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The Bran Dance at the Apple Settlement

by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

“THEY'S mostly Apples in that settlement,” said Mr. Jack Officer. “When they has a blow—out they kind o' jines together, and makes the feathers fly. Lucky thing for preachers 'f they take a camp-meetin' in han'. They'll have the mo'ners lively 'f they have to press every waggin an' old mule in the Cumberland to git 'em thar. They pretty much rule things round here. 'F one of 'em takes a fancy to a good-lookin' girl, the other boys keep away—they are shooters, them Apples. Thar's a powerful lot of 'em. Old Grandpa Apple—him that started the settlement—is a-livin' yet He come over from Carliny some sixty years back, in a canopied waggin, with all he had, includin' his gret-uncle, ready to light out fur Jordan, an' a yeller dog—female, that's mothered the best breed o' pups on the mountain. He had two blooded cows, an' a stavin' young woman for a wife; an' calves an' children came's fast's he could house 'em—faster too, I reckin, for they had to tent it one hot summer. The boys they growed up, an' the married aroun' the country, an' somehow they've had luck— big, smart, han'some families. An' their childern is a-marryin' an' child-bearin'. So, you see, old Grandpa Apple he sees the fourth generation. An' I guess the Lord ain't any pleaseder in surveyin' the earth he has made than that old man in a-countin' Apple noses.

“They're goin' to have a bran dance to-morrer over in the settle ment. Ever seen a bran dance? 'T's a powerful nice entertainment. Better stop over an' go 'long with me.”

We “stopped over.” Starting the next morning by earliest cock-crow, we reached the Apple Settlement, so exhilarated—ah! delicious air of the Cumberland!—that we were ready to cut pigeon wings in a bran dance until the bran flew about our ears as dry as the dust of a powdered mummy.

The scene was as animated as one of Hogarth's pictures. Horses, mules, ox-wagons, spring-carts, were huddled at the gate. People were moving about under the trees with the fantastic gravity that hides inward joy. Half a dozen slim young fellows, in blue calico shirts, opening to show their sunburnt throats, were masters of ceremonies. They shook our hands with serious cordiality, and nodded silently to Mr. Officer. They do not say much, these mountain people. How should they? They might be early-language makers, for the few words they know. Jack Officer was garrulous. But, as he said of himself, he was “born with the gab.” Besides, he read the Bible and a weekly paper.

Grandpa Apple was sitting under a tree in the yard.

“Looks like a peeled Apple, he does,” said Mr. Officer, facetiously.

This startling simile was not inappropriate, the old man was so white and clean. His head was bare, and shone like the snow. A long white beard dropped from his chin, and white overhanging eyebrows almost hid his eyes. His face was white and wrinkled as a yeasty tub of beer. His trousers and shirt were of white linsey, and he was fanning himself with a white turkey-tail fan. He would have served gloriously, backed up in a Christmas window, as Santa Claus, or the Old Year.

In the heart of a lovely grove Grandpa Apple had built his log-cabin. It was so comfortable-looking, so entirely the right sort of house to be set among those trees! The logs were sawed in two, and were worn to a rich polish; the spaces between were new chinked with white mortar. There were many rooms connected by little porches wide as foot-paths. Doors and windows were opened wide. The floors were bare, and freshly scrubbed. There were beds in every room, four red posters guarding feather-beds of forty-goose power. Woodcuts from newspapers and fashion magazines were gummed on the walls. Althea boughs were thrust into the cavernous depths of the wide fireplaces, and in one room there was a wonderful screen made of hundreds of little pictures.

The kitchen was the place to melt your soul. A mass of coals that would have frightened Daniel glowed in the fireplace. A black pot hung from a crane. Half a dozen ovens were ranged on the hearth, coals under and above them. From time to time the oven lids were lifted with the burnt end of a broom-handle, revealing six little pigs in various stages of brownness. The deities of this place were somewhat wizened Apples, so to speak. They danced once; now they cooked. So passes the glory of mountain pinks. They looked warm, and a little anxious. But now and then they would plunge their heads into a basin of cool water, and come up, like Duffy after the third round, confident and smiling.

