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Old Scratch in the Valley

ISSUE:  Spring 1932


Long Gourd Valley, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: the Bowl, Polecat Hollow, and the Handle. This division is largely economic and social, for physically the valley takes the general shape which gives it its name and falls more naturally into two parts, the bowl and the stem or, as the valley people say, the Dipper and the Handle.

Long Gourd has been very slow to change its way of doing things; and as late as 1910 the people were living as their people had lived, oblivious of and undisturbed by the rapid increase of scientific invention which everywhere else had begun to cut the tap roots of provincial culture. There were a good many reasons for this inertia: the valley’s comparative isolation, the people’s good sense, and the influence of one of its most powerful families, the Mebanes.

Judith Mebane was the last matriarch to sit on the richest acres in the Dipper and govern the opinion of her dependents and neighbors. After her death in 1908 there was no one to tell the people when to come and when to go—her sons were either killed in shooting scrapes down about Memphis and Natchez or they drank too much at home and got killed there. That is, all except Jack: he fell off a spring wagon and broke his neck. And so the framework of Long Gourd society fell apart from the dry rot of an aggravated materialism, and sons and daughters of high-minded individualists lost the sense of independence which had formerly been cultivated as carefully as the valley’s fields. But the incidents I am recording happened when Judith was in her prime.

It was her habit, after the General’s death, never to leave the farm but once a year. This annual trip was to Cannon-burgh to settle her accounts and buy what supplies she might need for the next twelve months. And the bulk of these supplies was coffee and sugar, two barrels of white, four of brown. This routine was broken but twice to my knowledge, once when Squire Bodine sent his wife away for her temper and stubborn ways, and once after the flood.

Miss Judy was standing in the back hall giving Old Grace directions about closing the smokehouse door when she heard the rumor about the Squire and his wife. Tom Bas-com, the Guinea Nigger, brought the news. Without saying a word she went upstairs, put on her black silk—how it did rustle!—and ordered Helen, the old bay mare, hitched to the buggy. Still without speaking she got in, folded her skirts about her ankles, pulled up the lap robe, and drove out the front gate. Several of us children, white and black, had been playing in the yard. As she turned into the pike, Stick Candy, whom I had picked to play with me—he was twin to a girl, Pink Satin (their parents had had so many children they grew indifferent to names and let the twins choose their own)—Stick Candy said, “D’jou see Helen pick up her years when Old Miss said Git up?”

When she pulled up at the side of the Squire’s office and stepped onto the porch, he was there to hand her through the door. It was well done, for the lintel was low and she was a big woman. She did not linger in the sharp tobacco air of the room, but moved to one side of the hearth and sat down. The Squire took his seat opposite her. She looked squarely at him and said:

“It won’t do, Albert. It won’t do. There is enough to plague us in this world without adding the burden of remorse.” A short pause; then, “Is it true that you and Sally had been drinking before you quarrelled?”

The Squire hesitated. “Well, nothing more than common,” he answered. The Bodines were childless; and as they grew older, to shorten the long winter nights, they found themselves tippling together.

“Then, there’s not but one thing for you to do.”

“Fetch Sally home?”


The Squire looked into the fire—it was early fall—at the sap sizzling from the end of a green stick; then up at the low, dark-smoked ceiling. He was a rich man, and he knew what pleasure this separation was giving his less fortunate neighbors. Then, too, there was no pleasure in tippling alone. But he counted two or three dozen fly-specks before he answered, “I’ll go get her.”

“Then put on your hat. We can bring her home now, in my buggy.”

And so they left, “not passin’ the time o’day nor nothin’,” as Old Cripple Joe, who heard the entire conversation through a cracked window pane, afterwards reported.

That was the way she did things. No argument. No discussion. But the next time she stepped into her buggy the crisis which she drove to face was far more grave. For once she had an antagonist equal to her talents. No less an individual than Old Satan had taken possession of the soul and body of her cousin Micajah Searcy.

