The Witching Women at Road's End, nonfiction by Casey Clabough

Slightly more than a cen­tury ago a Mr. Sher­man Clabough was sher­iff of Sevier County, Ten­nessee. One of his now scarce-remembered duties was to see to it that any young man in the sec­tion who turned twenty-one work the roads for an inde­ter­mi­nate period so as to pay off his manda­tory poll tax. Of course, in the­ory a young man might sat­isfy the sum out of pocket, but it was irreg­u­lar for any­one to have much, if any, money in those times, espe­cially folk who came from fam­i­lies back up in the hol­lows and hills. So it was that between the young men in the dis­trict and what­ever con­victs hap­pened to be on hand, the roads in the county—some of which spanned and twisted high up onto remote lonely slopes of the Smokies—were ten­u­ously maintained.

The sher­iff was a tall, stern man with blonde hair and blue eyes that occa­sion­ally were remarked upon for their pierc­ing quality.

"He don't need that six-shooter to put holes in a body," a local man was heard to remark.

The sheriff's pa, dead for nearly a decade, had been a Cap­tain in the 9th Cav­alry dur­ing the war and Sher­man, as his name inti­mated, had inher­ited much of his father's mar­tial bear­ing. Though he was the runt of the fam­ily and the youngest of the four boys, it was he who took after his pa the most and so every­one allowed it was nat­ural he should become a law­man or a sol­dier rather than a farmer or a preacher.

Before he was twenty he mar­ried a Dod­gen girl, Mary, who gave him one child and died not long after she turned eigh­teen try­ing to deliver another. He remar­ried to an Ogle named Beda inside of two weeks, before Mary and her infant were even set­tled in the ground, and she filled his house with six chil­dren in eight years, the last four all born within a year of each other.

Now enter­ing his fourth decade and with a size­able fam­ily to feed, Sher­man did not take unnec­es­sary risks, though in his younger years he had drawn his pis­tol more read­ily and even killed a man on one occa­sion while rid­ing against the White Caps. Sevierville, hav­ing cleared its streets of such vig­i­lantes and been purged by fire at the turn of the cen­tury, had become a peace­able ham­let and Sher­man found his duties not espe­cially per­ilous. The occa­sional fam­ily feud in the moun­tains and mean week­end drunk were the only times he ever gave thought to draw­ing his pis­tol, and more often than not it was his capa­ble deputies who han­dled such mat­ters as these.

***

When trou­ble at last found Sher­iff Clabough it was of a par­tic­u­larly woe­ful vari­ety as it both impli­cated his offi­cial posi­tion and involved his extended fam­ily. One of his nephews, Colum­bus Clabough—the fifth child in his eldest brother Isaac's brood—had dis­ap­peared high in the moun­tains while work­ing the roads to pay off his poll tax. Now every­one knew Colum­bus was no ordi­nary youn­gun of twenty-one. For one thing, he was either envied or admired among his male peers for hav­ing won the affec­tion of the girl widely con­sid­ered the pret­ti­est thing around Gatlin­burg, Cora Nichols. He was also the prized son of his father Isaac on account of hav­ing stayed on to work the fam­ily farm rather than tak­ing after his older broth­ers and run­ning off to Knoxville or to join up with the army.

It was a fact, how­ever, that though Colum­bus was respected in those parts for hav­ing remained to help his ma and pa, there were aspects of his per­son­al­ity which were deemed not exactly in his favor. Some thought him mighty queer on account of the fact he always kept to him­self so much, never leav­ing the home­place up at the head of the hol­low unless it was to attend the Ban­ner school­house, which he ceased to do at the age of four­teen, or run an errand for his folks in the Burg, which he always did directly and with­out any tar­ry­ing of his own. Though pos­sessed of a good singing voice, he never attended church—not even revival, which gen­er­ally was thought the best oppor­tu­nity for a young man to accom­plish any seri­ous court­ing. Instead it was Columbus's habit when not work­ing the farm to stray across the moun­tains, hunt­ing, trap­ping, or gath­er­ing big messes of sang or ramps. What he came back with was always of uncom­monly good quan­tity and qual­ity, which drove more than one young man to try to fol­low him so as to deter­mine where he har­vested his bounty. Yet none ever suc­ceeded in doing so. Either in a stream, a thicket, or on a rocky hill­side, the boy's trail even­tu­ally would fade out and the thwarted tracker would return, not a lit­tle agi­tated and remark­ing how queer it was for a body to just melt away into the moun­tains like that.

