The Burning of the Waters

Poet and short-story writer, JAMES STILL has done much of his creative writing in that remote, picturesque stronghold, the Kentucky mountains. For years he was the librarian of the Hindman Settlement School at the forks of Troublesome Creek, and he has been the laureate oj the mountaineers. In 1910 he shared honors with Thomas Wolfe in the Southern Authors’ Award, for his novel River of Earth.Since then he has received a Guggenheim fellowship and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and his short stories have been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 1946, 1950, and 1952.


WE MOVED from Tullock’s lumber camp to Tight Hollow on a day in March when the sky was as gray as a war penny and wind whistled the creek roads. Father had got himself appointed caretaker of a tract of timber at the far side of the county, his wages free rent. We were to live in the one-room bunkhouse of an abandoned stave mill.

Father rode in the cab with Cass Tullock, and every jolt made him chuckle. He laughed at Cass’s complaint of the chugholes. He teased him for holding us up a day in the belief we might change our minds. Beside them huddled Mother, the baby on her lap, her face dolesome. Holly and Dan and I sat on top of the load and when a gust blew my hat away I only grinned, for Father had promised us squirrel caps. Holly was as set against moving as Mother. She hugged her cob dolls and pouted.

The tract lay beyond Marlett and Rough Break, and beyond Kilgore where the settlements ended — eleven thousand acres as virgin as upon the first day of the world. Father had learned of it while prospecting timber for Cass and resolved to move there. To live without work was his dream. Game would provide meat, sugar trees our sweetening; garden sass and corn thrive in dirt black as a shovel. Herbs and pelts would furnish ready cash.

Father had thrown over his job, bought steel traps and gun shells and provisions, including a hundred-pound sack of pinto beans. He had used the last dime without getting the new shoes he needed. He told us, “Tight Hollow is a mite narrow but that’s to our benefit. Cold blasts can’t punish in winter, summers the sun won’t tarry long enough overhead to sting. We can sit on our hands and rear back on our thumbs.”

Once Father made up his mind, arguing was futile. Still Mother had spent her opinion. “Footgear doesn’t grow on bushes to my knowledge,” she said.

“You tickle me,” Father had chuckled. “Why, ginseng roots alone fetch thirteen dollars a pound and seneca and golden seal pay well. Mink hides bring twenty dollars, muskrat up to five. Aye, we can buy shoes by the rack. We’ll get along and hardly pop a sweat.”

” Whoever heard of a feller opening his hand and a living falling in?” Mother asked bitterly. “My reckoning, you’ll have to strike more licks than you’re expecting.”

Mother’s want of faith amused Father. “I’ll do a few dabs of work,” he granted. “But mostly I’ll stay home and grow up with my children. Kilgore post office will be the farthest I’ll travel, and there to ship herbs and hides and rake in the money.” He poked his arms at the baby, saying, “Me and this chub will end the biggest buddies ever was.”

The baby strained toward Father, but Dan edged between them. Dan was four.

Mother inquired, “What of a school? Is one within walking distance?”

Holly puffed her cheeks and grumbled, “I’d bet. it’s a jillion miles to a neighbor’s house.”

“Schools are everywhere nowadays,” Father said,

his face clouding. “Everywhere.” He was never much for jawing.

“Bet you could look your eyeballs out,” Holly said, “and see nary a body.”

Annoyed, Father explained, “A family lives on Grassy Creek, several miles this side, Close enough, to my fancy. Too many tramplers kill a wild place.”

“Tullock’s Camp is no paradise,” Mother said, “but we have friendly neighbors and a school. Here we know the whereabouts of our next meal.”

Father wagged his head in irritation. He declared, “I’ll locate a school by the July term, fear you not.” And passing on he said, “Any morning I can spring out of bed and slay a mess of squirrels. We’ll eat squirrel gravy that won’t quit. Of the furs we’ll pattern caps for these young’uns, leaving the tails for handles.”

“Humph,” said Holly. “I’ll not be caught wearing a varmint’s skin.”

Mother would not be denied. “Surely you asked the Grassy folks the nearest school?”

