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The Desrick on Yandro


The folks at the party clapped me such an encore, I sang that song.

The lady had stopped her car at the roadside when she saw my thumb out and my silver-strung guitar under my arm. Asked me my name, I told her John. Asked where I was headed, I told her nowhere special. Asked could I play that guitar, I played it as we rolled along. Then she invited me most kindly to her country house, to sing to her friends, and they'd be obliged, she said. And I went.

The people there were fired up with what they'd drunk, lots of ladies and men in costly clothes, and I had my bothers not getting drunk, too. But, shoo, they liked what I played and sang. Staying off wornout songs, I smote out what they'd never heard before—Witch in the Wilderness and Rebel Soldier and Vandy, Vandy, I've Come to Court You. When they clapped and hollered for more, I sang the Yandro song, like this:


I'll build me a desrick on Yandro's high hill,
Where the wild beasts can't reach me or hear my sad cry,
For he's gone, he's gone away, to stay a little while,
But he'll come back if he comes ten thousand miles.  


Then they strung around and made me more welcome than any stranger could call for, and the hostess lady said I must stay to supper, and sleep there that night. But at that second, everybody sort of pulled away, and one man came up and sat down by me.

I'd been aware that, when first he came in, things stilled down, like with little boys when a big bully shows himself. He was built short and broad, his clothes were sporty, cut handsome and costly. His buckskin hair was combed across his head to baffle folks he wasn't getting bald. His round, pink face wasn't soft, and his big, smiling teeth reminded you there was a bony skull under that meat. His pale eyes, like two gravel bits, prodded me and made me remember I needed a haircut and a shine.

"You said Yandro, young man," said this fellow. He said it almost like a charge in court, with me the prisoner.

"Yes, sir. The song's mountainy, not too far from the Smokies. I heard it in a valley, and the highest peak over that valley's called Yandro. Now," I said, "I've had scholar-men argue me it really means yonder—yonder high hill. But the peak's called Yandro. Not a usual name."

"No, John." He smiled toothy and fierce. "Not a usual name. I'm like the peak. I'm called Yandro, too."

"How you, Mr. Yandro?" I said.

"I never heard of that peak or valley, nor, I imagine, did my father before me. But my grandfather—Joris Yandro—came from the Southern mountains. He was young, with small education, but lots of energy and ambition." Mr. Yandro swelled up inside his fancy clothes. "He went to New York, then Chicago. His fortunes prospered. His son—my father—and then I, we contrived to make them prosper still more."

"You're to be honored," I said, my politest; but I judged, with no reason to be sure, that he might not be too honorable about how he made his money, or used it. The way the others drew from him made me reckon he scared them, and that kind of folks scares worst where their money pocket's located.

"I've done all right," he said, not caring who heard the brag. "I don't think anybody for a hundred miles around here can turn a deal or make a promise without clearing it with me. John, I own this part of the world."

Again he showed his teeth. "You're the first one ever to tell me about where my grandfather might have come from. Yandro's high hill, eh? How do we get there, John?"

I tried to think of the way from highway to side way, side way to trail, and so in and around and over. "I fear," I said, "I could show you better than I could tell you."

"All right, you'll show me," he said, with no notion I might want something different. "I can afford to make up my mind an a moment's notice like that. I'll call the airport and charter a plane. We leave now."

"I asked John to stay tonight," said my hostess lady.

"We leave now," said Mr. Yandro, and she shut right up, and I saw how it was. Everybody was scared of him. Maybe they'd be pleasured if I took him out of there for a while.

"Get your plane," I said. "We leave now."

He meant that thing. Not many hours had died before the hired plane set us down at the airport between Asheville and Hendersonville. A taxi rode us into Hendersonville. Mr. Yandro woke up a used car man and bought a fair car from him. Then, on my guiding, Mr. Yandro took out in the dark for that part of the mountains I pointed out to him.

The sky stretched over us with no moon at all, only a many stars, like little stitches of blazing thread in a black quilt. For real light, only our headlamps—first on a paved road twining around one slope and over another and behind a third, then a gravel road and pretty good, then a dirt road and pretty bad.

"What a stinking country!" said Mr. Yandro as we chugged along a ridge as lean as a butcher knife.

I didn't say how I resented that word about a country that stoops to none for prettiness. "Maybe we ought to have waited till day," I said.

"I never wait," he sniffed. "Where's the town?"

"No town. Just the valley. Three-four hours away. We'll be there by midnight."

