Friday, July 15, 2005

Six Hundred Honest Pounds Part I

The following story used to be on the internet, but can no longer be found there. I am archiving it here:  

Six Hundred Honest Pounds

From God Bless the Devil! Liars' Bench Tales, Aswell, et al, eds., Tennessee Writer's Project. Illustrations by Ann Kelley, Tennessee Art Project; 1940, University of North Carolina Press.  

THEY SAY IT WAS BACK IN THE EIGHTIES, OR maybe the nineties, and in Hancock County. Whatever the year of it, there was a big barbecue and rabbit stew near the Powell River. A man running for Congress was who give it. Now, Hancock is still a mighty lean sort of place and all you have to do to git most of the whole county together on one point of ground is to let out that there'll be free eats. They'll come Ford-back, mule-back, foot-back, and a-crawling down every little path out of the hills. They'll come like red ants to spilled honey.

And so it was this time I'm a-chawing about. Every soul for thirty mile around that warn't too feeble or crippled to move or too wanted by the Law to be seen in public places was there in that beech grove beside of the Powell River. Even a heap of folks from up across the Kentucky line--where it's pretty lean, too --was on hand trying their best to look like they was born and bred and done voting square in Hancock County.

The political speaking come first, of course. The eats and the fun is always left to the last so's everybody will be sure to stay and hear the speaking. So the man that was running for the Congress got up and bellered and raved and told what he was agin. And that was just about everything you could name excepting Free Silver and free seeds for the farmers. He was all for them free things. Well, anyhow, he had his say and most of the folks just squatted there in the beech grove and slept with their eyes stark open till he was plumb talked down.

The gathering begun to pearten up when he wiped his face and said, "I thank you good people, one and all, the best and clear-headedest people in the world, the people of Hancock County, the best little old county anywhere!" and set down. Then everybody made a heavy scramble for the big black kitties where the stew was a-steaming and the long board tables where the barbecue was laid out and for the whiskey barrels all stacked a-ready and a-waiting. So for half a hour there the people tore into that barbecue, chomping and a- grunting, ladled down that good rabbit stew, and supped at their tin cups full of bold likker.

When all this truck got kind of mixed around inside and settled down, folks felt in the sociable way and was ready for the fun to commence.

And it commenced. First the call went out for wrestlers. The hardest knots in the county wiped their mouths and come elbowing through the crowd. There was two good bakers dozen of them --stringy long-cut scrappers and short butt- cut brawlers. There was men with wild beards and mean eyes and clean-faced men and men with handle-bar mustaches. Scufflers, fist-fighters, knock-down and drag-out trouble makers, kickers, butt-ers, gougers, and ear-chawers--they all stood around sneering at each other and skeeting baccy- beer at each other's boots and making their brags.

The judges was just before pairing the wrestlers up when here come a woman a-pushing round the edge of the crowd. Nobody much noticed her till there she stood among the wrestlers. She warn't overly high, but she was so all-fired broad and square that she looked like a packing case with a round head stuck on top. Yes, she was a youthsome barefoot woman in a short kind of dress and a big man's blue jumper heaps too little for her and all sprung out at the seams. Another thing was her dark face, with high cheekbones and slanting eyes as black as swamp water. Everybody knowed then that she was a Melungeon woman and they stared like they was seeing a blue bear. In them days Melungeons just naturally stayed out of the way when white folks got together.
So one of the judges called out, "Everybody clear back excepting the wrestlers! "

The Melungeon woman just stood there.

So the judge says, "I mean you!"

"I'm a wrestler," says she, and her voice was so deep and heavy that the judge jumped back a step.

All the wrestlers laughed. "Wrestling's for men!" they said.

She was a-chawing baccy. She let fly at the ground and it smacked up a little cloud of dust. "Maybe to now, hit's been," says she. "But I'm Betsy Mullins--they call me Big Betsy --and I do hail from Newman's Ridge. I'm a woman with all the womanly trimmings, but don't let hit bother none of you. For I'm a better man than any of you rounders here! "

And she let fly some more baccy juice, she thronged back her head and she laughed.
All the wrestlers was tore up and mad. Bad enough to be sassed by a woman and when that woman was a Melungeon in thebargain --well, no strong-founded man would stand for it.

Easy the biggest man there was Black Joe Bascom and he was fair blaze-snorting for trouble. He looked her over from top to toe. He showed off his jumper and shirt, drawed his belt in, and says, "Take heed, wench! I'm a-coming at you! "

And he come. Yes, he come in kicking and a-thrashing, with his teeth splitting his black beard and a-snapping the air. He meaned business, woman or no woman.
Seemed like Betsy Mullins meaned a little business too. She straddled her legs and a-flipped the muscles in her arms. But she kept a-chawing her baccy slow and stiddy as a heifer in the shade. She didn't flinch nor start an inch when Black Joe give a last whoop and a jump.

