Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Complete

Page: 170


In the early part of this century Bill Quick, trapper and frontiersman, lived in a cabin on the upper Scioto, not far from the present town of Kenton, Ohio. One evening when he returned from the hunt he found his home rifled of its contents and his aged father weltering in his blood on the floor. He then and there took oath that he would be revenged a hundredfold. His mission was undertaken at once, and for many a year thereafter the Indians of the region had cause to dread the doom that came to them from brake and wood and fen,—now death by knife that flashed at them from behind a tree, and the next instant whirled through the air and was buried to the hilt in a red man's heart; now, by bullet as they rowed across the rivers; now, by axe that clove their skulls as they lay asleep.

Bill Quick worked secretly, and, unlike other men of the place and time, he did not take his trophies Indian-fashion. The scalp was not enough. He took the head. And presently a row of grinning skulls was ranged upon his shelves. Ninety-nine of these ghastly prizes occupied his cabin, and the man was confident that he should accomplish his intent. But the Indians, in terror, were falling away toward the lakes; they were keeping better guard; and ere the hundredth man had fallen before his rifle he was seized with fatal illness. Calling to him his son, Tom, he pointed to the skulls, and charged him to fulfil the oath he had taken by adding to the list a hundredth skull. Should he fail in this the murdered ancestor and he himself would come back to haunt the laggard. Tom accepted the trust, but everything seemed to work against him. He never was much of a hunter nor a very true shot, and he had no liking for war; besides, the Indians had left the country, as he fancied. So he grumbled at the uncongenial task appointed for him and kept deferring it from week to week and from year to year. When his conscience pricked him he allayed the smart with drink, and his conscience seemed to grow more active as he grew older.

On returning to the cabin after a carouse he declared that he had heard voices, that the skulls gibbered and cracked their teeth together as if mocking his weakness, and that a phosphorescent glare shone through the sockets of their eyes. In his cups he prattled his secret, and soon the whole country knew that he was under oath to kill a red-skin-and the country laughed at him. On a certain day it was reported that a band of Indians had been seen in the neighborhood, and what with drink and the taunts of his friends, he was impelled to take his rifle and set out once more on the war-path. A settler heard a shot fired not long after. Next day a neighbor passing Tom Quick's cabin tapped at the door, and, receiving no answer, pushed it open and entered. The hundredth skull was there, on the shelves, a bullet-hole in the forehead, and the scalp gone. The head was Quick's.


Two miles south of Munger, Ohio, in the heart of what used to be called the Black Swamp, stood the Woodbury House, a roomy mansion long gone to decay. John Cleves, the last to live in it, was a man whose evil practices got him into the penitentiary, but people had never associated him with the queer sights and sounds in the lower chambers, nor with the fact that a man named Syms, who had gone to that house in 1842, had never been known to leave it. Ten years after Syms's disappearance it happened that Major Ward and his friend John Stow had occasion to take shelter there for the night—it being then deserted,—and, starting a blaze in the parlor fireplace, they lit their pipes and talked till late. Stow would have preferred a happier topic, but the major, who feared neither man nor devil, constantly turned the talk on the evil reputation of the house.

While they chatted a door opened with a creak and a human skeleton appeared before them.

"What do you want? Speak!" cried Ward. But waiting for no answer he drew his pistols and fired two shots at the grisly object. There was a rattling sound, but the skeleton was neither dislocated nor disconcerted. Advancing deliberately, with upraised arm, it said, in a husky voice, "I, that am dead, yet live in a sense that mortals do not know. In my earthly life I was James Syms, who was robbed and killed here in my sleep by John Cleves." With bony finger it pointed to a rugged gap in its left temple. "Cleves cut off my head and buried it under the hearth. My body he cast into his well." At these words the head disappeared and the voice was heard beneath the floor, "Take up my skull." The watchers obeyed the call, and after digging a minute beneath the hearth a fleshless head with a wound on the left temple came to view. Ward took it into his hands, but in a twinkling it left them and reappeared on the shoulders of the skeleton.

"I have long wanted to tell my fate," it resumed, "but could not until one should be found brave enough to speak to me. I have appeared to many, but you are the first who has commanded me to break my long silence. Give my bones a decent burial. Write to my relative, Gilmore Syms, of Columbus, Georgia, and tell him what I have revealed. I have found peace." With a grateful gesture it extended its hand to Ward, who, as he took it, shook like one with an ague, his wrist locked in its bony clasp. As it released him it raised its hand impressively. A bluish light burned at the doorway for an instant. The two men found themselves alone.


Near Gallipolis, Ohio, there stood within a few years an old house of four rooms that had been occupied by Herman Deluse. He lived there alone, and, though his farming was of the crudest sort, he never appeared to lack for anything. The people had an idea that the place was under ban, and it was more than suspected that its occupant had been a pirate. In fact, he called his place the Isle of Pines, after a buccaneers' rendezvous in the West Indies, and made no attempt to conceal the strange plunder and curious weapons that he had brought home with him, but of money he never appeared to have much at once. When it came his time to die he ended his life alone, so far as any knew—at least, his body was found in his bed, without trace of violence or disorder. It was buried and the public administrator took charge of the estate, locking up the house until possible relatives should come to claim it, and the rustic jury found that Deluse "came to his death by visitation of God."