STRANGER, did yer ever hear tell er the time that thar missionary woman from ’way up North somewheres — Maine er Spain, one er them little States, I fergits which — come down inter West Virginia fer ter save the soul er Tony Beaver? You hain’t? Wal, hit was er powerful interestin’ experience fer the woman, an’ ef yer have the time ter ’light down off’n yer beast an’ set er spell, I kin pass the tale on ter you like hit was passed ter me.
Jest hitch yer horse ter that thar little saplin’. No, hit don’t matter ef he do chaw the fence some — he ain’t the furst beast ter cut his teeth on them rails. G’ way from here, Ponto! No — no, he won’t bite, Stranger; he’s jest er sniffin’ ’round ter see who you air. Now then, set right down, an’ make yerself at home — Yes, sure! Help yerself — an’ jest spit anywheres you please!
Yes, hit’s er right fine open prospect from here. Hit’s kinder smoky terday, ’count er the forest fires out on Big Breshy, — that’s Big Breshy, over yon’ way erginst the sky, — but in pretty weather yer kin see clar over acrost the State line ter the mountains in ole Virginy. On them days, hit looks like yer kin see so fur, ef you was jest ter stretch yer eyes er little mite, yer could see up Eel River hitself. You say yer hain’t never heard tell er that river? Then I reckon you hain’t been ’round the log camps in West Virginia very much. Why, Stranger, hit’s up Eel River that Tony Beaver lives, an’ er heap er mighty onusual things happens up thar. Tony he’s got him er lumber camp thar, an’ I ’ve heard hands tell how he’s got er yoke er oxen so big hit takes er crow er week ter fly the distance betwixt the horns er one er them. Hit don’t seem hardly likely they kin be that large, fer you know, Stranger, er crow would kiver er right smart stretch er space in er week’s flyin’. But I know they air mighty powerful beasts, fer oncet Tony he hitched ’em on ter the wheels er time, an’ hed time goin’ an’ comin’, an’ bein’ yesterdy, er termorrer, er las’ week, er nex’ month, jest whichever way he pleased. An’ anybody would know hit would take er right stout team fer that.
Hit was up Eel River, too, that Tony he growed him that powerful big watermelon er hisn. Hit was so large hit tuk er whole freight flat ter hitself fer ter ride hit down the river. Tony hed the hands ter load hit onter the flat, an’ then he clum’ up ertop er hit, an’ started out. But, Stranger, hit’s mighty rough up Eel River; the grades is steep, an’ the railroad makes er powerful lot er sharp bends; an’ bein’ er watermelon, I reckon hit jest natcherly tuk ter the water. Wal, anyhow, that ole freight was jest hittin’ the rails licketty split on er down grade, an’ goin’ so fast, er feller couldn’t hardly git out, ‘Here she comes!’ ’fore he hed ter holler, ‘Thar she goes!’ An’ Tony, he was settin’ up erstraddle er his melon, with the dust flyin’ an’ the wind singin’ in his years, an’ all the hands hangin’ on ter t’other cars fer dear life, when whoop-ee! that ole freight struck er sudden bend, an’ dogged ef hit did n’t switch Tony an’ the melon both clean off’n the flat, an’ down the bank an’ inter Eel River hitself!
Wal, the hands they was all skeered ter death, an’ thought poor Tony sure was er goner that time; but when they got the train stopped, an’ run back ter look — hold an’ below! the melon hit hed busted all ter pieces, an’ here come Tony ridin’ down the river on one er hits seeds, jest as onconsarned as you please. He hollered ter the t’other fellers ter git ’em seeds too, an’ come on jine him. Wal, sirs! Hit wa’n’t no time ’fore the water hit was full er hands er whoppin’ an’ hollerin’, an’ bucketin’ down the river on them black watermelon seeds. Folk ses hit sure was er sight ter see ’em! An’ hit cert’nly must er been er turrible jamberee. But you hear me! Hit would have ter be er mighty big melon ter have seeds that large; an’ I know doggone well hit could n’t er growed nowheres ’cept up Eel River — but
In the Eel River crew!
