January 1, 2012

Nevada's Online State News Journal

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Nevada Literature:

 [Dan De Quille, Mysterious Diablery, Salt Lake Tribune, August 24, 1890]

 

MYSTERIOUS DIABLERY.

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The Wild, Fantastic Freaks of a Demon Fiddler.

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THE WITCH LASS OF THE LOWER SINK.

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Multitudinous Masquerades, Mummeries and Mystifications — A Tale Told With a "Glittering Eye" Accompaniment — By Dan De Quille.

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PREFATORY.

            Meeting my dude friend, young Edmund Aylesmere, one stormy evening last winter, the youth at once proceeded to "hold me with his glittering eye" after the manner of the Ancient Mariner. With a hand laid upon my arm he hoarsely whispered that he could and would to me a "tale unfold" that had long been freezing his young blood. As it was rather an uncanny business into which young Aylesmere proposed to dip, he stipulated in advance for a pitcher of hot punch and a supply of cigars, to be provided in a private back room at the Blind Robin, out of earshot of the vulgar and unfeeling herd. All things being arranged to his mind, the young man proceeded to relate his adventure. It was as follows:

CHAPTER I.

A BEWITCHED RANCHER.

            You must know that toward the end of December last, business of considerable importance called me to the region of ranches lying at and about the Lower Sink of the Carson. I remained there for some time and New Year's night found me at the huge barn-like house of an old cattle rancher named Trail.

            After I had arranged to remain over night at the house of Farmer Trail, I learned from some of the cowboys and herders that harbored about the ranch that a "rousing New Year's dance" was to be given at the Trail mansion that night. It was intended to "dance the old year out and the new year in." Invitations had been sent out both far and wide and scores of fresh young beauties from all the surrounding ranches would be present. I was informed that this party had been "talked of for weeks" and would be a "grand affair."

            As I had been riding hard all day I did not feel at all elated at the thought of a night of fiddling and dancing; I would infinitely have preferred quiet and a sound sleep. However, I said nothing of what was in my mind. I remained and, by so doing met with the rather peculiar adventure I have to relate. You will probably laugh at me for looking upon my experience that night as rather weird, but it was so considered by others and made such an impression upon the cowboys present that one of them, a sort of Captain Jack Crawford for rhyming, told the whole story in a sort of doggerel ballad. As I can remember only a part of the rhyme I shall give you the story in my own way, except where the lines of the ballad seem to come in pat.

            As it began to grow dusk I went with Farmer Trail to his great barn and acres of stables and sheds to make personal inspection of the manner in which my tired little mustang had been provided for. As we were going the rounds, of the stables and sheds I spoke very highly of the admirable arrangement of all these improvements, and also in praise of the thousand and more acres of fine valley land comprised in the ranch.

            "Yas, hits a good sile—a kindly sile," said Trail.

            "And here near the Sink," said I, "you have the advantage of a good deal of natural moisture."

            "Yas, thar's a heap o' nat'ral mistur," said the old man in a melancholy tone.

            "It should be a good place for cattle, horses, hogs, and all kinds of stock, except, perhaps, sheep."

            "Yas, hits pooty good fur stock."

            This was slow business, therefore I took the bull by the horns and said: "My friend, you appear to be rather dejected. I hope you have no trouble — that you are not financially embarrassed here on this fine farm?"

            "Yas, this would be a fine place if I had it back in Injeanny, but thar's things here as goes aginst raisin' stock and as goes aginst us in every way."

            "Ah, then you must have loco weed on the moist land bordering the Sink?"

            "Loco weed be blowed! Hits a thing wus'n any pizen weed that ever growed. Young man, like as' not you'll laugh at me if I up and tell you what hit is, but when you've lived as long as I have, and had as much 'sperience o' things; you'll do anything but laugh."

            "If it's not loco weed," said I, "It must be flies and mosquitos."

            "Hits wus'n flies and skeeters — blast flies and skeeters! Young man, hits"— lowering his voice and glancing toward the dark sheds —"hits witches!"

            "Witches!" cried I — "Witches in a new place like-this?"

            "A new place!" cried the old man, opening upon me eyes like saucers — "Why, young man, this is not a new place; hit's one of the oldest places in the world.  Yas, one of the very oldest places in the world, this Sink is. All these sinks is old places. Thar's holes in the bottoms o' those yar sinks as goes clean down inter t'other world — yas. All the waters of all the lakes and the big seas that once covered this country for hundreds o' miles went down them holes. Yas, and queer, things used ter come up 'em — giants and devils and sich. Now the holes has got stopped up a good deal with sand and mud, but all about here in the hills thar's caves and holes in the rocks that they can still get out at."

            "And do they come out?"

            "Do they? Young man, you surprise me. Why, whole percessions of 'em. Allers bin at hit, as the Injuns can tell you. Didn't the Piutes once roast to death 'bout a hundred of 'em in a cave north of Pyramid. Lake? — and every son of-a gun of 'em red-headed! And thar's the giant that come out. He killed 'bout a thousand Injuns before they got him by shootin' him in the back with a witch arrer. I've seed his track, and you can see hit if you go to the upper end of Pyramid Lake. Hits thar in mud that's turned to stone, and the Injuns to this day keep that track swept out clean — not a grain of sand or a bit of dirt allowed to stay in it.  Then right thar is his grave — a big mound. Sallie Winnemucca can tell you 'bout him, his big bow and the thing made of horn that he used to look through to watch the Injuns."

            ''A sort of telescope?"

            "I guess so; they say hits got a clear stone in the end.  I never seed hit.  An old Injun down at Walker Lake reservation has got hit and they say he's very choice of hit."

            "But none of these are witches; surely the old giants don't disturb you?"

            "May be not the giants, but critters of the same breed.  My old woman will tell you that half the time she can't churn butter if she don't stick a hot crowbar into the milk; she can't make soap, and often her bread won't rise.  Then the cattle get the holler-horn, the wolf in the tail or turn to and give bloody milk.  Often, too, I find that durin' the night my hosses have been rode half to death, and I've found their manes full of witch stirrups. You'll find 'em in the mane of your hoss in the morning, like as not."

