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Uncle Tom Barker (or “How to Beat the Devil Out of a Sinner”)

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 campmeeting, while Bishop Gaston was 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 power of time and must make it up.

Tom was a rough talker, but he was a good one, and knew right smart of “scripter,” and a good many of the old-fashioned hymns by heart. The conference thought he was a pretty good fellow to send out into the border country among the settlers, and so Tom straddled his old flea-bitten gray, and in due time was circuit riding in North Mississippi.

In course of time Tom acquired notoriety, and from his strong language and stronger gestures, and his muscular eloquence, they called him old “Sledge Hammer,” and after awhile, “Old Sledge,” for short. Away down in one corner of his territory there was a blacksmith shop and a wagon shop and a whisky shop and a post-office at Bill Jones’s crossroads; and Bill kept all of them, and was known far and wide as “Devil Bill Jones,” so as to distinguish him from ‘Squire Bill the magistrate. Devil Bill had sworn that no preacher should ever toot a horn or sing a hymn in the settlement, and if one of the cussed hypocrites ever dared to stop at the crossroads, he’d make him dance a hornpipe and sing a hymn, and whip him besides.

And Bill Jones meant just what he said, for he had a mortal hate for the 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, and everybody knew that he had as much brute courage as was necessary. And so Uncle Tom was advised to take roundance and never tackle the crossroads. He accepted this for a time, and left the people to the bad influence of Devil Bill; but it seemed to him he was not doing the Lord’s will, and whenever 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, and it seemed to him as he rose 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; and so 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? Do you tell him that if the Lord is willin’, I will be at the cross-roads to preach next Saturday at eleven o’clock, and I am shore the Lord is willin’. Tell him to please ‘norate’ it in the settlement about, and ax the women and children to come. Tell Bill Jones I will stay at his house, God willin’, and I’m shore 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 he wouldn’t dare to come to the cross-roads.

But the “nabors” whispered it around that “Old Sledge” would come, for he was never known to make an appointment and break it; and there was an old horse thief who used to run with Murrel’s gang, who said he used to know Tom Barker when he was a sinner and had seen him fight, and he was much of a man. So it spread like wild-fire that “Old Sledge” was coming, and Devil Bill was “gwine” to whip him and make him dance and sing a “hime,” and treat to a gallon of peach and brandy besides.

Devil Bill had his enemies, of course, for he was a hard man, and one way or another had gobbled up all the surplus of the “naborhood,” and had given nothing in exchange but whiskey, and these enemies had long hoped for somebody to come and turn him down. They, too, circulated the astounding news, and, without committing themselves to either party, said that h-ll would break loose on Saturday at the cross-roads, and that “Old Sledge” or the devil would have to go under.

On Friday the settlers began to drop into the crossroads under pretense of business, but really to get the bottom facts 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-coming. He laid bare his strong arms and shook his long hair and said he wished the lying, deceiving hypocrite would come, for it had been nigh onto fourteen years since he had made a preacher dance.

Saturday morning by nine o’clock the settlers began to gather. They came on foot, and on horseback, and in carts – men, women and children, and before eleven o’clock there were more people at the crossroads than had ever been there before. Bill Jones was mad at their credulity, but he had an eye to business and kept 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, straight 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, shore.” But no, it wasn’t him.

Some half a dozen had old bull’s-eye silver watches, and they compared time, and just at 10:55 o’clock the old horse thief exclaimed: “I see Tom Barker a risin’ of the hill. I hadn’t seed him for eleven years, but, gintlemen, that ar’s him, or I’m a liar.”

And it was him.

As he got nearer and nearer, a voice seemed to be coming with him, and some said, “He’s talkin’ to himself,” another said, “He’s talkin’ to God Almighty,” and another said, “I’ll be durned if he ain’t a praying;” but very soon it was decided that he was “singin’ of a hime.” Bill Jones was advised of all this, and coming up the front, said: “Darned if he ain’t singing before I axed him, but I’ll make him sing another tune until he is tired. I’ll pay him for his onsulting message. I’m not a-gwine to kill him, boys. I’ll leave life in his rotton old carcass, but that’s all. If any of you’ens want to hear ‘Old Sledge’ preach, you’ll have to go ten miles from the road to do 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 in frame, and had a heavy suit of dark brown hair, but his face was clean shaved, and showed a nose and lips and chin of great firmness and great determination. “Look at him, boys, and mind your eye,” said the horse thief.

“Where will I find my friend, Bill Jones?” inquired “Old Sledge.” All round they pointed him to the man. Riding up close, he said: “My friend and brother, the good Lord has sent me to you, and I ask your hospitality for myself and beast,” and 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 shaved-faced scoundrel; didn’t you know that I had swored an oath that I would make you sing and dance, and whip you besides if you ever dared to pizen these cross-roads with your shoe-tracks?” Now, sing, d–n you, sing, and dance as you sing,” and he emphasized his command with a ringing slap with his open hand upon the parson’s face. “Old Sledge” recoiled with pain and surprise. Recovering in a moments 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;” and as Devil Bill gave him another slap on his other jaw, he began with:

“My soul, be on thy guard.”

And with his long arm he suddenly and swiftly gave Devil Bill an open hander that nearly knocked him off his feet, while the parson continued to sing in a splendid tenor voice:

“Ten thousand foes arise.”

Never was a lion more aroused to frenzy 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 easily as a practised 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 bated breath. The crisis was at hand, and he squared himself and his clenched fists flew thick and fast upon the parson’s frame, and for awhile disturbed his equilibrium and his song. But he rallied quickly and began the defensive, as he sang:

“Ne’er think the victory won,
Nor lay thine armor down–“

He backed his adversary squarely to the wall of his shop, and seized him by the throat, and mauled him as he sang:

“Fight on, my soul, till death–”

Well, the long and short of it was, that “Old Sledge” whipped him and humbled him to the ground, and then lifted him up and helped to restore him, and begged a thousand pardons. When Devil Bill had retired to his house and was being cared for by his wife, “Old Sledge” mounted a box in front of the grocery and preached righteousness and temperance, and judgment to come, to that 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 he 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’s wife, poor woman, had crept humbly into the outskirts of the crowd, for she had long treasured the memories of her childhood, when she, too, had gone with her good mother to hear preaching. In secret she had pined and lamented her husband’s hatred for religion and 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 to be dumb with amazement. He had never been whipped before and had suddenly lost confidence in himself and his infidelity. “Go ‘long, Sally,” he answered, “if he can talk like he can fight and sing, maybe the Lord did send him. It’s all mighty strange to me,” and he groaned in anguish.

His animosity seemed to have changed into an anxious, wondering curiosity, and after Sally had gone, he left his bed and drew near to the window where he could hear. “Old Sledge” made an earnest, soul-reaching prayer, and his pleading with the Lord for Bill Jones’s salvation and that of his wife and children reached the window where Bill was sitting, and he heard it. His wife returned in tears and took a seat beside him, and sobbed out her heart’s distress, but said nothing. Bill bore it for awhile in thoughtful silence, and then putting his bruised and trembling hand in hers, said: “Sally, if the Lord sent ‘Old Sledge’ here, and maybe he did, I reckon you had better look after his horse.”

And sure enough ‘Old Sledge” stayed there that night and held family prayer, and the next day he preached from the piazza to a great multitude, and sang his favorite hymn: “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 grocery and helped to build a meeting house, and it was always said and believed that “Old Sledge” mauled the grace into his unbelieving soul, and it never would have got in any other way.

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