That’s er kind of er little song the hands hes made up erbout Tony, an’ all the things that happens in his camp.
But I did n’t set out ter tell you erbout that melon, Stranger; hit was erbout that thar missionary woman, what come down inter these parts ter save the soul er Tony Beaver.
Hit was er right funny thing how the woman ever got wind er Tony, fer hit’s like I tole yer, she come from ’way up North somewheres — Maine er Spain, I fergits which. But howsoever hit was, she’d heared tell of that thar melon, an’ them oxen, an’ she ’lowed that things that big was right down scan’lous, an’ a outrage ter the Lord; an’ any feller what owned ’em must think he owned the earth as well; an’ ef he thought that, he was headin’ fer hellfire jest as fast as the unlocked wheels er time could carry him, an’ hit was her business ter save him.
Wal, when she come down from the North an’ struck these parts, an’ commenced ter enquire ’round fer Tony Beaver, she run up erginst er snag right off, fer seemed like hit was powerful hard ter locate him. Everybody she ast tole her he lived up Eel River; but seemed like nobody could n’t tell her whar that was. She was er right wellinformed woman, an’ hed been er schoolteacher back in her own state ’fore she tuk up the profession er savin’ souls; so she hollers fer er map, an’ asts someone ter pint out Eel River on hit.
Wal, ther was some Eel Rivers here an’ thar in the country, but did n’t none er ’em seem ter be whar Tony lived. Everybody knowed hit was up Eel River he hed his camp, but seemed like could n’t nobody pint ter the place on the map.
The woman ’lowed she jest never hed struck sech er ignorant parcel er folks in all of her life, an’ hit looked like she never would er got ter see Tony, ef he hed n’t er sunt after her hisself. He got the word some way that thar was a strange woman come down from the North lookin’ fer him. He’s allus mighty perlite ter the ladies, so he hed two er his hands ter come out’n the woods an’ fotch her inter camp. Hit was Big Henry he sunt fer her, on ercount er him knowin’ the way; an’ he hed ter go erlong with him er little Eyetalian feller — whose name I done fergit, ter give style ter things. Eyetalians, now, Stranger, ef you’ll notice, they ain’t much force in the woods, but put ’em at any kind er diggin’ job, an’ you’ll find ’em nigh perfect in dirt. I reckon that’s why Tony allus has er few er them in his camp — an’ on ercount er their nice manners too.
Big Henry now, he did n’t have no style at all ter him. He was jest one er these yere great big two-fisted Jimbruiser fellers, what’s er boss hand at fellin’ trees, spuddin’ tan-bark, an’ skiddin’ logs, but no hand at all with the ladies, an’ would be mighty apt ter handle his table-fork like hit was er cant hook. That was why Tony had the little Eyetalian ter go erlong, ’cause he had all kinds er manners, an’ knowed when ter take off his hat, an’ when ter stand up an’ set down, an’ all like that.
Wal, I never did hear which way hit was they tuk ter reach Eel River; I only know they tuk their foot in their hand, as the sayin’ is, an’ traveled er right smart piece; an’ after er spell they come ter Tony’s camp.
Now that thar lumber camp er Tony’s, Stranger, ef er person sees hit oncet, they ain’t ever liable ter fergit hit ergin. Hit’s like I tole you erbout that thar melon — things is powerful big up Eel River, an’ Tony he’s got him er sawmill, an’ everything ter match in size them oxen er hisn. I hain’t never seed the place myself, an’ I would n’t hardly like ter tell yer all the monstrous tales I’ve heared erbout hit, fer fear you might think I wa’n’t tellin’ the truth. An’ you know I sure would hate that mighty bad, fer ef there is one thing I jest natcherly deespise hit’s er lie. I maybe er fool, but that’s the way I feel erbout hit. One time I recollect ole Brother Moses Mutters was preachin’, an’ he ses, refutin’ some statement er feller had made, ‘My brethren, that’s er lie! An’ why is hit er lie?' he hollers out, thumpin’ down on the desk in front er him. ‘I’ll tell yer why,’he ses, speakin’ mighty solemn, ‘hit’s er lie because hit hain’t so.’ That sure was one time ole Brother Mutters hit the nail right on the head, an’ hit’s the truth, the onliest thing in the world the matter with er lie is that hit ain’t so.
