Impelled by a curiosity wholly sympathetic, I have made a few trips to the place which its hundred or more inhabitants call Piney Ridge. It is a scattered community, unincorporated and without a post-office. In the region of John Fox’s mythical Lonesome Pine, the community is isolated but not arcadian, for it is usually in a state of ferment.
Piney Ridge rises above the mining town of Coal Creek, the nearest post-office and railway station. On the other side a limitless forest drops away to Kentucky. Through a cleft in the cliff-line above Coal Creek the men descend of mornings to the mines. They go back into the earth until they are just a few hundred feet below their homes on Piney Ridge. In the late afternoons they come out, squinting their eyes in the light of day, and climb back to the hilltop. They wash their blackened bodies white and make love to their women.
But not all the men work underground. Nor do they labor in the soil, so long as corn meal can be had at the commissary. There is furtive employment in the timbers. Making “an honest living” is so difficult, what with poor, stubborn land and part-time operation of the mines, that those least successful are excused because “they do the best they can.” It is no doubt the most underprivileged section of all Virginia.
If the dwellers on Piney Ridge are Anglo-Saxon, few if any of them know it, and it doesn’t matter. Few of them know that they have family trees. The world began with their grandparents. With few exceptions they are as unfamiliar with their own history as they are with life beyond the Kentucky or Tennessee line. With no future, what use to them would be a past?
Probably three or four of them know that their ancestors were a mixed lot: pre-Revolutionary settlers of good blood who were marooned from progressive regions, fugitives from the law in eastern communities, and slackers who evaded service in the War Between the States and found sanctuary in this secluded highland corner wedged between the North and South. But, remote as Piney Ridge is, it knows there was a war with the Germans, for the nearest draft board yanked out of the community a dozen of its young men and failed to return several of them. Owing the world nothing, Piney Ridge is at a loss to understand why this sacrifice was necessary.
And the perplexed inhabitants have learned that there is, besides a county treasurer’s office, a county jail-house. But, for the most part, they have lived remote from the world, marrying and intermarrying when wedlock was necessary, some of them drinking incredible corn liquor, some shooting their way home from blind-tiger or church, and most of them letting their children grow up with equal opportunities with the domestic animals.
When not occupied with work or their women, the men divert themselves with guns, whisky, and second-hand automobiles which they drive to the Ridge by way of a roundabout road. They spend their evenings at the Red Onion, a shack that is drab outside but cheerful enough inside. Red Mammy, the proprietress, bootlegs a horrendous brew known as “Who Shot John?” Red Mammy, old, cynical, crafty, rakes in all the money the miners draw in their ma-nila pay-envelopes. Then she accepts their revolvers.
“Give me a gallon, Red Mammy, and hold my pistol till pay day.” This she hears about half way between pay days. They always redeem their guns and start over again.
The roundabout road snakes its way to Piney Ridge through Duchess Flats, a sequestered woodland mattressed with leaves and pine needles. This vale of scarlet sin gets frequent mention in the prayers of Preacher Henry Snod-grass, the convulsive New Light exhorter, who is also a justice of the peace.
“O God, set that place on lire,” he prays, “and burn the leaves off the trees, so our boys and girls can’t sin in there.”
Cars are parked in Duchess Flats at all hours. Now and then a girl walks home from there a virgin, but most of the girls have accepted the automobile.
“If we don’t wipe out that hell-hole,” thunders Preacher Henry, “God’ll destroy Piney Ridge itself!” As magistrate he has issued warrants for the arrest of offenders, and Deputy Sheriff Harve Mullins has haled many of them before the squire. After fining them he would remit their jail sentences on condition that they go to his church and sin no more.
But Preacher Henry says nothing against Red Mammy, who, when properly primed, is one of the shoutingest women in the New Light Baptist Church. He has never been able to “find the goods on her,” and every time she takes an active part in the church services he forgives her anew.
Among the good shouters are Lettie and her daughter Sadie, seventeen years old. Sadie is more graceful than her mother. There is plenty of the coquette in the girl, lots of twist and wiggle.
Wert Osborne got interested in Sadie, his slow eye following her shapely calves. Her mouth, her tongue, tantalized him. Her eyes were full of caution even when she beamed upon him. He didn’t care anything about who her father was, or her legal status. He was a regular caller at the home. He might marry her.
