Snake Night Up Posey Holler

I

IN the high rock’s shadow, among the ferns and galax leaves, bubbled an icy spring. I leaned against a sweet-gum tree, and waited for the water to boil on our little camp fire, while Peter shucked the sweet corn with which Sisyphus, our Chinese wheelbarrow, was loaded. John, who just missed being a setter, pawed frantically at a cool cellar he was digging in the soft earth. For it was hot — high noon by my wrist watch. And though we had loitered on the way, we had pushed the cart up and up the mountain since sunrise in the valley below.

A woman wearing a glistening white sunbonnet crossed the road from the log cabin opposite. She carried a covered dish which she gave to me and said: —

‘We-all had fried apple pies fur dinner, and I brung some over. I’d be proud if you-all’d take ’em.’

We thanked her, and she sat on a stone against the rough brown rock where the passion vine climbed, and carefully removed her immaculate bonnet. We were startled by her beauty. Even John stopped digging for a moment. Young, but serene and stately, with chiseled features and a skin of nacre, she smiled there, a mountain flower, sturdy but very lovely. The faded lavender of her sleeveless apron-dress, where the shadows of the passion vine fell in faint green filigree, draped her firm body with enchanting grace.

She asked no questions, for the mountain woman is punctiliously polite. But as we talked of the weather, the roads, and the cotton, Peter’s eyes met mine, and I knew that we both felt that here was more than the mere beauty of a wild flower. For while there was no hint of condescension at our homeless state, — a mountaineer loves above everything his home, and can conceive no reason for leaving it, other than being thrust out by misfortune, — there was in her manner a curious air of gentle importance; and her words, commonplace enough, bore a strange balm of other-whereness, as though she spoke from a height afar off.

When dinner was served on Sis’s tin top, she rose and said: ‘When you-all belong to go on, stop by. I’d love to give you some gyarden truck. Jest onions, and sweet corn, and some English peas. We hain’t got a great chance of a gyarden, fur my man is away loggin’, and we got hit all to do. My chillern is jest eleven and twelve yars old.’

We thanked her and told her we should start on at once after dinner and would stop by; and we watched her curiously as she disappeared in the ‘dogtrot,’ or open hall, of her house. After dinner Peter solemnly produced our last tailor-made cigarette, and divided it exactly. I knew this meant a rare occasion, and that after the last precious puff there was speculative thought ahead. For the home-grown tobacco of the mountains is potent. One cool, rainy day I sat before the fireplace with a madonna who rocked a moonshiner’s infant of two weeks and chewed incessantly. When she offered me a chew and I refused it her face fell. So, in a social effort, I dried a leaf before the flame and rolled a cigarette. In a rapidly revolving room I was able to reach the bed in the nearest corner. Peter came in, and the madonna said, ‘Stranger, I hain’t got nothin’ but gal tobacco, but if you ’ll reach up on that high shelf thar, they’s some good.’ I waved a feeble warning from the bed, but Peter rushed upon his fate, and presently rushed out again.

When the last puff of smoke, upheld by a sharpened match, had vanished, I said, ‘Did you observe how gently she spoke to us, as if we were orphan children astray?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Peter, ‘that beautiful being feels superior to us. It’s not her beauty. She seems unconscious of that. Perhaps we’ll solve the mystery at the house. She may have a mail-order carpet, or a cottage organ.’

We found in the poor cabin the same exquisite neatness and air of serenity that surrounded the woman herself. The children were in the cotton field, but she had gathered the peas and onions, and had added a pound of dewy butter from the well. As we left I said, ‘You must be very happy here; you seem to enjoy being kind.’ ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘I am. — No,’ to Peter, ‘I don’t want no money. The onliest reason I hain’t plumb happy is because I don’t live whar I kin see more folks to holp. I have been healed of pellagra by prayer, and I owes the Lord a heap o’ thanks.’

I sat down on the doorstone, and Peter rolled Sis into the shade at the same instant.

