These Mountaineers by Sherwood Anderson
When I had lived in the Southwest Virginia mountains for some
time, people of the North, when I went up there, used to ask me
many questions about the mountain people. They did it whenever I
went to the city. You know how people are. They like to have
The rich are so and so, the poor are so and so, the
politicians, the people of the Western Coast. As though you could
draw one figure and say--"there it is. That's it."
The men and women of the mountains were what they were. They
were people. They were poor whites. That certainly meant that
they were white and poor. Also they were mountaineers.
After the factories began to come down into this country, into
Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, a lot of them went, with
their families, to work in the factories and to live in mill
towns. For a time all was peace and quiet, and then strikes broke
out. Every one who reads newspapers knows about that. There was a
lot of writing in newspapers about these mountain people. Some of
it was pretty keen.
But there had been a lot of romancing about them before that.
That sort of thing never did any one much good.
So I was walking alone in the mountains and had got down into
what in the mountain country is called "a hollow." I was lost. I
had been fishing for trout in mountain streams and was tired and
hungry. There was a road of a sort I had got into. It would have
been difficult to get a car over that road. "This ought to be a
good whisky-making country," I thought.
In the hollow along which the road went I came to a little
town. Well, now, you would hardly call it a town. There were six
or eight little unpainted frame houses and, at a cross roads, a
The mountains stretched away, above the poor little houses. On
both sides of the road were the magnificent hills. You
understand, when you have been down there, why they are called
the "Blue Ridge." They are always blue, a glorious blue. What a
country it must have been before the lumber men came! Over near
my place in the mountains men were always talking of the spruce
forests of former days. Many of them worked in the lumber camps.
They speak of soft moss into which a man sank almost to the
knees, the silence of the forest, the great trees.
The great forest is gone now, but the young trees are growing.
Much of the country will grow nothing but timber.
The store before which I stood that day was closed, but an old
man sat on a little porch in front. He said that the storekeeper
also carried the mail and was out on his route but that he would
be back and open his store in an hour or two.
I had thought I might at least get some cheese and crackers or
a can of sardines.
The man on the porch was old. He was an evil-looking old man.
He had gray hair and a gray beard and might have been seventy,
but I could see that he was a tough-bodied old fellow.
I asked my way back over the mountain to the main road and had
started to move off up the hollow when he called to me. "Are you
the man who has moved in here from the North and has built a
house in here?"
There is no use my trying to reproduce the mountain speech. I
am not skilled at it.
The old man invited me to his house to eat. "You don't mind
eating beans, do you?" he asked.
I was hungry and would be glad to have beans. I would have
eaten anything at the moment. He said he hadn't any woman, that
his old woman was dead. "Come on," he said, "I think I can fix
We went up a path, over a half mountain and into another
hollow, perhaps a mile away. It was amazing. The man was old. The
skin on his face and neck was wrinkled like an old man's skin and
his legs and body were thin, but he walked at such a pace that to
follow him kept me panting.
It was a hot, still day in the hills. Not a breath of air
stirred. That old man was the only being I saw that day in that
town. If any one else lived there he had kept out of sight.
The old man's house was on the bank of another mountain
stream. That afternoon, after eating with him, I got some fine
trout out of the stream.
But this isn't a fishing story. We went to his house.
It was dirty and small and seemed about to fall down. The old
man was dirty. There were layers of dirt on his old hands and on
his wrinkled neck. When we were in the house, which had but one
room on the ground floor, he went to a small stove. "The fire is
out," he said. "Do you care if the beans are cold?"
"No," I said. By this time I did not want any beans and wished
I had not come. There was something evil about this old mountain
man. Surely the romancers could not have made much out of
Unless they played on the Southern hospitality chord. He had
invited me there. I had been hungry. The beans were all he
He put some of them on a plate and put them on a table before
me. The table was a home-made one covered with a red oil cloth,
now quite worn. There were large holes in it. Dirt and grease
clung about the edges of the holes. He had wiped the plate, on
which he had put the beans, on the sleeve of his coat.
But perhaps you have not eaten beans prepared in the
mountains, in the mountain way. They are the staff of life down
there. Without beans there would be no life in some of the hills.
The beans are, when prepared by a mountain woman and served hot,
often delicious. I do not know what they put in them or how they
cook them, but they are unlike any beans you will find anywhere
else in the world.
As Smithfield ham, when it is real Smithfield ham, is unlike
any other ham.
But beans cold, beans dirty, beans served on a plate wiped on
the sleeve of that coat . . .
I sat looking about. There was a dirty bed in the room in
which we sat and an open stairway, leading up to the room
Some one moved up there. Some one walked barefooted across the
floor. There was silence for a time and then it happened
You must get the picture of a very hot still place between
hills. It was June. The old man had become silent. He was
watching me. Perhaps he wanted to see whether or not I was going
to scorn his hospitality. I began eating the beans with a dirty
spoon. I was many miles away from any place I had ever been
And then there was that sound again. I had got the impression
that the old man had told me his wife was dead, that he lived
How did I know it was a woman upstairs? I did know.
