The Black Fiddler 1
I WAS a young feller at the time that Sheridan battle was fought, and was livin' on my master's farm on the edge of Middletown out beyond the 'Piscopal church. That church was a hospital durin' the battle, and the army band used to practice in it while the troops was camped near hyar. A good many of the wounded died in thar and was buried in the churchyard.
But the bodies hadn’t been in the ground a great while when they was dug up to be carried away. They was put in coffins — jus' long pine boxes — and the boxes was piled up against the back wall of the church and stayed thar near a month. I pried open a number of 'em and looked in. Some of the dead men was very natural and others wasn’t fit to look at. One man with a blanket wrapped about him was petrified, and his appearance hadn’t changed any since he was buried, only his hair had growed way down, and his beard had growed long.
Thar was one night while those boxes was in the churchyard that a light come out of the church and went to whar they was piled as if some one was searchin' aroun' with a can'le.
Another night something like a calf come out of the church and walked all aroun'.
The boxes was taken away presently, but the ghos'es stayed at the church or come thar often at night, and we'd hear 'em walkin', groanin', and carryin' on. Other times we'd hear the army band playin' in the church, and one night all of us who lived near was called out of our houses to listen at it.
"Don't you hear the band?" we'd say one to the other.
We heared it all right, and that's the truth. Thar's no story about that. The music sounded way off, but we could hear the lead horn start and the drums tap. The kittle drum would rattle it off, and the bass drum would go bum, bum, bum! You can hear somethin' knockin' thar at the 'Piscopal church now on a dark night.
Right after the war we used to hear the soldiers ghos'es shootin' hyar all aroun' on the battlefield, and we'd hear horses in the back lane comin' klopity, klopity, klopity. The horses would ride right up to you, but you couldn’t see a thing.
I know one man who lived out on a farm, and he come into the town one night to pra'r meetin'. As he was goin' home 'bout ten o'clock he heared the bugle and the rap of the kittle drum. While he was listenin' he seen a officer a-walkin' ahead of a squad of soldiers. The officer hollered "Halt!" to 'em, and they stopped. But the bugle kep' a-blowin', and pretty soon they marched off.
Thar was another man who used to come to town pretty nigh every night, and some of the nights was tolerable dark. He was co'tin' hyar, I allow. Many a night he'd hear horses comin' 'cross the fields, and canteens and swords hittin' the sides of saddles, blangity, blangity, blangity!
Down near Cedar Crick thar's a ghos' in a barn. The ghos' is supposed to be a soldier that was killed tharabouts.
He has Yankee clothes on and wears cavalry boots that come way up to his knees. Some say he has no head, and others say he has a head and wears a plug hat. People see him after night, jus' about dusk, and he only comes at that time of the evening. He walks out of the haymow and part way down the haymow steps, and thar he'll stan'. For one while the railroad ran excursion trains so people could come and see the ghos'. I went thar to see him once, but I was 'fraid to go in the barn.
The first person who ever seen the ghos' was a farmer by the name of Holt Hottel who had rented the place. He went to feed his horses jus' after sundown and was goin' to throw some hay down the hole to the feeding-room when he noticed the ghos'. But he thought it was a tramp, and he says, "Git out of hyar. I don't allow tramps in the barn on account of fire."
The ghos' didn’t say anything and jus' stood thar. Holt got mad then and tried to gouge the ghos' with his pitchfork, and the fork went right through the ghos' into the weather-boarding. That was evidence it wasn’t no tramp, and Holt jumped right down the hole into the feeding-room. His horses didn’t git no hay that night, and for a good while afterward he fed 'em tolerable early.
Holt's father used to laugh at him 'bout that ghos', but one evenin' Holt met the ol' man comin' from the barn as hard as he could run. Oh! he was comin' from thar skatin'. He didn’t laugh at Holt no mo'.
Another time a black man who'd gone to the barn a little late to feed the stock come out of there a-hustlin', and he was whoopin' as if he was goin' to be killed.
But the ghos' did nobody no harm, and Holt got so he 'd go in thar any time of night. He become accustomed to seeing this thing and paid no attention to it. Once when he threshed his wheat the grain was too damp to put in sacks, and he left it on the barn floor a few days to dry. Thar was some danger that it would be stolen, and he stayed in the barn nights to guard it and slept on an ol' lounge he carried out from the house. He said that night after night he went to sleep with that feller standin' on the haymow steps. He seen him perfectly plain, even to the straps on his boots what he hooked his fingers in to pull 'em on.
Thar's people who have tried all sorts of ways to see that ghos' and never could, and thar's plenty of others who have seen it. I know this — that Holt Hottel was as reliable a man as thar was in the state. His word was as good as his bond.