She went on: ‘Hit war two yars ago that the Apostolics war a-holdin’ a big meetin’ over thar by the spring.'

‘Apostolics?’ asked Peter.

‘Some folks call ’em Holy Rollers. I war so bad I could n’t go. My man war away loggin’, but Pappy and the chillern went. So they heerd about me, and fur seven days they prayed fur me. Nary minute o’ the time, night ner day, some of ’em was n’t on their knees. I did n’t believe much in ’em, but Pappy did. I could n’t use my hands any more. The flesh war adroppin’ off. I jest set in the room in the big chur most o’ the time. The seventh day I war a-settin’ thar readin’ my Bible — I kin read print. Hit war jest sundown, and the room war all full o’ red light. All at onct I riz up and said, “Pappy, I’m healed!” and I walked over to Pappy, and that night we all went to meetin’ — Pappy, and me, and the chillern. And I ’m so well, and so full o’ thanks, hit seems I kaint do enough fur the Lord.'

‘And your hands! They are beautiful. Not a sear,’ I cried.

‘They healed up right away, and I hain’t had a day’s sickness sence. I kin work harder’n ever. Our church thinks hit’s a sin not to keep clean and red up in the house and outside. The neighbors is Hard Shells round here, and they don’t like the Apostolics.’

‘Hard Shells?’ I asked, though I knew.

‘Hard Shell Baptists. But they’ll all tell you I war healed jest like that. I wish I could go to the big meetin’ they’re a-holdin’ up Posey Holler — hit’s too fur. Hit’ll run two weeks yit. But maybe you-all’s started thar?’

‘Yes,’ I said quickly, distrusting the masculine mind in the uptake, ‘that is where we are going.’

This was news to Peter, but he caught himself in time and did n’t say so.

‘I hate to tell you-all, but you’re in danger fur the next mile. I’d go with you-all, but hit would n’t holp none. They knows I’m a Apostolic, and agin liquor. Hit’s this-a-way. The Gulf is jest on yer left hand and —’

‘What is the Gulf?’ asked Peter.

‘Hit’s a great big valley over a steep bluff whar nobody goes but them as is hidin’ from the sheriff. Thar’s bars, and rattlers, and copperheads in hit. And stills all over the aidge of hit. Hit’s a awful dark place full o’ trees and vines till you kaint git through hardly. And they’s a deep river runnin’ through hit whar they don’t dare fish, fur the cottonmouths is thar by the hundreds.’

‘And that,’ I murmured feebly, ‘is on our left! What, then, is on our right?’

‘Moonshiners. The first house is whar the biggest of ’em all lives. He leads ’em all. They jest whooped a boy and sent him outen the county, accusin’ him of bein’ a informer. His maw lives the next house. She’s a widder woman. If you gits past that mile you-all ’ll come out on Happy Top whar old Uncle Tutweiler lives. He is rich. He hain’t no moonshiner, but they lets him alone. Uncle Tut hain’t a church member, but he air a good man.’

‘And it’s a mile of that!’ said Peter.

‘Yes, a full mile. Mister, you let your woman walk on in front. Nary a man in these mountings ’d hurt a woman. But ef you war ahead, they might whoop you, or shoot from behind a rock, thinkin’ you war a informer.’

We thanked her and said good-bye. Suddenly she turned. ‘I’ll git on my knees and pray fur you past that mile. I’d be proud if you-all’d write to me how you gits along and about the big meetin’. My name is Laura Scott, and my boy kin read writin’ a little.’ (And penciled letters have come to us — scrawled accounts of weather and crops — that bear to us another message than the ill-spelled words convey.)

