North Carolina creature story of two boys whose nighttime possum hunt brings an encounter with a terrifying mountain Hob Goblin! Written by Chris Hallman.
Horse Maynard’s Story
Other night, I stobbed me a hob goblin. Right up back of old Rass Brown’s property it was. Ottis Keaton seen it too. You ask Ottis. He’ll tell you. Reckon I can’t say as we was laying for hob goblin on Rass Brown’s knob. No. I won’t claim as much. Who’d do such a fool thing? But here’s how it did start, as I recollect. That morning Ottis went keen on having some back meat from the opossum for his ma’s stew pot. So we set our caps to bring just such to hearth and flame. You’uns know any campaign what involves ‘possum involves dog. And more than one dog by my preference: a good nose-to-earth, snort-and-follow, hound, and a fierce, sniff-and-bay type dog, what to keep brother ‘possum treed and convenient for my poke.
So Ottis says to me, “Horse Maynard, my daddy’s got a right spry blue we can hunt, but Grady Mathis got the finest ‘possum dog in this valley. Reckon he’d give loan of that dog for one night’s hunting?”
“Well,” I says to Ottis, “Ain’t but one way for us to find out.” And we struck there and then toward Grady Mathis’s house. We found Mrs. Mathis sitting on their broke-down front porch shucking corn. She had her long gray hair pulled right tight to the back of her head like she always done. She hailed us with a, “How you’uns?” when we walked up. Me an Ottis returned her pleasantry with our own, and she allowed as we’d find her other half in the corn patch. So we went around back of the house and seen Grady out pulling late corn. I don’t believe Grady Mathis owns but one pair of overalls. Never seen him wear anything else. He don’t go to church, so I expect he has no need for finer raiment. Grady was wearing a ragged flannel shirt that looked like it came right straight from Rebel Army days under his overalls, and even in all that getup, he didn’t have a drop of sweat on him.”
“Lord, Mr. Mathis,” I said to him. “How can you stand that hot shirt in this sweltering sun?”
Mr. Mathis stopped pulling corn and pushed his ratty straw hat back on his head. “Horace Maynard,” he said. “Bloods got thin. Don’t feel that hot to me.” He eyed Ottis with some suspicion. “You ain’t Big Tom Keaton’s eldest air you?” he said to Ottis.
Ottis beamed. “Why yessir, I am.”
Grady spat a straight brown line of tobacco juice on the ground and wiped the extra from his grizzle. “Thought I recognized you by that long chicken neck. Keaton boys all look like Banny roosters, and strut about the same as well.”
Ottis’s countenance dulled with that. He muttered something I didn’t quite latch on to, and I’m sure Grady didn’t hear it. I took that moment to advance my question to avoid further commentary from either party.
“Mr. Mathis,” I said. “Me an Ottis here is campaigning for some ‘possum meat for his ma’s stewpot. And Ottis was wondering if you might give loan of your dog, this very night, to that purpose?”
“Nope,” said Grady Mathis, and he started pulling corn again.
“But Mr. Mathis,” whined Ottis.
I held up my pointing finger to signal Ottis that this negotiation needed my sure hand. “We thank ye, Mr. Mathis. Ottis and I know pure well how dear a dog such as yours can be. We will ask no more for your assistance and bid you the best of this long, hot afternoon.” I clasped Ottis by one of his drooping galluses and led him back towards the house.
“What’s wrong with you, Horse Maynard?” Ottis hissed. “Why you just walking away from here without making a case for that dog?”
“Watch and be wise, Ottis,” I said. “Watch and be wise.”
“Oh, Mr. Mathis,” I said, turning back to the corn picker. “If we was to procure two opossum this night, would you have interest in receiving a portion of the proceeds of our labor?”
I saw a sudden slowing of Mr. Mathis’s corn pulling and surmised victory was at hand. “Matter of fact,” I pressed. “Ottis here and I plumb forgot our manners on this visit. What if we was to help you pull the rest of this here corn and bring you a nice strip of back meat from one of our ‘possums? In consideration, of course, for the use of your dog this evening. Would that not seem just a horn of plenty spilled right onto your table?”
Grady Mathis snorted and spat another line of tobacco. “You got quite the butter-mouth, ain’t ye? Dog ain’t going less I go too.”
I hadn’t considered this fork in my negotiation with Mathis, and it were a wee bit unwelcome.