            "I hope no one will ride my horse," said I, "for I've already nearly used him up."

            "Hard to say; hits sorter stormy, and a stormy night is 'jist the time for 'em. Half the old Injun squaws round hyar ain't nuthin' but witches.  I'm told that some of the critters that came up out of the ground married Piute women, so the half-devil breed has allers been kept up — yas. Why, young feller, I've see'd an ole squaw turn inter a kiotey, and then turn back inter a squaw, right afore my eyes of a moonlight night in this very corral. My men who sleep in the barns tell me they frekently see sich things."

            "The men ——" I began, then thought it best not to speak what was in my mind.

            "Yas, the men sees 'em too. Talk 'bout yer men without heads; skeletons hoppin' about a shakin' chains; dead creeturs out washin' thar shrouds; heads without bodies rollin' about one's house —— sich as was very common back in Injeanny —— all them kind is a mere nothin' to the things I've seed on this place. Why, young feller, only night afore last I met a ole gray-headed man here in this barnyard and I said to him: 'Howdy do, sir?' Says he to me, 'Boo!' and he turned four or five back summersets and then vanquished."

            So Farmer Trail continued his stories until we had gone the rounds of all his corrals, barns, stables and sheds. When we started to return to his house, Farmer Trail charged me to say nothing about the things he had told me to any of his guests. He said it might hurt the sale of his place. A neighbor was bargaining for the farm and, if he could sell, Trail said he would go back to Indiana. He informed me that his object in giving a big party was to cheer up his family a bit and make his wife and children forget for a time the persecutions of the supernatural beings that infested the place.

            You may think that all this talk with the old man served to prepare me to see something supernatural in what afterward occurred, but it made no impression upon me; on the contrary all the old fellow's witch stories were so trivial and ridiculous that while he was relating them, I found it a difficult matter to maintain a serious countenance, particularly when listening to the awed and hesitating tones of the poor man, and watching the ludicrous rolling of his eyes hither and thither toward dusky places while he was speaking of his persecutors. As the old man was shrewd enough in all matters pertaining to the business of farming and stock-growing, I was inclined to think, when he first introduced the subject of witches, that he was "giving me a game," but I soon found that he was sadly in earnest — witches and all such supernatural beings were his hobby.

            On re-entering the house I found that the dining-room — always much the largest room in these great ranch houses — had been cleared for the dance, and that many young couples had already arrived. I also soon discovered that not a little disappointment and perplexity prevailed. The fiddler who had been engaged for the occasion had sent word that he had been taken suddenly ill and would be unable to play for the party.

            I gathered that this fiddler was a drunken fellow who lived in a lone cabin a mile or two away on the road leading to Lovelock. Doubtless he had begun too early to celebrate the advent of the New Year.

            At one end of the room had been placed a big pine box and upon this a chair for the fiddler, but the chair, was vacant and sadness and disappointment was seen in every young face that turned that way. To their anxious hearts the rude little orchestra standing unoccupied before them seemed a mockery. Constantly, too, there were new arrivals of young ladies and their gallants from the surrounding ranches; explanations had to be made to all the newcomers, clouding faces a moment before wreathed in smiles and causing a sad hanging of lips on all sides.

            "Was any old Injun woman seed about Fiddler Dick's cabin lately?" asked Trail.

            A cowboy present said he had seen a Piute squaw go into Dick's shanty the day before.

            "Witches!" whispered Trail, giving me a nudge. "They are bound to bust up this dance if hits in the possibilities, but I'll give 'em a fight this time."

            Trail then called one of his cowboys to his side and ordered him to saddle two ponies, ride to Lovelock and bring a fiddler if it cost fifty dollars to get one. Then, as the cowboy was leaving the room, he called out after him, "Bring a fiddler, no matter what hit costs!", and turning to me he whispered, "Them creeturs as I told you of is at work, but they shan't beat me this time."

CHAPTER II.

THE DEMON FIDDLER.

            To the surprise of all it was only about half an hour before the cowboy messenger returned. "What's the matter?" cried Trail. "Why didn't you go on and get a fiddler? Was you afeered in the dark?"

            "I've got a fiddler," said the man, "and he'll be here in a minute or two." All crowded about the cowboy.

            "Who did you get?" asked a dozen girls and boys at once.

            "The devil, I guess," said the man.

            "The devil!" cried Trail aghast, then recovering himself he said, "No foolishness, young feller; this is a sorter serious business."

            Thus rebuked by his boss, the cowboy said: "Blamed if I knew who the feller is or where he hails from; guess he's rather on the tramp order."

            "Tramp order!”, cried Trail, "Whar did you git him?"

            "Well, he seemed like he was waitin' for me and for the job," said the man. "I had only just passed Fiddler Dick's when what should I see but a tall figure of a fellow standing in the center of the road like a black ghost. Thinkin' a road agent was waiting there to interview me, I pulled my gun and to give fair warnin' sung out: 'Who's there?'

            "Then a big pompous voice answered, 'Tis I, my lord. The early village cock! Whither a-way, my liege? Why ridest thou thus hastily, good master, i' the storm and dark?'

            "I told the man where I was going and what my business was.

            "'I think, my good lord,' said the fellow, 'I think I can well serve your turn.  Is there money in it, good youth? and above all is there an abundance of budge, bug-juice, in the vernacular of these parts?' 

            "I said that there was plenty of both, the coin was ready and that a full quart of Lovelock's best forty-rod had been provided for Fiddler Dick, all of which was at his service, provided he was able to fill the bill.

            "'It's a whack,' said the man.  'Furnish thou the fiddle and I'll give thee such notes as no man in these parts has ever heard drawn from a catgut;' so I said right there, 'It's a bargain.'

            "The man then took the nag I was leading and told me to ride up to Dick's and get his fiddle.  After I had got a little way off the road the thought struck me that the fellow might run away with the mustang, and looking back I saw a thing that I can't yet account for. One tall black figure was on the pony and another tall black thing seemed to be getting on behind the first. So I may have got two fiddlers or two devils for all I know."

