“Yaas, Marse DIck–”
“There used to be horses enough on this plantation for everything. It’s no longer the case. I want Firefly myself, so you’ll have to walk.”
“Yaas, sah. Hit’s ten miles from Wild Cherry to Cedar Hill. Is I comin’ back tonight?”
“No, you gump! tomorrow. You’ll stay at Cedar Hill Quarter tonight.”
William showed flashing white teeth in a charcoal countenance. “Den dat’s all, Marse Dick? I give yo’ letter right to Captain Tony en nobody else—”
“You give that letter right to Captain Tony and nobody else. I wish, William, to impress upon you speed and perseverance. You are to regard it, in short, as an errand of life or death.”
The young gentleman, a visiting nephew of Wild Cherry plantation, elongated his elegant figure. “Life or death, William I Now you go like a house afire! If he doesn’t have that letter before night, ROME WILL FALL.”
So saying, he partly drew from his waistcoat pocket a silver half dollar, then let it slip back. William again smiled widely. “Ain’t anything gwine slow me up, Marse Dick, whether I comes or whether I goes—”
“That, William, is your reputation. Who steals my purse steals trash, but who steals my reputation, William!”
An hour past noon, high summer, gorgeous toploftical clouds pushing over the hill tops behind Wild Cherry. Old brick house, hurt a good deal in the war, about it box and rose garden. Big trees, home quarter with many fewer occupants than of old; field quarter the same; fields, rail fences mended and unmended; the big road. The big road for a mile, then the little old road that turned off. Full summer fulfilled with rich sights and sounds, taste and smell and touch. Intense blue sky except where those pearly clouds pushed up spectacular heads. In part their hue was of a smoked pearl. William regarded their height and bulk with an experienced eye. “Maybe you gwine put up a sizable thunder storm, en maybe you ain’t. Ef yo’ mind ain’t made up, jes’ don’t hurry yo’self 1”
The little old road, turning off from the big road, struck across country toward Cedar Hill, and its way lay through lonely woods and by abandoned fields. The big road had life strung along it, three plantations, a crossroads store, occasional cabins, a smithy, a mill, wagons and horsemen and folk afoot. But the Cedar Hill road ran narrow and twisty as a frayed string, thrown aside and forgot, just lying relaxed, with few to use it. Two or three cabins far apart, a deserted house, an ancient graveyard, remnant of an iron forge long forsaken, old fields long untilled, a creek, and big woods and big woods—so ran the ten mile road. But it was ever nice and shady on a hot summer day, cool underfoot, with a plenty of small life to amuse in a small way. William possessed a contented disposition and thought that the road did well enough though it hadn’t been worked for a long time.
The first mile was passed. William thought he would sing a little.
“Marse Cain he was er limber fellow, Marse Abel was er lamb—”
He had a big, happy baritone.
“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lawd, Nobody knows the trouble I see—” The weasel crossed the road.
A weasel is a small, carnivorous mammal, a,cousin of the stoat, the ferret, and the polecat. Its body from tip of tail to pointed snout measures about a foot, and is ruddy brown above and white beneath. In winter, in the far north, like its cousin the ermine, it will turn white all over, Its body is elegantly shaped and incredibly slim, though not as thin to its length as that of an eel. Of a different creation than the last named, it possesses truly an eel-like sinuosity whereby it works itself into cracks and holes that would seem beneath its compass. It is superlatively quick, active, sharp, and cunning. It has never been caught asleep. No more than a grandmother can it be taught to suck eggs, for it sucks them by nature. Frogs, mice, moles, and small birds fall on their knees before it. It slits the throats of thickens and climbs trees to the nests of small frightened birds. Wickedly clever as it is and marked by Satan, it is not of enormous frequency in any landscape. It likes to keep small and hidden and habitually chooses the night for its operations. Sometimes, even if you live in the country, you may not have seen more than two or three weasels in all your born days, and then chiefly at night or dawn or eve, near the chicken yard, a flash of him going by on his nefarious concerns.
Those before whom, in broad day, he crosses a made road, taking his time too, looking sideways at you with a keen eye, must in the nature of things be few.
When it happens, Turn Back! Give up your errand, whatever its seeming importance. Relinquish your need at the least for that day. Turn back—choose another road! He has made this one his. Conjured it, in short. If you don’t—
This particular balefulness of the weasel has been long known. The solemn direction, If a weasel crosses the road, Turn Back, is attributed to Pythagoras.