Wal, ter double on the trail ter whar we was — that thar missionary woman, she was right smartly set back when she got er good look at the place she’d struck. Hit wa’n’t like nuthin’ she’d ever set eyes on afore, an’ hit did n’t reely seem possible ther was any chance er that lumber camp, er Tony hisself, bein’ squeezed inter any kind of er meetin’-house she’d ever been used ter. I reckon the woman wished she was back home ergin, an’ had er lef’ Eel River erlone, fer she seen right off she’d run up erginst er bigger job ’n she’d erlowed fer. Howsomedever, now she had come, she knowed hit was neck er no duck, as the savin’ is, an’ she’d jest natcherly have ter stay with her pig, an’ see the thing through.
But Tony, he ain’t never er hand ter skeer er lady, an’ he come forred jest es nice an’ common es yer please, an’ ses, ‘Welcome, Stranger.'
Wal, the woman she wa’n’t used ter things too free an’ easy, an’ she kinder drawed back at that, an’ ses mighty short-like, ‘My name’s Miss Prudence Priscilla Bradford,’ an’ buttons up her mouth right tight ergin after she’d said hit.
‘Miss Prudence, pleased ter meet yer,’ Tony ses, an’ holds out his hand.
I reckon that woman kinder sensed she ought n’t ter shake hands with Tony Beaver; but hit would er looked awk’ard not ter, with him so friendly an’ nice, so she done hit. But right then an’ thar, she knowed she’d made er big mistake, fer the minute she give her hand ter hisn, an’ looked up in his face, sumpin’ kinder slided erway inside er her, an’ hit seemed like she could look right through Tony’s eyes, an’ at the back er them was forest trees wavin’, an’ the sky with clouds trailin’ over hit; an’ in the shake of er lamb’s tail, she jest did n’t know nuthin’ ’cept mountains an’ mountains, stretchin’ erway pretty nigh ter the end er the world, an’ er sky over everything that was bigger ’n the world hitself; an’ the wand blowin’ down the hollers from ’way off yonder somewheres, an’ goin’ on by, ter ’way off somewheres else; an’ all eround the good hot smell er the ground under the sun. An’ seemed like all them things she’d been raised ter an’ set store by, like sin an’ jedgment an’ hell fire, sorter blowed erway inter never, an’ hit come ter her that maybe the Lord wa’n’t settin’ up in the sky keepin’ tabs on the sins er the world, but was out thar in the mountains enjyin’ creation.
An’ right then an’ thar, she seen that Tony Beaver was draggin’ her soul straight ter hell erlong er hisn. An’ at that all the blood er her anchestors riz up, an’ she braced herself, an’ dug in with both feet. One foot hit was Puritan, an’ t’ other hit was Pilgrin, an’ when she got ’em planted good an’ straight, they saved her. She snatched her hand outer Tony’s, an’ the minute she was loose ergin, she was right back in her everyday self, an’ knowed this world was er vale er tears, an’ that she had er never dyin’ soul ter save an’ fit hit fer the skies. An’ she recollected too what she’d come fer.
‘Mister Beaver,’ she ses mighty solemn, an’ like she was lookin’ over the fence inter the nex’ world, ‘I hav’ come fer ter save yer soul.’
Tony he looks kinder du’bus at that, but he hain’t never one ter diserpint er lady, so he ses, ‘Wal, anyhow, let’s set er spell an’ talk hit over.’
