The Haunted Valley by Ambrose Bierce
- How Trees Are Felled in China
A HALF-MILE north from Jo. Dunfer's, on the road
from Hutton's to Mexican Hill, the highway dips
into a sunless ravine which opens out on either hand
in a half-confidential manner, as if it had a secret to
impart at some more convenient season. I never used
to ride through it without looking first to the one
side and then to the other, to see if the time had arrived
for the revelation. If I saw nothing--and I
never did see anything--there was no feeling of
disappointment, for I knew the disclosure was
merely withheld temporarily for some good reason
which I had no right to question. That I should one
day be taken into full confidence I no more doubted
than I doubted the existence of Jo. Dunfer himself,
through whose premises the ravine ran.
It was said that Jo. had once undertaken to erect
a cabin in some remote part of it, but for some reason
had abandoned the enterprise and constructed
his present hermaphrodite habitation, half residence
and half groggery, at the roadside, upon an extreme
corner of his estate; as far away as possible, as if on
purpose to show how radically he had changed his
This Jo. Dunfer--or, as he was familiarly known
in the neighbourhood, Whisky Jo.--was a very important
personage in those parts. He was apparently
about forty years of age, a long, shock-headed
fellow, with a corded face, a gnarled arm and a
knotty hand like a bunch of prison-keys. He was
a hairy man, with a stoop in his walk, like that
of one who is about to spring upon something and
Next to the peculiarity to which he owed his local
appellation, Mr. Dunfer's most obvious characteristic
was a deep-seated antipathy to the Chinese. I
saw him once in a towering rage because one of his
herdsmen had permitted a travel-heated Asian to
slake his thirst at the horse-trough in front of the
saloon end of Jo.'s establishment. I ventured faintly
to remonstrate with Jo. for his unchristian spirit,
but he merely explained that there was nothing
about Chinamen in the New Testament, and strode
away to wreak his displeasure upon his dog, which
also, I suppose, the inspired scribes had overlooked.
Some days afterward, finding him sitting alone
in his bar-room, I cautiously approached the subject,
when, greatly to my relief, the habitual austerity
of his expression visibly softened into something
that I took for condescension.
'You young Easterners,' he said, 'are a mile-anda
-half too good for this country, and you don't
catch on to our play. People who don't know a
Chileno from a Kanaka can afford to hang out
liberal ideas about Chinese immigration, but a fellow
that has to fight for his bone with a lot of mongrel
coolies hasn't any time for foolishness.'
This long consumer, who had probably never
done an honest day's work in his life, sprung the
lid of a Chinese tobacco-box and with thumb and
forefinger forked out a wad like a small haycock.
Holding this reinforcement within supporting distance
he fired away with renewed confidence.
'They're a flight of devouring locusts, and they're
going for everything green in this God blest land, if
you want to know.'
Here he pushed his reserve into the breach and
when his gabble-gear was again disengaged resumed
his uplifting discourse.
'I had one of them on this ranch five years ago,
and I'll tell you about it, so that you can see the
nub of this whole question. I didn't pan out particularly
well those days--drank more whisky than
was prescribed for me and didn't seem to care for my
duty as a patriotic American citizen; so I took that
pagan in, as a kind of cook. But when I got religion
over at the Hill and they talked of running me for
the Legislature it was given to me to see the light.
But what was I to do? If I gave him the go somebody
else would take him, and mightn't treat him white.
What was I to do? What would any good Christian
do, especially one new to the trade and full to the
neck with the brotherhood of Man and the fatherhood
Jo. paused for a reply, with an expression of unstable
satisfaction, as of one who has solved a problem
by a distrusted method. Presently he rose and
swallowed a glass of whisky from a full bottle on
the counter, then resumed his story.
'Besides, he didn't count for much--didn't know
anything and gave himself airs. They all do that. I
said him nay, but he muled it through on that line
while he lasted; but after turning the other cheek
seventy and seven times I doctored the dice so that
he didn't last for ever. And I'm almighty glad I had
the sand to do it.'
