Today I live in Nashville where my eldest son is a prominent businessman. But this story begins thirty-one years ago. It was then that I married, in Jackson, Tennessee, as pretty a girl as that village had ever sheltered. She had been well brought up but had no fortune of her own to speak of. I had fifteen-hundred dollars which I had made by running a sawmill. We were young and had the world before us, so we decided to go forth and carve out our future together. I knew of a small but booming lumber town near the Alabama border called Collinwood, so we concluded to go there.
It was late in August when we reached Collinwood. We stayed at the Highland Inn while I set about looking for a spot to build on. About two miles west of town I found a deep, narrow valley with almost perpendicular sides, one-hundred feet high. A shallow, rock-bottom stream split the valley in half. The stream was called Roanoke Creek. The sides, where they were not too steep, were covered in first class timber. And for hundreds of acres around, the hills were thick with trees of the same quality. I saw there was money to be made down in that valley, so I built a sawmill right on the stream.
I built my mill there, and close to it a little house. So close in fact, that the two joined. I took Nellie, that is my wife, down there, and we began housekeeping. It was well into winter by that time, so I began logging at once. I hired a gang of men to help me, raised money by contracting my lumber ahead, and started in. We cut logs on the hills close to the mill, rigged up slides, and ran them down to the logway. I tell you; it was music to my ears when the saw ripped into that first log and a clean-cut slab dropped away from the teeth. We even had a little jollification. That was the first log ever cut on Roanoke Creek, and people drove miles to see it.
Business was good. I had logs enough at my door to keep me busy for a year, and I knew where there were plenty more when those ran out. And besides, I now had two to look after instead of one. You would not know it to look at him today with his refined ways and education, but the first music my son ever heard was a saw blade tearing through a pine knot. He was a pioneer’s son and knocked around a sawmill until he was into his teens. When business was slow, I worked around the house, fixing up things here and there for Nellie, to make her more comfortable. She could not have been more contented. She used to think our valley on Roanoke Creek was just about the most pleasant place in the country. Hour after hours she would stay out there with me, and we’d keep up conversation while the log was running back and stop when it went up to the saw. Dear me! Why, I can see her as she used to look in those days in that little sawmill just as plainly as if she stood here with me today. She used to jump on the log and ride it up close to the saw and then, just as I would get scared and jump to drag her away, off she’d go. Nobody was ever happier than we were.
There were snakes back then, and we killed them. Rattlers used to come out on the ledges of rocks and lay in the hot sun. One or two had come around the mill, and I had shot one in our door yard. But we thought nothing of that. People living in the woods or in wild places get used to things that might fill folks with horrors in a settled country. We expected snakes, and as long as they kept their distance or gave us a chance to shoot them before they got too close, we didn’t mind them.
One of the bits of furniture I knocked together for Nellie was a bedstead. It was more like a broad lounge than a bedstead, for it had neither head nor foot board. One end was raised a little like a couch, and that was the head. We had some bearskins and blankets to sleep on, and more blankets to cover us. It was a big improvement over the floor where we had been sleeping, and after a hard day’s work handling logs, I used to think it about as comfortable a spot I knew.
Well, it got along into the fall, and we began to have chilly nights. The equinoctial gave us a big rain, and for a fortnight it poured down. Day after day and hour after hour it came down, till about nine o’clock one evening, when it suddenly cleared off and turned cold. It was late in October, and we kept a fire burning on the hearth nights, more for the baby’s sake than for our own. Our bed was parallel to the fireplace and stood out near the middle of the room. We had an English shepherd’s dog named Buck, which Nellie brought with her from Smyrna. He was a black and tan beauty, with a glossy black coat, a tan spot above each eye, and a tan bar across his chest. My wife, who had raised him, thought about as much of him as she did of the baby or me – or at least, I used to tease her so. The dog was fond of me, and I made a great pet of him. He was a noble fellow, and all he wanted was for me to whistle just once and he would come. We let him sleep in the room at the foot of the bed. Sometimes in the morning I would wake up before my wife and I would whistle just once to the dog. Up he would come over the foot of the bed and wake Nellie by licking her face. I would laugh and laugh while she complained.