Given such behav­ior, it sur­prised folks all the more that a gal like Cora Nichols had set her head on mar­ry­ing a fel­low like Colum­bus and done every­thing she knew to bring it about, from bak­ing him cakes and pies aplenty to deliv­er­ing them in her best red and yel­low dress with neck cut low. She met with no ini­tial suc­cess on account of usu­ally find­ing Colum­bus out work­ing the fields or away from home alto­gether on one of his jaunts across the moun­tains. By and by, how­ever, he began to take notice of her and would bring vit­tles and furs and other things down the hol­low to where Cora lived in a lit­tle cabin with her Aunt Azelia. When­ever he came to call the three of them inevitably would end up out on the porch in twisted old hick­ory limb chairs, per­haps in the wake of a meal, and hunt their heads for words to trade. Often this was a chore since Colum­bus wasn't the talk­ing type and Cora and her aunt had said about every­thing two women could to one another on account of hav­ing lived together ever since Cora's folks had passed away when she was nigh more than knee-high. Yet they were all com­fort­able enough in each other's silent com­pany in that way peo­ple not much given to talk often are.

There was never any spark­ing to speak of, nor even what might rightly be named court­ing, but a day even­tu­ally arrived when it may be said an under­stand­ing was reached.

"How come you quit the Ban­ner school," Cora asked Colum­bus, lean­ing for­ward in her chair so that it creaked, "when you was the best at read­ing for your age?"

It was the most direct ques­tion she had ever asked him and Colum­bus was silent for a long moment before respond­ing. "I don't rightly know," he said at last, eyes vaguely peer­ing up the hol­low. "I reckon I'd about learned what I could and didn't much care for the com­pany no more."

Unde­terred by this response, which impli­cated Cora since she had attended the school as well, she fol­lowed it with another ques­tion, just as direct. "And why is it you never go to church and never been to revival?"

Colum­bus shifted a lit­tle in his chair in what might have been a slight show of dis­com­fort, though when he answered his voice was the same. "I reckon again I don't much miss the com­pany and most times I'm away across the moun­tains some­where come Sunday."

Then Cora asked her most direct ques­tion, the one in fact which brought about their under­stand­ing. "Do you reckon when your ma and pa are gone you'll live all alone in that house up at the head of the hol­low and never go nowhere except across them mountains?"

Colum­bus was silent for a long time, but when at last he answered he looked Cora directly in the face, with the same blue eyes his Uncle Sher­man had. "I've never given any thought to the time when ma and pa are to be laid to rest, and I reckon there'll always be spells when I'm away in the moun­tains." He paused before con­tin­u­ing. "But what­ever oth­ers may say, there is folks I like vis­it­ing and com­pany I hope to always keep."

Colum­bus grinned as he uttered these last words even as Cora blushed, and though Aunt Azelia remained silent as a porch post, the words in her mind were "Praise be."

 ***

Though Sher­man Clabough did not know the par­tic­u­lars of his nephew's vague and uncon­ven­tional engage­ment, word had reached him of the young man's impend­ing mar­riage to Cora Nichols. A fair judge of folks on account of the duties of his office, the sher­iff was not as sur­prised as oth­ers by the arrange­ment. Hav­ing spo­rad­i­cally taken note of the boy as he grew, he admired rather than took umbrage at Columbus's with­drawn silence, inde­pen­dence, and pen­chant for hunt­ing up things in the moun­tains. More­over, the fact that the boy had stayed on to work brother Isaac's farm was a com­fort to his mind and he mused more than once that if the youn­gun were to become a lit­tle more socia­ble and were so inclined, he might make a decent deputy by and by.

