Alabama, Here We Rest

WE were resting by the roadside, for it was July and nearing noon. Even in the cool mountains nature makes obeisance to the sun at noonday. The singing birds are already hiding in lost green glades, and the jeweled lizard, forever darting across the white sand, sleeps now, beneath his broad leaf, as still as the pebble beside him. After the joyous allegro of the morning, the crescendo of winds and woods attains the pause before the languid and prolonged adagio of a summer afternoon.

We had been walking since sunrise, up and up the mountain road. Peter, who pushed the cart, was dejected. He had ivy poison. John, the beloved mongrel, was dejected. We had taken away his kitten. Two nights before he had brought a scrawny, badly blondined kitten to camp. He had divided his corn pone with her, and she slept in the ashes of the camp fire by his side. He insisted that she continue the journey with our party. John, who hates cats! The mystery of the masculine mind! A scrawny little blondined cat! Even we objected to hiking accompanied by a yellow cat; so this morning we presented the kitten to a friendly mountain woman. I am persuaded that John felt it keenly. I too was dejected. I could not forget the little three-year-old boy who plays all day in his old grandfather’s blacksmith shop, while his mother lies always sick and alone in the cabin beside it. I could not forget how joyously and completely that curly-haired elf used the tools in the shop where his grandfather’s forge had burned for over fifty years, to make his own playthings. The grandfather is very old and the mother cannot last long. There is no one else. What then, for that wonderful little creature? Buddie’s father, so the grandfather told me, had kissed him and ridden away into the night.

‘Hit war like this,’ he said. ‘We-all had allus made good corn whiskey. The sheriff of this county, he owns all the stills now, and he makes whiskey quick with this hyar red-devil lye. Lige, he would n’t jine ’em, so one night they come and burned his still, and whooped him and putt him on his horse and driv him outen the country. I could n’t holp none. I jest stayed on with Buddie. Whar you-all’ll camp tonight by the big spring is whar the sheriff is buildin’ a big pleasure place. But he don’t live thar. He lives down in the valley, and he’s got fifty thousand dollars in the bank thar, made outen red-devil lye.’

We knew our hike through this particular country held an element of danger. We had been repeatedly warned to turn back, and we had often been stopped by half-drunken men in motor cars and keenly questioned as to our business in these mountains. We had always succeeded in making them believe we were not revenue officers. But we were careful, at night, to set our little tent near a human habitation. We camped that night by the big spring near the sheriff’s pleasure place. The caretaker’s wife brought us some milk. Milk is buttermilk, in the mountains. Sweet milk is so called and is a luxury. After supper I sat on the porch and talked with the caretaker’s wife. A mountain woman talks only of fundamental, basic things of life. She tells me how her husband has pellagra; of her two sons, dead of pellagra. How old am I? And how many children have I? And she tells me if I look away beyond the cotton patch I can see the stone that marks a little grave. ‘She war my only gal. She choked to death of dipthery. We could n’t get no doctor.’ And I tell her of a little green grave so far away I shall never see it again. We are silent then, but not far apart in spirit, and watch the young moon shine from the lilac west.

The next morning, as we leave, she tells me in her sad monotone, — a mountain woman does not whisper, — very softly, that even Peter may not hear, that I must never leave the pushcart. ‘Hit won’t be safe even with the dog quiled under hit. They’ll putt a bottle of whiskey in hit. Then they’ll catch your man and he’ll have to work out his fine on the road. The convicts air a-buildin’ a road fer the automobiles to peddle whiskey on a right smart piece beyant hyar. I reckon I orten to told you. But you-all don’t look like you could pay no fine.’

Now we were nearing the road the convicts were building. Beyond, on either side we could see the great iron cages — larger, but exactly like the animal cages of the circus—where the convicts lived.

Down the hot road between the iron cages walked a tall, gaunt mountain woman. She was neatly dressed, as are all mountain women outside their homes, and she carried a basket from the crossroads store at the top of the mountain. ‘Happy Top’ it is called. God save the mark!

As the woman reached us, she fixed me with her great fierce eyes and asked, ‘Air you the woman as is walkin’ fer comfort?’

