The Mystery of Witch Face Mountain
by Charles Egbert Craddock
The beetling crags that hang here and there above the gorge hold in
their rugged rock sculpture no facial similitudes, no suggestions. The
jagged outlines of shelving bluffs delineate no gigantic profile
against the sky beyond. One might seek far and near, and scan the vast
slope with alert and expectant gaze, and view naught of the semblance
that from time immemorial has given the mountain its name. Yet the
imagination needs but scant aid when suddenly the elusive simulacrum
is revealed to the eye. In a certain slant of the diurnal light, even
on bright nights at the full of the moon, sometimes in the uncanny
electric flicker smitten from a storm-cloud, a gigantic peaked
sinister face is limned on the bare, sandy slope, so definite, with
such fixity of lineament, that one is amazed that the perception of it
came no earlier, and is startled when it disappears.
Disappearing as completely as a fancy, few there are who have ever
seen it who have not climbed from the herder's trail across the
narrow wayside stream and up the rugged mountain slopes to the spot
where it became visible. There disappointment awaits the explorer. One
finds a bare and sterile space, from which the hardy chickweed can
scarcely gain the sustenance for timorous sproutings; a few
outcropping rocks; a series of transverse gullies here and there,
washed down to deep indentations; above the whole a stretch of burnt,
broken timber that goes by the name of "fire-scald," and is a relic of
the fury of the fire which was "set out" in the woods with the mission
to burn only the leaves and undergrowth, and which, in its
undisciplined strength, transcended its instructions, as it were, and
destroyed great trees. And this is all. But once more, at a coigne of
vantage on the opposite side of the gorge, and the experience can be
utilized in differentiating the elements that go to make up the weird
presentment of a human countenance. It is the fire-scald that suggests
the great peaked brown hood; the oblong sandy stretch forms the pallid
face; the ledges outline the nose and chin and brow; the eyes look out
from the deep indentations where the slope is washed by the currents
of the winter rains; and here and there the gullies draw heavy lines
and wrinkles. And when the wind is fresh and the clouds scud before
it, in the motion of their shadows the face will seem to mow at the
observer, until the belief comes very readily that it is the exact
counterpart of a witch's face.
Always the likeness is pointed out and insisted on by the denizens of
Witch-Face Mountain, as if they had had long and intimate acquaintance
with that sort of unhallowed gentry, and were especially qualified to
pronounce upon the resemblance.
"Ain't it jes' like 'em, now? Ain't it the very moral of a witch?"
Constant Hite demanded, one gusty day, when the shadows were a-flicker
in the sun, and the face seemed animated by the malice of mockery or
mirth, as he pointed it out to his companion with a sort of triumph in
its splenetic contortions.
He was a big, bluff fellow, to whose pride all that befell him seemed
to minister. He was proud of his length of limb, and his hundred and
eighty pounds of weight, and yet his slim appearance. "Ye wouldn't
believe it now, would ye?" he was wont to say when he stepped off the
scales at the store of the hamlet down in the Cove. "It's solid meat
an' bone an' muscle, my boy. Keep on the friendly side of one hunderd
an' eighty," with a challenging wink. He was proud of his bright brown
eyes, and his dark hair and mustache, and smiling, handsome face, and
his popularity among the class that he was pleased to denominate "gal
critters." He piqued himself upon his several endowments as a hardy
woodsman, his endurance, his sylvan craft, his pluck, and his luck and
his accurate aim. The buck—all gray and antlered, for it was
August—that hung across the horse, behind the saddle, gave token of
this keen exactitude in the tiny wound at the base of the ear, where
the rifle-ball had entered to pierce the brain; it might seem to the
inexpert that death had come rather from the gaping knife-stroke
across the throat, which was, however, a mere matter of butcher-craft.
He was proud of the good strong bay horse that he rode, which so
easily carried double, and proud of his big boots and long spurs; and
he scorned flimsy town clothes, and thought that good home-woven blue
jeans was the gear in which a man who was a man should clothe himself
withal. He glanced more than once at the different toggery of his
companion, evidently a man of cities, whom he had chanced to meet by
the wayside, and with whom he had journeyed more than a mile.
He had paused again and again to point out the "witch-face" to the
stranger, who at first could not discern it at all, and then when it
suddenly broke upon him could not be wiled away from it. He
dismounted, hitching his horse to a sapling, and up and down he
patrolled the rocky mountain path to study the face at various angles;
Constant Hite looking on the while with an important placid
satisfaction, as if he had invented the illusion.
"Some folks, though, can't abide sech ez witches," he said, with a
tolerant smile, as if he were able to defy their malevolence and make
light of it. "Ye see that cabin on the spur over yander around the
bend?" It looked very small and solitary from this height, and the
rail fences about its scanty inclosures hardly reached the dignity of
suggesting jackstraws. "Waal, the Hanways over thar hev a full view of
the old witch enny time she will show up at all. Folks in the
mountings 'low the day be onlucky when she appears on the slope thar.
The old folks at Hanway's will talk 'bout it cornsider'ble ef ye set
'em goin'; they hev seen thar time, an' it rests 'em some ter tell
'bout'n the spites they hev hed that they lay ter the witch-face."
The ugly fascination of the witch-face had laid hold, too, on the
stranger. Twice he had sought to photograph it, and Constant Hite had
watched him with an air of lenient indulgence to folly as he pottered
about, now adjusting his camera, now changing his place anew.
"And I believe I have got the whole amount of nothing at all," he said
at last, looking up breathlessly at the mountaineer. Albeit the wind
was fresh and the altitude great, the sun was hot on the unshaded red
clay path, and the nimble gyrations of the would-be artist brought
plentiful drops to his brow. He took off his straw hat, and mopped his
forehead with his handkerchief, while he stared wistfully at the siren
of his fancy, grimacing maliciously at him from the slope above. "If
the confounded old woman would hold still, and not disappear so
suddenly at the wrong minute, I'd have had her charming physiognomy
all correct. I believe I've spoiled my plates,—that's all." And once
more he mopped his bedewed forehead.
He was a man of thirty-five, perhaps, of the type that will never look
old or grow perceptibly gray. His hair was red and straight, and cut
close to his head. He had a long mustache of the same sanguine tint.
The sun had brought the blood near the surface of his thin skin, and
he looked hot and red, and thoroughly exasperated. His brown eyes were
disproportionately angry, considering the slight importance of his
enterprise. He was evidently a man of keen, quick temper, easily
aroused and nervous. His handsome, well-groomed horse was fractious,
and difficult for so impatient a rider to control. His equestrian
outfit once more attracted the covert glance of Con Hite, whose
experience and observation could duplicate no such attire. He was
tall, somewhat heavily built, and altogether a sufficiently stalwart
specimen of the genus "town man."
"I'll tell you what I'll do!" he exclaimed suddenly. "I'll sketch the
"Now you're shoutin'," said Con Hite capably, as if he had always
advocated this method of solving the difficulty. His interlocutor
could not for a moment have dreamed that he had never before seen a
camera, had never heard of a photograph, had not the least idea of
what the process of sketching might be which he so boldly approved;
nay, the very phrase embodying his encouragement of the project was
foreign to his vocabulary,—a bit of sophisticated slang which he had
adopted from his companion's conversation, and readily assimilated.
"You stay just where you are!" cried the stranger, his enthusiasm
rising to the occasion; "just that pose,—that pose precisely."
He ran swiftly across the path to remove the inefficient camera from
the foreground, and in a moment was seated on a log by the wayside,
his quick eye scanning the scene: the close file of the ranges about
the horizon, one showing above another, and one more faintly blue
than another, for thus the distance was defined; then the amphitheatre
of the Cove, the heavy bronze-green slopes of the mountains, all with
ripple marks of clear chrome-green ruffling in the wake of the wind;
in the middle distance the still depths of the valley below, with
shadows all a-slumber and silent, and on the projecting spur the
quiet, lonely little house, so slight a suggestion of the presence of
man amidst the majestic dominance of nature; here, to the right,
across the savage gorge, with its cliffs and with its currents in the
deep trough, the nearest slope of the mountain, with the great gaunt
bare space showing that face of ill omen, sibylline, sinister,
definite indeed,—he wondered how his eyes were holden that he should
not have discerned it at once; and in the immediate foreground the
equestrian figure of the mountaineer, booted and spurred, the very
"moral," as Hite would have called it, of an athlete, with his fine
erect pose distinct against the hazy perspective, his expression of
confident force, the details of his handsome features revealed by the
brim of his wide black hat turned up in front.
"It's a big subject, I know; I can't get it all in. I shall only
suggest it. Just keep that pose, will you? Hold the horse still.
'Stand the storm, it won't be long!'" the artist said, smiling with
renewed satisfaction as his pencil, not all inapt, went briskly to
work on the horizontal lines of the background.
But it was longer than he had thought, so still sat the contemplative
mountaineer, so alluring were the details of the landscape. The
enthusiasm of the amateur is always a more urgent motive power than
the restrained and utilitarian industry of the professional.
Few sworn knights of the crayon would have sat sketching so long in
that temperature as he did, with the sun blazing through his straw hat
and his blood mustering under his thin skin; but he stopped at a point
short of sunstroke, and it was with a tumultuous sense of success that
he at last arose, and, with the sketch-book still open, walked across
the road and laid it on the pommel of the mountaineer's saddle.
Constant Hite took it up suspiciously and looked at it askance. It is
to be doubted if ever before he had seen a picture, unless perchance
in the primary reading-book of his callow days at the public school,
spasmodically opened at intervals at the "church house" in the Cove.
He continued to gravely gaze at the sketch, held sideways and almost
reversed, for some moments.
"Bless Gawd! hyar's Whitefoot's muzzle jes' ez nat'ral—an'
Me—waal, sir! don't I look proud!" he cried suddenly, with a note
of such succulent vanity, so finely flavored a pride, that the
stranger could but laugh at the zest of his triumph.
"Do you see the witch-face?" he demanded.
"Hesh! hesh!" cried the mountaineer hilariously. "Don't 'sturb me
'bout yer witch-face. Ef thar ain't the buck,—yes, toler'ble
fat,—an' with all his horns! An' look at my boot,—actially the spur
on it! An' my hat turned up;" he raised his flattered hand to the brim
as if to verify its position.
"You didn't know you were so good looking, hey?" suggested the amused
"My Lord, naw!" declared Hite, laughing at himself, yet laughing
delightedly. "I dunno how the gals make out to do without me at
The pleased artist laughed, too. "Well, hand it over," he said, as he
reached out for the book. "We must be getting out of this sun. I'm not
used to it, you see."
He put his foot in the stirrup as he spoke, and as he swung himself
into the saddle the mountaineer reluctantly closed and relinquished
the book. "I'd like ter see it agin, some time or other," he observed.
He remembered this wish afterward, and how little he then imagined
where and in what manner he was destined to see it again.
They rode on together into the dense woods, leaving the wind and the
sunshine and the flying clouds fluctuating over the broad expanse of
the mountains, and the witch-face silently mowing and grimacing at the
world below, albeit seen by no human being except perchance some
dweller at the little house on the spur, struck aghast by this
unwelcome apparition evoked by the necromancy of the breeze and the
sheen and the shadow, marking this as an unlucky day.
"That's right smart o' a cur'osity, ain't it?" said Constant Hite
complacently, as they jogged along. "When the last gover'mint survey
fellers went through hyar, they war plumb smitten by the ole 'oman,
an' spent cornsider'ble time a-stare-gazin' at her. They 'lowed they
hed never seen the beat."
"What was the survey for?" asked the town man, with keen mundane
Constant Hite was rarely at a loss. When other men were fain to come
to a pause for the lack of information, the resources of his agile
substitutions and speculations were made manifest. "They war jes'
runnin' a few lines hyar an' thar," he said negligently. "They lef'
some tall striped poles planted in the ground, red an' sich colors,
ter mark the way; an' them mounting folks over yander in the
furderest coves,—they air powerful ahint the times,—they hed never
hearn o' sech ez a survey, noway, an' the poles jes' 'peared ter them
sprung up thar like Jonah's gourd in a single night, ez ef they kem
from seed; an' the folks, they 'lowed 't war the sign o' a new war."
He laughed lazily at the uninstructed terrors of the unsophisticated
denizens of the "furderest coves." "They'd gather around an'
stare-gaze at the poles, an' wonder if they'd hev ter fight the Rebs
agin; them folks is mos'ly Union." Then his interest in the subject
quickening, "Them survey fellers, they ondertook, too, ter medjure the
tallness o' some o' the mountings fur the gover'mint. Now what good is
that goin' ter do the Nunited States?" he resumed grudgingly. "The
mountings kin be medjured by the eye,—look a-yander." He pointed with
the end of his whip at a section of the horizon, visible between the
fringed and low-swaying boughs of hemlock and fir as the trail swept
closer to the verge of the range, on which was softly painted, as on
ivory and with an enameled lustre, two or three great azure domes,
with here and there the high white clouds of a clear day nestling
flakelike on the summits. "They air jes' all-fired high, an' that's
all. Do it make 'em seem enny taller ter say they air six thousand or
seben thousand feet? Man ain't used ter medjurin' by the thousand
feet. When he gits ter the ground he goes by the pole. I dunno how
high nor how long a thousand feet air. The gover'mint jes' want ter
spend a leetle money, I reckon. It 'pears toler'ble weak-kneed in its
mind, wunst in a while. But ef it wants ter fool money away, it's
mighty well able ter afford sech. It hev got a power o' ways a-comin'
at money,—we all know that, we all know that."
He said this with a gloomy inflection and a downward look that might
have implied a liability for taxes beyond his willingness to pay. But,
barring the assessment on a small holding of mountain land, Constant
Hite seemed in case to contribute naught to his country's exchequer.
"It needs all it can get, now," replied the stranger casually, but
doubtless from a sophisticated knowledge, as behooved a reader of the
journals of the day, of the condition of the treasury.
He could not account for the quick glance of alarm and enmity which
the mountaineer cast upon him. It roused in him a certain constraint
which he had not experienced earlier in their chance association. It
caused him to remember that this was a lonely way and a wild country.
He was an alien to the temper and sentiment of the people. He felt
suddenly that sense of distance in mind and spirit which is the true
isolation of the foreigner, and which even an identity of tongue and
kindred cannot annul. Looking keenly into the mountaineer's
half-averted, angry, excited face, he could not for his life discern
how its expression might comport with the tenor of the casual
conversation which had elicited it. He did not even dimly surmise that
his allusion to the finances of the government could be construed as a
justification of the whiskey tax, generally esteemed in the mountains
a measure of tyrannous oppression; that from his supposititious
advocacy of it he had laid himself liable to the suspicion of being
himself of the revenue force,—his mission here to spy out
moonshiners; that his companion's mind was even now dwelling anew, and
with a rueful difference, on that masterly drawing of himself in the
"But what do that prove, though?" Hite thought, a certain hope
springing up with the joy of the very recollection of the simulacrum
of the brilliant rural coxcomb adorning the page. "Jes' that me is
Me. All he kin say 'bout me air that hyar I be goin' home from
huntin' ter kerry my game. That ain't agin the law, surely."
The "revenuers," he argued, too, never rode alone, as did this man,
and spies and informers were generally of the vicinage. The stranger
was specially well mounted, and as his puzzled cogitation over the
significant silence that had supervened between them became so marked
as to strike Hite's attention, the mountaineer sought to nullify it by
an allusion to the horse. "That feller puts down his feet like a
kitten," he said admiringly. "I never seen nuthin' ez wears shoes so
supple. Shows speed, I s'pose? Built fur it."
"Makes pretty fair time," responded the stranger without enthusiasm.
The doubt, perplexity, and even suspicion which his companion's manner
had evoked were not yet dissipated, and the allusion to the horse, and
the glow of covetous admiration in Hite's face as his eyes dwelt upon
the finely fashioned creature so deftly moving along, brought suddenly
to his mind sundry exploits of a gang of horse-thieves about these
coves and mountains, detailed in recent newspapers. These rumors had
been esteemed by urban communities in general as merely sensational,
and had attracted scant attention. Now, with their recurrence to his
recollection, their verisimilitude was urged upon him. The horse he
rode was a valuable animal, and moreover, here, ten or twenty miles
from a habitation, would prove a shrewd loss indeed. Nevertheless, it
was impossible to shake off or evade his companion; the wilderness,
with its jungle of dense rhododendron undergrowth on either side of
the path, was impenetrable. There was no alternative practicable. He
could only go on and hope for the best.
A second glance at the mountaineer's honest face served in some sort
as reassurance as to the probity of his character. Gradually a vivid
interest in the environment, which had earlier amazed and amused
Constant Hite, began to be renewed. The stranger looked about to
identify the growths of the forest with a keen, fresh enthusiasm, as
if he were meeting old friends. Once, with a sudden flush and an
intent eye, he flung the reins to the man whom he had half suspected
of being a horse-thief ten minutes before, to hastily dismount and
uproot a tiny wayside weed, which he breathlessly and triumphantly
explained to the wondering mountaineer was a rare plant which he had
never seen; he carefully bestowed it between the leaves of his
sketch-book before he resumed the saddle, and Hite was moved to ask,
"How d' ye know its durned comical name, ef ye never seen it afore? By
Gosh! it's got a name longer 'n its tap-root!"
The town man only laughed a trifle at this commentary upon the
botanical Latin nomenclature, and once more he was leaning from his
saddle, peering down the aisles of the forest with a smiling,
expectant interest, as if they held for him some enchantment of which
duller mortals have no ken. A brown geode, picked up in the channel of
a summer-dried stream, showed an interior of sparkling quartz crystal,
when a blow had shattered it, which Hite had never suspected, often as
he had seen the rugged spherical stones lying along the banks. All the
rocks had a thought for the stranger, close to his heart and quick on
his tongue, and as Hite, half skeptical, half beguiled, listened, his
suspicion of the man as a "revenuer" began to fade.
"The revenuers ain't up ter no sech l'arnin' ez this," he said to
himself, with a vicarious pride. "The man, though he never war in the
mountings afore, knows ez much about 'em ez ef he hed bodaciously
built 'em. Fairly smelt that thar cave over t' other side the ridge
jes' now, I reckon; else how'd he know 't war thar?"
A certain hollow reverberation beneath the horse's hoofs had caught
his companion's quick ear. "Have you ever been in this cave
hereabout?" he had asked, to Hite's delighted amazement at this
brilliant feat of mental jugglery, as it seemed to him.
Even the ground, when the repetitious woods held no new revelation of
tree or flower, or hazy, flickering insect dandering through the
yellow sunshine and the olive-tinted shadow and the vivid green
foliage, the very ground had a word for him.
"This formation here," he said, leaning from his saddle to watch the
path slipping along beneath his horse's hoofs, like the unwinding of
coils of brown ribbon, "is like that witch-face slope that we saw
awhile ago. It seems to occur at long intervals in patches. You see
down that declivity how little grows, how barren."
The break in the density of the woods served to show the mountains,
blue and purple and bronze, against the horizon; an argosy of white
clouds under full sail; the Cove, shadowy, slumberous, so deep down
below; and the oak leaves above their heads, all dark and sharply
dentated against the blue.
Hite had suddenly drawn in his horse. An eager light was in his eye, a
new idea in his mind. He felt himself on the verge of imminent
"Now," said he, lowering his voice mysteriously, and laying his hand
on the bridle of the other's horse,—and so far had the allurements of
science outstripped merely mundane considerations that the stranger's
recent doubts and anxieties touching his animal were altogether
forgotten, and he was conscious only of a responsive expectant
interest,—"air thar ennything in that thar 'formation,' ez ye calls
it ez could gin out fire?"
"No, certainly not," said the man of science, surprised, and marking
the eager, insistent look in Hite's eyes. Both horses were at a
standstill now. A jay-bird clanged out its wild woodsy cry from the
dense shadows of a fern-brake far in the woods on the right, and they
heard the muffled trickling of water, falling on mossy stones hard by,
from a spring so slight as to be only a silver thread. The trees far
below waved in the wind, and a faint dryadic sibilant singing sounded
a measure or so, and grew fainter in the lulling of the breeze, and
sunk to silence.
"Ennyhow," persisted Hite, "won't sech yearth gin out light
somehows,—in some conditions sech ez ye talk 'bout?" he added
"Spontaneously? Certainly not," the stranger replied, preserving his
erect pose of inquiring and expectant attention.
"Why, then the mounting's 'witched sure enough,—that's all," said
Hite desperately. He cast off his hold on the stranger's horse, caught
up his reins anew, and made ready to fare onward forthwith.
"Does fire ever show there?" demanded his companion wonderingly.
"It's a plumb meracle, it's a plumb mystery," declared Constant Hite,
as they went abreast into the dense shadow of the closing woods. "I
asked ye this 'kase ez ye 'peared ter sense so much in rocks, an'
weeds, an' birds, an' sile, what ain't revealed ter the mortal eye in
gineral, ye mought be able ter gin some nateral reason fur that thar
sile up thar round the old witch-face ter show fire or sech. But it's
beyond yer knowin' or the knowin' o' enny mortal, I reckon."
"How does the fire show?" persisted the man of science, with keen and
attentive interest. "And who has seen it?"
"Stranger," said Hite, lowering his voice, "I hev viewed it, myself.
But fust it war viewed by the Hanways,—them ez lives in that house on
the spur what prongs out o' the range nigh opposite the slope o' the
Witch-Face. One dark night,—thar war no moon, but thar warn't no
storm, jes' a dull clouded black sky, ez late August weather will show
whenst it be heavy an' sultry,—all of a suddenty, ez the Hanway
fambly war settin' on the porch toler'ble late in the night, the air
bein' close in the house, the darter, Narcissa by name, she calls out,
'Look! look! I see the witch-face!' An' they all start up an' stare
over acrost the deep black gorge. An' thar, ez true ez life, war the
witch-face glimmerin' in the midst o' the black night, and agrinnin'
at 'em an' a-mockin' at 'em, an' lighted up ez ef by fire."
"And did no one discover the origin of the fire?" asked the stranger.
"Thar war no fire!" Constant Hite paused impressively. Then he went on
impulsively, full of his subject: "Ben Hanway kem over ter the
still-house arter me, an' tergether we went ter examinate. But the
bresh is powerful thick, an' the way is long, an' though we seen a
flicker wunst or twict ez we-uns pushed through the deep woods, 't war
daybreak 'fore we got thar, an' nare sign nor smell o' fire in all the
woods could we find; nare scorch nor singe on the ground, not even a
burnt stick or chunk ter tell the tale; everythin' ez airish an' cool
an' jewy an' sweet ter the scent ez a summer mornin' is apt ter be."