Yet now Sher­man feared the worst and suf­fered a not insignif­i­cant bur­den of guilt as each day passed fol­low­ing Columbus's dis­ap­pear­ance. After all, it was he who had allowed the boy to con­duct his road work alone, as he had requested, along the most obscure of moun­tain thor­ough­fares, many of which con­sti­tuted lit­tle more than trails. At the time it had seemed a nat­ural fit for his nephew's inde­pen­dence and exten­sive knowl­edge of the slopes. Yet now all man­ner of poten­tial dan­gers haunted his mind: from chance encoun­ters with rat­tlers or painters to human men­aces from the likes of boot­leg­gers or jeal­ous admir­ers of Cora Nichols.

Columbus's axe, rake, and shovel had been dis­cov­ered rest­ing against a stunted chest­nut tree at the end of a road high on a rocky peak as if they had been set there in no par­tic­u­lar hurry, yet in vain Sher­man rode the nearby trails and hill­sides, putting his deputies and vol­un­teer searchers to shame by stay­ing out the bet­ter part of sev­eral nights and occa­sion­ally even sleep­ing in the sad­dle. Still the moun­tains offered him no clues and with each pass­ing day Sherman's hope waned even as his deputies took to trad­ing uncer­tain glances among them­selves and the vol­un­teers began to strag­gle away. After all, it was not unusual for a man to be taken by the moun­tains and the folks who lived among the Smok­ies had a feeling—not unlike a clock in the head—when it looked as though a body was gone for good. And as much as Sher­man Clabough sought to ignore the tick­ing in his own mind, he had begun to accept, loath as he was to do so, that too much time had elapsed and it was not for him to lay eyes on his nephew again.

***

On the day of his dis­ap­pear­ance, Colum­bus Clabough worked steadily toward the end of the road he knew was about to give out. He had passed the last res­i­dence, a dilap­i­dated aban­doned cabin said to have been built by a trap­per before the war, some two miles back down the moun­tain and kept on along the switch­back curves and crum­bling lime­stone roadbed as the way grew ever nar­rower. Here and there saplings had sprung up in the road due to its lack of use and these he felled with one-handed blows of the axe, leav­ing them where they lay as he moved on, rake and shovel gripped together in his other hand. A more chal­leng­ing task was lift­ing or rolling to the road­side boul­ders which had tum­bled down into the thor­ough­fare. Some were the man­age­able size of can­taloupes or water­mel­ons while oth­ers proved more on the order of trunks or chests. It was these lat­ter rocks he strug­gled with the most, grunt­ing as he awk­wardly turned them end over end toward the road's edge.

It was get­ting on late in the work day. The sky remained over­cast. Even though it was only the begin­ning of Octo­ber, the air was raw and pointed, pro­pelled by a con­stant breeze one often encoun­ters when near­ing the sum­mit of a moun­tain. Colum­bus knew if he lin­gered much longer he would be hard-pressed to make it home before dark. Yet some­thing within him—pride, stub­born­ness, the van­ity of youth—filled him with a desire to fin­ish off the road: to see both it and his labor on it to their respec­tive ends.

It is not dif­fi­cult to guess which course of action won out. Toil on he did, hurl­ing or rolling boul­ders and chop­ping saplings, until he arrived at what he reck­oned must have been the road's ter­mi­nus. One must say reck­oned, for though the imprint of the roadbed con­tin­ued on, the saplings sprang up in clumps, mere inches from each other, and two great immov­able rocks the size of wag­ons blocked any fur­ther poten­tial progress by a wheeled vehicle.

The clouds had thick­ened, dim­ming the moun­tain­sides, and cast­ing the hol­lows into a deeper hue of dark­ness. Colum­bus knew it was time to depart and that he'd likely be walk­ing in the moon­light ere he reached the other side of Gatlin­burg. Yet he lin­gered on for a moment con­sid­er­ing with some sat­is­fac­tion first the cleared way behind him and then the wall of rock and wood which dic­tated the thoroughfare's end. But just as he turned from tak­ing in the slop­ing moun­tain­side for­est which lay beyond the ces­sa­tion of his efforts, his nose caught a whiff of wood smoke and another odor he could not quite place. Tak­ing note of the shift­ing breeze, he deter­mined the smell was borne from around the moun­tain­side. He paused only for an instant, real­iz­ing that search­ing out the smoke con­demned him to a night's jour­ney or sleep­ing in the woods, yet he had embraced such pri­va­tions before and, besides, had made it his life's busi­ness to search out the mys­ter­ies and for­lorn places of the Smok­ies. Care­fully he laid his tools against a chest­nut trunk and set off in the direc­tion the wind beckoned.

