The Awfullest Thing

The Chronic Loafer sat upon the anvil. A leather apron was tied about his
neck, and behind him stood the Blacksmith, nipping at his great shock of
hair with a tiny pair of scissors. He was facing the Tinsmith and the
Miller, who had climbed up on the carpenter bench, and by twisting his
neck at the risk of his balance, he could see the tall, thin man standing
by the mule which the helper was shoeing. The stranger had hair that
reached to his shoulders, a clean-shaven upper lip, a long beard and
a benign aspect that denoted him a Dunkard. He had been telling a few
stories of the recent events in Raccoon Valley, whence he hailed.

“So it ain’t sech a slow-goin’, out-o’-the-way placet ez you unsez
think–still,” he said.

The Blacksmith thoughtfully turned to address him.

“Well, stranger—-”

“Ow–ow!” cried the Loafer. “Is you a barber or a butcher?”

“Sights!” exclaimed the worthy smith. “Now that was a jag I give ye,
wasn’t it?”

He resumed his task with redoubled vigor. The Loafer closed his eyes and
commenced to sputter.

“Mighty souls! Go easy. Are you tryin’ to choke me?”

“Sights!” said the other in apologetic tones, “I didn’t notice. Now I did
come near chokin’ ye, didn’t I? I was interested in Raccoon Walley.”

Then he began to clip very slowly.

The Loafer opened one eye cautiously and fixed it on the stranger.

“What was that awful thing I heard ye tellin’ ’bout snakes, jest afore I
was smothered under that last hay-load o’ hair?”

“Oh, hoop-snakes,” replied the Dunkard. He paused from his work of
brushing the flies from the mule’s legs with a horse-tail. “We hev plenty
o’ them ’round our placet. They don’t trouble no one tho’ tell ye bother
them. Then they’re awful.”

He turned his attention to the beast’s hoofs and began sweeping them. A
smile was lurking about the corners of his mouth.

“Did ye ever run agin any o’ these hoop—-”

The Blacksmith’s query was cut short by a loud “Ouch!”

“See here,” said the Loafer with emphasis. “Either he’ll hev to quit
tellin’ stories or I quit gittin’ me hair cut.” Then to the stranger, “Is
hoop-snakes so wery pisonous?”

“Pisonous!” replied the Dunkard. “Well, I should say they was. One o’ the
awfullest things I ever seen was jest the ozzer day ’hen I was workin’
in the fiel’. All o’ a suddent one o’ these wipers jumps outen the hay
an’ strikes. I seen it jest in time to step aside. Its fangs struck the
han’le o’ me fork.”

The stranger fell to brushing flies again.

“Well, what happened that—-”

“There ye go,” the Loafer cried, ducking forward and almost tumbling from
the anvil. “Keep your eye on my head an’ not on every Tom, Dick an’ Harry
in the shop.” He readjusted himself on his perch and blew away a bunch of
hair that had settled on his nose.

“What happened?” he inquired, fixing his least exposed eye on the man
from Raccoon Valley.

“Quick ez a flash the han’le o’ my pitch-fork swole up tell it was thick
ez my arm.”

The Dunkard had fixed his gaze intently on the forefeet of the mule and
was beating them industriously with the horse-tail.

The smith wheeled about abruptly and gazed at the stranger.

“That was an awful thing to experience,” he said. But there was a ring of
doubt in his voice.

The Loafer peered over his shoulder and ventured. “Yes. It was the worst
jag yit. But I don’t mind. I’m gittin’ accustomed.”

The rattle of the pile of wheels upon which the G. A. R. Man was sitting
announced that the veteran was getting restless and was preparing for
action. For a long time he had been smoking in silence, listening to the
strange tales of the strange man from Raccoon Valley. Now he spoke.

“If your story is true then that was an awful thing.” He seemed to be
weighing each word. “Still, it wasn’t so awful ez a thing that happened
to me durin’ the war.”

“There ye are agin,” cried the Loafer. “Can’t a man tell a story ’thout
you tryin’ to go him one better? I don’t believe ye was in the war

“Don’t I git a pension?” The veteran closed one eye and stuck out his
lower jaw threateningly.

“That ain’t no sign,” ventured the Miller from the carpenter bench.

“Well, what fer a sign does you unsez want?” roared the G. A. R. Man.
“Does you expect a felly to go th’oo life carryin’ a musket? Ef ye

“See here,” said the Blacksmith, “youse fellys is gittin’ that mule all
excited. Ef you’re goin’ to quarrel you’d better go outside where there’s
lots o’ room fer ye to run away in.”

“Now–now–now!” said the Dunkard, wagging the horse-tail at the company.
“Don’t git fightin’. Ef he knows anything awfuller then that hoop-snake
wenture let him out with it.”

“I do,” said the veteran. “But I don’t perpose to hev it drug outen me
fer you uns to hoot at.”

His tone was pacific, and his companions promised not to hoot.

“The awfullest thing I ever hed to do with,” he said, “was down in front
o’ Richmon’ durin’ the war. Our retchment–the Bloody Pennsylwany–was
posted kind o’ out like from the rest o’ the army. We lay there fer th’ee
weeks doin’ nawthin’ but eatin’, sleepin’, drinkin’ an’ listenin’ to the
roar o’ the guns over to the front. Still it wasn’t pleasant, fer we was
allus expectin’ somethin’ to happen. It’s a heap sight better to hev
somethin’ happenin’ then to be waitin’ fer it to come. But final it come.