"How often has this phenomenon occurred?" said the stranger coolly,
but with a downcast, thoughtful eye and a pursed-up lip, as if he were
less surprised than cogitating.
"Twict only, fur we hev kep' an eye on the old witch, Ben an' me. Ben
wants a road opened out up hyar, stiddier jes' this herder's trail
through the woods. Ben dunno how it mought strike folks ef they war
ter know ez the witch-face hed been gin over ter sech cur'ous ways
all of a suddenty. They mought take it fur a sign agin the road, sech
ez b'lieves in the witch-face givin' bad luck." After a pause, "Then
I viewed it wunst,—wunst in the dead o' the night. I war goin' home
from the still, an' I happened ter look up, an' I seen the
witch-face,—the light jes' dyin' out, jes' fadin' out. She didn't hev
time ter make more 'n two or three faces at me, an' then she war gone
in the night. It's a turr'ble-lookin' thing at night, stranger. So ye
can't tell what makes it,—the sile, or what?"
He turned himself quite sideways as he spoke, one hand on the carcass
of the deer behind the saddle, the other on his horse's neck, the
better to face his interlocutor and absorb his scientific
speculations. And in that moment an odd idea occurred to him,—nay, a
conviction. He perceived that his companion knew and understood the
origin of the illumination; and more,—that he would not divulge it.
"The soil? Assuredly not the soil," the stranger said mechanically. He
was looking down, absorbed in thought, secret, mysterious, yet not
devoid of a certain inexplicable suggestion of triumph; for a subtle
cloaked elation, not unlike a half-smile, was on his face, although
its intent, persistent expression intimated the following out of a
careful train of ideas.
"Then what is it?" demanded Hite arrogantly, as if he claimed the
right to know.
"I really couldn't undertake to say," the stranger responded, his
definite manner so conclusive an embargo on further inquiries that
Hite felt rising anew all his former doubts of the man, and his fears
and suspicions as to the errand that had brought him hither.
Could it be possible, he argued within himself, that to the agency of
"revenuers" was due that mysterious glow, more brilliant than any
ordinary fire, steady, suffusive, continuous, rising in the dark
wilderness, in the deep midnight, to reveal that ominous face
overlooking all the countryside, with subtle flickers of laughter
running athwart its wonted contortions, more weird and sinister in
this ghastly glare than by day? And what significance might attend
these strange machinations? Revolving the idea, he presently shook his
head in conclusive negation as he rode along. The approach of raiders
was silent and noiseless and secret. Whatever the mystery might
portend it was not thus that they would advertise their presence,
promoting the escape of the objects of their search. Hite's open and
candid mind could compass no adequate motive for concealment in all
the ways of the world but the desire to evade the revenue law, or to
practice the shifts and quirks necessary to the capture of the wary
and elusive moonshiner. Nevertheless, it was impossible, on either of
these obvious bases, to account for the fact of something withheld in
the stranger's manner, some secret exultant knowledge of the
phenomenon which baffled the mountaineer's speculation. Hite, all
unaware that in his impulsive speech he had disclosed the fact of his
hazardous occupation, began to feel that, considering his liability to
the Federal law for making brush whiskey, he had somewhat transcended
the limit of his wonted hardihood in so long bearing this stranger
company along the tangled ways of the herder's trail through the
wilderness. "He mought be a revenuer arter all, an' know all about
me. The rest o' the raiders mought be a-waitin' an' a-layin' fur me at
enny turn," he reflected. "Leastwise he knows a deal more'n he's
a-goin' ter tell."
He drew up his horse as they neared an open bluff where the beetling
rocks jutted out like a promontory above the sea of foliage below.
They might judge of the long curvature of the conformation of the
range just here, for on the opposite height was visible at intervals
the road they had traveled, winding in and out among the trees,
ascending the mountain in serpentine coils; they beheld the Cove
beneath from a new angle, and further yet the barren cherty slope on
which, despite the distance, the witch-face could still be discerned
by eyes practiced in marking its lineaments, trained to trace the
popular fantasy. The stranger caught sight of it at the same moment
that Hite lifted his hand toward it.
"Thar it is!" Hite exclaimed, "fur all the Cove's a shadder, an' fur
all the wind's a breath."
For clouds had thickened over the sky, and much of the world was gray
beneath, and the scene had dulled in tint and spirit since last they
had had some large outlook upon it. Only on the slopes toward the east
did the sunshine rest, and in the midst of a sterile, barren slant it
flickered on that semblance of ill omen.
"An onlucky day, stranger," Hite said slowly.
The man of science had drawn in his restive horse, and had turned with
a keen, freshened interest toward the witch-face. It was with a look
of smiling expectancy that he encountered the aspect of snarling
mockery, half visible or half imaginary, of that grim human
similitude. The mountaineer's brilliant dark eyes dwelt upon him
curiously. However, if he had forborne from prudential motives from
earlier asking the stranger's name and vocation, lest more than a
casual inquisitiveness be thereby implied, exciting suspicion, such
queries were surely not in order at the moment of departure. For Hite
had resolved on parting company. "An onlucky day," he reiterated, "an
onlucky day. An' this be ez far ez we spen' it tergether. I turn off
So ever present with him was his spirituous conscience—it could
hardly be called a bad conscience—that he half expected his companion
to demur, and the posse of a deputy marshal to spring up from their
ambush in the laurel about them. But the stranger, still with a flavor
of preoccupation in his manner, only expressed a polite regret to say
farewell so early, and genially offered to shake hands. As with
difficulty he forced his horse close to the mountaineer's saddle, Hite
looked at the animal with a touch of disparagement. "That thar beastis
hev got cornsider'ble o' the devil in him; he'll trick ye some day; ye
better look out. Waal, far'well stranger, far'well."
The words had a regretful cadence. Whether because of the unwonted
interest which the stranger had excited, or the reluctance to
relinquish his curiosity, still ungratified, or the pain of parting to
an impressionable nature, whose every emotion is acute, Hite hesitated
when he had gone some twenty yards straight up the slope above,
pushing his horse along a narrow path through the jungle of the
laurel, and turned in his saddle to call out again, "Far'well!"
The stranger, still at the point where Hite had quitted him, waved his
hand and smiled. The jungle closed about the mountaineer, once more
pushing on, and still the smiling eyes dwelt on the spot where he had
disappeared. "Farewell, my transparent friend," the stranger said,
with a half-laugh. "I hope the day is not unlucky enough to put a
deputy marshal on your track." And with one more glance at the
witch-face, he gathered the reins in his hand and rode on alone along
the narrow tangled ways of the herder's trail.
Now and again, as the day wore on, Constant Hite was seized with a
sense of something wanting, and he presently recognized the deficit as
the expectation of the ill fortune which should befall the time, and
which still failed to materialize. So strong upon him was the
persuasion of evil chances rife in the air to-day that he set himself
as definitely to thwart and baffle them as if rationally cognizant of
their pursuit. He would not return to his wonted vocation at the
distillery, but carried his venison home, where his father, a very old
man, with still the fervors of an æsthetic pride, pointed out with
approbation the evidence of a fair shot in the wound at the base of
the buck's ear, and his mother, active, wiry, practical-minded, noted
the abundance of fat. "He fed hisself well whilst he war about it,"
she commented, "an' now he'll feed us well. What diff'unce do it make
whether Con's rifle-ball hit whar he aimed ter do or no, so he fetched
him down somewhar?"
The afternoon passed peacefully away. It seemed strangely long. The
sun, barring a veiled white glister in a clouded gray sky, betokening
the solar focus, disappeared; the wind fell; the very cicadæ, so loud
in the latter days of August, were dulled to long intervals of
silence; in the distance, a tree-toad called and called, with
plaintive iteration, for rain. "Ye'll git it, bubby," Con addressed
the creature, as he stood in the cornfield—a great yellow
stretch—pulling fodder, and binding the long pliant blades into
bundles. The clouds still thickened; the heat grew oppressive; the
long rows of the corn were motionless, save the rustling of the blades
as Hite tore them from the stalk. Even his mother's spinning-wheel,
wont to briskly whir through the long afternoons, from the window of
the little cabin on the rise, grew silent, and his father dozed
beneath the gourd vines on the porch.
The sun went down at last, and the gray day imperceptibly merged into
the gray dusk. Then came the lingering darkness, with a flicker of
fireflies and broad wan flares of heat lightning. Con woke once in the
night to hear the rain on the roof. The wind was blaring near at hand.
In its large, free measures, like some deliberate adagio, there was
naught of menace; but when he slept again, and awoke to hear its voice
anew, his heart was plunging with sudden fright. A human utterance was
in its midst,—a human voice calling his name through the gusty night
and the sibilant rush of the rain from the eaves. He listened for a
moment at the roof-room window. He recognized with a certain relief
the tones of the constable of the district. He opened the shutter.
A new day was near to breaking. He saw the wan sky above the periphery
of dense dark woods about the clearing. A brown dusk obscured the
familiar landmarks, but beneath a gnarled old apple-tree by the gate
several men were dimly suggested, and another, more distinct, by the
wood-pile, was in the act of gathering a handful of chips to throw at
the shutter again. He desisted as he marked the face at the window.
"Kem down," he said gruffly, clearing his throat in embarrassment.
"Kem down, Constant. No use roustin' out the old folks."
"What do you want?" asked Hite in a low voice, his heart seeming to
stand still in suspense.
The constable hesitated. The cold rain dashed into Hite's face. The
rail fences, in zigzag lines, were coming into view. A mist was
floating white against the dark densities of the woods. He heard the
water splashing from the eaves heavily into the gullies below, and
then the constable once more raucously cleared his throat.
"Thar's a man," he drawled, "a stranger hyarabouts, killed yestiddy in
the bridle-path. The cor'ner hev kem, an' he 'lows ye know suthin'
'bout'n it, Constant,—'bout'n the killin' of him. I be sent ter fetch
A chimney, half of stone, half of clay and stick, stood starkly up in
the gray rain and the swooping, shifting gray fog. It marked the site
of a cabin burned long ago, and in such melancholy wise as it might it
told of the home that had been. Now and again far-away lightning
flashed on its fireless hearth; a vacant bird's-nest in a cranny
duplicated the suggestions of desertion; the cold mist crept in and
curled up out of the smokeless flue with a mockery of semblance. The
fire that had wrought its devastating will in the black midnight in
the deep wilderness, so far from rescue or succor, had swiftly burned
out its quick fury, and was sated with the humble household
belongings. The barn, rickety, weather-beaten, deserted, and vacant,
still remained,—of the fashion common to the region, with a loft
above, and an open wagonway between the two compartments below,—and
it was here that the inquest was held. It was near the scene of the
tragedy, and occasionally a man would detach himself from the slow,
dawdling, depressed-looking group of mountaineers who loitered in the
open space beneath the loft, and traverse the scant distance down the
bridle-path to gaze at the spot where the stranger's body had lain,
whence it had been conveyed to the nearest shelter at hand, the old
barn, where the coroner's jury were even now engaged in their
deliberations. Sometimes, another, versed in all the current rumors,
would follow to point out to the new-comer the details, show how the
rain had washed the blood away, and fearfully mark the tokens of
frantic clutches at the trees as the man had been torn from his horse.
The animal had vanished utterly; even the prints of his hoofs were
soon obliterated by the torrents and the ever-widening puddles. And
thus had arisen the suspicion of ambush and foul play, and the
implication of the mysterious gang of horse-thieves, whose rumored
exploits seemed hardly so fabulous with the disappearance of the
animal and the violent death of the rider in evidence. The locality
offered no other suggestion, and it was but a brief interval before
the way would be retraced by the awe-stricken observer, noting with a
deep interest impossible hitherto all the environment: the stark
chimney of the vanished house, monumental in the weed-grown waste;
the dripping forest; the roof of the barn, sleek and shining, and with
rain pouring down the slant of its clapboards and splashing from its
eaves; the groups of horses hitched to the scraggy apple-trees of the
deserted homestead; and here and there the white canvas cover of an
ox-wagon, with its yoke of steers standing with low-hung heads in the
downpour. The pallid circling mists enveloped the world, and limited
the outlook to a periphery of scant fifty paces; occasionally becoming
tenuous, as if to suggest the dark looming of the mountain across the
narrow valley, and the precipice close at hand behind the building,
then once more intervening, white and dense of texture, forming a
background which imparted a singular distinctness to the figures
grouped in the open space of the barn beneath the shadowy loft.
The greater number of the gathering had been summoned hither by a
sheer curiosity as coercive as a subpoena, but sundry of the group
were witnesses, reluctant, anxious, with a vague terror of the law,
and an ignorant sense of an impending implication that set both craft
and veracity at defiance. They held their heads down ponderingly, as
they stood; perhaps rehearsing mentally the details of their meagre
knowledge of the event, or perhaps canvassing the aspect of certain
points which might impute to them blame or arouse suspicion, and
endeavoring to compass shifty evasions, to transform or suppress them
in their forthcoming testimony. At random, one might have
differentiated the witnesses from the mass of the ordinary mountaineer
type by the absorbed eye, or the meditative moving lip unconsciously
forming unspoken words, or the fallen dismayed jaw as of the victim of
circumstantial evidence. It was a strange chance, the death that had
met this casual wayfarer at their very doors, and one might not know
how the coroner would interpret it. His power to commit a suspect
added to his terrors, and gave to the capable, astute official a
mundane formidableness that overtopped the charnel-house flavor of his
more habitual duties. He was visible through the unchinked logs of the
little room where the inquest was in progress, barely spacious enough
to contain the bier, the jury, and the witness under examination; and
yet so great was the sound of the rain outside and the stir of the
assemblage that little or naught was overheard without.
Now and again the waiting witnesses looked with doubt and curiosity
and suspicion at a new-comer, with an obvious disposition to hope and
believe that others knew more of the matter than they, and thus were
more liable to accusation. Occasionally, a low-toned, husky query
would be met by a curt rejoinder suggesting a cautious reticence and a
rising enmity, blockading all investigation save the obligatory
inquisition of a coroner's jury. An object of ever-recurrent scrutiny
was a stranger in the vicinity, who had been subpoenaed also. The
facial effect of culture and sophistication was illustrated in his
inexpressive, controlled, masklike countenance. He was generally known
as the "valley man with the lung complaint," who had built a cabin on
the mountain during the summer, banished hither by the advice of his
physician for the value to the lungs of the soft, healing air. He wore
a brown derby hat, a fawn-colored suit, and a brown overcoat, with the
collar upturned. He was blond and young, and so impassive was his
sober, decorous aspect that the aptest detective could have discerned
naught of significance as he stood, quite silent and composed, in the
centre of the place where it was dry, exempt from the gusts of rain
that the wind now and again flung in spray upon the outermost members
of the group, one hand in the pocket of his trousers, the other
toying with a cigar which so far he held unlighted.
Of the two women present, one, seated upon the beam of a broken
plough, refuse of the agricultural industry long ago collapsed here,
was calmly smoking her pipe,—a wrinkled, unimpressed personality, who
had seen many years, and whose manner might imply that all these
chances of life and death came in the gross, and that existence was a
medley at best. The other, a witness, was young. More than once the
"valley man" cast a covert glance at her as, clad in a brown homespun
dress, she leaned against the log wall, her face, which was very pale,
half turned toward it, as if to hide the features already much
obscured by the white sunbonnet drawn far over it. One arm was lifted,
and her hand was passed between the unchinked logs in a convulsive
grasp upon them. Her figure was tall and slender, and expressive in
its rigid constraint; it was an attitude of despair, of repulsion, of
fear. It might have implied grief, or remorse, or anxiety. Often the
eyes of the prescient victims of circumstantial evidence rested
dubiously upon her. To the great majority of men, the presence of
women in affairs of business is an intrusive evil of times out of
joint. Now, since matters of life and liberty were in the balance, the
primitive denizens of Witch-Face Mountain felt that the admission of
Narcissa Hanway's testimony to consideration and credibility evinced
an essential defect in the law of the land, and the fallibility of all
human reasoning. What distorted impression might not so appalling an
event make upon one so young, so feminine, so inexperienced! What
exaggerated wild thing might she not say, unintentionally inculpating
half Witch-Face Mountain in robbery and murder!
Constant Hite, as he bluffly entered the passageway, his head up, his
eyes wide and bright, his vigorous step elastic and light, gave no
token of the spiritual war he had waged as he came. Already he felt in
great jeopardy. On account of his illicit vocation he could ill abide
the scrutiny of the law. With scant proof, he argued, a moonshiner
might be suspected of highway robbery and murder. As he had journeyed
hither with the constable and his fellows, who conserved the air of
disinterested spectators, but who he knew had been summoned to aid the
officer in case he should evade or delay, when he would have been
forthwith arrested, he had been sorely tempted to deny having ever
seen the stranger, in whose company he had spent an hour or so of the
previous day. He had been able to put the lie from him with a normal
moral impulse. He did not appreciate the turpitude of perjury. He
esteemed it only a natural lie invested with pomp and circumstance;
and the New Testament on which he should be sworn meant no more to his
unlettered conscience than the horn-book, since he knew as little of
its contents. But a lie is a skulking thing, and he had scant affinity
He thought, with a sort of numb wonderment, that it was strange he
should feel no more compassion for the object stretched out here,
dumb, dead, bruised, and bloody, which so short a space since he had
seen full of life and interest, animated by a genial courtesy and
graced with learning and subtle insight; now so unknowing, so
unlettered, so blind! Whither went this ethereal investiture of
life?—for it was not mere being; one might exist hardily enough
without it. Did the darkness close over it, too, or was it not the
germ of the soul, the budding of that wider knowledge and finer
aspiration to flower hereafter in rarer air? He did not know; he only
vaguely cared, and he reproached himself dully that he cared no more.
For he—his life was threatened! With the renewal of the thought he
experienced a certain animosity toward the man that he should not have
known enough to take better care of himself. Why must he needs die
here, in this horrible unexplained way, and leave other men, chance
associates, to risk stretching hemp for murder? He felt his strong
life beating in his throat almost to suffocation at the mere
suggestion. Again the lie tempted him, to be again withstood; and as
he strode into the room upon the calling of his name, he saw how
futile, how flimsy, was every device, for, fluttering in the coroner's
hand, he recognized the sketch of the "Witch-Face" which the dead man
had made, and the masterly drawing of his own imposing figure in the
foreground. He had forgotten it utterly for the time being. In the
surprise and confusion that had beset him, it had not occurred to him
to speculate how he had chanced to be subpoenaed, how the idea could
have occurred to the coroner that he knew aught of the stranger. As he
stood against the batten door, the pale light from the interstices of
the unchinked logs, all the grayer because it alternated with the
sombre timbers, falling upon his face and figure, his hat upturned in
front, revealing his brow with a forelock of straight black hair, his
brilliant dark eyes, and his distinctly cut definite features, the
sketch-book was swiftly passed from one to another of the jury,
reluctantly relinquished here and there, and more than once eliciting
half-smothered exclamations of delighted wonder from the
unsophisticated mountaineers, as they glanced back and forth from the
man leaning against the door to the counterfeit presentment on the
Constant Hite experienced a glow of vicarious pride as he remembered
the satisfaction that the artist had taken in the sketch, and he
wished that that still thing on the bier could know how his work, most
wonderful it seemed, was appreciated. And then, with a swift revulsion
of feeling, he realized that it was this which had entrapped him; this
bit of paper had brought him into fear and trouble and risk of his
life. The man might be of the revenue force. He might have encountered
other moonshiners, and thus have come to his violent death. If this
were his vocation, it brought Hite into dark suspicion by virtue of
the fact, known to a few of the neighborhood, that he himself was a
distiller of brush whiskey. No one else had seen the stranger till the
finding of the body. He gathered this from the trend of the inquiry
after the formal preliminary queries. The seven men, as they sat
together on a bench made by passing a plank between the logs of the
wall diagonally across the corner of the room, chewed meditatively
their quids of tobacco, and now and then spat profusely on the ground,
their faces growing more perplexed and graver as the examination
When Hite disclosed the circumstance that on the previous day he had
encountered a "stranger man" near the "Witch-Face," there was a
palpable sensation among them. They glanced at one another meaningly,
and a sudden irritation was perceptible in the coroner's manner as he
sat in a rickety chair near the improvised bier. He was a citizen of
the valley region, a trifle more sophisticated than the jury, and
disposed to seriously deprecate the introduction of any morbid or
superstitious element into so grave a matter. He had a bald head, a
lean face, the bones very clearly defined about the temple and cheek
and jaw, a scanty grizzled beard; and he was dressed somewhat farmer
fashion, in blue jeans, with his boots drawn high over his trousers,
but with a stiffly starched white shirt,—the collar and cravat in
evidence, the cuffs, however, vanished up the big sleeves of his coat.
"The exact place of the meeting is not material," he said frowningly.
But Hite's mercurial interest in the drawing had revived anew.
"Thar she be," he exclaimed, so suddenly that the jury started with a
common impulse, "the ole witch-face,"—he pointed at the sketch in the
coroner's hand,—"a mite ter the east an' a leetle south in the
pictur', ez nat'ral ez life!"
One of the jurymen asked to see the sketch again. Evidently, in the
hasty delineation of the contours of the slope they had not noticed
the gigantic grimacing countenance which they all knew so well; the
picturesque figure of the mountaineer in the foreground had so
impressed the stranger that it was much more nearly complete than the
landscape, being definite in every detail, and fully shaded. The book
was handed along the row of men, each recognizing the semblance, once
pointed out, with a touch of dismayed surprise that alarmed the
coroner for the sanity of the verdict; his rational estimate rated
spells and bewitchments and omens as far less plausible agencies in
disaster than horse-thieves, highwaymen, and moonshiners.
"Look at the face of the deceased," he said, with a sort of spare
enunciation, coercive somehow in its inexpressiveness. "Ye are sure ye
never viewed that man afore yestiddy?"
"I hev said so an' swore it," said Hite, a trifle nettled.
"Ye rode in comp'ny a hour or mo' an' never asked his name?"
"I never axed him no questions, nor he me," replied Hite, "'ceptin'
'bout'n the witch-face. He was powerful streck by that. An' I tole him
't war a onlucky day."