So him an’ the woman, they set theirselves down on the banks er Eel River. The hands they fotched er cheer out fer the stranger, but Tony he jest set on the ground. That’s one thing folks allus tells erbout Tony, how he never will set in er cheer. He’ll set on er log, or er rock maybe, but ’most times he jest gits right down erginst the ground. An’ I have heared hands say, that when he’s figgerin’ out one er his big jobs, he’ll jest sprawl right out flat with his back erginst the earth, an’ nuthin’ betwixt him an’ the sky. They say that’s on ercount of who his mother is—but I don’t know nuthin’ at all erbout that.
Wal, Tony he sets on the ground, an’ the lady sets in the cheer, with her skirts well drawed down; fer she wa’n’t none er these yere little fly eround pretty-by-nights, but was er settled woman, with er stern an’ rockbound kind of er face, what knowed that life was but er dessert dreer, an’ that heaven was her home — an’ that bein’ so, I reckon what she seen up Eel River made her feel like home was right fur erway.
The hands, they’d all knocked off work, an’ kinder stood ’round in the background, passin’ time erway stretchin’ theirselves, an’ tradin’ knives, an’ seein’ who could spit the furthest, an’ all like that, while they waited fer the woman ter git in her fine work on Tony’s soul. But Tony, he looks back at ’em, an’ hollers out, ‘Here, quit that foolin’, an’ rustle ’round now an’ fotch the comp’ny er snack er sumpin’ ter eat — fotch her some er them huckleberries,’ he ses.
Some er the hands went off ter do like Tony said, an’ the woman, she did n’t waste no time, but got right down ter business.
‘Mister Beaver,’ she commences —
‘Aw, jest call me Tony,’ he ses. ‘I ain’t used ter no misterin’.’
The woman looked mighty prim at that, but she made out like she did n’t hear, an’ commenced all over ergin. ‘Mister Beaver,’ she ses, ‘from things I’ve seed up here, an’ from all I’ve heard folks tell, hit looks like ter me you must think yer own the earth.’
Tony he give her er mighty peculiar look at that, an’ all the hands acted sorter oneasy too. I reckon the woman seen sumpin’ strange erbout Tony, fer she gripped her hands right tight tergether in her lap, an’ I guess she knowed she was up erginst things what was all contrary ter her religion.
Tony he did n’t answer her nuthin’ back when she said that erbout his ownin’ the earth, but he fotched out his pipe, an’ lighted hit up kinder thoughtful. Now when Tony smokes up Eel River, a person could easy think the whole mountain was erfire. The clouds er smoke he blowed out come pretty nigh chokin’ the woman ter death, an’ sunt her off in er turrible fit er coughin’.
Wal that thar little Eyetalian feller, he hated mighty bad ter see Tony do sumpin’ that wa’n’t the style, so he slinked up right easy an’ whispers in Tony’s year that hit wa’n’t perlite ter smoke where ladies is.
‘Wal be dogged ef that hain’t so!’ Tony ses; an’ with that he knocks his pipe right out, — an’ hit’s the truth, when Tony knocks his pipe out, you’d think hit was thunder back in the mountains, — an’ hollers fer his plug er terbacker. Three er four er the hands kotched erhold er hit an’ drug hit up ter Tony, an’ he tuk him er broad ax an’ whaled hisself off er right smart quid, an’ then he sets down ergin an’ chawed ’stead er smokin’, ’cause Tony he’s alius mighty pertic’ler ’bout how he treats the ladies.
Hit was erbout that time that the hands fotched up the huckleberries Tony’d hollered ter ’em ter gether. Now hit’s like I’m tellin’ yer, Stranger, things grows mighty fine an’ large up Eel River, an’ them huckleberries sure was er sight ter see! Hit hed been er mighty good year fer berries all over the county; but even erlowin’ fer that, an’ their bein’ all swelled up with the rain, them Eel River huckleberries hed jest farly outgrowed theirselves. There wa’n’t airy one er ’em smaller ’n er man’s two fists tergether, an’ er heap er them run up ter the size er punkins; an’ you know, Stranger, that is large fer huckleberries. They jest plum scan’lized that missionary woman; an’ when Tony hands ’em ter her mighty perlite, an’ ses, ‘Help yerself, take one, take two, take damned nigh all,’ like er person does with comp’ny, the woman she drawed erway an’ would n’t tetch er one er ’em; fer she ’lowed berries that size was jest natcherly temptin’ the Lord.
