I was lost in a snowstorm one night up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Though I was frozen into unconsciousness, my horse carried me to a house. When consciousness began to dawn again, I heard a fire crackling at my feet, and looking up, saw a bearded man bending over, swearing because I would not open my mouth to admit the neck of a bottle. In that moment, I thought I was dead and had gone to the wrong place.
When my senses returned, I recognized the man as a notorious outlaw with a price on his head, a man who had vowed that physical violence would fall heavily on any preacher who dared to enter his house, and I did not know what to expect.
No man could have treated me more kindly; for my rescuer and his wife did everything possible for me. When bedtime came, he took me in bed with him and held me against his great warm breast all night, never relaxing his vigil for a moment. In the morning I was little worse for my experience, but the sun shone and the snow was melting, and I was ready to go. Then it was that something said, "You have a chance that no other preacher ever had and you must try and save Jake Woods."
How should I begin? Jake was sitting before the wide fireplace as I packed my saddlebags. I walked over to him. Taking a bill from my pocket, I said, "Mr. Woods, I regret to offer you so little, when you and your good wife have done so much for me, but this is a little expression of my appreciation for what you have done. I could not repay you, even if I were rich."
He looked me over from head to foot with astonishment.
"Put up your money, Doc," he said. "What we did for you was because we wanted to be clever to you. If you had come to my house last night as a preacher I would have turned you away in the storm and been glad you were frozen to death this morning. Twenty odd years ago when the Almighty took my boy, our only child, I swore that no man representing Him should ever come under my roof, and I kept my word until last night: but when your horse brought you I couldn't turn you away. Now you can go and say that you have stayed all night with Jake Woods."
His last sentence was hissed through clenched teeth. I never saw a man look so fierce. Certainly I had done all I could and failed, so I picked up my saddlebags from the bedside and started toward the door. But something gripped my conscience with fingers like steel. "You must try again," the unmistakable order came.
I walked the floor time and again to find a ship to Tarshish, but none was in sight. I was sure that he guessed what I was suffering, but he never turned his head. Finally, I walked over to him again, and with a voice trembling from emotion, I said, "Mr. Woods, I have a little book that I want to read and talk to a Friend of mine before I go. Will you let me?" He turned to his wife, sitting in the corner, and said, "Doc, it's all right; go ahead." I began reading that wonderful chapter of Luke, about that one sheep that strayed, but was found.
There was the story of the Prodigal Son, too. When he came home in tatters within and without, his father was so happy that he would gladly have killed everything on the place to make merry because his son had come home.
Just then I looked out of the corner of my eye and Jake Woods had turned around and was looking at me with eager interest, as much as to say, "What are you talking about me for?" I was, for he had sneered in the messenger's face who came when his father was dying and begged his son to come home.
I dropped to my knees and took hold of God with one hand and tried to reach Jake Woods with the other, but he was too far down. I held on and reached for Woods until I remembered that the sin of lacking hospitality is unpardonable with us. I said, "O God, I came here more dead than alive last night, and this man and his good wife took me in and nursed me back to life, and now they refuse to accept anything for their kindness. But Jesus Christ has stood at their door ever since they have had a house, with outstretched hands bleeding and with thorn-crowned brow, and they have slammed the door in His face. Help Jake Woods to tell Jesus Christ to come in today."
When I got up, Woods was sitting on the floor, looking at the door. I followed his glare but saw nothing but the open door, with the sunshine and melting snow. After a minute, he said to something apparently in the door, "Come in." Then turning to me, he added, "He came in" as much as to say, "You can't throw it up to me anymore."
When I left the cabin, he followed me to the gate. "Doc," he asked, "have you another of those little books like you read out of a while ago? My pap used to read about that boy, and I guess I've been him. If you'll lend me one and turn down a leaf, I might find someone to read, and I think I would like to hear it again."
I gave him the Book and he turned away, saying that his 'old woman' might come to hear me preach when I returned to the Flats schoolhouse again.
Several times before I had preached at the Flats, sometimes to a few good souls, but when I arrived this time, the whole campus seemed to be covered with people. The first man, who met me and gripped my hand until I thought I would fall off my horse, was Jake Woods. "Doc, I fetched 'em," was his greeting, and he had.
I walked into the schoolhouse. The women were on one side of the aisle. On the end of the second bench from the front, there was one who caught my coat sleeve as I passed. I looked down into her upturned face. It was Nancy Woods, at church for the first time in more than twenty years.
"Doc," she said, "there's something the matter with Jake."
"Like what?" I asked.
"I don't know, but he ain't like he used to be since you were here. He's been real good to me. Doc, please call for mourners today; maybe Jake'll go up."
The tears came to my eyes as I walked on to the platform and laid my saddlebags down.
Jake Woods had beaten that woman almost to death once because she had given a coin to a preacher. Many times he had driven her off in the storm to perish. Once, in a drunken state, he had thrown her into the fire. Now she had been in heaven for three whole weeks.
I turned, and there the men came, with Jake Woods at their head, walking like he was on air. Just behind him was an old soldier of the Civil War, hopping on a stiff knee. He hadn't been in church since the war closed. Woods sat at the end of the front bench, and the old soldier by his side. I shall never forget how the old man dropped down and adjusted his stiff leg, then crossed his hands with eager resignation, as he looked up into my face, as much as to say, "Well I'm here."
The house was full of good and bad. The sermon that I had prepared would not fit, so I took for my text, "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." I don't think I ever preached the same before or since, but somebody standing by that table did preach that day with power and conviction.
When I was ready to let down the net, Jake Woods sprang to his feet and went down the aisle, speaking in a voice that drowned mine: "Men and women, come on! Doc's telling you the truth; for I saw that Man when Doc prayed in my house. When I opened my house He was standing in the door with His hands stretched out, and there were holes in them with blood running out. I saw thorns on His head too. And I told Him to come in and He came, and I haven't been the same man since."
They came until it seemed they would all come.
Jake Woods went out to exhort and save the people of his acquaintance, and he reached more of that class in the two years that he lived, than I could have reached in a lifetime.
-Rev. J. S. Barnett