One Saturday, while staying with Burl, I decided to mosey on down to Harts Creek, also located in Lincoln County, to take some pictures. I was into photography then and I felt I should capture, on camera, the beauty wherever I happened to be at the time. It seemed like the next creek or hill over from wherever I found myself always appeared more beautiful. Life is funny like that, isn’t it?
Burl had gone over to the sawmill, out on the main Route 10 to Logan, WV, to “chaw the fat” with some fellers and mostly discuss squirrel huntin’ and such, and pass the time. So, I left his home on Dry Branch and headed over to Little Harts Creek. Now, here is something I bet you don’t know. Little Harts Creek is bigger than Big Harts Creek, but how the names got switched no one really knows. But they did and that’s that about that.
Living near the mouth of Little Harts Creek, in a small but beautiful “holler,” surrounded by fences and fields, was a woman who, I reckoned must have had a huge family, because she always had a passel of washing hung on her line. I reasoned that she must have a lot of kids too, cause she had so many smaller quilts hangin’ out to dry. The patters made quite a pretty picture so I took some of those too.
Anyway, near her house was a great view of the creek and I thought that is would make a good “artsy” shot so I stopped my car unloaded my camera equipment and took some pretty good pictures of those fences and fields, and a right smart number of them too. Well, as I was about my “artsy” doins’, she came out and put more quilts on the line and took some of the first ones off. I reckoned that I had guessed about right – she had lots of kids, even though I didn’t see any playing in her yard. I took all the pictures I could justify and thought to myself that if it was pretty here, it would be prettier on the top of the mountains surrounding Little Harts.
I turned onto the holler road and thought I’d drive up to the end, and climb the mountain and get some scenic panorama shots. I don’t know how many miles I drove but it was a fair piece and, at a slow pace, it made a great relaxing morning. On the way to my unknown destination, a few old pickup trucks passed me and I waived but they didn’t wave back. That was very strange for that part of the country becauase everyone was so friendly on Dry Branch, and other places I had been in Lincoln County, and it seemed odd to me that they weren’t that friendly up here on Harts.
Always trying to make something good out of whatever existed, I figured it was the narrow road and they were concentrating on keeping out of the ditches and the mud holes. After a long time driving, the road got really rough and I discovered I had somehow steered myself onto an old logging or wagon road. It was getting rougher by the quarter mile and I couldn’t proceed further in my Plymouth Valiant, without tearing up the undercarriage. It was then that I decided to walk to the top of the mountain and get my panoramic view of the countryside.
The mountains in Lincoln County are on a steep incline, so I paced myself and looked at the scenery along the way. I also took the path of least resistance which turned out to be a small clear trickling creek coming from the top somewhere. But, I was also in a little bit of a hurry to get back because, that morning, Burl’s wife said that we were going to have biscuits and squirrel gravy for lunch and canned beans from the garden. Burl had said he was going to bring home a “mess” of squirrels that morning and that she would prepare them, because she knew how much I liked her squirrel gravy and biscuits. While I am always motivated to ramble about, I am more motivated by the promise of squirrel gravy and biscuits. Sorry, don’t get me started on the pleasures of squirrel gravy and biscuits.
Anyway, suppose I was about 100 yards from the top of the mountain when there came a whizzz – bang – phewwww and shards of bark came flying out from nearby oak tree that was now pretty busted open on one side, about fifteen feet from my head. I wasn’t hit by the bullet or the shards from the splitting oak tree but I sure I ducked for cover, dropped to my belly on the ground, lickety split and with my ears still ringing from the noise of the rifle shot, I took a quick reckoning of my living or dead status.
Have you ever been in a tight spot and your mind runs a thousand miles an hour thinking all sorts of things that are jumbled up together. Well sir, me too. My thoughts were something like: I’m not dead. I’m too young to die. It isn’t deer season yet” and such like that. When I knew I wasn’t dead I rekoned that if whoever fired the shot wanted me dead, I would have been. I was taking bodily inventory when from a voice bellowed down from the top of the hill,
“Who Ere Ye”? ”
Well, my first instinct was to run. I mean, wouldn’t you want to skedaddle out of there too? Then that same voice came booming down the mountain;
Who Ere Ye?
