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.
Casey 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.