"Oh, God. Let's have some of that whiskey I brought." He reached for the glove compartment, but I shoved his hand away.

"Not if you're going to drive these mountain roads, Mr. Yandro."

"Then you drive a while, and I'll take a drink."

"I don't know how to drive a car, Mr. Yandro."

"Oh, God," he said again, and couldn't have scorned me more if I'd said I didn't know how to wash my face. "What is a desrick, exactly?"

"Only old-aged folks use the word any more. It's the kind of cabin they used to make, strong logs and a door you can bar, and loophole windows. So you could stand off Indians, maybe."

"Or the wild beasts can't reach you," he quoted, and snickered. "What wild beasts do they have up here in the Forgotten Latitudes?"

"Can't rightly say. A few bears, a wildcat or two. Used to be wolves, and a bounty for killing them. I'm not sure what else."

True enough, I wasn't sure about the tales I'd heard. Not anyway when Mr. Yandro was ready to sneer at them for foolishment.

Our narrow road climbed a great slant of rock one way, then doubled back to climb opposite, and became a double rut, with an empty, hell-scary drop of thousands of feet beside the car. Finally Mr. Yandro edged us into a sort of nick beside the road and shut off the power. He shook. Fear must have been a new feel in his bones.

"Want some of the whiskey, John?" he asked, and drank.

"Thank you, no. We walk from here, anyway. Beyond's the valley."

He grumped and mad-whispered, but out he got. I took a flashlight and my silver-strung guitar and led out. It was a downways walk, on a narrow trail where even mules would be nervous. And not quiet enough to be easy.

There were mountain night noises, like you never get used to, not even if you're born and raised there, and live and die there. Noises too soft and sneaky to be real murmuring voices. Noises like big flapping wings far off and then near. And, above and below the trail, noises like heavy soft paws keeping pace with you, sometimes two paws, sometimes four, sometimes many. They stay with you, noises like that all the hours you grope along the night trail, all the way down to the valley so low, till you bless God for the little crumb of light that means a human home, and you ache and pray to get to that home, be it ever so humble, so you'll be safe in the light.

I've wondered since if Mr. Yandro's constant blubber and chatter was a string of curses or a string of prayers.

The light we saw was a pine-knot fire inside a little coop above the stream that giggled in the valley bottom. The door was open, and someone sat on the threshold.

"Is that a desrick?" panted and puffed Mr. Yandro.

"No, it's newer made. There's Miss Tully at the door, sitting up to think."

Miss Tully remembered me and welcomed us. She was eighty or ninety, without a tooth in her mouth to clamp her stone-bowl pipe, but she stood straight as a pine on the split-slab floor, and the firelight showed no gray in her tight-combed black hair. "Rest your hats," said Miss Tully. "So this stranger man's name is Mr. Yandro. Funny, you coming just now. You're looking for the desrick on Yandro, it's still right where it's been," and she pointed with her pipe stem off into the empty dark across the valley and up.

Inside, she gave us two chairs bottomed with juniper bark and sat on a stool next to the shelf with herbs in pots, and one or two old paper books, The Long Lost Friend and Egyptian Secrets, and Big Albert the one they say can't be thrown away or given away, only got rid of by burying with a funeral prayer, like a human corpse. "Funny," she said again, "you coming along as the seventy-five years are up."

We questioned, and she told us what we'd come to hear. "I was just a little pigtail girl back then," she said, "when Joris Yandro courted Polly Wiltse, the witch girl. Mr. Yandro, you favor your grandsire a right much. He wasn't as stout-built as you, and younger by years, when he left."

Even the second time hearing it, I listened hard. it was like a many such tale at the start. Polly Wiltse was sure enough a witch, not just a study-witch like Miss Tully, and Polly Wiltse's beauty would melt the heart of nature and make a dumb man cry out, "Praise God Who made her!" But none dared court her save only Joris Yandro, who was handsome for a man like she was lovely for a girl. For it was his wish to get her to show him the gold on top of the mountain named for his folks, that only Polly Wiltse and her witching could find.

"Certain sure there's gold in these mountains," I answered Mr. Yandro's interrupting question. "Before ever the California rush started, folks mined and minted gold in these parts, the history-men say."

"Gold," he repeated, both respectful and greedy. "I was right to come."

Miss Tully said that Joris Yandro coaxed Polly Wiltse to bring down gold to him, and he carried it away and never came back. And Polly Wiltse pined and mourned like a sick bird, and on Yandro's top she built her desrick. She sang the song, the one I'd sung, it was part of a long spell and charm. Three quarters of a century would pass, seventy-five years, and her lover would come back.