But Lettie, not being impedimented with virginity, beat her daughter Sadie’s time. It took Sadie by surprise. And Wert, anything but resourceful, up and married Lettie. He tries now to be a daddy to Sadie, but when his efforts are not sheepish they are spiteful.
Sadie has a girl friend, Pansy Kilgore, also a good shouter, who goes down to Coal Creek to work in the homes of officials. Pansy spends most of her meager earnings for clothes. When she climbs up to Piney Ridge she shows off. She visits all the families within two miles and goes to the New Light meetings. Her red dresses arc the talk of the Ridge. But they know she works for them; she doesn’t belong to the Duchess Flats set.
Tall, beautiful, intelligent if illiterate, with the keen brown eye of the mountaineer, Pansy is the proudest “dame” on Piney Ridge. And she has loose change in her vanity case. Apparently by accident, she spills her money on the floor and watches Lettie, Sadie, Wert, Polecat Baker, and the others present, scramble to pick the coin up for her. She’s that important.
But Pansy and Sadie have not been together much since Pansy went to work away from Piney Ridge.
Sadie, having lost Wert to her mother, took up with Polecat Baker, who boasts of his many incarcerations in the county jail. Polecat doesn’t give a damn. He drinks. He swears. He spits. At the holy hour of midnight he shoots a tune as he climbs the hill. It is his way of resenting the misfitness of things. He never gets too serious with the girls —no matrimony for him. He refuses to go with a girl who walks home after he has taken the trouble to hire a car for a ride with her to the Flats. Of late Sadie had gone with him a few times.
At Wert Osborne’s house one Sunday, when Pansy was visiting on the Ridge, several were present, including Sadie, Preacher Henry, Fess Honeycutt, his wife Mollie, and Old Man Thornsberry—the latter referred to in his younger days as the village stud.
Pansy sat over against a dark wall, etched there like a picture. She crossed her silken knees and fondled her vanity case. Sadie sat near the phonograph, the newest and best piece of furniture in the house. Wert sat near a hot blast, punching the fire and spitting tobacco juice into it.
Wert is something of a pessimist, and plain spoken. Looking around to Sadie, the girl he had intended to marry, Wert said, not without a little spite:
“I’ll bet that thar talkin’ machine, the best thing I got in the house, against anybody here’s nickel that Sadie, thar, has been puttin’ out to Polecat.”
Sadie gasped, shifted in her chair, and said: “Well, did you ever!”
“I bet against anybody’s nickel here that she’s been,” Wert persisted, with a confident grin.
Sadie waited for some one to venture a bet in her behalf. Silence followed. Wert chewed with a grin of satisfaction. “Anybody want to bet a nickel on it?”
All looked around to Pansy, Sadie’s friend. Pansy had money; she always carried small change. Would she bet a nickel on her friend?
Pansy reddened. She shifted her legs, nervously fumbled her vanity, but said nothing. Then Sadie, red as a Piney Ridge beet by now, turned questioning eyes to Pansy. Pansy lowered hers, biting her lip.
“Pansy!” appealed Sadie.
But Pansy remained silent, her eyes on her lap. Wert grinned.
“Pansy,” he said, chuckling devilishly, “it ‘pears to be up to you.”
“Gawd, I ain’t goin’ to risk losin’ my nickel,” she blurted out, with an apologetic giggle. And Wert laughed triumphantly.
Old Man Thornsberry, the man of many women in bygone days, emitted a suppressed laugh and, with a soft eye to the embarrassed Sadie, changed the subject of conversation.
“Brother Snodgrass,” he said to Preacher Henry, “how’d you ever come to take up exhortin’?”
“Well, Brother Thornsberry, I heard the call. You see, several years ago, when I lived down on the back side of the mountain, my house and all my worldly goods got burnt up one night.
“There I was, everything gone. My clothes, my wife’s clothes, the children’s too, all burnt up. Why, I was ruint, Brother Thornsberry.
“So, while I was standing there on the hillside watchin’ the house fall in, I said to myself: I will go and preach the gospel.’ And I have to this day, with the help of magis-terin’.”
The neighbors heard that Fess Honeycutt was not providing for his wife Mollie. He himself was willing to eat less if he could work less. But Mollie, who expended more energy about the house than he did, required more sustenance. Finally her parents told her to quit Fess and come home.