Father’s neck reddened. “I told them we’d move the first Thursday in March,” he spoke sharply. “They acted dumfounded and the man said, ‘Ah!* and his woman mumbled, ‘Well! well!’ The whole of the conversation.”

“They don’t sound neighborly,” Mother said.

“Now, no,” agreed Holly.

“Upon my word and honor!” Father chuffed. “They’re good people. Just not talky.” And on his own behalf, “Let a man mention the opportunity of a lifetime and the women start picking it to pieces. They’d fault heaven.”

Mother had sighed, knowing she would have to allow Father to whip himself. She asked, “When you’ve learned we can’t live like foxes will you bow to the truth? Or will you hang on till we starve out? ”

Of a sudden Father slapped his leg so hard he startled the baby and made Dan jump. “Women aim to have their way,” he blurted. “One fashion or another they’ll get it. They’ll burn the waters of the creek, if that’s what it takes. They’ll up-end creation.”

“Men can be pretty hardheaded,” Mother had said.


DAYLIGHT was perishing when we turned into Tight Hollow. The road was barely a trace. The tie rods dragged and Cass groaned; Cass groaned and Father chuckled. The ridges broke the wind, though we could hear it hooting in the lofty woods. Three quarters of a mile along the branch the stave mill and bunkhouse came to view, and, unaccountably, a smoke rose from the bunkhouse chimney. The door hung ajar, and as we drew up we saw fire smoldering on the hearth.

Nobody stirred for a moment. We could not think how this might be. Father called a hey-o and got no reply. Then he and Cass strode to the door. They found the building empty — empty save for a row of kegs and an alder broom. They stood wondering.

Cass said, “By the size of the log butts I judge the fire was built yesterday.”

“Appears a passing hunter slept here last night,” Father guessed, “and sort of fanned out the gom.”

We unloaded the truck in haste, Cass being anxious to start home. Dan and I kept at Father’s heels and Holly tended the baby and her dolls, the while peering uneasily over her shoulder. Our belongings seemed few in the lengthy room, and despite lamp and firelight, the corners were gloomy.

At leaving, Cass counseled Father, “When you stump playing wild man hie back to civilization. Good sawsmiths are scarce.” And he twitted, “Don’t stay till Old Jack Somebody carries you off plumb, He’s the gent, my opinion, who lit your fire.”

“I pity you working fellers,” Father countered. “You’ll slave, you’ll flounder, you’ll wear your fingers to nubs for what Providence offers as a bounty.”

“You heard me,” Cass said, and drove away.

The bunkhouse had no flue to accommodate the stovepipe, and Mother cooked supper on coals raked onto the hearth. The bread baked in a skillet was round as a grindstone. Though we ate little, Father advised, “Save space for a stout breakfast. Come daybreak I’ll be gathering in the squirrels.”

Dan and Holly and I pushed aside our plates. We gazed at the moss of soot riding the chimney-back, the fire built by we knew not whom. We missed the sighing of the sawmill boilers; we longed for the camp. Mother said nothing and Father fell silent. Presently Father yawned and said, “Let’s fly up if I’m to rise early.”

Lying big-eyed in the dark 1 heard Father say to Mother, “That fire puzzles me tee-totally. Had we come yesterday as I planned I’d know the mister to thank.”

“You’re taking it as seriously as the young’uns,” Mother answered. “I believe to my heart you’re scary.”

“Not as much as a man I’ve been told of,” Father jested. “He makes his woman sleep on the outer side of the bed, he’s so fearful.”

When I waked the next morning Mother was nursing the baby by the hearth and Holly was warming her dolls. Dan waddled in a great pair of boots he had found in a keg. The wind had quieted, the weather grown bitter. The cracks invited freezing air. Father was expected at any moment and a skillet of grease simmered in readiness for the squirrels.

We waited the morning through. Toward ten o’clock we opened the door and looked up-creek and down, seeing by broad day how prisoned was Tight Hollow. The ridges crowded close; a body had to tilt head to see the sky. At eleven, after the sun had finally topped the hills, Mother made hobby bread and fried salt meat. Bending over the hearth, she cast baleful glances at her idle stove. Father arrived past one and he came empty-handed and grinning sheepishly.