William didn’t know who first warned the careless race of men. But colored folk had a faculty for gathering up and carrying down time such warnings, strengthening them as they went along with continuing observation. He knew quarter stories of that particular trick of Mr. Weasel. At every other point do what you would. Shoot him down, if you could, at the chicken yard—make folk-sayings to blacken his face—take your own way with smart Mr. Weasel. But just here old Satan gave him power, and wise men had left warning. If a weasel crosses your road, Turn Back.
The weasel crossed the Wild Cherry-Cedar Hill road.
William stopped dead. “What dat? Er weasel cross mah road!”
The weasel was gone, quicker than a darting lean gray squirrel. But his bright eye had fixed William. “His eye done fix me—dat conjure weasel!
“What gwine happen now?
“I got ter turn back—stop dishyer processionin’ ter Cedar Hill!”
Sweat started upon William’s brow and the back of his hands. “Reckon I better hurry erway, hurry back to Wild Cherry and tell Marse Dick—”
And the little old road stretched before him so sweet and shady. He sat down on a stone, the weasel being gone. “Marse Dick, he laugh en laugh en say, ‘Go ‘way, you coward!’ En like enough he get on Firefly en come heself . . . wid dat silver fifty cents stayin’ in he pocket. Damn dat weasel!”
He wiped his forehead with the bandanna of which he was proud. “En Cedar Hill quarter—en I been lookin’ forward ter after supper en de banjo pickin’—en dat yallah gal Sarah wid her arms erkimbo en her haid on one side, layin’ out comparisons between Cedar Hill en Wild Cherry—
“How I get dere by ernother road? Dere ain’t any ‘nother road.
“Dat weasel mighty little man. Reckon I frighten him jes’ erbout lak he frighten me.
“Reckon he right far erway by now.”
The narrow, little-used old road stretched before him in sun and shade, on one hand a broken, lichened rail fence; on the other, big trees and a stream brawling down from the hills over smooth ledges and around ferny boulders. A mulberry growing in a lock of the ancient fence hung down a convenient branch thick with ripe fruit. The sun, very hot and strong between the heaped clouds, splashed upon the earth a hundred silver half dollars bright from the mint. That yellow girl at Cedar Hill—there she stood, just as plain, at the other end of road, and he heard the banjo faintly. She was laughing, Sarah. Laughing at him, William Carlisle. . . . Wild Cherry porch with the almighty big tall pillars and Mr. Dick handing him that letter for Captain Tony. Mr. Dick seemed mighty serious, though sometimes he wasn’t as serious as he seemed. “Matter of life and death, William!” was what he had said. “Matter of life and death! If Captain Tony doesn’t get this letter by candle light, ROME WILL FALL.”
“I reckon I’ll get on,” said William aloud. “Ef hits between dat damn weasel en William Carlisle I’ll put my money on de last.”
With which he rose from the stone and, drawing a full breath, crossed the diminutive tracks left by the weasel. “De deed’s done,” he said, and ten feet further down the road stopped—and this was bravado—to gather and eat a handful of the ripe, dark, sweet mulberries. As he ate the last berry he heard it thunder.
“What dat? Dat old storm comin’ up anyway! I ain’t got no time ter be loafin’ en loungin’ erlong dishyer road, sittin’ on er rock en eatin’ mulberries—”
Almost immediately the road led him into a small open place, cleared field and felled wood, whence one could see the ring of the sky. The sky had changed. Over Wild Cherry way the toploftical, fantastical mass was grown and altered, the thunder heads running together into an enormous leaden wall in movement. He saw the lightning play, the whole thing was coming overhead. More than that, from another quarter, unbeknownst and unawares, had risen fast and faster, to meet the first, a like phenomenon. The two were going to join forces. As he stared, one put forth an arm and took the sun from the sky. A wind began to blow. Against a dead gray wall, chain lightning drew the letter W. The thunder answered without much waiting.
“Golly 1” remarked William. “Dere’s gwine be a storm what is!”
Wild Cherry lay not more than a mile and a half in the rear. If he put his long legs in motion in that direction . . . The lightning zigzagged once more into the letter W. William knew his letters—Old Miss had taught him— he knew that W stands for Weasel. “I ain’t! I ain’t!” he stated. “I ain’t gwine let you outdo me!”