II

In silence we tied John securely to the cart. I carried the rifle, and we walked abreast. Before the fearsome house at the right sat a gigantic man in a chair propped against the wall. He stared a moment, and we sawr him run to the dogtrot and take his rifle from a rack on the wall and disappear into the house. I dropped behind, but we walked steadily on. Presently we were in front of the cabin of the ‘widder woman ’ whose son had been ‘ whooped ’ and run ‘outen the county.’ Ripe peaches had fallen over the stone wall of the yard, and we stopped a moment to pick them up. Death might be approaching from the rear, but peaches are peaches. A woman called from the dogtrot and ran out with a basket of peaches and two knives, and we sat on the stone wall and ate the fruit. The woman was old and unkempt, and though her words were kindly her voice held but one tone, that of acid bitterness, as though life had drained her of all but one emotion. The voices of the mountain women are all monotonous, including perhaps but three tones at best. But this voice was like the sad twanging of a single low-pitched string.

I said, ‘The house we passed a while back. The woman told us of her healing. Do you know of it?’

‘Yes, she tells everybody. She ’lows she ort to.’

‘But it’s true?’ asked Peter.

‘Yes, hit’s true. Prayer is prayer. But I hain’t got no use fur the folks that done the prayin’. Them Holy Rollers a-pettin’ copperheads and rattlers! The way I’d please God is to smash ’em with a rock! Them Holy Rollers is havin’ a big meetin’ up Posey Holler. To-morrow’s snake night.’

‘Snake night?’ I quavered.

‘Yes, hit’s Sunday night and they brings in a rattler and pets him.

Thar’ll be a big crowd. Some of ’em’ll git bit like the feller that died last week on tother mounting. Temptin’ the Lord like that! They ’lowed he was n’t under the Power when he was bit or ’t would n’t ’a’ hurted him. I hyar they is more careful now. They says they feels hit when the Power comes, like wind over ’em. Pity hit don’t blow their haids offen ’em, temptin’ God like that!’

Down the road came six gaunt mountaineers, walking abreast, each bearing a rifle on his shoulder. I grasped the stone wall firmly, resolved to remain there indefinitely. But the woman rose quickly and said, ’You-all best putt the peaches in your little wagon and go on. Hit won’t do you ner me no good fur ’em to see you hyar. They mighty nigh killed my boy tother day. They might take you-all fur informers.’ And with a frightened air she ran through the dogtrot, where she took a gun from the wall, and disappeared in the house.

We walked on. The road was clear for a way. But soon we came to a sharp turn which led down to a thicket of laurel under dense trees. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘is where I walk on ahead.’

Peter demurred and insisted on leaving me with the cart, and walking on with John and the rifle. But there was a woman praying for me in a cabin back there, and I choked out good-bye, and ran down the road with the rifle.

The steep rocky way led down to a sullen stream stealing its course to the Gulf, where the cottonmouths crawled by hundreds. The loneliness and the silence of the sinister place so oppressed me that it was a relief to see, seated on a great rock which jutted over the water, six men with their rifles across their knees. I called at once, in a voice that did not sound like mine: ‘I came on ahead to try to shoot a rabbit, Are there any rabbits about here? We are on our way to Uncle Tutweiler’s. This is the right road to Uncle Tut’s, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ answered the gigantic leader of the moonshiners, ‘and you won’t find no rabbit.’ And they filed down a path by the dark stream. I sat on a fallen tree. I could n’t stand. And soon I heard the rattle of the cart, and Peter and John came running down to the ford. We took off our shoes and stockings and carried Sis across the water. I was always hampered by my skirt; but I feared to offend the mountaineers by wearing knickers. Often I have seen mountain women ploughing in flapping skirts.

It seemed a long way to sanctuary, for a mountain mile is not as other miles. But at last there was Happy Top, and Uncle Tutweiler’s house. It was an old house. Uncle Tut told me afterward that it had been built almost a century ago. It was made of four large whitewashed log houses joined together in a row with several lean-tos in the rear. Surrounding the front and sides was a rude gallery supported by pillars of great cedars with the limbs left on, where hung saddles and bridles and wearing apparel and baskets of fruit — anything. The cedar posts, polished by vanished hands, were beautiful with the patina of a hundred years, and gleamed like silver in the afternoon sun.