That night we were just going to bed when it turned cold. I threw an extra pine knot on the fire and went to the door for a look out. I will never forget that night’s sky, for it was the last time I ever stood there and saw the stars over Roanoke Creek. I closed the door, went to bed, and soon fell asleep. I slept on the side of the bed nearest the hearth, my wife slept on the further side and the baby lay between us. For some reason I didn’t sleep long, and when I woke up, I couldn’t get to sleep again. Finally, I got out of bed and threw another knot on the fire. Buck was stretched out on the floor with his nose between his paws. He eyed me sleepily as I walked around the room and gave me a loving look as I stooped down and rubbed under his chin. I went back to bed and fell into an uneasy sleep.
All at once, I wakened with a start. It must have been past midnight. I seemed to be fully awake from the moment I opened my eyes. Such a sight, I pray God grant me, may I never see again. I was lying on my left side facing my wife, who was lying on her right side. They baby lay on his back between us. As I opened my eyes a dark object glided down from off the baby and onto the bed. Just then the knot in the hearth burst into flames, flooding the room with light. Lo and behold a timber rattler, fully five feet long! Startled no doubt by some movement I had made in waking, the black-tailed serpent had thrown itself into a coil at baby’s feet.
For a moment, I lost my head. I did not move, but I seemed to drift out of all consciousness. For that frozen moment, only this lasted. Then my senses came back to me, and I fought the reaction to tremble from head to foot. How I ever managed to keep my body rigid I will never know, but by an awful effort I did. I knew that to stir was death, perhaps for myself, perhaps for my wife, perhaps – my God, the thought was agony – for our son. Despite all I could do, an icy shudder ran through my body.
The snake felt me tremble and raised its head. I could see its eyes glisten and dance in the firelight. I could see the scales across its coiled body and its black tail ending in a ribbed rattle. I could see that the snake was agitated, and I knew it was liable to spring at any moment. Who would it strike? Any one of us was within easy distance. It seemed to me that I could see the beginning of the muscular contraction which would precede its spring.
All of this, of course, passed in a fraction of the time I have occupied in recounting it. My wife and boy slept on. I prayed that they might not move, for if they did the snake would surely throw itself forward. I moved my head slightly. The snake’s head again rose, and for the first time it sounded its rattle. Instantly, my wife opened her eyes and instinctively looked toward the sound which had awakened her. I watched as every vestige of color drained from her face. But she did not move a muscle. Then her eyes slowly left the snake and come up to mine.
Looking back over the nearly thirty years which have elapsed since that moment, I can still see the look in her eyes. We had sometimes talked about meeting death together. Now it lay between us, in a more horrible form than I think either of us had ever imagined. Yet the look of perfect confidence in me which my wife’s eyes almost spoke was something a man does not see more than once in a lifetime. That look seemed to say, “for baby’s sake.” Like a flash, I became as cool as I am at this moment. I raised my head just enough to look down to the floor beyond the foot of the bed. My wife’s eyes followed mine, and we both saw the dog. The hideous eyes of the snake swayed to and fro, and I knew what was to be done must be done quickly. I looked to my wife. I saw the tears in her eyes indicate that she knew my plan. Nearly choking in agony, she gave me an almost imperceptible nod. With a prayer for help I moistened my lips and gave one short, sharp whistle. The snake, I think, did not know what to make of it, but Buck the English Shepherd dog did. Quick and without thought, he sprang to his feet and bounded on the bed. As the dog’s body rose in the air, my wife took hold the baby and rolled off her side of the bed. I rolled out on my side, grasped the rifle which stood at the head of the bed, and turned.
The dog and the snake were rolling together on the bed. I caught sight of the snake’s head and fired. As the snake fell lifeless, Buck staggered off the bed to the floor. Our family’s dog shivered, moaned once or twice, looked from my wife to myself with more love than I ever saw before or since, and died.
At daybreak the next morning we buried Buck and started for the Highland Inn back in Collinwood. I sold my mill and the house to a young man who was visiting from up North. We returned to Nashville, where I built another mill. We prospered, had more children, and even have some grandchildren now. A few years back, Nellie and I drove to Christiana, a few miles outside of Murfreesboro. There we met a farmer and his wife who raise black and tan English shepherd’s dogs just like Buck. We’re pretty sure they come from the same local bloodlines as he did. Once every few years I raise a litter of pups from those dogs we got in Christiana. To honor the heroic dog who gave his life to protect my family.