The jury, a dreary row of unkempt heads, and bearded anxious faces,
and crouching shoulders askew, cleared their throats, and two
uncrossed and recrossed their legs, the plank seat creaking ominously
with the motion under their combined weight. A shade of disappointment
was settling on the coroner's face. This was slight information indeed
from the only person who had seen the man alive. There was silence for
a moment. The splashing of the rain on the roof became drearily
audible in the interval. The stir of the group in the space outside
was asserted anew, with their low-toned fitful converse; a
black-and-white ox in the weed-grown garden emitted a deep, depressed
low of remonstrance against the rain, and the irking of the yoke, and
the herbage just beyond his reach. The jurymen might see him through
the logs, and now and again one of them mechanically ducked his head
to look out upon the dismal aspect of the chimney and orchard, round
which so many horses and wagons had not gathered since the daughter of
the house was long ago married here. There was a sprinkle of gray in
his hair, and he remembered the jollities of the wedding,—incongruous
recollection,—and once more he looked at the stark figure, its face
covered with a white cloth, which had been done in a sentiment of
atonement for the unseemly publicity of its fate.
In sparsely settled communities, death, being rare, retains much of
the terror which custom lessens in the dense crowds of cities. There
death is met at every corner. It goes on 'Change. It sits upon the
bench. It is chronicled in the columns of every newspaper. Daily its
bells toll. Its melancholy pageantry traverses the streets of wealthy
quarters, and it stalks abroad hourly in the slums, and few there are
who gaze after it. But here it comes so seldom that its dread features
are not made smug by familiarity. When Hite was told to look again at
the face and see if memory might not have played him false, to make
sure he had never seen the man before yesterday, he hesitated, and
advanced with such reluctance, and started back, dropping the cloth,
with such swift repulsion, that the coroner, habituated to such
matters, gazed at him with a doubtful scrutiny.
"Oh, he looked nowise like that," he exclaimed in a raised, nervous
voice that caught the attention of the crowd outside, and resulted in
a sudden cessation of stir and colloquy, "though it's him, sure
enough! And," with a burst of regret, "he war a mighty pleasant man!"
The coroner, intentionally taking him at a disadvantage, asked
abruptly, "What do you work at mostly?"
Hite turned shortly from the bier. "I farms some," he hesitated; "dad
bein' mos'ly out o' the field, nowadays, agin' so constant."
"What do you work at mostly?" reiterated the official.
Hite divined his suspicion. Some flying rumor had doubtless come to
his ears, how credible, how unimpugnable, the moonshiner could not
tell. Nevertheless, his loyalty to that secret vocation of his had
become a part of his nature, so continuous were its demands upon his
courage, his strategy, his foresight, his industry. It was tantamount
to his instinct of self-defense. He held his head down, with his
excited dark eyes looking up from under his brows at the coroner. But
he would not speak. He would admit naught of what was evidently known.
"Warn't ye afeard he might be a revenuer?" suggested the officer.
"I never war afeard, so ter say, o' one man at a time," Hite ventured.
"Didn't ye think he might take a notion that you were a moonshiner?"
"He never showed no suspicion o' me, noways," replied Hite warily. "We
rid tergether free an' favored. He 'peared a powerful book-l'arned
man,—like no revenuer ever I see."
"Where did you part company?"
Hite sought to identify the spot by description; and then he was
allowed to pass out, his spirits flagging with the ordeal, and with
the knowledge that his connection with the manufacture of brush
whiskey was suspected by the coroner's jury, suggesting an adequate
motive on his part for waylaying a stranger supposed to be of the
revenue force. He felt the dash of the rain in his face as he stood
aside to make way for the "valley man with the lung complaint," who
was passing into the restricted apartment; and despite his whirl of
anxiety and excitement and regret and resentment, he noted with a
touch of surprise the cool unconcern of the man's face and manner,
albeit duly grave and adjusted to the decorums of the melancholy
He was sworn, and gave his name as Alan Selwyn. The jury listened with
interest to his fluent account of his occupation in the valley, which
had been mercantile, of his temporary residence here for a bronchial
affection; and when he was asked to identify the man who had so
mysteriously come to his death, they marked his quick, easy stride as
he crossed the room, with his hat in his hand, and his unmoved
countenance as he looked fixedly down into the face of the dead. He
remained a longer interval than was usual with the witnesses, as if to
make sure. Then, still quite businesslike and brisk, he stated that he
could not identify him, having certainly never seen him before.
"The only papers which he had on him," said the coroner, watching the
effect of his words, "were two letters addressed to you."
The young man started in palpable surprise. As he looked at the
exterior of the letters, which were stamped and postmarked, he
observed that they must have been taken out of the post-office
at Sandford Cross-Roads, to expedite their delivery; the
postmaster doubtless consenting to this request on the part
of so reputable-looking a person or a possible acquaintance.
"Were you expecting a visitor?" asked the coroner.
"Not at all," responded the puzzled witness.
He was requested to open the letters, read and show them. But he
waived this courtesy, asking the coroner to open and read them to the
jury. They were of no moment, both on matters of casual business, and
Mr. Alan Selwyn was dismissed; the coroner blandly regretting that, in
view of his malady, he had been required to come out in so chilly a
Notwithstanding his composure he was in some haste to be gone. He went
quickly through the crowd, drawing down his hat over his brow, and
deftly buttoning his overcoat across his chest and throat. He had
reached his horse, and had placed one foot in the stirrup, when,
chancing to glance back over his shoulder, he saw Narcissa Hanway's
white, flowerlike face, her bonnet pushed far back on her tawny yellow
hair, both arms outstretched in a gesture of negation and repulsion
toward the apartment where the jury sat, while a dark-haired, slow man
urged her forward, one hand on her shoulder, and the old mountain
woman followed with insistence and encouragement. He hesitated for a
moment; then putting spurs to his horse, he rode off swiftly through
the slanting lines of rain.
A sense of helplessness in the hands of fate is in some sort conducive
to courage. Doubtless many an act of valor which has won the world's
applause was precipitated in a degree by desperation and the lack of
an alternative. The appearance of stolidity with which the cluster of
witnesses—those whose testimony was yet to be given as well as those
who had told the little they knew—noted the uncontrolled agitation,
the wild eyes, the hysteric sobs, with which Narcissa Hanway was
ushered into the contracted apartment where the inquest was in
progress, had no correlative calmness of mind or heart. What haphazard
accusation might not result from her fear, or her desire to shield
another, or the mere undisciplined horror of the place and the fact!
When one dreads the sheer possibilities, the extremes of terror are
reached. More than one of the bearded, unkempt, hardy mountaineers,
trudging back and forth in the sheltered space beneath the loft,
steadily chewing their quids of tobacco and eying the rain, would have
fled incontinently, had there been any place to run to out of reach of
the constable, who was particularly brisk to-day, participating in
exercises of so unusual an interest. The girl's brother, standing
beside the door after she had passed within, was unconscious of a
certain keen covert scrutiny of which he was the subject. He had a
square determined face, dark hair, slow gray eyes, and a tall powerful
frame; he held his head downward, his hand on the door, his even teeth
set in the intensity of his effort to distinguish the voices within.
There had been some secret speculation as to whether the man were
altogether unknown to the brother and sister, such deep feeling she
had evinced, such coercion he had exerted to induce her to give her
testimony. Still, the girl was a mere slip of a thing, unused to
horrors; and as to recalcitrant witnesses, they all knew the jail had
a welcome for the silent until such time as they might find a voice.
Nevertheless, though his urgency had been in the stead of the
constable's stronger measures, they eyed him askance as he stood and
sought to listen, with his hand on the door. The old woman turned
around, her arms falling to her sides with a sort of flounce of
triumph, her eyes twinkling beneath the shining spectacles set upon
her brow among the limp ruffles of her thrust-back sunbonnet, a laugh
of satisfaction widening her wrinkled face. "Thar now!" she chuckled,
"Nar'sa jes' set it down she wouldn't testify, an' crossed her heart
an' hoped she'd fall dead fust. But, Ben, we beat her that time!" and
she chuckled anew.
The man answered not a word, and listened to the tumult within.
It is seldom, doubtless, that the patience of a coroner's jury is
subjected to so strong a strain. But the information which had so far
been elicited was hardly more than the bare circumstance which the
body presented,—a man had ridden here, a stranger, and he was dead.
If the girl knew more than this, it would necessitate some care in the
examination to secure the facts. She was young, singularly willful and
irresponsible, and evidently overcome by grief, or fear, or simply
horror. When she was asked to look at the face of the stranger, she
only caught a glimpse of it, as if by accident, and turned away,
pulling her white bonnet down over her face, and declaring that she
would not. "I hev viewed him wunst, an' I won't look at him again,"
she protested, with a burst of sobs.
"Now set down in this cheer, daughter, an' tell us what ye know about
it all,—easy an' quiet," said the coroner in a soothing, paternal
"Oh, nuthin', nuthin'!" exclaimed the girl, throwing herself into the
chair in the attitude of an abandonment of grief.
"Air ye cryin' 'kase ye war 'quainted with him ennywise?" demanded one
of the jurymen, with a quickening interest. He was a neighbor; that
is, counting as propinquity a distance of ten miles.
The girl lifted her head suddenly. "I never seen him till yestiddy,"
she protested steadily. "I be a heap apter ter weep 'kase my
'quaintances ain't dead!" She gave him a composed, sarcastic smile,
then fell to laughing and crying together.
To the others the discomfiture of their confrère was the first touch
of comedy relief in the tragic situation. They cast at one another a
glance of appreciation trenching on a smile, and the abashed
questioner drew out a plug of tobacco, and with a manner of
preoccupation gnawed a bit from it; then replaced it in his pocket,
with a physical contortion which caused the plank on which the jury
were seated to creak ominously, to the manifest anxiety of the
worthies ranged thereon.
"How did you happen to see the man?" he asked, as if he had perceived
no significance in her previous answer.
"'Kase I didn't happen ter be blind," her half-muffled voice replied.
Her arm was thrown over the back of the chair, and her face was hidden
on her elbow.
The coroner interposed quickly: "Where were you goin', an' what did
She sobbed aloud for a moment. Then ensued an interval of silence.
Suddenly the interest of the subject seemed to lay hold upon her, and
she began to speak very rapidly, lifting her white tear-stained face,
and pushing her bonnet back on her rough curling auburn hair:—
"I war a-blackberryin', thar bein' only a few lef' yit, an' I went fur
an' furder yit from home; an' ez I kem out'n the woods over yon," half
rising, and pointing with a free gesture, "I viewed—or yit I 'lowed
I viewed—the witch-face through a bunch o' honey locust, the leaves
bein' drapped a'ready, they bein' always the fust o' the year ter git
bare. An' stiddier leavin' it be, I sot my bucket o' berries at the
foot o' a tree', an started down the slope todes the bluff, ter make
sure an' view it clar o' the trees." The girl paused, her eyes
widening, her voice faltering, her breath coming fast. "An' goin'
swift, some hawgs, stray, half grown, 'bout twenty shoats feedin' in
the woods—my rustlin' in the bushes skeered 'em I reckon—they sot
out to run, possessed by the devil, like them the Scriptur' tells
about." She paused again, panting, her hand to her heart.
The disaffected juryman turned to one side, recrossing his legs, and
spitting disparagingly on the ground. "She can't swear them hawgs war
possessed by the devil," he said in a low tone to his next neighbor.
"Oh, why not," exclaimed the girl, "when we know so many men air
possessed by the devil,—why not them shoats, bein' jes' without
clothes, an' without the gift o' speech to mark the diff'unce!"
She paused again, and the coroner, standing a trifle back of her
chair, shook his head at the obstructive juryman, and asked her in a
commonplace voice what the hogs had to do with it.
"That's what I wanter know!" she cried, half turning in her chair to
look up at him. "I started 'em, an' I be at the bottom o' it all, ef
it's like I think,—me, yearnin' ter look at the old witch-face! The
hawgs run through the woods like fire on dry grass, an' I be 'feared
they skeered the stranger man's horse—he had none whenst I seen him,
though. I hearn loud talkin', or hollerin', a cornsiderable piece off,
an' then gallopin' hoofs"—
"More horses than one, do you think?" demanded the coroner.
"Oh, how kin I swear to that? I seen none. Fur when I got thar, this
man war lyin' in the herder's trail, bruised and bloody—oh, like ye
see—an' his eyes opened; an' he gin a sort o' gasp whenst I tuk his
han'—an' he war dead. An' I skeered the hawgs, an' they skeered his
horse, an' he killed him; an' I be 'sponsible fur it all, an' I wisht
ye'd hang me fur it quick, an' be done with it!"
She burst into sobs once more, and hid her face on her arm on the back
of the chair. Then, suddenly lifting her head, she resumed: "I jes'
called and called Ben, an' bein' he hain't never fur off, he hearn me,
an' kem. An' then he rid fur the neighbors, an' kem down the valley
arter you-uns," with a side glance at the coroner. "An' he lef' me a
shootin'-iron, in case of a fox, or a wolf, or suthin' kem along.
'Bout sunset the neighbors kem. An' till then I sot thar keepin'
watch, an' a-viewin' the witch-face 'crost the Cove, plumb till the
sun went down."
She bowed her head again on her arm, and a momentary silence ensued.
Then the coroner, clearing his throat, said reassuringly, "Thar ain't
nuthin' in the witch-face, nohow. It's jes' a notion. Man and boy, I
have knowed that hillside fur forty year, an' I never could see no
witch-face; it's been p'inted out ter me a thousand times."
She looked at him in dumb amazement for a moment; then broke out,
"Waal, what would ye think ef ye hed seen, like me, the witch-face
shining in the darkest night, nigh on ter midnight, like the ole 'oman
had lighted her a candle somewhars,—jes' shinin', an' grinnin', an'
mockin', plain ez daybreak? That's what I hev viewed—an' I 'low ter
view it agin—oh, I do, I do!"
He looked at her hard, but he did not say what he thought, and the
faces of the jurymen, which had implied a strong exception to his
declaration of skepticism touching the existence of the ominous facial
outline on the hillside, underwent a sudden change of expression. She
was hardly responsible, they considered, and her last incredible
assertion had gone far to nullify the effect of her previous
testimony. She was overcome by the nervous shock, or had told less
than she knew and was still concealing somewhat, or was so credulous
and plastic and fanciful as to be hardly worthy of belief. She was
dismissed earlier than she had dared to hope: and with this
deterioration of the testimony of the witness who was nearest the time
and place of the disaster, the jury presently went to work to evolve
out of so slender a thread of fact and so knotty a tangle of
possibility their verdict.
For a long time, it seemed to the curious without, and to the
agitated, nervous witnesses peering through the unchinked logs of the
wall, they sat on their comfortless perch, half crouching forward, and
chewed, and discussed the testimony. There were frequent intervals of
silence, and in one of these Con Hite was disturbed to see the sketch
of the "witch-face" once more passed from hand to hand. They grew to
have a harried, baited look; and after a time, the rain having
slackened, they came out in a body, and walked to and fro quite
silently in the clearing, chewing their quids and their knotty
problem, with apparently as much chance of getting to the completion
of the one as of the other. They were evidently refreshed, however, by
the change of posture and scene, for they soon resumed the subject and
were arguing anew as they paused upon the bluff, their gestures
wonderfully distinct, drawn upon the sea of mist that filled the
valley below and the air above. It revealed naught of the earth, save
here and there a headland, as it were, thrusting out its dark, narrow,
attenuated demesne into the impalpable main. Further and further one
might mark this semblance of a coast-line as the vapor grew more
tenuous, till far away the series of shadowy gray promontories
alternating with the colorless inlets was as vague of essence as the
land of a dream. Near at hand, a cucumber-tree, with its great broad
green leaves and its deep red cones, leaning over the rocks, and
spanning this illusive gray landscape from the zenith to the immediate
foreground, gave the only touch of color to the scenic simulacrum in
many a gradation of neutral tone. The jurymen hovered about under the
boughs for a time, and then came back, still harassed and anxious, to
their den, with perhaps some new question of doubt. For those without
could perceive that once more they were crowding about the bier and
talking together in knots. Again they called in the country physician
who had testified earlier, an elderly personage, singularly long and
thin and angular, but who had a keen, intent, clever face and the
accent of an educated man. He seemed to reiterate some information in
a clear, concise manner, and when he came out it was evident that he
considered his utility here at an end, for he made straight for his
horse and saddle.
A sudden sensation supervened among the outsiders,—a flutter, and
then a breathless suspense; for within the inclosure, barred with the
heavy shadows of the logs of the walls alternating with the misty
intervals, could be seen the figures of the seven, successively
stooping at the foot of the bier to sign each his name to the
inquisition at last drawn up.
One by one they came slowly out, looking quite exhausted from their
long restraint, the unwonted mental exercitations, and the nervous
strain. Then it was developed, to the astonishment and disappointment
of the little crowd, tingling with excitement and anxiety, that this
document simply set forth the fact that at an inquisition holden on
Witch-Face Mountain, Kildeer County, before Jeremiah Flaxman, coroner,
upon the body of an unknown man, there lying dead, the jurors whose
names were subscribed thereto, upon their oaths, did say that he came
to his death from concussion of the brain consequent upon being thrown
or dragged from his horse by means or by persons to the jury unknown.
There was a palpable dismay on Constant Hite's expressive face. He had
hoped that the verdict might be death by accident. Others had expected
the implication of horse-thieves, of whose existence the jury being of
the neighborhood were well advised, and the disappearance of the man's
horse might well suggest this explanation. The coroner would return
this inquisition to the criminal court together with a list of the
material witnesses. Thus the matter was left as undecided as before
the inquest, the jeopardy, the terrors of circumstantial evidence, all
still impending, dark with doom, like the black cloud which visibly
overshadowed the landscape.
Since the knight-errantry of wolf and bear and catamount and fox has
scant need of milestones, or signposts, or ferries, or the tender
iteration of road-taxes, the casual glance might hardly perceive the
necessity of opening a thoroughfare through this wilderness, for these
freebooters seemed likely to be its chief beneficiaries. A more rugged
district could not be found in all that massive upheaval of rocks and
tangled wooded fastnesses stretching from the northeast to the
southwest some twenty miles, and known as Witch-Face Mountain; a more
scantily populated region than its slopes and adjacent coves scarcely
exists in the length and breadth of the State of Tennessee. The
physical possibilities were arrayed against the project, so steep was
the comblike summit on either side, so heavy and tortuous the
outcropping rock that served as the bony structure of the great
mountain mass. True, the river pierced it, the denudation of solid
sandstone cliffs, a thousand feet in height, betokening the untiring
energy of the eroding currents of centuries agone. This agency,
however, man might not summon to his aid, being "the act of God,"
to use the pious language of the express companies to describe
certain contingencies for which they very properly decline the
responsibility. Against the preëmptions of the gigantic forests and
the gaunt impassable crags and the abysmal river might be enlisted
only such enterprise as was latent in the male inhabitants of the
vicinity over eighteen years of age and under fifty, thus subject to
the duty of working on the public roads. Nevertheless, the county
court had, in a moment of sanguine exuberance, entertained and granted
an application from the adjacent landowners to order a jury of view to
lay out a public road and to report at the next quarterly session.
Precursors of the jury of view in some sort two young people might
have seemed, one afternoon, a fortnight, perhaps, after the inquest,
as they pushed through the woody tangles to the cliffs high above the
river, the opposite bank of which was much nearer than the swirling
currents, crystal brown in the romantic shadows below. They walked in
single file, the jury of view in their minds, and now and then
referred to in their sparse speech.
"Mought make it along hyar, Ben." The girl, in advance, paused,
bareheaded, each uplifted hand holding out a string of her white
sunbonnet, which, thus distended, was poised, winglike, behind the
rough tangle of auburn hair and against the amber sky. She turned as
she spoke, to face her companion, taking a step or two backward as she
awaited his answer.
"Look out how ye air a-walkin', Narcissa! Ye'll go over the bluff
back'ards, fust thing ye know," the man called out eagerly, and with a
break of anxiety in his voice.
She stretched the sunbonnet still wider with her upreaching arms, and
with a smile of tantalizing glee, showing her white teeth and
narrowing her brown eyes, she continued to walk backward toward the
precipice,—with short steps, however; cautious enough, doubtless, but
calculated to alarm one whose affection had given much acuteness to
Still at too great a distance for interference, Ben affected
indifference. "We-uns'll hev the coroner's jury hyar agin, afore the
jury o' view, ef ye keep on; an' ye ain't got on yer bes' caliker
He climbed swiftly up the ascent and joined her, out of breath and
with an angry gleam in his eyes. But she had turned her face and steps
in the opposite direction, the mirth of the situation extinguished for
"Quit talkin' that-a-way 'bout sech turr'ble, turr'ble things!" she
cried petulantly, making a motion as if to strike him, futile at the
distance, and with her frowning face averted.
"Sech ez yer new coat? I 'lowed 't war the apple o' yer eye," he
rejoined with a feint of banter.
She held her face down, with her features drawn and her eyes half
closed, rejecting the vision of recollection as if it were the sight
itself. "I can't abide the name o' cor'ner's jury,—I never wants ter
hear it nor see it agin! I never shall furgit how them men all looked
a-viewin' the traveler's body what I fund dead in the road; they
looked like jes' so many solemn, peekin', heejus black buzzards
crowdin' aroun' the corpse; then a-noddin' an' a-whisperin' tergether,
an' a-findin' of a verdic' ez they called it. They fund nuthin' at
all. 'T war me ez done the findin'. I fund the man dead in the road.
An' I ain't a-goin' ter be a witness no mo'. Nex' time the law wants
me fur a witness I'll go ter jail; it's cheerfuller, a heap, I'll
As she still held her head down, her bonnet well on it now, her face
with its riant cast of features incongruously woebegone,
overshadowed by the tragedy she recounted even more definitely than by
the brim of her headgear or the first gray advance of the dusk, he
made a clumsy effort to divert her attention.
"I 'lowed ye war mightily in favor of juries; ye talk mighty nigh all
day 'bout the jury of view."
"I want a road up hyar," she exclaimed vivaciously, raising her eyes
and her joyous transfigured face, "a reg'lar county road! In the fall
o' the year the folks would kem wagonin' thar chestnuts over ter sell
in town, an' camp out. An' all the mounting would go up an' down it
past our big gate ter the church house in the Cove. I'd never want ter
hear no mo' preachin'. I'd jes' set on our front porch, an' look, an'
look, an' look!"
