Heredity

I

‘So and no otherwise hillmen desire their hills,’ and sometimes I have almost believed that this call of the hill country echoes not merely over distant land and sea but from generation to generation. My two children were bom and spent their first years in the level coastal plain of South Carolina, near its edge, where sea winds wander inland cooling the hot villages and, because they whisper through the tops of the long-leaf pines, are known as ‘pineland breezes.’ This vast region is so flat that the tides back the waters of the level rivers for many miles, and far from sight and sound of the sea there throbs between the overgrown banks of abandoned rice fields the rhythm of freshwater tides.

But in summer we journey to the Land of the Sky, where the azure walls of the Blue Ridge look out. across the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and the children’s rapture in the high places, in the cool spicy breath of shady glens where swift streams flash under overhanging masses of mountain laurel and rhododendron, scattering fleets of pink and white in the running water, is that of children returning home. And I remember that their mother was born and spent the impressionable years of girlhood in a near-by Piedmont city that looks up at these very mountains. One day this summer, in the heart of these hills, I realized that even in our unanchored American existence there are backgrounds from which come many things undreamed of in our modern philosophy that maybe shape our restless lives.

Whether it be in low country or here amid the hills, the unending quest of the children is for Indian relics; arrowheads, spear tips fashioned from many-colored flint, red shard in many and curious patterns, form their swelling collection. As with so many other avocations and activities of life, the chief allurement seems to lie in the pursuit; they will spend hours on some hot hillside that has yielded up ‘ signs ’ in finding two or three perfect arrowheads, but, once possessed, the shaped flints repose by hundreds in old cigar boxes, hoarded away, forgotten, and never again seeing the light of day. The ultima Thule of this constant search is stone axes, tomahawks — the very name has a weird, bloodcurdling connotation that undoubtedly gives added charm.

On a day in early September we chanced to be following the sinuous white highway that climbs the folds of the mountains above Greenville. As the road began to mount in long graceful spirals and the human tumult of the settled country was replaced with the hush of towering walls of green and purple that shut us in, we were all suddenly seized with a primitive longing for adventure, a desire to forsake the beaten path for the unknown, and so, when an alluring byroad beckoned us to cross a tumbling brook on a preautomobile wooden bridge, we decided to risk the weight of our little car on its uncertain support. Once across the bridge, an abrupt turn around a sharp corner of projecting rock, and the broad highway with its hurrying caravans of cars vanished as into another world, and our world was an oasis of forgotten yesterdays, a quiet valley where a quiet stream meandered through level cornfields, a happy valley enclosed on every side by steep wooded hills.

As the Mediterranean excels all other waters in its glory of blue, catching the hues of heaven in its waves, so in this Land of the Sky the blueness of the sky drifts to earth, transfiguring familiar things with an azure halo. Mountains but twenty or thirty miles away, which in other ranges stand out distinct with harsh color and contour of rocks, here melt into the ethereal blue, blending with drifting mists into the sky. The near-by wooded mountain sides, even the farther edge of a cornfield through which one is passing, are mysteriously changed by an invisible haze, while toward evening the mountains, near and far, draw about themselves slumber robes of purple. Now, even though the little cove was flooded by a noon sun, the blue crept close about us like the ghost of shadows. In the silence of these remote upland pastures one finds an earth caught dreaming with a look of heaven.

II

The way we followed was merely an ancient mountain road of red clay, narrow, but just ‘Fordable.’ Frequent tiny rills from springs high up the mountain sides splashed sparkling protest at our passage. It was near one of these small streams that I noticed a well-worn footpath that led from the road up through an almost perpendicular corn patch; and far up, at the edge of the forest of chestnut, oak, and white pine, stood a sturdy log cabin, its squat chimney of chinked field stone filling nearly one entire end. Feeling sure that here we should find a proper abode of those shy, contemporary ancestors who inhabit the hidden coves, I parked the car beside the road, and in single file we mounted the pathway.

As we neared the cabin I saw that its location, like that of a watchtower over a mountain pass, commanded a view of the narrow cove and of the road in both directions. Just around the next bend from our car I noticed another parked car, with a khaki-clad driver apparently waiting for someone. Our ascent had been observed from the cabin, and when we emerged on to the small shelf of earth that formed the yard we were met by a group consisting of a tall mountaineer, his six children, ranging from a stunted boy of about ten to the baby in arms, and his wife, still just a girl, bright-eyed, and pretty had it not been for her teeth, stained by snuff dipping, a habit almost universal among the highland sisterhood. Just outside the door a ‘spout spring’ discharged a stream of icy water into its mossencrusted tub. It came down from a natural spring up in the woods, whence it was conducted through hollowed logs. Coon, possum, and skunk skins nailed against the outside of the cabin walls gave a touch of the days of Daniel Boone.

