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by Frank Shortt
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Up the Hill from Pruitts
2014 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
“You be careful, and look out for copperheads, Frankie”, warned Rosella.
“Yeah, this is the time when snakes start to crawl,” chimed in Howard.
Dusk was just beginning
to fall on a Saturday as I prepared to go back up the hill to my home on Shack Ridge in Buchanan County, Virginia. I don’t know to
this day why I always stayed at the Pruitt house until the sun went down knowing full well that every snake in the county would be
prowling at that time. Sagebrush Theater had just ended as I prepared to go. Those old cowboy movies had a real hold on me.
At Howard’s remark I began to experience the same old dread I always felt when I had to go up the hill by myself. It always scared
the daylights out of me when anyone mentioned snakes. Besides, I was bare footed to boot. The Shortt boys didn’t wear shoes in the
summertime except to go to church. One of us was constantly wearing a piece of an old diaper wrapped around one toe or the other because
it had been stubbed. We were Hillbillies. Doctors were scarce and too far away to do us any good.
“Get yeself a big stick before you go up the hill” Rosella said as I walked out the front door.
I knew where I had hidden one at another time when I thought I was to be attacked by one of the Osborne boys. I didn’t tell her this,
of course. She was like a second mom to me and my siblings. Outside of having the only television set in the neighborhood, my brothers
and I loved to go down there and spend time with her boys. We also liked the way Rosella cooked, especially her meatloaf. To this
day I have never tasted better meatloaf. I have often wondered since that it might have contained groundhog or possum as Rosella would
cook anything her son Bud would bring home. We didn’t ask any questions about the content of her food which was some of the best I
“Y’all just go home with me,” was my way of saying that they were all welcome
to come to our home at any time.
“Come back and see us”, was Rosella’s quick reply.
I never knew if she just said it out of good manners or if she genuinely wanted us to come
down and eat all her food. As it was, they were just as poor as the Shortt clan. as Howard had a hard time finding work . He was always
saying how that his stint in the Second World War had about done him in. I knew that he loved to have a shot of moonshine once in
awhile and he smoked “ Prince Albert Tobacco ” like it was going out of style. Of course, I didn’t mind smoking one once in awhile
too. He would even let me roll my own just as he had taught me. This habit lasted until I was a young man.
I sauntered up the road whistling like a scared little boy going through a graveyard at midnight. This had always been a habit of
mine since I had learned to whistle. Anytime I was in a stressful situation I began to whistle or sing some crazy ditty.
In order to get to the pathway leading up to Shack Ridge, I had to cross an old sawmill bottom overgrown with weeds. This was a great
environment for a copperhead. Then I had to climb up over the sawdust pile left by the loggers many years ago. This too was a favorite
haunt for all kinds of vermin.
All this just to go play with the Pruitt boys and watch
a little television! What a joke on me.
“Don’t worry, I told myself, It takes four bites
from a copperhead to be fatal. What if I get bit and no one finds me until tomorrow? My body would swell up like a dead fish that
laid out in the sun too long. Being August, snakes go blind and they’ll strike at anything that makes a noise. They hear with their
forked tongue. When one comes around you can bet that its mate is nearby.”
All this and
more haunted my thoughts as I approached the already darkening path. Older folks’ sayings have never helped to give a young hillbilly
peace of mind.
I worked my way slowly up the rock strewn path. I knew every stick and stone
that would have been obstacles to the inexperienced. I used the bushes by the side of the trail to hoist myself up the hill. My bare
feet tingled every time I stepped on a stick or root knowing it could be a copperhead getting ready to strike. The hair on the back
of my neck stood straight out all the time I walked this dangerous path. Every unfamiliar stick or root became a snake.
Just as I topped out on the hill where the going would be less arduous, I spotted the familiar lights of our house perched on the
side of Shack Ridge. A feeling of relief flowed over my being and I began to sing a familiar hymn that I had learned at church. The
hair on the back of my neck started laying down. My feet no longer tingled at every stick I stepped on. I had the world by the tail!
Suddenly, just as I stepped up beside a tree stump by the side of the path, I felt something brush my britches leg! Talk about scared!
I panicked! I must have jumped ten feet back down the hill. I began screaming at the top of my lungs,
“Snake, Snake, Snake!” I must have sounded loud enough to wake the dead.
Dad came running
down the hill as fast as his legs would move with a 410 over-and-under shotgun in his hand. I knew he kept one loaded at all times
just for this purpose.
“Where’s the snake,” he questioned.
“Right in front of that old burned out stump,” I screamed.
“Move down the hill a little
more so I don’t shoot you,” dad calmly said as he spotted the snake and took aim.
410 shotgun roared and I knew that there was one less serpent in the earth. Dad had shot it clean in two up close to the neck. It
was probably three feet in length with a head as wide as an inch and a half. If he had emptied his poison sack into me, I would have
been a miserable wretch for quite a few days providing it didn’t kill me from shock. Dad nonchalantly walked back to the house as
if this was all in a day’s work.
Upon arriving home Mom gave me her old familiar song and
“If you hadn’t stayed out so late you wouldn’t be scarin’ the daylights out of the
rest of us. That T.V. down at Pruitt’s must be real important for you to stay until the snakes start crawling.”
I knew better than to reply. Dad never stood for any back talk.
“Better get out there
and get your chores done,” was her famous addendum.
I still had chickens to feed, wood
to chop, water to carry and a cow to milk. It felt good getting back on familiar ground. The chores that night didn’t seem like work
at all, even if I had to do them by lantern light.