I called out my name and there was a little silence, not too long mind you, but it was long enough to start my mind racing again. So, I called out my name again and the “voice” said, “I don’t know you! What ere’ you doin’ here”? Well, he was talking which meant he wasn’t shooting so that was probably a good sign; I hoped.
I told him that I was staying with Burl Farley on Dry Branch Road. Again, silence. The wind was drifting a little in my direction and I could hear several voices and murmurs from up on the ridge top. My imagination created an instant ridge top court room in which I was on trial and the jury was deciding my fate. My hope was for an innocent, not guilty verdict. Guilty would have brought severe to deadly consequences. But, my rational side said I was only going to get roughed up some. Doubt and uncertainty are two powerful forces that can work on you, in a tight spot.
The “voice” called down and this time the message was powerful clear. In all my life, before or since, I have never heard such clear directions.
Go straight down the creek you come up.
Get in your car and go to Burl’s house.
Bring Burl back here to where your car is now parked.
If you don’t, you won’t ever leave Lincoln County.
Did you ever have a time in your life when you really believed what you heard? Well, by God, this was one of those revelatory moments. My mission in life was clear. Get down that hill, turn my car around and light out of the county. As I did so, I could hear the footsteps behind me coming down the ridge. There were at least three of them trailing me all the way to my car but always remaining just out of my site. Knowing the mountain people like I do, and having hunted many times with them for deer, bear, squirrel and possom, I am sure I was not out of theirs.
When I got to my car I opened the door and the “voice” called out from behind the bushes in the dark undergrowth of the forest and the words were like cold steel;
“Don’t forget what I told you.”
All the way back down Harts Creek I debated. I could always call Burl up later, after I got home, and tell him that I had to go home and I’d be back sometime to pick up my things. On the other hand, that “voice” kept repeating in my head, “don’t forget what I told you.”
I’d always been raised to do what I was told. Well, you tell me. Is a man with a rifle who could have killed you, but didn’t, and who gave you instructions about your continued existence on this earth to be obeyed or not? I may be country, but I’m not dumb. So, I decided to do what I had been told and made straight for Dry Branch Road a lot faster than those curvy counts roads will allow and do what I’d been told. As it turned out, that was a life saving decision.
As luck would have it, Burl had left the sawmill on Rt 10, gone hunting and had arrived back with a mess of squirrels for lunch. I had been detained a little while so I arrived a little after he did. Burl loved squirrel gravy on those biscuits as much as I did. He and his wife were sitting down to eat. I practically ran into his house, white as a sheet and I blurted out what had happened. I didn’t even see those biscuits or smell that large bowl of squirrel gravy.
When I had finished telling Burl what happened, the astonished look on his face remains with me to this day. It was then that I smelled and eyed those biscuits and he saw me do so. He quickly stood up and he to his wife, “I’m sorry darlin’ to have to go but we’ll be back, don’t wait for us, go about your business.” He grabbed me by my arm and wheeled me out of the front door and down the steps. We got into his old pickup truck and headed back to Harts Creek. What he did and what came out of his mouth next made me a true believer in my instincts.
As we began our journey back to Little Hart’s he said in a somber voice, “boy, you are lucky to be alive. You jumped the largest still in Lincoln County. It’s a pure wonder you ain’t dead.” He was the most serious I’d ever seen him. That was a long silent few miles until we turned off at the mouth of Little Harts Creek. In fact, that was the second longest drive of my life.
When we passed the lady’s house at the head of the holler he said, “Looks like the revenuers are around today.” I asked him how’d you know? He said, “cause Mrs. (Smith – no names please) has her quilts hung on the line in that pattern. The beautiful quilts were just as they were when I had packed up from my photo shoot.
