corner and it fell down and hit the nugget and it went flying out the door that he had left open in all his excitement.

Well, at this point, he always said, he was screaming from his burned leg, and cussing a blue streak. He stumbled out the door in the dark, turning this way and that, and couldn't see a thing. 'Hell, fire and tarnation!' he hollered and kicked so hard trying to get that bucket off his foot that when it came off it flew some distance through the air, hit something and went clanging and banging off over the edge of the canyon.

To make a long story short, he never did find that nugget. And he never got over it either.

After spending the next six months crawling over every inch of that yard and all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, he crawled back out and got on his mule and went to town and applied for a job at the livery stable.

And with every forkful of manure he cussed Miss Birdie, because if he hadn't decided to take a bath to go see her, he would've still had that nugget."

Miss Minnie leaned back in her chair. "That's one of the reasons my mother and her sisters didn't like that story, because every time he told it he cussed a blue streak. Yes, he did, to his dying day."

.....

NOTES:


This is Miss Birdie, sprawled somewhat awkwardly in a chair, although for years she sat in some wisps of quilt batting, skirt and feet dangling over the upper rim of the fruitcake tin that forms Uncle Buster's little cabin. I wanted to suggest that he was picturing her in his imagination, or perhaps that he was daydreaming of her.

Not sure whether it worked for anyone but me, but she sat there for a long, long time, although she got knocked off rather frequently, which explains why in these pictures she looks a bit bedraggled, having broken her poor little neck and lost most of her black feather, not to mention the state of her fringe!

Miss Birdie was one of my earliest porcelain miniature dolls, made in a workshop with Beth Lane. I always had a great affection for her, despite her rather hard life, both literally and figuratively.

If I were to do Miss Birdie now, I would give her less hair and a less rigid hairline, but I was just learning then. She is the first of my dolls that I painted with green eyes. I wonder if that's because I have green eyes, myself?

MAKING UNCLE BUSTER'S CABIN

Uncle Buster's little home was the final product of a workshop offered at the very first Southwest Miniature Roundup held in Roswell, NM, back in the 80's, I think it was.

We were provided with a large fruitcake tin and various materials to make the false bottom, etc. I put the basic setting together that day, and then completed it later. Most people did pretty Southwestern style rooms, but as usual, my thoughts were on a different track.

I think the cans were already spray painted with a sand like finish, but after all this time I can't remember for sure.

I made Uncle Buster in a Beth Lane doll workshop over twenty years ago. I think if I were to do him now he might not be quite so hairy. Grizzled, but not bearish. lol

Because of the curved wall, I used some paper flooring to go up the sides and across the top. The baseboard is a slat from an old 70's roll-up blind. I didn't worry too much about fancy finish work, since this is a miner's cabin after all. However, I don't know if it was really this bad from the beginning, or if it has just deteriorated, possibly the floor has pulled away, over the years.

Because of the curve, I papered the back wall with old newspapers. If I were to do this now, I would put up some studs, but didn't think of that at the time.

The stove was made from one of a pair of salt and pepper shakers that I have had for more years than I can count. I used a rust-colored paint to dry brush here and there on the stove, and used chalks to grunge the Chrysnbon coffee pot and other kitchen items.

The pepper shaker's stovepipe only came up about an inch or so - like a handle - so I contrived this stovepipe from rolled cardboard painted black and then rubbed with a pencil to give it a metallic sheen. I forget what I used for the dohickey where it goes into the wall.

We used rocks to help prop the can in place while the glue was setting up. They added to the natural look of the landscaping, as well.

Oh yes, I made that ocotillo from wire and poppy seeds. There is a tutorial for Making Ocotillos in the Tutorials pages.

Here are more rocks on the left side. The ground (the tin's lid) is actually painted first with a light beige paint and glue mixture, then sprinkled with real sand. the various levels are real rocks, which makes this quite heavy to pick up. Nowadays I use florist foam and egg cartons much of the time rather than real rocks, except maybe one or two for emphasis.

The edge of the lid is finished with two rows of rope glued in place; one row finishes the opening of the fruitcake tin.

This was a fun project, and certainly is a handy way to make a setting if you are one of those people who hate to throw away a good can! Scenes like this make good gifts.

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