"But he didn't," said Mr. Yandro. "My grandfather died up north."

"He sent his grandson, who favors him," said Miss Tully. "The song you heard brought you back at the right time." She thumbed tobacco into her pipe. "All the Yandro kin moved away, pure down scared of Polly Wiltse's singing."

"In her desrick, where the wild beasts can't reach her," quoted Mr. Yandro, and chuckled. "John says they have bears and wildcats up here." He expected her to say I was stretching it.

"Oh, there's other creatures, too. Scarce animals, like the Toiler."

"The Toiler?" he said.

"It's the hugest flying thing there is, I guess," said Miss Tully. "Its voice tolls like a bell, to tell other creatures their feed's near. And there's the Flat. It lies level with the ground, and not much higher. It can wrap you like a blanket." She lighted the pipe. "And the Bammat. Big, the Bammat is."

"The Behemoth, you mean," he suggested.

"No, the Behemoth's in the Bible. The Bammat's something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth—'

Oh!" And Mr. Yandro trumpeted his laughter. "You've got some story about the Mammoth. Why, they've been extinct—dead and forgotten—for thousands of years."

"Not for so long, I've heard tell," she said, puffing.

"Anyway," he went on arguing, "the Mammoth—the Bammat, as you call it—is of the elephant family. How would anything like that get up in the mountains?"

"Maybe folks hunted it there," said Miss Tully, "and maybe it stays there so folks will think it's dead and gone a thousand years. And there's the Behinder."

"And what," said Mr. Yandro, "might the Behinder look like?"

"Can't rightly say, Mr. Yandro. For it's always behind the man or woman it wants to grab. And there's the Skim—it kites through the air—and the Culverin, that can shoot pebbles with its mouth."

"And you believe all that?" sneered Mr. Yandro, the way he always sneered at everything, everywhere.

"Why else should I tell it?" she replied. "Well, Sir, you're back where your kin used to live, in the valley where they named the mountain for them. I can let you two sleep on my front stoop tonight."

"I came to climb the mountain and see the desrick," said Mr. Yandro with that anxious hurry to him that I kept wondering about.

"You can't climb up there until it's light," she told him, and she made us two quilt pallets on the split-slab stoop.

I was tired and glad to stretch out, but Mr. Yandro grumbled, as if we were wasting time. At sunup next morning, Miss Tully fried us some side meat and slices of hominy grit porridge, and she fixed us a snack to carry, and a gourd to put water in. Mr. Yandro held out a ten dollar bill.

"No, I thank you " said Miss Tully. "I bade you stay, and I won't take money for that."

"Oh, everybody takes money from me " he snickered, and threw it on the door-sill at her feet. "Go on, it's yours.

Quick as a weasel, Miss Tully's hand grabbed a stick of stove wood.

"Lean down and take back that money-bill, Mister," she said.

He did as she told him. With the stick she pointed out across the stream that ran through the thickets below us, and up the height beyond. She acted as if there wasn't any trouble a second before.

"That's the Yandro Mountain," she said. "There, on the highest point, where it looks like the crown of a hat, thick with trees all the way up, stands the desrick built by Polly Wiltse. You look close, with the sun rising, and you can maybe make it out."

I looked hard. There for sure it was, far off and high up, and tiny, but I could see it. It looked a lean sort of a building.

"How about trails going up?" I asked her.

"There's trails up there John, but nobody walks them."

"Now, now," said Mr. Yandro, "if there's a trail, somebody must walk it."

"May be a lot in what you say, but I know nobody in this valley would set foot to such a trail. Not with what they say's up there."

He laughed at her, as I wouldn't have dared. "You mean the Bammat," he said. "And the Flat, and the Skim, and the Culverin."

"And the Toller," she added for him. "And the Behinder. Only a gone gump would go up there."

We headed away down to the waterside, and crossed on logs laid on top of rocks. On the far side a trail led along, and when the sun was an hour higher we were at the foot of Yandro's high hill and a trail went up there, too.

We rested. Mr. Yandro needed rest worse than I did. Moving most of the night before, unused to walking and climbing, he had a gaunted look to his heavy face, and his clothes were sweated, and dust dulled out his shoes. But he grinned at, me.

"So she's waited seventy-five years, he said, "and so I look like the man she's waiting for. And so there's gold up there. More gold than my grandfather could have carried off."