Jo.'s gladness, which somehow did not impress
me, was duly and ostentatiously celebrated at the
'About five years ago I started in to stick up a
shack. That was before this one was built, and I put
it in another place. I set Ah Wee and a little cuss
named Gopher to cutting the timber. Of course I
didn't expect Ah Wee to help much, for he had a face
like a day in June and big black eyes--I guess
maybe they were the damn'dest eyes in this neck o'
While delivering this trenchant thrust at common
sense Mr. Dunfer absently regarded a knot-hole in
the thin board partition separating the bar from the
living-room, as if that were one of the eyes whose size
and colour had incapacitated his servant for good
'Now you Eastern galoots won't believe anything
against the yellow devils,' he suddenly flamed out
with an appearance of earnestness not altogether
convincing,' but I tell you that Chink was the perversest
scoundrel outside San Francisco. The miserable
pig-tail Mongolian went to hewing away at the
saplings all round the stems, like a worm o' the dust
gnawing a radish. I pointed out his error as patiently
as I knew how, and showed him how to cut
them on two sides, so as to make them fall right;
but no sooner would I turn my back on him, like
this'--and he turned it on me, amplifying the illustration
by taking some more liquor--'than he was at it again. It was just this way: while I looked
at him so'--regarding me rather unsteadily and
with evident complexity of vision--' he was all
right; but when I looked away, so'--taking a long
pull at the bottle--' he defied me. Then I'd gaze at
him reproachfully, so, and butter wouldn't have
melted in his mouth.'
Doubtless Mr. Dunfer honestly intended the look
that he fixed upon me to be merely reproachful, but
it was singularly fit to arouse the gravest apprehension
in any unarmed person incurring it; and as I had
lost all interest in his pointless and interminable narrative,
I rose to go. Before I had fairly risen, he had
again turned to the counter, and with a barely
audible 'so,' had emptied the bottle at a gulp.
Heavens! what a yell! It was like a Titan in his
last, strong agony. Jo. staggered back after emitting
it, as a cannon recoils from its own thunder, and
then dropped into his chair, as if he had been
'knocked in the head' like a beef--his eyes drawn
sidewise toward the wall, with a stare of terror.
Looking in the same direction, I saw that the knothole
in the wall had indeed become a human eye--
a full, black eye, that glared into my own with an
entire lack of expression more awful than the most
devilish glitter. I think I must have covered my face
with my hands to shut out the horrible illusion, if
such it was, and Jo.'s little white man-of-all-work
coming into the room broke the spell, and I walked
out of the house with a sort of dazed fear that
delirium tremens might be infectious. My horse was
hitched at the watering-trough, and untying him I
mounted and gave him his head, too much troubled
in mind to note whither he took me.
I did not know what to think of all this, and like
everyone who does not know what to think I thought
a great deal, and to little purpose. The only reflection
that seemed at all satisfactory was, that on the morrow
I should be some miles away, with a strong
probability of never returning.
A sudden coolness brought me out of my abstraction,
and looking up I found myself entering the deep
shadows of the ravine. The day was stifling; and
this transition from the pitiless, visible heat of the
parched fields to the cool gloom, heavy with pungency
of cedars and vocal with twittering of the
birds that had been driven to its leafy asylum, was
exquisitely refreshing. I looked for my mystery,
as usual, but not finding the ravine in a communicative
mood, dismounted, led my sweating animal into
the undergrowth, tied him securely to a tree and sat
down upon a rock to meditate.
I began bravely by analysing my pet superstition
about the place. Having resolved it into its constituent
elements I arranged them in convenient troops
and squadrons, and collecting all the forces of my
logic bore down upon them from impregnable premises
with the thunder of irresistible conclusions and
a great noise of chariots and general intellectual
shouting. Then, when my big mental guns had overturned
all opposition, and were growling almost
inaudibly away on the horizon of pure speculation,
the routed enemy straggled in upon their rear,
massed silently into a solid phalanx, and captured
me, bag and baggage. An indefinable dread came
upon me. I rose to shake it off, and began threading
the narrow dell by an old, grass-grown cow-path that
seemed to flow along the bottom, as a substitute for
the brook that Nature had neglected to provide.
