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The Spring


Time had passed, two years of it, when I got back to those mountains again and took a notion to visit the spring.

When I was first there, there'd been just a muddy, weedy hole amongst rocks. A young fellow named Zeb Gossett lay there, a-burning with fever, a-trying to drink at it. I pulled him onto some ferns and put my blanket over him. Then I knelt down and dragged out the mud with my hands, picked weeds away and bailed with a canteen cup. Third time I emptied the hole to the bottom, water came clear and sweet. I let Zeb Gossett have some, and then I built us a fire and stirred up a hoecake. By the time it was brown on both sides, he was able to sit up and eat half of it.

Again and again that night, I fetched him water, and it did him good. When I picked my silver-strung guitar, he even joined in to sing. Next day he allowed he was well, and said he'd stay right where such a good thing happened to him. I went on, for I had something else to do. But I left Zeb a little sack of meal and a chunk of bacon and some salt in a tin can. Now, returned amongst mountains named Hark and Wolter and Dogged, not far from Yandro, I went up the trail I recollected to see how the spring came on.

The high slope caved in there, to make a hollow grown with walnut and pine and hickory, and the spring showed four feet across, with stones set in all the way round. Beside the shining water hung a gourd ladle. Across the trail was a cabin, and from the cabin door came Zeb Gossett. "John," he called my name, "how you come on?"

We shook hands. He was fine-looking, young, about as tall as I am. His face was tanned and he'd grown a short brown beard. He wore jeans and a home-sewn blue shirt. "Who'd expect I'd find Zeb Gossett here?" I said.

"I live here, John. Built that cabin myself, and I've got title to two acres of land. A corn patch, potatoes and cabbages and beans and tomatoes. It's home. When you knelt down to make that spring give the water that healed me, I knew this was where I'd live. But come on in. I see you still tote that guitar."

His cabin was small but rightly made, of straight poles with neat-notched corner joints, whitewash on the clay chinking. There was glass in the windows to each side of the split-slab door. He led me into a square room with a stone fireplace and two chairs and a table. Three-four books on a shelf. The bed had a blazing-star quilt. Over the fire bubbled an iron pot with what smelled like stewing deer meat.

"Yes, I live here, and the neighborhood folks make me welcome," he said when we sat down. "I knew that spring had holy power. I watch over it and let others heal their ills with it."

"It was just a place I scooped out," I reminded him. "we had to have water for you, so I did it."

"It's cured hundreds of sick folks," he said. "I carried some to the Fleming family when they had flu, then others heard tell of it and came here. They come all the time. I don't take pay. I tell them, 'Kneel down before you drink, the way John did while he was a-digging. And pray before you drink, and give thanks afterwards.'"

"You shouldn't ought to give me such credit, Zeb."

"John," he said, "that's healing water. It washes away air bad thing whatsoever. It helps mend up broken bones even. Why, I've known folks drink it and settle family quarrels and lawsuits. It's a miracle, and you did it."

I wouldn't have that. I said, "Likely the power was in the water before you and I came here. I just cleaned the mud out."

"I know better, and so do you," Zeb grinned at me.

Outside, a sweet voice: "Hello, the house," it spoke. "Hello, Zeb, might could I take some water?"

He jumped up and went out like as if he expected to see angels. I followed him out, and I reckon it was an angel he figured he saw.

She was a slim girl, but not right small. In her straight blue dress and canvas shoes, with her yellow curls waterfalled down her back, she was pretty to see. In one hand she toted a two-gallon bucket. She smiled, and that smile made Zeb's knees buck.

"Tilda"—he said her name like a song—"you don't have to ask for water, just dip it. Somebody in your family ailing?"

"No, not exactly." Then her blue eyes saw me and she waited.

"This is my friend John, Tilda," said Zeb. "He dug the spring. John, this is Tilda Fleming. Her folks neighbor with me just round the trail bend."

"Proud to be known to you, ma'am," I made my manners, but she was a-looking at Zeb, half nervous, half happy.

"Who's the water for, then?" he inquired her.

"Why," she said, shy with every word, "that's why I wondered if you'd let me have it. You see, our chickens—" and she stopped again, like as if she felt shamed to tell it.

"Ailing chickens should ought to have whatever will help them, Zeb." I put in a word.