She cast up her great bright eyes with as vivid and immediate an
irradiation as if the brilliant procession which she pictured deployed
even now, chiefly in ox-wagons, before them. She caught off her bonnet
from her head,—it seemed a sort of moral barometer; she never wore it
when the indications of the inner atmosphere set fair. She swung it
gayly by one string as she walked and talked; now and again she held
the string to her lips and bit it with her strong, even teeth,
reckless of the havoc in the clumsy hem.
"Then county court days,—goin' to county court, an' comin' from
county court,—sech passels an' passels o' folks! I wisht we-uns hed
it afore the jury o' view kem, so we-uns mought view the jury o'
"It's along o' the jury o' view ez we-uns will git the road,—ef we do
git it," the young man said cautiously.
It was one of his self-imposed duties to moderate, as far as he might,
his sister's views, to temper her enthusiasms and abate her various
and easily excited anger. He had other duties toward her which might
be said to have come to him as an inheritance.
"Ben's the boy!" his consumptive mother had been wont to say; "he's
sorter slow, but mighty sure. 'Brag is a good dog, but Hold-Fast is a
better.' Ef he don't sense nare 'nother idee in this life, he hev got
ter l'arn ez it's his business ter take keer o' Nar'sa. Folks say
Nar'sa be spoiled a'ready. So be, fur whilst Ben be nuthin' but a boy
he'll l'arn ter do her bid, an' watch over her, an' wait on her, an'
keer for her, an' think she be the top o' creation. It'll make her
proud an' headin', I know,—she'll gin her stepmammy a sight o'
trouble, an' I ain't edzactly lamentin' 'bout'n that,—but Ben'll take
keer o' her all her life, an' good keer, havin' been trained ter it
from the fust."
But his mother had slept many a year in the little mountain graveyard,
and her place was still empty. The worldly wise craft of the simple
mountain woman, making what provision she might for the guardianship
of her daughter, was rendered of scant effect, since her husband did
not marry again. The household went on as if she still sat in her
accustomed place, with not one deficiency or disaster that might have
served in its simple sort as a memorial,—so little important are we
in our several spheres, so promptly do the ranks of life close up as
we drop dead from their alignment.
The panoply against adversity with which Narcissa had been accoutred
by a too anxious mother, instead of being means of defense, had become
opportunities of oppression. Her brother's affectionate solicitude and
submissiveness were accepted as her bounden due, as the two grew
older; her father naturally adapted himself to the predominant
sentiment of the household; and few homes can show a tyrant more
arrogant and absolute than the mountain girl whose mother had so
predicted for her much hardship and harshness, and a troubled and
It was with that instinct to guard her from all the ills of life,
great and small, that Ben sought to prepare her for a possible
"Mought n't git the road through, nohow, when all's said," he
"What fur not?" she exclaimed, bringing her dark brows together above
eyes that held a glitter of anger.
"Waal, some o' the owners won't sign the application, an' air goin'
ter fight it in the Court."
She put her bonnet on, and looked from under its brim up at the amber
sky. It was growing faintly green near the zenith, toward which the
lofty topmost plumes of the dark green pines swayed. The great growths
of the forest rose on every side. There was no view, no vista, save
the infinitely repeated umbrageous tangle beneath the trees, where
their boles stood more or less distinct or dusky till merged
indefinitely into shadow and distance. Looking down into the river,
one lost the sense of monotony. The ever-swirling lines of the current
drew mystic scrolls on that wonderfully pellucid brown surface,—so
pellucid that from the height above she could see a swiftly darting
shadow which she knew was the reflection of a homeward-bound hawk in
the skies higher yet. Leaves floated in a still, deep pool, were
caught in a maddening eddy, and hurried frantically away, unwilling,
frenzied, helpless, unknowing whither, never to return,—allegory of
many a life outside those darkling solemn mountain woods, and of some,
perhaps, in the midst of them. The reflection of the cliffs in the
never still current, of the pines on their summits, of the changing
sky growing deeper and deeper, till its amber tint, erstwhile so
crystalline, became of a dull tawny opaqueness, she marked absently
for a while as she cogitated on his answer.
"What makes 'em so contrairy, Ben?" she asked at last.
"Waal, old man Sneed 'lows thar'll be a power o' cattle-thievin', with
the road so open an' convenient. An' Jeremiah Sayres don't want ter
pay no road-taxes. An' Silas Boyd 'lows he don't want ter be obligated
ter work on no sech rough road ez this hyar one air obleeged ter be;
an' I reckon, fust an' last, it will take a power o' elbow grease."
He paused, and looked about him at the great shelving masses of rock
and the steep slants, repeated through leagues and leagues of mountain
wilderness. Then seating himself on one of the ledges of the cliff,
his feet dangling unconcernedly over the abysses below, he continued:
"An' Con Hite,—he's agin it, too."
She lifted her head, with a scornful rising flush.
"Con Hite dunno what he wants; he ain't got a ounce o' jedgmint."
"Waal, one thing he don't want is a road. He be 'feared it'll go too
close ter the still, an' the raiders will nose him out somehows. Now
he be all snug in the bresh, an' the revenuers none the wiser."
"An' Con none the wiser, nuther," she flouted. "The raiders hev smoked
out 'sperienced old mountain foxes a heap slyer'n Con be. He ain't
got the gift. He can't hide nuthin'. I kin find out everythin' he
knows by jes' lookin' in his eye."
"That's just 'kase he's fool enough ter set a heap o' store by ye,
Nar'sa. He ain't so easy trapped."
"Fool enough fur ennythin'," she retorted.
"An' then thar 's old Dent Kirby. He 'lows the road will be obligated
ter pass by the witch-face arter it gits over yander nigh ter the
valley, whar the ruver squeezes through the mounting agin. He be
always talkin' 'bout signs an' spells an' sech, an' he 'lows the very
look o' the witch-face kerries bad luck, an' it'll taint all ez goes
for'ard an' back'ard a-nigh it."
"Ben," said the girl in a low voice, "do you-uns b'lieve ef thar war
passin' continual on a sure enough county road that thar cur'ous white
light would kem on the old witch's face in the night-time? Ain't that
a sort'n spell fur the dark an' the lonesomeness ter tarrify a few
quaking dwellers round about? Surely many folks comin' an' goin'
wouldn't see sech. Ghostful things ain't common in a crowd." She moved
a little nearer her brother, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Some folks can't see the witch-face at all, noways," he replied
stolidly. "I hearn the coroner 'low he couldn't."
Narcissa spoke with sudden asperity: "I reckon he hev got sense enough
ter view a light whenst it shines inter his eyes. He 'pears ter be
feeble-minded ginerally, and mought n't be able ter pick out the favor
o' the features on the hillside, but surely he'd blink ef a light war
flickered inter his eyeballs."
The road was her precious scheme, and she steadfastly believed that
with the order of the worshipful Quarterly County Court declaring it
open, with a duly appointed overseer and a gang of assigned work-hands
and the presidial fostering care of a road commissioner, the haggard
old semblance must needs desist from supernatural emblazonment in the
awe-stricken nights, and that logic and law would soon serve to
exorcise its baleful influence.
Her mien grew graver as she reflected on the résumé of objections to
the project. Her white bonnet threw a certain white reflection on her
flushed face. Her eyes were downcast as she looked at the river below,
the long lashes seeming almost to touch her cheek. She scarcely moved
them as she turned her gaze upon her brother, who was still seated on
the verge of the cliff.
"Waal, sir, I wonder that the pore old road petition hed life enough
in it ter crawl ter the court-house door. With all them agin it, thar
ain't nobody ter be fur it, sca'cely."
"Oh, yes," he admitted. "Them air fur it ez b'lieves highways improves
proputty, an' hev got land lyin' right alongside whar the road is axed
ter be run; them ez ain't got proputty alongside ain't nigh so
anxious. But that thar strange valley man ez they say hev got a lung
complaint, he won't sign nuther. He owns the house he built up thar on
the flat o' the mounting an' cornsider'ble land, though he don't keep
no stock nor nuthin'. 'Lows the air be soft an' good for the lung
complaint. He 'lows he hev been tryin' ter git shet o' the railroads
an' dirt roads an' human folks, an' he s'posed he hed run ter the
jumpin'-off place, the e-ends o' the yearth; but hyar kems the road
o' civilization a-pursuin' him like the sarpient o' the Pit, with
the knowledge o' good an' evil,—a grain o' wheat an' a bushel o'
chaff,—an' he reckons he'll hev ter cut an' run again."
Narcissa's lips parted slightly. She listened in amazement to this
strange account of an aversion to that gay world in processional,
chiefly in white-covered wagons, which she longed to see come down the
"He be a powerful queer man," said Ben slowly, "this hyar Alan
And she felt that this was true.
She sat down beside her brother on the rock, and together they looked
down meditatively on the river. It was reddening now with the
reflection of the reddening clouds. The water, nevertheless, asserted
itself. Lengths of steely brilliancy showed now and again amidst the
roseate suffusion, and anon spaces glimmered vacant of all but a dusky
brown suggestion of depth and a liquid lustre.
"Nar'sa," he said at last in a low voice, "ye know they 'lowed that
the traveler what war killed, some say by his runaway horse, war
a-comin' ter see him,—this Alan Selwyn."
The white bonnet seemed to focus and retain the lingering light in the
landscape. Without its aid he might hardly have made shift to see her
"They 'lowed they knowed so by the papers the traveler had on him,
though this Selwyn 'lowed he couldn't identify the dead man," he
continued after a pause.
She gazed wonderingly at him, then absently down at the sudden
scintillating white glitter of the reflection of the evening star in
the dusky red water. It burned with a yet purer, calmer radiance in
the roseate skies. She felt the weight of the darkening gloom,
gathering beneath the trees around her, as if it hung palpably on her
"Waal," he resumed, "I b'lieve ef that thar traveler had been able ter
speak ter ye when ye fund him, like ye said he tried ter do, I
b'lieve he would hev tole ye suthin' 'bout that thar valley man.
He's enough likelier ter hev bed suthin' ter do with the suddint
takin' off o' the feller than Con Hite."
Her face was suddenly aghast. "Who says Con Hite— Why?" She paused,
her voice failing.
"Waal, ye know Con be a-moonshinin' again, an' some 'lows ez this
hyar traveler warn't a traveler at all, but a revenuer,—strayed off
somehows from the rest o' 'em."
"Oh, how I wish he'd stop moonshinin' an' sech!"
She moved so suddenly on the edge of the precipice, as she lifted her
hands and drew down her sunbonnet over her face, that Ben's glance was
full of terror.
"Move back a mite, Nar'sa; ye'll go over the bluff, fust thing ye
know! Yes, Con's mighty wrong ter be moonshinin'. The law is the right
thing. It purtects us. It holps us all. We-uns owe it obejiunce, like
I hearn a man say in a speech down yander in"—
"The law!" cried Narcissa, with scorn. "Con Hite kin tromp on the
revenue law from hyar ter the witch-face, fur all I keer. Purtects! I
pity a man ez waits fur the law ter purtect him; it's a heap apter ter
grind him ter pomace. I mind moonshinin' 'kase it's dangersome fur
the moonshiners. The law—I don't count the fibble old law!"
She sat brooding for a time, her face downcast. Then she spoke in a
"Whyn't ye find out, Ben? What ails ye ter be so good-fur-nuthin'?
Thar be other folks beside Con ez air law-breakers." She edged nearer
to him, laying her hand on his arm. "Ye've got to find out, Ben," she
said insistently. "Keep an eye on that thar valley man, an' find out
all 'bout'n him. Else the killin' 'll be laid ter Con, who never done
nuthin' hurtful ter nobody in all his life."
"The idee jes' streck me ter-day whenst I viewed him along about that
road. Whenst that thar dead man tuk yer han' an' tried ter find a word
of speech— Why, hullo, Narcissa!"
With a short cry she had struggled to her feet. The gathering gloom,
the recollection of the tragedy, the association of ideas, bore too
heavily on her nerves. She struck petulantly at his astounded face.
"Why air ye always remindin' me?" she exclaimed, with a sharp
upbraiding note. And then she began to cry out that she could see
again the coroner's jury pressing close about the corpse, with a keen
ravenous interest like the vile mountain vultures, and then
colloguing together aside, and nodding their heads and saying they had
found their verdict, when they had found nothing, not even the poor
dead man; and she saw them here, and she saw them there, and
everywhere in the darkling mountain woods, and she would see them
everywhere as long as she should live, and she wished with all her
heart that they were every one at the bottom of the black mountain
And the slow Ben wondered, as he sought to soothe her and take her
home, that a woman should be so sensitive to the mention of one dead
man, and yet given to such wishes of the wholesale destruction of the
harmless coroner's jury, because their appearance struck her amiss,
and they collogued together, and nodded their heads unacceptably, and
found their verdict.
Except in so far as his sedulously cultivated fraternal sentiments
were concerned, the peculiar domestic training to which Ben Hanway had
been subjected had had slight effect in softening a somewhat hard and
stern character. To continue the canine simile by which his mother had
described him, his gentleness and watchful care toward his sister were
not more reassuring to the public at large than is the tender loyalty
of a guard-dog toward the infant of a house which claims his fealty;
that the dog does not bite the baby is no fair augury that he will not
bite the peddler or the prowler. The fact that the traveler had borne
letters addressed to Alan Selwyn, and no other papers, and yet Alan
Selwyn could not or would not identify him, had already furnished
Hanway with an ever-recurrent subject of cogitation. It had been the
presumption of the coroner's jury, since confirmed by inquiry of the
postmaster, that, going for some purpose to Alan Selwyn's lodge in the
wilderness, the unknown traveler had, in passing, called for his
prospective host's mail at the Cross-Roads, some fifteen miles distant
and the nearest post-office, such being the courtesy of the region. A
visitor often insured a welcome by thus voluntarily expediting the
delivery of the mail some days, or perhaps some weeks, before its
recipient could have hoped to receive it otherwise. Hanway had long
been cognizant of this habit of the Cross-Roads postmaster to accede
to such requests on the part of reputable people, but he was reminded
forcibly of it the next morning. A neighbor, homeward bound from a
visit to the valley, had paused at Hanway's house to leave a letter,
with which he had charged himself, addressed to Selwyn.
"I 'lowed ye mought be ridin' over thar some day, bein' ez ye air
toler'ble nigh neighbors," he said.
And Hanway the more willingly undertook the delivery of the missive
since it afforded him a pretext for the reconnoissance which he had
Rain-clouds had succeeded those fine aerial flauntings of the sunset
splendors, and he set out in the pervasive drizzle of a gray day. Torn
and ragged with the rain and the gusts, the white mist seemed to come
to meet him along the vistas of the dreary dripping woods. The tall
trees that shut off the sky loomed loftily through it. Sometimes, as
the wind quickened, it deployed in great luminously white columns,
following the invisible curves of the atmospheric current; and anon,
in flaky detached fragments, it fled dispersed down the avenues like
the scattered stragglers of a routed army. The wind was having the
best of the contest; and though it still rained when he reached the
vicinity of Alan Selwyn's lonely dwelling, the mist was gone, the
clouds were all resolved into the steady fall of the torrents, and the
little house on the slope of the mountain and all its surroundings
A log cabin it was, containing two rooms and the unaccustomed luxury
of glass windows; so new that the hewn cedar logs had not yet
weathered to the habitual dull gray tone, but glowed jauntily red as
the timbers alternated with the white and yellow daubing. A stanch
stone chimney seemed an unnecessary note of ostentation, since the
more usual structure of clay and sticks might serve as well. It
reminded Ben Hanway that its occupant was not native to the place, and
whetted anew his curiosity as he looked about, the reins on his
horse's neck in his slow approach. It was a sheltered spot; the great
mountain's curving summit rose high toward the north and west above
the depression where the cabin stood; across the narrow valley a still
more elevated range intercepted the east wind. Only to the south was
the limited plateau open, sloping down to great cliffs, giving upon a
vast expanse of mountain and valley and plain and far reaches of
undulating country, promising in fair weather high, pure, soft air, a
tempered gentle breeze, and the best that the sun can do.
He noted the advantages of the situation in reference to the "lung
complaint," feeling a loser in some sort; for he had begun to suspect
that the consumptive tendencies of the stranger were a vain pretense,
assumed merely to delude the unwary. He could not have doubted long,
for when he dismounted and hitched his horse to the rail fence he
heard the door of the house open, and as its owner, standing on the
threshold in the wind and the gusty rain, called out to him a
welcoming "Hello," the word was followed by a series of hacking coughs
which told their story as definitely as a medical certificate.
Ben Hanway was not a humane man in any special sense, but he was
conscious of haste in concluding the tethering of the animal and in
striding across the vacant weed-grown yard striped with the
"Ye'd better git in out'n all this wind an' rain," he said in his
rough voice. "A power o' dampness in the air."
"No matter. There's no discount on me. Don't take cold nowadays. I've
got right well here already."
The passage-way was dark, but the room into which Ben was ushered,
illumined by two opposite windows, was as bright as the day would
allow. A roaring wood fire in the great chimney-place reinforced the
pallid gray light with glancing red and yellow fluctuations. The
apartment was comfortable enough, although its uses were evidently
multifarious,—partly kitchen, and dining-room, and sitting-room. Its
furniture consisted of several plain wooden chairs, a table and
crockery, a few books on a shelf, a lounge in the corner, and a rifle,
after the manner of the mountaineers, over the mantelpiece. Upon the
shelf a cheap clock ticked away the weary minutes of the lonely hours
of the long empty days while the valley man abode here, exiled from
home and friends and his accustomed sphere, and fought out that
hopeless fight for his life.
Ben Hanway gave him a keen, covert stare, as he slowly and clumsily
accepted the tendered chair and his host threw another log on the
fire. Hanway had seen him previously, when Selwyn testified before the
coroner's jury, but to-day he impressed his visitor differently. He
was tall and slight, twenty-five years of age, perhaps, with light
brown hair, sleek and shining and short, a quick blue eye, a fair
complexion with a brilliant flush, and a long mustache. But the
bizarre effect produced by this smiling apparition in the jaws of
death seemed to Hanway's limited experience curiously enhanced by his
attire. Its special peculiarity was an old smoking-jacket, out at the
elbows, ragged at the cuffs, and frayed at the silk collar; Hanway had
never before seen a man wear a red coat, or such foot-gear as the
slipshod embroidered velvet slippers in which he shuffled to a chair
and sat down, tilted back, with his hands in the pockets of his gray
trousers. To be sure, he could but be grave when testifying before a
coroner's jury, but Hanway was hardly prepared for such exuberant
cheerfulness as his manner, his attire, and his face seemed to
"Ain't ye sorter lonesome over hyar?" he ventured.
"You bet your sweet life I am," his host replied unequivocally. A
shade crossed his face, and vanished in an instant. "But then," he
argued, "I didn't have such a soft thing where I was. I was a
clerk—that is, a bookkeeper—on a salary, and I had to work all day,
and sometimes nearly all night!"
He belittled his former vocation with airy contempt, as if he did not
yearn for it with every fibre of his being,—its utility, its
competence, its future. The recollection of the very feel of the fair
smooth paper under his hand, the delicate hair-line chirography
trailing off so fast from the swift pen, could wring a pang from him.
He might even have esteemed an oath more binding sworn on a ledger
than on the New Testament.
"And we were a small house, anyway, and the salary was no great
shakes," he continued jauntily, to show how little he had to regret.
"An' now ye ain't got nuthin' ter do but ter read yer book," said the
mountaineer acquiescently, realizing, in spite of his clumsy mental
processes, how the thorn pierced the bosom pressed against it.
Selwyn followed his guest's glance to the shelf of volumes with an
"Yes, but I don't care for it. I wish I did, since I have the time.
But the liking for books has to be cultivated, like a taste for beer;
they are both a deal too sedative for me!" The laugh that ensued was
choked with a cough, and the tactless Hanway was moved to expostulate.
"I wonder ye ain't 'feared ter be hyar all by yerse'f hevin' the lung
"Why, man alive, I'm well, or so near it there's no use talking. I
could go home to-morrow, except, as I have had the house built, I
think I'd better stay the winter in it. But before the cold weather
comes on they are going to send up a darky to look after me. I only
hope I won't have to wait on him,—awful lazy nigger! He used to
be a porter of ours. Loafing around these woods with a gun on his
shoulder, pretending to hunt, will be just about his size. He's out of
a job now, and comes cheap. I couldn't afford to pay him wages all the
time, but winter is winter."
He was silent a moment, gazing into the fire; then Hanway, gloomily
brooding and disturbed, for the conversation had impressed him much as
if it had been post-mortem, so immediate seemed his companion's doom,
felt Selwyn's eye upon him, as if his sentiment were so obvious that
the sense of sight had detected it.
"You think I'm going to die up here all by myself. Now I tell you, my
good fellow, dying is the very last thing that I expect to do."
He broke out laughing anew, and this time he did not cough.
Hanway could not at once cover his confusion. He looked frowningly
down at the steam rising from his great cowhide boots, outstretched as
they dried in the heat of the fire, and slowly shifted them one above
the other. The flush on his sunburned cheek rose to the roots of his
dark hair, and overspread his clumsy features. His appearance did not
give token of any very great delicacy of feeling, but he regretted his
transparency, and sought to nullify it.
"Not that," he said disingenuously; "but bein' all by yerse'f, I
wonder ye ain't willin' fur the county road ter be put through. 'T
would run right by yer gate, an' ye could h'ist the winder an' talk to
the folks passin'. Ye wouldn't be lonely never."
For the first time Selwyn looked like a man of business. His eyes grew
steady. His face was firm and serious and non-committal. He said
nothing. Hanway cleared his throat and crossed his legs anew. The
thought of his true intention in coming hither, not his ostensible
errand, had recurred more than once to his mind,—to lay bare the
secret touching the visitor to Selwyn's remote dwelling, whom he could
not or would not identify; and if there were aught amiss, as the
mountaineer suspected, to take such action thereupon as in the
fullness of his own good judgment seemed fit. But since the man was
evidently so sharp, Hanway had hitherto feared even indirectly to
trench upon it; here, however, the opening was so natural, so
propitious, that he was fain to take advantage of it.