The women were nearly all assembled in the room with the screen. They sat against the walls solemnly. They were dressed in clean, bright calicoes, cut as low as the collar-bone. Some—vain, dressy creatures —wore broad, flat, crocheted collars, and bows shaped like flying birds. The girls were supple and straight, with ankles not offensive to the eye of man; but among the matrons were some queer figures, whose lacks or redundancies were concealed by hoops and set off with trails.

“Looks 's if them sort ought to perch in the trees,” said Mr. Officer, watching a green calico dragged across the floor.

The young men glowered in through the windows, and poked each other in the sides, making a noise between tongue and cheek not unlike a prolonged cluck to a horse.

Mr. Officer held a violin under his chin. “Take your partners!” he called, with a piercing scrape of the bow across the strings.

“My fust fiddled,” remarked Mrs. Officer, “but not with the skill'dness of Mr. Officer.”

The young men came in and led out the girls; one mountain maid—and a pretty one—lingered.

“You needn't ask me,” she said, coquettishly. “I've promised to dance the first dance with Mr. Tom Jared.”

“Should like to know why he don't come,” said young Jack Apple; “ 'pears 's if he ain't in a hurry.”

At this instant a little black bullet head was thrust inside the door, and an African voice called, with a subdued chuckle,

“Mars' Tom say he done gin out de notion.”

Sensation. Up jumped the offended fair, and rushed after the messenger, who ran from the slap to come.

“She's as mad as forty thousand wet hens,” said Mrs. Officer, mildly.

And we thought she had a right to be.

From the grove sounded the inspiring strain of “Billy in the Low Grounds.” We found the dancers in a rustic arbor, roofed with green boughs intertwined with hickory withes. Floor there was none save the smooth earth covered three inches deep with wheat-bran. Slightly dampened, it was pleasant

to dance on; but Heaven preserve them when they danced it dry!

Men on one side, women on the other, stiff as a line of bayonets. It was a reel they were to dance. Jack Officer sat on an inverted barrel at one end of the arbor.

Down the middle danced the leading pair, and, separating with an air of being braced for duty, began their advances at opposite ends of the line. It was rather heavy. Here was their stamping ground, and they came down flat-footed. Suddenly a screech created a pleasant confusion.

“He trod on my foot a-purpose, he did!” cried a woman with elfish black hair, shaking her fist at a young fellow.

Another woman, wife or sweetheart, responded, with a provoking drawl,

“What made yer come t' a party bar'-footed?”

“P'r'aps I'd have as good shoes as you, Jane Oscar, 'f my man wuz in th' ground-hog whiskey business.”


“Come, come!” interposed a peaceful Apple. “Speaking o' ground-hog, who'll have a drink?”

A blue water-bucket, in which a tin dipper floated, was brought forward.

All took Titanic gulps. There was a smacking of lips such as would have done credit to a tournament of lovers.

“Ah-h! That's the true Cumberland punch!” cried the refreshed fiddler.

We tasted the Cumberland punch. It was not made on the one, two, three principle, but was even more simple. It was sugarless, lemonless, waterless. It was smoky, strong, and brought tears to the eyes. In short, it was white whiskey mixed with white whiskey.

“An' very strengthenin' to the legs it is,” said Jack Apple, pressing its offer.

The dancing began again with vigor, with fire and fury. The music sped in tripping notes, and Mr. Officer added hi cracked but cheerful voice:


                        “Oh! whar did you come from?—
                        Knock a nigger down—
                        Oh! whar did you come from,
                        Jerry Miah Brown?”

The bran dried under their warm feet and blew up in little swirls. The mountain boys jumped until their heads knocked against the boughs above, and green leaves whirled through the flying dust. Rills of laughter bubbled forth, checked by sudden coughs. Girls' loosened hair caught around the wet necks of their partners.