A power of dust was kicked up. It was hard to see what was happening. Looked like and sounded like somebody in there was a-beating carpets and a-driving stobs at one and the same time. But not for long.

For in a minute something come a-rolling out. End over end, it come and wrapped around a tree trunk. It was nobody but Black Joe Bascom, limp and sound tosleep. And there stood

Betsy Mullins with half of Black Joe's beard in her right fist. "Is this here the best you can do?" says she, jerking her head towards Black Joe. "Don't tell me!" She got a plug of eating baccy out of her jumper pocket. She bit off a chew and looked at the bunch of wrestlers a-standing there with their mouths full of teeth.

The men just sort of cleared their throats and shuffled their feet.

"Why then," says Betsy, "I'll take on any two of you to once. Or if two of you will git lonesome, I'll make hit three. Any three, any style scuffling - I don't keer, I'm shore."
But they done her one better. Four of them hemmed in on her from four directions and the dust begun to fly and out of it come a sound like a crew of choppers a-cutting railroad ties.

Well, it lasted about four times longer than the scuffle with Black Joe Bascom and it made four times more dust and taken four times longer to clear away so's a body could see what had happened.

Then all the folks just choked and whistled. For there set Betsy Mullins on a stack of four men, piled up like cordwood. Seemed like the seams of her jumper was sprung a little more, but warn't no other signs on her. She warn't even a-blowing from it.

"Come on, you rounders!" she says. "If the men round here is this puny, I reckon I'm good-able to take on the rest of you at one whack."

What was left of the wrestlers looked at Betsy Mullins. They looked at the pile of men she was a-setting on and at Black Joe Bascom, still asleep in a heap by the beech tree. They looked at each other and they looked at the ground. They didn't say a word nor make a move.

So Betsy she waited a little, then got up and shaken the settled dust off her and says, "Aw now! Maybe I'd better come at you!" And so she cocked back both fists and started towards that bunch of hard knots. Yes, she come at them like a boulder rolling loose.
Well, for just a bit there it looked like them big steppers aimed to hold their ground. But then one of them yelled, "Keep that danged she-Melungeon off me!" and broke and run. And in no time every last one of them hard knots swung to and busted out for unknown places.

So Big Betsy Mullins blinked her eyes and fuddled around like she was a-looking for somebody to scuffle with. Then she turns to the Judges where they was standing and a- staring like they was seeing supernaturals.

She says, "Gents, hit does look like I winned, now don't hit?"

"Why yes," says the head judge. "Why yes." He thought hard and then says, "Why-uh-yes."

"Yo're giving a fat shoat for the prize, ain't you?" says Big Betsy.

"Why yes," says the judge.

"Well," says she, "supposing you keep hit and let me name a prize that hit won't cost you a penny."

The judge he said it again, so Big Betsy says, "Just give me yore leave to sell a few little old gourds here, if anybody'll buy. That's all I ask, yore Judgeship."
So the head judge --and he was a real lawcourt judge as well as a barbecue wrestling judge --he said he didn't see no harm in it, he reckoned. She might as well go on and sell her gourds, he said.

"Word of. honor," Big Betsy says, "that nobody will try to stop me nor do me no damage after I'm through?"

"Shore I give my word," says the judge, "and I give my honor."

So that Melungeon woman just held her hands to her mouth, taken a long breath, and sung out, "Hoooo peeg, peeg, peeg, peeg!" And it rung out through that beech grove like the reaching blast of a good brassy bugle-horn, "Peeg! Peeg! Peeg!" she bellered.
Well, a dozen orso razorback hawgs that had been a- rooting around in the woods come a-snorting but Big Betsy didn't pay them no notice. She was looking towards the Powell River.

And mighty soon all the gathered-round folks there did see what she was a-waiting for. They did see seven dark andbarefoot Melungeon bucks come-a-trotting out of the cane- brake. And each of them toted seven big stoppered gourds slung from a yoke round his neck.

It was gifting rare warmish in the beech grove and the free whiskey was all drank and folks was sweating and a-gifting thirsty. So when these here Melungeons passed round and pulled the stoppers out of the gourds and everybody whiffed rich likker, a big whoop went up and there was a rush of business.

But the judge says to Betsy, "Whoa, woman! Air that governmentally stamped whiskey in them gourds?"

Part II follows:

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