            "For all you know," cried Trail, "couldn't you see?"

            "No, for the fellow's horse faced me when I got back with the fiddle, and he sung out for me to go ahead and he would follow. Then when we got near the house the fellow turned off toward the stables, just as if he know every inch of 'em, and he called to me to go on to the house, saving he'd be along presently."

            "Yas," said Trail, "you're here and the fiddler's here, but I'll bet you we lost me a hoss. Whar's yer fiddler?" yelled he in a rage.

            "I am here, staunch and true!" cried a deep voice, behind us.

            Farmer Trail turned and started back a pace. Standing before him was a tall, thin, queer-looking man arrayed in a coat of rusty black that reached almost to his heels. The man wore a huge steeple-crowned hat with a broad slouched brim, from beneath which hung down long, lank locks of black hair. He would have been rather a slow and sleepy-looking creature but that his little black eyes were as bright and sharp as those of a rat. His visage was long and solemn in expression, but to this air of solemnity the alert and twinkling little eyes seemed to give the lie. The man looked to be beyond middle age, but of this it was not easy to judge, so sun-browned was the face and so queerly pinched and wrinkled the features.

            In all his life Farmer Trail had probably never seen such a looking man, for he was a man whose true place would probably be among the dives and dens of the most dismal and dissolute quarter of some great city. No wonder then that he fell back a pace when he turned and encountered the sharp eyes of the gaunt and weird being who had been brought to his house.

            As soon as Trail had somewhat regained his wits he bobbed his head and said: "Howdy do, stranger?"

            At once the man had Trail's measure. Assuming a dramatic tone he cried: "May health and happiness attend you, good Euclio! Are you as hearty and well in health as you could wish to be?"

            "I'm not feelin' very bully," said Trail, forcing a grin.

            "So I perceive — so I perceive!" cried the stranger. Then in a deep voice he said as he fixed his gaze upon the old farmer's face:

                                                                        "Ha! Then

                        'Twas not for nothing that I heard the raven

                        On my left hand; and once he scraped the ground,

                        And then he croaked — he cr-r-roaked!"

            "Was it a witch?" asked Trail.

            The unknown pretended not to hear, and changing his tone he held up before the eyes of the old farmer a long forefinger and croaked forth —

                                                                        "Ere the bat hath flown

                        His cloistered flight; ere, to Hecate's summons,

                        The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,

                        Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done

                        A deed of dr-r-readful note!"

            Farmer Trail looked puzzled for a moment, then an idea seemed to strike him, and turning to me he whispered: "The feller is either a little cracked in the upper story, or he's-half fuddled. I'm afraid he won't do."'

            The young people also appeared to think that a crazy man had been brought to the house. They had collected in groups here and there and were looking rather wild-eyed.

            "The man says he is a good fiddler," urged the cowboy who had brought him — "Let him try."

            "Well, mount him onto the box," said Trail.

            But before he would "mount," or even touch the fiddle, the unknown demanded and pocketed $20 in coin. Then, as soon as he had ascended his musical throne he called for his bottle of "bug-juice," and it was placed on the box alongside him.

            The unknown took up the bottle with great deliberation, held it up to the light, then threw back his head and took so long a draught that, to judge from the looks, of some present, it was feared the fellow would drop dead before he had even taken up his fiddle. But the man never winked nor even caught a short breath, and at the end of his tremendous swig smacked his lips with a sound like the pop of a champagne cork. Excusing himself from taking off his sombrero on the ground of weak eyes — though his eyes looked as sharp as those of a weasel — the unknown at last took up and began to tune his fiddle.

CHAPTER III.

"HE MUST NEEDS GO THAT THE DEVIL DRIVES."

            I had been conversing with Mr. Trail for some moments and gave no attention to the quadrille that had formed upon the floor until the music struck up and the shrill voice of the unknown fiddler rent the air, each word he uttered in calling being so distinctly pronounced that the dancers seemed almost lifted through the figure.  It was — "Head couples, right and left; side couples the same; ladies, to the right, turn and change partners; all promenade; head couples, ladies chain!" and all went as smoothly as clock-work, the music being perfect.

            "By the Lord Harry, he's a whale!", cried Trail — "A mile ahead of Fiddler Dick!" and the old man rubbed his hands gleefully.

            "Jist hear to that, Mammy," said he to his wife — "Beats Dick all holler! Yas; he fairly makes the old fiddle talk!"

            The dancers evidently began to feel the magic of the stranger's playing; his wonderful bow literally lifted them from the floor and swayed them to and fro like withered leaves wafted along by a breeze. Dancers as well as fiddler seemed to have imbibed of the inspiration lodged in the "big-bellied bottle," and all fairly flew along as the weird fiddler shrieked in unison with the fierce rasp of his bow — "Head couples, four hands round, to the left and reverse; side couples the same!"

            When it came to "All promenade," old Trail pounced upon ''Mammy" and pranced round the big box-stove; and whenever it was "Ladies to the right," Pap Trail cut a caper or two and balanced to Mammy.

            No attention was paid to this side show by either the fiddler or the dancers. The dancers seemed to see nothing and hear nothing but the fiddler.

                        "Around, and around, and around they go,

                        Heel to heel and toe to toe —

                        Prance and caper, curvet and wheel,

                        Toe to toe and heel to heel!"

            "By the holy poker," cried Pap Trail, "I thought $20 pooty steep, but he's wuth it; crazy as he is!"

            After the dancing had continued for some time in the full force of its wild sweep, Farmer Trail observed that I had taken no part in it, and urged me to join the dancers.  "I say, young feller," cried he, "jist you dash right inter the middle o' that round-up of young heifers and lasso the first maverick you kin find. 'Tain't too often you see a New Year's heel and toe rodeo in these parts, where thar's so few old cattle.  Come, youngster, clap spurs to your courage, sail right in an' throw your rope!"