"An' see," he resumed, "what dangers kem o' hevin' no road. That thar
man what war killed las' month, ef we hed hed a reg'lar county road,
worked on an' kep' open, stiddier this hyar herder's trail, this-a-way
an' that, he could hev rid along ez free an' favored, an'"—
"Why," Selwyn broke in, "the testimony was to the effect that he was
riding a young, skittish horse, which was startled by stray hogs
breaking at a dead run through the bushes, and that the horse bolted
and ran away. And the man died from concussion of the brain. That
would have happened if we had had a road of the first class, twenty
feet wide, instead of this little seven-foot freak you all are so
His face had not lost a tinge of its brilliant color. His animated
eyes were still fired by that inward flame that was consuming his
years, his days, even his minutes, it might seem. His hands, fine,
white, and delicate, were thrust jauntily into the pockets of his red
jacket, and Hanway felt himself no nearer the heart of the mystery
than before. The subject, evidently, was not avoided, held naught of
menace. He went at it directly.
"Seems strange he war a-comin' ter visit you-uns, an' hed yer mail in
his pocket, an' ye never seen him afore," he hazarded, "nor knowed who
"But I have found out since," Selwyn said, his clear eyes resting on
his visitor without the vestige of an affrighted thought. "He was Mr.
Keith, a chemist from Glaston; he was quite a notable authority on
matters of physical science generally. I had written to him
about—about some points of interest in the mountains, and as he was
at leisure he concluded to come and investigate—and—take a holiday.
He didn't let me know, and as I had never seen him I didn't at first
even imagine it was he."
There was a silence. Selwyn's blue eyes dwelt on the fast-descending
lines of rain that now blurred all view of the mountains; the globular
drops here and there adhering to the pane, ever dissolving and ever
renewed, obscured even the small privilege of a glimpse of the
dooryard. The continual beat on the roof had the regularity and the
tireless suggestion of machinery.
"How did ye find out?" demanded Hanway, his theory evaporating into
"Why, as he didn't reply to my letter about a matter of such
importance"—he checked himself suddenly, then went on more
slowly—"it occurred to me that he might have decided to come, and
might have been the man who was killed. So I wrote to his brother. He
had not been expected at home earlier. His brother doesn't incline to
the foul-play theory. The horse he rode is a wild young animal that
has run away two or three times. He had been warned repeatedly against
riding that horse, but he thought him safe enough. The horse has
returned home,—got there the day my letter was received. So the
brother and an officer came and exhumed the body: he was buried, you
know, after the inquest, over in the little graveyard yonder on the
slope of the mountain."
Selwyn shivered slightly, and the fine white hands came out of the
gaudy red pockets, and fastened the frogs beneath the lapels across
his chest, to draw the smoking-jacket closer.
"Great Scott! what a fate,—to be left in that desolate
burying-ground! Death is death, there."
"Death is death anywhar," said the mountaineer gloomily.
"No. Get you a mile or two of iron fence, and stone gates, and lots of
sculptured marble angels around, and death is peace, or rest, or
heaven, or paradise, according to your creed and the taste of the
subject; but here you are done for and dead."
Hanway, in the limited experience of the mountaineer, could not follow
the theory, and he forbore to press it further.
"Well," Selwyn resumed, "they took him home, and I was glad to see him
go. I was glad to see them filling that hole up. I took a pious
interest in that. I should have felt it was waiting for me. I shoveled
some of the earth back myself."
The wind surged around the house, and shook the outer doors. The rain
trampled on the roof like a squadron of cavalry. With his fate
standing ever behind him, almost visibly looking over his shoulder,
although he saw it not, the valley man was a pathetic object to the
mountaineer. Hanway's eyes were hot and burned as he looked at him; if
he had been but a little younger, they might have held tears. But
Hanway had passed by several years his majority, and esteemed himself
exempt from boyish softness.
Selwyn shook off the impression with a shiver, and bent forward to
mend the fire.
"Where were you yesterday?" he asked, seeking a change of subject.
"At home sowin' turnip seed, mos'ly. I never hearn nuthin' 'bout'n it
Selwyn threw himself back in his chair, his brow corrugated
impatiently at this renewal of the theme, and in the emergency he even
resorted to the much-mooted point of the thoroughfare.
"I suppose all the family there are dead gone on that road?" he sought
to make talk.
"Dad an' aunt M'nervy don't keer one way nor another, but my sister
air plumb beset fur the jury of view to put it through."
"Why?" Selwyn had a mental vision of some elderly, thrifty mountain
dame with a long head turned toward the enhancement of the values of a
league or so of mountain land.
Hanway, slow and tenacious of impressions, could not so readily rouse
a vital interest in another subject. He still gazed with melancholy
eyes at the fire, and his heart felt heavy and sore.
"Waal," he answered mechanically, "she 'lows she wants ter see the
folks go up an' down, an' up an' down."
Selwyn's blue eyes opened. "Folks?" he asked wonderingly. The rarest
of apparitions on Witch-Face Mountain were "folks."
Hanway roused himself slightly, and raucously cleared his throat to
"She 'lows thar'll be cornsider'ble passin'. Folks, in the fall o' the
year, mought be a-wagonin' of chestnuts over the mounting an' down ter
Colb'ry; an' thar's the Quarterly Court days; some attends, leastwise
the jestices; an' whenst they hev preachin' in the Cove; an' wunst in
a while thar mought be a camp-meetin'. She sets cornsider'ble store
on lookin' at the folks ez will go up an' down."
There was a swift movement in the pupils of the valley man's eyes. It
was an expression closely correlated to laughter, but the muscles of
his face were still, and he remained decorously grave.
There was some thought in his mind that held him doubtful for a
moment. His craft was cautious of its kind, and his manner was quite
incidental as he said, "And the others of the family?"
"Thar ain't no others," returned Hanway, stolidly unmarking.
"Oh, so you are the eldest?"
"By five year. Narcissa ain't more 'n jes' turned eighteen."
The valley man's face was flushed more deeply still; his brilliant
eyes were elated.
"Narcissa!" he cried, with the joy of delighted identification.
"She is the girl, then, that testified at the inquest. Narcissa!"
Hanway lifted his head, with a strong look of surly objection on his
heavy features. Selwyn noted it with a glow of growing anger. He felt
that he had said naught amiss. People could not expect their sisters
to escape attracting notice, especially a sister with a remarkable
name and endowed with a face like this one's.
"Narcissa,—that's an odd name," he said, partly in bravado, and
partly in justification of the propriety of his previous mention of
her. "I knew a man once named Narcissus. Must be the feminine of
Narcissus. Good name for her, though." The recollection of the white
flower-like face, the corolla of red-gold hair, came over him. "Looks
just like 'em."
Hanway, albeit all alert now, descried in this naught more poetical
than the fact that Selwyn considered that his sister resembled a man
of his acquaintance. As for that fairest of all spring flowers, it had
never gladdened the backwoods range of his vision.
The exclusive tendency of the human mind is tested by this discovery
of a casual resemblance to a stranger. One invariably sustains an
affront at its mention. Whatever one's exterior may be, it possesses
the unique merit of being one's own, and the aversion to share its
traits with another, and that other a stranger, is universal. In this
instance the objection was enhanced by the fact that the stranger was
a man; ergo, in Hanway's opinion, more or less clumsy and burly and
ugly; the masculine type of his acquaintance presenting to his mind
few of the superior elements of beauty. He resented the liberty the
stranger took in resembling Narcissa, and he resented still more
Selwyn's effrontery in discovering the likeness.
"Not ez much alike ez two black-eyed peas, now. I reckon not,—I
reckon not," he sneered, as he rose to bring his visit to an end.
His host's words of incipient surprise were checked as Hanway slowly
drew forth from his pocket a letter.
"Old man Binney war at the Cross-Roads Sad'day, an' he fotched up some
mail fur the neighbors. He lef' this letter fur you-uns at our house,
'lowin' ez I would fetch it over."
Selwyn sat silent for a moment. He felt that severe reprehension and
distrust which a man of business always manifests upon even the most
trifling interference with his vested rights in his own mail matter.
The rural method of aiding in distributing the mail was peculiarly
unpalatable to him. He much preferred that his letters should lie in
the post-office at the Cross-Roads until such time as it suited his
convenience to saddle his horse and ride thither for them. The
postmaster, on the contrary, seized the opportunity whenever
responsible parties were "ridin' up inter the mounting" to entrust to
them the neighborhood mail, thus expediting its delivery perhaps by
three weeks, or even more, and receiving in every instance the
benediction of his distant beneficiaries of the backwoods.
"I'll write to the postmaster this very day!" Selwyn thought, as he
tore the envelope open and mastered its contents at a swift glance. A
half-suppressed but delighted excitement shone suddenly in his eyes,
and smoothed every line of agitation and anxiety from his brow.
"I'm a thousand times obliged to you for bringing it," he exclaimed,
"and for staying awhile and talking! I wish you would come again. But
I'm coming to see you, to return your call." He laughed gayly at the
sophisticated phrase. "Coming soon."
Hanway's growl of pretended pleasure in the prospect was rendered
nearly inarticulate by the thought of Narcissa. He had not anticipated
a return of the courtesy. He had no welcome for this stranger, and
somehow he felt that he did not altogether understand Narcissa at
times; that she had flights of fancy which were beyond him, and took a
mischievous pleasure in tantalizing him, and was freakish and hard to
Moreover, under the influence of this reaction of feeling, a modicum
of his doubts of Selwyn had revived. Not that he suspected him, as
heretofore, but a phrase that had earlier struck his attention came
back to him. Selwyn had written, he said, to the traveler to come and
"investigate," and he had hesitated and chosen his phrases, and half
discarded them, and slurred over his statement. What was there to
"investigate" in the mountains? What prospect of profit worth a long,
lonely journey and a risk that ended in death? The capture of
moonshiners was said to be a paying business, and an informer also
reaped a reward. Hanway wondered if Con Hite could be the point of
"investigation," if the dead man were indeed of the revenue force.
"Oh, you needn't shut the door on me," Selwyn said, as they stood
together in the passage, and Hanway, with his instinct to cut him off,
had made a motion to draw the door after him; "this mountain air is so
bland, even when it is damp." He paused on the dripping threshold,
with his hands in the pockets of his red jacket, and surveyed with
smiling complacence the forlorn, weeping day, and the mountains
cowering under their misty veil, and the sodden dooryard, and the
wild rocks and chasms of the gorge, adown the trough of which a stream
unknown to the dry weather was tumbling with a suggestion of flight
and trouble and fear in its precipitancy. "I'm well, well as a bear;
and I'm getting fat as a bear, doing nothing. Feel my arm. I'm just
following the example of the bears about this time of the
year,—hibernating, going into winter quarters. I'm going to get this
place into good shape to sell some day. I have bought that land over
there all down the gorge from Squire Helm; and last July I bought all
that slope at the tax sale, but that is subject to redemption; and
then I am trying to buy in the rear of my wigwam, too,—a thousand
"Ye kin sell it higher ef the road goes through," said Hanway
It seemed very odd that the man who protested that his stay in the
mountains was so temporary, and whose stay in the world was evidently
so short, should spend his obviously scanty substance in purchase
after purchase of the worthless mountain wilderness. To be sure, the
land was cheap, but it cost something. And Hanway looked again at the
frayed cuffs and elbows of the red smoking-jacket. In his infrequent
visits to Colbury, he had noted the variance of the men's costumes
with the mountain standard of dress. He saw naught like this, but he
knew that if ever the sober burghers lent themselves to this sort of
fantastic toggery, it was certainly whole.
"Say, my friend, what day does the jury of view hold forth?" Selwyn
called out after the slouching figure, striped with the diagonal lines
of rain and flouted by the wind, tramping across the weeds of the yard
to his horse.
"Nex' Chewsday week," Hanway responded hoarsely.
"Well, if this weather holds out, it is to be hoped that the gentlemen
of the jury are web-footed!" Selwyn exclaimed.
He shut the door, and as he went back to his lonely hearth his eyes
fell upon the letter lying on the table.
"Now," he said as he took it again in his hand, "if fate should truly
cut such a caper as to make my fortune in this forlorn exile, I could
find it in my heart to laugh the longest and the loudest at the joke."
If it had been within the power of the worshipful Quarterly County
Court to issue a mandamus to compel fair weather on that notable
Tuesday when the jury of view were to set forth, the god of day could
scarcely have obeyed with more alacrity that peremptory writ once
poetically ranked as "one of the flowers of the crown." The burnished
yellow sunshine had a suggestion of joyous exuberance in its wide
suffusions. Even the recurrent fluctuations of shadow but gave its
pervasive sheen the effect of motion and added embellishment. The
wind, hilarious, loud, piping gayly a tuneful stave, shepherded the
clouds in the fair fields of the high sky, driving the flocculent
white masses here and there as listed a changing will. The trees were
red and yellow, the leaves firm, full-fleshed, as if the ebbing sap of
summer still ran high in every fibre; their tint seemed no hectic
dying taint, but some inherent chromatic richness. Fine avenues the
eye might open amongst the rough brown boles that stood in dense
ranks, preternaturally dark and distinct, washed by the recent rains,
and thrown into prominence by the masses of yellow and red leaves
carpeting the ground, and the red and yellow boughs hanging low above.
They dispensed to the light, clarified air an aromatic richness that
the lungs rejoiced to breathe, and all their flare of color might have
seemed adequate illumination of their demesne without serving writs of
mandamus on the sun; and indeed, the Quarterly County Court was fain
to concern itself with far lesser matters, and wield slighter weapons.
The jury of view, in a close squad, ambling along at an easy gait,
mounted on nags as diverse in appearance, age, and manner as the
riders, sufficiently expressed its authority and their own diligence
in its behests, and their spirits had risen to the propitious aspect
of the weather and the occasion. Their advent into this secluded
region of the district—for to secure a strict impartiality they were
not of the immediate neighborhood, and had no interest which could be
affected by their report—was not hailed with universal satisfaction.
"Jes' look at 'em, now," said old man Binney, as he stood in his door,
leaning on his stick, to watch them pass,—"a jury o' view. An' who
ever viewed a jury a-horseback afore? An' thar ain't but seben on
'em!"—laboriously counting, "five, six, seben. Thar's twelve men on
a sure enough jury! I counted the panel ez hung Ezekiel Tilbuts fur
a-murderin' of his wife. I war thar in town whenst they fetched in
thar verdic'. I dunno what the kentry be a-comin' ter! Shucks! I ain't
a-goin' ter abide by the say-so o' no sech skimpy jury ez this hyar.
I'll go ter town an' see old Lawyer Gryce 'bout it, fust."
And with this extremest threat of vengeance he brought his stick down
on the floor with so vigorous a thump that it had a certain profane
effect; then having from under his bushy gray eyebrows gazed at the
diminishing group till it was but a dim speck in the distance, he went
in muttering, banging the door as if to shut out and reject the sight.
His objection might have been intensified had he known that the days
were at hand when legislative wisdom would still further reduce this
engine of the law, making it consist of one road commissioner and two
freeholders, the trio still pridefully denominated a "jury of view."
Others, however, favoring the enterprise, cheerfully fell into the
line of march; and as the way lengthened the cavalcade grew, mustering
recruits as it went.
Disputatious voices suddenly sounded loud on the clear air in front of
them, mingled with the thud of horses' hoofs, the jingle of spurs, and
now and again the whinny of a colt; and at the intersection of the
trail with a narrow winding path there rode into view old "Persimmon"
Sneed,—as he was sometimes disrespectfully nicknamed, owing to a
juvenile and voracious fondness for the most toothsome delicacy of
autumn woods,—arguing loudly, and with a lordly intolerance of
contradiction, with two men who accompanied him, while his sleek
claybank mare also argued loudly with her colt. She had much ado to
pace soberly forward, even under the coercion of whip and spur, while
her madcap scion galloped wildly ahead or lagged far in the rear, and
made now and then excursions into the woods, out of sight, to gratify
some adolescent curiosity, or perhaps, after the fashion of other and
human adolescents, to relish the spectacle of the maternal anxiety.
Ever and anon the sound of the mare's troubled call rang on the air.
Then the colt would come with a burst of speed, a turbulent rush, out
of the underbrush, and, with its keen head-tones of a whinny, all
funnily treble and out of tune, dash on in advance. The rider of this
preoccupied steed was a grizzled, lank, thin-visaged mountaineer, with
a tuft of beard on his chin, but a shaven jowl, where, however, the
black-and-gray stubble of several days' avoidance of the razor put
forth unabashed. He shook his finger impressively at the jury of view
as he approached them.
"Ef ye put this hyar road through my land," he said solemnly, "I'll be
teetotally ruinationed. The cattle-thievin' that'll go on, with the
woods so open an' the road so convenient, an' yit no travel sca'cely,
will be a scandal ter the jay-bird. I won't hev so much lef' ez the
horn of a muley cow!"
And with this extreme statement he whirled his horse and rode on at
the head of the cavalcade in dignified silence. He was not a dweller
in the immediate vicinity, but hailed from the Cove,—a man of
substance and a large cattle-owner, pasturing his herds, duly branded,
on a tract of unfenced wilderness, his mountain lands, where they
roamed in the safe solitudes of those deep seclusions during the
summer, and were rounded up, well fattened, and driven home at the
approach of winter. He was the typical man of convictions, one who
entertains a serious belief that he possesses a governing conscience
instead of an abiding delight in his own way. He had a keen eye, with
an upward glance from under the brim of his big wool hat, and he
looked alert to descry any encroachment on his vested rights to
prescribe opinion. The jury of view were destined to find it a
doubtful boon that the road law interposed no insurmountable obstacle
to prevent their hearing thus informally the views of those
Persimmon Sneed's deep feeling on the subject had been evinced by his
dispensing with the customary salutations, and one of the jury of
view, with a mollifying intention, observed that they would use their
best judgment to promote the interests of all parties.
"Ai-yi!" said Persimmon Sneed, ruefully shaking his head. "But s'pose
ye hev got mighty pore jedgmint? Ye'll be like mos' folks I know, ef
ye hev. I'd ruther use my own best jedgmint, a sight."
At which another of the jury suavely remarked that they would seek to
"That's jes' what I kem along fur," exclaimed Persimmon Sneed
triumphantly,—"ter show ye edzac'ly whar the bull's eye be. Thar
ain't no use fur this road, an' ye air bound ter see it ef ye ain't
nowise one-sided and partial."
The jury relapsed into silence and rode steadily on.
The true raw material of contradiction lay in three younger men among
the spectators, contumacious, vehement, and, albeit opposed to the
road, much inclined to spoke the wheel of old Persimmon Sneed, however
that wheel might revolve.
"I got caught on a jury in a criminal case with him wunst," Silas
Boyd, a heavy, thick-set, tall young fellow with a belligerent eye and
a portentously square jaw, said sotto voce to his next comrade. "I
hev sarved on a jury with him,—locked up fur a week 'thout no
verdic'. He ain't got no respec' fur no other man's say-so. An' he
talks 'bout his oath ez ef he war the only man in Tennessee ez ever
war swore on the 'Holy Evangelists o' Almighty Gawd' in the
court-house. He fairly stamped on my feelin's, in that Jenkins case,
ter make me agree with him; but I couldn't agree, an' it hung the
jury, ez they say. I wisht they hed hung the foreman! By Hokey, I
despise a hard-headed, 'pinionated man."
"Look at his back," rejoined Jeremiah Sayres, a man of theory, who had
a light undecided tint of hair and beard and scraggy mustache, and a
blond complexion burned a permanent solid red by the summer sun. "I'd
know his dispositions by his back." He waved his hand at the brown
jeans coat that draped a spare and angular but singularly erect back,
which scarcely seemed to move in response to the motions of the mare
pacing briskly along. "What sorter back is that fur a man risin' fifty
year old?—straight ez a ramrod, an' ez stiff. But, Silas, ef ever ye
git the better o' him, ye hev got ter break it."
"I hearn his third wife married him ter git rid o' him," put in Peter
Sims, given to gossip. "She 'lowed he warn't nigh so tarrifyin' 'roun'
his own house, a-feedin' the peegs, an' ploughin' an' cuttin' wood,
an' sech, occupied somehows, ez he war a-settin' up in his Sunday
best at her house, with nuthin' ter do, allowin' she hed ter marry
him, whether or not, 'kase he wouldn't hev 'No' fur a answer."
"An' look at it now!" exclaimed Silas Boyd, unexpectedly reinforced by
the matrimonial phase of the question. "That thar man hev bodaciously
argued an' contradicted two wimmin out'n this vale o' tears. An'
everybody knows it takes a power o' contradiction to out-do a woman.
He oughter be indicted for cold-blooded murder! That's what!" He
nodded vindictively at the straight jeans-clad back in advance of him.
Over and again the party called a halt, to push about in search of a
practicable seven-foot passage amongst crags and chasms, and to
contend with the various insistence touching devious ways preferred by
the honorary attendants, who often seemed to forget that they
themselves were not in the exercise of a delegated jury duty. Tangles
impeded, doubts beset them, although the axe by which the desired
route had been blazed out aforetime by the petitioners had been
zealous and active; but the part of a pioneer in a primeval wilderness
is indeed the threading of a clueless labyrinth, and both sun and
compass were consulted often before the continued direction of the
road could be determined and located.
In such cases, to the lovers of the consistent in character, the
respective traits of old Persimmon Sneed and Silas Boyd were displayed
in all their pristine value; for although their interests were
identical, both being opposed to the opening of the road, the
dictatorial arrogations of the elder man and the pugnacious
persistence of the younger served to antagonize them on many a minor
point in question, subsidiary to the main issue, as definitely as if
they were each arrayed against the other, instead of both being in
arms under the "No Road" banner.
"Mighty nigh ez interestin' ez a dog-fight," said Jeremiah Sayres in
an aside to one of the jury.
Midday found them considerably advanced on their way, but brought to a
halt by an insistence on the part of Silas Boyd that the road should
be diverted from a certain depression showing marshy tendencies to a
rugged slope where the footing was dry but difficult.
"That's under water more 'n haffen the winter, I'll take my
everlastin' oath. Ef the road runs thar, that piece will take enough
mendin' in a season ter keep up ten mile o' dry road," he argued
"Water ain't dangersome, nowise," retorted the elderly Persimmon, with
a snarling smile. "Healthier 'n whiskey, my frien',—heap healthier
Boyd's serious countenance colored darkly red with wrath. Among the
aggressive virtues of old Persimmon Sneed were certain whiskey-proof
temperance principles, the recollection of which was peculiarly
irritating to Silas Boyd, known to be more than ordinarily susceptible
to proof whiskey.
