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    I'm telling this story, passed down from my great-grandfather, the way he told it. (I love writing in Old Southern dialect. This is my fun way to write. The way folks used to talk.)

    Uncle Tom Barker was much of a man. He had been wild and reckless and feared not God nor regarded man, but one day at a camp meeting, while Bishop Gaston as shaking up the sinners and scorching them over the infernal pit, Tom got alarmed, and before the meeting was over he professed religion and became a zealous outspoken convert, and declared his intention of going forth into the world and preaching the Gospel. He was terribly in earnest, for he said he had lost a powerful lot of time and must make it up.

    Tom was a rough talker, but he was a good one, and knew a right smart of scripture and a good many old fashioned hymns by heart. The conference thought he was a pretty good fellow to send out into the country among the settlers, and so Tom straddled his old flea-bitten gray mare and in due time was circuit riding in North Mississippi. Tom soon acquired notoriety, and from his strong language and stronger muscular eloquence, they called him 'Old Sledge-Hammer' and after a while 'Old Sledge' for short.

    Away down in one corner of his territory was a blacksmith shop and a whiskey shop and a post office at Bill Jones Crossroads, and Bill Jones kept all of them. He was known far and wide as 'Devil Bill Jones' so as to distinguish him from Esq. Bill, the magistrate.

    Devil Bill had sworn no preacher should ever toot a horn or sing a hymn in the settlement, and if any cussed hypocrite ever dared stop at his crossroads he'd make him sing a hymn, and dance a tune, and whip him besides. Bill Jones meant what he said, for he had a mortal hate for men of God. It was reasonably supposed that Bill could and would do what he said, for his trade at the anvil had made him strong. Everybody knew he had as much brute courage as was necessary to do that very thing.

    So Uncle Tom was advised to take roundance and never tackle that crossroads. He accepted this for a time and left the people to the bad influence of Devil Bill. But eventually it seemed to him he was not doing the Lord's will, and when he thought of the women and children living in darkness and growing up in infidelity, he would groan. One night he prayed over it with great earnestness and vowed to do the Lord's will if the Lord would give him light on the matter. It seemed to him as he arose from his knees that there was no longer any doubt -- he must go! Uncle Tom never dallied about anything when his mind was made up. He went right at it, like killing snakes. So the next morning as a 'nabor' passed on his way to Bill's shop, Uncle Tom said, "My friend, will you please carry a message to Bill Jones for me? You tell him that if the Lord's willin', I will be at the crossroads to preach next Saturday at 11:00, and I'm sure the Lord's willin'. Tell him to please 'narate' it in the settlement about, and axe the women and children to come. And tell Bill Jones I will stay at his house, God willin', and I'm sure he's willin'. And I'll preach Sunday too, if things git along harmonious."

    When Bill Jones got the message he was amazed, astounded, and his indignation knew no bounds. He raved and cursed at the 'onsult' as he called it -- the 'onsulting message of Old Sledge' -- and he swore that he would hunt him up and whip him, for he knowed that Old Sledge wouldn't dare come to his crossroads. But the 'nabors' whispered it around that Old Sledge would come, for he was never known to make an appointment and break it. There was an old horse thief who used to run with Murrell's gang, who said he used to know Tom Barker when he was a sinner, and had seen him fight, and he would likely win. So it spread like wildfire that Old Sledge was coming and Devil Bill was gonna whip him and make him dance and sing a 'hyme' and treat to a gallon of peach brandy besides.

    Devil Bill had his enemies, of course, for he was a hard man, and one way or the other had gobbled up all the surplus in the 'naborhood' and had given nothing in exchange but whiskey, and these enemies had hoped for somebody to come and turn him right side up. They too circulated the news, and without committing themselves either way, said that all h_ll would break loose on Saturday at that crossroads, and either Old Sledge or the Devil would have to go under.

    On Friday the settlers began to drop into town under pretense of business, but really to get to the bottom of the rumors that were afloat. Devil Bill knew full well what they came for, and he talked and cursed more furiously than usual, and swore that anybody who would come expecting to see Old Sledge tomorrow was an infernal fool, for he wasn't a-comin'. He laid bare his strong arms and shook his long hair, and said he wished the lyin', deceiving hypocrite would come, for it had been nigh unto fourteen years since he'd made a preacher dance.

    Saturday morning by 9:00, the settlement was getting crowded. They came on foot and on horseback and in carriages -- men, women and children --and before 11:00 there were more people at the crossroads than had ever been before. Bill Jones was mad at their credulity, but he stayed behind his counter and sold more whiskey in an hour than he had sold in a month. As the appointed hour drew near, the settlers began to look down the long road that Old Sledge would come, if he came at all, and every man whose head came in sight just over the rise of the distant hill was closely scrutinized.
    More than once they said, "Yonder he comes; that's him for sure." But no, it wasn't him. Some had old bulls-eye silver watches and they compared time. Just at 10:55 the old horse thief exclaimed, "I see Tom Barker at the risin' of the hill! I hain't seed him for eleven years, but gentlemen, that's him or I'm a liar." And it was him.

    As he got nearer a voice seemed to be coming with him and some said, "He's a-talkin' to hisself." Another said, "He's a-talkin' to God Almighty." And another said, "I'll be durned if he ain't a-prayin!" But soon it was decided he was singing a 'hime.' Bill Jones was quickly advised of all this and coming up to the front, said, "Durned if he ain't singing before I axed him, but I'll make him sing another tune till he is tired. I'll pay him for his 'onsulting' message. I'm not a-goin' to kill him, boys. I'll leave life in his rotton carcass, but that's all. If any of you'ns want to hear Old Sledge preach, you'll have to go ten miles from this crossroads to hear it."

