Tale of Devil’s Saddle ideal for autumn night’s recitation

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Saddle in New Creek Mountain, Mineral County, Potomac Branches Region
The saddle in New Creek Mountain serves as a backdrop for Emily Dale Werner’s powerful poem of strong women.

This tale of a young girl’s encounter with a supposed witch in the Potomac River highlands has inspired readers since it was penned by poet Emily Dale Werner and published in 1960. A story of strong females confronted by tragedy, it defied many concepts of appropriate action, especially in light of the time and place. Readers were then challenged by its implications and may yet be.

As the nights grow longer, perhaps this tale and its telling will serve as inspiration to any of us ready to consider the conditions that beset settlers in the Alleghenies before the Civil War and the independent women who were forced to face tragedy alone.

The Devil’s Saddle

Sally Cooper tended the ancient hopvine
That darkened her shutterless windows and covered
The clapboard roof. Years of tilling fields,
Urging a yoke of oxen, had bent her shoulders;
Near-sighted eyes peered from under a slatted
Calico bonnet.
     With a tongue sharp
As Jimson weed, Sally lashed the village
Boys who called her witch. Words bitter
As yellow henbane smarted like hop leaves
On the skin of the blossom pickers. She turned
Baleful eyes on gossips who whispered," That
Cooper woman knows more'n she tells." Watchful
And curious, I skirted the Cooper place till
My mother sent me to carry a pat of butter
Freshly churned, and a glass of elderberry jelly
To the old woman. My heart pounded like
Horses' hooves loud on the old Turnpike.

I knocked, then lifted the latch at her shrill,
"Come in." The cabin was sweet with herb bouquets.
Sally placed a russet apple in my hand;
Her twisted fingers gentled my braids.
The apple was withered, and tasted of mouldy earth
Where it lay buried through the winter.
I ate the sweet, juiceless fruit, and fright
Like shadows between two lighted candles disappeared.

I went often to the cabin by the Pike in defiance
Of the wicked scamps who shouted, "Witches' brat!"
Sally baited me with tales that chased delicious
Shiver-fingers up my spine:
     Of a catamount
That trailed her, one moonlit night, through pine
Forest thick with fearsome shadows and drenched
With marrow-chilling cries. She did not flee,
But chanted magic words that kept the harm
At bay.
     Those mystic words she would not tell;
If told to another, they lost their spell.
"Where did you come from," my voice was aquiver,
"To live in this house by the Pike and the river?"

She said it was a secret, but if I crossed
My heart to hold the trust. . . .
I made the sign, and waited in the house
Near the Potomac.
     "I lived yon, east
Of the mountain, a valley place. This Northwestern
Turnpike runs as fur as Winchester. It goes
Bordered in winter fern and mountain laurel
over timbered hills, crossin' Difficult Crick
And Stony River, climbin' to Mount Storm.
From Alleghany Front, look to Knobley Mountain.
Like a giant's bite dips the Devil's saddle.
At the foot of the mountain meanders a river
singin' lazy-like over sand and cobble
Then driftin' stilly-deep in the shadow
Of virgin hemlock and tangled hazel bush.
Here farms are middlin' scarce; it takes a rush
O' grubbin' to make an honest livin'.

"Two families cleared the land, workin' shoulder
To shoulder. The Hanks had a passel o' kids,
And we all run barefoot, free as the wild
Pigeons that roosted in the butternut trees.
Lucy was my age. She stood tall and slim
As a maple saplin', and her hair lay black
As chimbley sut.
     Lucy got a heap out o' livin'.
She would slip away from the field and sit
With her toes in the river dreamin' and listenin'
To a wood thrush or a cricket, or watchin'
A speckled trout leapin' for a dusty miller.
When she laughed, it made you think o' water
Runnin' over pebbles, and her eyes crinkled
And sparkled like stars on a crackly fall night.
She was pretty as a red piney, and sweet
As wild honey. But her will was strong as homespun.

"Mr. Hanks was a God-fearin' man, and he
Was sorely strict. He whaled the kids
If he figured they'd earned it. But Lucy
Stood up to her pa. She had a mind
To run free as a deer. She took no fancy
To the farmer lads, and when some meddlin'
Gossip told her pa that Lucy had a secret
Beau, although she said she was bespoke,
Her pa ranted somethin' fierce. He called
His girl a shameless hussy, a wench, a strumpet,
And forbid her fetch the dastard on the place.

"Her feller was an aristocrat. His folks
Owned slaves to work their crops, and he
Wore leather boots for everyday.
     But when stars
Hung like fireflies above the chestnut grove
Lucy met her lover there, and they
Were wed accordin' to nature's way.

"But when snowflakes whirled around the cornfield
And turned the fodder shocks to tepees
White as silver birch bark, the stars in Lucy's
Eyes turned to shadows.

     One sad night
Her lover left a note in the hollow tree at their
Trystin' place tellin' of his father's fixin'
To marry him to a southern belle, and he hadn't
The spunk to resist. That was his farewell.

"Then one day Lucy brought her baby, little
Nancy, dainty as a watersprite, and pretty
As red yarn, and bid goodbye to me.

"Lucy never spoke her feller's name
To naught but me. I hold her secret
As my boundin' duty, and will carry it sacred
To my grave.
     Her pa would mete out mountain law
If he knew where to find the varmint, but when
He didn't know where to look he opened his Bible
And read, 'Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Lord.'

"Mr. Hanks was a proud man. He wouldn't
Live where neighbors whispered behind their hands.
He sold his farm, his cattle and yoes
For little or nothin' and walked his wife and younguns
To Kentucky for a start in strange hill lands."

This story of Nancy Hanks I have kept
In my heart through many years. I wept
One morning in February when rain and an early
Thaw brought the break-up on the river, and turned
The village people to the hills above the churned Potomac.
     Ice cakes dammed the water at Swadley's
Bend; Nydegger's creek spread over the bottom
Meadow. A rush of fluming water covered
The Claybanks where the hopvine lay buried in the rubble.
Broken ice gnawed the window glass like stubble,
And logs that framed a house swirled crazily.
All night the men with pitch-pine torches searched.

In the dreary dawn they found Sally Cooper wrapped
In her fringed black shawl, a mud-caked cocoon,
Holding a nation's secret, lost forever
Under the tangled hopvine, where the Northwestern
Turnpike crosses the Potomac River.