"I be a perfessin' Baptis', Mr. Sneed," he retorted quickly. "I got no
objection ter water, 'ceptin' fur the onregenerate an' spurners o'
Now Persimmon Sneed had argued the plan of atonement on every possible
basis known to his extremely limited polemical outlook, and could
agree with none. If any sect of eclectics had been within his reach,
he would most joyfully have cast his spiritual fortunes with them, for
he felt himself better than very many conspicuous Christians; and as
he would have joyed in a pose of sanctity, the reproach of being a
member of no church touched him deeply.
"I ain't no ransomed saint, I know," he vociferated,—"I ain't no
ransomed saint! But ef the truth war known, ye ain't got no religion
nuther! That leetle duckin' ez ye call 'immersion' jes' diluted the
'riginal sin in ye mighty leetle. Ye air a toler'ble strong toddy o'
iniquity yit. That thar water tempered the whiskey ye drink mighty
The Christian grace of Silas Boyd was put to a stronger test than it
might have been deemed capable of sustaining. But Sneed was a far
older man, and as nothing short of breaking his stiff neck might
suffice to tame him, Silas Boyd summoned his self-control, and held
his tingling hands, and gave himself only to retort.
"I wouldn't take that off'n ye, Mr. Sneed, 'ceptin' I be a perfessin'
member, an' pity them ez is still in the wiles an' delusions o'
What might have ensued in the nature of counterthrust, as Persimmon
Sneed heard himself called by inference an object of pity, the
subsidiary group were spared from learning, for at that moment the
sound of steps heralded an approach, and Ben Hanway came into the
circle, and sought to claim the attention of the party, inviting them
to dine and pass the nooning hour at his house. His countenance was
adjusted to the smile of hospitality, but it wore the expression like
a mask, and he seemed ill at ease. He had been contending all the
morning with Narcissa's freakishness, which he thought intensified by
the presence of the valley man, who was returning the civility of that
ill-omened visit, and who, by reason of the abnormal excitements of
the day, had been received with scant formality, and was already upon
the footing of a familiar friend. Selwyn stood smilingly in the way
hard by, speaking to those of the men as they passed who gave his
presence the meed of a start and a stare of blank surprise, or a curt
nod. Narcissa lingered in the background, beneath a great oak; her
chin was a little lifted with a touch of displeasure; the eyelids
drooped over her brown eyes; her hands, with her wonted careless
gesture and with a certain mechanical effort to dispel embarrassment,
were raised to the curtain of her white sunbonnet, and spread its
folds wingwise behind her auburn hair. Sundry acquaintances among the
honorary attendants paused to greet her pleasantly as they passed, but
old Sneed's disapprobation of a woman's appearance on so public an
occasion was plainly expressed on his features. For all the Turks are
not in Turkey. She followed with frowning, disaffected eyes the
procession of men and horses and dogs and colts wending up to the
invisible house hidden amongst the full-leaved autumn woods.
"Well, that's the jury of view; and what do you think of them?" asked
Selwyn, watching too, but smilingly, the cavalcade.
"Some similar ter the cor'ner's jury. But they hed suthin' ter look
tormented an' tribulated 'bout," said the girl, evidently disappointed
to find the jury of view not more cheerful of aspect. "But mebbe
conversin' a passel by the way with old Persimmon Sneed is powerful
depressin' ter the sperits."
Selwyn's face grew grave at the mention of the coroner's jury.
"I'm afraid that poor fellow missed something good," he said.
Still holding out her sunbonnet in wide distention, she slowly set
forth along the path, not even turning back, for sheer perversity, as
she saw Ben look anxiously over his shoulder to descry if she followed
in the distance.
"Thar ain't much good in life nohow. Things seem set contrariwise."
Then, after a moment, and turning her eyes upon him, for she had an
almost personal interest in the man whose tragic fate she had first of
all discovered, "What sorter good thing did he miss?" she asked, as
she settled her sunbonnet soberly on her head.
"Well"—Selwyn began; then he hesitated. He had spoken rather than
thought, for he thought little, and he was not used to keeping
secrets. Moreover, despite his courageous disbelief in his coming
fate, he must have had some yearnings for sympathy; the iron of his
exile surely entered his soul at times. The girl, so delicately
framed, so flower-like of face, seemed alien to her rude surroundings
and the burly, heavy, matter-of-fact folk about her. Her spirituelle
presence did away in a measure with the realization of her
limitations, her ignorance, and the uncouth surroundings. Even her
dress seemed to him hardly amiss, for there then reigned a fleeting
metropolitan fashion of straight full flowing skirts and short waists
and closely fitting sleeves,—a straining after picture-like effects
which Narcissa's attire accomplished without conscious effort, the
costume of the mountain women for a hundred years or more. The
sunbonnet itself was but the defensive appurtenance of many a Southern
city girl, when a-summering in the country, who esteems herself the
possessor of a remarkably beautiful complexion, and heroically
proposes to conserve it. Unlike the men, Narcissa's personality did
not suggest the distance between them in sophistication, in culture,
in refinement, in the small matters of external polish. She seemed not
so far from his world, and it was long since he had walked fraternally
by the side of some fair girl, and talked freely of himself, his
views, his plans, his vagaries, as men, when very young, are wont to
do, and as they rarely talk to one another. He had so sedulously
sought to content himself with the conditions of his closing existence
that the process of reconciling the habit of better things was lost in
simple acceptance. He was still young, and the sun shone, and the air
was clear and pure and soft, and he walked by the side of a girl, fair
and good and not altogether unwise, and he was happy in the blessings
After a moment he replied: "Well, I thought he might have made a lot
of money. I thought I might go partners with him. I had written to
Her face did not change; it was still grave and solicitous within the
white frame of her sunbonnet, but its expression did not deepen. She
did not pity the dead man because he died without the money he had
had a chance to make. She evidently had not even scant knowledge of
that most absorbing passion, the love of gain, and she did not value
"Somehow whenst folks dies by accident, it 'pears ter me a
mistake—somehows—ez ef they war choused out'n time what war laid off
fur them an' their'n by right." Evidently she did not lack
"Yes," he rejoined, "and you know money makes a lot of difference in
people's lives there in the valley towns. Lord knows, 't would in
He swung his riding-whip dejectedly to and fro in his hand as he
spoke, and she pushed back her sunbonnet to look seriously at him. He
was a miracle of elegance in her estimation, but the fawn-colored suit
which he wore owed its nattiness rather to his own symmetry than the
cut or the cloth, and he had worn it a year ago. His immaculate linen,
somewhat flabby,—for the mountain laundress is averse to starch,—had
been delicately trimmed by a deft pair of scissors around the raveling
edges of the cuffs and collar, and showed rather what it had been than
what it was. His straw hat was pushed a trifle back from his face, in
which the sunburn and the inward fire competed to lay on the tints.
She did not see how nor what he lacked. Still, if he wanted it, she
pitied him that he did not have it.
"Waal, can't you-uns make it, the same way?"
She asked this sympathetically. She was beginning to experience a
certain self-reproach in regard to him, and it gave her unwonted
gentleness. She felt that she had been too quick to suspect. Since
Ben's report of the reconnoitring interview on which she had sent him
in Con Hite's interest, she had dismissed the idea that Selwyn was in
aught concerned with the traveler's sudden and violent death; and she
did not incline easily to the substituted suspicion that the dead man
was a "revenuer," and that Selwyn had written to him to recommend the
investigation of Con Hite, whose implication in moonshining he had
some cause to divine.
Narcissa had marked with displeasure Ben's surly manner to the valley
man, connecting it with these considerations, and never dreaming that
it was her acquaintance which her brother grudged the stranger.
"I ought never ter hev set Ben after him," she thought ruefully.
"He'll hang on ter him like a bulldog." But aloud she only said, "You
kin make the money all the same."
"Oh, I'll try, like a little man!" he exclaimed, rousing himself to
renewed hope. "I have written to another scientific fellow, and he
has promised to come and investigate. I hope to Heaven he won't break
his neck, too."
She also marked the word "investigate," which had so smitten Ben's
attention, and marveled what matter it might be in the mountains worth
investigating, and promissory of gain, if not the still-hunt, as it
were, of the wily moonshiners. But yet her faith in Selwyn's motives
and good will, so suddenly adopted, held fast.
"Con Hite mus' l'arn ter look out fur hisse'f," she thought fretfully,
for she could not discern into what disastrous swirl she might be
guiding events as she took the helm. "He's big enough, the Lord
The little log cabin on the slope of the ascent had come into sight.
They had followed but slowly; the horses were already tethered to
the rails of the fence, and the jury of view and its escort had
disappeared within. A very spirited fracas was in progress between the
visiting dogs and the inhospitable home canines, and once Ben appeared
in the passageway and hoarsely called his hounds off.
"I ain't a-goin' ter hurry," Narcissa remarked cavalierly. "Let
Ben an' aunt Minervy dish up an' wait on 'em. They won't miss me.
Thar's nuthin' in this worl' a gormandizin' man kin miss at
Selwyn made no comment on this touch of reprisal in Narcissa's manner.
If old Persimmon Sneed had deemed her coming forth to meet them
superfluous, she in her own good judgment could deem her presence at
table an empty show.
"I ain't a-goin' in," she continued. "Ye kin go," she added, with a
hasty afterthought. "Thar's a cheer sot ter the table fur you-uns. I'm
goin' ter bide hyar. They 'll git done arter a while."
She sat languidly down on a step of a stile that went over the fence
at a considerable distance from the house, and Selwyn, protesting that
he wanted no dinner, established himself on the protruding roots of a
great beech-tree that, like gigantic, knuckled, gnarled fingers,
visibly took a great grasp of the earth before sinking their tips far
out of sight beneath. The shade was dense; the sound of water
trickling into the rude horse-trough on the opposite side of the path
that was to be a road was delicious in its cool suggestion, for the
landscape, far, far to see, blazed as with the refulgence of a summer
sun. The odor of the apple orchard, heavily fruited, was mellow on the
air, and the red-freighted boughs of an old winesap bent above the
girl's head as she sat with her elbow on her knee and her chin in her
hand. She gazed dreamily away at those vividly blue ranges, whither
one might fancy summer had fled, so little affinity had their aspect
with the network of intermediate brown valleys, and nearer garnet
slopes, and the red and yellow oak boughs close at hand, hanging above
the precipice and limiting the outlook.
"Yes," he said, after a moment's cogitation, while he absently turned
a cluster of beech-nuts in his hands, "I'll try it, for keeps, you may
bet,—if you were a betting character. There's lots of good things
going in these mountains; that is, if a fellow had the money to get
He looked up a trifle drearily from under the brim of his straw hat at
the smiling summertide of those blue mountains yonder. Oh, fair and
feigning prospect, what wide and alluring perspectives! He drew a long
sigh. Is it better to know so surely that winter is a-coming?
"An' the sense, too," remarked Narcissa, her eyes still dreamily
dwelling on the distance.
He roused himself. The unconsciously flattering inference was too
slight not to be lawfully appropriated.
"Yes, the sense and the enterprise. Now, these mountaineers,"—he
spoke as if she had no part among them, forgetting it, indeed, for the
moment,—"they let marble and silver and iron, and gold too, all sorts
of natural wealth, millions and millions of the finest hard-wood
timber, lie here undeveloped, without making the least effort to
realize on it, without lifting a finger. They have got no enterprise
in the world, and they are the most dilatory, slowest gang I ever ran
across in my life."
A dimple deepened in the soft fairness of her cheek under the white
"They got enterprise enough ter want a road," she drawled, fixing her
eyes upon him for a moment, then reverting to her former outlook.
He was a trifle embarrassed, and lost his balance.
"Oh, I'll want a road, too, after a while," he returned. "All in
good time." He laughed as if to himself, a touch of mystery in his
tone, and he took off his hat and jauntily fanned himself.
"Sorter dil'tory yerse'f now; 'pears ter be a ketchin' complaint, like
Perhaps she secretly resented the reflection on the mountaineers, for
there was a certain bellicose intention in her eye, a disposition to
push him to his last defenses.
"No; but a body would think a fellow might get enough intelligent
coöperation in any promising matter from right around here without
corresponding all over the country. And the mountaineers don't know
anything, and they don't want to learn anything. Now," convincingly,
"what would any of those fellows in there say if I should tell them
that I could take a match "—he pulled a handful of lucifers from, his
pocket—"and set a spring afire?"
She gazed at him in dumb surprise.
"They'd say I was lying, I reckon," he hazarded. With an ebullition of
laughter, he hastily scrambled to his feet and unhitched his horse;
then, as he put his foot in the stirrup, he paused and added, "Or
else, 'Better leave it be, sonny,'" with the effrontery of mimicry.
"'Mought set the mounting afire.'"
He forthwith swung himself into the saddle, and, with a jaunty wave of
the hand in adieu, fared forth homeward, leaving her staring after him
in wide-eyed amazement.
The love of contention served, in the case of old Persimmon Sneed, in
the stead of industry, of rectitude, of perseverance, of judgment, of
every quality that should adorn a man. So eager was he to be off and
at the road again that he could scarcely wait to swallow his
refection. All the charms of the profusely spread board had not
availed to decoy him from the subject, and the repast of the devoted
jury of view was seasoned with his sage advice and vehement argument
against the project, which its advocates, fully occupied, failed for
the nonce to combat. Now and again Mrs. Minerva Slade sought to
interpose in their behalf, and many a tempting trencher was thrust to
his elbow to divert the tenor of his discourse. But despite his
youthful vulnerability to the dainty which had won him his sobriquet,
Persimmon Sneed's palate was not more susceptible to the allurements
of flattery than his hard head or his obdurate heart. There was,
however, at intervals, a lively clatter of his knife and fork, and
some redoubtable activity on the part of his store teeth, frankly
false, and without doubt the only false thing about him. Then he
hustled up the jury of view and their confrères to the resumption of
their duties, and was the first man to put foot in stirrup. Certain
other mountaineers would fain have lingered, as was manifest by the
triangular slices of "apple custard pie" in their hands, as they
stood, still munching, on the porch, watching the departing jury of
view with their active and aged precursor, and by their loitering
farewells and thanks to Aunt Minerva Slade. A beaming countenance did
she wear this day. She had cooked to some cheerful purpose. Not one
failure had marred the menu, in testimony of which, as she afterward
remarked, "I never seen scraps so skimpy." Her spectacles reflected
the bland light of the day as smilingly as the eyes above which they
were poised, as she stood in the doorway, and with fluttering
graciousness received the homage of her beneficiaries.
"That youngest one, Con Hite, was sorter mild-mannered an' meek," she
afterward said, often recounting the culinary triumphs of the great
day, "an' I misdoubts but he hed the deespepsy, fur he war the only
one ez didn't pitch in an' eat like he war tryin' to pervide fur a
week's fastin'. I reckon they all knowed what sort'n pitiful table
they sets out at Mis' Cornely Hood's, t'other side the mounting, whar
they expected ter stop fur supper, an' war a-goin' ter lay up suthin'
For an hour, perhaps, before reaching Hanway's, Con Hite had ridden
with the jury of view. He had not much expectation of influencing the
fate of the road in any respect by his presence, but he felt it was a
matter of consistency to appear with the others of the opposition. He
desired, too, to publicly urge, as his reason for objecting to the
project, the insufficiency of hands in so sparsely populated a region
to make a road and keep it in repair; lest another reason, the wish to
preserve the seclusion so dear to the moonshiner, be attributed to
him. This matter of policy had been made very palatable by the
probability that he would see Narcissa, and it was with a deep
disappointment that he beheld Selwyn beside her, and received only a
slight movement of her drooping eyelids as a token of recognition and
welcome. He had been minded to dismount and walk with her, but his
heart burned with resentment. Of what worth now were all his buoyant
anticipations, while she was listening to the sugared flatteries of
the "town cuss"? He had this subject for cogitation, while, in a
stifling room, he was regaled with hard cider and apple-jack by no
more fascinating Hebe than old Mrs. Slade, with her withered sallow
skin, her excited, anxious eye, her fluttered, tremulous, skinny
fingers, her hysteric cap with its maddeningly flying strings, and her
wonderfully swift venerable scamper in and out of the kitchen.
Con Hite was the last to go. He led his horse down to the
watering-trough, oblivious of the stream, with its ample supply, a
hundred yards or so further on and in full view; and as he stood
there, with his hand on the animal's shoulder, he turned his eyes,
somewhat wistful, though wont to be so bold and bright, upon Narcissa,
still seated on the stile. Her own brown long-lashed eyes had a
far-away look in them. They evidently passed him over absently, and
followed the squad of men swiftly trotting adown the road, all in good
heart and good temper again, to take up their duty where they had
laid it down. No faint vestige of a dimple was now in her daintily
"Ye be powerful sparin' o' speech ter-day," he remarked.
Her eyes did not move from the distant landscape. "Folks ez hev got
nuthin' ter say would do well ter say it."
He flushed. "Ye hed mo' ter say ter the stranger-man."
"Don't see him so powerful frequent. When a thing is sca'ce, it's apt
ter be ch'ice," she retorted.
She experienced a certain satisfaction in her acridity. For his sake,
lest suspicion befall him, she had sought to inaugurate an
investigation—nay, a persecution—of this man, and he a stranger; and
but that circumstance was kind to him, her effort might have resulted
cruelly. And now that she had done so much for Con Hite, it was her
pleasure to take it out on him, as the phrase goes. All unaware of
this curious mental attitude, he winced under her satire.
"Waal, I kin make myself sca'ce, too," he said, an impulse of pride
surging in his heart.
"It mought be better fur ye," she replied indifferently.
His momentary independence left him suddenly.
"Narcissa," he said reproachfully, "ye didn't always talk this way ter
"That ain't news ter me. Ben 'lows ez I talk six ways fur Sunday."
"Ye dunno how I feel, not knowin' how ye be set towards me, an'
hevin' ter see ye so seldom, a-workin' all the time down yander,
"I wouldn't talk 'bout it so turr'ble loud." She glanced
apprehensively over her shoulder. "An' ye'd better quit it, ennyhows."
"Ye 'lows it be wrong," he said, his bold bright eyes all softened as
he looked at her, "bein' agin the law?"
"I ain't keerin' fur the law. Ef the truth war knowed, the law is
aimin' ter git all the benefit o' whiskey bein' drunk itself. That's
whar the law kems in. I only keer fur"—She stopped abruptly. She had
nearly revealed to him that she cared only lest some disaster come to
him in his risky occupation; that she would like him to be ploughing
in a safe level field at the side of a cabin, where she might sit by
the window and sew, and look out and see that no harm befell this big
bold man, six feet two inches high. "Con Hite!" she exclaimed, her
face scarlet, "I never see a body ez hard-hearted an' onmerciful ez
ye air. Whyn't ye water that sufferin' beast, ez air fairly honing
ter drink? Waal," she continued, after a pause in which he
demonstrated the axiom that one may lead a horse to water, but cannot
make him drink, "then whyn't ye go? I ain't got time ter waste, ef ye
She rose as if for departure, and he put his foot in the stirrup. "I
wish ye wouldn't be so harsh ter me, Narcissa," he said meekly.
"Waal, thar be a heap o' saaft-spoken gals ter be hed fur the askin'.
Ye kin take yer ch'ice."
And with this he was fain to be content, as he mounted and rode
She sat down again, and was still for a long time after the last echo
of his horse's hoofs had died on the air. Her thoughts did not follow
him, however. They turned again with renewed interest to the
fair-haired young stranger. Somehow she was ill at ease and vaguely
disillusioned. She watched mechanically, and with some unaccustomed
touch of melancholy, the burnished shimmering golden haze gradually
invest far blue domes and their purple slopes, and the brown valleys,
and the rugged rocky mountains nearer, with a certain idealized
slumberous effect like the landscape of a dream. In these still spaces
naught moved now save the imperceptible lengthening of the shadows. It
had never occurred to her to deem the scene beautiful; it was the
familiar furniture of her home. Upon this her eyes had first opened.
She had never thought to compare it to aught else,—to the suffocating
experience of one visit to the metropolitan glories of the little town
in the flat woods known as Colbury. It had seemed, indeed, magnificent
to her ignorance, and the temerity of the architecture of a two-story
house had struck her aghast. She had done naught but wonder and stare.
The trip had been a great delight, but she had never desired to linger
or to dwell there. Certain sordid effects came over her; reminiscences
of the muddy streets, the tawdry shops, the jostling, busy-eyed
"Ain't this ez good?" she said to herself, as the vast scene suddenly
fluctuated beneath a flare of wind amidst the sunshine, and light,
detached white flakes of cloud went winging athwart the blue sky;
their shadows followed them fast across the sunlit valley,—only their
dark and lifeless semblances, like the verbal forms of some white
illumined thought that can find no fit expression in words. The breath
of the pines came to her, the sound of the water, the sudden fanfare
of the unseen wind in the sky heralding the clouds. "Ain't this ez
good?" she said again, with that first deadly, subtle distrust of the
things of home, that insidious discontent so fatal to peace. He
evidently did not deem it as good, and the obvious fact rankled in
her. The mountain men, and their lack of enterprise, and their
drawling speech which he had mimicked,—they too shared his
disparagement; and she was conscious that she herself did not now
think so well of them,—so conscious that she made a loyal struggle
against this sentiment.
"So shif'less, so thrif'less," she echoed his words. "An' I dunno ez
I ever viewed a waste-fuller critter'n this hyar very Mister Man."
She stooped down, gathering together the handful of matches that
Selwyn had inadvertently pulled from his pocket with the one which he
had used in illustrating his suggestion of setting the waters of a
spring afire. "Ef he keeps on ez wasteful ez this, he'll get out o'
matches whar he lives over yander; an' I misdoubts ef, smart ez he
'lows he be, he could kindle the wood ter cook his breakfus' by a
flint rock,—ef he air so boastful ez ter 'low ez he kin set spring
She made the matches into a compact little budget and slipped them
into her pocket, and as she rose and looked about uncertainly, she
heard her aunt Minerva calling to her from the house that it was high
time to go and drive up the cows.
Aunt Minerva had not bethought herself to summon the girl to dinner.