‘Come in, strangers, an’ set a spell,’ was the welcome from the head of the family. The striking feature of the cluttered interior was the generous stone fireplace in which great logs smouldered; skillets and spiders bubbled and sent forth savory hints of the midday meal, while hunks of jerked meat hung like a fringe in the dust and smoke. Over our heads strings of peppers swung between the black joists like red spider webs. The greater portion of the cabin seemed a confused medley of quilt-covered spool beds on and about which squirmed children and lank hound dogs. The three hickory chairs, their cowhide bottoms worn bald of hair through long use, were given to the guests as seats of honor, while those of the family who could n’t obtain front seats on the beds simply squatted on their heels before the fire.

By giving some current events of the outside world in primer form and explaining that we were simply ‘summer folks’ out to see the country, I disarmed the unspoken suspicions of my host and he in turn gave me his own and his family history. His tale covered much ground, but lacked incident. His great-grandfather had followed the mountains down from Pennsylvania ‘long ago’ and had built the present cabin of chestnut logs and stone. Soon after settling he had labored on an old stone bridge which was built by Irishmen sent lip for the work from Charleston. My host’s tone indicated some fabled race of genii. However, the names of near-by peaks he pointed out from the open door, such as Callahan Mountain, indicated that the sons of Erin not only toiled but lingered in this region.

We were soon interrupted by my children, who managed to shift the conversation from history to arrowheads and tomahawks. As a rule the subject requires explanation, even illustration, but in this instance the man seemed to have been more observing and knew exactly what we wanted. From an assortment of old pressedglass dishes, china hens on china nests, and half-empty medicine bottles that cluttered the chimney shelf, he fished out a small box which was filled with discarded odds and ends. After much poking about he drew forth a small object of carved soapstone, the rude semblance of a human figure, which he declared was an Indian doll, ploughed up the previous summer in his corn patch. He gave it to the delighted children.

‘Now up yander road a piece, tother side of the old stone bridge, where my brother lives, he used to have a sight of them stone hatchets that the Injins used to fight with.’

‘Oh, do you suppose there are still any there?’

‘Like as not, if he ain’t throwed ’em away. Who knows? Why don’t you’ns go on up to his house an’ see?’

While we were talking, a mountain boy of about twelve years of age had suddenly appeared out of space and stood leaning against the door jamb, silent but keenly attentive. ‘There air, right thar now in the loft,’ he broke in eagerly, ‘an’ we’ns can go thar with you’ns an’ get ’em.’

‘Is that fellow gone yet?’ in a quick aside from the man.

‘No,’ from the boy in the same tone. ‘He’s yet a-settin’ right thar.’

The family all followed us to the end of the shelf, where, to their delight, we took their picture with the cabin as a background. The quiet little woman murmured a request that all the brood be included and mustered courage to speak before strange men-folks. ‘ We’ns would be right proud to have one o’ them thar pictures when you take ’em outen the little box.’

III

When we reached our car the other car had come back and was parked just in front of ours, blocking the narrow way. At that moment half a dozen men, all in khaki trousers, leggins, and tan shirts, came up the road and hailed the driver. The party were all well armed.

Very politely they passed the time of day with me, but looked rather quizzically at the two mountain lads who had now joined us. In the delightful manner of the South we soon fell into general conversation. In a few minutes, with hearty ‘So-longs,’ the men piled into their car and vanished around the next bend.

‘They air a-huntin’ right peart, but they ain’t a-goin’ to find nothin’,’ the youngest boy confided. I made no comment and he at once changed the subject.

Soon we came in sight of the old stone bridge. It was a solid wall of perfectly fitted granite blocks flung across a deep ravine, with an arched tunnel through which the stream murmured with hollow echo. Just above the opening was a block with the date, 1820. Along the top ran the narrow road, protected on either side by battlements of masonry. Such a bridge as one meets in Ireland or Wales over some wild torrent, but an exotic touch in the heart of the North Carolina mountains. I learned later that this half-abandoned road was once the great thoroughfare from the Carolinas into the West beyond the blue wall, and that at the opening of the last century Irish labor had been sent in wagons from the coast to build this bridge.

A little way beyond the bridge the road gave up a losing fight against neglect and on an exposed shelf of rock ceased to be a road. To the left was a small open level space with a gushing spring in the centre, and here I left the car, proceeding along a footpath that followed the upper windings of the stream. The natives use these trails when on foot or on mule back as secret short cuts between their settlements.

Darting off to a thick patch of hemlocks, the eldest boy rejoined us astride a lumbering white ox, a white sack of corn meal for a saddle. ‘Our ma’s dead an’ our pa’s a-hidin’ out from them revenoos. We boys brung our meal to get some women-folks to cook, but they all ’lowed they ain’t had time to-day.’

But the sun was too bright and the air too keen for the prospect of a dinnerless day long to dampen the spirit of youth, and besides, each boy carried in his pocket a twist of dark tobacco whence he derived the solace of a ‘chaw.’ One of the boys had a curious whistle, three shrill notes repeated in quick succession, which he gave as we neared each cabin. Chancing once to look back, I observed that the door and windows had mysteriously closed as we passed, so that to the next comer the home would appear deserted. The four children were by this time fast friends and took turns riding the patient, lumbering beast. Though Edward declined the offered ‘chaw’ of tobacco, apple trees and berry patches supplied nourishment that all could enjoy, while frequent springs under the rocks along the stream offered cool drink.