She was not the sort of person to neglect her kin, ever; and especially at such a time. She knew where every drop of her blood was, and in her eyes it had magical qualities. It was a great purifier; it absorbed any strain it happened to mix with. One drop of it made you a Mebane or a Searcy just as one drop of an African strain made you a Negro. Rags or finery could neither add nor detract, for to do well in the world was only its due; to do ill was the price one paid for possessing such a precious article. Her son, Jack, once saw her cross the square at Cannonburgh to speak to a distant cousin the rest of the kin passed by on account of his poverty and low-down ways.

“There she goes,” he said, “her tail at a point”—it was in the days of bustles to the rear—; “she’s got Macon An-nett’s scent.”

“That ain’t no hard matter,” one of the Butler boys replied. “I can smell him clean this side the square.”

But Micajah Searcy was close kin—their mothers had been sisters—and so Satan’s victory was almost a personal affront. The feud between Judith Mebane and the Prince of Darkness, as Dr. Price called him, was an old one. It had begun shortly after her marriage to the General, for she was never slow to see her duty with that clear eye of hers. It was not long, therefore, before the Devil was getting mighty lean pickings in Long Gourd Valley, and these were mostly in her immediate family. But as Bud Loranz said to his boy, Abner, “Old Scratch is like the malurial fever. Once you git him in the blood, he’s thar to stay, even if you ain’t al’ays a-burnin’ and a-chillin’.”

But this particular time Old Scratch washed down with the flood.


Suck River rises back in the Cumberlands, picks a jagged course through the plateaus, and falls in sudden drops through the foothills until it reaches the dwindling range that encompasses the Valley. Here it moves along one side of the Dipper; then falls over a sharp cascade into a deep, steady flow on the south side of the Handle. Extending a thousand yards inward from its right bank, a rich river bottom follows the channel to the edge of Long Gourd, where the stream turns abruptly around a knob and flows south to hunt the Cumberland.

Suck River has had a great influence on the Valley. Its deep, narrow channel is navigable, and in the old days steamboats paddled up from the south to take the farmers’ products to New Orleans. Outside the Bowl, its bottom lands are the only rich lands; and a very sturdy body of yeoman farmers, in frontier days, cleared themselves farms averaging a hundred acres apiece. They never grew rich, but they were all well-to-do. A few owned a slave or two, but neither their inclination nor proportions permitted them to become planters. That state was possible only in the Bowl.

Once every three or four years the river overflowed and took the crops in the bottom lands; but this was the extent of its damage, and those farmers who built their houses and grist mills along its course had learned how to meet the quick spring freshets. They became accustomed to periodic losses and reconciled to them, because they more than made up for them in other years. But in 1901, in the late spring, the Lord tried the faith of his children, and Old Scratch busted loose in the Handle.

Micajah saw the trouble coming. He was returning from Cannonburgh with a new five-hundred-dollar barouche he had bought for his wife. When he got home, he had meant to say, “Here it is, Maria. There’s the profits on ten mules in them wheels.” But instead he looked at the clouds. “Better fasten everything tight. I don’t like the looks of things.”

Just before sundown the storm broke. The sky grew dark over the Dipper, and smoke-like clouds hovered above the Handle. Towards the north the sky took on a strange unnatural purple which dissolved into a wind strong enough to blow the hills away. The shacks in Polecat were knocked into kindling wood. Suck River swelled and tumbled and churned through the bottoms, even reaching the pike. By noon next day it began to recede and take its proper channel, but not a dwelling, shack, or mill in the Handle stood on its original foundations.

Micajah Searcy walked in the mud and water up to his shins and looked darkly about him at the ruin of his property. His mill, his dwelling, his stock, his cribs of corn, his stacks of fodder, were all washed away. Only one object remained: the buggy house. It squatted on a sharp rise unmoved by the weather.

Micajah’s eye, as it turned with steady precision over his empty land, settled upon the snake-hinged doors of painted cedar which had protected so well the object of his wife’s vanity. His sullen form took life, and Maria, with terror in her heart, watched the loblolly scatter before the resolute fall of his boots. There was enough defiance, she thought, in the steady swing of those legs to shake the will of Heaven. He mounted the rise and reached for the doors. As he flung them open, the hinges cried like a cat that has been kicked suddenly away from the hearth. For a moment he eyed the dry, shiny newness of the barouche. “Mike, what are you doing?”