"You believe what you've been hearing," I said, and it was a mystery.

"John, a wise man knows when to believe the unusual, and how it will profit him. She's up there, waiting, and so is the gold."

"What when you find it?" I asked.

"My grandfather was able to go off and leave her. It sounds like a good example to me." He grinned wider and toothier. "I'll give you part of the gold.

"No thanks, Mr. Yandro."

"You don't want your pay? Why did you come here with me?"

"Just made up my mind on a moment's notice, like you."

He scowled then, but he looked up at the height. "How long will it take to climb, John?"

"Depends on how fast we climb, how well we keep up the pace."

"Then let's go," and he started UP the trail.

It wasn't folks' feet had worn that trail. I saw a hoofmark.

"Deer," grunted Mr. Yandro; and I said, "Maybe."

We scrambled up on a rightward slant, then leftward. The trees marched in close around us, with branches above that filtered only soft green light. Something rustled, and we saw a brown, furry shape, big as a big cat, scuttling out of sight.

"Woodchuck," wheezed Mr. Yandro; again I said, "Maybe."

After an hour's working upward we rested, and after two hours more we rested again. Around 11 o'clock we reached an open space where clear light touched the middle, and there we sat on a log and ate the com bread and smoked meat Miss Tully had fixed. Mr. Yandro mopped his face with a fancy handkerchief, and gobbled food for strength to glitter his eye at me. "What are you glooming about?" he said. "You look as if you'd call me a name if you weren't afraid."

"I've held my tongue," I said "by way of manners, not fear. I'm just thinking about how and why we came so far and sudden to this place."

"You sang me a song, and I heard, and thought I'd come to where my people originated. Now I have a hunch about profit. That's enough for you."

"It's not just that gold story," I said. "You're more than rich enough."

"I'm going up there," said Mr. Yandro, "because, by God, that old hag down there said everybody's afraid to do it. And you said you'd go with me."

"I'll go right to the top with you," I said.

I forebore to say that something had come close and looked from among the trees behind him. It was big and broad-headed, with elephant ears to right and left, and white tusks like bannisters on a spiral staircase. But it was woolly-shaggy, like a buffalo bull. The Bammat. How could such a thing move so quiet-like?

He drank from his whiskey bottle, and on we climbed. We could hear those noises in the woods and brush, behind rocks and down little gulleys, as if the mountain side thronged with living things as thick as fleas on a possum dog and another sight sneakier. I didn't let on I was nervous.

"Why are you singing under your breath?" he grunted after a while.

"I'm not singing," I said. "I need my breath for climbing."

"I hear you!" he charged me, like a lawyer in court.

We'd stopped dead on the trail, and I heard it, too.

It was soft, almost like some half-remembered song in your mind. It was the Yandro song, all right:


Look away, look away, look away over Yandro,
Where them wild things are flyin'
From bough to bough, and a-mating with their mates,
So why not me with mine?   


"That singing comes from up above us," I told Mr. Yandro.

"Then," he said, "we must be nearly at the top."

As we started climbing again, I could hear the noises to right and left in the woods, and then I realized they'd quieted down when we stopped. They moved when we moved, they waited when we waited. There were lots of them. Soft noises, but lots of them.

Which is why I myself, and probably Mr. Yandro too, didn't pause any more on the way up, even on a rocky stretch where we had to climb on all fours. It may have been an hour after noon when we came to the top.

Right there was a circle-shaped clearing, with the trees thronged around it all the way except an open space toward the slope. Those trees had mist among and between them, quiet and fluffy, like spider webbing. And at the open space, on the lip of the way down, perched the desrick.

Old-aged was what it looked. It stood high and looked the higher, because it was built so narrow of unnotched logs, set four above four, hogpen fashion, as tall as a tall tobacco barn. The spaces between the logs were clinked shut with great masses and wads of clay. The steep pitched roof was of shingles, cut long and narrow, so that they looked almost like thatch. There was one big door, made of an axe-chopped plank, and the hinges must have been inside, for I could see none. And one window, covered with what must have been rawhide scraped thin, with a glow of soft light coming through.

"That's it," puffed Mr. Yandro. "The desrick."

I looked at him then, and knew what most he wanted on this earth. He wanted to be boss. Money was just something to greaten him. His idea of greatness was bigness. He wanted to do all the talking, and have everybody else do the listening. He had his eyes hung on that desrick, and he licked his lips, like a cat over a dish of cream.