The grapevine telegraph had announced our coming, — perhaps the six moonshiners themselves, — and Uncle Tut, his portly wife, and six stalwart sons were on the gallery to welcome us. Uncle Tut was a cripple, — a twisted leg, — but he would have been a commanding figure anywhere. Tall and lank, with a hawklike face and a noble forehead, he looked every inch the leader of his tribe. King Tut indeed! Peter asked permission to put up our little tent near the house, and Mrs. Tut took me into ‘the room.’ ‘The room’ marks the aristocracy of the mountains. It is a living room, though it usually contains a few snowy beds. This room boasted two old four-poster beds and two much-carved cottage organs opposite each other. The walls were hung with fiddles, banjos, guitars, and a whole row of harmonicas — or French harps, as they are called.

We declined the cordial invitation to supper, and after the last of our fried pies, with a grace over them which I hope reached their donor, we went to the house, which was rapidly filling with people from every direction. One frail little woman had walked four miles, carrying her baby. She showed me her hands, blistered from chopping cotton all day.

The ‘music’ came down from the wall, and what an evening we had! Seeing so many fiddles, I left mine with Sis, and presided at one of the organs. A returned soldier played the other. They were only a fraction of a tone apart! We played ‘Billy in the Low Ground,’ ‘Devil’s Dream,’ ‘Big Tater in the Sand,’ ‘Black Satin,’ ‘Lorena,’ and sang war songs and old hymns and late jazz from the Sunday School books. At midnight, after a rousing ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again,’ we went happily to sleep, to wake at dawn and set out for the ‘big meetin” and snake night at Posey Holler.

Uncle Tut said, ‘Hit’ll be hard fur you-all to find the way. But I reckon you won’t keer ef you do git lost. You-all ’pear to be jest wanderin’. But Bud Hall’s jest rid by on his mule goin’ up sparkin’ to Piney Hill Church. You-all foller his tracks. Hit’s a little to the left, and hit’s the only water you-all’ll find. Stop thar fur dinner. They’ll tell you frum thar on. Posey Holler runs right up to the top o’ Milksick Mounting.'

‘Milksick!’ I said. ‘What a name!’

‘Yes, the govermint tries to keep hit fenced off. Hit’s got a pizen weed that makes cows and folks sick. Far’well! I wisht you-all could stop longer.’

III

It was a slow climb. Sometimes we lost Bud Hall’s track and wandered into logging roads and cow paths. And Peter was in a desperate hurry. As we left, Mrs. Tut had presented us with six varieties of sweet apples and a live chicken, and, while Sis still bore sweet corn, he was determined on chicken à la Maryland for dinner. At last, arrived at the little unpainted church, we pushed the cart into the brush arbor before it, and Peter started a fire. But an old man appeared from the church and said, ‘Stranger, this is God’s house, and everybody’s welcome. You-all come right in to Sunday School. I’m leadin’ to-day on “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.”’

I murmured something about our appearance — that we should like to freshen up a bit, but the leader said at once, ‘Come right in like you air! God says the pore is always with us.’

Peter cast a regretful glance at the chicken, but we followed the good man into the church, separating at the door, for it is a scandal for the sexes to sit together in a church. It is n’t done. The leader took Peter into his Bible class, and Peter told me afterward there were only two men in the class who could read, and they word by word like children. But the Bible was passed to each to read a verse. As he passed the Book, each man would say, ‘I left my specs at home to-day.’ Peter began to fear the country was given over to ophthalmia, when he caught a twinkle in the leader’s eye. But he so far outdid himself that he was asked to make an address after the lesson, which he did with surprising eloquence, on the subject of foreign missions, making at once a theatrical exit ‘centre door, fancy,’ as the old actors used to say, pretending there was something wrong at the cart. I knew it was the chicken preying upon his mind, so remained to hear a discussion in regard to a proposed singing class.