“Alright then,” Ottis answered for me. “What time you want get started this evening?”
“Reckon you’uns come by here after supper and I’ll be ready,” said Grady.
“Alright,” I confirmed. I shot a hurtful look at Ottis. “We’ll see you then.”
“Another thing,” said Grady Mathis pointing an ear of corn at Ottis. “Ain’t gone be no firearms on this hunt ‘sept mine.” The brown corn tassel on the ear waved up and down as he spoke. “You’uns liable to shoot me and my dog up in that dark.”
Ottis shook his head up and down.
“So, you’uns wanna pull this corn now or tomorra?” Grady asked.
Ottis shrugged and walked into the patch of corn.
“It seems we’ll discharge that portion of our agreement right now, if you please,” I told Mr. Mathis.
Time we pulled Grady Mathis’s parched-up corn it was getting late. I cut for home and wrapped up two bone-hard biscuits and plucked a tomato from the table on the back porch. Sorry, sorry supper for a night of hunting, but that’s what I had to hand. When I went around the back of the house headed toward the barn, here came Ottis with a blue hound, a gingham sling holding his supper, and the grandest hoe I ever cast eyes upon.
“Where’d you get such a thing as that?” I asked him.
“My grandpa. Special made by old Dewey Tate up Galbreath Creek,” Ottis replied.
“Reckon I needs find me something to take with too,” I told him and headed into the barn. I already had in mind the very implement. In the barn’s gloom I laid hands on it; a long hoe handle, like Ottis’s, except mine had the hoe blade busted off. As I lifted it from a dusty corner, a barn cat shot from amongst the tools, and ears laid back, made for the outside. “Well that just took nine years off’n my life,” I said to nobody in particular. I surveyed my implement. Nothing left at the business end but a spiky point that some time ago I had filed keen. It looked like something a Greek warrior might tote. I strode out of the barn and said, “Let’s go, Ottis.”
“You better make an x ‘fore you do anything, Horse. What with that black cat blowing by here. I already done mine,” said Ottis.
I indulged Ottis by raking my hand through the air in an x. He can be peculiar about some things.
“What’s that you got?” asked Ottis. “A gig? You planning on gigging frogs or hunting you a ‘possum this night?”
“What’s the difference between gigging a frog and gigging a ‘possum?” I asked him. “You eat either one in the end.”
Grady Mathis was sitting on his front porch wearing a faded red cap with the oldest shotgun I ever seen across his lap. His dog was stretched out alongside him with its great head resting on Grady’s left shoe. When we stepped onto the porch with Ottis’s dog, Grady’s dog raised up and let out a long mournful howl.
“That dog’s a fine judge of character,” said Grady.
“Hope he hunts better than he can howl,” Ottis shot back.
“You’ll be made aware when he finds scent of said ‘possum,” Grady said. He stood up, stiff like, and hobbled toward us. “Takes me a spell to git going these days,” said Grady.
“When’s last time you shot that gun of yours?” I asked him.
“While ago,” he said patting the two hammers with his palm.
“Well let’s hope it ain’t necessary to discharge it this night,” I told him. “Nice to have our ‘possum in one piece, and not blowed all over Rass Brown’s hill.”
Grady ignored my comment and said, “I’ll just get me a lantern, what better to keep an eye on the two ah you’uns this evening.
“Ottis and me hunt Injun style. Don’t need no lantern,” I said. We stepped off the creaking porch and headed up the road to ‘possum stew.
Old Sol was getting stingy with his time these late September days and leaving after supper would cut us tight getting top of Rass Brown’s knob before it was good dark. I told Ottis, “Need to step lively if we gone make it past Brown land in daylight.”
Grady pulled up short. “Wait just a minute, here,” he said. I thought we was going to work top of Rass Brown’s hill for these ‘possums. Where you boys think you’re headed?
Now that just flew all over me. This was my hunting trip. I turned around to Grady and said, “Mr. Mathis, everybody works that ridge behind Rass’s for raccoon and ‘possum. We need to pass beyond Rass Brown’s knob and work the saddle t’other side.” Grady Mathis gave me a look that I tell you now I won’t never forget. His face pulled up tight and those rummy eyes got right dry and slitted. When he answered me, it sounded like men do when they take a big sip of corn liquor.
“Don’t nobody hunt back of that ridge, boy,” he said.
“And why not?” I asked. “It ain’t posted is it?”
