245: Jack and the Strangers

Once upon a time Jack was visiting his kinfolks down in Greenbrier Holler. Every year, in the dead of winter, Jack’s aunt and uncle would have a big party at their cabin to fight off the cold, and they would have all the families from the holler over for a night of eatin’ and dancin’ and general merriment.

Well the much anticipated night rolled around again and Jack’s aunt and uncle’s cabin was full of kin and friends from all around the hills. Despite the snow and bitter cold a band showed up to play, and folks were dancin’ and having a good ole time when all of a sudden a knock comes at the door. Jack went over and opened the door and an old man stood there holding a banjo in one hand and an old rucksack in the other. “How do sir?” The old man asked. “Couldn’t be better if I was in a barrel of gold!” Jack replied. “If you would permit me,” the old man said, “I’d play you this here banjo for some food and a bed to rest my head?

Well Jack was the kind of person that would give a polecat a bed to sleep in, so he brought the old man into the cabin, sat him down by the fire, and loaded him up a plate of beans and cornpone. “Everyone!” Jack yelled, “Our guest is gonna play us a song.”

The crowd quieted down while the old man warmed the skin of the banjo beside the fire. He strummed a few notes then started playing just about the prettiest song Jack had ever heard.

Well pretty soon Jack was starting to feel sleepy. “It must have been the good food and good dancin’.” He thought to himself. So he leaned himself up against the wall to listen to that pretty ballad plucked by their guest. “I’ll just shut my eyes a spell.” He thought, and as his eyes closed he saw everybody else in the room start laying out on beds and couches and some people were flat out on the wood floor. Everyone hushed up and started dozin’ off.

The old man sang some words, but Jack could barely make them out:

This song I…yer head…fine…yer house…yer gold…

Jack woke up suddenly to the smell of a fire, and looking around folks were in a tizzy running out of the smoke filled cabin. Jack jumped up and ran out into the yard with the rest of his folks. It was broad daylight outside, “We must have slept through the night!” Jack said to his aunt. Jack’s uncle said it must have been that stranger that they’d invited in, but Jack and his aunt hushed the man sayin’ it was always bad luck to turn away a stranger.

A year passed by and the party night was here already. Jack and his kinfolks had lit the bonfires and were celebrating with plenty of food and dancin’ in his aunt and uncle’s brand new cabin. Just as Jack started dancin’ with pretty Margaret from up the holler, a knock came at the door to the cabin. Jack rushed over and there standing in the doorway was an old beggar woman carrying a reed flute in one hand and a worn out potato sack in the other. “A fine night sir!” The old woman said. “A fine night!” Jack replied. “If you would permit me,” the old woman said, “I’d play you this here flute for some food and a bed to rest my head?”

Despite the protests from Jack’s uncle, he invited the old woman inside the cabin, sat her down by the fire, and loaded her up a plate of beans and cornpone. “Everyone!” Jack yelled, “Our guest is gonna play us a song.”

The old woman took out her long reed flute and started playing the prettiest melody Jack had ever heard. Pretty soon he and the other guests were plumb tuckered out and everyone took a seat on chairs or on the floor. Some lay out under blankets, others piled up in the corners of the cabin, pretty soon everyone was fast asleep.

The old woman started to sing some words, but again Jack could barely make them out:

This song I…yer head…fine…yer house…yer gold…

Jack woke up to a similar scene as he had the year before. The cabin was all full of smoke and everyone was running around like headless turkeys trying to get out of the place. Out in the yard Jack’s uncle was a-ravin’ and a-rantin’ about the stranger they’d dare let into their house again. Jack’s aunt hushed the man up telling him that no one should be left out in the cold.

Well Jack helped his aunt and uncle build their cabin again for a whole year. They were fast approaching the party night and Jack was sure to not let anything bad happen this time. So he went up the holler to old Mr. Green’s cabin. Everyone said that old Mr. Green was a witch but nobody ever dared call him that, and Jack always figured the man was probably just more wise to the ways of the world than anybody else was.

Jack told the old conjurer about what had happened the last two years and Mr. Green told him not to worry then handed him an old hatchet. “What’s this for?” Jack asked. “Jack,” Mr. Green replied, “you make sure your aunt and uncle has their party, and when that beggar comes to the house you let them in, feed them, set them there by the fire, and when they play their song you hold that hatchet up to your head and it will make sure you won’t fall asleep, but you have to close your eyes and act like you’re asleep like the others.”

Jack took the axe and knew exactly what he had to do. He rushed back to his aunt and uncle’s cabin and set them to cleaning and cooking for the party they were sure to have that evening.

Around midnight and everyone was a-rompin’ and a-dancin’ and having the nicest time, when there come a knock at the door to the cabin. Jack rushed over and there in the doorway stood a little orphan child with a fiddle in one hand and a handkerchief sack in the other. “Please sir,” the child said in a soft voice, “if you’d let me, I’d play you this here fiddle for some food and a bed to rest my head?”

Jack just smiled and brought the child into the house. He sat him right there by the fire, and gave him plenty to eat just like Mr. Green had said, then quieted everyone in the cabin down. “Go ahead and play somethin’ fer us.” Jack said.

The orphan boy took out his fiddle and started playing the nicest, prettiest song any of them had ever heard, and as the crowd started getting sleepier and sleepier Jack quickly sat down over on one wall and hid himself behind some flour sacks. He held the hatchet up to his head and even though he had his eyes closed he didn’t fall asleep like the others.

Pretty soon the boy began to sing and this time Jack heard the words:

This song I play,
That you may lay
Yer head on a piller fine.

Yer house is nice,
You’ll pay the price,
For all yer gold is mine!

When the boy was finished playing Jack opened his eyes just a little bit to see him taking off his skin like it was a coat, and there underneath was a strange feathery critter with a face like a possum, with hands like owl claws, and feet like two goat legs. The critter quickly set to gathering up all the coins and jewelry from the pockets of the guests asleep and snoring there on the floor. Then Jack saw him go over to where his uncle hid all the family loot tucked in behind a rock on the mantle and he pocketed that too!

Jack quietly got to his feet and crept up behind the critter while he was busy stuffing all the money and gold into his handkerchief sack. And just as the beast was about to spit fire out and burn the cabin down Jack went SWISH! SWISH! with the hatchet a cut the critter’s head clean off.

The next morning Jack’s aunt and uncle and all their kinfolks started waking up and much to their surprise the sun was shining and the cabin was still in one piece. “This year’s party,” Jack’s uncle said, “was a mighty success I reckon!” And Jack’s aunt asked him where’d their stranger had gone to, but Jack just told her that the boy had played and played before Jack let him sleep up in the loft, then, this morning, a nice preacher and his wife came and took the boy to live at their house.

To this day Jack never did mention that strange critter to his aunt and uncle, never did say nothing about talking to Mr. Green, nor about the magic hatchet. “Best not worry them.” Jack thought to himself.

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