"Have you got a woman up there?" I asked. He grinned, a
toothless malicious grin, as though to say, "Oh, you're curious,
And then he laughed, a queer cackle.
"She ain't mine," he said.
We sat in silence after that and then there was the sound
again. I heard bare feet walking across a plank floor.
Now the feet were descending the crude open stairs. Two legs
appeared, two thin, young girl's legs.
She didn't look to be over twelve or thirteen.
She came down, almost to the foot of the stairs, and then
stopped and sat down.
How dirty she was, how thin, what a wild look she had! I have
never seen a wilder-looking creature. Her eyes were bright. They
were like the eyes of a wild animal.
And, at that, there was something about her face. In many of
these young mountain faces there is a look it is difficult to
explain--it is a look of breeding, of aristocracy. I know no
other word for the look.
And she had it.
And now the two were sitting there, and I was trying to eat.
Suppose I rose and threw the dirty beans out at the open door. I
might have said, "Thank you, I have enough." I didn't dare.
But perhaps they weren't thinking of the beans. The old man
began to speak of the girl, sitting ten feet from him, as though
she were not there.
"She ain't mine," he said. "She came here. Her pop died. She
ain't got any one."
I am making a bad job of trying to reproduce his speech.
He was giggling now, a toothless old man's giggle. "Ha, she
"She's a hell cat," he said.
He reached over and touched me on the arm. "You know what.
She's a hell cat. You couldn't satisfy her. She had to have her a
"And she got one too."
"Is she married?" I asked, half whispering the words, not
wanting her to hear.
He laughed at the idea. "Ha. Married, eh?"
He said it was a young man from farther down the hollow. "He
lives here with us," the old man said laughing, and as he said it
the girl rose and started back up the stairs. She had said
nothing, but her young eyes had looked at us, filled with hatred.
As she went up the stairs the old man kept laughing at her, his
queer, high-pitched, old man's laugh. It was really a giggle.
"Ha, she can't eat. When she tries to eat she can't keep it down.
She thinks I don't know why. She's a hell cat. She would have a
man and now she's got one.
"Now she can't eat."
I fished in the creek in the hollow during the afternoon and
toward evening began to get trout. They were fine ones. I got
fourteen of them and got back over a mountain and into the main
road before dark.
What took me back into the hollow I don't know. The face of
the girl possessed me.
And then there was good trout fishing there. That stream at
least had not been fished out.
When I went back I put a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket.
"Well," I thought--I hardly know what I did think. There were
notions in my head, of course.
The girl was very, very young.
"She might have been kept there by that old man," I thought,
"and by some young mountain rough. There might be a chance for
I thought I would give her the twenty dollars. "If she wants
to get out perhaps she can," I thought. Twenty dollars is a lot
of money in the hills.
It was just another hot day when I got in there again and the
old man was not at home. At first I thought there was no one
there. The house stood alone by a hardly discernible road and
near the creek. The creek was clear and had a swift current. It
made a chattering sound.
I stood on the bank of the creek before the house and tried to
"If I interfere . . ."
Well, let's admit it. I was a bit afraid. I thought I had been
a fool to come back.
And then the girl suddenly came out of the house and came
toward me. There was no doubt about it. She was that way. And
unmarried, of course.
At least my money, if I could give it to her, would serve to
buy her some clothes. The ones she had on were very ragged and
dirty. Her feet and legs were bare. It would be winter by the
time the child was born.
A man came out of the house. He was a tall young mountain man.
He looked rough. "That's him," I thought. He said nothing.
He was dirty and unkempt as the old man had been and as the
At any rate she was not afraid of me. "Hello, you are back
here," she said. Her voice was clear.
Just the same I saw the hatred in her eyes. I asked about the
fishing. "Are the trout biting?" I asked. She had come nearer me
now, and the young man had slouched back into the house.
Again I am at a loss about how to reproduce her mountain
speech. It is peculiar. So much is in the voice.
Hers was cold and clear and filled with hatred.
"How should I know? He" (indicating with a gesture of her hand
the tall slouching figure who had gone into the house) "is too
damn' lazy to fish.
"He's too damn' lazy for anything on earth."
She was glaring at me.
"Well," I thought, "I will at least try to give her the
money." I took the bill in my hand and held it toward her. "You
will need some clothes," I said. "Take it and buy yourself some
It may have been that I had touched her mountain pride. How am
I to know? The look of hatred in her eyes seemed to grow more
"You go to hell," she said. "You get out of here. And don't
you come back in here again."
She was looking hard at me when she said this. If you have
never known such people, who live like that, "on the outer fringe
of life," as we writers say (you may see them sometimes in the
tenement districts of cities as well as in the lonely and lovely
hills)--such a queer look of maturity in the eyes of a child. . .
It sends a shiver through you. Such a child knows too much and
not enough. Before she went back into the house she turned and
spoke to me again. It was about my money.
She told me to put it somewhere, I won't say where. The most
modern of modern writers has to use some discretion.
Then she went into the house. That was all. I left. What was I
to do? After all, a man looks after his hide. In spite of the
trout I did not go fishing in that hollow again.