He began to go at a jog trot out of the cleared place into the wood. The road left the old field and the rail fence but kept the stream that now flowed across the way, then turned and raced with the road again but on the left. William crossed on stepping-stones. “Now I got water, too, dat you likes jes’ as well as you does land, you old swimmin’ weasel! I got water between me en Wild Cherry—”
Lightning tore the sky and immediate thunder rocked the world. “Lawd-er-mighty! You done got yo’ big drum—”
The wind heightened—the trees swayed and groaned. It grew very dark, though it was not two in the afternoon. The cloud giants, rushing each upon the other, met in lightning and thunder and a rain like the flood. “Lawd Jesus! dat weasel done bust two clouds together en spilled de sky river! —I got ter find shelter.”
Boulders grew like mushrooms in and along the bed of the stream. Two, with a third caught atop and furnishing a sort of roof, answered for a burrow. William burrowed. “I got er hole, Brer Weasel, same as you! Yo’ old lightnin’ en yo* old drum, en yo’ old waterin’ pot don’t make no ‘pression on de ‘tarnal rock.” He hugged into his small cave. “Warm enough heah in de dark. I jes’ rest en think o’ dat yallah gal. Dishyer storm too fierce ter last.”
But up the stream, too, there chose to be a cloud-burst. The rain fell like the forty days and nights in one downpour. In a jiffy rose the stream and began to eat its banks. “What dat?” said William. “Dat water runnin’ in heah!”
He came out of his refuge. “I ain’t smoked out anyhow, you old weasel!—Lawd hab mercy!”
The stream bellowed like a bull and rushed at him in a tawny, debris-bearing wave. He got out of the way of it, into the woods. The pine trees were tall, the pine trees did not keep out the lightning glare. An intense light fell around William, a crash split his ears, a neighbour tree stood blackened and began to blaze at the top. William cowered to the earth. “Lawd Gawd—Lawd Gawd A’mighty—” All through him ran a curious tingling and buzzing. “Lawd, I got er back stroke—I got er back stroke—”
He raised himself cautiously and felt himself gingerly from crown to sole. “It’s gwine off—but it was sho’ly on.” He lifted his eyes to the blazing mighty pine. “Sho’ I’s gwine call you hencefo’th my friend! Ef you hadn’t caught it dishyer world en me would ha’ said goo’bye!
“Dat weasel done borrowed it or stole it. But he ain’t so almighty sure with his teeth en claws as he thinks he is! Besides which he got ter pay one day!”
Stumbling through the alternately dark and strongly lighted wood he curved to the road again where it covered a rise of earth and left twenty feet below it the roaring stream. “Jes make er fuss down dere all you please! You got ter let up presently less’n all the clouds in the world done bust! Old Mr. Rain-en-Wind is er-holdin’ off er little too.”
So it was. The extremity of lightning and thunder began to lessen. Further and further away drove their chariots. The rain stopped, the wind hushed, like a god from a thicket outsprang the sun. The stream began to think of its own borders, the little, narrow old road ceased to be something of a stream itself. Tree and bush and vine shook off sparkles from every leaf. The firmament turned azure. The world became quick and light and gay. “I ain’t but eight miles from Cedar Hill. So long, old Mr. Weasel!”
The sun grew hot, the earth dried off as quick as it could. William, too, felt warm and comforted. “Yaas, Brer Weasel, you sho’ did try to make er splurge! but I reckon you gone off ter rest now en talk ter yo’ family erbout mos’ closin’ dishyer road forever ter dat William Carlisle.
“Sun feel good! I sho’ is obliged to dat pine tree what took de butt o’ de lightnin’!”
He walked on, spry as they make them. The sun shone hotter and hotter, the earth dried as though there never had been a rain. “Dat yallah gal—dat yallah gal. . . . Fifty-cent piece. Maybe he make it er dollar. . . .
“Seven miles. Dat blackberry path en de rail fence marks it three miles from Wild Cherry en seven miles from Cedar Hill.”
The trees stood back, the sun shone hot, everything was in the sun. William liked heat. He didn’t mind midsummer sun at a quarter to three in the afternoon, though he didn’t know it was a quarter to three, as he had no watch.
The blackberry patch came close to the road. The berries were ripening, some of them hung ripe. William stepped aside three feet into the patch and came eye to eye with old Mr. Copperhead in coil and meaning business.