            I had some time before observed a tall,  robust young woman glide into the room, divest herself of a hood-cloak, throw the garment across the back of a chair and seat herself quietly in a corner. At first I supposed she was a domestic belonging to the place, but presently saw that no one present appeared to know her. Once or twice I noticed the unknown fiddler dart a look in her direction as he yanked his bow and jerked his chin to right and left over his shoulders.

            The woman was of a dark complexion in which their was an olive tinge; her black eyes were very large and hidden in their depths was a fire that seemed occasionally to come to the surface when for a moment there was a blaze as of twin stars. In throwing off her hood her hair had fallen down, an immense mass of wavy black that reached the floor as she sat in her chair. Evidently she was not arrayed for the ball, as her dress seemed plain and was of some dark stuff. The woman's face wore a look that was serious almost to severity and her gaze, when turned and fixed for a moment upon any particular object, was so piercing and haughty that it seemed to abash the young ranchers and they gave her a wide birth, bestowing their attentions upon the milder beauties that thronged the room. To me the strange woman seemed one who had in her heart some great sorrow that made her almost desperate. She was not a woman to whom one would address any of the soft nonsense of conventional gallantry, yet in her face and the occasional flash of her eyes — when their fires rose and burned on the surface — there was a devil-may-care look.

            Several dances had come on and gone off after Farmer Trail had invited me to join in the fun, and the tall dark young woman was still left a wallflower.  She did not look like one who was pining for a dance or for any other trifling thing, but I at last determined that she should no longer be slighted, that if she cared to dance she should be afforded an opportunity. I crossed the room and asked her for the next dance.

            "What is it?" she asked.

            I told her a jig quadrille was announced. Without a word further she arose, towering far above me, a veritable Amazon in appearance. She addressed me in a stage voice and in a tone that reminded me of the unknown fiddler, about as follows, in sense, at least:

                        "Aye, my child, and I'll tread such a measure with thee.

                        As shall make this house to rock like a ship at sea —

                        E'en the earth, as it sweeps on its course round the sun.

                        Shall to and fro weaving go, ere my dance be done!"

            As she so spoke and shook back the waving mass of her wealth of hair, I thought of the war-horse of Job, whose "neck was clothed with thunder."

CHAPTER IV.

A WILD DANCE WITH THE STRANGER LASS — A MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSION AND DISAPPEARANCE.

            Just at this moment Farmer Trail came prancing up. "Ho! What!" cried he — "Who have we here? I see, young feller, you've throwed your rope and you've got by the horns the likeliest critter in all the round-up!"

            "The master of the farm, I believe?" said my strange partner, giving me an inquiring look.

            "Yes," said I, "Farmer Trail."

            Rolling her eyes wildly she cried in a tragic tone—

                                                            "'Tis the abode

                        Of misery. But without more words — whatever

                        Evil you'd search for, you might find it here!"

            As Pap Trail stepped back and stood gazing at the woman open-mouthed and aghast, the unknown fiddler squeaked out in a harsh, still voice, accompanying himself weirdly on his instrument —

                        "Not far from here a road loads down to bell;

                        I've traveled it oft and I know it well."

            This sent "Pap" reeling to his corner, where he stood rolling his eyes in terror.

            No sooner were we in our places on the floor than the swift bow of the fiddler was at work and his call of "All hands round!" rang out. As we joined hands to swing in a circle and back to places again, I felt myself a mere infant in the hands of my partner. My 125 pounds was nothing to her; I was a mere doll, for she had sinews of steel and the strength of a tigress.

            When the call came, "Ladies to the right!" and each gentleman was to balance to a lady I found the opportunity I coveted of displaying my proficiency in various fantastic jig steps. I easily distanced all the cowboys on the floor, and so elated was I that I quite outdid, myself — my every joint seemed strung on wires of steel.

            My partner watched me a moment, then rushing to my side in a sort of waltz step grasped me and began spinning about the room with me ever and anon, halting to put in the wildest and most wonderful jig steps, if I may so call steps that were unlike any thing that I had ever seen in the way of break-down, high-leaping and double-shuffling.

            At the moment, too, that the dark giantess had pounced upon me the music had suddenly changed into the most fierce and exciting notes I ever heard jerked from a violin. In astonishment all the other dancers left the floor and ranged themselves along the walls as spectators. The cowboys encouraged us with wild whoops and seemed ready to draw and fire their pistols into the air in their excitement, though the young rancheresses looked frightened as we whirled liked mad about the room.

            The eyes of my partner were ablaze and in her hands I was a mere puppet. In some of her wild whirls she held me at arm's length, and I spun round her dancing in the air.

            Farmer Trail was astonished out of his fright, and whooped like a Comanche. He roared out that he hadn't seen the like since he left the banks of the Wabash. As we whirled about the room my partner's great fleece of black hair stood straight out to the distance of a yard or more. Once, as we were passing an open cupboard, or "dresser," her huge mane flew in among the dishes and swept to the floor, with a crash, a teapot and a lot of other brittle ware.

            "Whoop!  Go it! — Smash everything in the house, but keep up your lick!" cried Farmer Trail — "Whoop!  Ole Wabash forever!"

            My Amazonian partner seemed determined to make good her words and literally cause the house to "rock like a ship at sea;" the floor actually did creak and bend beneath her powerful and rhythmical tread.

                        "Still around we go, and around and around,

                        With hop-skip-and-jump, and a frolicsome bound."

            The uncanny fiddler seemed, if possible, to redouble his efforts, and such were his grimaces, contortions, and capers that he more resembled some Satanic ape than a human being.  I here quote the cowboy:

                        "His sharp bow he did so wickedly yank,

                        That his elbows danced like a whirling crank;

                        His legs he spread and his body he swayed

                        As faster and ever faster he played.

                        He stamped his old hoof, and shook his old head,

                        As faster and faster his elbows sped —

                        He blinked his eyes and puckered his lips,

                        And fiddled so fast that fire flew out of his finger tips."

            My vigorous and invincible partner seemed deaf to all but the wild notes of the fiery fiddler, whose wickedly wielded bow apparently lifted, swayed and controlled her in every muscle and joint.