Mollie left Fess in the little board shack, trudged in her bare feet across the open field between the two homes, and put up with her father and mother.
She ate plenty the first day. For days thereafter she made up for what she had failed to get at Fess’ table.
Fess stayed at home most of the time. He made out on hard-tack, maybe. Exactly how he sustained himself, the neighbors were unable to determine.
Mollie got fat and plump, her hair glossy. Her parents and the neighbors told her how sensible she had been to leave Fess. “He’s too lazy to keep up himself, much less a woman,” they would say. “We’re glad you ain’t goin’ back to him.”
Mollie now and then had occasion to look over toward Fess’ shack. The board door was closed, but a wooden window was open. Fess would be looking out, like a horse in a stable. She would turn quickly and give a hand to the housework.
Every time she chanced to look over that way, she saw Fess at the window. But he did not seem blue, or starved. Rather he seemed patient, almost content. He chewed slowly.
Her parents accused her of wanting to go back. “You’ll starve if you do,” they warned her. “You was thin as a rail when you come away from him and now you are plump as a partridge. Better quit lookin’ over that way.” And her mother bought Mollie a pair of shoes.
One day Mollie missed Fess from the window. She waited for several minutes, watching. She hoped he would look out. And, slowlike, he did.
Then she raised her hand, hesitant, tentative in her uncertainty. He chewed faster. She imagined he was interested, perhaps a little excited.
He raised his hand and beckoned indistinctly.
Mollie disappeared from her window, grabbed her belongings, bolted out of her parents’ home, and hurried across the field. She had had all the food and comfort she wanted.
When she had timidly opened the board door and entered, closing it behind her, Fess turned away from the square, black aperture which was his window. The women of the community thought it scandalous.
Mollie grew thin again. She worked hard for neighbors and thus kept bread in the shack. But she had learned that woman does not live by bread alone. The men of the community were glad that she and Fess had got back together.
While the dwellers on Piney Ridge have plenty of old cars, guns, and fruit jars, they have few clocks.
The men depend on their wives to “roll out” in time to build the morning fires, cook breakfast, pack their lunches, and pat them off to “the public works” and the mines. Most of them must be at work on time or lose their jobs, but those working “yardage” in the mines have more freedom.
One night the voice of a woman was carried by the wind across the Ridge. Wert’s wife Lettie wondered if some one were in distress. She rolled out of her warm bed and traipsed to the door, leaving Wert sitting upright in alarm. From an adjoining room Sadie inquired, “What is it, Mammy?”
“Don’t know yet. Goin’ to see.”
Lettie dragged the door open sufficiently to stick her head out. The wind was blowing hard and cold. The sky was dark.
She saw a light in Fess Honeycutt’s door, half a mile away. Lights began to come on in other houses here and there for a mile down the ridge. Dogs barked all around.
“Whatche want?” answered Lettie, raising her voice against the wind.
The woman’s voice, that of Mollie Honeycutt, came back across the ridge: “Lettie, what time is it?”
“Wait, I’ll see,” said Lettie, turning back into the room. Their alarm clock lay face down on the dresser; it wouldn’t run upright.
“Gawd, what’s the matter with Mollie,” grumbled Lettie, looking at the clock by a lighted match. Returning to the door, she called out to Mollie: “It’s just two-thirty—what’s the matter with ye?”
“Nothin’. Just wanted to be sure to get Fess up in time for public works. Sorry I bothered ye.”
Wert flopped back in bed. “That’s a hell of a note—and Fess goin’ to work!”
Before their recent acquisition of a one-wire telephone line, it was nothing for the Piney Ridge residents to yell from house to house in the wee hours to find out “what time ‘tis.” But the instance of Mollie getting up at two-thirty to get Fess off to his first job on public works is historic. And whenever the community is aroused at an ungodly hour, by a wife inquiring the time, everybody grumbles tolerantly: “Mollie must have got Fess another job.”
Old Man Thornsberry sits on his porch and reflects while smoking a cob pipe. He likes to reflect over his seventy years. Yes, he used to be a heller for women. He has put a lot of limbs in the family trees of the Piney Ridgers. “The village stud!” he chuckles, taking his pipe from his toothless mouth to spit at the gate. “It’s a sight o’ no ‘count husbands I’ve helped out here without them a-knowin’ about it. But they say now I’m too old to mean anything to a woman. By Gawd, I’ll surprise ‘em!”