Wasn’t any time to be thinking or dreaming. William leaped back and missed the stroke. The copperhead recoiled instantly. William’s hand closed upon the stem of a young maple, snapped it with its bushy head and met the copperhead in career. There followed a battle. The man won. The snake, a mighty one, lay limp and dead. William backed from the patch into the road and sat down in the dust, his head in his arms. “Dat was a close one,” he whispered. “Dat was a close one !” He sat in the dust, gathering himself together. “But I ain’t turnin’ back—I ain’t turnin’ back.”
A stir in the patch brought him up standing. “Old woman—old woman Copperhead mought be er-comin’.”
He pursued the Wild Cherry-Cedar Hill road. Now he heard, increasing toward him, the sound of wheels, the striking on chance rock of horses’ hooves and the voice of a man encouraging his steeds. “Get up there, Poky! Stop yo’ dozing, Slow Coach!”
“Dat Mr. George Pepper haulin’ wood,” said William. “I sho’ powerful glad ter see him or any one.”
Mr. George Pepper, Poky and Slow Coach and the wagon hauling white oak and hickory, came into proximity. “This is a mortal lonely road,” said Mr. Pepper, walking beside his horses. “You’re the only man I’ve met today. What’s the matter? You look kind of ashy!”
“Dat’s a fac’ it’s lonely of men. It ain’t lonely of other critters. No sah, not of Another Critter!”
“You look,” said Mr. Pepper, “as though a weasel had crossed your road.”
William experienced a catch of the breath. “You done set up for a prophet, Mr. Pepper, sah? Dat jes’ the occasion what occurred.”
” ‘If a weasel crosses your road turn back’— I remember my grandmother telling me that and it’s always proved itself mighty good doctrine,” said Mr. Pepper. “In these parts, anyway.— Hi, Poky, what you starting at? Slow Coach, ain’t nothing in that bush!”
“Maybe—maybe it’s old Mrs. Copperhead—”
“No, ‘tain’t. ‘Tain’t nothing. Did you meet a copperhead?”
“Yaas. I killed it, en ‘twas hard work. I never see such er big en er determined one. En befo’ dat, er storm dat most ended William Carlisle. Yaas, sah, dat lightnin’ most ended me. You didn’t have dat storm at all?”
“No, but I saw it and heard it over Wild Cherry. When did the weasel cross the road?” “Three mile back.”
“And you ain’t turned and give up the road for a while anyhow? That’s mighty onlucky, William!”
William had turned stubborn. “I got an arrand I jes’ got ter go. But I wishes you’d emptied yo’ load, Mr. Pepper, en was bound back ter Cedar Hill. Dat weasel do make er man like company!”
“I ain’t ready yet a while,” said Mr. Pepper. “Besides, William, you might bring me bad luck.— Whoa, there! This load’s slipping!”
So it was—as though of a piece—out at, down from, the end of the long wagon. “Now what do you think of that?” demanded Mr. Pepper when the mass of the logs lay in the road. “Any rate, William, you got to help up with them!”
“I think it was dat weasel jes’ er mutter in’ ter himself— Whoa there! dat wheel gone over my foot!”
They reloaded the wagon. The logs were heavy and it was hot and Mr. Pepper, at least, already fatigued. He became grumpy. “Weasel or no weasel, this is a kind of cursed road! People don’t use it much more, and I ain’t a wondering!”
They reloaded the wagon. “Maybe I’s used up the bad luck,” suggested William out of a native hopefulness.
“Maybe. Well, so long, William! Git up thar, Slow Coach! What you studying about anyhow, Poky?”
Wagon, horses, and Mr. Pepper vanished toward Wild Cherry. William felt a wave of deep forlornness. “He good company. Dishyer road sho’ want company of yo’ own choosin’.”
Yet it was such a pretty little road, though neglected. On walked William, quickly, too, having spent not far from half an hour with Mr. George Pepper. It was shady, it was sweet. “Maybe he done broke old Mr. Weasel’s back with dem wagon wheels 1” He thought he would sing a little.
“Way down on de Piankatank, Where de bull frogs jump from bank ter bank—” The road had left the creek and was winding like a grape tendril through the woods. William’s breast expanded.
“Who build de Ark?
Norah! Who build de Ark?
Norah build de Ark.
De dove en de raven set on a beam
You mayn’t believe it but dey was a team—”
The road bent by an ash tree. A bough crooked an elbow; from it, like a lady’s piece bag, hung a very big hornets’ nest. How the stick that was carried over William’s shoulder managed to strike, or at least to demonstrate against, the hornets’ nest, who shall say? Maybe it wasn’t the stick. . . . The hornets sallied forth.