“He’s right, Horse,” Ottis said. My pa and me roam through all these hills around here, but we don’t never go down to that saddle past Brown’s knob. My pa won’t have it.”
“That don’t make no sense,” I argued. Saddle land ain’t no different than any other round here.
Grady wiped sweat from his forehead. “What gives you the authority to speak such a way.”
Ottis closed in on me. “Yeah. I reckon he has a point.”
“All right, all right,” I said. “You’uns make such a to do about this, I reckon we’ll just stay up on the ridge all night.”
Grady relaxed a little bit after I said that and his face went back to normal. He was still sweating something fierce, even though a cool breeze had picked up through the holler. I heard him mutter something about some things being better left alone, but I just turned and went on up the road. We passed Rass Brown’s house and kept on going, along a big patch of Joe-Pye weed, up well beyond his barn. Directly we came to a creek that ran down out of the high ridge that formed the back of our cove. Ottis and I forded the creek with nary a trouble, but Grady was unbalanced with gun and light and stepped off the fording rocks and into the swift-flowing water. I heard his low cussing, but did him the courtesy of not turning around. The path up Rass Brown’s knob started just past the creek. Cows done most of its making, and to start with we had to step careful around muck and flies and puddles of yellow water. The trail pitched up steep out of the pasture, and bright day turned dim, what with the thick stand of poplar and elm ringing Rass’s grassy patch.
“Won’t be long all this’ll be bright yeller,” commented Grady.
“Be fine with me,” added Ottis. “Ain’t as many chores in winter as summer, on account of the gardening.”
Grady Mathis might take a spell to get going, but when he did, he went with purpose. He passed Ottis and me when we stopped on a switchback to blow a minute, and kept right on without a stop for breath.
“He passed us by like rank strangers,” I told Ottis.
“He’s hungry, Horse,” Ottis said.
With Grady’s fine example before us, we made it to the top of the knob in short order. From up top we had a clear view back over Rass’s property and down the cove before it twisted with the creek over toward Bryson City. The high ridges above us were purple with mountain smoke that deepened as the sun slipped down to the west ridge.
“Best have supper here before it gets dark,” said Grady.
“I thought you had yore supper?” said Ottis.
“I see you,uns brought yours, so figured you wanna eat some time. And it’s fixing to get dark.
We sat down on a log in a clear spot with a ring of stones for making a fire. I opened my tow sack and took out the tomato and pulled the two sorry biscuits from my overalls. Ottis sat before a big, flat rock and spread his gingham cloth open. His ma had packed him (and I know it’s his ma that done it) three great big biscuits, and two old tins, one holding some nice thick slices of country ham and the other some fried okra.
“Well, I see you’uns ain’t evenly yoked come supper time,” said Grady.
Ottis looked across at me as I cut open the tomato to slab onto a biscuit half. “Horse needs fend for himself most days since his ma passed,” Ottis observed. “Forgive, Horse, but you know it’s the plain truth.”
“My old daddy ain’t the cook Mama was, that’s for shore,” I agreed. “Mama was a proper Scot, book learned and sure of phrase.”
“Your daddy ever run any whiskey?” Grady asked.
That flew all over me. “No, my daddy ain’t never run any whiskey, Grady. He farms and he snakes logs for old man Culpepper sometimes over to Cullowhee.”
“I meant no offense,” said Grady.
“Reckon none is taken, then,” I answered him.
Grady turned right to Ottis and said, “Okrie is the noblest of the vegetables.”
Ottis regarded the deep-fried spike in his hand. “Reckon I can find no argument with that declaration, Mr. Mathis.”
Grady Mathis stared at Ottis the whole while he ate his supper. Ottis took no notice. Directly he took his last biscuit, laid a piece of thick ham across it, and handed it over to Grady.
“Mr. Mathis, I would be grateful if you would help me finish this supper. I’ve had a sufficiency.”
Grady Mathis took that biscuit from Ottis like it was something off the queen of England’s table. The light had faded nigh on to dark then and it played tricks on my eyes. Grady appeared to hold that biscuit fast with long bony claws that in the gloom seemed more of beast than man. And when his teeth closed down, he wrenched and swallowed that ham like a dog would. Lord, I thought. The world we see by day and the world we see by night are two entirely different subjects. All of a sudden, a strong wind rushed into the trees and set the leaves to flitting and fluttering above us like one of them Homer stories Miss Stevens tells in the school house.