The whole world seemed surfeited to her, so had dinner occupied her
day. Narcissa herself, under the stress of the abnormal excitements,
felt no lack as she slowly trod the familiar paths in search of the
Her thoughts bore her company, and she was far from home when the
aspect of the reddening sun smote her senses. She stood and watched
the last segment of the vermilion sphere sink down out of sight, and,
as she turned, the October dusk greeted her on every side. The
shadows, how dense in the woods; the valleys, darkling already! Only
on the higher eastern slopes a certain red reflection spoke of the
vanishing day. She looked vainly as yet for some faint silvery
suffusion which might herald the rising of the moon; for it was to be
a bright night. She was glad of the recollection. She had not hitherto
realized it, but she was tired. She would rest for a little while, and
thus refreshed she would be the sooner home. She sat down on a ledge
of the outcropping rock and looked about her. The spot was unfamiliar,
but in the far stretch of the darkening scene she identified many a
well-known landmark. There was the gleaming bend of the river in the
valley, lost presently amidst the foliage of its banks; and here was
an isolated conical peak on a far lower level than the summit of the
range, and known as Thimble Mountain; and nearer still, across a
narrow bight of the Cove, was a bare slope. As she glanced at it she
half rose from her place, for there was the witch-face, twilight on
the grim features, yet with the aid of memory so definitely discerned
that they could hardly have been more distinct by noonday,—a face of
inexplicably sinister omen. "Oh, why did I see it to-day!" she
exclaimed, the presage of ill fortune strong upon her, with that
grisly mask leering at her from across the valley. But the day was
well-nigh gone; only a scant space remained in which to work the evil
intent of fate. She seated herself anew, for in the shadowy labyrinth
of the woods her path could scarcely be found. She must needs wait for
She wondered, as she sat and gazed about, how far she might be from
that new dwelling where he lived who so scorned the mountain, and who
owed to it his every breath. There was no sound, no suggestion of
human habitation. The shadowy woods stood dense about the little open
ledgy space on three sides; toward the very verge of the mountain the
rocks grew shelving and precipitous, and beyond the furthest which she
could see, the gray edge of which cut sharply against the base of a
distant dun-tinted range, she knew the descent was abrupt to the
depths of the valley. Looking up, she beheld the trembling lucid
whiteness of a star; now and again the great rustling boughs of an
oak-tree swayed beneath it, and then its glister was broken and
deflected amidst the crisp autumnal leaves, but still she saw it
shine. It told, too, that there was water near; she caught its radiant
multiplied reflection, like a cluster of scintillating white gems, on
the lustrous dark surface of a tiny pool, circular and rock-bound,
close beneath the ledge on which she sat. She leaned over, and saw in
its depths the limpid fading red sky, and the jagged brown border of
the rocks, and a grotesque moving head, which she recognized, after a
plunge of the heart, as her own sunbonnet. She drew back in dismay;
she would have no more of this weird mirror of the rocks and woods,
and looked up again at the shining of the star amidst the darkening
shadows of the scarlet oak. How tall that tree was, how broad of
girth! And how curiously this stranger talked! What was there to do
with all these trees! Would he cut down all the trees on the mountain?
A sudden doubt of his sanity crossed her mind. It was the first, and
her heart stood still for a moment. But as she slowly canvassed the
idea, it accounted for much otherwise impossible to comprehend: his
evident poverty and his efforts toward the purchase of lands; his
illness and his bluff insistence on his strength; his wild talk of
enterprise and his mysterious intimations of phenomenal opportunities.
Confirmations of the suspicion crowded upon her; above all, the mad
boast that with a match he could set the waters of a spring afire.
With a sad smile at the fatuity of the thing, in her idle waiting she
drew one of his matches from her pocket; then she struck it briskly on
the rugged rock, and cast it, blazing lightly, into the bubbling
waters of the spring.
The woods, the rocks, the black night, the fleering, flouting
witch-face, all with an abrupt bound sprang into sudden visibility. A
pyramid of yellow flame was surging up from the bubbling surface of
the water. Long, dark, slim shadows were speeding through the woods,
with strange slants of yellow light; the very skies were a-flicker.
She cowered back for a moment, covering her face with her hands. Then,
affrighted at her own sorceries, she fled like a deer through the
One by one, as the afternoon wore on, the spectators began to desert
the jury of view, their progress over the mountain being slower than
had been anticipated. So often, indeed, did insoluble difficulties
arise touching the location of the road and questions of dispute that
it might be wondered that the whole body did not perish by faction.
After the party had passed the boundary line of Persimmon Sneed's
tract, where he seemed to consider the right of eminent domain merged
in nothingness in comparison to his lordly prerogatives as owner in
fee simple, he ceased to urge as heretofore. He dictated boldly to the
jury. He rode briskly on in advance, as if doing the honors of his
estate to flattered guests, now and again waving his hand to
illustrate his proposition, his keen, high-pitched voice overcoming in
its distinct utterance the sound of hoofs and spurs, and the
monotonous bass contradictions proffered by Silas Boyd.
And the jury of view, silent and circumspect, rode discreetly on.
Persimmon Sneed's mare seemed as fresh as himself, and when he would
turn, as he often did, to face the fatigued, wilted, overwhelmed jury
jogging along on their jaded steeds, tired out with the long day's
jaunt and the rough footing, the mare would move swiftly backward in a
manner that would have done credit to the manege of a circus. And at
this extreme advantage Persimmon Sneed and his raised adjuring
forefinger seemed impossible to be gainsaid. His arguments partook of
the same unanswerable character.
"Ye don't see none o' my cattle, do ye?" He waved his hand toward the
woods flecked with the long slantings of the sun. "I hev got more 'n a
hunderd head grazin' right hyar in the bresh. Cattle-thieves could
call an' salt 'em easy enough, but they couldn't drive 'em off through
the laur'l thar; it's thick ez hell!" pointing to the dense jungle.
"But ef we-uns hed this hyar road what ye air aimin' ter lay off, why,
a leetle salt an' a leetle drivin' an' a moonlight night would gather
'em, an' the whole herd would be in Georgy by daybreak. I wouldn't hev
the hawn of a muley cow lef'. Now, ez it be, them cattle air ez safe
from sight ez ef I hed swallowed 'em!" And he whirled again, and led
The jury of view rode disconsolately on.
They experienced a temporary relief when they had passed the confines
of his tract,—for it was across but a protruding tongue of the main
body of his land that the road was expected to run,—and entered upon
the domain of the "valley man with the lung complaint;" for this
diverted Persimmon Sneed to the more amiable task of narrating how the
stranger had sought to buy land of him, and the high prices he had
scornfully refused, the adaptability of his land to his own especial
needs being so phenomenally apt.
A sudden query from Silas Boyd rendered their respite short: "What's
that man Selwyn want so much land fur, ennyhows? He hev been tryin'
ter buy all that 'crost the gorge, too." He waved his hand toward the
gloomy woods darkening on the opposite slope.
"Ter graze cattle, o' course," promptly surmised Persimmon Sneed.
"Jes' look at my fine chance o' yearlin's, a-layin' on fat an' bone
an' muscle every day, with no expense nor attendance, an' safe an'
sound an' sure. An' now," he cried suddenly, and the shuddering jury
saw the collocation of ideas as it bore down upon them, and Persimmon
Sneed swiftly turned, facing them, while the mare nimbly essayed a
passado backward, "ye air talkin' 'bout changin' all this,
ruinationin' the vally o' my land ter me. Ye 'low ye want ter permote
the interus' o' the public! Waal," raising an impressive forefinger,
"ain't I the public?"
No one ventured a reply.
The jury of view rode desperately on.
They had presently more cause for depression of spirit. It began to be
evident that with the dusk some doubt had arisen in the minds of the
mountaineers of the party as to the exact trend of the herder's trail.
The doubt intensified, until further progress proved definitively that
the indistinct trail was completely lost. Darkness came on apace; the
tangled ways of the forest seemed momently more tortuous; wolves were
not rare in the vicinity; rumors of a gang of horse-thieves were rife.
After much discussion, the jury of view agreed that they would go no
further at present, but wait for the rising of the moon, on the theory
that it would then be practicable to make their way to the Hood cabin,
on the other side of the mountain, which was their immediate goal, and
which they had expected to reach by sunset; unaware that in their
devious turnings they had retraced several miles of their course, and
were now much nearer Selwyn's dwelling in the woods than the terminus
of their route.
Despite their uncertainty and anxiety, the rest was grateful. The
shades of night were cool and refreshing after the glare of the day,
as they sat smoking on the rocks about the verge of the mountain. The
horses had been unsaddled, and were picketed in an open glade at a
little distance: in recurrent pauses in the talk, the sound of their
grazing on the scanty grass came to the ear; all else was silence save
the tinkling of a mountain rill,—a keen detached appoggiatura rising
occasionally above the monody of its murmurous flow,—and the
melancholy chiming of some lingering cicada, the latest spared of the
The night was as yet very dark; the stars were dull in a haze, the
valley was a vague blur; even the faces of the men could not be dimly
distinguished. Strange, then, that an added visibility suddenly
invested the woods and the sky-line beyond a dense belt of timber.
"'Pears ter me toler'ble early fur the moon," observed one of the men.
"She's on the wane now, too."
"'Tain't early, though," replied the sullen bass voice of Silas Boyd
from the darkness; it was lowered, that the others might not hear.
"That thar old perverted Philistine of a Persimmon Sneed kep' us
danderin' roun' hyar till mighty nigh eight o'clock, I'll bet,
a-persistin' an' a-persistin' he knowed the road, when he war plumb
lost time we got on that cowpath. An' the jury o' view, they hed ter
take Persimmon Sneed's advice, he bein' the oldest, an' wait hyar
fur the risin' moon. Persimmon Sneed will repent he picked out this
spot,—he'll repent it sure!"
This dictum was only the redundancy of discontent; but when, in the
light of subsequent events, it was remembered, and special gifts of
discernment were attributed to Silas Boyd, he did not disclaim them,
for he felt that his words were surely inspired by some presentiment,
so apt were they, and so swiftly did the fulfillment follow the
There was a sudden stir among the group. The men were getting quickly
to their feet, alert, tense, with broken whispers and bated breath.
For there, on a bare slope, viewed diagonally across the gorge and
illumined with a wavering pallor, the witch-face glared down at them
from the dense darkness of the woods. The quick chilly repulsion of
the strangers as they gazed spellbound at the apparition was
outmatched by the horror of those who had known the fantasy from
childhood;—never thus had they beheld the gaunt old face! What
strange unhallowed mystery was this, that it should smile and grimace
and mock at them from out the shadowy night, with flickers of light as
of laughter running athwart its grisly lineaments? What evil might it
portend? They all stood aghast, watching this pallid emblazonment of
the deep night.
"Boys," said old Dent Kirby tremulously, "thar's suthin' powerful
cur'ous 'bout this 'speriunce. That thar light war never kindled in
heaven or yearth."
"Let's go!" cried Jeremiah Sayres. "We hev got ter git out'n this
"Go whar?" croaked Silas Boyd, his deep bass voice lowered to a
whisper. "I be 'feard ter quit the trail furder. 'Pinnock's Mis'ry' be
hyar-abouts somewhar, a plumb quicksand, what a man got into an'
floundered an' sank, an' floundered agin, an' whenst they fund him his
hair war white an' his mind deranged. Or else we-uns mought run off'n
a bluff somewhar, an' git our necks bruk."
Now Persimmon Sneed was possessed of a most intrusive curiosity, and
he was further endowed with a sturdy courage.
"I'll jes' step off a leetle way to'des that light, an' view whar it
kems from," he observed coolly. "The woods air too wet to burn."
He would not listen to protest.
"The witch-face ain't never blighted me none," he rejoined stoutly as
he set forth.
The thick tangled mass of the undergrowth presently intervened, so
that, as he broke his way through it, he wondered that its bosky
dimness should be so visible beneath the heavy shadows of the great
trees looming high overhead. Once he stopped dubiously; the glow
evidently came rather from below than above. It is too much to say
that a thrill of fear tried the fibres of Persimmon Sneed's obdurate
old heart. But he listened for a moment to hear, perchance, the sound
of voices from the group he had left, or the champing of the picketed
steeds. He was an active man, and had come fast and far since quitting
his companions. Not even a vague murmur rose from the silent autumnal
woods. The stillness was absolute. As he moved forward once more, the
impact of his foot upon the rain-soaked leaves, the rustle of the
boughs as he pressed among them, the rise and fall of his own
breathing, somewhat quicker than its wont, served to render
appreciable to Persimmon Sneed the fact that he possessed nerves which
were more susceptible to a quaver of doubt than that redoubtable
endowment called his hard head.
"Somebody hev jes' sot out fire in the woods,—though powerful wet,"
he muttered, his intellectual entity seeking to quiet that inward
flutter of his mere bodily being. "But I'm a-goin' on," he protested
obstinately, "ef it be bodaciously kindled by the devil!"
And as he spoke, his heart failed, his limbs seemed sinking beneath
him, his pulses beat tumultuously for a moment, and then were
abruptly still; he had emerged from the woods in a great flickering
glare which pervaded an open, rocky space shelving to a precipice, and
beheld a tall, glowing yellow flame rising unquenched from the
illuminated surface of a bubbling mountain spring. His senses reeled;
a myriad of tawny red and yellow flashes swayed before his dazzled
eyes. He had heard all his life of the wild freaks of the witches in
the woods. Had he chanced on their unhallowed pastimes in the
solitudes of these untrodden mountain wildernesses? Was this
miraculous fire, blazing from the depths of the clear water,
necromancy, the work of the devil?
The next moment his heart gave a great throb. He found his voice in a
wild halloo. Among the fluttering shadows of the trees he had caught
sight of the figure of a man, and, a thousand times better, of a face
that he knew. The man was approaching the fire, with a stare of blank
amazement and fear as his distended eyes beheld the phenomenon of the
blazing spring. Their expression changed instantly upon the sound. His
face was all at once alert, grave, suspicious, a prosaic anxiety
obliterating every trace of superstitious terror. His right hand was
laid upon his hip in close proximity to a pistol-pocket, and Persimmon
Sneed remembered suddenly that his own pistol was in its holster on
his saddle, he could not say how far distant in these wild, trackless
woods, and that this man was a notorious offender against the law,
sundry warrants for his arrest for horse-stealing having been issued
at divers times and places. There had been much talk of an organized
band who had assisted in these and similar exploits in secluded
districts of the county, but Persimmon Sneed had given it scant
credence until he beheld several armed men lagging in the rear, their
amazed, uncouth faces, under their broad-brimmed hats, all weird and
unnatural in the pervasive yellow glow. They had, evidently, been led
to the spot by the strange flare in the heart of the woods; but Nick
Peters could well enough pretermit his surprise and whatever spiritual
terrors might assail him till a more convenient season for their
indulgence. A more immediate danger menaced him than the bodily
appearance of the devil, which he had momently expected as he gazed at
the flaming water. He had seen the others of his own party
approaching, and he walked quickly across the clear space to Persimmon
Sneed. He was a little, slim, wiry man, with light, sleek hair, pink
cheeks, high cheek-bones, and a bony but blunt nose. He had a light
eye, gray, shallow, but inscrutable, and there was something feline in
his aspect and glance, at once smooth and caressing and of latent
"Why, Mr. Persimmon Sneed," he exclaimed in a voice as bland as a
summer's day, "how did you-uns an' yer frien's do sech ez that?" and
he pointed at the flaring pyramid on the surface of the water.
Persimmon Sneed, in his proclivity to argument, forgot his lack of a
pistol and his difficult position, unarmed and alone.
"I'll hev ye ter remember I hev no dealin's with the devil. I dunno
how that water war set afire, nor my friends nuther," he said stiffly.
"Whar air they?"
Nick Peters's keen, discerning eye had been covertly scanning the
flickering shadows and the fluctuating slants of yellow light about
them. Now he boldly threw his glance over his shoulder.
Persimmon Sneed caught himself sharply.
"They ain't hyar-abouts," he said gruffly, on his guard once more.
A look of apprehension crossed the horse-thief's face. The denial was
in the nature of an affirmation to his alert suspicion; for it is one
of the woes of the wicked that, knowing no truth themselves, they
cannot recognize it in others, even in a transient way, as a chance
acquaintance. He must needs have heed. A number of men, doubtless,
well armed, were in the immediate vicinity. As he whirled himself
lightly half around on his spurred heel, his manner did not conform to
"Did you-uns an' them kem all the way from the valley ter view the
blazin' spring?" he asked. "Looks some like hell-fire," he added
incidentally, and with the tone of one familiar with the resemblance
"Naw; we-uns never hearn on it afore; I jes' run on it accidental,"
Sneed replied succinctly, hardly daring to trust himself to an
unnecessary word; for the staring men that had gathered at a
respectful distance about the blazing spring numbered nine or ten, and
an ill-advised tongue might precipitate an immediate attack on the
dismounted, unarmed group awaiting his return at the verge of the
bluff. A genuine thrill of terror shook him as he realized that at any
moment he might be followed by men as ill prepared as he to cope with
the horse-thief's gang.
"I see ye rid," said Nick Peters, observing his acquaintance's spurs.
"Yer frien's rid, too, I s'pose?"
Persimmon Sneed, desirous of seeming unsuspicious, merely nodded. He
seemed as suspicious, in fact, as watchful, as stanch, as ready to
spring, as a leopard in a cage. His thin lips were set, his alert
eyes keen, his unshaven, stubbly jaws rigid, his whole body at a high
tension. The man of quicker perceptions was first to drop the
transparent feint, but only to assume another.
"Now, Mr. Sneed," he said, with an air of reproach and upbraiding, "do
ye mean ter tell me ez ye hev kem up hyar with the sheriff or dep'ty
ter nose me out; me, who hev got no home,—folks burned my house ter
the yearth, namin' me 'horse-thief' an' sech,—nor frien's, nor
means, nor havin's, plumb run ter groun' like a fox or sech?"
"Ef ye did"—said a gigantic ruffian who had come up, backed by a
shadow twice his size, and stood assisting at the colloquy, looking
over the shoulder of his wiry little chief. He left the sentence
unfinished, a significant gesture toward the handle of the pistol in
his belt rendering the omission of slight moment.
"Some o' them boys war wondering ef that fire out'n the water would
burn," observed a fat, greasy, broad-faced lout, with a foolish,
brutal grin. "It mought make out ter singe this stranger's hair an'
hide, ef we war ter gin him a duckin' thar."
"Air ye a-huntin' of me, too, Mr. Sneed,—ye that war 'quainted with
me in the old times on Tomahawk Creek?" Peters reiterated his demand
in a plaintive, melodramatic tone, which titillated his fancy,
somehow, and, like virtue, was its own exceeding great reward; for
both he and Persimmon Sneed knew right well that their acquaintance
amounted only to a mere facial recognition when they had chanced to
pass on the country road or the village street, years before.
Nevertheless, under the pressure of the inherent persuasiveness of the
suggested retribution, Persimmon Sneed made haste to aver that his
errand in the mountains was in no sense at the sheriff's instance. And
so radical and indubitable were his protestations that Nick Peters was
constrained to discard this fear, and demand, "What brung ye ter
Witch-Face Mounting then, Mr. Sneed?"
"Waal, some fellows war app'inted by the county court ter view the
road an' report on it," said Persimmon, "an' I kem along ter see how
it mought affect my interust."
How far away, how long ago, how infinitely unimportant, seemed all
those convolutions of trail and argument in which he had expended the
finest flowers of his contradictory faculties, the stanch immobility
of his obstinacy, his unswerving singleness of purpose in seeing only
one side of a question, this afternoon, a few short hours since! The
mutability of the affairs of the most immutable of human beings!
This reflection was cut short by observing the stare of blank
amazement on Nick Peters's face. "Road!" he said. "Thar ain't no
"They air app'inted ter lay out an' report on openin' one," explained
Evidently Nick Peters's experience of the law was in its criminal
rather than in its civil phases, but the surprise died out of his
face, and he presently said, with a beguiling air of frankness, "Now,
Mr. Sneed, ye see this happens right in my way of trade. Jes' tell me
whar them loafers air, an' how many horses they hev got along, an'
I'll gin ye the bes' beastis I hev got ter ride, an' a pair o'
shootin'-irons and set ye in the valley road on the way home. Ye kin
say ye war lost from them."
It is true that in this moment Persimmon Sneed remembered each of his
contumacious comrades, and saw that they outnumbered by one the
horse-thief's gang; he realized that they were out of leading-strings,
and amply capable of taking care of themselves. He had that wincing
terror which an unarmed man experiences at the sight of
"shootin'-irons" in the grasp of other and antagonistic men. More than
all, he looked at those hell-lighted flames, as he esteemed them,
rising out of the lustrous water, and believed the jocose barbarity of
the threat of the brutal henchman might be serious earnest in its
But the jury of view and their companions were all unprepared for
molestation in such wise as menaced them. He reflected anew upon their
dismounted condition, the horses hitched at a distance, the saddles
scattered on the ground in the darkness, with the holsters buckled to
them and the pistols within. A sudden attack meant a successful
robbery and perchance bloodshed.
"I'll die fust!" he said loudly, and he had never looked more
painfully obstinate. "I'll die fust!" He lifted his quivering hand and
shook it passionately in the air. "I ain't no ransomed saint, an' I
know it, but afore I'll betray that thar jury o' view what's been
app'inted by the county court ter lay off the damned road, I'll die
fust! I ain't no ransomed saint, I ain't, but I'll die fust! I ain't
"Stop, boys, stop!" cried the wiry little horse-thief, as the others
gathered about Sneed with threatening eyes and gestures, while he
vociferated amongst them, as lordly as if he were in his oft-time
preëminence as the foreman of a jury. Nick Peters's face had changed.
There was a sudden fear upon it, uncomprehended by Persimmon Sneed. It
did not occur to him until long afterward that he had for the first
time used the expression "a jury of view," and that the horse-thief's
familiarity with the idea of a jury was only in the sense of twelve
Peters spoke aside to the others, only a word or so, but there was
amongst them an obvious haste to get away, of which Persimmon Sneed
was cognizant, albeit his head was swimming, his breath short, his
eyes dazzled by the fire which he feared. His understanding, however,
was blunted in some sort, it seemed to him, for he could make no sense
of Nick Peters's observation as he took him by the arm, although
afterward it became plain enough.
"Ye'll hev ter go an' 'bide along o' we-uns fur awhile, Mr. Sneed," he
said, choking with the laughter of some occult happy thought. "Ye
ain't a ransomed saint yit, but ye will be arter awhile, I reckon, ef
ye live long enough."
Their shadows skulked away as swiftly as they themselves, even more
furtively, running on ahead, in great haste to be gone. The
fire-light slanted through the woods in quick, elusive fluctuations,
ever dimmer, ever recurrently flaring, and when the jury of view and
their companions, alarmed by the long absence of Persimmon Sneed,
followed the strange light through the woods to the brink of the
burning spring, they found naught astir save the vagrant shadows of
the great boles of the trees, no longer held to their accustomed
orbit, but wandering through the woods with a large freedom.