"That's a fact," said Zeb, "and a many a fresh egg your folks have given me, Tilda. So take water for them, please."

She dropped down on her knees and bowed her head above the spring. She was a pretty sight, a-doing that. I could tell that Zeb thought so.

But somebody else watched. I saw a stir beyond some laurel, and looked hard thataway.

It was another girl, older than Tilda, taller. Her hair was blacker than storm, and her pointy-chinned, pale face was lovely. She looked at Tilda a-kneeling by the spring and she sneered, and it showed her teeth as bright as glass beads.

Zeb didn't see her. He bent over Tilda where she knelt, was near about ready to kneel with her. I walked through the yard toward the laurel. That tall, black-haired girl moved into the open and waited for me.

She wore a long dress of tawny, silky stuff, hardly what you'd look for in the mountains. It hung down to her feet, but it held to her figure, and the figure was fine. She looked at me, impudent-faced. "I declare," she said in a sugary-deep voice, "this is the John we hear so much about. A fine-looking man, no doubt in the world about that. But that's a common name."

"I always reckoned it's been borne by a many a good man," I said. "How come you to know me?"

"I heard you and Zeb Gossett a-talking. I can hear at a considerable distance." Her wide, dark eyes crawled over me like spiders. "My name's Craye Sawtelle, John. You and I might could be profitable acquaintances to each other."

"I'm proud to be on good terms with most folks," I said. "You come to visit with Zeb, yonder?"

"Maybe, when that little snip trots her water bucket home." Craye Sawtelle looked at Tilda a-filling the pail, and for a second those bright teeth showed. "I have business to talk with Zeb. Maybe he'll find the wit to hark to it."

Zeb walked Tilda to the trail. Craye Sawtelle had come into the yard with me, and when Tilda walked on and Zeb turned back, Craye said, "Good day to you, Zeb Gossett," and he jumped like as if he'd been stuck with a pin.

"What can I do for you, Miss Craye?" he said.

She ran her eyes over him, too. "You know the answer to that. I'll make you a good offer for this house and this spring."

He shook his head till his young beard flicked in the air. "You know the place isn't for sale, and the spring water's free to all."

"Only if they kneel and pray by it." She smiled a chilly smile. "I'm not a praying sort, Zeb."

"Nobody's heart to kneel before God," said Zeb.

"I don't kneel to your God," she said.

"What god do you kneel to?" I inquired her, and her black eyes blazed round to me.

"You make what educated folks call an educated guess," she said to me. "If you know so much, why should I answer you?"

She turned back to Zeb. "What if I told you there's a question about your title here, that I could gain possession?"

"I'd say, let's go to the court house and find out."

"You're impossible," she shrilled at him. "But I'm reasonable. I'll give you time to think it over. Like sundown tomorrow."

Then she went off away, the other direction from Tilda. In that tawny dress, air line of her swayed.

Just then, the sun looked murkier over us. Here and there amongst the trees, the leaves showed their pale undersides, like before a storm comes.

"Let's go in and have something to eat," Zeb said to me.

It was a good deer-meat stew, with cornmeal dumplings. I had two helps. Zeb said he'd put in onions and garlic and thyme and bay leaf, with a dollop of wine from a bottle he kept for that. We finished up and drank black coffee. While we sipped, a sort of lonesome whinnying sound rose outside.

"That's an owl," said Zeb. "Bad luck this time of day."

"I figured this was the sort of place where owls hoot in the daytime and they have possums for yard dogs." I tried to crack the old joke, but Zeb didn't laugh.

"Let me say what's been here," he said. "The trouble's with that witch-girl, Craye Sawtelle. She makes profit by this and that—says strings of words supposed to make your crops grow, allows she can turn your cows or pigs sick unless you pay her. What she wants is this spring, this holy spring. Naturally, she figures it would make her rich."

"And you won't give it over."

"It's not mine to give, John. I reckon it saved my life—I'd have died without you knelt to scoop it clear for me. So I owe it to folks to let them cure themselves with it. Oh, Craye's tried everything. You've seen what sort she is. First off, she wanted us to be partners—in the spring and other things. That didn't work with me, and she got ugly. I'll banter you she's done things to the Flemings, like those sick chickens you heard tell of from Tilda. And she told me she'd put a curse on my corn patch. Things don't go right well there just now."