“One mornin’ at daybreak the guard was bein’ changed, an’ down on one
post they found the picket dead, but not a mark was they on him. It
looked wery queer. We’d seen no enemy fer a week an’ yit here was a felly
killed plumb on his post, within stone th’ow of our camp. It made the
boys feel clammy like, I tell ye, an’ they wasn’t many a-hankerin’ to
go on that beat at night. It was a lonely placet, anyway, right on the
edge o’ a leetle clump o’ woods in a holler th’oo which run a creek,
gurglin’ in a way that made ye creep from your heel-taps to your hat.
But the post hed to be covered. Ez luck ’ud hev it, my tent-mate, Jim
Miggins, ez nicet a man ez ever shouldered a musket, was stationed there.
Next mornin’ the relief goes around, an’ Jim Miggins is lyin’ dead be the
stream–not a mark on him nowhere. Still they was no sign o’ the enemy,
an’ we’d a clean sweep o’ fiel’s five miles acrosst the country. Mebbe we
wasn’t puzzled.”

“Why didn’t the general put a whole regiment in them woods an’ stop it?”
asked the Loafer.

“That wasn’t tactics,” answered the veteran. “Ye may think you knows
better how to run a war then our general, but ye don’t. It wasn’t
tactics, an’ even ef it hed ben it wasn’t the way the Bloody Pennsylwany
done things. One man takes the post next night ez usual, young Harry
Hopple o’ my company, a lad with more grit then a horse that cribs. In
the mornin’–Harry’s dead–no mark on him–no sign o’ the enemy nowhere.
Don’t tell me that wasn’t awfuller then hoop-snakes. Why, every man knowd
now that ef he drawed that post he was a goner. That was a recognized
rule–he was a goner. ’Hen a felly gits it he sets down an’ packs up his
duds; then he writes home to his ma or his girl, sais good-by to the
boys an’ goes out. Mornin’ comes–he’s dead be the stream–not a mark on
him–no enemy in sight. That was the way Andy Young, leetle Hiram Dole,
Clayton Binks o’ my company, an’ a dozen others was tuk off.”

“I can’t see, nuther, why the general didn’t fill them woods with
soldiers,” the Miller interrupted.

“Why! It wasn’t tactics; that’s why,” the G. A. R. Man replied brusquely.
“The Bloody Pennsylwany didn’t do things that way. No, sir. The general
he cal’lated that we couldn’t be in that placet more’n four weeks more,
which would cost jest twenty-eight men. He sais it wasn’t square to order
a man there, so he calls fer wolunteers. What does I do? I wolunteers.
I goes to the general an’ sais I’m willin’ to try my luck first. An’ he
sais, sais he, a-layin’ one hand on me shoulder, ‘Me man, ef we’d a few
more like you, the war ’ud soon be ended. An’—-’”

“Meanin’ the other side ’ud ’a’ licked,” the Loafer interposed.

The veteran paid no attention to this remark but continued: “He promised
me a promotion ef I come out alive. That night I packs up me things,
writes a letter to me wife, an’ sais good-by to the boys. Then I gits me
gun, pours in th’ee inches o’ powder, puts in a wad; next, th’ee bullets
an’ a wad; next a half dozen buckshot an’ a wad. An’ on top o’ it all,
jest fer luck, I rammed a bit o’ tobacky. At twelve o’clock I relieved
the man on post in the holler. Mebbe me heart didn’t beat. Mebbe it
wasn’t awfuller then hoop-snakes. The wind was sighin’ mournful th’oo
the leaves; a leetle slice o’ moon was peekin’ down th’oo the trees ’hen
the clouds give it a chancet; an’ there gurglin’ along was the creek be
which I expected I’d be found in the mornin’ layin’ dead, no mark on me

“I’d made up me mind, tho’, that I was goin’ to come out of it whole ef
I could. I wasn’t no fool to set down an’ be tuk off without raisin’ a
rumpus about it. No, sir. I kept a sharp eye in every direction ez I
walked to an’ fro, down the holler on one side, up on the other, back
agin, an’ never stoppin’. It come one o’clock, an’ I give number eight
an’ all’s well. I hear the report go ’long the posts; then everything
was quiet. It come two o’clock an’ I give all’s well agin. Hardly was
everything still ’hen I hear a rustlin’ noise, right out in the fiel’
beyant the creek, not twenty feet away, an’ yit me eyes had ben coverin’
that petickler spot fer an hour an’ not a hate hed I seen. But there it
was, a standin’ hazy-like in the dark, the awfullest thing I ever laid
eyes on.”

The veteran had arisen from the pile of wheels and was glaring at the
company, “What does I do? Does I set down an’ be tuk off like the other
fellys? No. I ups an’ fires an’ hits it right atween the eyes.”

He resumed his seat and began refilling his pipe. An expectant silence
reigned in the shop. The Blacksmith waited until he saw the veteran
light a match and fall to smoking.

“Go on,” he cried, making a threatening movement with his scissors.

“They ain’t no more to tell,” said the G. A. R. Man nonchalantly. “Wasn’t
that awfuller then a dozen hoop-snakes?”

“Well, what was the thing ye shot?” asked the Loafer, slipping off the
anvil and facing the pile of wheels.

The old soldier’s clay pipe fell from his hand and crashed into a hundred
pieces on the floor. He opened wide his mouth in vain effort to speak,
but the words failed to come.

“What was it?” shouted the Loafer.

“Well, I’ll swan ef I know,” replied the veteran meekly.