“Mother Earth, she’s taking her a long sigh before she falls asleep,” said Grady.
Mathis and his commentary was getting on my last nerve. We shoulda left him in his corn patch and made do with Ottis’s dog. But here we were, and no way to get shed of him. Why is it we always want for more than we need? Anyway, I says to Ottis the good Samaritan, and Grady the man by the road, “Time we commence to hunting.”
“Ain’t good dark yet,” said Grady.
“Needs to be good dark, Horse,” said Ottis.
Grady expelled a noisy bah-rump of gas and shifted side to side on the log.
“Fine, fine,” I said. “You two sit a spell. I cain’t. I’m going on up thata way and leave you’uns with Grady’s gift.
Ottis Tells His Part
Horse Maynard tromped off with his Greek spear in the very direction we agreed not to go.
“He’ll not wander far by his self,” Mr. Mathis said with a little cackle.
“No. I reckon not,” I said.
“Ottis, how long you known Horace?” Mr. Mathis asked me.
“We growed up together,” I answered.
“He looks older’n you,” said Mr. Mathis.
“He is. By three years,” I said.
We did’t talk for a while until I could stand it no longer. “So how long have you lived back in here, Mr. Mathis?”
“You might say me and my kind’s been here a right long while, Ottis. That place I live now was my pa’s before me. Foundation rocks is from his grandpa’s house and he come straight from the Old Country. Mathises been in this cove an eon.”
“Gracious me,” I said. “And Mrs. Mathis? She grow up here, too?”
“Bryson City,” said Grady. “Can’t get used to that new name.”
“Well garden seed. You married yourself a fine town woman. How’d you ever talk her into moving up here with the likes of you?” I asked.
“Oh, she was right happy to move. I’d be misrepresenting the case, though, if I was to say she moved off up here just on account of me. She wanted to be near the ‘sang.
“The ‘sang?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Mr. Mathis continued. “Ginseng. Medicinal herbs. Healing gifts from vulnerary root. The things she knows, Ottis. The things she knows. Potion, poultice, balm and salve; butter and beeswax thou must have.”
“What?” I asked.
“Never you mind, boy,” said Mr. Mathis eyeing me suddenly stone cold like. “It’s for her to know and you and my kind to wonder.”
Mr. Mathis unfolded his self off the log, pointed in the opposite direction of Horse Maynard’s route, and said, “When the mighty warrior returns from his scouting, I say we work yonder way down this ridge. Trail forks a little distance from here. That’s what I brung the lantern to find. One fork goes on along the ridge and t’other makes off down to a spring. I’m thinking we might just run up on what we seek down in thar.”
“Sounds about right,” I said. “When fine Odysseus crests yon rise, we’ll be off.”
Horse Maynard Keeps Going
“At least you’uns are both standing,” I said returning to the company of Ottis and Mathis. “I found some mighty promising spots just off the ridge over thar.”
“Horse Maynard,” said Ottis. “We agreed as we was not going down towards that saddle to hunt ‘possum. Mr. Mathis knows a spot that way what will be most promising.”
“Tell ya what, Horse Maynard,” said Mathis. “You go on down to that saddle and find yer ‘possum, and Ottis and I will take the dogs and hunt t’other way, down to the spring. Now what you think of that plan?”
“Ain’t yore plan to make, Grady Mathis,” I said. I allow as I did have a smidgen of shame talking to my elder that way, but land of goshen if he didn’t try me at every junction. I stood there for a time staring at Mathis and Ottis. Directly I said, “Fine. I’ll be on my way, then.”
It was full dark now and Grady had the lantern going. He handed it to Ottis to hold while he fetched his shotgun. The kerosene lamp lit Ottis’s face with a sputter from below, casting dark shadows above his nose and around his eyes. Grady hoisted the gun and leaned away from the light. “I’ll call yore bluff,” he said to me.
“Come on, Horse,” said Ottis. “Just leave it be and let’s go on down to the spring.”
“Ain’t going to no spring when I know I can find ‘possum for sure,” I said and turned to head back from whence I came. Right then, Ottis’s dog took off past me barking and carrying on like I never seen before. The dog paced to and fro then turned off into the shadows just past the lantern light. I could here him sniffing and snorting in the darkness like some boar hog.
“What did I tell you’uns?” I asked. “Ottis yore dog’s got more sense than you do. See he’s a going right straight toward the saddle. Told you’uns that’s where to find ‘possum.”