Down at Belle Grove House they used to hear a buggy drive up there of a night, and a bell would tap for a waiter to come and take the team. Another queer thing at that house was a door that wouldn’t keep shut. The good ol' Christian woman who lived there said she'd shut it and go sit down and the door would swing open.
I used to be told that the way to learn to play the fiddle was to go to a graveyard with it and start practisin'. You had to go at night, and you couldn’t have any one with you. If you could stand it thar you could learn to play anything. I've heard ol' people say that often. I bought a fiddle tereckly after the war, and started in to play by ear. That's the best way, but I wasn’t makin' much progress, and I decided to see if it was true that you could learn to play in a graveyard in one night. I was 'fraid to go to the regular graveyard. So I went to the 'Piscopal churchyard. We called that a graveyard, though nobody had ever been buried thar but soldiers, and they had been taken up.
I got a little ol' box to sit on, and I goes thar and sets myself down. The time was nine o'clock as near as I can git at it now. I set thar and chuned up my fiddle. Then I struck into "Ol' Dan Tucker." That's the devil's chune, you know, and it's the first thing the devil will learn you to play. Well, sir, I set thar and learned to play that real good.
Afterwards I tried "Dixie" and kep' at it till I could play that tolerable good, too, but I 'd miss some notes. Then I heard a noise, and I begun to feel kind o' jubous. However, I paid no attention to it. I played away harder than ever — tweeny, tweeny, twang! — so as not to git skeered, and I says to myself, "I won't let no ghos'es bother me."
But pretty soon I heard something over back of the church — bangity, bang! It was a sound jus' like you make when you hit a table leaf and the leaf goes flap, flap! I was listenin' with both ears and still a-playin' my fiddle when some hot steam come about me, and that steam was so warm and fainty it almost made me sick. I thought: "This ain't natural. Thar mus' be ghos'es hyar somewhar."
And yet I couldn’t see 'em. If I had I'd been like a hog that sees the wind. You know how hogs run and squeal and pick up straws sometimes. That's when they see the wind. If you take a little matter from the corner of a hog's eye and rub it in your eye you can see the wind, and it's jus' as red as blood. You wouldn’t want to see it but once. It would skeer you to death.
I used to hear oftime people say that thar couldn’t every one see a ghos', and that the ghos'es took the form of steam when they appeared to a person who couldn’t see 'em. The mo' I studied 'bout it the mo' skeered I was. I put my hand up to see whether my hat was on my head, and I found my hair was standin' straight up and had carried my hat with it.
Jus' then some steam come aroun' me so hot it scorched my face, and I throwed my fiddle down and ran. If I could have stood it to stay in the churchyard an hour or two longer I could have played anything. Yes, indeedy! But if I 'd kep' on very likely I'd have died of fright.
The closer I got to home the mo' skeered I was and the faster I ran. I made the last rod in 'bout two jumps, and as soon as I was in the house I slammed the door behind me.
Nex' mornin' I went and got my fiddle, and I didn’t go thar no mo'. The night had been dewy, and the fiddle was pretty near ruined. It wasn’t no account much afterward. The glue that fastened the pieces together had softened, and the strings had all got wet and had busted off.
What little I learned later in fiddlin' I learned at home. Finally I throwed the ol' fiddle away. If any ghos'es wanted it they could have it and practice on it all they wanted.
We don't have many ghos'es now like they used to have long ago. Thar was a time when the ol' people didn’t die at all. They lived to be one hundred and twenty years ol' and then turned into monkeys, apes, and owls. They'd jus' go off and be wild animals awhile and afterwards turn into ghos'es. Those of-time ghos'es used to travel, but now there's so much preachin' they generally keep very quiet.
Aroun' hyar it was only a few years back that we'd see plenty of strange sights and hear plenty of strange noises. We don't see and hear them things so much now because the battlefield has been so stirred up by ploughin' and raisin' crops. That's drivin' nearly all the battlefield ghos'es away, but there's some left yet, and there's other ghos'es, too. Last year a colored man died quite sudden up at the Junction, and he's jus' keepin' things warm up thar. The people in the house whar he lived don't git no comfort at all. But if I was in their place he wouldn’t trouble me. I'd say, "You go 'way from hyar. I done bought this house now."
Then I 'd turn the doors and windows upside down so the fastenings would be on the other side. A ghos' can't git in if you do that.
Yes, sir, thar's still ghos'es. I can take you out with me to-night, and if you'll look across my left shoulder I'll show you something.
1 I spent a portion of a Sunday afternoon with him. He was a beak‑nosed old man who related his spook stories with great vivacity and an unfathomable mixture of solemnity and hilariousness.