Twenty years ago a deer hunter in the National Forest, fourteen miles west of Hawkes County, stumbled onto a collection of ruined lean-tos and half finished cabins, undisturbed remains of a camp where Daniel Boone and a party of settlers spent a winter. Nearly two centuries slipped by before any one walked that valley after Boone,; and the man who found the abandoned camp had a good tale to tell.
Jesse had a better one.
I can't swear everything he said was true, but it might have been. The Blue Ridge could hide what Jesse remembered.
When I was a boy Jesse farmed sixty acres by himself, and in the summer I spent more time there than with my own family. Mornings we worked his garden ahead of the day's heat: chopping weeds, picking whatever was ripe. When we finished he usually dozed for a couple of hours, and while he napped I explored his old house.
Jesse's attic was mildewed and dusty, wasps droning in far corners as I prowled a mothball reek of old boxes, piles of rusty tools and broken furniture; all of it carried upstairs and forgotten.
The small patch of carefully tanned hair and skin came from an old trunk. I'd handled raccoon and muskrat pelts, even the occasional mink, but this was different: too small and too coarse to be worth saving. After a while I carried it downstairs to Jesse.
He was awake, holding a twenty two rifle across his lap. Groundhogs denned in the woods around his garden, and one of them could ruin two or three rows of beans in an hour. "Whyn't you take this, boy?" he said, handing me the gun. "You got the better eyes."
After looking to make sure nothing moved in the high weeds, I pulled the piece of fur from my pocket. "What kind of animal did this come from?" I asked.
Jesse settled deeper in his chair, a faint smile adding more creases to his lined face. "I ain't seen this in a long time," he said, smoothing it flat on his knee, gazing at it as he cut a plug of tobacco from a twist of black leaf. "Few years ago, I wanted to show it to somebody and couldn't find it."
"What is it?" I asked again.
And he told me his Weaver Hole tale:
The year I turned sixteen and rented seventy acres at Holly Fork was the first time I ever kept house on my own. The man who owned the land was only interested in timber, and years had passed since anyone tried to farm there. I was busy at first. There was tree stumps to burn, and wagon loads of rock to haul out of what I meant to be corn fields.
The Weaver Hole was about a mile from my cabin. People seldom went there alone. I never did, till I had my place fixed about like I wanted it. But once crops were planted there was time on my hands, and I took a fish line and pole there pretty regular.
It looked exactly the same as it does today. Prob'ly won't change none the next hundred years neither. Three Doves Creek dropped down a waterfall, boiling white and loud over rocks till it slowed at a wide deep place. That was the Weaver Hole. Then there was a long lazy turn and Three Doves was a slow shallow creek again, winding through a narrow gap into an empty valley.
The Weaver Hole was spring fed from the bottom and stayed icy cold, even in July. One of the Harris boys drowned in it years ago, and everyone marveled at how deep the sheriff dragged his hooks before snagging the body. Mothers hated the place, were full of awful tales about current pulling people down in the deep water. Before white people crossed to this side of the Blue Ridge, Indian mothers probably told their kids not to play at the Weaver Hole.
It was full of fish, but by day the big ones out in the deep water got away. The edge of the drop-off was sharp rock, an easy place for a smart old bass to cut the line and bust loose. After a time I begun to think how of an evening big fish would follow minnows into the shallows.
Nobody went to the Weaver Hole at night. Daddy called it a snaky place, said after dark you couldn't help but step on rattlers or copperheads there. Others claimed wildcats denned close by, said their hounds never struck a good scent at the Weaver Hole but acted crazy mad like they smelled cat.
I wasn't afraid of snakes, and after sundown in them days, wildcats screamed from ever' high ridge in Hawkes County. They never hurt nobody, except in stories passed on by people who believed every wild tale they heard. Besides, the best dog I ever had would be with me. Old Rock weighed a good eighty pounds and he'd fight anything on four legs.
It seemed foolish not to catch them big fish, so one evening I set out with my dog and a cane pole. I started out walking fast, in a hurry to get to the fish, but the farther I got from lights at the cabin the slower my pacing become. Fifty yards away, where it was dark and quiet, all the tales about the Weaver Hole seemed closer to truth. I made Rock wait while I went back for my shotgun, half a dozen shells and a lantern.