Tony he was kinder set back at that, an’ he grabbed them berries an’ pitched ’em all inter Eel River; an’ every one er them made er splash very nigh fifty feet high when hit struck the water — which was right prutty ter see, but sorter onnatural, too.
The woman she ses, ‘That’s right Mister Beaver, yer got ter remember you don’t own the earth — the earth is the Lord’s an’ the fullness thereof.’
‘Ther fullness thereof?’ Tony ses, an’ looks kinder tickled; an’ all the fellers hed ter turn ter one side an’ laf behind they hands, ’cause they knowed Tony he was thinkin’ er that still er hisn up at the head waters er Eel River. An’ I’ve heared folks tell that the licker Tony brews up thar is so powerful that jest one swaller er hit ’ll make er rabbit spit in er bull-dog’s eye.
But the woman, she’d hit the pike er salvation, an’ she did n’t break her stride, but jest headed right on. ‘No Mister Beaver,’ she ses, ‘everything’s mighty monstrous up here, an’ I reckon you think yer er powerful big Mister Man yerself; but I ’m right here ter tell yer, yer don’t own the earth.'
Wal, hit was the third time that thar woman hed said that, an’ hit was jest the one time too many.
'Don’t own the earth!' Tony hollers out; an’ with that he spit the quid out ’n his mouth an’ stood up—An he stood up! — AN’ HE STOOD UP! An’ every time he stood up, he growed taller an’ taller. The furst time he done hit, his head went level with the white oak trees; an’ the second time, hit was over the top er the ridge; an’ the third time, hit went inter the sky.
‘O my Lands!’ the woman ses; an’ she jumps up right quick out ’n her cheer an’ looks erbout her powerful oneasy. An’ well she mought be, fer when she looked, she was all erlone up er farerway holler in the woods. Ther wa’n’t any Tony Beaver, ther wa’n’t any lumber camp, an’ ther wa’n’t any hands no more, an’ Eel River hitself had gone in the ground. Looked like what had been Tony wa’n’t nuthin’ but er gray cliff er rocks hangin’ out er the ridge; what had been the lumber camp was the mountain hitself; an’ what had been the hands standin’ ’round lafin’ an’ whisperin’ tergether was jest the hickory an’ white oak saplin’s, with the wind blowin’ through their leaves.
Well, sirs! hit cert’nly did come sudden ter that thar woman ter find herself out all erlone in them far-erway woods, with nuthin’ but the wind blowin’ through them saplin’s, what jest er minute back had been er husky parcel er hands.
Stranger, was you ever ’way out in the mountains erlone, an’ all ter oncet sumpin’ comes over yer? Yer erlone, an’ yit yer hain’t erlone. Hit looks like the lonesomeness hitself hes kinder come erlive inter sumpin’ mighty onnatural. Seems like yer hear sumpin’ whisperin’ behind yer, an’ yer jump ’round right quick ter look, an’ ain’t nuthin’ thar — ’cept the underbresh an’ the earth, an’ maybe er gray rock lookin’ at yer in er powerful curus way. An’ ergin d’rectly yer think sumpin’s behind yer, an’ yer jump ’round, an’ ergin ther ain’t nuthin’ thar. All up an’ down yer back feels powerful lonesome, an’ yer wished yer could see both ways ter oncet. An’ hit hain’t no kind er wild varmint yer skeer of—hit’s sumpin’ worse. Yer pick out er right stout tree an’ squeeze yerself up erginst hit, fer yer erbliged ter have sumpin’ betwixt the spine er yer back an’ whatever hit is that’s er creepin’ up at yer out ’n the woods er round, an’ the earth below, an’ the sky erbove.