“ You’re in good season for dinner,”Mother said.

Father’s jaws flushed. “Game won’t stir in such weather,” he declared. “It’d freeze the clapper in a cowbell.” Thawing his icy hands and feet he said, “Just you wait till spring opens. I’ll get up with the squirrels. I’ll pack ‘em in.”


THE cold held. The ground was iron and spears of ice the size of a leg hung from the cliffs. Drafty as a basket the bunkhouse was, and we turned like flutter-mills before the fire. We slept under a burden of quilts. And how homesick we children were for the song of the saws, the whistle blowing noon! We yearned for our playfellows. Holly sulked. She sat by the hearth and attended her dolls. She didn’t eat enough to do a flaxbird.

Father set up his trap line along the branch and then started a search for sugar trees and game. Straightway he had to yield in one particular. There was scarcely a hard maple on the tract. “Sweetening rots teeth anyhow,” he told us. “What sugar we need we can buy later.” Hunting and trapping kept him gone daylight to dark and he explained, “It takes hustling at the outset. But after things get rolling, Granny Nature will pull the main haul. I’ll have my barrel full of resting.”

When Father caught nothing in his traps two weeks running he made excuse, “You can’t fool a mink or muskrat the first crack. The newness will have to wear off the iron.” And for all of his hunting, my head went begging a cap. Rabbits alone stirred. Tight Hollow turned out pesky with rabbits. “It’s the weather that has the squirrels holed,” he said. “It would bluff doorknobs.”

“ Maybe there’s a lack of mast trees too,” Mother said. “Critters have sense enough to dwell where there’s a living to be got. More than can be said for some people I know.”

Holly said, “I bet it’s warm at the camp.”

“It’s blizzardy the hills over,” Father chuffed edgily. “I don’t recollect the beat.”

Mother said, “Not a marvel the hollow is cold as a froe, having sunlight just three hours a day. For all the world like living in a barrel.”

“At Tullock’s Camp,” Holly said, “you could see the sunball any old time.”

“And the houses were weather-boarded,” Mother joined in. “And my cookstove didn’t sit like a picture.”

“Now, yes,” chimed Holly.

Father squirmed. “Have a grain of patience,” he ordered. And to stop the talk he said, “Fetch the baby to me. I want to start buddying with the little master.”

During March Dan and I nearly drove Mother distracted. We made the bunkhouse thunder; we went clumping in the castaway boots. The stave mill beckoned but the air was too keen, and we dared not venture much beyond the threshold. Often we peered through cracks to see if Old Jack Somebody were about, and at night I tied my big toe to Dan’s so should either of us be snatched in sleep the other would wake.

In a month we used more than half of the corn meal and most of the lard. The salt meat shrank. The potatoes left were spared for seed. When the coffee gave out Father posed, “Now, what would Old Dan’l Boone have done in such a pickle?” He bade Mother roast pintos and brew them. But he couldn’t help twisting his mouth every swallow. Rabbits and beans we had in plenty and Father assured, “They’ll feed us till the garden sass crosses the table.” Holly grew thin as a sawhorse. She claimed beans stuck in her throat, professed to despise rabbit. She lived on broth.

The traps stayed empty and Father said, “Fooling a mink is ticklish business. The idea is to rid the suspicion and set a strong temptation.” He baited with meat skins, rancid grease, and rabbit ears; he boiled the traps, smoked them, even buried them awhile. “I’ll pinch toes yet,” he vowed, “doubt, you not.”

“The shape your feet are in,” Mother remarked, “the quicker the better.”

“We’re not entirely beholden to pelts,” Father hedged. “Even if I had the bad luck to catch nothing the herbs are ahead of us — ginseng at thirteen dollars a pound.”

“I doubt your shoes will hold out to tread grass,” said Mother.

