DOWN THE RAVINE
DOWN THE RAVINE
CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK
All unconscious of the legislation of extermination the animal sped
nimbly along the ledge of a cliff becoming visible from the ravine
below a tawny streak against the gray rock. Swift though he was a
jet of red light flashing out in the dusk was yet swifter. The
echoing crags clamored with the report of a rifle. The tawny streak
was suddenly still. Three boys appeared in the depths of the ravine
and looked up.
"Thar now! Ye can't git him off'n that thar ledge Birt" said Tim
Griggs. "The contrairy beastis couldn't hev fund a more ill-
convenient spot ter die of he hed sarched the mounting."
"I ain't goin' ter leave him thar though" stoutly declared the boy
who still held the rifle. "That thar fox's scalp an' his two ears
air wuth one whole dollar."
Tim remonstrated. "Look-a-hyar Birt; ef ye try ter climb up this
hyar bluff ye'll git yer neck bruk sure."
Birt Dicey looked up critically. It was a rugged ascent of forty
feet or more to the narrow ledge where the red fox lay. Although
the face of the cliff was jagged the rock greatly splintered and
fissured with many ledges and here and there a tuft of weeds or a
stunted bush growing in a niche it was very steep and would afford
precarious foothold. The sunset was fading. The uncertain light
would multiply the dangers of the attempt. But to leave a dollar
lying there on the fox's head that the wolf and the buzzard might
dine expensively to-morrow!
"An' me so tried for money!" he exclaimed thinking aloud.
Nate Griggs who had not before spoken gave a sudden laugh--a dry
"Ef all the foxes on the mounting war ter hold a pertracted meet'n
jes' ter pleasure you-uns thar wouldn't be enough scalps an' ears
'mongst 'em ter make up the money ye hanker fur ter buy a horse."
To buy a horse was the height of Birt's ambition. His mother was a
widow; and as an instance of the fact that misfortunes seldom come
singly the horse on which the family depended to till their scanty
acres died shortly after his owner. And so whenever the spring
opened and the ploughs all over the countryside were starting their
one chance to cultivate a crop was to hire a mule from their nearest
neighbor the tanner. Birt was the eldest son and his mother had
only his work to offer in payment. The proposition always took the
tanner in what he called a "jubious time." Spring is the season for
stripping the trees of their bark which is richer in tannin when
the sap flows most freely and the mule was needed to haul up the
piles of bark from out the depths of the woods to the tanyard.
Then too Jubal Perkins had his own crops to put in. As he often
remarked in the course of the negotiation "I don't eat tan bark--
nor yit raw hides." Although the mule was a multifarious animal
and ploughed and worked in the bark-mill and hauled from the woods
and went long journeys in the wagon or under the saddle he was not
ubiquitous and it was impossible for him to be in the several
places in which he was urgently needed at the same time. Therefore
to hire him out on these terms seemed hardly an advantage to his
master. Nevertheless this bargain was annually struck. The
poverty-stricken widow always congratulated herself upon its
conclusion and it never occurred to her that the amount of work
that Birt did in the tanyard was a disproportionately large return
for the few days that the tanner's mule ploughed their little
Birt however was beginning to see that a boy to drive that mule
around the bark-mill was as essential as the mule himself. As
Providence had failed to furnish the tanner with a son for this
purpose--his family consisting of several small daughters--Birt
supplied a long-felt want.
The boy appreciated that his simple mother was over-reached yet he
could not see that she could do otherwise. He sighed for
independence for a larger opportunity. As he drove the mule round
the limited circuit his mind was far away. He anxiously canvassed
the future. He cherished fiery ambitious schemes--often scorched
poor fellow by their futility. With his time thus mortgaged he
thought his help to his mother was far less than it might be. But
until he could have a horse of his own there was no hope--no
progress. And for this he planned and dreamed and saved.
Partly these considerations partly the love of adventure and partly the jeer in Nate's laugh determined him not to relinquish the
price set upon the fox's head. He took off his coat and flung it on
the ground beside his rifle. Then he began to clamber up the cliff.
The two brothers their hands in the pockets of their brown jeans
trousers stood watching his ascent. Nate had sandy hair small
gray eyes set much too close together and a sharp pale freckled
face. Tim seemed only a mild repetition of him as if Nature had
tried to illustrate what Nate would be with a better temper and less
Birt was climbing slowly. It was a difficult matter. Here was a
crevice that would hardly admit his eager fingers and again a
projection so narrow that it seemed to grudge him foothold. Some of
the ledges however were wider and occasionally a dwarfed
huckleberry bush nourished in a fissure lifted him up like a
helping hand. He quaked as he heard the roots strain and creak for
he was a pretty heavy fellow for sixteen years of age. They did not
give way however and up and up he went every moment increasing
the depth below him and the danger. His breath was short; his
strength flagged he slipped more than once giving himself a great
fright; and when he reached the ledge where the dead fox lay he
thought "The varmint don't wuth it."
