The Bartley kid was riding his mule to school, Kentucky-style, when a fancy man showed up on a real nice horse and asked, “Son, you ever consider becoming a Presbyterian?”
“I’ll try anything once,” said the kid. That’s how he made it out of Letcher County and started a church for immigrants on Ellis Island in New York City. But after a while, he missed Kentucky, so he went back home and was still a big shot with the Presbyterians thereabouts. Somewhere along the line he bought a pearl-handled revolver and shot himself in the head with it, God not withstanding.
His son inherited the gun and decided farming might be safer than preaching. The corn was sweet and his hogs were fat, but he never did marry. He was too busy helping raise his sister’s boys while their mother went off to Berea College to make something of herself. The boys grew up and moved down the hollow, then for no reason anybody knew, the farmer killed himself with that same pearl-handled gun.
They buried him in the cemetery in Whitesburg, a town just short of nothing, and sold his belongings at auction. His cousin, who was a writer, bought the gun because it was a story in itself. Besides, everyone agreed the pistol was a real beauty.
The writer got famous when he wrote a book about Appalachia and said what nobody’d had the nerve to say before. It was a sad story; full of coal dust and bubbling springs clogged with old cars and broken-down lives. When he was fifty-six he picked up the revolver and put a bullet in his own brain.
“Somebody ought to take that damn gun and throw it in the river,” my Dad said. He’d left his crazy-ass relatives in the ground down in Letcher County and run away to Baltimore to flip burgers at the White Castle back in 1943. He hasn’t shot himself or anyone else yet, but there’s no telling what a Bartley might do.