William ran, ducking his head, beating the air with his hands. They stung here, they stung there—one, two, three, half a dozen—the angry hornets. He got to the creek again, he plunged down and dashed in, burying his head and shoulders. The hornets left him, but wow! he was stung.
Eight places. He knew the right weed to apply. When he had found it and had chewed the leaves to a pulp he stripped his blue shirt from his powerful black body and began to poultice neck, shoulders, and arms, sighing and groaning as he worked. “Life too hard for dis niggah. Life too hard—
“When de weasel crosses yo’ path, en you don’t turn back—
“Dat’s de p’int of it—when you don’t turn bach.”
He plastered and plastered. “It ain’t worth de fifty cents. . . . But dat yallah gal—I like ter tell her erbout it.”
He measured the sun with his eyes. “I ain’t half way. . . . You, William, you bettah be gettin’ up from dishyer cool restin’ place, en be goin’ erlong.
“I don’t feel like singin’ no moah. Dem hornets is hard ter put up with—though they’s gettin’ bettah.” When he had finished his medicaments it might be four o’clock in the afternoon. He pursued the winding road. “Pain ain’t so seveah—but I feels er little giddy.”
The sun’s rays now fell slant and lovely. “I sho’ don’t feel like singin’, but I wish I had mah banjo. I play de banjo. Mr. Dick, he play de piano. Captain Tony play de flute. Miss Sally play de guitar. Dat yallah gal she play mah heart strings. . . . Don’t I heah ‘em all er-playin’, er little way off dere? . . . Psha, niggah: dat’s de katydids en de frogs! I gwine make good time now!”
Again appeared the zigzagging fence and a ragged field all bugloss and mullein and an outcrop of rock. The field, mounting in a wave, lay washed in copper light, and was the loneliest of the lonely. Only there grazed half way up the slope an old white horse. “Now whose is you? I don’t remember you.”
It seemed old, very old—and gaunt, very gaunt—yet a big horse. William leaned his weight on the ancient rail fence and stared. “You’s bigger than usual—” The rotted rails gave beneath him; he and they came to earth together. “Now dat weasel’s done made er gap ter let somebody’s old hoss out of pasture!— I better fix it up.”
The old horse moved leisurely toward him where he was working. “What’s de matter wid you? I don’t like yo’ looks.”
He restored the last rail and straightened his black body, over and along which were going little dry quivers of heat. Dr. Jones, who doctored the plantation of Wild Cherry, might have said of them, “A degree or so of fever. Let’s see those hornet stings—”
The old white horse was no longer there—no longer in the field at all! William’s eyes rolled. “Where you gone ter, I say? Where you gone ter?”
On either hand the empty, lonesome, sun-washed field ran into copse and broken woodland. “Maybe you kick up yo’ heels en lose yo’self in de big wood. You sho’ must hab put yo’self in motion ter do dat! Maybe—” He stepped backward from the rail fence and the copper-tinted and lonesome field. “Maybe you ain’t been heah at all—’ceptin’ as er sign. . . . Dat weasel gwine tuhn on somethin, newt”
William took to the road. It was now well on in the afternoon. The shadows threw themselves across and athwart; the katydids put up a fearful shrilling, William made good haste. “I gwine—I gwine ter get dere; I gwine—I gwine ter get dere.”
The house rose among pine trees, the fence with half the palings gone just back from the road, and the gate fallen from its hinges and sunken in a trumpet vine in red flower. The old Dollins house—empty for twenty years—gone to ruin and decay—with windows gaping and a broken porch —inexpressibly silent and solitary. It had a story about old Dollins the miser and his well-hidden gold, so well-hidden that no search had ever found it. “You come mighty quick, you old Dollins house!” said William. “Everything comes as quick as er weasel on dishyer road!”