Nevertheless he whooped out his triumph to Nate and Tim in a
stentorian halloo for they had already started homeward and
presently their voices died in the distance. Birt faced about and
sat down on the ledge to rest his feet dangling over the depths
It was a lonely spot walled in by the mountains and frequented
only by the deer that were wont to come to lick salt from the briny
margin of a great salt spring far down the ravine. Their hoofs had
worn a deep excavation around it in the countless years and
generations that they had herded here. The "lick" as such places
are called in Tennessee was nearly two acres in extent and in the
centre of the depression the brackish water stood to the depth of
six feet or more. Birt looked down at it thinking of the old times
when according to tradition it was the stamping ground of buffalo
as well as deer. The dusk deepened. The shadows were skulking in
and out of the wild ravine as the wind rose and fell. They took to
his fancy the form of herds of the banished bison revisiting in
this impalpable guise the sylvan shades where they are but a memory
Presently he began the rugged descent considerably hampered by the
fox which he carried by the tail. He stopped to rest whenever he
found a ledge that would serve as a seat. Looking up high above
the jagged summit of the cliff that sharply serrated the zenith he
saw the earliest star glorious in the crimson and amber sky.
Below a point of silver light quivered reflected in the crimson
and amber waters of the "lick." The fire-flies were flickering
among the ferns; he saw about him their errant gleam. The shadowy
herds trooped down the mountain side.
Now and then his weight uprooted a bush in his hands and the clods
fell. He missed his footing as he neared the base and came down
with a thump. It was a gravelly spot where he had fallen and he
saw in a moment that it was the summer-dried channel of a mountain
rill. As he pulled himself up on one elbow he suddenly paused with
dilated eyes. The evening light fell upon a burnished glimmer;--a
bit of stone--was it stone?--shining with a metallic lustre.
He looked at it for a moment his eyes glowing in the contemplation
of a splendid possibility.
What were those old stories that his father used to tell of the gold
excitement in Tennessee in 1831 when the rich earth flung largess
from its hidden wealth along the romantic banks of Coca Creek! Gold
had been found in Tennessee--why not here? And once--why not again?
The idea so possessed him that while he was skinning the fox his
sharp knife almost sacrificed one of the TWO ears imperatively
required by the statute in order that the wily hunter may not be
tempted to present one ear at a time thus multiplying red foxes and
premiums therefor like Falstaff's "rogues in buckram."
He took his way homeward through the darkening woods carrying the
pelt in his hand. It was not long before he could hear the dogs
barking and as he came suddenly upon a little clearing in the midst
of the dense encompassing wilderness he saw them all trooping down
from the unenclosed passage between the two log-rooms which
constituted the house. An old hound had half climbed the fence but
as he laid his fore-paw on the topmost rail his deep-mouthed bay
was hushed--he was recognizing the approaching step of his master.
The yellow curs were still insisting upon a marauder theory. One of
them barked defiance as he thrust his head between the rails of the
fence. There was another head thrust through too about on a level
with Towser's but it was not a dog's head. As Birt caught a
glimpse of it he called out hastily "Stand back thar Tennessee!"
And then it was lost to view for at the sound of his voice all the
dogs came huddling over the bars shrilly yelping a tumultuous
When Birt had vaulted over the fence the little object withdrew its
head from between the rails and came trotting along beside him
holding up its hand to clasp his.
His mother standing in the passage her tall thin figure distinct
in the firelight that came flickering out through the open door
soliloquized querulously: -
"Ef that thar child don't quit that fool way o' stickin' her head a-
twixt the rails ter watch fur her brother she'll git cotched thar
some day like a peeg in a pen an' git her neck bruk."
Birt overheard her. "Tennessee air too peart ter git herself hurt"
he said a trifle ashamed of his ready championship of his little
sister as a big rough boy is apt to be of gentler emotions.
If ever infancy can be deemed uncouth she was an uncouth little
atom of humanity. Her blue checked homespun dress graced with big
horn buttons descended almost to her feet. Her straight awkwardly
cropped hair was of a nondescript shade pleasantly called "tow." As
she came into the light of the fire she lifted wide black eyes
deprecatingly to her mother.
"She ain't pretty I know but she air powerful peart" Birt used to
say so often that the phrase became a formula with him.
If she were "powerful peart" it was a fact readily apparent only to
him for she was a silent child with the single marked
characteristic of great affection for her eldest brother and a
singular pertinacity in following him about.