            At last, as the cowboy poet tells it —

                        "She leaped so high and came down so hard,

                        That a gun from its hooks on the wall she jarred,

                        The gun went off with a terrible bang,

                        That doused all the lights and stopped the musical twang."

            To me is sounded as if half a dozen shots had been fired, and by some means all the lights were really extinguished on a sudden. After describing the shrieks of the young ladies, the yells of the cowboys, and the rushing to and fro in the dark, the poet goes on to say:

                        "When lights were brought a splintered fiddle lay on the floor,

                        But that fierce fiddler was gone — was seen nevermore —

                        Though a bit of a tail, and the tip of a horn,

                        Found mid the wreck, proved him a devil born.

                        As these were viewed in wonder by all —

                        'That gun was charged with a silver ball,'

                        Said the rancher, 'to kill an Injun witch,

                        Behold the effect on that fiddlin' son of a gun.'"

            All that is here said about the shattered fiddle, the bit of tail and horn, is mere poetical license. Both fiddle and fiddler were gone, and even the big-bellied bottle was missing. My partner, the young woman whose "neck was clothed with thunder," had also disappeared. As the poet expressed it —

                        "In vain we looked for that wild stranger lass —

                        She was gone 'mid the smoke and shatter of glass."

                        And as we all stood bewildered —

                        Said old Trail: 'Hits clar as the noonday sun,

                        That she's the witch for whom I loaded my gun.'"

CHAPTER V.

THE SUDDEN ENDING OF THE BALL — A DISTRESSED FAMILY.

            This most unexpected and startling commotion of course ended the ball; indeed, it could but end, as the fiddler had disappeared. The floor was covered with broken glass, and all was in as much confusion as though a bomb had been exploded in the room. All the young ladies had been terribly frightened, and some were weeping and hysterical. They hurried on their hats and wraps and demanded of their escorts to be instantly taken home. The unreasonable creatures were viciously snappish with the Trails and evidently blamed them for what had occurred. One of the girls spitefully said in my hearing: "This is what comes of always having about a whole houseful of witches and devils!"

            The young men were quite as ready to leave as were the girls, and soon the house was deserted by all save those who belonged in it. Even the ample and excellent repast that had been provided stood untouched on a table in another room.

            Farmer Trail marched the floor, mourning and muttering about witches and devils, refusing to be pacified; while his wife, her head in her hands, sat behind the big box-stove and rocked herself to and fro. The cowboys belonging about the place had all retreated to their dens in the barns, and the Trail young folks — a lad of sixteen and two girls of about seventeen and nineteen — had betaken themselves to the kitchen to discuss the fearful affair with the cook, an old widow of Hoosierdom who was a regular wind-bag of superstitions.

            Being left pretty much to my own devices I turned my attention to an examination of the condition of the room. I found that the tops of the chimneys of two lamps that hung on the walls had been shattered, and picking up Trail's  old gun I discovered that a string had been tied to the trigger; evidence to me that it had been fired while still on the wall, and had kicked itself out of its hooks. Happening to look at a clock at the end of the room I saw that a bullet had shattered its face. I called Trail's attention, to this and showed him that a bullet from the gun could not have struck the clock. He glanced at the clock, and seeing it had stopped exactly at midnight, he declared that it was evident that all was the work of witches and devils. He then went to comfort "Mammy" by telling her he would sell the place at once and go back to old Wabash.

            I felt pretty sure that a pistol or two had been fired over the lamps by some one in order to blow them out, and taking the range from one of the broken lamp chimneys I found that a shot fired over it would hit the clock.

            It was of no use, however, to point out any of these things to Pap Trail. He would hear of nothing but witches and sons of Satan; further, I could see that he had taken a sudden dislike to me and was inclined to believe me an imp in disguise. He blamed me bitterly for dancing with the strange, wild woman, and declared he had told me not to dance with her. He knew she was a witch by her having pronounced a curse upon his farm and all its belongings. As for the fiddler, he was old Satan himself; he had acknowledged having come up through that hole in the bottom of the Sink — "yas; and gloried in hit!" Then, besides, if the fiddler and the woman were human and honest, "how came they to disappear all at once in thunder, fire and smoke?"  He said nothing about there being a silver bullet in his gun, and his notions of what had happened were quite different from those given by the poet. He declared that a flash of lightning had come into the room, discharged the guns and pistols, and knocked things to pieces. That was the signal for the fiddling devil and his dancing mate to disappear.  "Then they scooted back to hell — yas."

            The next morning when I went to the stables for my pony I accused some of Trail's cowboys of being concerned in the deviltry of the night before, but all denied all knowledge of any trick, and said they knew no more of the strange fiddler and his companion than what they saw of them during the evening.

            The uncanny affair at Trail's was, of course, the grand topic of conversation in all the region of the Lower Sink from the night of the ball forward.  All who had been at the ball were in brisk request and had big stories to tell of the demon fiddler and his female mate.  All said it must have been Satan himself, as they had never heard such sounds drawn from a violin as he produced.  Then said that if it were not the evil one why did he refuse to take off his steeple-crowned hat? and why did he wear an immensely long black coat? Clearly the creature had horns and tail to hide.

            Some of the young ladies were sure they had seen living snakes among the wild witch woman's hair, and declared that at times her eyes turned to living coals; besides, "no human creature could have been as heavy as a horse."

CHAPTER VI.

SEEKING TRACES OF THE MYSTERIOUS PAIR.

            Such were the stories that were in circulation everywhere and that all delighted to hear and repeat.  Go where you would you heard nothing but stories of the demon fiddler and the mighty dancing witch with fiery eyes and snaky hair.  I am confident from hints I accidentally heard that I was thought to know more of the pair than was wholesome.  Several times when the affair was being discussed in considerable companies I caught the words: "Why then did he dance with the creature?"  Now that I am away from there I fear that my defenders are few — even while I was there there were those who pretty plainly told me that I was bewitched, and I was questioned as to whether I still felt anything of "the influence."