                        “Don't you weep no more, Sister Mary;
                        Don't you weep no more, Brother John,”

sang Mr. Officer, kicking his feet against the barrel;


                        “For Satan is dead, an' the word is said
                        For to save you a heavenly crown.
                        Yes, it is “- thump, thump—
                        “Yes, it is ”—thump, thump—
                        “For to save you a heavy-anly crown.”

“The devil!” suddenly exclaimed one of the Bleylock boys.

The dancing stopped; Jack Officer leaped from the barrel.

“Look yonder!” said young Bleylock, pointing up to the forest roof of the arbor.

There darted a sunbeam, here fluttered a dogwood blossom, and between flower and ray the evil head of a snake wriggled socially.

“Clear out!” cried Mr. Officer, gesticulating wildly. In two minutes the place was cleared. The bran settled slowly. His snakeship was monarch, but there was naught to survey.

Jack Apple stepped in, however, an open clasp-knife in one hand. He poured some whiskey on the ground, and stooping, rubbed his other hand in the wet earth until it was gummy and black. Whether there was some mysterious significance in this rite, or he did it to secure a firmer grip, we did not know. But he seized the snake just back of the head, and before it could hiss for wonder one snake of the world had been cut in two, and could not come again.

Grandpa Apple had surveyed the scene with interest and pride.

“Purty well done, Jack—putty well,” he said. “ 'T comes natural to the Apples to hate snakes. D' I ever tell you o' my scrimmage with the snakes on Council Rock?”

“Reckon 't 'll b'ar tellin' over agin,” said Jack Officer's wife.

“ 'Twuz when I fust settled in Tennessee,” said Grandpa Apple; ” an'

I built my house on a rock, like the man in Scripture you know. We moved in befo' it wuz finished, an' the roof wuz but partly shingled. 'Twuz coolish, snappish weather, an' I made rousin' big fires, an' warmed the old rock up. An' one mornin' me an' my wife an' the baby (Jack's grandpa) wuz in bed, an' I heerd a soft, ugly sound— hiss-s-s-s-s! The mornin' wuz dark, but I peered with young eyes at the floor, an' it seemed to be a-risin' in curls an' waves—put me in mind o' Cany Fork when the wind is of a moderate gustiness. I raised on my elbow, an' I squinted up my eyes for a closer look, an' I said, 'Lord o' creation!'—not that I'm a swarin' man; but them wuz snakes! an' that sight wuz enough to make a man throw rocks at his grandmother. What a lot of 'em, little an' big!—'s many's there are Apples here to-day. Maybe 'twuz kind o' prophetic. Well, I woke Nancy, an' told her to roll up head, ears, an' baby (Jack's grandpa) in the blankets; an' I crawled up the bed-post an' out through that blessed hole in the roof. Fortunate I had a neighbor with a family o' boys, an' we got on boots, an' with rifles an' whips we went in for the biggest snake-fight ever seen this side o' Jordan. You see, thar nests wuz under the rock, an' my fires had made it warm for 'em, an' they had come a-corkscrewin' out o' thar winter quarters. Tell you we slayed an' we slew! The old woman she stayed kivered up, ekally afeard, she said, o' men an' snakes, we got so bloody an' fierce to kill. I do s'pose we killed a million o' them rattlers—they wuz all rattlers.”

“Oh! oho! Mr. Apple,” said Jack Officer; “them figgers is too high. 'F you killed one thousand a day, 'twould take you a matter o' twenty years to git shet of a million.”

“Now, look at that!” said the old man, admiringly; and, “Mr. Officer's a powerful smart man—powerful,” said Jack's wife.

It was now noon, and dinner was served in the grove. The table was made of pine boards stretched across chair backs. It was crowded with savory dishes, and as for the dear little pigs, never were pigs so good since the first that it took the burning of a hut to roast.

After dinner the dance began again, but we were tired and spent with laughter. We sought a far-off tree, and, gazed upon admiringly by three small Apples, slept until the bran dance was over.

 
 
 

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