Coming in with naught to show was awkward for Father and he teased or complained to cover his embarrassment. One day he saw me wearing a stocking cap Mother had made and he laughed fit to choke. He warned, “Shun wood choppers, little man, or your noggin might be mistaken for a knot on a log.” Again, spying Holly stitching a tiny garment, he appealed to Mother, “Upon my deed! Eleven years old and pranking with dolls. I recollect. when girls her age were fair on to becoming young women.”

“Away from other girls,” Mother asked, “how can she occupy herself?”

“Stir about,” said Father, “not mope.”

Holly said, “I’m scared to go outside. Every night I hear a booger.”

“So that’s if,” Father scoffed.

“The piime-blank truth, now.”

Mother abetted Holly, “Something waked me an evening or so ago. A rambling noise, a walking sound.”

“My opinion,” Father said, “you heard a tree frog, or a. hooty-owl. Leave it to women to build a haystack of a straw.”

Mother saw my mouth gape and Dan’s eyes round. Without more ado she changed the subject. She prompted Father, “Why don’t you go visit the Grassy Creek people? Let them know we’re here, and begin to act neighbors.”

“They knew we were coming,” Father reminded. And he said, “When I have hides for Kilgore post office I might speak howdy in passing.”

“The fashion varmints are shying your traps,” Mother said. “That’ll be domesday.”

Father looked scalded. He eyed the door as if on the verge of stalking out. He said, “Stuff your ears nights, you two, and you’ll sleep better.”


THE cold slackened early in April. It rained a week. The spears of ice along the cliffs plunged to earth and the branch flooded. The waters covered the stave mill, lapped under the bunkhouse floor, filled the hollow wall to wall. They swept away Father’s traps. When the skies cleared, the solitary trap he found near the mouth of the hollow he left lying.

“Never you fret,” Father promised Mother, ‘herbs will provide. I’ve heard speak of families of ginseng diggers roaming the hills, free as the birds. They made a life of it.”

“I’d put small dependence in such tales,” Mother said.

The woods hurried into leaf. The cucumber trees broke blossoms the size of plates. Dogwood and service whitened the ridges, and wheedle-dees called in the laurel. And one morning Mother showed Father strange tracks by the door. Father stood in the tracks and they were much larger than his shoes. His shoes had lasted by dint of regular mending. He wagged his head. He could only droll, “It would profit any jasper wearing leather to steer clear of me. I’m apt to compel a trade.”

“My judgment,” Mother said, “we’re wanted begone. They’re out to be rid of us. They’ll hound us off the tract.”

“I’m the appointed caretaker of this scope of land,” Father replied testily, “and I’ll not leave till I get my ready on.”

Wild greens spelled the pintos and rabbit. We ate branch lettuce and ragged breeches and bird’stoe and swamp mustard. And again the beans and rabbit when the plants toughened. By late April the salt meat was down to rind, the meal sack more poke than bread, the lard scanty. Father hewed out a garden patch and then left the seeding and tilling to Mother. He took up ginseng hunting altogether. He came in too weary to pick at us and he rarely saw the baby awake. Dan began to look askance at him. As for his shoes, he was patching the patches.

Dan and I gradually forgot Old Jack. We waded in the branch and played at the stave mill. We pretended to work for Cass Tullock, feeding mock logs to saws, buzzing to match steel eating timber. And we chased cowbirds and rabbits in the garden. Rich as the land was, the seeds sprouted tardily, for the sun warmed the valley floor only at the height of the day. Mother fixed a scarecrow and dressed it in Father’s clothes. We would hold the baby high and say, “Yender’s Pap! Pap-o!” The baby would stare as at a stranger.

Father happened upon the first ginseng in May and bore it home proudly. We crowded to see it — even Holly. Three of the roots were forked and wrinkled, with arms and legs and a knot of a head. One had the shape of a spindle. Tired though he was, Father boasted, “The easiest licks a man ever struck. Four digs, four roots.”

“Dried they’ll weigh like cork,” Mother pronounced: and she asked, “Why didn’t you hit more taps, make the tramping worth the leather?”