"I dunno 'bout Tennie's peartness" his mother sarcastically
rejoined. "'Pears ter me like the chile hain't never hed good
sense; afore she could walk she'd crawl along the floor arter ye
an' holler like a squeech-owEL ef ye went off an' lef' her. An' ye
air plumb teched in the head too Birt ter set sech store by
Tennie. I look ter see her killed or stunted some day in them
travels o' hern."
For when Birt Dicey went "yerrands" on the mule through the woods to
the Settlement Tennessee often rode on the pommel of his saddle.
She followed in the furrow when he ploughed. She was as familiar an
object at the tanyard as the bark-mill itself. When he wielded the
axe she perched on one end of the woodpile. But so far she had
passed safely through her varied adventures and gratifying
evidences of her growth were registered on the door. "Stand back
thar Tennessee!" in a loud boyish halloo was a command when
danger was ahead which she obeyed with the readiness of a veteran.
Sometimes however this incongruous companionship became irksome to
him. Her trusting insistent affection made her a clog upon him
and he grew impatient of it.
Ah little Sister! he learned its value one day.
The great wood fire was all aflare in the deep chimney-place.
Savory odors came from the gridiron and the skillet and the hoe on
the live coals drawn out on the broad hearth. The tow-headed
children grew noisy as they assembled around the bare pine table
and began to clash their knives and forks.
Birt unmindful crouched by the hearth silently turning his
precious specimens about that he might examine them by the
firelight. Tennessee her chuffy hand on his shoulder for she
could reach it as he knelt held her head close to his and looked
at them too with wide black eyes. His mother placed the supper on
the table and twice she called to him to come but he did not hear.
She turned and looked down at him then broke out sharply in
"Air ye bereft o' reason Birt Dicey! Ye set thar nosin' a handful
o' rocks ez ef they war fitten ter eat! An' now look at the boy--a
stuffin' 'em in his pockets ter sag 'em down and tear 'em out fur me
ter sew in ag'in. Waal waal! Sol'mon say ef ye spare the rod ye
spile the child--mos' ennybody could hev fund that out from thar own
'sperience; but the wisest man that ever lived lef' no receipt how
ter keep a boy's pockets whole in his breeches."
Birt Dicey lay awake deep into the night pondering and planning.
But despite this unwonted vigil the old bark-mill was early astir
and he went alertly about his work. He felt eager strong capable.
The spirit of progress was upon him.
The tanyard lay in the midst of a forest so dense that except at
the verge of the clearing it showed hardly a trace of its gradual
despoliation by the industry that nestled in its heart like a worm
in the bud. There were many stumps about the margin of the woods
the felled trees stripped of their bark often lying among them
still for the supply of timber exceeded the need. In penetrating
the wilderness you might mark too here and there a vacant space
where the chestnut-oak prized for its tannin had once grown on the
A little log house was in the midst of the clearing. It had
properly speaking only one room but there was a shed-room
attached for the purpose of storage and also a large open shed at
one side. The rail fence inclosed the space of an acre perhaps
which was covered with spent bark. Across the pits planks were
laid with heavy stones upon them to hold them in place. A rude
roof sheltered the bark-mill from the weather and there was the
patient mule with Birt and a whip to make sure that he did not fall
into reflective pauses according to his meditative wont. And there
too was Tennessee perched on the lower edge of a great pile of
bark and gravely watching Birt.
He deprecated the attention she attracted. He was sometimes ashamed
to have the persistent little sister seen following at his heels
like a midday shadow. He could not know that the men who stopped
and spoke to him and to her and laughed at the infirmities of the
infant tongue when she replied unintelligibly thought better of him
for his manifestation of strong fraternal affection. They said to
each other that he was a "peart boy an' powerful good ter the
t'other chill'en an' holped the fambly along ez well ez a man--
better'n thar dad ever done;" for Birt's father had been
characterized always as "slack-twisted an' onlucky."
The shadows dwindled on the tan. The winds had furled their wings.
White clouds rose dazzling opaque up to the blue zenith. The
querulous cicada complained in the laurel. Birt heard the call of a
jay from the woods. And then as he once more urged the old mule
on the busy bark-mill kept up such a whir that he could hear
nothing else. He was not aware of an approach till the new-comer
was close upon him; in fact the first he knew of Nate Griggs's
proximity was the sight of him. Nate was glancing about with his
usual air of questioning disparagement and cracking a long lash at
the spent bark on the ground.
"Hello Nate!" Birt cried out eagerly. "I'm powerful glad ye
happened ter kem hyar fur I hev a word ter say ter ye."
"I dunno ez I'm minded ter bide" Nate said cavalierly. "I hates to
waste time an' burn daylight a-jowin'."
He was still cracking his lash at the ground. There was a sudden
Birt who had turned away to the bark-mill whirled back in a rising
"Did ye hit Tennessee?" he asked with a dangerous light in his
"No--I never!" Nate protested. "I hain't seen her till this minute.
