Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 09: Biography – Staff/Personnel
Series 12: Land Use
ALICE COBB STORIES – “Walking the Railroad Ties”
TAGS: ALICE COBB STORIES – “Walking the Railroad Ties”; Alice Cobb; Pine Mountain Settlement School, Harlan County, Kentucky; railroads; Dillard Day; Walter Day; moonshine; murder; Stilson McCormick; clarity of purpose; trestles; roads; employment; economics; crime;
WALKING THE RAILROAD TIES
The entire day had been cloudy. Going down the mountain, after our path left the tracks and took a trail close by the bridle path, we had marveled at the beauty of enormous moss and lichen-covered rocks with their tops swathed in mist, like brides in tulle. That was the morning. But all day long there was no sun to brighten the forest, and the trail, which was already beginning to trace through the early spring foliage. By evening, which came on quickly, it was raining a little, and when we left the trail to take the ties and trestles they were moist and slick. We had some qualms about seven miles over them, and we knew that we could not reach the settlement school before dark.
Just ahead of us, as we hit the ties, was a man with a bundle. I looked at the tracks ahead and felt relieved. Although a man with a bundle could hardly be much help on the top of a trestle fifty feet high, still it was comforting to see him a few feet ahead, leaping lightly from tie to tie, as though it were all pavement.
“Howdy!” he said, and “Howdy!” we answered. It was too dark to see his face clearly although he turned and nodded as he spoke.
“Hit’s a bad night,” He stopped at a difficult curve in the trestle and waited for us to catch up. “But you might could get there upon dark.” So he knew who we were at any rate!
“I hope so,”I said. “I see you’ve been to town.”
“Yes’m. Hit’s a sight cheaper, when a man hain’t got work exceptin’ four days a week. Hit’s a little you save, but hit’s more than the shoes you wear out agoing for hit.”
“Are you working on the road?” The new project, a road over Pine Mountain, was the talk of our neighborhood and had been since November It was an economic measure killing two birds with one stone, for the road commission worked in conjunction with the Red Cross, supplying days of work according to the size of the family, and flour and shoes according to the number of days worked.
“I’m telling you the truth, if it warn’t for the road there’s a many and many on us would be starved, and no clothes either. These is hard times for a poor man with a woman and six children. If hit were less, so there wouldn’t be so many mouths a-beggin’ for food, or if hit were more hit would be better. If a man has got twelve, the eldest can work or make a hand on the farm. A boy longways of fourteen can raise a fine crop. But when a man has got six, and them small, then he’s facing a hard row to hoe. Hit’s not strange that he takes to makin’ a livin’ outside the law?”
“How do you mean?”
He shook his head sadly, and sent forth a puff or strong smoke from the corncob pipe (which I hadn’t noticed before).
“Moonshining. That’s not to say I do. But pap, he made a sight of money with a still and that were before prohibition come. Hit would of been better if e’d a quit before we learned it. I got two cousins and a brother in Frankfort for moonshining, and two years ago I made three quarts and got six months for that.”
“Rather an expensive three quarts.”
“Well, yes, I should venture to t’ say. I called hit two months to the quart and decided it was no game for me. Maybe I weren’t suited for it. But from that time to this I been straight as a dye. I swear I ain’t took nary swaller o’ liquor in all this time.”
“What did you say your name is?” I asked.
“I’m Dillard Day, a brother of Walter Day that killed that boy over at the school last spring.” He said it as calmly as if he were telling us that he was Columbus Creech who lived on Isaac’s Creek. I was more interested than surprised, and I wonder at the way one grows accustomed to things so that it isn’t uncanny or even unusual to walk trestles with the brother of a murderer when evening shades are lowering.
“You know about that?” he asked me.
I knew, of course, for the murder of Stilson McCormick, possibly the school’s most promising student had been more than a nine days’ subject; it had been almost a four months wonder. I had come in time for the last chapter the trial of Walter Day who had committed the crime when he was drunk and was now serving a life sentence at Frankfort, eight years on good behavior. In our section, the murder was rather to be condoned and the murderer excused as an involuntary instrument of Providence, in view of the fact that the murdered boy had been illegitimate and his death a proper wage of sin. In the courts, the murderer had been more lightly dealt with partly because of the rich Days on the other side of the mountain. Blood ties. But at any rate, Walter was in prison, and it seemed was living in clover there.
“Walter, he don’t work none, and he been going to school day and night, too, for the last six months. I allow he must be a good prisoner because they don’t let only the good’uns go to school.” Dillard was all pride. “Law, there warn’t never no harm in that boy until he got nigh to a whiskey jug, and I always says to him — ‘Kid,’ I said, ‘sure as hell you got to lay off whiskey.’ ‘See,’ I says, ‘here’s you dead drunk, and with the stuff on you and you shooting about, and maybe bustin’ open somebody’s head. And here comes the Law, and there you be quick as sheet lightnin’ clawing at the bars, and a-slingin’ a pick.’ “And law,” ma’am, “hit were just like I said. Here was Walter, a ripping and a snorting, and there were I plum at Incline, and nobody to hold him steady. And thar he is today in the jailhouse.”
“By the way,” I interrupted him, “Are you the Dillard Day that is a preacher?”
“No, ma’am. I be Dillard Day, but I hain’t no preacher. I’m a good member of the Church of God Holiness and I tries to be a good man, and do right by everybody but I hain’t no preacher.”
“Well, if you can be a good man, and bring up your family well, that’s as much as anybody can expect,” I said righteously.
“Yes’m, that’s what I figures. I hain’t willing to bring up my children in sich a manner that if ary one goes wrong they can say as that was the way their pappy teached ’em. That’s the kind of a feller I be.”
While I was thinking this over, between talking and wondering and noting the deepening dark, we came to the parting of our ways. We followed the tracks, but Dillard climbed a rail fence and headed over the field south. He shifted the bundle a little, drew hard on the corncob pipe before he took it out of his mouth and saluted — that is, tipped the place where his cap would have been if he had had one.
“Well, goodbye, Ladies. Better foller the road around when comes to the big bridge because them ties is too rotten to hold up under much strain. Good evenin’!”
It was really dark now, and the road wound invisibly in front of us, far ahead of the little circle of light from the flash we carried … We talked noncommittally of the road relief plan, and how if the state of Kentucky really wanted to relieve the liquor situation they might better find honest jobs for their men to make a living by. And in my mind, I was hearing again “I’m Dillard Day the brother of Walter Day that shot that boy over at the school last spring.”