There he sits, on his porch, all shaved up and a new collar on. And that hot red tie! There is an expectant look in his eye as a car rattles up the road past Duchess Flats. Old Man Thornsberry, they say, hasn’t much mind any more. Senile and imbecilic? Well, he’d show them something!
He had answered a matrimonial advertisement. Yes, a city-bred woman, a lady of culture, had advertised for a man, one comfortably fixed, who would like to marry.
In answering the advertisement, Old Man Thornsberry had said that he had some money saved up, a brick house, a farm, and an automobile. Letters were exchanged for a time and an agreement was reached. She would come to him.
Sitting there on his porch, he hears a car coining up the crooked road past Duchess Flats. He takes his pipe out and looks eagerly. There it comes, a taxi from the Coal Creek station. A woman, a city-bred female, coming hundreds of miles to him, by Gawd!
The car drives up in front of the house and stops. From the back seat a middle-aged, severe-faced woman peers out.
“Where may I find Mr. Arnold Thornsberry?” she inquires, disappointment in her voice.
“By Gawd, I reckon you’re lookin’ at ‘im.”
“You Arnold Thornsberry!”
“By Gawd, I ain’t nobody else.”
She regards him with mounting anger — his toothless mouth, his dilapidated house with its brick chimney leaning away from the wall and two poorly built brick columns supporting a sagging porch roof, and the forsaken appearance of the premises.
“I thought you had a brick house!”
“It’s part brick, by Gawd,” he replies, simply, puffing.
“And your automobile—where’s it?”
“By Gawd, I can git one on the ‘stalment plan, like the rest of ‘em ‘round here.”
“So you are the well-to-do Piney Ridge citizen who wants to marry!” she sneers, pink with scorn. Blinking, she quickly surveys the locality again, as if to make sure she has not been dreaming a bad dream.
Turning to the driver, she orders: “Take me back to the station. This is an outrage.”
The old man removes his pipe. “Let ‘er go, gawddammer, she’ll come back some day.”
But the lady has never returned. Her visit to Piney Ridge was an event. The inhabitants had never glimpsed a city-bred lady before. And they seem glad she has not come back. “Old Man Thornsberry couldn’ta held ‘er, no way,” they always add.
Life on Piney Ridge has been made more tolerable by the party-line telephone wire stretched through the strung-out community.
Twenty families pooled their resources, bought as many telephones, and hooked them all up to the same wire. Red Mammy has stood out against the innovation, however; she doesn’t want the wives of Piney Ridge calling her about their husbands.
The owners of the telephones were hard put to it for signals. They devised such rings as these: a long and a short; a short and a long; two longs and a short; two shorts and a long; two longs (the doctor’s office at Coal Creek); a short, two longs, and a short; a long, two shorts, and a long; and about thirteen similar variations.
When the telephone rings, every one of the twenty receivers rattles down as fast as some one can get to the ‘phone. Most of the receivers are caked with dough—evidence that the wives have neglected their biscuits for a bit of gossip.
It is often difficult to get a message through, what with all the babies in twenty families bawling at one time and roosters and dogs raising a racket all over the Ridge. When a message is finally got through, receivers go up, clicking one after another, until the line is silent.
But not all the receivers go up. Somewhere on the line Polecat Baker will say, “Sadie, you still there?” And from somewhere else on the line will come the reply, “Yes, I’m still here; air you?”
Courting couples hold the line, talking sweetly but idiotically, until some one else wants the wire, and then they just listen.
A call in the late hours of night always brings down every receiver on Piney Ridge. It usually means a call for the doctor at Coal Creek. It is their quickest way of getting bad news.
When the call is finished, neighbors along the line begin talking about the matter and hang up one at a time until all are back in bed.
A unique use of the party line on Piney Ridge is for community singing. All will take down their receivers on Sunday night, if it is too inclement for church, and join in singing “Dry Bones in the Valley” or “The Hearse Keeps Rolling Somebody to the Graveyard.”
No singer can hear any one else while he or she is singing, but that doesn’t matter. And maybe Wert Osborne contributes to the medley by playing “The Old Rugged Cross” on his phonograph.