She war standin' a-hint ye."
"Waal ye skeered her then" said Birt hardly appeased. "Quit
snappin' that lash. 'Pears-like ter me ez ye makes yerself powerful
free round this hyar tanyard."
"Tennie air a-growin' wonderful fast" the sly Nathan remarked
Birt softened instantly. "She air a haffen inch higher 'n she war
las' March 'cordin' ter the mark on the door" he declared
pridefully. "She ain't pretty I know but she air powerful peart."
"What war the word ez ye war layin' off ter say ter me?" Nate asked
curiosity vividly expressed in his face.
Birt leaned back against the pile of bark and hesitated. Last night
he had thought Nate the most desirable person to whom he could
confide his secret whose aid he could secure. There were many
circumstances that made this seem wise. But when the disclosure was
imminent something in those small bead-like eyes unpleasantly
close together something in the expression of the thin pale face
something in Nate's voice and manner repelled confidence.
"Nate" said Birt at last speaking with that subacute conviction
so strong yet so ill-defined which vividly warns the ill-judged and
yet cannot stop the tongue constrained by its own folly "what d'ye
s'pose I fund in the woods yestiddy?"
The two small eyes set close together seemed merged in one so
concentrated was their gaze. Again their expression struck Birt's
attention. He hesitated once more. "Ef I tell ye will ye promise
never ter tell enny livin' human critter?"
"I hope I may drap stone dead ef I ever tell!" Nate exclaimed.
"I fund a strange metal in the woods yestiddy. What d'ye s'pose 't
Nate shook his head. His breath was quick and he could not control
the keen anxiety in his face. A strong flush rose to the roots of
his sandy hair his lips quivered and his small eyes glittered with
greedy expectation. His tongue refused to frame a word.
"GOLD!" cried Birt triumphantly.
"Whar be it?" exclaimed Nate. He was about to start in full run for
"I ain't agoin' ter tell ye without we-uns kin strike a trade."
"Waal" said Nate with difficulty repressing his impatience "what
air you-uns aimin' ter do?"
"Ye knows ez I hev ter bide hyar with the bark-mill mos'ly jes'
now" said Birt beginning to expound the series of ideas which he
had carefully worked out in his midnight vigil "'kase they hev got
ter hev a heap o' tan ter fill them thar vats ag'in. Ef I war ter
leave an' go a-gold huntin' the men on the mounting would find out
what I war arter an' they'd come a-grabblin' thar too an' mebbe
git it all 'kase I dunno how much or how leetle thar be. I wants
ter make sure of enough ter buy a horse or a mule or su'thin' ef
I kin 'fore I tells ennybody else. An' I 'lowed ez ye an' me would
go pardners. Ye'd take my place hyar at the tanyard one day whilst
I dug an' I'd bide in the tanyard nex' day. An' we would divide
fair an' even all we fund."
Nate did not reply. He was absorbed in a project that had come into
his head as his friend talked and the two dissimilar trains of
thought combined in a mental mosaic that would have amazed Birt
"Ye see" Birt presently continued "I dunno when I kin git shet o'
the tanyard this year. Old Jube Perkins 'lows ez he air mighty busy
'bout'n them hides an' sech an' he wants me ter holp around
ginerally. He say ef I do mo' work'n I owes him he'll make that
straight with my mother. An' he declares fur true ef I don't holp
him at this junctry when he needs me he won't hire his mule to my
mother nex' spring; an' ye know it won't do fur we-uns ter resk the
corn-crap an' gyarden truck with sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle
ez we-uns hev got at our house."
Nate deduced an unexpected conclusion. "Ye oughter gin me more'n
haffen the make" he said. "'Kase ef 'twarn't fur me ye couldn't
git none. An' ef ye don't say two thurds I'll tell every critter
on the mounting an' they'll be grabblin' in yer gold mine d'rec'ly."
"Ye dunno whar it is" said Birt quietly.
If a sudden jet from the cold mountain torrent that rioted through
the wilderness down the ravine hard by had been dashed into Nate's
thin sharp face he could not have cooled more abruptly. The
change almost took his breath away.
"I don't mean THAT nuther" he gasped with politic penitence "kase
I hev promised not ter tell. I dunno whether I kin holp nohow. I
hev got ter do my sheer o' work at home; we ain't through pullin'
fodder off'n our late corn yit."
Birt looked at him in silent surprise.
Nate was older than his friend by several years. He was of an
unruly and insubordinate temper and did as little work as he
pleased at home. He often remarked that he would like to see who
could make him do what he had no mind to do.
"Mebbe old Jube wouldn't want me round 'bout" he suggested.