A Tale of Silver John


Michael D. Winkle

Gentlemen, they say every legend has a kernel of truth, around which a story grew and grew. I can say that's so, because of what happened outside Drowning Creek, away down the road a piece.

I'd gone back to Drowning Creek, where I was born, goppin' at how the church and the school and the houses there had shrunk. At least, that's how it seemed to one who'd shot up two feet in height since the last time he'd laid eyes on his home town.

I wandered around town thinking of good folks mostly, like Miss Beillie, the teacher who fetched me my first guitar, but also bad ones, like Mr. Ranson Cuff, who took me in only to work me near to death, and who met his fate when he went frog-gigging where the Indians feared to venture.

Eventually I felt it time to move on again, and I sought out an old hill trail I and others had stomp-danced into the dirt as children.

I found only the ghost of the track; the boys I once played with had grown up, and new generations followed other callings. I climbed the trail anyway, trying to recognize trees and rocks and hummocks, bushed out or crumbled away or overgrown though they were.

The sun sank down, and I unrolled my pack. As the moon rose, near as bright as the sun that spring night, I heard a motor and the crunch of tires on gravel. I hiked down the slope, toward a cliff I recollected, a drop-off overlooking Blue Sky Hollow.

I peered through branches and found a road leading to a turn-around spot right near the edge of the cliff. A split-rail fence marked the dangerous lip. In the turn-around space sat a convertible car, its top folded up behind the back seat like a pile of burlap bags.

I pondered a bit about progress, and about how this beautiful view, once reached only by foot, now could be visited by anyone who pleased in an automobile.

I heard voices, a young man's and a young woman's. I spotted the pair in the front seat of the car. The young man said something about his football coach that made the young woman giggle.

The warmth that swells in your chest when you see something wholesome and romantic visited me, yet I blushed as well, feeling like a spy. I tipped my hat, unseen, to the beau and belle, and made to withdraw --

But someone else found the lovers' lane. He stepped onto the gravel road, and I saw only his outline in the moonlight: tall and bony, with frizzy clothing to match frizzy hair.

Unlike me, he hiked boldly toward the young couple, coming up from behind as they watched the moon. Something harsh and bright, like a long knife blade, glinted in his right hand.

I fought through the last few yards of burrs and ivy.

"Hey!" I called, and "Hey!" again.

The couple's pale faces turned toward me in shock, but bigger shock was to come. The stranger took the bumper of the convertible as a step and launched himself onto the trunk just as I yelled, "Watch out!"

Sirs, I ran as a hawk dives. The young lovers yelled and tried to turn in their seat. The stranger hopped over the folded top and bounced down in the back, his arm raised and his weapon shiny in the moonlight.

I let the side of the car stop me as I ran up, and I grabbed handfuls of an old leather belt at his waist. I pulled him hard, and he cartwheeled onto the ground like a hay bale tossed from a wagon.

The stranger rolled and rose. I ducked the slashing knife. The young couple piled out the passenger's side, still trying to figure out what was going on to spoil their courtin'.

I dodged a fist like a gall-twisted cudgel, and I punched a jaw as rectangular as a brick and twice as hard. The stranger swung his right hand with its blade at my chest, and you'll have to take my word that it struck square on the Book of Common Prayer I carried in my shirt pocket.

The force of the blow sent me backwards and sat me down on the grass. I bumped my head against quartered logs, and I knew I'd fallen hard by the cliff.

The stranger rose over me like Paul Bunyan, and he lifted his arm as if to bring down the lumberjack's axe. Then light flared behind him.

The boy had switched on his headlights. The stranger twisted. Though I was near-blinded, facing the glare as I was, I managed to jump up against him.

We square-danced at the edge of Blue Sky Hollow, me holding his right wrist. He was a might taller than I, and I admit to six feet and some inches. He had a pop-eyed face a mother'd be hard-pressed to love, and a breath no one could take to.

We hit the fence, and I heard a crack. I let my partner step away, and he kept going.

I saw that I'd been wrong about something as he flailed his arms, lit by the car lights. I stepped up to the edge of the cliff and watched him drop in the silvery moonshine. He plunged into waving treetops as if into a rough sea.

The man and woman stepped up next to me, timid as deer.

"Who are you?" asked the woman, a-straightening out her wrinkled sweater.

"My name's John," I said.

"Who was that?" asked the man, looking down at the floor of the hollow.

"Don't rightly know," I said. "I was just passing by when I saw trouble brewin'. Best to let the sheriff figure it out."

Well, the sheriff didn't figure it out, as his posse found no stranger at the base of the cliff. He asked me and those young'uns a heap of questions, but eventually I was free to go my way.

Now, I heard this college professor say there are a passel of tales that folks tell each other across the country that aren't true but are believed. Someone changes a name here, a date there, to make them fit in with the land about them, wherever they happen to live. It's much the same with the old songs and ballads, passed from father to son and mother to daughter, for ones that came here from old England sound a might different than they did long ago over the sea.

Still, I wonder if a story or two I've heard might not be true, and I wish to the Almighty that I'd climbed down to Blue Sky Hollow to check on that crazed stranger.

For I'd seen in the convertible's lights that he held no knife, after all. Where his right hand should have been, held to the stump by bolts drilled straight through flesh and bone, hung a curved sickle of a blade. Yes, ma'am, a hook.

The End

Silver John/John the Balladeer is the creation of Manly Wade Wellman and is copyright © by the Estate of Manly Wade and Frances Wellman. "Away Down the Road a Piece" is a fannish work presented for entertainment purposes only.

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