The Weaver Hole was a different place at night. A full moon hung over the ridges, bright as a new dime. Tall oaks arched over Three Doves, so the creek came from one dark place and disappeared into another. The black deep water lay quiet, shiny as lacquered wood; but the night was full of noise, like ever' frog in Kentucky had come to sing there. Whippoorwills called to one another from clearings, and crickets and katydids added their own racket.
I tied Rock to a tree so he wouldn't wander, put lines in the water and found a dry place to settle in. The longer I stayed the more I wished I was back in the cabin. Sticks on the ground make me think "Snake!," and now and then it seemed like wildcat eyes flashed just beyond the lantern light. Just as I begun to fetch wood for a fire to go with my lantern, the fish found my bait.
Bass and Muskie grabbed worms as fast as hooks hit water, and in the shallows they couldn't cut the line and get away. For a while I was too busy pulling in fish to think about the dark or a fire. When Rock begun to fight the rope that held him to the tree and choke himself in a struggle to get loose, I told him to hush. Rock wouldn't be still though. When he commenced to bark the lines went dead in the water, like them fish had heard thunder. I called that dog ever' dirty name I could think of, but he didn't care. He was too busy tearing at the rope with his teeth, determined to get free.
Just as I found a stick to make him hush, I smelled what made Rock carry on so. It was a dirty, dead scent, carried upstream by the wind. Little by little the frogs left off their noise, whippoorwills quieted, and a powerful silence hung over the Weaver Hole.
Rock quieted as I reached for the shotgun, but he still wanted to get loose. When I slipped the rope off his neck, he run only as far as the edge of the lantern's light, and raised his big head to howl at the dark, voice pitched high and frantic. Rock was afraid. That dog was the bravest animal I ever knew, and I sure to God didn't want to fool with whatever could scare him.
Downstream, brush snapped and broke as something came out from where Three Doves wound into that empty valley, and whatever it was didn't care how much noise it made. Rock got wilder as the sound moved in our direction. "Get over here," I told him, and he rolled his eyes to look over his shoulder as he came to me. We backed off in such a hurry I left my lantern on a tree limb. In the woods, where it was dark as a mine, I was sorry I done that.
A shadow shifted in the water, and when the thing the shadow belonged to stepped into the light, I almost dropped my shotgun. It walked like a man, only kind of stooped over, with arms that were ropy with muscle. It bent to pull my stringer of fish onto the bank, and hair on its head hung long enough to brush the water.
I didn't want to look at the awful face, but I couldn't take my eyes away. Think of the smartest dog you ever seen, or how cats' eyes look when they seem to know secrets. This was smarter by a big margin.
Inside the circle of lantern light the thing sniffed the air like a hound, and I worried it would hear the breath rattling in my chest. It faced where I hid in the dark with Rock, stared right at us. When it raised up its hands in knotty fists and took a step in our direction, Rock whined and charged.
He hit the creature at the waist, took it down and begun to tear with his big jaws. I seen another one move and raised the shotgun, but my hands shook so hard I shot wild,; into the trees. The creature turned to run, but dropped like God's own fist touched it when I shot again. "Rock! Yo' Rock!" I hollered.
Rock let go of the one he'd brought down and run to me, his muzzle and chest smeared red. We watched three more of them awful things cross the creek to drag the one Rock had mauled into the dark. I was sure Rock had killed it.
Then they moved toward the one I'd hit with buckshot, and I fired the shotgun again, made 'em flinch even if I didn't hit anything. I shot till I had but one shell left, and wished I'd brought a whole box.
I expected to die where I stood, but by and by the things slipped into the dark. Water splashed as they followed Three Doves back into the valley they'd come from. A few minutes later whippoorwills sang, and frogs commenced calling one another again.
Rock had the stink of those creatures all over him, but I let him press tight against my legs as we backed into the woods. When I felt a tree against my shoulders, I set down and didn't move till dawn. Rock shivered all night and never left me for a minute.
When daylight come, the Weaver Hole looked peaceful again, a place made for picnics and parties. Once the sun was high enough I started to sweat, Rock and me begun searching for the one I'd seen fall. Finding it seemed to take forever.
I walked slow and careful, the way Daddy taught me to hunt deer, and when I got close, stood and watched for a long time. It was the only animal I ever seen cry.
The thing had tried to crawl back to the creek, its legs useless and paralyzed. Tears shiny with early sun dropped onto the ugly face as the creature stared down the creek, and when I followed its gaze I seen another one downstream, waiting.
