Johnny J. Potter is another of my recurring characters. He’s a whiskey-making, skirt-chasing storyteller who lives somewhere in the Appalachians. This is one of his first stories.
By Bettyann Moore
You ever been to a good ol′-fashioned barn raisin′? Don’t see much o′ that no more. I recollect one barn raisin′ in particular … no, now, that ain’t quite right. It weren’t the raisin′ of that barn I recall so much as the burnin′ of that barn the day after we done raised it that I recollect.
It were Clarence Peterson’s barn and it burnt down all on account of Lester Garth didn’t want to take no bath that night.
It were Halloween night and Judd Olson were right peeved at his woman, ʼLizbeth. She done took off and ol′ Judd were certain she were takin′ a roll in the hay with Clarence Peterson, though I can’t see how he figgered it were Peterson, a regular bag o′ bones he was and had a nose like a carrot. Anyhow, Judd were fit to be tied and he grabbed his shotgun and lantern and set off into the night to catch his missus and Clarence. He weren’t gonna shoot ʼem, mind you, he jes wanted to scare the hide offa ʼem.
Fact o′ the matter is, Judd weren’t about to be out on Witches Night without no light and no shotgun. I ain’t one to talk ill o′ folks, but in these parts they is right superstitious. Oh, sure, they’s superstitious in the usual way – weren’t no one what would walk under a ladder, and folks kept clear o′ graveyards in a full moon – but there was ones like Judd what took stock in all sorts of ghostly doin′s and the like. If he weren’t so all-fired peeved at ʼLizbeth, he sure as heck wouldnta been out on All Hallow’s Eve … and ʼLizbeth – truth be told – sorta counted on that.
Now, Cotton Cooper were cut outta the same cloth as ol′ Judd, only on this Halloween, Cotton set out to do battle with Satan hisself. Seems Cotton done heared folks talkin′ ʼbout a sure-fire way to keep evil away and it could only be done on Halloween. What Cotton din′t know was folks was just joshin′ him, knowin′ that Cotton were none too bright. That’s how he got the name Cotton – short fer Cotton Head – all fluff and no seed.
Anyhow, folks tol′ him that to get rid of the devil, ya gotta go out on Halloween night and find yerself 13 black cats and put ʼem in a gunnysack, carry ʼem down to the river, say the Lord’s Prayer three times, then throw the whole thing into the water.
So that’s what he were doin′ jes afore Peterson’s barned burned down. How he ever found 13 black cats, we never knowed, and the truth be told, ol′ Cotton had a few in there what weren’t pure black. That could be why he were so nervous, knowin′ he were cheatin′ the devil and all. What a sight he musta been, a-stuffin′ them cats, one by one, into that sack! But he done it and flung it over his shoulder and took off down the path to the river, them cats kickin′ up a terrible ruckus.
Things sure woulda been simpler if Cotton weren’t so dang dumb – he coulda knocked them cats on the head or sumpthin′, maybe even wrung their necks. And maybe Clarence Peterson’s barn would still be standin′.
Now, Preacher Jeremiah Upworthy were new to this neck o′ the woods and he were mighty dismayed ʼbout the size o′ his congregation. Fact was, folks was jes plain bored durin′ his services. He din′t have the fire in him like Rev. Turner before him. Now there were a preacher! Full o′ hellfire and damnation, he were. His sermons set the chapel to rockin′ let me tell you. He got folks so worked up, they come outta there wringin′ with sweat, a-feared the Lord would strike ʼem down if they din′t come back the next Sunday. Rev. Turner kept the house packed. Preacher Upworthy were lucky if two pews was full.
I figger Upworthy were sick and tired hearin′ ʼbout how Rev. Turner kept folks all worked up from Sunday to Sunday, and on Halloween night he reckoned he’d do sumpthin′ about it. He set out to go door-to-door – dressed in a mighty unusual way – to scares people into goin′ back to church. It were a shame he picked Lester Garth’s house to stop at first.
If there ever be a soul needin′ savin′, it’d be Lester Garth – a gamblin′, whorin′ polecat what liked to shoot dogs fer sport. And Lordy, how he looked the part! He done lost an eye wrastlin′ with one o′ his brothers and never did bother to have Doc take a look at it. He never wore no patch over it neither. Right ugly cuss.
And, man oh man, how he did smell! Lester Garth weren’t one fer takin′ a bath. Fact were, there weren’t too many folks what took baths ʼcept maybe once a month or once a week if they was goin′ to church. And you know how many of ʼem was doing that. But ol′ Garth, he din′t see fit to take no bath but maybe two time a year, and even then he’d be kickin′ and cursin′ all the way to the tub. And with Garth, what with the boils he had oozin′ pus, the stench were right powerful.
Now Garth’s wife – yep, he were married, and there weren’t no one more surprised ʼbout that fact than Garth hisself – she were fixin′ to get him into a tub that Halloween night, come hell or high water. She were a right toleratin′ woman and a godsend to Garth on accounta she were born without the use of her nose – she couldn’t smell a skunk at two paces. But she did have eyes and them eyes could see how bad her man was lookin′. When he walked in from the barn, she had the tub a-waitin′ fer him and that’s when all hell broke loose.
Garth come draggin′ in in a poor temper – one o′ his heifers up and died givin′ birth to a still-born calf. When he come in, the last thing he were wantin′ to see were a tub full o′ steamin′ water and to hear his woman naggin′ at him to get into it.
Garth, a powerful big man, jes glared at his wife and walked over to that tub, picked it up and carried it over to the open door.
Preacher Upworthy were comin′ alongside the Garth house dressed up like Satan, fixin′ to scare folks into comin′ back to church. He done hisself proud with that get-up – it were complete with horns and tail and flames painted up and down his body. He was just about to step inside the door when ol′ Garth let go and sent that scaldin’ water a-flyin′ – and Preacher Upworthy too.
That preacher took off like a shot, hot water drippin′ down his devil duds, shreikin′ like a banshee.
Cotton Cooper was strugglin′ down the path with that sack o′ cats when outta the woods comes a devil, cursin′ and yellin′ at him. Cotton let go that bag and high-tailed it outta there with the devil at his heels. And since he were too stupid to have tied that sack, them cats come outta there spittin′, yowlin′ and screechin′ and headed down the road right into Clarence Peterson’s barn.
Judd were jes climbin′ down outta the hay loft after checkin′ the barn fer the third time, still lookin′ for ʼLizbeth, when he says a hunnert or more black cats – the devil’s own – come in after him. The ladder rocked and swayed whilst he were tryin′ to climb back up, and down he come, sendin′ buckshot into the air and his lantern to the floor.
Only took but a minute or two for that fire to catch hold, time enough fer Judd to get out, but I reckon some o′ them cats was fried right well. Only took a few more minutes fer the whole darn barn to blaze up – spankin′ new barn, gone in an hour.
Clarence Peterson, asleep in his house the whole time, come runnin′ out jes in time to see the walls cavin′ in. Ol′ Judd were right surprised to see him – ’Lizbeth weren’t with him after all.
Heck, I coulda tol′ him that. She were with me all along.