            Here young Aylesmere ended his story.  "Well," said I, "did you never see or hear anything more of the strange fiddler and his wild companion?  From what you have told me of them I am inclined to think that the pair were an actor and his wife who for some reason had hidden away for a time in that out of the way place."

            Aylesmere smiled and drawing from his pocket a photograph on a large card, said:  "Take a look at this and tell me whether you have ever seen the person it represents."

            Taking the card I saw the picture of a large woman in a sort of Amazonian costume holding on the palm of her outstretched right hand a little creature that was evidently a dwarf — a female pigmy. The hair and form and features were such as Aylesmere had described in speaking of his partner in his wild dance.

            "Have you ever seen her?" asked Aylesmere.

            "No," said I, "but I think I have somewhere seen a picture of that face and form, of the dress and all else except the figure of the dwarf."

            "Where?"

            "Well, I think in one of the police journals. She is a 'Woman of Iron Jaw,' or something in that line."

            "I have myself thought that I had seen a picture of this same woman in some police or theatrical paper,"

            "There is no name on the card," said I. "How did you come into possession of it?"

            "That is a thing that puzzles me. I found it in the pocket of a coat that I put on to-day for the first time in many months, yet this is a perfect likeness of the wild woman who made her appearance so mysteriously at Trail's ball. Dressed as she is here one can see where the weight lies that so astonished the young ladies at that ball."

            "The countenance is not a bad one."

            "No; rather good; but I am sure that her husband — I think she is the fellow's wife — is a tricky one. His little rat eyes show it. He is as cunning as a rat. He is not a murderer or anything so bad as that; for he is too fond of a jest to be villainously bad, but he has no more moral principle than a monkey.

            "Was there no one in the neighborhood who could tell you anything about the pair?"

            "Not a soul — Yes. I did get some points. By putting together several bits of gossip and various hints I have been able to patch up a sort of outline of the meaning of the puzzling scene witnessed by me that night at Trail's.

            "First an old rancher told me that he was of the opinion that one Maybry, a neighbor of Trail's, who was trying to buy his place, was at the bottom of all the witcheries and tricks by which the Trails were persecuted. He said the ranch was worth about $200 an acre, therefore if Maybry could frighten Trail into selling for $150 he could afford to pay those who assisted him in his various schemes of deviltry pretty liberally. He believed that some, if not all, of Trail's cowboys were in Maybry's pay. But as regarded the demon fiddler and his female companion he knew nothing — he had never heard of such a pair being in the neighborhood. He knew Fiddler Dick, who he said was a "lazy, drunken rogue — a rapscallion of the first water,"

            "Afterwards," said Aylesmere, "I one day met a young rancher who was one of those who attended Trail's New Year's ball. Speaking of that curious affair the young follow said: "Do you know that I saw another thing that night that was rather strange and uncanny, so much so that in view of the many ridiculous stories that are in circulation I have been ashamed to speak of it. However, as we have been comparing notes, I will tell you that I saw that devil of a fiddler and his devil of a mate again that same night, and they were fiddling and dancing like mad."

            "'You astonish me," said I — 'I supposed that they made a dive for the hole Trail tells about and slid down to the infernal regions at once.'

            "'Not a bit of it! They were going it red hot almost under Pap Trail's nose. You see that after the blow-up had ended all the dancing, having no young lady to look after I went out to one of the barns with a cowboy friend. The man has a very comfortable room in a wing of the barn and I remained with him about an hour. I tried to find out what he knew of the strange business. He swore he had never seen the unknown fiddler nor the strange woman who seemed to belong with him in all his life before that night, and did not know what caused the explosion that put out the lights.

            "'Well, I live down toward Lovelock', said the young rancher, 'and on starting for home when I came in sight of Fiddler Dick's cabin I thought it was all on fire. It was all lighted up and a blaze seemed to be shooting out of the top of the old stick chimney. I turned and rode up toward the cabin, which resembled an old-fashioned tin lantern, so many were the chinks from which light streamed forth. As I drew near I heard a fiddle going like mad and the sound of the maddest kind of dancing. I jumped off my horse and crept up near enough to look in at the window. There was that devil of a fiddler, tearing away just as we saw him at Trail's, while Fiddler Dick and the woman were dancing fit to stave through the floor.

            "'Says I to myself — 'They are all devils together, or they are all drunk,' and I cut back to my nag and lit out of there on a keen lope.  From that day to this I've seen nothing of the devil fiddler or his wife; but I saw Dick and told him of having seen his cabin all aflame, with great sounds of deviltry within — pretending that I only saw his place from the road. He denied the whole thing, and said I was either dreaming or drunk.'

            "This young man said he was sure that the story of Trail's cowboy about meeting the strange fiddler in the road was a sheer fabrication. He believed that both the fiddler and the woman were at Dick's cabin, waiting to be sent for.

            "At Lovelock," said Aylesmere, "a resident of the place told me there had been about the settlement a gypsy woman who was a doctress and fortune teller. There was the story, too, of a fellow who appeared to be a sport, blackmailing a bachelor rancher on account of the gypsy woman, claiming that she was his wife. Also, he had seen this stranger, who was dressed in a flash style, in company with Maybry and Fiddler Dick in a saloon."

            "Putting these stories and others, together I arrived at the conclusion that the unknown fiddler and his mate had been about the settlement, off and on for some time in various disguises, and that — in Maybry's pay — he had been stopping in Trail's barns, 'bunking' with his cowboys; in fact, I believe he was the gray-haired old man who cried 'Boo!' at Pap Trail, and then astonished the old fellow by spinning round in several back-summersets."

            "And did Trail keep his promise to his wife and sell his place?" I asked.

            "It appears so, for since coming home I have heard that Maybry has got the ranch, but I do not know at what figure. If he succeeded in frightening Trail out of no more than $5 or $10 an acre it would amount to a snug little sum saved on a ranch of 1000 acres. But that which is puzzling me more than anything else just at present is how this picture got into my pocket.  It must have been placed there to-day."

CHAPTER VII.

A STARTLING INTERRUPTION TO AYLESMERE'S STORY.