All this brought on a peculiar change of spirit with Grady Mathis. Ottis had moved towards me with the lantern and it’s yellow light cast off the shadows and the light fell full on Grady. He was standing there, both his bony hands working, round and round the breech and stock of his gun. But his face! Lord his face. The skin had pulled right tight against his skull and his eyes were closed down to just little slits again, and I could look into those eyes and see nary but coal black. His back arched up and his head sidled down low onto his shoulders. The sight of him sent a January chill right straight to the marrow of my bones.
I could tell Ottis seen it too. He swung the light away from Grady and said, “Sorry Mr. Mathis. Didn’t mean to shine the light right in yore eyes.”
Grady’s voice was like dry corn stalks rattling in a winter’s draft.
“You’uns ain’t got nary an idea at what you’re messing with up here. Won’t listen to me. Just as soon follow an old hound as take my counsel. Go on then. The both of ye. Follow that fool hound right straight into de Soules’s ruin for all I mind. Glad to be shed of both of you’uns.”
“Ottis,” I said. “We’re best shed of Grady Mathis and his dog. Neither one of ’em will hunt.”
Ottis held the lantern high looking back and forth between me and Grady. I could see his hand trembling on the lantern handle. Scared. Just plain scared, I thought.
“Wha? What do ye mean, Mr. Mathis?” Ottis kinda stammered out his question.
“I mean you’uns don’t have no knowledge. Don’t have no history. You’uns live bereft of any real information about this here Earth. You’uns think you have dominion over it. Well that ain’t necessarily accurate. Think what you may of Grady Mathis, but I act on yore behalf.”
“Gracious me,” said Ottis.
Ottis’s hound circled back to us and entered the pool of light cast by the lantern. He gave a deep, plaintive howl.
“Ottis, he’s on to something,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I turned and pointed toward the saddle as I danced alongside the dog. “Come on boy! Go find me a ‘possum. Go boy. Go get ’em!”
“Something happened down on that saddle a long time ago,” said Grady trying to steal Ottis’s attention away from me. “When my great grandpa was first here. He was of the Scots-Irish, come over from Ulster in the Old Country. That hardy lot spread far and wide among these here hills, grateful for land and separation from the eternal mischief of gov’ment. Jacob C. Mathis was early to settle up this here cove and he and his kin learned right quick there was something unnatural lay beyond what you’uns know as Rass Brown’s knob. Horse Maynard, just like you, they set their cap to hunt that land. Only there was something else hunting that land besides them. And it took issue with their intrusion. First time Bethuel Mathis and his sons trod that saddle, trouble commenced. Folks knew something was amiss. They could feel…well, a presence you might say, somewhere back amongst the thick laurel. That night a hunting party of a different sort crept down to the cove. Three good milk cows was slit wide open and left to die by the barn. A run of mischief broke loose all down the valley. Folks soon learned to stay out from where they was not welcome. Those in my great grandpa’s family that would tell of it, spake of having seen something up there. A form that wasn’t typical for these parts. Something made of stone. A kind of broch that only the oldest folk from the Old Country recollected. That’s all that’s come down to us.
“Injuns?” asked Ottis.
“Naw,” answered Grady. You won’t find one of them go anywhere near that place. Think Ottis. Yore daddy ever say why he won’t hunt that saddle?
“No,” answered Ottis. “But he won’t set foot over that ridge there.”
“Uh huh,” said Grady. “He knows.”
I said, “Come on Ottis. I ain’t afeared of no haint tale by Grady Mathis. And ain’t nothing sitting down on that saddle but a big laurel thicket. No such a thing as a hob goblin up here in these woods. Yore blue’s got the scent of something. Let’s go find it.”
Ottis was now next to me, lantern in one hand and hoe in the other. “But Horse, what about Mr. Mathis?”
“Mathis can do as he pleases. If he won’t go,” I said turning around toward Grady.
Mathis was gone. And so was his dog.
“Gracious me,” said Ottis. “Where’d he go to?”
“Where all yeller bellied folk like him go,” I said. “Back to his house and his broke-down porch and his bony old wife.”
Ottis Tells All
Now I never would call Horse Maynard a brave soul. But he puffed his self up and stuck his pikestaff out in front of him and commenced his march right down off that ridge like Johnny Reb. And like a fool I followed him. What a sight we musta been heading down towards that saddle and the sound of my blue a baying some ways ahead of us. Horse Maynard was thrusting his pike out and calling to my hound, “Get ’em Blue. You go boy. It’s ‘possum for you old dog.” And I come traipsing along behind, with a lantern in one hand and a hoe in t’other.