A young mountaineer arose and announced that he wished to teach ‘rudimints to the whole settlemint fur ten nights fur the sum of thirty dollars.’ He was a handsome youth, with the jetty hair, the straight features, and the hall mark of the mountaineer — the snowy forehead above the bronze below the mark of his hat. I believe a mountain man sleeps in his hat. I have never seen one in a detached state but in a church. Then he sits some time before removing it, shamefacedly, as if a duty to God, but reluctantly, as though parting with an article of his clothing really demanded by a fastidious public.

Now one of the elders arose and objected to the price asked for the lessons. He said they could ‘git a teacher from over Push Mounting’ who would come a whole two weeks for twenty-five dollars. The candidate arose and spoke with some warmth. He said, ‘I hain’t castin’ no slurs on no man’s rudimints, but I know that man hain’t never been offen Push Mounting. My rudimints is as good as any man’s, fur I spent nine dollars fur my music education, besides five dollars I spent fur board in town gittin’ it! And I claim I ort to git more.’

At this a stalwart man arose and said, ‘I hain’t objectin’ to the price. But I never seen no singing class that was n’t jest a sparkin’ school, and I ’m agin hit,’ and sat down. The candidate replied that there would be no sparking at his school. He knew how to stop it, and he would! At last a visitor from the Valley proposed it be referred to a committee. It was, and we rose and sang ‘Which Side Air Ye Fightin’ On?’ and the leader raised his hand for the benediction. I saw his face lengthen and pale as he stared out the open door opposite. I turned to see Peter looking very disreputable, endeavoring to conceal the fact that he was picking a chicken. I hastened to speak to the leader and incidentally to tell him that Uncle Tut of Happy Top had presented us with a chicken. The color came back to his face. It is one thing to welcome the poor to God’s house, but another to trust them in the matter of a spring chicken; and the leader’s flock was next door to the church.

IV

It was dark when we found the head of Posey Holler, and the little church was already surrounded with men, women, children, and infants in arms, for it was snake night, when saints and scoffers alike assembled here. We tied John by a window farthest from the door, and all ate a buffet supper from the sill, of cold chicken à la Maryland, and went at once into the crowded church. The class leader — that is the leader of the choir — escorted us to the amen corner by the window outside of which were John and the cart. Peter whispered that there were signs of trouble outside, and that in case of a rumpus I must jump out of the window at once — there might be fire or a panic inside.

The preacher was young, scarcely more than a boy, but his face was set in lines too grim for a boy’s, and his large blue eyes burned with a feverish light. As we rose to sing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ the class ranged themselves as a bodyguard before the slender young man and held their books well before their faces — as well they might, for ripe tomatoes began to whirl through the air. One struck the wall lamp above me and showered down the glass of the chimney. The class leader calmly replaced the chimney with another, and the class never lost a word of the song, though outside were caterwaulings and pistol shots, and the tomato bombardment continued. But presently the noise ceased as a bent old man with a long gray beard walked slowly up the aisle, bearing a small screened box, inside which I fancied I could see a dark shape writhing. Peter suddenly whispered, ‘If that petting party comes to this amen corner it’s me for the window!’ Fortunately, however, the old man placed the box solemnly before the pulpit, but still all too near us; and I sat with my feet like a Turk’s.

Now, one after another, the preacher and the elders prayed long and earnestly for the Power. Over the church resounded the deep voices of the men and the shrill pleadings of the women: ‘Send the Power! O God, send the Power! Let down the Power!’ And when the Power fell upon, us was it only fancy that I felt the sweep of wings?

We all rose and shouted, ‘Glory to God!’ And at last the young preacher held out his hand for silence, and read in a low tone the sixteenth chapter of St. Mark. But his voice rang triumphant on the eighteenth verse. ‘They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’ Softly the class sang, ‘ He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own,’ and the boyish preacher bent over the screened cage and with steady fingers unfastened the top and gently lifted the writhing black form from the box.