I picked my guitar. "Hark at this," I said:


Three holy kings, four holy saints,
At heaven's high gate that stand,
Speak out to bid all evil wait
And stir no foot or hand . . .  


"Where'd you catch that song, John?"

"Long ago, from old Uncle T. P. Hinnard. He allowed it was a good song against bad stuff."

Zeb crinkled his eyes. "Like enough it is, but it sort of chills the blood. You know one of a different kind?"

The owl quivered its voice outside as I touched the strings again.


Her hair is of a brightsome color
And her cheeks are rosy red,
On her breast are two white lilies
Where you long to lay your head.  


"Tilda," said Zeb, a-brightening up. "You made that song about Tilda."

"It's older than Tilda's great-grandsire," I told him, "but it'll do for her. I saw how she and you lean to one another."

"If it wasn't for Craye Sawtelle—" And he stopped.

"Tell me about her," I bade him, and he did.

She'd lived thereabouts before Zeb built his cabin. She followed witchcraft and didn't care a shuck who knew it. Some folks went to her for charms and helps, others were scared to say her name out loud. When Zeb began a-letting sick folks drink from the spring, she tried air way she knew to cut herself in. She'd tried to sweet-talk Zeb, even tried to move into his cabin with him. But by then he'd met Tilda Fleming and couldn't think of air girl but her.

"When she saw I wouldn't love her, she started in to make me fear her," he said. "She's done that thing, pretty much. You wonder yourself why I don't speak up to Tilda. I've got it in mind that if I did, Craye would do something awful to her. I don't know what it would be, likely I don't want to know."

I made the guitar string whisper to drown out the owl's voice. "What would she do with the spring if she had it?"

"Make folks pay for its water, I told you. Maybe turn its power round to do bad instead of good. I can't rightly say."

I leaned my guitar on the wall. "Maybe I'll just go out and walk round your place before the sun goes down."

"Be careful, John."

"Shoo," I said, "I'll do that. I may not be the smartest man in these mountains, but I'm sure enough the carefullest."

I went out at the door. The sun had dropped to a fold of the mountains. I walked back and looked at Zeb's rows of corn, his bean patch with pods a-coming on, the other beds of vegetables. Past his garden grew up trees, tall and close together, with shadowy dark amongst them.

"We meet again, John," said a voice I'd come to know.

"I reckoned we might, Miss Craye," I said, and out she came from betwixt two pines. She carried a stick of fresh wood, its bark peeled off.

"If I pointed this wand at you and said a spell," she said, "what would happen?"

"We'll never know without you try it."

She tossed her hair, black as a yard up a chimney on a dark night. Her teeth showed, bright and sharp. "That means you figure you've got help against spells," she said. "I'm not without help myself. I don't go air place without help."

"Then you must be hard pushed when it's not nigh."

I felt the presence of what she talked about. Back in the thicket, I knew, were gathered things. I couldn't see them, just felt them. A stir and a sigh back yonder.

"John," she said, "you could go farther and fare worse than by making a friend of me. You understand things these country hodges nair dreamt of. You've been up and down the world and grabbed onto truths here and there."

"I've done that thing," I agreed her, "and the poet wasn't right all the time when he said beauty was truth and truth was beauty. Truth can be right ugly now and then."

"Suppose Zeb Gossett was shown a quick way out of here," she said. "Suppose you and I got to be partners in the spring and other matters."

"What kind of partners?"

She winnowed close then. I made out she didn't have on air stitch under her silky dress. She was proudly made, and well she knew it. She stood so close she near about touched me.

"What kind of partners would you like us to be?" she whispered.

"Miss Craye," said I, "no, thank you. No partnerships in the spring or in you, either one."

If she'd had the power to kill me with a look, I'd have died then and there. For hell's worst fury is a woman scorned, says another poet.

"I don't know why I don't raise my voice and set my pack on you," she breathed out in my face, and drew off a step.

"Maybe I can make one of those educated guesses," I said. "Your pack might not be friendly to you, not when you've just failed at something."

"You're the failure!" she squeaked like a bat.

"A failure for you, like Zeb Gossett. Isn't the third time the charm? If it doesn't work the third time, where will the charm put you?"

"I gave you and Zeb Gossett till sundown tomorrow," she gritted out with her pointy teeth. "Just about twenty-four hours."

"We'll be here," I said.