There was no answer to her frantic call. A slight wind, the cool, fresh wind that follows a storm, blew the loose strands of her hair over her frozen forehead and folded the gray-checked apron over a marble hip. Micajah, with his powerful hands clamped to the shafts of the barouche, was striding towards the river. The gay tip of the whip swayed gallantly before the bumps in the ground; rays of light played across the bright, new back. Only the four wheels were marred. As they rolled through the mud, their lacquered spokes and white rubber tires ran with the liquid clay.

At the bank of the stream Micajah made a circle and stopped, the back of the barouche to the river. He stooped with a quick-swinging lunge, and the vehicle shot into the water. It hesitated on the edge of the bank; sank slowly beneath the river’s surface; then the swift, muddy current took it. For a moment the gaily-tipped whip sailed along out of the water. A twist and a suck, and it went under.

Micajah did not move until the last evidence of the profit on ten mules had disappeared. His square head, his great shoulders, his six feet four inches, his two hundred and twenty pounds of muscle and bone stacked up, joint by joint and member by member, upon his ankles growing from the mud. He was so still that one might have as readily expected a limestone slab, leaning over the Bowl, to utter the sullen farewell to the barouche, hidden now under the noisy water. His lips did not part more than half an inch to say, “You go, too, damn you!”


For the next week he moved alone about his land. Nobody came to offer sympathy. They had heard about the reception three deacons from his church had gotten. “I hear, Mr. Searcy, that you have lost twenty thousand dollars,” one of them said, by way of opening the conversation. Micajah ended the visit with one short sentence. “Yes,” he said, “and it seems to be giving general satisfaction.”

It was on the following Monday that he made the definite alliance with Satan, although they had been trading around together ever since the flood. He had hired a crew to reset the foundations of his mill, and when a stone mason asked if he thought he was doing wisely to rebuild so near the river, he spoke shortly to the man: “I’m going to build a mill God-a-Mighty can’t tear down.”

By sundown this blasphemy was all over the Valley, and after breakfast next morning Miss Judy was on her way to his farm. She stayed all day and sat up with him that night; but when she drove back home, the spirit of evil was still entrenched in the Handle.

But she did not leave resigned to her defeat. She was a mighty shifty woman, and many times had turned what others considered hopeless disaster into victory. Her parting words to her cousin were significant. “Micajah,” she said, “you may forget your good sense and play the fool, but I’m not going to let my mother’s sister’s child go to the devil.”

She was not slow about finding a plan to balk him. She invited the wives of all his workmen to dinner. After they had eaten hearty of the best meal any of them had had in a long time, she gathered them in the parlor and made it plain that anybody who worked for Micajah was working for the devil. Next morning no hand showed up at the mill.

Micajah scratched around and got another crew. Miss Judy parried by calling the preachers in for wine and cake. They locked themselves in the parlor, and next Sunday there never was such doings in the pulpits. They stomped about and painted Hell as it had never been painted before. Bud Loranz said Brother Jones stirred so much brimstone it gave everybody the sneezes. After this Micajah combed the valley and the country round about, but he couldn’t find enough men to make even half a crew. This stumped him for a week, but he was dead set on throwing himself away. He went to the capital and hired some prison labor.

They read him out of church, but he kept at it until he had raised the mill five feet higher than the river had ever been known to rise. All the neighbors said Old Scratch had got him, that there wa’n’t no hope for him now. There hadn’t been so much excitement in the Valley since the war, and people groaned and said the Lord would strike him with a thunderbolt.

