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Or how the Baptists got to Texas
The story begins in a wild and beautiful area of Georgia where the Cherokees lived long ago. But this story isn’t about Indians, it’s about cousin Elijah Horn, the first of many, many preachers in our family. Poor cousin Eli was hard on the eye, a gangly fellow, tall as a tree whose bones were strung like a school-house skeleton. He all but clanked as he walked. His nose protruded from his thin face like a whale hook. So it was with a grateful heart that cousin Eli accepted the call to serve a Baptist church in Smoky Hollow*, a village tucked in the Appalachians about as far from polite society as you could get. His congregation included the whole village, mostly immigrants from the mean shores of Ireland, and a family of Germans, mostly lukewarm Lutherans.
Elijah’s flock soon grew fond of the awkward preacher—mostly for his pie auctions, the highlight of a monthly social in the church hall. Brother Elijah—that’s how Baptists address their preachers—began every social with a prayer, which as sure as an Amen, was followed by the offering. In the awkward silence during the passing of the plate, Elijah would start whistling. He pursed his thin lips into a tight circle, from which came the pure, wavering notes of a forlorn, Celtic ballad. When the last crystalline note faded, the crowd broke into cheers, eager for the start of the auction. Brother Elijah’s pie auction not only raised money for the church, it also served as Smoky Hollow’s unofficial matchmaker. The church got the money and the highest bidder won the pie and the chance to spend the evening with the young woman who baked it.
Brother Elijah, a bachelor himself, had set his cap for the pretty Kathleen, a young woman who laughed often and flirted easily. Elijah was determined to be the winning bidder for Kathleen’s cherry pie. As the bidding started, one of the Lutheran’s burly sons, a fellow named Karl, stepped forward from the crowd. Grinning, he stared straight at Elijah then shouted his bid. On it went, first Elijah, then Karl, raising the bid with each exchange. Elijah grew more and more anxious. When he saw he could’t outbid his rival, he froze in his chair, then bolted from the church hall and out into the night.
He ran until he reached the hollow and the cover of its smoky mist. With the lights of town now but distant flecks through the leaves, the preacher stumbled on in his jerky fashion, weaving like a town drunk. Where was he to go, this sweet but sad bag of bones? He followed the creek through the dark, the moon’s reflection on the water to guide him.
But for the rustling sounds of small animals and a solitary splash, all was quiet. In the silence, Elijah began to pray. Prayer always calmed him. Then he felt, more than heard, the earth tremble under heavy footfall. A bear, an Indian perhaps? He’d heard stories of a lone Cherokee warrior, who on misty nights would ride the hollows seeking revenge on white settlers for taking his land, and as rumor had it, also taking off the Indian’s head.
Were those the sounds of horses’ hoofs muffled by the damp earth? Elijah stopped dead, startled at the sharp crack of twigs nearby. Elijah looked behind him at the sound, louder, closer. In the mist he saw the dark form of a horse and rider. Ahead, Elijah could see the outlines of a bridge in the creek’s reflecting light. In heart-pounding terror, Eli collected his wits and made for the bridge, his long, rickety legs quickly covering the distance. If he could outrun the horseman and make it across the bridge, he could hide in the thick forest. Behind him, the hoofbeats grew closer, the horseman looming larger. Elijah could see that his pursuer was a Cherokee warrior riding a black steed. They appeared as one being, a steaming silhouette of man and animal.
Through the blue-gray mist, he saw the Indian raise what looked like a war trophy high above his head. Horrified, he saw that the trophy was in fact the Indian’s own head. The head’s gaping mouth was smeared red and its face striped in war paint. As the horseman held his grisly head aloft, blood ran down his arm in rivulets. The Indian then heaved his bloody head in a long arc toward Elijah, striking the preacher upside his head.
Elijah clutched his face, sticky and splattered red, then ran screaming toward the bridge as the horseman closed in behind him. Elijah reached the bridge dashing across its wooden planks into the woods beyond. Seconds later the huge horse reached the bridge, but suddenly pulled up from the pursuit, stopping where the creek bank met the bridge. Snorting and stamping, the horse refused to cross. From across the water, Brother Elijah could be heard mumbling a prayer.
After a few days, the good people of Smoky Hollow began to question Brother Elijah’s whereabouts. A party of men from the congregation searched along the creek but all they found was a cherry pie smashed to pieces on the wooden bridge. Out of respect, or from lack of interest, that was the last of the pie auctions. Karl and Kathleen later had a fine church wedding with the new Lutheran preacher officiating.
Elijah was never spoken of again in Smoky Hollow. Then one day a circuit rider passing through mentioned meeting a Georgia preacher down in San Antonio. He was a skinny fella, he said, but he could whistle a tune as sad as a whippoorwill’s night song.
That’s the story of how the Baptists got to Texas!
*I borrowed the idea from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, said to be America’s first ghost story. But it is also based on my family, which included preachers, mostly Baptists and a dour uncle given to mournful whistling.