She backed off amongst the trees. They tossed their branches, like as if in a high wind. I turned and went back to the cabin. As I helped Zeb do the dishes, I related him what had passed.

"You bluffed her out of something she might try on you," said Zeb.

"I wasn't a-bluffing. If she's got the power of evil, I've been up against that in my time, and folks will say evil nair truly won over me. I hope some power of good is in me."

"Sure it is," he said. "Look out yonder at that healing spring. But she says bad will fall on us by sundown tomorrow. How can we go all right against that?"

"I don't rightly know how to answer that," I made confession. "We'll play it by ear, same as I play this guitar." And I picked it up to change the subject.

Out yonder was a sound, like a whisper, but too soft and sneaky to be a real voice. And a shadow passed outside a window.

I stopped my picking. Zeb had taken a dark-covered book from the shelf and was opening it. "What's that?" I asked.

"The Bible." He flung the covers wide and stabbed down his finger. "I'm a-going to cast a sign for us."

I knew about that, open the Bible anywhere and put your finger on a text and look for guidance in it.

"Here, the last verse in thirteenth Mark." Zeb read it out: "'And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.'"

"Watch," I repeated. "That's what we'll do tonight."

Shadows at the window again. Zeb looked in the Bible, but didn't read from it anymore. I picked my guitar, the tune of "Never Trust a Stranger." Outside rose a rush of wind, and when I looked out it was darkened. Night, and, from what I could judge, no moon. The owl hooted. On the hearth, the fire burnt blue. Zeb got up and lit a candle. Its flame fluttered like a yellow leaf.

Then a scratchy peck at the door. Zeb looked at me, his eyes as wide as sunflowers. I put down the guitar and went to the door.

It opened by hiking the latch on a string. I cracked it inward a tad and looked at what was out there. A dog? It was as big as a big one, black and bristly-haired. Its eyes shone, likewise its teeth. It looked to be a-getting up on its hind legs, and for a second I thought its front paws were hairy hands.

"Thanks," I said to it, "whatever you got to sell, we don't want any."

I closed the door and the latch fell into place. I heard that big body a-pressing against the wood. A whiney little sound, then the wind again. Zeb put more wood on the fire, though it wasn't cold. "What must we do?" he asked.

"Watch, the way the Bible told us," I replied him.

Things moved heavily all round the cabin. A scratch at a windowpane. Feet tippy-toed on the roof.

"I reckon it's up to you, John," said Zeb, his Bible back in his hand. "Up to you to see us through this night. You've got good in you to stand off the bad."

I thought of saying that Craye had given us to sundown the next day, which should ought to mean we'd last till then. As to the good in me, I hoped it was there. But it's not a right thing to claim aught for yourself, just be thankful if it helps.

Zeb gave us both a whet out of a jug of good blockade, and again I picked guitar. He joined in with me to sing "Lonesome River Shore" and "Call Me from the Valley," and wanted me to do the one that had minded him of Tilda. Things quietened outside while we sang. The devil's afraid of music, I'd heard tell from a preacher in a church house one time.

But when I put the guitar by, I heard another kind of singing. It was outside, it was a moanish tune and a woman's voice a-doing it. I tried to make out the words:


Cummer, go ye before, cummer, go ye,
Gif ye not go before, cummer, let me . . .   


And I'd heard that same song before. It was sung, folks said, near about four hundred years back, at North Berwick, in Scotland, to witch a king on his throne and the princess he wanted to marry. I didn't reckon I'd tell Zeb that.

"Sounds like Craye Sawtelle's voice," he said as he listened. "What does cummer mean, John?"

"I think that's an old-timey word for a chum, a friend," I replied him.

"Then what cummers are out there with Craye?" His face was white—so white I never mentioned the dog-thing that had come to the door.

"She'd better not fetch her cummers in here," I said to hearten him. "They might could hear what wouldn't please them."

"Hear what?"

I had to tell him something, so I took the guitar and sang:


Lights in the valley outshine the sun,
Look away beyond the blue . . .   


He looked to feel better. Outside, the other singing died out.

"Would it help if we had crosses at the windows?" he asked, and I nodded him it wouldn't hurt. He tied splinters of firewood crosswise with twine string and put two at the windows and hung another to the latch of the door. Out yonder, somebody moaned like as if the somebody had felt a pain somewhere. Zeb actually grinned at that.