            I was about to ask who could have put the picture in his pocket when a loud, mocking laugh rang through the room and a voice said:

                        "A well-imagined tale, O my infant!

                        Shall the witch appear before thee?"

            Aylesmere almost tumbled off his chair, and gasping my arm he cried: "That was her voice! Come, let us get out of this!"

            "Her voice!" cried I, "but it sounded just behind your chair, and there is not a soul in the room save ourselves. The walls are smooth and the room bare — there is no place in which any one can be hidden."

            "It was her voice!" cried Aylesmere, pale as death, dragging me toward the door.

            Then was heard in another tone a horrible giggling laugh — "Te, he, ho! — te, ho, ho!" and a shrill little voice piped out: "Nay, 'tis I, my lord — the early village cock !"

            "That is the demon fiddler, or the devil himself!" said Aylesmere in a hoarse whisper, and leaving me to my fate he bolted from the room.

            I must own that I was close at his heels, and as I left the room there rang through it a shrill — "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" and another horrible, "Te, he, he!"

            This new manifestation did not, however, have the effect of causing me to delay my departure; on the contrary, a few rather agile bounds landed the pair of us in the front room, in which is situated the bar of the Blind Robin.

            After we had each swallowed a "brandy-straight" we found our courage returning. Holding a whispered consultation we decided to cautiously question the bartender as to whether any of the rear rooms of the establishment were occupied.

            At first the man said all that part of the building was unoccupied, but after a moment's thought he said there were two or three rear rooms about which he knew nothing. They belonged, he said, with the lodging-house that fronted on the upper structure and occupied the floor over the saloon.

            It was then midnight, and too late to further prospect the mystery, but we arranged to meet the next afternoon at 1 o'clock and pursue our investigations at the lodging-house.

            Upon our visiting the lodging-house and making known our wish to learn if any of the rooms on the lower floor were occupied, the landlady said that only one room in that part of the house was furnished; the other rooms were merely store and lumber-rooms.

            Was any one occupying the furnished room, we asked.

            "Not at present," said the landlady, "the parties who occupied the room left  this morning for California.  They only took the room for a few days — merely to wait here until the snow blockade in the Sierras was broken. They might have got away two or three days ago, but business was so brisk with them that they did not leave."

            So the woman was running on when Aylesmere checked her and asked if her late roomers were a man and a woman.

            "They were two women," said the landlady, "a young woman and her mother."

            "Was the young woman tall and robust?" asked Aylesmere.

            "Yes, very tall and stout."

            "Dark complexion and long black hair?"

            "No, a beautiful fair complexion and long, blonde hair. She was a very handsome young woman," continued the landlady, "and was very active. She seemed to be a splendid woman for business."

            "Then she was doing some kind of business while here?"

            "O yes, she was out rushing about all day and every day, storm or shine. She had for sale all kinds of face washes, enamels, powders and paints; all kinds of wigs, bangs, frizzes and false hair; she extracted corns, pared and straightened finger nails, and even cleaned and filled teeth. Yes, she actually carried a kit of dentist's tools, and did jobs in that line for half what a regular dentist would have charged. She took more or less money out of every house she went into — if there was no more than a bit in a house she would leave some face or tooth powder and take it."

            "How about the old woman — the mother — what was she doing all this time?" asked Aylesmere.

            "O, the mother; she was busy, too — she was taking in lots of money. You see, sir, the old lady was a doctress — was great on all kinds of female complaints. She had medicines for everything and she knew how to charge for them, too, I can tell you. The young woman worked very nicely into the hands of her mother. While she was selling her washes and powders she found out the weak spots of every woman she met and sent 'em here to her mother in regular droves. I know that, for I gave the old lady the use of my front parlor, the room down stairs being only a bedroom and dark at that. The old woman took in stacks of money."

            "Was the old woman as large as her daughter?" I asked.

            "Yes, sir, even larger, and much coarser. She wore a lot of gray bangs and frizzes, and was a very homely old creature. She didn't look one bit like her daughter. I didn't like her eyes, they looked just like the eyes of a rat, or two beads of black glass. But I could never get a fair look at her; she know she was as homely as a hedge fence, and whenever she came up to the front room to receive patients she always seated herself in front of the window with her back to the light. You know, sir, that you can hardly see the face of one seated so. The old woman, however, told me that she had to be seated so in order to got the light full on the faces of her patients; which is true enough. The old woman would see no one by lamp light; as soon as it was dark she was off down stairs." And so the landlady ran on.

            "Was there no man with them — were the two women alone?" asked Aylesmere.

            "Yes, I had forgotten the man," said the landlady, "but he didn't stop here; he had a room down town somewhere, I think. He was the young woman's brother.  He dressed in rather a gay style and I took him to be a sort of sport — a gambler."

            "His eyes were small, black and rat-like, were they not?" asked Aylesmere.

            "No, his eyes were gray," said the landlady, "and large and beautifully bright. It was his mother that had the rat eyes."

            "Strange — devilish strange!" muttered Aylesmere.

            "The old lady told me that her son was a sad young dog," continued the garrulous landlady, "and that he gave her a good deal of uneasiness. 'Still,' said she, 'he is so good-natured that I cannot seriously scold him — it is hard to find fault with one's own flesh and blood.' The son seemed even a greater favorite with the old lady than the daughter.  She was always praising him and she once asked me if I did not think he had beautiful eyes.  Then she said — I can't scold my son, he is so good to me; he is always bringing me some little present — almost every evening he brings me something.

CHAPTER VIII.

FURTHER TRANSFORMATION SCENES, AND THE BIRDS ARE GONE.

            The landlady would have gone on all day in the same strain had we not asked to see the room that the old lady and her daughter had just vacated.  She thought we wanted to rent it and said:  "I may as well tell you, gentlemen, before you go downstairs, that the room is a dark one.  It is below the level of B street and even in the day time the gas must be lighted.  It is a nice quiet room, though, and just the thing for those who care to occupy it in the nighttime only."