It was the hornets surely, unless it was the weasel! William had a sudden picture of Mr. Dick’s silver half dollar multiplied by a thousand, varied into quarters and dollars and gold pieces and greenbacks, all stuffed into an old half-bushel basket with a red table cloth tied about it. It would be hid away somewhere, in some dark place no one had ever looked into, but he saw it, he saw it! Old Mr. Dollins died long ago—folk had ‘most torn the place up looking and had never found anything. All the same he, William Carlisle, saw that basket. “Jes’ er minute,” said William. “Jes’ er minute spared from dishyer travellin’. Ef I lays mah hands on dat basket dat yallah gal en I sho’ get married—”
Passing through the gap where had been the gate, he caught his feet in the trumpet vine. The late sun striking against the bleached exterior of the house turned it into vague tarnished silver. It stood, broken doors and windows and sagging porch, more lonely than lonely, quite unearthly lonely. William, still seeing that cloth-covered bushel basket, went with super-steadiness up the ragged path and across the porch that sagged in the last stage of dilapidation, to the front door. This was closed, but had no fastening, and he pushed it open and entered the house. “Old Mr. Dollins’ money store—somebody got ter find itl I sho’ seen it in dat basket—”
The inside of the house, for all the windows were out, stood dim enough. It was getting late, and the house having been built long ago, the windows were anyhow small and few.
“Now where dat basket?”
He still saw it quite clearly in some inner field, but no evidence of it presented itself from where he stood in the forlorn hall, before the forlorn staircase. . . . He heard something scuttling. “Er rat, dat’s all!” The place was f urnitureless, twilight and creepy, but he had that slight rise of fever to buck him up. He went through the four lower rooms and the heat and pugnacity of the hornets seemed to turn to a benefit. He might have been a big hornet himself, buzzing here and there. At last he buzzed upstairs. Here, at the end of the passage, opened a window that gave a little more light, and near it he saw, placed on the floor, the basket.
It came out of the inside light and stood in the dim light of the Dollins house, a veritable enough ancient bushel basket wrapped in an old cloth.
“Land ob Goshen!” remarked William. “Dat’s it—dat’s old Mr. Miser Dollins’ money! Done walk itself out of wherever he hide it en set itself here for me en dat yallah gal en er cabin en er corn patch en er mule—”
There was a cross passage in shadow. Outside the window a pine tree scraped the house with a dark bough. William buzzed across the opening of the lesser passage. Here was the basket for him to settle upon.—The pine bough, he thought, sprang into the Dollins house and turned into the stock of a gun, a lifted gunstock. Down it came upon William’s pate—the sun and the basket and old miser Dollins’ deserted house all went out together.
William Carlisle was a strong man with a nice thick skull. It took a lot of killing to kill William; a heavy stick to lay him low for more than a reasonable time. The g linstock, being applied only once, did nothing beyond blotting him out for three minutes, in which space the basket was lifted and hugged under an arm, the stair descended, and she house vacated. Henceforth the old Dollins house might be taken literally to pieces, the ground around mined for gold, the hollows of every tree examined, and nothing, nothing doing! A more or less good-natured giant the other side of the county added to his farm a desirable five acres, bought himself two plough horses, a Sunday suit of broadcloth, a piano for his wife, put up a new spring house, gave ten dollars to missions, went to Richmond for the State Fair, and opened a savings account. But he said he had a legacy. . . .
William stirred and put a bewildered hand to a bewildered brow, encountering a lump as big as a guinea egg, after which he slowly brought himself to a sitting posture. “What dat struck me?” He sat with his wits clearing. “Was it dat pine tree or er ghost. . . . Where dat basket?”
His head swam, but he got to his feet. “Nobody heah— nobody been heah but jes’ dishyer niggah. . . . Where dat basket?”
The sun had ceased to enter the upper floor of Dollins’ long-left house. “Was it dat pine tree, or was it old Mr. Dollins’ ghost . . . or was it dat weasel?
“He whistle up dat old white horse—he whistle ter Mr. Miser Dollins—he put dat basket dere en he take it erway. . . . I gwine erway too!”
Panic beset him. He fled down the stairs, through the lower hall, out of the door, across the sagging porch, down the path that was now just a track between weeds and tall grass, out of the broken gate. The trumpet vine caught again at his ankles. He tore loose from it and stumbled down into the road. “Gawd-er-mighty! I got ter get ter Cedar Hill!” As he left behind him the Dollins house, the sun approached the horizon. It grew big and red, seen through a grating of pine trees. “Less’n three miles. I git dere by candle light.”
A white folks’ children’s play began to run in his head, which still went somewhat giddily around. It sang itself with variations.
” ‘How many miles to Miley Bright?’
‘Two miles en a little mo. You’ll git dere befo’ it’s night Ef yo’ legs is long en yo’ heels is light 1
Look out de old witch don’t git you!’
“De old witch—dat’s de old weasel!”