The trees among which the path straggled were
ordinary, well-behaved plants, a trifle perverted as
to trunk and eccentric as to bough, but with nothing
unearthly in their general aspect. A few loose
boulders, which had detached themselves from the
sides of the depression to set up an independent
existence at the bottom, had dammed up the pathway,
here and there, but their stony repose had nothing
in it of the stillness of death. There was a kind
of death-chamber hush in the valley, it is true, and a
mysterious whisper above: the wind was just fingering
the tops of the trees--that was all.
I had not thought of connecting Jo. Dunfer's
drunken narrative with what I now sought, and only
when I came into a clear space and stumbled over
the level trunks of some small trees did I have the
revelation. This was the site of the abandoned
'shack.' The discovery was verified by noting that
some of the rotting stumps were hacked all round,
in a most unwoodmanlike way, while others were
cut straight across, and the butt ends of the corresponding
trunks had the blunt wedge-form given by the axe of a master.
The opening among the trees was not more than
thirty paces across. At one side was a little knoll--
a natural hillock, bare of shrubbery but covered
with wild grass, and on this, standing out of the
grass, the headstone of a grave!
I do not remember that I felt anything like surprise
at this discovery. I viewed that lonely grave
with something of the feeling that Columbus must
have had when he saw the hills and headlands of the
new world. Before approaching it I leisurely completed
my survey of the surroundings. I was even
guilty of the affectation of winding my watch at that
unusual hour, and with needless care and deliberation.
Then I approached my mystery.
The grave--a rather short one--was in somewhat
better repair than was consistent with its
obvious age and isolation, and my eyes, I dare say,
widened a trifle at a clump of unmistakable garden
flowers showing evidence of recent watering. The
stone had clearly enough done duty once as a doorstep.
In its front was carved, or rather dug, an inscription.
It read thus:
Age unknown. Worked for Jo. Dunfer.
This monument is erected by him to keep the Chink's
memory green. Likewise as a warning to Celestials
not to take on airs. Devil take 'em!
She Was a Good Egg.
I cannot adequately relate my astonishment at
this uncommon inscription! The meagre but sufficient
identification of the deceased; the impudent
candour of confession; the brutal anathema; the
ludicrous change of sex and sentiment--all marked
this record as the work of one who must have been
at least as much demented as bereaved. I felt that
any further disclosure would be a paltry anti-climax,
and with an unconscious regard for dramatic effect
turned squarely about and walked away. Nor did
I return to that part of the county for four years.
2: Who Drives Sane Oxen Should Himself be Sane
'Gee-up, there, old Fuddy-Duddy!'
This unique adjuration came from the lips of a
queer little man perched upon a wagonful of firewood,
behind a brace of oxen that were hauling it
easily along with a simulation of mighty effort which
had evidently not imposed on their lord and master.
As that gentleman happened at the moment to be
staring me squarely in the face as I stood by the
roadside it was not altogether clear whether he was
addressing me or his beasts; nor could I say if they
were named Fuddy and Duddy and were both subjects
of the imperative mood 'to gee-up.' Anyhow
the command produced no effect on us, and the
queer little man removed his eyes from mine long
enough to spear Fuddy and Duddy alternately with
a long pole, remarking, quietly but with feeling:
'Dern your skin,' as if they enjoyed that integument
in common. Observing that my request for
a ride took no attention, and finding myself falling
slowly astern, I placed one foot upon the inner
circumference of a hind wheel and was slowly elevated
to the level of the hub, whence I boarded
the concern, sans ceremonie, and scrambling forward
seated myself beside the driver--who took no
notice of me until he had administered another indiscriminate
castigation to his cattle, accompanied
with the advice to 'buckle down, you derned Incapable
!' Then, the master of the outfit (or rather
the former master, for I could not suppress a whimsical
feeling that the entire establishment was my
lawful prize) trained his big, black eyes upon me
with an expression strangely, and somewhat unpleasantly,
familiar, laid down his rod--which
neither blossomed nor turned into a serpent, as I
half expected--folded his arms, and gravely demanded,
'W'at did you do to W'isky?'
My natural reply would have been that I drank
it, but there was something about the query that
suggested a hidden significance, and something
about the man that did not invite a shallow jest.
And so, having no other answer ready, I merely
held my tongue, but felt as if I were resting under
an imputation of guilt, and that my silence was being
construed into a confession.