That this fire, blazing brilliantly on the surface of the clear spring
water, was kindled by supernatural power was not for a moment doubted
by the mountaineers who had never before heard of such a phenomenon,
and the spiriting away of Persimmon Sneed they promptly ascribed to
the same agency. With these thoughts upon them, they did not linger
long at the spot where he had met so mysterious a fate. Their ringing
halloos, with which the woods were enlivened, took on vaguely appalled
cadences; the echoes came back to them like mocking shouts; and they
were glad enough to ride away at last through the quiet moonlit
glades, their faltering voices silent, leaving that mystic fire slowly
dying where it had blazed so long on the face of the water.
* * * * *
A more extended search, later, resulting as fruitlessly, the idea that
Persimmon Sneed had been in some way lured bodily within the grasp of
the devil prevailed among the more ignorant people of the community;
they dolorously sought to point the moral how ill the headstrong fare,
and speculated gloomily as to the topic on which he had ventured to
argue with Satan, who in rage and retaliation had whisked him away.
But there was a class of citizens in Colbury who hearkened with elated
sentiments to this story of the burning spring. A company of
capitalists was promptly organized, every inch of attainable land on
the mountain was quietly bought, and machinery for boring for oil was
already at the spring when the news was brought to Selwyn by Hanway,
who, not having seen the young stranger for the past week or so,
feared he was ill. The flakes of the first snow of the season were
whirling past the windows—no more on autumn leaves they looked, no
more on far-off bare but azure mountains, feigning summer. The distant
ranges were ghostly white. The skeleton woods near at hand were stark
and black, and trembled with sudden starts, and strove wildly with the
winds, and were held in an inexorable fate, and cried and groaned
Hanway was right in his surmise, for Selwyn was ill, and lay on the
lounge wheeled up to the fire. His cheeks seemed still touched with
color, the reflection from the ragged red smoking-jacket which he
wore, but a sort of smitten pallid doom was on his brow and in his
eyes. His gaze dwelt insistently on the doctor, the tall, thin
practitioner of the surrounding country, who had just finished an
examination and was slowly returning his spectacles to their case as
he stood before the fire. It seemed as if the patient expected him to
speak, but he said nothing, and looked down gravely into the red
Then it was that Hanway narrated the sensation of the neighborhood. It
roused Selwyn to a frenzy of excitement; his disjointed, despairing
exclamations, in annotation, as it were, of the story, disclosed his
own discovery of the oil, his endeavors to secure the opinion of an
expert as to its value, his efforts to buy up the land, his reasons
for opposing the premature opening of a road which might reveal the
presence of the oil springs, when the law discriminating in favor of
oil works and similar interests would later make the way thither a
public thoroughfare at all events. He cried out upon his hard fate,
when money might mean life to him; upon the bitter dispensation of the
mysterious kindling of those hidden secluded waters to blazon his
secret to the world, to enrich others through his discovery which
should have made him so rich.
The dry, spare tone of the physician interrupted,—a trite phrase
"Why, doctor," said Selwyn, suddenly comprehending, "you think my
present wealth will last out my time!"
Once more the physician looked silently into the fire. He had seen a
great deal of dying, but he had lived a quiet ascetic life, which made
his sensibilities tender, and he did not get used to death. "I wish
you would stay with him, if you can," he said to Hanway at the outer
door. "It will be a very short time now."
It was even shorter than they thought. The snow, falling then, had not
disappeared from the earth when the picks of the grave-diggers cleft
through the clods in the secluded little mountain burying-ground. It
was easier work than they had anticipated, although the earth was
frozen; and the grave was almost prepared when they realized that the
ground had been broken before, and that here was the deserted
resting-place of the stranger who had come so far to see him. Hanway
remembered Selwyn's words, his aversion to the idea that the spot was
awaiting him, but the dark November day was closing in, the storm
clouds were gathering anew, so they left him there, and this time the
grave held its tenant fast.
One day a letter was mailed in Colbury by an unknown hand, addressed
to Mrs. Persimmon Sneed and it fared deliberately by way of Sandford
Cross-Roads to its destination. It awoke there the wildest excitement
and delight, for although it brazenly asserted that Mr. Persimmon
Sneed was in the custody of the writer, and that he would be returned
safely to his home only upon the payment of one hundred dollars in a
mysterious manner described,—otherwise the writer would not answer
for consequences,—it gave assurance that he was alive and well, and
might even hope to see friends and home and freedom once more. In vain
the sheriff of the county expostulated with Mrs. Sneed, representing
that the law was the proper liberator of Persimmon Sneed, and that the
payment of money would encourage crime. The contradictory man's wife
was ready to commit crime, if necessary, in this cause, and would have
cheerfully cracked the bank in Colbury. And certainly this seemed
almost unavoidable at one time, for to possess herself of this sum of
her husband's hoard his signature was essential. The poor woman, in
her limp sunbonnet and best calico dress, clung to the grating of the
teller's window, and presented in futile succession her husband's
bank-book, his returned checks, and even his brand-new check-book,
each with a gush of tears, while the perplexed official remonstrated,
and explained, and rejected each persuasion in turn, passing them all
back beneath the grating, and alas! keeping the money on his side of
those inexorable bars. It seemed to poor Mrs. Sneed that the bank was
of opinion that Persimmon corporally was of slight consequence, the
institution having the true value of the man on deposit. To
accommodate matters, however, and that the poor woman should not be
weeping daily and indefinitely on the maddened teller's window, an
intermediary money-lender was found, who, having vainly sought to
induce the bank to render itself responsible, then Mrs. Sneed, who had
naught of her own, then a number of friends, who deemed the whole
enterprise an effort at robbery and seemed to consider Persimmon a
good riddance, took heart of grace and made the plunge at a rate of
interest which was calculated to cloy his palate forever after. The
money forthwith went a roundabout way according to the directions of
It came to its destination in this wise.
Con Hite's distilling enterprise was on so small a scale that one
might have imagined it to be altogether outside the purview of the
law, which, it is said, does not take note de minimis. One of those
grottoes under a beetling cliff, hardly caves, called in the region
"rock houses," sufficed to contain the small copper and its
appurtenances, himself and his partner and the occasional jolly guest.
It was approached from above rather than from below, by a winding way,
beside the cliff between great boulders, which was so steep and
brambly and impracticable that it was hardly likely to be espied by
"revenuers." The rock house opened on space. Beyond the narrow path at
its entrance the descent was sheer to the bottom of the gorge below.
In this stronghold, one night, Con Hite sat gloomy and depressed
beside the little copper still for the sake of which he risked so
much. It held all it could of singlings, and it seemed to him a cheery
sight in the shadowy recesses of the rock house. He regarded it with
mingled pride and affection, often declaring it "the smartest still of
its capacity in the world." To him it was at once admirable as an
object of art and a superior industrial agent.
"An' I dunno why Narcissa be so set agin it," he muttered. "But for it
I wouldn't hev money enough ter git a start in this world. My mother
an' she couldn't live in the same house whenst we git married." He
meditated for a moment, and shook his head in solemn negation, for his
mother was constructed much after the pattern of Narcissa herself.
"An' I wouldn't live a minit alongside o' Ben Hanway ef I war
Nar'sa's husband. Ben wouldn't let me say my soul's my own. I be
'bleeged ter mak the money fur a start o' cattle an' sech myse'f, an'
hev a house an' home o' my own."
And then he took the pipe from his mouth and sighed. For even his care
seemed futile. It was true that the fair-haired young stranger was
dead, and he had a pang of self-reproach whenever he thought of his
jealousy, as if he had wished him ill. But she had worn a cold white
unresponsive face when he had seen her last; she did not listen to
what he said, her mind evidently elsewhere. She looked at him as if
she did not see him. She did not think of him. He was sure that this
was not caprice. It was some deep absorbing feeling in which he had no
The moon, like some fair presence, looked in at the broad portal.
Outside, the white tissues of her misty diaphanous draperies trailed
along the dark mountain slopes beneath the dim stars as she wended
westward. Afar down the gorge one might catch glimpses of a glossy
lustre where the evergreen laurel, white with frost, moved in the
autumn wind. He lifted his head to mark its melancholy cadence, and
while he listened, the moonlight was suddenly crowded from the door as
three men rushed in, half helping and half constraining a fourth man
"Durn my boots ef I didn't furgit the password!" cried Nick Peters
with his little falsetto laugh, that seemed keyed for a fleer,
although it was most graciously modulated now. "Ye mought hev shot us
"I mought hev shot ye fur wuss," Con Hite growled, rising slowly from
his chair, his big dark eyes betokening his displeasure. "I dunno how
ye ever kem ter know this place."
"It'll go no furder, Con, I'll swear," said the horse-thief, lifting
his hand to Hite's shoulder, and affecting to see in his words an
appeal for secrecy. "This," he added blandly, "is Mr. Persimmon Sneed,
ez hev been a-visitin' me. Lemme make ye acquainted."
He seemed to perceive nothing incongruous in the fact that Mr.
Persimmon Sneed should be blindfolded. But as Con Hite looked at the
elder man, standing helpless, his head held slightly forward, the
sight apparently struck his risibilities, and his wonted geniality
rose to the occasion.
"An' do Mr. Persimmon Sneed always wear blinders?" he asked, with a
Peters seemed immeasurably relieved by the change of tone.
"Whilst visitin' me, he do," he remarked. "Mr. Persimmon hev got sech
a fine mem'ry fur localities, ye see."
Hite with a single gesture pulled off the bandage. "Waal, let him look
about him hyar. I s'pose ye hev ter be more partic'lar 'n me 'count o'
that stranger man's horse."
Peters changed countenance, his attention riveted. "What horse?" he
"The horse of the man ez war kilt,—ye know folks hev laid that job
ter you-uns. Jerry," turning aside to his colleague, who had done
naught but stare, "whar's yer manners? Why n't ye gin the comp'ny a
Hite shoved the chair in which he had been seated to Persimmon Sneed,
who was lugubriously rubbing his eyes, and flung himself down on a
boulder lying almost outside of the recess in the moonlight, his long
booted and spurred legs stretching far across the entrance. His hat on
the back of his head, its brim upturned, revealed his bluff open
face—it held no craft surely; he hardly seemed to notice how
insistently Peters pressed after him, unmindful of his henchmen and
Jerry imbibing appreciatively the product of the cheerful little
"But I never done sech ez that," protested Peters. "I always stop
short o' bloodshed. I never viewed the man's beastis, ye'll bear me
"Me?" said Con, with a laugh. "I dunno nuthin' 'bout yer doin's.
Whar's Mr. Sneed's horse?"
"Never seen him,—never laid eyes on him! How folks kin hev the heart
ter 'cuse me of sech doin's ez I never done!" he lifted his eyes as if
appealing to heaven.
"The killin' 's the wust; an' Mr. Sneed's critter bein' gone too
mought make folks lay it ter ye fur sure," persisted Hite.
"I ain't seen Mr. Sneed's horse. Mr. Sneed—ye wouldn't b'lieve it ter
look at him, but he's a ransomed saint! ha! ha! The money fur him
will be fotched hyar ter yer still. I sent fur it ter kem by Jake
Glenn; he knows ye, an' ye know him."
Con Hite's open brow did not cloud. If there were any significance
perceptible in the fact that Mr. Persimmon Sneed, with so fine a head
for locality, should be able to identify only the still among his
various shelters during his "visit" to Nick Peters, Con Hite made no
"Lord, how glad I'll be ter git rid o' him!" Peters said in an
undertone to Hite. "He hev mighty nigh argufied me ter death,—'bout
sperits, an' witches, an' salvation, an' law, an' craps, an'
horse-flesh, an' weather signs. I be sorter 'feard his wife won't pay
nuthin' ter git him again. He 'pears sorter under the weather now, or
eavesdroppin' or suthin'. The money 'll pay me mighty pore fur my
trouble. Thar—what's that?"
He paused to listen; there was a sound other than the tinkling of the
little rill near at hand or the blare of the autumn wind. A stone came
rolling down the path, dislodged by a cautious step,—then another.
Hite drew a revolver from his pocket, and, holding it in his right
hand, stepped out on the rugged little parapet and stood there, with
the depths of the gorge below him, looking up the ascent with the
moonlight in his face. He spoke in a low voice to some one
approaching, and was answered in the same tone. He stepped back to
give the new-comer space to enter, and as Jake Glenn came in held out
his hand for the package the messenger bore.
"Let's see it, Nick," he said, tearing it open; "it's the money sure
Old Persimmon Sneed turned his head with a certain alert interest.
Perhaps he himself had doubted whether his wife would think him worth
the money. There was a general flutter of good-natured gratulation,
and it seemed at the moment only some preposterous mistake that Con
Hite should put it into Persimmon Sneed's lean paw and close his
trembling fingers over it.
"Now, scoot!" he bawled out at the top of his voice, the little den
ringing with the echoes of his excitement, a second revolver drawn in
his left hand. "I'll gin ye a day's start o' these fellers." He
presented the muzzle of one pistol to Peters's head, and with the
other he covered one of the two henchmen in the recess of the little
rock house. The other sprang up from a barrel where he sat wiping his
mouth with the back of his hand; but Jerry, suddenly realizing the
situation, put out a dexterous foot, and the horse-thief fell full
length upon the floor, his pistol discharging as he went down. In the
clamor of the echoes, and the smoke and the flare, Persimmon Sneed
disappeared, hearing as he went a wild protest, and a nimbleness of
argument second hardly to his own, as Nick Peters cried out that he
was robbed, his hard earnings were wrested from him, the money was
his, paid him as a price, and Con Hite had let Mr. Persimmon Sneed run
off with it, allowing him nothing for his trouble.
"It war his money," Con Hite averred, when they had grown calmer, and
Jake Glenn had returned from a reconnoissance with the news that
Hite's father had lent the fleeing Persimmon a horse, and he was by
this time five miles away in the Cove. "He could have paid you for
yer trouble in ketchin' him ef he had wanted ter."
"It war not his money," protested Peters, with tears in his eyes.
"It war sent ter me willingly, fur a valid consideration, an' ye let
him hev the money, an' his wife hev got the valid consideration—an'
hyar I be lef' with the bag ter hold!"
It may be that Peters had absorbed some of the craft of argument by
mere propinquity to Persimmon Sneed, or that Con Hite's conscience was
unduly tender, for he long entertained a moral doubt touching his
course in this transaction,—whether he had a right to pay the ransom
money which Nick Peters had extorted from Persimmon Sneed's wife to
Persimmon Sneed himself, thereby defrauding Nick Peters of the fruit
of his labor. Perhaps this untoward state of dubitation came about
from Narcissa's scornful comment.
"Ye mought hev known that old man Persimmon Sneed would have made off
with the money," she said, remembering his reproving glare at her. "I
wouldn't hev trested him with a handful o' cornfield peas."
"But I expected him ter make off with it," protested the amazed Con;
"that's why I gin it ter him."
"Then ye air jes' ez bad ez he is," she retorted coldly.
And thus it was he examined his conscience.
Persimmon Sneed had no doubts whatever as to the ownership of the
money in his pocket, when one fine morning he walked into his own
door, as dictatorial, as set in his own opinion as ever; the only
change to be detected in his manners and conversation thereafter was
the enigmatical assertion at times that he was a "ransomed saint,"
followed by a low chuckle of enjoyment. Those who heard this often
made bold to say to one another that he "didn't act like it," and this
opinion was shared by the sheriff who futilely sought some information
from him touching the lair of the horse-thieves, looking to brilliant
exploits of capture. Such details as he could secure were so uncertain
and contradictory as to render him suspicious that the truth was
"Ye oughter remember these men air crim'nal offenders agin the law,
Mr. Sneed," he said.
"Mebbe so," assented Persimmon Sneed, "mebbe so;" but the situation of
Con Hite's still was the only locality which he had visited of which
he was sure, and in gratitude to his rescuer he held his peace.
That he was not so softened to the world at large was manifested in
the fact that he threatened to plead usury against the money-lender,
and forthwith brought him down with a run to the beggaries of the
legal rate. He was wont, moreover, to go to the teller of the bank at
Colbury and demand of that distracted man such of his papers as were
from time to time lost or mislaid, having learned from his wife that
she had made the official the custodian of his valuables, these being
his bank-book, the ancient returned checks, and the unused check-book.
The points which he had so laboriously made plain to the jury of view
proved a total loss of perspicacious reasoning, for the land was
forthwith condemned and the road opened, any oil-boring company being
allowed by law a right of way thirty feet wide. The heavy hauling of
the oil company had already made a tolerable wagon track, and the
passing back and forth of the men and teams and machinery added an
element of interest and excitement to the thoroughfare such as
Narcissa's wildest dreams had never prefigured. She had no heart for
it now. When the creak of wheels on the frozen ground, and the cries
of the drivers, and the thud of the hoofs of the straining four-horse
teams heralded an approach, she was wont to draw close the batten
shutter of the window and sit brooding over the fire, staring with
moody eyes into the red coals, where she saw much invisible to the
simple Ben. He knew vaguely that her grief was for the fair-haired
stranger, but he could not dream in what remorseful wise. She had not
failed to perceive her own agency in the betrayal of his secret, when
the story of the discovery of the oil was blazoned to all the world by
those mystically flaring waters in the deeps of the mountain night. It
was she who had idly kindled them; she who had robbed him of his
rights, of the wealth that these interlopers were garnering. She had
sent him to his grave baffled, beaten, forlorn, wondering at the
mystery of the hand that out of the dark had smitten him. She kept her
own counsel. Her white face grew set and stern. Her words were few.
She had no tears. And Ben, who found his tyrant only the harder and
the colder, scarcely remonstrated, and could only marvel when one
keen, chill afternoon she sprang up, throwing her brown shawl over her
head, and declared that she was going to the oil wells to see for
herself what progress was making there.
All sylvan grace had departed from the spot. As the two stood on the
verge of the clear space, now gashed deep in every direction in the
woods and larger by a hundred acres, grim derricks rose sharply
outlined against the wintry sky. It was barred with strata of gray
clouds in such sombre neutrality of tint that one, in that it was less
gloomy than the others, gave a suggestion of blue. Patches of snow lay
about the ground. Cinders and smoke had blackened them here and there.
The steam-engine, with its cylindrical boiler, seemed in the dusk some
uncanny monster that had taken up its abode here, and rejoiced in the
desolation it had wrought, and lived by ill deeds. It was letting off
steam, and now and then it gave a puffing sigh as if it were tired
after its day's work. The laborers were of a different type from the
homely neighbors, and returned the contempt with which the
mountaineers gazed upon them. Great piles of wood showed how the
forests were being rifled for fuel. Many trees had been felled in
provident foresight, and lay along the ground in vast lengths,
awaiting the axe; so many that adown the avenues thus opened toward
the valley a wan glimmering caught the girl's eye, and she recognized
the palings of the little mountain graveyard.
She clutched her brother's arm and pointed to it. Her eyes grew
dilated and wild, her face was pale and drawn; her hand trembled as
she held it out.
"Ye see, Ben, he's close enough ter view it all—an' mebbe he
does—an' he knows now who he hev got ter thank fur it all—an' I
wisht he war hyar, whar I am, an' I war thar, whar he is."
Her brother thought for the moment that she was raving. The next she
caught her shawl over her head, hoodwise, the wind tossing her bright
hair, and declared that she was cold, and upbraided him for bringing
her on this long, chilling tramp, and protested that she would come
He came often afterward. The spot seemed to have a fascination for
him. And within sound of the cheerful hubbub and busy whir of the
industry he would lean over the palings and look at the grave, covered
sometimes with a drift of leaves, and sometimes with a drift of snow,
and think of the two men that it had successively housed, and nurse
his grudge against the company. With an unreasoning hatred of it,
Hanway felt that both were victims of the great strong corporation
that was to reap the value of the discovery which was not its own save
by accident. He could not appraise the justice of the dispensation by
which the keen observation of the one man, and the science and
experience that the other had brought to the enterprise, should fall
so far short of achievement, while an idle story, the gossip of the
day, should fill the hands of those who were strangers to the very
thought. He grudged every augury of success; he welcomed every detail
of difficulty. As time went on, the well was said to be of
intermittent flow, and new borings resulted in naught but vast floods
of sulphur water. Finally, when the admitted truth pervaded the
community,—that the oil was practically exhausted, that it had long
since ceased to pay expenses, that the company was a heavy loser by
the enterprise,—he was as a man appeased.
The result was succeeded by a change in Narcissa so radical and
immediate that Constant Hite could but perceive the fact that it was
induced by the failure and abandonment of the work. She grew placid as
of yore, and was softened, and now and again the gentle melancholy
into which she fell suggested sad and reminiscent pleasure rather than
the remorseful and desperate sorrow that she had known. He began to
realize that it was no sentimental and love-stricken grief she had
felt for Selwyn, but a sympathy akin to his own and to her brother's;
and since the disappointment of the hope of fortune must needs have
come to Selwyn at last, they made shift to resign themselves, and were
wont to talk freely of the dead with that affectionate and immediate
interest which seems to prolong the span of a mortal's day on earth,
like the tender suffusive radiance of the afterglow of a sunken sun.
The road fell quickly into disuse after the abandonment of the work.
In the storms of winter, trees were uprooted and thrown athwart the
way; overhanging rocks, splitting in the freeze, precipitated
obstructive avalanches upon the dim serpentine convolutions; the wind
piled drifts of dead leaves above the turns; and in the spring grass
began to grow in the tracks of the wheels.
It held no woeful memories now for Narcissa. She loved to sit on the
step of the stile and watch through the leafless sunlit trees the
silver haze shimmering in the valley, where the winter wheat was all
of an emerald richness, and the blue mountains afar off so near akin
to the aspect of heaven that one might hardly mark where the horizon
line merged the sweet solitudes of earth into the solitary sky. Many
a day, the spring, loitering along the shadow-flecked vistas, with the
red maple-blooms overhead and violets underfoot, was the only traveler
to be seen on the deserted road. And the pensive dusk was wont to
deepen into the serene vernal night, sweet with the scent of the
budding wild cherry, and astir with timorous tentative rustlings as of
half-fledged breezes, and illumined only with the gentle lustre of the
white stars; for never again was the darkness emblazoned with that
haggard incandescence so long the mystery of Witch-Face Mountain.