At first the line was regarded with superstitious awe, and Preacher Henry thought the bells should be muffled on Sunday. But today Preacher Henry sings over the line with the rest, and now and then his “unknown tongue” precipitates shouting in several homes at one time. An emotional sister, listening to his clairvoyant sing-song as long as she can, drops her receiver and cuts loose with a transcendent shout in her own home.
This little party line, unconnected with any outside system, is the most miraculous thing known as yet to Piney Ridge. True, its inhabitants have heard of the radio, but as yet they have no radios on the Ridge. Occasionally some of the boys and girls attend “radio parties” down at Coal Creek.
Mollie and Fess Honeycutt had had a baby, but it lived only a few months. All were very sorry for the two, as Fess had perked up and taken an interest in his place. He had got a family started.
Preacher Henry was holding the funeral service in the little house. Outside the open door a crowd had gathered to hear the preacher’s voice. He was in the middle of a deep-lunged prayer.
Some one was causing a disturbance among some car drivers at their cars a little distance from the house. It was Polecat Baker. He was “loaded to the gills” with moonshine. With a long-barreled pistol he was undertaking to direct traffic. “Move that car over. . . . Back up there! . . . Whose car’s zat? Get it out of the road.”
Some one, a stranger, walked up to Polecat and said, “See here, who are you anyway?”
Polecat, tottering, eyed him intently. “Me? Ye want to know who I am? Well, I’m the Speed Limit, that’s who I am.”
With that, Polecat sauntered to the Honeycutt house. Hearing the prayer, he paused. Then, a grin dispelling a puzzled look, he pushed through the door. “What’s zis? A radio party? Done bought a radio, have ye, Fess?” And he hushed as his eye fell upon a little white casket on a table.
Preacher Snodgrass broke off his prayer and regarded the disturber. Taking a pencil from a vest pocket and a sheaf of paper from a notebook, Preacher Henry became Magistrate Henry and wrote out a warrant. “Sheriff Mullins, take this and arrest him!”
Deputy Sheriff Mullins took the warrant and, turning to Polecat, announced: “Polecat, you are under arrest.”
“Now,” said Magistrate Snodgrass, “we’ll try this offender in God’s sight for being drunk and disorderly and disturbing a service. I find you guilty and your fine is fifty dollars and your sentence sixty days in the county jail-house. Brother Mullins, take him.”
Deputy Mullins laid an emphatic hand on Polecat, said quietly, “Come on,” and ushered him out. The onlookers turned their eyes back to the preacher and the little white casket on the table.
“Now, O Lord,” said Preacher Snodgrass, “we will resume this service.”
Piney Ridge has lately suffered a peculiar embarrassment in the eyes of the outside world. The New Light Baptist Church, housed in the tabernacle built on credit, found itself unable to pay the lumber and supply dealer for the materials used. The dealer, Watt Boley, is perhaps the most notorious atheist in the county. Not in a blatant way. The church people themselves are responsible for his notoriety. He merely gives frank answers to their questions and his frankness starts a commotion that reaches to Piney Ridge. The repercussions often take the form of a boycott and the manufacture of tales about his morals.
After much earnest praying, the New Lights had to give up. Boley caused the church to be sold at auction and bid it in for the debt.
Not caring to tear down and remove the property, Boley advertised it for sale in a county weekly, as follows:
FOR SALE—One New Light Baptist Church, good as new for all practical purposes. Located on Piney Ridge. A bargain for cash.—Watt Boley.
Naturally this advertisement by an atheist stirred the people of Piney Ridge. They mustered every resource and sought to buy their church back. They obtained a donation from a coal company, a tidy sum from Red Mammy, and miscellaneous contributions around the courthouse. They were able to pay the exacting atheist the original debt, plus interest and all costs.
The church people of Piney Ridge may always hate Boley. Preacher Henry has no use for him. But Red Mammy and others are more tolerant and forgiving, although they stiffen their religion with astuteness. Boley, also owning a hardware store, delivers lots of sheet copper, fruit jars, and corks to Piney Ridge. He hears that the high sheriff occasionally hacks some of the sheet copper to pieces, but this only means that there will be more sheet copper bought.
In which respects, as in most others, Piney Ridge, Virginia, is no different from the rest of the world.