Just then a cold shadow fell upon my cheek, and
caused me to look up. We were descending into
my ravine! I cannot describe the sensation that
came upon me: I had not seen it since it unbosomed
itself four years before, and now I felt like one to
whom a friend has made some sorrowing confession
of crime long past, and who has basely deserted him
in consequence. The old memories of Jo. Dunfer,
his fragmentary revelation, and the unsatisfying
explanatory note by the headstone, came back
with singular distinctness. I wondered what had
become of Jo., and--I turned sharply round and
asked my prisoner. He was intently watching his
cattle, and without withdrawing his eyes replied:
'Gee-up, old Terrapin! He lies aside of Ah Wee
up the gulch. Like to see it? They always come back
to the spot--I've been expectin' you. H-woa!'
At the enunciation of the aspirate, Fuddy-Duddy,
the incapable terrapin, came to a dead halt, and
before the vowel had died away up the ravine had
folded up all his eight legs and lain down in the
dusty road, regardless of the effect upon his derned
skin. The queer little man slid off his seat to the
ground and started up the dell without deigning to
look back to see if I was following. But I was.
It was about the same season of the year, and
at near the same hour of the day, of my last visit.
The jays clamoured loudly, and the trees whispered
darkly, as before; and I somehow traced in the two
sounds a fanciful analogy to the open boastfulness
of Mr. Jo. Dunfer's mouth and the mysterious reticence
of his manner, and to the mingled hardihood
and tenderness of his sole literary production--the
epitaph. All things in the valley seemed unchanged,
excepting the cow-path, which was almost wholly
overgrown with weeds. When we came out into the
'clearing,' however, there was change enough. Among
the stumps and trunks of the fallen saplings, those
that had been hacked 'China fashion' were no
longer distinguishable from those that were cut
''Melican way.' It was as if the Old-World barbarism
and the New-World civilization had reconciled
their differences by the arbitration of an impartial
decay--as is the way of civilizations. The knoll was
there, but the Hunnish brambles had overrun and
all but obliterated its effete grasses; and the patrician
garden-violet had capitulated to his plebeian brother
--perhaps had merely reverted to his original type.
Another grave--a long, robust mound--had been
made beside the first, which seemed to shrink from
the comparison; and in the shadow of a new headstone
the old one lay prostrate, with its marvellous
inscription illegible by accumulation of leaves and
soil. In point of literary merit the new was inferior
to the old--was even repulsive in its terse and savage
JO. DUNFER. DONE FOR
I turned from it with indifference, and brushing
away the leaves from the tablet of the dead pagan
restored to light the mocking words which, fresh
from their long neglect, seemed to have a certain
pathos. My guide, too, appeared to take on an added
seriousness as he read it, and I fancied that I could
detect beneath his whimsical manner something of
manliness, almost of dignity. But while I looked
at him his former aspect, so subtly unhuman, so
tantalizingly familiar, crept back into his big eyes,
repellent and attractive. I resolved to make an end
of the mystery if possible.
'My friend,' I said, pointing to the smaller grave,
'did Jo. Dunfer murder that Chinaman?'
He was leaning against a tree and looking across
the open space into the top of another, or into the
blue sky beyond. He neither withdrew his eyes, nor
altered his posture as he slowly replied:
'No, sir; he justifiably homicided him.'
'Then he really did kill him.'
'Kill 'im? I should say he did, rather. Doesn't
everybody know that? Didn't he stan' up before the
coroner's jury and confess it? And didn't they find
a verdict of "Came to 'is death by a wholesome
Christian sentiment workin' in the Caucasian
breast"? An' didn't the church at the Hill turn
W'isky down for it? And didn't the sovereign people
elect him Justice of the Peace to get even on the
gospellers? I don't know where you were brought up.'
'But did Jo. do that because the Chinaman did
not, or would not, learn to cut down trees like a
white man ? '
'Sure!--it stan's so on the record, which makes
it true an' legal. My knowin' better doesn't make
any difference with legal truth; it wasn't my funeral
and I wasn't invited to deliver an oration. But the
fact is, W'isky was jealous o' me'--and the little
wretch actually swelled out like a turkeycock and
made a pretence of adjusting an imaginary neck-tie,
noting the effect in the palm of his hand, held up
before him to represent a mirror.