I laughed. I could n’t help it. But Peter understood. He knew that Comfort is the name of the family paper which has the largest circulation of any paper in America, and that a Pearle someone was writing a hiking experience for this paper. If a mountain woman reads a paper she reads Comfort. I was sorry I was not Pearle. The woman’s world was small. She was disappointed. So I told her I had a fiddle in the cart, and would she wait, and did she think I might play for the convicts at noon?

‘I’m scairt they won’t want to hear no music when they belong to eat,’ she replied. ‘I reckon the gyard won’t let you nohow. You might play tonight, after they’re in their cages, ef they all ain’t dead then. Hit’s a powerful hot day fer ’em. Yesterday a little city feller, he fell down a-diggin’ in the sun, and I axed the gyard ef I could n’t carry him a gourd o’ water. He would n’t let me, and he kicked the feller up agin and he fell down agin and they throwed a bucket o’ water on to him and let him lie. He war in a faint. You’ll see him as you pass by. He wears big specs, and his hands air a-tremblin’ so he can’t wipe the sweat off’n ’em.’

‘What did he do? What was his crime?’ Peter asks.

‘He war a-walkin’ down to Gadsden by hisself and they slipped a bottle o’ moonshine in his bundle, and then ketched him to work out his fine. Thar’s a ole man — you see him on the left side a-diggin’; hit’s him with the long white whiskers — his wife’s a-dyin’ and he went over on tother mounting to shoot something — she war a-honin’ for something more’n hawg meat — and he could n’t find nothing but a chicken a-drinkin’ at the crick, and he shot hit and carried hit home, kind o’ brash like — he war miserble — and they ketched him, and he’s workin’ out his fine, an’ the neighbors on tother mounting air a-holpin’ his wife. She’s a-dyin’ of pellagra. The ole man’s alius been kind o’ lackin’. He’s powerful old, and him bein’ lackin’ he’s kinda off’n his haid. He hollers out loud and prays. The gyards hit him over the haid yesterday when he hollered to some folks a-passin’. You see the sun is so hot, an’ the ole man’s lackin’ anyhow.’

‘There is a store beyond?’ I ask faintly. ‘ We want to buy some alcohol. My husband has ivy poison.’

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Hit’s a right smart store. I don’t know about alcohol. The storekeeper he owns a right smart chance of everything on this and tother mounting. Sence the boll weevil tuck us we all owe him due bills, and he owns all the land. They’re about all renters but me. My son’s a engineer in Birmingham. I own my place. He’s a-movin’ the mounting to get me out. Good-bye. I’d be proud if you-all’d write me a card. I kin read writin’ too.’

We put John on the chain, and trudged on up the hot road between the iron cages. Mules and scrapers; negroes and whites; guards with pistols; and over all a pall of silence. Dirt and toil and sweat and torture! The ‘city feller’ with the ‘specs’ turned away his pallid face; the old man who was ‘lackin” cried out a prayer to us; the guard shook him roughly by the shoulder. The silent horror of the road, broken only by the old man’s cry, crept into our blood and caught at our hearts.

The store was packed with silent, lank mountaineers, sitting on boxes, spitting tobacco with great accuracy and perfect regularity from the open windows. Each man took his turn. There was a small amount of denatured alcohol in the lamp. We might have it, but there was no bottle to be found, no can, no receptacle whatever. We were in despair. Peter, tortured with ivy poison, grew more dejected.

A tall, lean mountaineer unfolded himself in sections from his box.

‘Stranger,’ he said, ‘my advice is to step behind them flour sacks and putt hit on. Hit’ll be yourn then.’

Presently a stifled groan came from behind the flour sacks. The mountaineer spat through the window out of his turn — it was an unusual occasion — and remarked dryly, ‘All of which he done so.’

We camped that night by a stream where I fished. John, barking at every fish I caught, forgot the kitten. Once more he was a gay dog. Peter, the pain of ivy poison allayed, was serene again. Nature healed us. But the old man who was lacking wept in his iron cage for his wife who was dying alone on ‘tother mounting.’ God send the pallid city youth slept the sleep of exhaustion. The little boy who played all day by the forge lay beside his tubercular mother in the cabin beside the shop. Perhaps the father who would n’t join the sheriff in making red-devil whiskey thinks of them to-night. The caretaker’s wife, whose husband has pellagra, rocks in the moonlight that shines on the grave of a child ‘that thar war n’t no doctor to holp.’

O America! Land of peace and plenty. Alabama! Here we rest.