It then struck me what had happened. My artsy photo shoot of the creek and the area surrounding had been mistaken for taking pictures of the area for reconnaissance purposes, just like the ATF would do. Burl went on to say that those “unfriendly” fellers in those trucks that had passed me were on the way to the still location to warn the still operators that the Feds were coming. Talk about feeling stupid, I felt dumber that moment than any time before in my life. Not quite, however. When we got to the area where my car had been parked, Burl said something that made me feel even dumber.
“You see that creek there”, he said, “It’s filled with bear traps all the way to the top. You are lucky you didn’t step in one and have your leg cut in two. You’d of bled to death afore’ you could get help” They’re there to slow down the “revenuers” who would, from time to time, try to bust up the stills in the county.
What happened next was right out of a movie.
Burl got out of the truck and said, “sit here, and don’t move. I stared straight ahead but I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he moved to my side of the truck. He rolled a cigarette and just and stood there quiet as a mouse. About four minutes went by and nothing. You could hear the creek and a little wind in the trees and some crickets and that was it.
Then, a voice called out to Burl. “Haven’t seen you in a month of Sunday’s. How ya been?” A tall slim man with a rifle emerged from the woods and moved towards Burl and shook Burl’s hand. All the while, his eyes were steady on me sitting in Burl’s truck. He then turned his head and looked at Burl and said, “I didn’t take him for havin’ any sense, but I see he’s got some. Burl later told me that the still crew had gone over some loggin’ roads and were waiting to see which way I headed when I left the holler. If I had turned towards Huntington, there would have been a car accident reported in the newspaper reporting the injury or death of a young college student who made a bad turn on unfamiliar roads. However, I had turned towards Dry Branch, so it was then that they knew I was following their instructions. Scary, isn’t it?
Burl brought the man to the truck and introduced me to (names not mentioned, thank you very much, so we’ll call him “John) my almost judge and executioner. I was motioned to get out of the truck and I went over to where John and Burl were standing. Burl introduced me and John stuck out his hand. At that same moment, Burl said, “John, this is Fred Coon, a friend whose stayin’ with me, a good feller, and won’t won’t do anyone any harm, my word on it.”
You see, in West Virginia, when a man says, “my word on it,’ it means something. Reputations are hard come by, especially in the mountains. A man’s reputation means everything and that trait has been passed down for generations. Feuds have been stated because someone broke their word.
The man was speaking to Burl but looking straight at me when he said, “Burl your words good for me.” I reached out, nervously smiled, and shook his hand. We all stood there smoking and talking about the upcoming squirrel season. Burl told him I was a music collector and wanted to meet people and that I could “knock a banjer pretty good.” That was when the near tragedy turned into a wonderful memory. John then said, “Come on up to our place and let’s play some.”
Burl and I got into the truck and followed John around Harts and up the mountain we finally turned into his place. As we parked the car, John’s two sons came out the door and were staring straight at me. I recognized the “look” from a little while before; it is genetic I guess. But, when they saw Burl and their daddy motioning them to come off the porch, I was introduced to them in exactly the same way I had been introduced to John. The were polite, at first, but not exactly welcoming until John said that I was a “banjer picker” and was lookin’ for some folks to play with and learn some songs from. They nodded their heads and I thought I saw a smile forming. John said that Dave played guitar and Bill the fiddle. As it also turned out, John played harmonica. Sounded like a great old timey string band to me.
I could go on but, suffice it to say, we played our Harts out (pardon the pun) straight through till midnight. Then, Burl and I hauled ourselves into his truck and started back towards Dry Branch. As I reflect back on the warm goodbyes and a last swig from the Mason jar, I couldn’t help but remember that the ride back that night in Burl’s old pickup, back to Dry Branch and the warmth of his coal-burning fireplace, to some warmed up squirrel gravy and biscuits, seemed a whole lot shorter than the same drive I’d made earlier that morning. That lunch that I didn’t have, that was so simply laid out on Burl’s table, was also the only time in my life I ever left a table filled with biscuits and squirrel gravy without thinking one thing about it.