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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 everything ticketed.

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 general store.

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 you up."

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 him.

Unless they played on the Southern hospitality chord. He had invited me there. I had been hungry. The beans were all he had.

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 above.

Some one moved up there. Some one walked barefooted across the floor. There was silence for a time and then it happened again.

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 before.

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 alone.

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, eh?"

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 won't eat.

"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 man.

"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 her."

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 think.

"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 child was.

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 clothes."

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 intense.

"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.

 
 
 

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