His ears reddening. Father stammered, “The stalks are barely breaking dirt. Hold your horses. You can’t push nature.”

Mother said, “I believe to my soul your skull is as hard as a ball-peen hammer.”

Father glanced about for the baby, thinking to skip an argument. The baby was asleep. He complained, “Is the chub going to slumber its life away?” He eyed Dan leaning against Mother and said, “That kid used to be a daddy’s boy, used to keep my knees rubbed sore.” And he took a square look at Holly and inquired, “What ails her? I want to know. She’s bony as a garfish.”

“ You’re the shikepoke,” Mother replied. “You’ve walked yourself to a blade.” And she said, “Did you come home early as at Tullock’s Camp you’d find the baby wide-eyed.”

Holly snatched the ginseng and fondled it. “Gee-o,” she breathed in delight.

Father caught the baby awake the day he got up with the squirrels. He arrived in midafternoon swinging two critters by their tails, and he came grinning in spite of having found no ginseng. He crowed, “We’ll allow the beans and bunnies a vacation. We’ll feast on squirrel gravy.” He jiggled them to make the baby flick its eyes. After skinning the squirrels, he stretched the hides across boards and hung them to cure.

The gravy turned out weak and tasteless. Lacking flour and milk there was no help for it. Yet Father smacked his lips. He offered the baby a spoonful and it shrank away. He ladled Dan a serving and Dan refused it. Tempting Holly he urged, “Try a sop and mind you don’t swallow your tongue.” Holly wrinkled her nose. “Take nourishment, my lady,” he cajoled, “or you’ll fair disappear.”

“Humph,” Holly scoffed, leaving the table.

Father’s patience shortened. “Can’t you make the young’un eat?” he demanded of Mother. “She’s wasting to a skeleton.”

“Well all lose flesh directly,” Mother said.

Holly said, “Was I at Tullock’s Camp I’d eat a bushel.”

Father opened his mouth to speak but caught himself. He couldn’t outtalk the both. He gritted his teeth and hushed.

When ginseng proved scarce and golden seal and seneca thinly scattered, Father dug five-cent dock and twenty-cent wild ginger. He dug cohosh and crane’s-bill and bluing weed and snakeroot. He worked like a whitehead. Mornings he left so early he carried a lantern to light his path and he returned after we children had dozed off. Still the bulk of the herbs drying on the hearth hardly seemed to increase from day to day. Again Mother reported strange tracks but Father shrugged. “ It’s not the footprints that plague me,” he said, “it’s the puzzle.”

The garden failed. The corn dwarfed in the shade, the tomatoes blighted. The potato vines were pale as though grown under thatch. We ate the last of the bread and then we knew beans and rabbit plain. Father hammered together box traps and baited for groundhogs. A covey of whitebacks sprung the stick triggers and we had a supper of them. Dry eating they made, aye-o! The groundhogs were too wise.

Awaking one evening as Father trudged in, I heard Mother say direfully, “We’ll have to flee this hollow, no two ways talking. They’ll halt at nothing to be rid of us.”

“What now?” Father asked wearily.

“Next they’ll burn us out,” Mother said, displaying a bunch of charred sticks. “Under the house I found these. By a mercy the fire perished before the planks took spark.”

“May have been there twenty years,” Father discounted. “Who knows how long?”

“Fresh as yesterday,” Mother insisted. “Smell of them.”

“To my thinking,” Father ridiculed, “scorched sticks and big tracks are awful weak antics. The pranks of some witty, some dumbhead.”

“We can’t risk guessing,” Mother begged. “For the sake of the children —”

“ Women can read a message in a chicken feather,” Father declared. “They can spin riddles of rocks. For my part, I have to see something I can understand. A knife brandished, say. Or a gun pointing in my direction.”

Mother threw up her hands. “You’re as stubborn as Old Billy Devil!” she cried.

Father yawned. He was too exhausted to wrangle.

The day came when Father’s shoes wore out completely. He hobbled home at dusk and told Mother, “Roust the old boots. My shoes have done all they came here to do.”

“They’ll swallow your feet,” Mother objected. “They’ll punish.” She was close to tears.