The sun became half an orb, then a quarter, then a red rim, then departed William’s sky. Colour flared high, red and gold behind the darkening woods. The katydids continued their comment, and now from a marsh between him and the creek the frogs began evening service. “Dat bullfrog, he keep on er-sayin’, ‘Look out! Look out!’ I feels,” said William, “powerful strange in my spirits. Yet I is coverin’ dishyer road, en dat’s er fact!”
The road was running up and down a series of low hills, running between rail fences, edged or draped with bee balm and sumach and traveller’s-joy. Behind the fences again appeared old, lonely fields marked with solitary big trees, William hastened along with the gathering dusk. The red and gold changed into purple and lemon and cool, remote skyey green. He padded up a long hill and heard a whip-poorwill, down into and across a hollow and was deafened by the frogs. Look out! Look out!
The western sky began to take a cold spectacular light. “I’s got de graveyard ter pass. I knows, I knows, I’s got de turned-out old McCarthy graveyard ter pass. Top of hill, dere—en dere it is. I wishes I had mah banjo. . . . I wishes Mr. Dick was er-keepin’ me company. . . .
What he mean anyhow erbout ‘life en death’ en ‘ROME WILL FALL’?—Who Rome?”
The road and William climbed the hill. Whippoorwills now were answering one another, and the firefly population lighted their lanterns. Dusk shook hands with night, but as yet the illumination was sufficient. Moreover, a big round moon pushed up in the east. Atop of the hill, cedars like spires announced the McCarthy graveyard. Its brick wall was broken, its memorial stones were fallen, it was choked with weeds and briars and old rose-bushes and myrtle and ivy and honeysuckle.
“I gwine pass you—I gwine pass you quick. . . . I bettah sing,” thought William,
“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lawd! Nobody knows the trouble I see—”
But his own voice scared him so he desisted. A hoot owl in an oak-tree began, Who . . . you? Whoo . . . you?
“I’s William Carlisle,” said William. “O Lawd, jes’ let me get by—”
Ivy ran over the arch of the graveyard gate. Something sat atop of it like an armorial figure, a heraldic beast. Too dark to see it distinctly, at first it might seem a piece of stone work . . . but then it moved, it enlarged ! In the dimness, the shot black and silver, two eyes glared. “What dat? What dat?”
He made haste. The creature leaped and landed upon his tracks. He ran. It ran too, coming padding after him. He looked back. Moon and dusk showed him something, but mixedly. To William the eyes seemed bale fires growing farther apart and larger. The body increased in size. Down came a great moon flood. “O Lawd—O Lawdy! it got er weasel shape!” Whether it had or whether it hadn’t, that was what it had to William. “He done come himself I He come with de power. De debbil done give it to him!” William ran, William tore through the moonlight night along the road to Cedar Hill. He must look where he was going, or he would get a fall, but now and again he twisted his head over his shoulder. “Gawd-er-moughty! he gettin’ bigger all de time! Dose eyes is de debbil’s saucers! . . . De Giant Weasel. . . . Run, niggah, run!”
He ran and the Weasel ran. The road descended into a hollow. Look out! Look out! shrilled all the frogs. The fireflies turned into a million little glittering eyes. Whip poor Will! Whip poor Will! cried all the whippoorwills. The father of all the weasels came on behind him, all the time bigger. . . . Maybe it was a wild cat, maybe it was a fox, maybe it was a dog. But to William Carlisle it was the weasel that had crossed the road.
He ran now without looking back. “Jes* let me get dar, Lawd! Jes’let me get dar—”
The creek, left for several miles, now suddenly reappeared and divided the road into this side of it and that side of it. William dashed through the water then, panting, looked back, and missed the eyes and the shifting shape. They had refused the water, and had turned off into the wood upon the left. The road ran straight, the moon shone strong. Cedars stood up stiffly to either hand. Not a mile and a half now to Cedar Hill. . . .
He was of such a hopeful disposition, was William! “Maybe he jes’ get tired pesterin’ me—”
Ahead of him a tree, a slender thing, an ash or birch maybe, curved in a high arch out over the road. Quite over indeed, its head touching the opposite bank.
“My Gawd!” said William. “Dat’s er ha’nt tree!”
A ha’nt crossed a road—some underworld law being opposed to its crossing roads—only by such a tree.