Now the form of ‘possum hunting what I’m accustomed to involves following a baying dog to where he’s run the ‘possum up a tree. You then take a rock and knock said ‘possum out of that tree, bust his head with a hoe, and put him in a tow sack. That was not to be the case this night. When we caught up with the blue, he was dancing and barking right straight up against the biggest laurel thicket I ever saw. In the puny light of Grady’s lantern the twisted boughs and thick, half-curled leaves, looked like the wall of a great fortress cast before us.
“Okay, Horse. How we gone get a ‘possum outta that mess?” I asked.
“You just go in and get him,” said Horse.
“You crazy, boy,” I said. Nothing big as me gone keep up with something small as a ‘possum amongst all that. Dog won’t even go in such.”
It was then I heard that sound that will be forever between my ears. A sound, like cloth being tore, come from deep in that laurel.
“Horse, shut yore mouth,” I said. “Something’s in there.”
“Yeah. A ‘possum,” Horse answered.
“Ain’t no ‘possum I’m hearing. Way too big.”
The cloth-tearing sound stopped when I said that. Then started again, and this time it was coming towards us. Horse Maynard heard it too and he took a step back from the thicket. I could see clear that the Greek warrior spirit had just departed from him. The cloth-tearing sound settled down to a rhythm that I imagined was bough after laurel bough being pushed from obstruction by some strong and unseen hands. And now, coming along with that, was a sound like a loom batten being thrown to and fro. Thump, slide. Thump, slide. It was a kind of footstep, but not like no animal I know would make. Each step, clear as could be, on those dried leaves in thar thicket. Straight at us. Lord I wished we’d had more rain so I wouldn’t have heard such.
Blue backed away from where he was at our vanguard. His ears was laid back on his head and his fang-teeth showed from ‘neath his curled jowls. He cowered down low, still holding that grimace on his snout, and made naught but a pitiful whimper. I seen it then. Or maybe it’s more truthful to say it seen me. Two red eyes, like back coals on a wee-hours fire, stared straight through me, and lord my blood iced in my veins. Horse Maynard screamed like a woman in first-child labor and reared back with his pikestaff and pitched it straight at them eyes. His shadow danced about in that kerosene light like some warrior on a pot in Miss Stevens’s hist’ry books. Then something hard and heavy hit my arm and knocked the lantern out.
Remember when I said I wouldn’t count Horse Maynard as a brave soul? Well, I was right, and he ain’t. Now he did sling that pikestaff right straight in to that thicket, but soon as he let fly the pike, he let fly his feet, and off he went back up the hill, his screams, and echoes of his screams, careening all over the place. Me an Blue was left holding the bag, so to speak. I put both hands on my hoe and prepared to be tore to pieces by a hob goblin. It was Blue what brought me to my senses. He ran flat into me making for the top of the hill after Horse Maynard, and I didn’t need to ponder too long before adopting that same course of action. Blue and me was on the top of the ridge ‘fore I realized all that screaming wasn’t just coming from Horse. There was something down thar in that laurel making a racket like I cain’t really tell of. Best I can relate is the sound a catamount makes ‘fore it hits a deer. Lord it harrowed up my soul as it spake of pain, and longing, and regret.
Me an Horse laid low for several days following that night. I was shore glad my daddy put me to work in bottom land down by the big creek and way away from anything looked like a hill. Nights, I stayed in. And my mama remarked favorable on my new-found interest in evening Bible reading.
One day I was working a row of field peas when my uncle came driving by in his buckboard wearing his black doctor suit and looking serious and troubled. He stopped at the edge of the creek to water his horse and got down from the wagon and I went over to have a jaw.
“How do, Ottis?” he said as I walked up. “Looks like you got plenty of work down here.”
“Yes Uncle,” I said. “And I’m glad of it. Where you been with your doctoring getup?”
“Been tending Grady Mathis lo these past few days.”
My knees bent under me and I wished I’d had my hoe handy to lean on. I made steady my voice ‘fore I spake again. “Well what’s ailing Mr. Mathis?” I asked kind of casual like.