He walked per­haps a quar­ter of an hour in the fad­ing dim­ness before he caught the smell again. It was stronger this time but issued it seemed from a place higher up the moun­tain. Accord­ingly, he adjusted his course, mak­ing his way patiently, tak­ing short shuf­fling steps so as to avoid slip­ping on an invis­i­ble loose rock or tum­bling over a way­ward root.

The moun­tain­side steep­ened, the quan­tity of trees less­en­ing and giv­ing way to bushes and out­crop­pings of rock. Colum­bus found him­self lean­ing for­ward, grasp­ing nar­row trunks and edges of rock for sup­port, before col­laps­ing to all fours and draw­ing him­self up bod­ily wher­ever his hands found some­thing sturdy enough to bear him. It was dark now and he advanced as much by touch as sight.

At last he emerged on a rock plateau of sorts where he could stand straight again, and it was here his search con­cluded, for some way across the rocks, accom­pa­nied by the now-familiar odor, he made out the faint glow of a fire flick­er­ing in the breeze and what he took to be the hint of a voice.

It was not dif­fi­cult to walk qui­etly over the rock and Colum­bus advanced slowly in the dark­ness, tak­ing short steps, ears attuned. Yet silent as he treaded, when he came within per­haps twenty paces of the fire, a voice rang out—feminine, old, raspy.

"Come on over and fool your face, pil­grim!" it exclaimed.

"Yes'm," he replied into the moun­tain wind for lack of any­thing else bet­ter to say.

As he advanced the unsteady flames revealed two old women clad all in black stand­ing on either side of the fire, on which stood a large earth­en­ware pot.

The sight of the pot revealed to Colum­bus the odor he had been unable to name: moon­shine. Yet he had never heard tell of woman boot­leg­gers and ancient ones at that. Indeed, their bear­ing and the whole scene rather sug­gested his mother's child­hood tales of witch­ing women. Lack­ing in super­sti­tion, Colum­bus felt fool­ish at the thought but trou­bled nonetheless.

When he came to stand within the full illu­mi­na­tion offered by the fire­light, what he saw added to his dis­com­fort. The two female fig­ures might have been twins in their hor­rid decrepi­tude. They shared the same deep wrin­kles, hooked noses, and tooth­less mouths, only one of the old women—the one he guessed must have called out to him—possessed twin­kling, hard black eyes while the other wore a near-oblivious expres­sion on her hang­ing yel­low cheeks.

The more obser­vant of the pair watched Colum­bus as her hand stirred the pot with a thick stick.

"Wel­come, Colum­bus Clabough," she said.

"You know my name?" replied the incred­u­lous youth.

"It's long been our habit to know what goes on in these moun­tains," said the old woman, "and we fig­ure there's less than the num­ber of fin­gers on a hand, the men who might hunt us out when we're about our business—and Isaac Clabough's wan­der­ing boy is one of them."

"But I won't hunt­ing you," said Colum­bus, grow­ing more uncomfortable.

"Yet here you are," said the old woman, black eyes flash­ing briefly in the fire­light. "Here you are."

To com­bat his grow­ing anx­i­ety Colum­bus began to talk, uncon­scious of the fact his words occa­sion­ally stum­bled over each other. He was work­ing the old road that ran up the other side of the moun­tain. He had smelled the smoke. It was noth­ing to him what the two old ladies were doing up here.

The speak­ing crone inter­rupted him. "When there's folks that take an inter­est in a body's busi­ness, even if they don't mean to, well then them's folks a body most likely can do without."

For the first time the other old woman made a sound—a gut­tural, watery, ascend­ing noise that might have been muf­fled laughter.