Peter whispered hoarsely, ‘God send the Power holds out!’

The snake made no effort to coil, and, as the boy held it in his open palm, with his right hand over and over again he smoothed the reptile’s back. It seemed to me the very church held its breath. ‘Doped,’ said Peter. But I knew better, and I whispered a prayer for this young fanatic who offered his life for the faith of another Man, — ‘if man he can be called,’ — who died two thousand years ago.

After a while the snake began to try to coil, and slowly and gently the steady hands replaced it in the box. And in the deathlike stillness we distinctly heard that penetrating sound, once heard, never forgotten — the sinister rattle that strikes terror to every living creature. The liltle church caught its breath. The gnomelike old man bore the screened box down the aisle and out. I prayed that this Christianized snake would live long in captivity. It might be difficult to convert a fresh rattler.

Now the real service began. The preacher preached and the exhorters exhorted, and presently the aisle was filled with groaning, rolling sinners, men, women, and young girls all in an agonized effort ‘to come through to salvation.’ Those of us who were not hysterically singing followed the rolling sinners up and down the aisle, murmuring words of comfort, preventing them from injuring each other by unconscious and despairing kicks, and smoothing disarranged apparel. Presently a man leaped to his feet and shouted, ‘Glory to God! I’ve come through to salvation!’ Then we all shouted, and sang, ‘I’m Glad Salvation’s Free.’ Now, the ice having been broken, the saved came thick and fast, until there remained but one beautiful young girl, who continued to roll in an agony of unforgiven sin. The woman who sat beside me told me, ‘That gal has wrastled now fur four nights, and she jest kaint come through nohow. She’s the class leader’s gal, too.’ At last the poor girl fell into a kind of trance, and we were compelled to abandon her to her fate for the night.

V

Outside, for a moment, we huddled together in the chill midnight under the pines. But our tormentors had apparently sought other entertainment after the snake exhibit. The class leader invited us home with him, but we preferred the camp of the Philistines nearer the church. So we told him it was out of our way, and that we wanted to push on before daylight. It was true. We liked to rise while it was yet dark, and to swing through mysterious aisles till the sun rose. Then, while the camp fire burned, I would perhaps catch a fish for breakfast from a near-by stream. This morning we walked slowly, silent, with the spell of the night still upon us. In the eerie dark we heard a soft footfall beside us, and the class leader, whose daughter saught salvation so unsuccessfully, spoke gently from the gloom: —

‘I got up airly so’s I could walk a little way with you-all. I wanted to tell you more about our faith.’

We sat on a fallen tree under wet muscadine vines; and I have never been able to think of that morning without emotion. The man’s theology may have been weak, but the man himself was strong. He had lost everything for his faith: his friends, his position, — he had been a forest ranger, — even his kinsmen, and that, to a mountaineer, is exile. Simple, homely words they were, but weighted with a strange power, a passion that in the dark before the dawn filled his eyes with a chatoyant fire that seemed to light his face. At last he said gently, ‘ We are friends of Jesus, not His servants. He don’t trust His servants with secrets. He does trust us. If you-all hain’t found Him, jest call. He’ll answer. He come with me this mornin’, and He’s here now, like He walked with Cleopas and another man on the way to Emmaus.’

We listened in awed silence, but I could not forbear to ask: ‘But your pure, beautiful young daughter? Why is it so hard for her to see Him as her friend?’

He smiled, and I saw his eyes lambent in the dawn — the gentlest eyes I had ever seen.

‘ Hit’s the purest that sees their sins the blackest. Some little thing holds her back that somebody else would n’t notice. But she’ll find Him to-night. I know hit. You see, He walks with me this mornin’.’ And as he turned away to face the rising sun he walked with a light step, for did not a Young Man walk beside him?

‘Come,’ said Peter in the gruff voice which conceals emotion. ‘It’s us for Emmaus and breakfast.’