I don't know how long I watched before my foot broke a dry stick. The thing jerked its head to look toward the sound, and we stared each other in the eye for what seemed like a full minute. That creature wasn't scared of me. It tried to get up on its dead legs as I lifted the gun. I pulled the trigger on my last shell, and it died.
There was a cry downstream and I worried the other one would come for me, but it stayed where it was and made a noise that reminded me of especially mournful funerals. The cry went on and on, till I felt I'd give anything I owned for a way to make it hush. It was a long time before the last one give up and walked into the woods.
I stood over what I'd killed for a long time before I touched it. It had on clothes, kind of. That was what made the smell, uncured fur wrapped around its middle. I tried to imagine clothes on an animal, and couldn't.
Jesse was quiet for a long time, rocking and looking down at the patch of skin on his knee.
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Just about," he said.
"What was it?" I urged, afraid he wouldn't finish the story.
"Don't know," Jesse admitted. "Never did know for certain.
"I used the rope from around Rock's neck to drag the thing back to my cabin, threw the body across a mule and walked to my folks' place. I laid it on the porch, and when Daddy come outside I told him everything that had happened. 'We need men and guns,' Daddy said, and rode my mule to Tom Martin's grocery.
"There's some still alive who seen what I killed at the Weaver Hole, laid out on my folks' porch. Daddy said, 'I don't know what this is, and don't care. But it cannot live in Hawkes County,' and directly the whole crew set out for the Weaver Hole. I stayed on the porch, and couldn't shake the notion I'd done a terrible wrong.
"If them creatures wanted to hurt me, they could have. I was too scared to do much damage, even with the gun. It was luck I hit the one I did. I thought about tears on a strange face, and the way the one that was left seemed to mourn.
"It was well onto dark by the time the men came back. 'How many of them things did you say there was?' Daddy asked.
"I told him I seen five, but that Rock probably killed one.
"'Maybe we got 'em all then,' Daddy told me. He said they'd surrounded the valley and drove three creatures like the one I'd brought home into an open place, where the men shot 'em and burned the bodies. One was female.
"My brother Joe skinned what was on the porch. We kept the hide for a long time, not sure what to do with it.
"About a year later, Ezra Johnson's nephew Teddy, a college teacher at Lexington, come to see us. Ezra had told him we had the skin of an animal nobody'd seen before, and Teddy asked to look at it. Teddy didn't say much when we got it out, just held it for a long time, touching it like he was afraid it was brittle and might break.
"'My God, you've got a thing men have spent fortunes looking for,' he said at last.
"'Don't blaspheme in my house,' Daddy told him. Then he asked, 'Why would people want a thing such as this?'
"'What do you know about evolution?' Teddy wanted to know.
"Daddy frowned. 'Just that man ain't kin to monkeys,' he said.
"'There's more to it than that,' Teddy told us. 'Part of evolution is that people look different today than they used to. I think that's what this is, a way that people used to look.'
"Teddy Johnson held the skin so it stretched full length. 'Some claim a few Neanderthals survived into the Middle Ages, in Europe,' he said. 'But I never dreamt anything like this would turn up in Hawkes County. I know people who'll pay a lot of money to know where it came from.' When he looked at me, I told Teddy anybody could get directions to the Weaver Hole, but I'd not go back there, day or night, for no amount of money.
"Daddy cut this square of fur out of the back part of the hide. Teddy was unhappy over that till Daddy said he could keep the rest, if he thought he could ever tell us what it was."
"Then what happened?" I asked. "What did you find out?"
"Never heard a word," Jesse told me. "Train to Lexington jumped the track east of Winchester and two passenger cars burnt up. Teddy Johnson and that hide was in one of them."
"Mama wrote the college about what Teddy meant to bring 'em. They didn't believe a word of it, and we couldn't prove nothin'. All but this little piece of fur was gone."
Jesse rubbed a finger through the rough hair. "But I know what I seen. I remember the smell of them things, and those big silver tears. And I never have decided if I killed a man or a monster."
Before the end of the summer, I asked Jesse if the story was really true.
"Don't go talkin' about it." he told me. "Hill people get laughed at enough already." Jesse leaned off the porch to spit tobacco juice into the grass. "But son, if I was you, I wouldn't go anywhere near the Weaver Hole after dark."
~ end ~