Windy nights such as come sweeping through the hollows in spring put me in mind of the legend of Sam Hart and his race with the Devil through the streets of Lewisburg, West Virginia.
What I know of the tale was set to print by Jim Comstock in the 1970s, and it may be his version that has grown so distinct in my mind, though the story is, of course, perennial. I’m sure we’ve all heard similar tales, often with a similarly unsettling outcome, though it hardly makes the story less readable in my opinion. Here’s Comstock’s version:
The Legend of Samuel Hart
Around Lewisburg they tell the story of how Samuel Hart raced the Devil and lost within sight of the Old Stone Church. Back when Greenbrier County and the country were both young, Samuel Hart and his mare Betsy cut quite a figure around the thriving county seat town of Lewisburg. Betsy had outrun every horse in a county which was already becoming famous for its horses, and things were getting rather dull for Sam, because no one would even try to race against him anymore.
One day a stranger came to town riding a magnificent black horse. He wore a long flowing back cape and a black suit, and under his black hat was a handsome, aristocratic face. He stopped at the inn near the courthouse, and after washing the his face and hands, went to the public room and ordered a mug of hot ale. He spoke to no one, but his striking appearance as he rode into town had not been missed, and many spoke of him, so it wasn’t long before Sam heard of the handsome stranger and the beautiful beast which he rode.
Sam also had a group of rowdy friends who did their best to get him to challenge the stranger to a race, and finally he did so, although he did not believe there was any horse which could beat Betsy in a dead heat.
The stranger apparently thought differently, and bet Sam $100 to his $50 that his horse was the better of the two, so Sam took up the challenge, adding carelessly, “You’re getting the short end of it, but if I lose you may have my soul.”
The stranger laughed at the remark and said, “I shall remember that.”
Sam had an intended whose name was Sarah, and, when she heard of the race ,she did her best to persuade her suitor not to risk his soul against a man about whom he knew nothing. Like many arrogant youngsters, though, he paid her good advice no mind, and the next morning he was ready to ride. At the outset, Betsy took the lead by more than 30 yards, and she held it as the two racers rounded the courthouse and headed back down market street. Sam looked behind him and was unnerved to see blue flames coming from the nostrils of the rider.
He realized that he was racing the Devil himself, and that his soul was in danger. He urged Betsy on even faster, hoping to make it to the grounds of the Old Stone Church, where he knew the stranger would not set foot, but he didn’t get there. Only few feet from safety the Devil rode abreast of him and raised his cape.
Neither Sam nor the stranger was ever seen again. With their mounts they had vanished from the face of the earth. There was only the testimony of the old woman who lived near the church, stating that she had seen the black cape envelope Sam and Betsy and that all disappeared in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. No one believed her because she was old and given to telling tales.
But there are still some folks in Lewisburg who claim that, if the night is dark and you listen closely, you can hear the ghostly hoof-beats of Betsy and the horse of the man who raced Sam Hart, and perhaps you can even hear the scream of Sam when he was overtaken.