“It’s a force-put,” Father said. “ I’ll have to use the pair do they cost me a yard of skin.”

Reluctantly Mother brought the boots and Father stuffed the toes with rags and drew them on. They were sizes too large and rattled as he walked. Noticing how gravely we children watched, he pranced to get a rise out of us. Our faces remained solemn.

“I’ll suffer these till I can arrange otherwise,” he said, “and that I aim to do shortly. I’ll fetch the herbs to the Kilgore post office tomorrow.”

“They may bring in enough to shod you,” Mother said, “if you’ll trade with a cheap-John.” She dabbed her eyes. “A season’s work not worth a good pair of shoes!”

His face reddening, Father began sorting the herbs. But he couldn’t find the ginseng. He searched the fireplace, the floor. He looked here and yon. He scattered the heaps. Then he spied Holly’s dolls. The forked ginseng roots were clothed in tiny breeches, the spindle-shaped tricked in wee skirts. They were dressed like people. “Upon my deed!” he sputtered.

Father paced the bunkhouse, the boots creaking. He glared at Holly and she threw her neck haughtily. He neared Dan and Dan sheltered behind Mother. He reached to gather up the baby and it primped its face to cry. “Upon my word and deed and honor!” he blurted ill-humoredly and grabbed his hat and the lantern. “Even the Grassy folks wouldn’t plumb cold-shoulder me. I’m ot a notion to spend a night with them.” He was across the threshold before Mother could speak to halt him.


FATHER was gone two days and Mother was distraught. She scrubbed the bunkhouse end to end; she mended garments and sewed on buttons; she slew every weed in the puny garden. And there being nothing more to do she gathered up the squirrel skins and patterned caps.

The afternoon of the second day she told us, “I’m going down-creek a spell. Keep the baby company and don’t set foot outside.” Taking Father’s gun she latched the door behind her. We watched through cracks and saw her enter the garden and strip the scarecrow; we saw her march toward the mouth of the creek, gun in hand, garments balled under an arm. She returned presently, silent and empty-handed, and she sat idle until she saw Father coming.

Father arrived wearing new shoes and chuckling. I ran to meet him, the tail of my fur cap flying, and he had to chortle a while ere he could go another step. He chirruped, “Stay out of trees, mister boy, or you may be shot for a squirrel.” But it wasn’t my cap that had set him laughing. Upon seeing Mother he drew his jaws straight. He wore a dry countenance though his eyes were bright.

Mother gazed at Father’s shoes. “What word of the Grassy people?” she asked coolly.

“They’re in health,” Father replied, hard put to master his lips. He had to keep talking to manage it. “And from them I got answers to a couple of long-hanging questions. I learned the nearest schoolhouse; I know who kindled our fireplace.”

Dan, hiding behind Mother, thrust his head into sight. Holly let her dolls rest, listening.

“Kilgore has the closest school,” Father said. “A mite farther than I’d counted on. As for the fire, why, the Grassy feller made it to welcome us the day he expected us to move here. But he’s not the Mischief who planted tracks and pitched burned sticks under the house. Nor the one who waylaid me at the mouth of the hollow while ago.”

Mother east down her eyes.

Father went on, struggling against merriment, “A good thing I made a deal with Cass Tullock to haul our plunder back to the camp. Aye, a piece of luck he advanced money for shoes and I had proper footgear to run in when I blundered into the ambush.” He began to chuckle.

Mother lowered her head.

Swallowing, trying to contain his joy. Father said, “Coming into the hollow I spied a gun barrel pointing across a log at me — a gun plime-blank like my own. Behind was a bush of a somebody rigged in my old coat and plug hat. Gee-o, I traveled!" His tongue balled, cutting short his revelations. His face tore up.

Mother raised her chin. Her eyes were damp, yet she was smiling. “If you’d stop carning on,”she said, “you could tell us how soon to expect Cass,”

A gale of laughter broke in Father’s throat. He threshed the air. He fought for breath. “I can’t,” he gasped. “You’ve tickled me.”