At length the narrow pass opened out into a small hollow in which nestled another log cabin framed by a weeping willow and some tall junipers. This was home, and the boys led the way first to a peanut patch and, pulling up a bush here and there, began to munch the moist nuts.

‘You’ns put them shells in your pockets,’ they warned us. ‘Pa’ll lick hell outen wens if he cotches us a-eatin’ of his pinders.’

Then the key was extracted from beneath a flat stone by the spring, where earthen jars of milk stood up to their waists in the cold water, protected only by thoughts of Pa and his rifle somewhere up among the rocks. Up in the dim loft, amid broken spinning wheels and empty demijohns and bottles, two of the long-sought stone axes were found. The reserve of the hills had long since vanished, and we five were as fellow members of some highland clan.

‘We boys helps Pa haul whiskey down from Old Glassy Mountain every week,’ the young mountaineers boasted with pride. ‘Them revenoos is a-layin’ fur Pa right now, but they ain’t a-goin’ to find him. They be huntin’ for his still on the wrong fork of the creek.’

IV

When we reached our car again the party in khaki were resting on the grass beside the spring, and incidentally around our car. The situation was becoming a trifle thick. While a meeting with revenue officers in these mountains was not an unusual incident, here I was, unknown, with my two children found in company with the son and nephew of the sought moonshiner. We joined the party on the grass and I exhibited the two tomahawks as evidence of our business in the hills. The mountain boys, up to this time as keenwitted as little foxes, grew suddenly stupid, idiotic. They appeared unable to answer the simplest questions as to who occupied near-by cabins or as to the names of the mountains or creeks. The brood of the moonshiner learn the rules of the life game early here in the ‘Dark Corner’ of Carolina.

‘Have you ever visited Greenville, sir?’ asked one of the officers, turning to me.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Some years ago I was there quite frequently; I married a Greenville girl.’

‘What was her name?’ And there crept into the voice a note that indicated I was now on the stand of an impromptu court.

‘Her name was McCann.’

‘Which one of the McCann girls did you marry?’

‘ Virginia.’

’I don’t remember any one of those girls being named Virginia, do you, Ben?’ observed one of the men, addressing the leader.

‘No,’ in a positive manner, ‘I sure don’t.’

‘Well, my wife moved away quite a number of years ago — in fact she has spent very little time in Greenville since she was a girl.’

Nothing more was said directly to me but the long pauses in the conversation indicated that I had failed to make the grade. Then through the still air came three gunshots in quick succession, far away, echoing down the pass where we had so recently been. ‘We might as well turn back, fellows,’ said one of the men. ‘The word has been spread now by someone.’

The portly man with iron-gray hair, who seemed rather a country banker or merchant than my movie ideal of a leader of a band of mountain ‘revenues,’ sprang to his feet without a word and cut a twig from a hazel bush beside the spring. Trimming it with meticulous care, he fashioned a small section into a letter ‘Y’ and began to walk slowly across the clearing holding one prong in each hand. When he reached a certain spot above the spring, in a line projected from its outlet, the twig twisted over suddenly, and he paused with a look of keen satisfaction.

‘Well, I’ll be durned!’ exclaimed one of his men. ’I have often heard tell of water finders, but I’ve never seen it tried before.’

‘Try it yourself,’ was the reply, and the leader handed him the twig. There was general interest now and all the party tried in turn, but none could achieve the magic result. My own effort was a failure.

‘Here, you try, daughter,’ said the water finder, handing the twig to Jane. Thrilled with importance, the child walked carefully along, and when the mysterious spot was reached the twig seemed to be almost pulled from her hand. My boy was equally successful. Neither of the mountain boys could be induced to try, possibly suspecting witchcraft in the unusual proceeding.

‘Well, that certainly is funny,’ someone observed. ‘Why the dickens will it only work for you and these two children?’

‘That’s easy to explain. Water divining always runs in families. All we Thompsons could do it. It goes back to my great-great-grandfather who came over from England, and maybe it goes farther back than that. And these children have sure got McCann blood. Their great-grandfather, old man George McCann, used to locate wells all over Pendleton District before ever he moved to Greenville. They are McCanns, all right.’

The clouds had lifted and the social atmosphere was again clear.

‘Now, sir,’ to me, ‘if you will stop by Uncle John Guess’s place, just over the North Carolina line, you will find a regular mine of Indian things in his creek bottom. And next time you bring your children to Greenville look me up and I will give them a whole soapstone pot that a fellow found in an Indian grave in Pickens County and gave to me when I was on a raid up that way.’

And with mutual expressions of goodfellowship we parted, and I headed my car over the old stone bridge back into the twentieth century.