            We told her we would look at the room. On being shown to it we immediately begun to prospect. Almost at once we found a stove-pipe hole in a partition, within it the usual tin safety-thimble and stopper. Taking the stopper out of the thimble we saw on the opposite side of the partition a red curtain. Moving this curtain with a cane we could see a room beyond, but it was dark.

            We saw that we must next go back to the room we had occupied the night before at the Blind Robin and find out about the red curtain, which we did not remember seeing. But before leaving we asked the landlady about a way of getting out to the street from the bedroom without going upstairs, and she showed us through a chamber room to a door that led out to a blind alley and thence up a flight of steps to B street.

            Going back to the Blind Robin we asked the barkeeper to show us to the room we had occupied the night before, and give us a small brew of rum punch. As soon as the barkeeper had lighted the gas and started for the punch we made a survey of the room. Directly behind the chair in which Aylesmere had been seated the night before was a small shelf from the edge of which hung a curtain about eighteen inches in length. Lifting this curtain we saw behind it the stove-pipe hole. The explanation of what to us had seemed a great mystery — a thing partaking of supernatural diablery — was so simple and obvious that we both burst into a fit of laughter, to the evident astonishment of the barkeeper, who at the moment entered with the punch. As soon as we were again alone, I said to Aylesmere: "Well, what do you think; were the occupants of the adjoining room the demon fiddler and your wild lass of the Lower Sink?"

            "Undoubtedly."

            "But who was the third one of the party?"

            "There was no third person. That devil of a fiddler was both the old woman and the incorrigible son. How many other disguises he assumed while here the Lord only knows. You see that the wife is also up to disguises. Her trade gives both facilities for a variety of disguises, and being old show people — as they surely are — they are skillful in the use of paints, powders, washes and wigs."

            "But," said I, "there must have been three persons here; the landlord says distinctly that the sporting son had large and handsome gray eyes."

            "That is so," said Aylesmere. "That is a puzzler, but I am sure that the old woman was my demon fiddler."

            "They seem to have been doing a thriving business here."

            "Yes, and would doubtless have remained longer had they not given themselves away in playing us that trick last night. I must admit, however, that the temptation was one not easy to resist.'"

            "Now, just to satisfy ourselves as to the number of the party, let us go down to the Virginia & Truckee passenger depot," said I, "and interview Paul Ryan, the ticket agent. He will be sure to have noticed a young lady of a figure so striking as your wild lass."

            "Yes," said Paul, when questioned, "they were here this morning. They took tickets for San Francisco. The young woman was a fine buxom piece. She did all the talking, the old woman only saying, 'Yes, darter,' and 'No, my darter.' The old woman had a big brown mole on her chin that had in it a bunch of white hairs as big as a cat's moustache; she had little rat eyes; there was a dew-drop on the end of her nose, and she exhaled an odor of gin. She was a terrible old harridan!"

            "The two woman were alone — no man with them?" asked Aylesmere.

            "Man, no," said Ryan, "but there ought to have been two men. The old woman seemed to have no backbone and the daughter had to help her to a chair by the stove, help her aboard the train, and help her all about the place. Before she would move a step she'd whine out, 'Your arm, darter.' O, she was a terrible old harridan!"

            "A regular old witch?" said I.

            "Witch!" cried Paul, "I believe she was the devil's grandmother! Why, what astonished me the most of all, I have not told you. The old woman seemed to have an attack of la grippe. While the pair were standing in front of my desk bargaining for their tickets the old creature was taken with a fit of sneezing, and she sneezed till one of her little rat eyes flew out.  Yes, flew right out upon the counter. But that wasn't the worst of it — I had heard before of false eyes — what beat me was that when the little black eye came out, I saw staring at me a big gray eye; as good an eye as I ever saw, and all full of deviltry. I thought I would have dropped to the floor. The daughter hastened to say that although her mother's eye looked well it was sightless — all the life had bleached and faded out of it. But that gray eye that looked at me was about as live a thing as I ever saw!"

            "What would you say if we were to tell you that the old woman was a man in disguise?" I asked.

            "If you were to' tell me she was the old devil himself," said Paul, "I would not have a word to say to the contrary."

            After satisfying Mr. Ryan's curiosity by giving him a brief sketch of some of the tricks of the mysterious pair, we started up town.

            While walking up the street we met Charley Kavanaugh. Said Charley: "This law which closes all saloons and all games at 12 o'clock at night has been a good deal abused, but there is good in all things. If it had not been for that law Joe Stuart's faro bank would have been busted night before last!"

            "How so?" I asked.

            "Well, a fellow from some outside place — and a sort of Josey looking fellow, too — had the game on its last legs and would have raked the bank clean, when 12 o'clock struck and Joe closed the game."

            "What kind of looking man was the one who was playing against the bank?" asked Aylesmere.

            "Well, ho was a big, tall, gawky fellow," said Charley, '"looking like a rancher who had just sold a bunch of cattle and had rigged out in the gayest cheap-John suit he could find."

            "Rather a green-looking fellow?" questioned Aylesmere.

            "As to dress and in some other respects," said Charley, "but he had in his head a pair of infernal rat eyes that I didn't like."

            We had succeeded in solving the mystery of the voices heard at the Blind Robin, and also were convinced that the masqueraders were only two in number, but there our discoveries ended.  To this day we know no more of the names and real personality of the demon fiddler and the strange wild woman who accompanied him on his predatory excursions than was discovered by Aylesmere on the occasion of Pap Trail's New Year's ball.

            All to whom Aylesmere shows the picture that was slipped into his pocket, say: "That is a mighty familiar face and figure; I've seen the woman or her picture somewhere — just where I can't say, perhaps in a circus."

__________

            Aylsmere and I for months have daily scanned the leading San Francisco papers, expecting to hear of some wild or queer pranks of the couple at the "Bay City," but we have not been able to find any reliable trace. The only clue we have been able to obtain, if it was a clue, was the death, at Truckee during the great storm, of a female Mexican dwarf known as the '"Midget." It will be remembered that when her remains were taken back to Mexico for burial the authorities of that country charged $500, or some such outrageous sum, as duty on the little package of mortal remains.