Uncle shook his head. “I ask you Ottis not to repeat a single word, for it’s private business of Grady Mathis alone. But I tell you, boy, in all my practice I’ve never seen such an unholy wound as that man has. To tell the plain truth of it, his hide just came unknit in a single place on the right side. Frankly, I’m amazed that Mrs. Mathis even called me in, seeing as how she fancies herself a healer too.
“Reckon how it happened?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” Uncle said. “Grady can’t talk and Mrs. Mathis won’t talk. I see plenty of injuries from farm work, but none like this. I just hope Mathis lives to tell the tale.”
Uncle shook his head again all perplexed and got back up on the buckboard and drove off. When he’d gone ’round the first bend in the road I ran for Horse Maynard’s.
Horse was back of the house splitting wood with hammer and wedge. “Horse! Horse!” I hollered. “You ain’t never gone believe what I just heard.” I gathered in real close to Horse and told him what passed between Uncle and me. Horse’s eyes got big as saucers as I spake my news, and when I finished he ran up in his house and came back with a store-bought coffee tin.
“What you gone do with that?” I asked.
“You and me going to visit the sick and afflicted.”
“What?” I said. “I cain’t betray the confidence of my uncle.”
“No time for such as that now, Ottis. We gotta know the truth.”
We slipped around to Mr. Mathis’s by way of the Jenkins Road. It took longer, but we was far less likely to be seen by someone who might take notice going that way. The front porch was empty when we walked up at the Mathis house.
“Ottis, go knock on a door,” Horse said.
I looked at Horse. “What?” I asked.
“Go on up there,” Horse ordered.
I crept up on the porch kinda gingerly like to keep it from creaking too much. Stepping over a few bad boards put me right in to the dog trot. Pondering what to do next, it occurred to me that most folks would have their doors open during the heat of the day. The doors on either side of the trot were closed up tight. “That’s right odd,” I said to myself, and knocked, a little on the shy side, at the frame board of the trot. My fat knuckles had no more than met wood when I looked to the side of the porch and saw sitting thar a broken lantern and Horse Maynard’s pikestaff. Top of that pike, what Horse had filed keen, was crowned with a crimson stain that ran down in places plumb to mid-staff. A voice in my head said, “Run Ottis, run.” But before I took my hand off the wood, a door swung back and there stood Mrs. Mathis a staring at me. Her long gray hair was down like I never seen it, and hung ’round her face as old yarn that got wet.
“You’uns come on in,” she said, meaning me, and Horse too.
We followed her along the dog trot to the back porch. Grady’s ‘possum dog lay stretched along the edge of the porch to our right. He raised up and gave a mournful howl when he seen us. Athwart the left side of the porch was an old cook stove stoked to the brim with dry poplar wood. Sitting on top of that stove was a great big iron pot full of some bubbling stew. While my eyes were cast in that direction a ‘possum’s foot swirled to the top of the pot and then disappeared again down to its bowels. Horse held out the coffee tin like it was a gift from the Magi.
“I appreciate you boys come to check on Mr. Mathis,” Mrs. Mathis said. She took a great wood spoon, swirled it deep in the pot, dropped in a curly root and let out an odd little cackle. “When Mr. Mathis and I were first courting, his mama and I would sit on that front porch shelling peas and she would tell me stories about this cove. She told when Grady was a boy he loved to roam the ridges above us. Day and night, sometimes. He was faithful to bring her wood sorrel, for stew and table, in season.”
Mrs. Mathis poured a foul-smelling broth into the pot. “There was one particular place up there he just seemed to be drawn to, even though his old daddy told him time and again to stay out from there. Still, he went. And one day he didn’t come back down. Well, at least not ’till he’d been given up for dead. They were getting ready to hold his service when he showed up on the front porch of this house wearing a dirty shirt and britches and a crimson cap. Never spoke a word about where he’d been those days. Folks said he was changed after that. Kind of kept to himself. Still does. I like that in him. We met when he hauled a load of late corn into town to sell at market. Why I knew right away I’d found my place with him and this land.”
Mrs. Mathis placed the spoon beside the pot and wiped her hands on her apron. “Oh listen to me prattle on so, taking up your time. I thank ye for the coffee, but I’m afraid Mr. Mathis is unable to accept visitation this day. Given your neighborly concern, you will be pleased to know that just this morning he raised up in bed and said straight away to me, ‘When I’m finished my mending, I’ve set my cap on taking those two boys hunting again. Up past Rass Brown’s knob.'”