Time dragged by, and the wind sighed round the cabin, or anyway something with a voice like wind. I yawned and stretched, and told him I felt like sleep.

"Take the bed yonder," Zeb bade me. "I'll sit up. I won't be able to sleep."

"That's what you think," I said. "Get into your bed. I'll put down this blanket I fetched with me, just inside the door."

And I did, and wropped up in it. I didn't stay awake long, though once it sounded like as if something sniffed at where the door came down to the bottom. Shoo, gentlemen, you can sleep if you're tired enough.

What woke me up was the far-off crow of a rooster. I was glad to hear that, because a rooster's crow makes bad spirits leave. I rolled over and got up. Zeb was at the fireplace, with an iron fork to toast pieces of bread. A saucepan was a-boiling eggs.

"We're still here," he said. "It wonders me what Craye Sawtelle was up to last night."

"Just a try at scaring us," I said. "She gave us till sundown tonight, you recollect."

Somehow, that pestered him. He didn't talk much while we ate. I said I'd fetch a pail of water, and out I went with it to the spring. There, at the spring but not right close up beside it, stood Craye Sawtelle. This time she wore a long black dress, with black sandals on her bare feet, and her hair was tied up with a string of red beads.

"Good day, ma'am," I said. "How did you fare last night?"

"I was a trifle busy," she answered. "A-getting ready for sundown."

I dipped my bucket in the spring. The water looked sweet.

"I note by your tracks that you've been round and round here," I said, "but you nair once got close enough to dip in the spring."

"That will come," she promised me. "It will come when the spring's mine, when there's no bar against me. How does that sound to you, John?"

"Why, since you ask, it sounds like the same old song by the same old mockingbird. Like a try at scaring us out. Miss Craye, I've been a-figuring on you since we met up yesterday, and I'll give you my straight-out notion. There's nothing you can do to me or Zeb Gossett, no matter how you try."

"You'll be sorry you said that."

"I'm already sorry," I said. "I hate to talk thisaway to

lady-folks, but some things purely have to be said."

"And yonder comes Zeb Gossett," she said, pointing. "He'll do like you, try to talk himself out of being afraid."

Zeb came along to where I stood with the bucket in my hand. He looked tight-mouthed and pale under his brown beard.

"Have you come to talk business?" Craye inquired him, and showed him her pointy teeth.

"I talk no business with you," he said.

"Wait until the sun slides down behind the mountain," she mocked at him. "Wait until dark. See what I make happen then."

"I don't have to wait," he said. "I've made my mind up."

"Then why should I wait, either?" she snarled out, "Why not do the thing now?"

She lifted up her hands, crooked like claws. She began to say a string of wild words, in whatever language I don't know. Zeb gave back from her.

"I hate things like this, folks," I said, and I upped with the bucket and flung that water from the spring all over her.

She screamed like an animal caught in a trap. I saw yellow foam come a-slathering out of her mouth. She whirled round and whirled round again and slammed down, and by then you couldn't see her on account of the thick dark steam that rose.

Zeb ran back off a dozen steps, but I stood there to watch, the empty bucket in my hand.

The steam thinned, but you couldn't see Craye Sawtelle. She was gone.

Only that black dress, twisted and empty, and only those two black sandals on the soaked ground, with no feet in them. Naught else. Not a sigh of Craye Sawtelle. The last of the steam drifted off, and Zeb and I stared at each other.

She's gone," Zeb gobbled in his throat. "Gone. How did you—"

"Well"—I steadied my voice—"yesterday you said it washed away air bad thing whatever. So I thought I'd see if it would do that. No doubt about it, Craye Sawtelle was badness through and through."

He looked down at the empty dress and empty sandals. "Blessed water," he said. "Holy water. You made it so."

"I can't claim that, Zeb. More likely it was your doing, when you started in to use it for help to sick and troubled folks."

"But you knew that if you threw it on her—"

"No." I shook my head. "I just only hoped it would work, and it did. Wherever Craye Sawtelle's been washed to, I don't reckon she'll be back from there."

He looked up along the trail. Yonder came Tilda Fleming.

"Tilda," he said her name. "What shall I tell Tilda?"

"Why not tell her what's in your heart for her?" I asked. "I reckon she's plumb ready to hark at you."

He started to walk toward her and I headed back to the cabin.


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