The last shingle was laid on a Saturday. Next morning, to show his Cousin Judy what he thought of her, Micajah went down to grind the first bushel of meal. He stepped inside with his sack of corn and fell dead in his tracks. The doctor said it was brain fever, brought on by excitement; but he didn’t fool anybody. They all knew the Lord had done it. Brother Jones was in a weaving way when Brother Ar-nett slipped up to the pulpit and whispered in a hoarse voice, “Micajah Searcy was struck dead on the floor of his mill two hours ago.” Church almost broke, but Brother Jones got his congregation in hand. He didn’t mean to miss any such chance as this. He threw out twelve life-lines that Sunday morning, and seventeen sinners grabbed hold of the last one and were pulled onto the shore of salvation just in time. Demijohn Tenpenny stomped his foot on the rock, shuck off the water, and hollowed, “I’m safe! I’m safe!”

The people in the Handle who were friendly said, “Well, it’s too bad, but Miss Judy never done no good that time.” Others less friendly nodded their heads and ‘lowed she had meddled once too often. “Sent the pore man straight to Hell,” they said. “If she had ‘a’ left him alone, he’d ‘a’ seen his mistake. She might ‘a’ knowed her aunt’s child wouldn’t let her out-contrary him. Twa’n’t nothin’ but that Searcy stubbornness sent him to Hell. I never seen sich folks. ‘Y God, they think they kin tell God-a-Mighty what to do.”

Judith Mebane did not answer when she heard what had happened. She moved about the house with a curious abstract puff above her right eye. We could all see that she did not admit defeat even now. “She looks like she’s still got a trick up her sleeve,” said Jack; “but Lord, she can’t travel after him.”

But in spite of her authority and arguments she was unable to find a preacher who would say the last words over the grave. Micajah had been churched, they all said. He would have to be interred without the benefit of the clergy. It was plain to all that there was no chance for his soul now; it was plain, that is, to all except Miss Judith. She called a family conference and told the kin that they must show a solid front at the funeral. They all agreed but wondered what good it would do.

At the burying ground the connection stood on each side of the open grave. The coffin was lowered. Then there was a moment of uncertain shifting of feet. All at once the men took a firm hold on their shovels.

“Wait!” came a voice.

Nobody had to ask whose voice it was. Miss Judy stood up beside Maria, walked calmly towards the open grave, and stopped. Her little widow’s bonnet sat squarely on her head; her black silk fell stiffly to the ground; but there was battle in her eye. She raised a small prayer-book and opened it to the burial service. Not an eye moved while the last rites for the dead came out softly, steadily, and reverently. Her bones cracked once and her silk rustled as she leaned over to pick up three chunks of red clay. And then she prayed. Fifteen long minutes she prayed, but not a soul shifted his feet, or coughed, or scratched.

Jack had hit the bottle pretty steady before the funeral: to nerve him, he said, while he was carrying such a sinner to his last resting place, if it could be called a resting place; but in spite of this, he said that before she got up to pray he thought the fire from Old Satan’s nostrils would burn him up. But as soon as ma commenced to pray, the air freshened up considerable. The first five minutes, and the devil stopped wagging his tail; the next five and he dropped it beneath his legs like a yaller cur; and by the time she was done you could hear him thrashing his way back to the infernal regions. Jack said he heard him as plain as you could hear him breathe.

After it was over everybody gathered around her, not so close as to show lack of respect but close enough to claim kin. It was nothing less than a miracle, they told her, how she had snatched him from the brink of Hell, for if the Lord never heard that prayer, he never heard any. She listened to what they all had to say, and smiled, and answered soft, and invited everybody home to dinner. And she got in the buggy with the air of a thing well done and drove off home.

Nobody ever crossed her or doubted her word after the funeral. Her fame spread far from the Valley, and strangers from the other end of the State came to see her. People more than ever revolved about her. She sent her sons, her servants, or her close kin about on business, but that was the last time she herself ever left her land. And from then on until her death Long Gourd grew prosperous.

Several weeks after everybody else had stopped talking about what a head she had for a woman Bud Loranz said to his boy, “I’m a great mind, son, to take them wheels off’n that buggy of hearn.” “What fur, pap?” “Why, she might take a notion to come after me. You cain’t never tell. Now who’d ever ‘a’ thought a woman’d set out after and whup the devil?”


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