"Let's go in," he said.

"Not where I'm not invited," I told him, as flatly as anybody could ever tell him. "I said I'd come to the top. This is the top."

"Come with me," he said. "My name's Yandro. This mountain's name is Yandro. I can buy and sell every man, woman and child in this part of the country. If I say it's all right to go into a house, it's all right to go into a house."

He meant that thing. The world and everybody in it was just there to let him walk on. He took a step toward the desrick. Somebody hummed inside, not the words of the song, but the tune. Mr. Yandro snorted at me, to show how small he reckoned me because I held back, and he headed toward the big door.

"If she's there, she'll show me the gold," he said.

But I couldn't have moved from where I stood at the edge of the clearing. I was aware of a sort of closing in all around the edge, among the trees and brushy clumps. Not that the closing in could be seen, but there was a gong-gong farther off, the voice of the Toiler norrating to the other creatures their feed was near. And above the treetops sailed a round, flat thing, like a big plate being pitched high. A Skim. Then another Skim. And the blood inside my body was cold and solid as ice, and my voice turned to a handful of sand in my throat.

I knew, plain as paint, that if I tried to back up, to turn around even, my legs would fail and I'd fall down. With fingers like twigs with sleet stuck to them, I dragged around my guitar, to pluck at the silver strings, because silver is protection, against evil.

But I didn't. For out of the bushes near me the Bammat stuck its broad woolly head, and it shook that head at me once, for silence. It looked me between the eyes steadier than a beast should look at a man, and shook its head. I wasn't to make any noise. And I didn't. When the Bammat saw that I'd be quiet, it paid me no more mind, and I knew I wasn't to be included in what would happen then.

Mr. Yandro was knocking at the axe-chopped door. He waited, and knocked again. I heard him growl, something about how he wasn't used to waiting for people to answer his knock.

Inside, the humming had died out. After a moment, Mr. Yandro moved around to where the window was, and picked at the rawhide.

I could see, but he couldn't, as around from behind the corner of the desrick flowed something. It lay out on the ground like a broad, black, short-furred carpet rug. But it moved, humping and then flattening out, the way a measuring worm moves. It moved pretty fast, right toward Mr. Yandro from behind and to one side. The Toller said gong-gong-gong, from closer in.

"Anybody in there?" bawled Mr. Yandro. "Let me in!"

The crawling carpet brushed its edge against his foot. He looked down at it, and his eyes stuck out all of a sudden, like two door knobs. He knew what it was, and named it at the top of his voice.

"The Flat!"

Humping against him, it tried to wrap around his foot and leg. He gasped out something I'd never want written down for my last words, and pulled loose and ran, fast and straight, toward the edge of the clearing.

Gong-gong, said the Toller and Mr. Yandro tried to slip along next to the trees. But, just ahead of him, the Culverin hoved itself half into sight on its many legs. It pointed its needle-shaped mouth and spit a pebble. I heard the pebble ring on Mr. Yandro's head. He staggered against a tree. And I saw what nobody's ever supposed to see.

The Behinder flung itself on his shoulders. Then I knew why nobody's supposed to see one. I wish I hadn't. To this day I can see it, as plain as a fence at noon, and forever I will be able to see it. But talking about it's another matter. Thank you, I won't try.

Then everything else was out—the Bammat, the Culverin, and all the others. They were hustling him across toward the desrick, and the door moved slowly and quietly open for him to come in.

As for me, I was out of their minds, and I hoped and prayed they wouldn't care if I just went on down the trail as fast as I could set one foot below the other.

Scrambling and scrambling down, without a noise to keep me company, I figured that I'd probably had my unguessed part in the whole thing. Seventy-five years had to pass, and then Mr. Yandro come there to the desrick. And it needed me, or somebody like me, to meet him and sing the song that would put it in his head and heart to come to where his granddaddy had courted Polly Wiltse, just as though it was his own whim.

No. No, of course, he wasn't the man who had made Polly Wiltse love him and then had,left her. But he was the man's grandson, of the same blood and the same common, low-down, sorry nature that wanted money and power, and didn't care who he hurt so he could have both. And he looked like Joris Yandro. Polly Wiltse would recognize him.

I haven't studied much about what Polly Wiltse was like, welcoming him into the desrick on Yandro, after waiting inside for three quarters of a century. Anyway, I never heard of him following me down. Maybe he's been missed. But I'll lay you anything you name he's not been mourned.



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