When that happens ter er hand out in the woods, sometimes he prays, but most times he jest runs, an’ he’d be glad then ter see his worst enemy s’ long as he come in the shape of er human.
Wal, that was what happened ter that woman all erlone out thar in them distant woods, comin’ right on top er Tony an’ the lumber camp an’ all goin’ out so sudden. I reckon hit was the furst time in all of her life that the woman had ever been right up erginst natur, with nuthin’ betwixt her an’ hit. Hit sure did give her er powerful naked feelin’. She heared the wind whisperin’ through them saplin’s, an’ she seen the sky mighty wide an’ empty over her, an’ she knowed sumpin’ was er stealin’ up at her out ’n the woods. She jumped ’round ter look, an’ wa’n’t nuthin’ thar. An’ ergin she jumped ’round, an’ ergin ther wa’n’t nuthin’ thar, ’cept the Big Stillness.
An’ jest erbout that time er rain crow, w-a-y off on er far ridge, commenced ter holler in that kinder wide lonesome hoo-hoo-hoo way they got, like ther wa’n’t nuthin’ in all the world ’cept woods an’ mountains an’ sky. Wal, that bird hit jest natcherly finished the woman right up, an’ she let out er powerful screech; an’ once she bust loose an’ let the brakes down, she jest whopped an’ hollered an’ screamed! She pretty nigh split the heavens open yellin’. She was jest so skeered right through an’ through, hit seemed like ter her that every time she let out a yell hit farly scraped the bottom er her soul.
‘Aw, Mister Beaver! Aw, Mister Beaver! A-a-w, Mis-ter B-e-a-ver!' she hollered; an’ then she ketched her breath an’ listened er second, but only her own voice sayin’, ‘ Bea-ver,’ come back at her from over ferninst er ridge. Wal, with that she jest natcherly got down an’ scratched gravel an’ hollered.
‘Aw, Tony Beaver! Aw, Tony! Aw, Tony! Aw, please, sir! Please! Please, Mister Tony Beaver! A-a-w, T-o-n-y! ’
Wal, that fetched him, an’ thar he was ergin — thar was Tony lookin’ at her, an’ thar was all the hands ergin, an’ the lumber camp, an’ Eel River hitself, an’ even the very cheer she’d been settin’ in.
‘Was you wantin’ me, marm?’ Tony ses, mighty perlite an’ nice.
The woman ketched her breath, an’ tried ter gether herself tergether an’ sorter smooth herself out.
‘I — I was jest want in’ ter say goodbye,’ she ses kinder short-winded an’ weak like, an’ not lookin’ Tony straight in the eye.
‘You was sayin’ hit looked like I thought I owned the earth,’ Tony ses.
‘No — no, sir!’ the woman answers right quick. ‘No, Mister Beaver, sir, I did n’t reely say hit, you — you jest thought I did.’
‘I don’t own the earth,’ ses Tony, ‘the earth owns me!'
‘Yes, sir, yes — so I sees,’the woman ses, speakin’ right small an’ meek, fer she could still see the look er that gray cliff hangin’ outer Tony’s face, an’ mountain ridges, an’ forest trees blowin’ in the wind at the back of his eyes, an the sight of hit made her powerful anxious ter git on back home. ‘An’ now, ef yer please,’ she ses, ‘I’ll be much erbliged ef you’ll jest have the hands ter take me on down the river — while — while the river’s thar,' she ses; fer she was powerful oneasy fer fear hit would go in the ground ergin, an’ ef hit did, she jest did n’t know how in the world she’d ever git back ter whar she come front.
Wal, Tony he had the hands ter ride her down the river in the finest style, an’ she went on back ter Maine er Spain, er whichever place hit was she come from. But I’ve heared tell she was er changed woman from then on, an’ that she allus ’lowed there was some things er person could n’t never understand less ’n they’d been up Eel River an’ seen Tony Beaver face ter face.
In the Eel River crew!