Colum­bus fought back some­thing akin to fear. He was being threat­ened. The thought of such fee­ble crea­tures doing him any phys­i­cal harm seemed laugh­able, yet he won­dered if they were alone or if there could be oth­ers some­where out in the dark­ness. How had these two hags toted a big pot to the sum­mit of the moun­tain with­out ben­e­fit of any road or trail Colum­bus knew of? He shiv­ered involuntarily.

"There's a comet a-coming," said the first one.

"What?" asked Colum­bus, nearly at wits' end. "What's that?"

"A thing that flies from place to place across the heav­ens. Folks will have never seen the like."

The other hag grinned.

"It'll glow at night," con­tin­ued the first one, "and the tail that comes out behind it will be near as wide as the sky and black as coal."

She ceased stir­ring the pot sud­denly and, flat­ten­ing her wrin­kled hand, passed it over the pot.

"The tail of that comet will sweep across the earth," she con­tin­ued, "and when it passes some things will be changed though folks won't know what they are."

Then she lapsed into a raspy frag­ment of song:

                        There was an old woman didn’t have but one eye

                        But she had a long tail that she let fly.

                        Every time that she went through a gap,

                        She left a piece of her tail in a trap.

The crone grinned at Colum­bus in the wake of the last verse, the gap­ing black­ness where her teeth should have been trans­form­ing the expres­sion into a dis­gust­ing, mirth­less gesture.

"What's the tune about, boy? It's a riddle."

Colum­bus, shook his head, no longer capa­ble of think­ing clearly.

"Why, a nee­dle, of course," said the old woman, as if instruct­ing a child.

"Now looky here," she con­tin­ued, "you do some­thing for us—you make like that nee­dle and go where we say go for a spell—and you needn't pay no mind to comets and ail­ments and the like. You'll live a long life to boot, though its writ on you you'll never have any youn­guns to call your own.

"Elect to do oth­er­wise and you'll have wor­ries aplenty, now and on up till the time of your dying."

Colum­bus looked from one hag to the other, tak­ing in again their dread­ful phys­i­cal degra­da­tion which nonethe­less afforded them a power he lacked the capac­ity to fathom. He real­ized sud­denly he had been sweat­ing heav­ily, his shirt well-nigh drenched. The breeze shifted sud­denly and the smoke of the fire washed over him, forc­ing unbid­den tears to form in the cor­ners of his eyes. He coughed softly, low­er­ing his head, and on lips which trem­bled slightly he offered them his response.

***

Colum­bus Clabough died in Decem­ber 1973, a few months shy of his nineti­eth birth­day and just a hand­ful of weeks before I entered the world. True to the prophecy of the witch­ing women he and Cora Nichols never had any chil­dren, and true to an oath they exacted of him, he never told any­one the nature of the ser­vice he per­formed for them. His body lies in LynnhurstCeme­tery, Knoxville, the secret buried with him.

 

claboughCasey Clabough is the author of the novel Con­fed­er­ado, the travel mem­oir The Warrior's Path: Reflec­tions Along an Ancient Route, and five schol­arly books on south­ern and Appalachian writ­ers, includ­ing Inhab­it­ing Con­tem­po­rary South­ern & Appalachian Lit­er­a­ture: Region & Place in the 21st Cen­tury. Clabough serves as edi­tor of the lit­er­a­ture sec­tion of the Vir­ginia Foun­da­tion for the Human­i­ties' Ency­clo­pe­dia Vir­ginia and as gen­eral edi­tor of the lit­er­ary jour­nal James Dickey Review. His work has appeared in over sev­enty antholo­gies and mag­a­zines, includ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion, the Sewa­nee Review, and the Vir­ginia Quar­terly Review. Clabough’s awards include an Artists’ Grant from the Brazil­ian Gov­ern­ment, the Bangladesh Inter­na­tional Lit­er­ary Award, and sev­eral American-based fel­low­ships. He lives on a farm in Appo­mat­tox County, Vir­ginia and teaches at Lynch­burg Col­lege. His eighth book, a biog­ra­phy of George Gar­rett, will appear in June 2013.

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