'Jealous of you!' I repeated with ill-mannered
'That's what I said. Why not?--don't I look all
He assumed a mocking attitude of studied grace,
and twitched the wrinkles out of his threadbare
waistcoat. Then, suddenly dropping his voice to a
low pitch of singular sweetness, he continued:
'W'isky thought a lot o' that Chink; nobody but
me knew how 'e doted on 'im. Couldn't bear 'im
out of 'is sight, the derned protoplasm! And w'en
'e came down to this clearin' one day an' found
'im an' me neglectin' our work--'im asleep an' me
grapplin' a tarantula out of 'is sleeve--W'isky laid
hold of my axe and let us have it, good an' hard!
I dodged just then, for the spider bit me, but Ah
Wee got it bad in the side an' tumbled about like
anything. W'isky was just weighin' me out one
w'en 'e saw the spider fastened on my finger; then
'e knew 'e'd make a jackass of 'imself. 'E threw
away the axe and got down on 'is knees alongside of
Ah Wee, who gave a last little kick and opened
'is eyes--'e had eyes like mine--an' puttin' up
'is hands drew down W'isky's ugly head and held
it there w'ile 'e stayed. That wasn't long, for a
tremblin' ran through 'im and 'e gave a bit of a
moan an' beat the game.'
During the progress of the story the narrator had
become transfigured. The comic, or rather, the sardonic
element was all out of him, and as he painted
that strange scene it was with difficulty that I kept
my composure. And this consummate actor had
somehow so managed me that the sympathy due
to his dramatis personae was given to himself. I
stepped forward to grasp his hand, when suddenly
a broad grin danced across his face and with a light,
mocking laugh he continued:
'W'en W'isky got 'is nut out o' that 'e was a sight
to see! All 'is fine clothes--'e dressed mighty blindin'
those days--were spoiled everlastin'! 'Is hair was
tousled and 'is face--what I could see of it--was
whiter than the ace of lilies. 'E stared once at me,
and looked away as if I didn't count; an' then there
were shootin' pains chasin' one another from my
bitten finger into my head, and it was Gopher to the
dark. That's why I wasn't at the inquest.'
'But why did you hold your tongue afterward?'
'It's that kind of tongue,' he replied, and not
another word would he say about it.
'After that W'isky took to drinkin' harder an'
harder, and was rabider an' rabider anti-coolie, but
I don't think 'e was ever particularly glad that 'e
dispelled Ah Wee. 'E didn't put on so much dog
about it w'en we were alone as w'en 'e had the ear
of a derned Spectacular Extravaganza like you.
'E put up that headstone and gouged the inscription
accordin' to 'is varyin' moods. It took 'im three
weeks, workin' between drinks. I gouged 'is in one
'When did Jo. die?' I asked rather absently. The
answer took my breath:
'Pretty soon after I looked at 'im through that
knot-hole, w'en you had put something in 'is w'isky,
you derned Borgia!'
Recovering somewhat from my surprise at this
astounding charge, I was half-minded to throttle the
audacious accuser, but was restrained by a sudden
conviction that came to me in the light of a
revelation. I fixed a grave look upon him and
asked, as calmly as I could: 'And when did you go
'Nine years ago!' he shrieked, throwing out his
clenched hands--'nine years ago, w'en that big
brute killed the woman who loved him better than
she did me!--me who had followed 'er from San
Francisco, where 'e won 'er at draw poker!--me
who had watched over 'er for years w'en the scoundrel
she belonged to was ashamed to acknowledge
'er and treat 'er white!--me who for her sake kept
'is cussed secret till it ate 'im up!--me who w'en
you poisoned the beast fulfilled 'is last request to
lay 'im alongside 'er and give 'im a stone to the
head of 'im! And I've never since seen 'er grave till
now, for I didn't want to meet 'im here.'
'Meet him? Why, Gopher, my poor fellow, he is
'That's why I'm afraid of 'im.'
I followed the little wretch back to his wagon and
wrung his hand at parting. It was now nightfall,
and as I stood there at the roadside in the deepening
gloom, watching the blank outlines of the receding
wagon, a sound was borne to me on the evening
wind--a sound as of a series of vigorous thumps
--and a voice came out of the night:
'Gee-up, there, you derned old Geranium.'