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.