    Slowly and solemnly the preacher came. As he drew near he narrowed down his tune and looked kindly upon the crowd. He was a massive man and had a head of dark brown hair, but his face was clean shaved and showed a face and chin of firmness and great determination. "Look at him, boys, and wink your eye," the old horse thief said.
    "Where will I find my old friend, Bill Jones?" inquired Old Sledge.

    All around fingers pointed at Devil Bill. Riding up close, Old Sledge said, "My friend and brother, the good Lord has sent me to you, and I ask your hospitality for myself and my horse." He slowly dismounted and faced his foe as though expecting a kind reply. The crisis had come and Bill Jones met it.

    "You infernal old hypocrite; you cussed old shave-faced scoundrel. Didn't you know I had swore an oath to make you sing and dance, and whip you besides, if you ever dared poison these crossroads with your shoe tracks? Now, sing, durn you, SING. And dance as you sing!" And he emphasized his command with a ringing slap with his open hand across the parson's face.

    Old Sledge recoiled with pain and surprise. It took a moment to recover, then he said, "Well Brother Jones, I did not expect so warm a welcome. But if this be your crossroads manners, I suppose I must sing." Bill Jones gave him another slap on his other jaw and Old Sledge began singing, "My soul, be on thy guard..." And with his long arm, suddenly and swiftly gave Devil Bill an open hander that nearly knocked him off his feet, while the parson continued his song in his splendid tenor voice: "Ten thousand foes arise..."

    Never was a lion more aroused to frenzey than was Bill Jones. With his powerful arm, he made at Old Sledge as if to annihilate him with one blow, and many horrid oaths, but the parson fended off the stroke as a practical boxer, and with his left hand dealt Bill a settler on his peepers as he continued to sing:

    "Oh, watch and fight and pray,
    The battle ne'er give o'er..."

    But Jones was plucky to desperation, and the settlers were watching with holden breath. Peril was at hand, so Bill squared himself, and his clenched fists flew thick and fast upon the parson's frame, and for a time disturbed his equilibrium and his singing. But he rallied quickly and began the offensive as he sang:

    "Ne'er think the victory won, Nor lay thy armor down..."

    He backed his adversary, Devil Bill, to the wall of his shop and seized him by the throat and mauled him as he sang: "Fight on, my soul, till death."

    The long and short of it was that Old Sledge whipped him and humbled him to the ground, and then lifted him up and begged a thousand pardons.
    Devil Bill retired to his home and was being cared for by his wife, while Old Sledge mounted a box in front of the grocery and preached righteousness and temperance and judgment to come to those people. He closed his solemn discourse with a brief history of his own sinful life before his conversion, and his humble work for the Lord ever since, and besought his hearers to stop and think. "STOP, POOR SINNER, STOP AND THINK!" he cried in alarming tones. There were a few men and many women in that crowd whose eyes, long unused to the melting mood, dropped tears of repentance at the preacher's kind and tender exhortation.

    Bill Jones wife, poor woman, had crept into the outskirts of the crowd, for she had long treasured the memories of her childhood when she had gone with her good mother to hear preaching. In secret she had lamented her husband's hatred for religion and for preachers. After she had washed the blood from his swollen face and dressed his wounds, she asked him if she might go down and hear the preacher. For a minute he was silent and seemed dumb with amazement. He had never been whipped before.

    "Go along, Sally," he answered. "If he can preach like he can fight...and sing...maybe the Lord did send him. It's almighty strange to me." And he groaned in anguish. His animosity seemed to have changed to anxious, wondering curiosity. After Sally had gone, he left his bed and drew near the window where he could hear also.

    Old Sledge made an earnest soul-reaching prayer, and his pleading with the Lord for Devil Bill's salvation and that of his wife and children reached the window where he was sitting and he heard it. His wife returned in tears and took a seat beside him and sobbed her heart's distress, but said nothing. Bill bore it a while in thoughtful silence, and then putting his bruised and trembling hand on hers, said,
    "Sally, if the Lord sent Old Sledge -- and maybe he did -- I reckon you'd better look after his horse." Sure enough, Old Sledge stayed there that night and held family prayer, and the next day he preached from the plaza to a great multitude and sang his great tune,

    "Am I a soldier of the cross,"

    And when he got to the third verse, his untutored but musical voice seemed to be lifted a little higher as he sang:

    "Sure I must fight if I would reign,
    Increase my courage, Lord!"

    Devil Bill was converted and became a changed man. He joined the church, and closed his whiskey shop and helped to build a meeting house. It was always said and believed that Old Sledge mauled the grace of God into his unbelieving soul. They said it never would have gotten there any other way.

    • Dani H
      Dani H commented
      Editing a comment
      What a story! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Cyberseeker
      Cyberseeker commented
      Editing a comment
      Lol, The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

      Oh for more rough talkers, on flea-bitten old mares scorching folks over the infernal pit.

    • protea
      protea commented
      Editing a comment
      Beautiful Diggendeeper! The rewards of preachers who 'shook up the sinners' to get people to turn towards God will be great! The Old Southern Dialect sounds like the sweetest of music to me.....
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