“Er ha’nt tree! I got ter go under it—”
He went under it singing and praying and shouting inside, for that was the way to pass ha’nt trees. But when he had passed it, and that at top speed, something large dropped down behind him. He heard the thud with which it struck the road and he looked back. “What dat? What dat?”
It straightened itself in the moonlight into a tall figure of a man, a tall, skeleton thin, black man in a curious dress. It shot out long arms and jumped up and down. William stood turned to stone, then with a shout began to run. “De ha’nt! De ha’nt! He done turned himself into de ha’nt— 0 Lawd, help dis niggah! O Lawd, help William Carlisle!”
He tore along the road. Behind him he heard the ha’nt, running after him, making uncouth sounds as he came on. They ate up the road. “Look out! Look out!” cried the frogs. The moon and the fireflies made a dazing kind of night. An owl hooted from a gum tree, “Who—You? Whooo—you?”
“O Lawd,” prayed William, “I’s gwine be er better church member. O Lawd, have mercy on dishyer po’ William Carlisle! Jes’ let me get dere, Lawd! Jes’ let me get I ter Cedar Hill en Captain Tony—”
He hurried and the ha’nt hurried.
Off from the road turned a yet narrower track leading at length to a county almshouse where dwelt in the shadow of the end a few old, worn out folk and an idiot or two. . . . William passed this lane mouth, but the ha’nt turned into it, dropping into a jog trot but still waving his arms and making his doleful noise.
William’s hair ceased to rise and his heart to pound. “He done turned off, jes’ like de weasel turned off!— You get erlong, niggah, you most dere—” ( Cedar Hill house, brick and columns like Wild Cherry, topped a green rise—a black and silver rise tonight—like Wild Cherry. Lamps shone at Cedar Hill as they shone at Wild Cherry. In the big old parlour at Wild Cherry a I young man—Mr. Dick—sang at the piano to a young cousin’s playing. He was in love with the cousin.
In his own room at Cedar Hill Captain Tony practised the flute, walking up and down in the lamplight. He, too, was a young man. Now he sent forth a shower of sweet notes, and now he laid down the flute and throwing himself into his chair before an ancient desk and running a hand through Byronic locks, reapplied himself to the verses he was writing. He was a master hand at song writing.
“O Love that tieth all together. 0 Love that turneth never—that turneth never—”
The door opened. “Tony!” called his sister.
“Yes, Eliza, yes! I wish this house could keep from interrupting me when I write!”
“Oh, poets and such are so filled with importance! There’s one of the Wild Cherry men downstairs with a note from Dick.”
“Ah,” said Tony. “He wants—he wants—
‘that turneth never’
I promised him-
‘The jasmine, the rose and the passion flower—’” Putting down his pen he rose and stretched himself. “All right, Eliza—much obliged! Just send whoever it is up here.”
William appeared in the doorway. “Ah, it’s William Carlisle! Come in, William. Did you walk over?”
“I done come er foot, Captain Tony.”
“You look kind of spent.—What’s the matter?”
“A. weasel crossed de road, sail. I hadn’t no moh’n left Wild Cherry.”
“Indeed, William? When that happens, you are supposed to turn back.”
“Yaas, sah, I knows it. Mr. Dick, he say ‘twas life en death, en ROME WILL FALL ef you don’t get his message. Likewise he say he give me half er dollar.”
“Ah, indeed! Mr. Dick is given to hyperbole. Let’s have his note, for I suppose you brought a note.”
William produced it. Captain Tony read, “Tony, send me that song that you promised right away! You’ve had time to finish a dozen! I’m staying over to set it to the piano and practise it with her. Please recognize that this is important. Oh, Sir, she’s the darlintl”
“That’s all he says,” quoth Captain Tony. “Lovers are imperious!—Well, I can’t finish that song before midnight. You can start with it tomorrow morning after breakfast, William. Aunt Dinah will give you something to eat and you can sleep in the quarter.”
“All right, sah. I heard,” said William, “de banjo pickin’ as I come erlong.”
“Yes. We all make music. It’s nine o’clock,” said Captain Tony. “You’d better be going.”
William proceeded down the home hill to the quarter where candle and firelight and mellow voices and laughter and notes of the banjo yet proclaimed—yet proclaimed, “There’s rest and balm, reward and pleasure in the old world—in the old world . . . although the weasels cross the road, although the weasels cross the road!”
Out of the brightly lighted cabin with a gush of banjo notes came the yallah gal. “Who dat?—Lawd, ef dat ain’t William Carlisle!”