Alfred B. Street
Before the plough had scattered fields of grain
And grassy orchards midst the oaken woods
Of Shawangunk, upon the mountain’s top
Stood a wood-cutter’s hut. Himself and wife
Shared it alone. The spot was green and sweet,
The earth was covered with a velvet sward,
Grouped with low thickets, here and there a tree
Rearing its dark rich foliage in the heavens.
Pleasant the echoes of his fast piled axe,
Merrily rattling through the mountain-woods,
To those who sought the old surveyor’s road
For shade and coolness; and amidst the sounds
Would boom deep heavy shocks of falling trees,
Like growls of thunder in the noontide-hush,
So that the eye would glance impulsively
Up to the tree-tops, to discern the peak
Of the ascending cloud.
Though rude, was joyous. When the mellow charm
Of sunset on the smiling mountains lay,
The creaking of his high-piled cart would blend
With song or whistle blithe, as, dipping down
The road, he sought the village in the midst
Of the green hollow. This slight mountain-road
Went slanting to the summit, with blazed trunks
On either side, and soft delicious grass
Spreading its carpet; one faint track alone
Telling that wheel had e’er its beauty scarred.
Close to the hut it passed, then downward plunged,
And sought the level of the opposite side.
‘Twas at the close of one cold winter day
That down this road I trod. My weary steps,
With efforts vain, had tracked, for hours, the deer,
And now, with empty flask and rifle, swift,
I journeyed homeward. Nature’s great bright eye
Low beaming in the west, still poured sweet light
Upon the mountain. The pure snow, all around,
In delicate rose-tints glowed. The hemlocks smiled,
Speckled with gold. The oak’s sear foliage, still
Tight clinging to the boughs, was kindled up
To warm rich brown. The myriad trunks and sprays
Traced their black lines upon the soft snow-blush
Beneath, until it seemed a tangled maze.
Upon the mountain’s top, a thread of smoke
From the low cabin rose, as though a streak
Of violet had been painted on the air.
I heard the ring of the wood-cutter’s axe,
And, through an opening, saw his instrument
Flashing into a walnut’s giant stem,
Whose upborne mass, in the fast lowering light,
Seemed cut in copper. A broad wind-fall near
Let down my eyes upon the hollow. Where
In snow it lay, with long and dusky lines
Of fences crossing—groups of orchard-trees—
Hay-barracks—barns and long low dwelling-roofs.
Straight as an arrow ran the streak of road
Athwart the hollow. As I looked, the eye
In the red west sank lower, till half quenched
Behind the upland, then a shred of light
Glittered and vanished, and the sky was bare.
Whilst gazing on this splendor, suddenly
I heard a shriek. Shrill, ringing midst the woods
In piercing clearness, through my ears it cut,
And left a sense of deafness. Startled, round
I gazed. Again the horrid sound thrilled past.
I knew it then as the terrible cry
Of the fierce, bloody panther. In our woods
Naught fiercer, bloodier dwells, when roused by rage
Or hunger. Oft our hunters had of late
Marked the huge foot-prints of the ravenous beast,
And heard his scream at midnight, but no eye
As yet had seen him. With a nervous grasp
Upon my useless weapon, and a weight
Of helplessness, like lead, upon my soul,
I started on my path. At every step
I thought his tawny form and fierce green eye
Would meet my sight, upon some limb o’erhead.
But naught was seen. The village soon I reached,
And gladly crossed the threshold of my home.
The long, cold, breathless night came swiftly down.
The clear, magnificent moon seemed not inlaid
In the bright blue, but stood out bold, distinct,
As though impending from the cloudless skies
Glittering with frost. Upon the sparkling snow
The rich light slept in such sweet purity
As naught on earth can match. The hours sped on.
The silver day still shone serene and clear,
And twinkled on the crystals shooting round.
Gazing once more upon the splendid scene,
Before I sought the couch, my wandering eye
Glanced at the mountain. There it grandly stood
A giant mass of ivory. On the spot
Where the steep slanting road the hollow joined,
My sight a moment dwelt, for there I last
Had swept around a quick and piercing gaze,
In search of the gaunt monster whose keen cry
Still echoed in my ears. Is that a spot
Of shadow flickering in some transient breeze?
No. O’er the hollow, gliding swift, it comes.
Is it the ravenous panther, fierce for blood,
Seeking the village? Closer as it speeds
A clearer shape it shows—a human form—
‘T is the wood-cutter’s wife! She loudly shrieks,
“My husband—lost—wake, wake!” the moonlight falls
Upon her features swollen with tears. A band
Of villagers was soon aroused, and forth
We sallied toward the mountain. So intense
The cold, the snow creaked shrilly at our tread,
And the strewed diamonds on its surface flashed
Back with the keen moonlight. As we trod along,
The wife in breathless haste, her story told,
How, when the sunset fell, she watched to see
Her husband’s form swift speeding up the road,
From the side-clearing, at that wonted hour,
Toward his low roof. The sunset died, and night
Sprang on the earth; the absent one came not.
The moon moved up; the latch-string was not pulled
For entrance in the cabin. Hours sped on.
And still, upon the silvered snow, no form
Her gaze rewarded. Once she heard afar
A panther’s shriek. Her fear to frenzy rose.
To the side-clearing sped she; naught was there
But solitude and moonlight. As she told
Her tale I shuddered. In my ear again
Rang the fierce shriek I heard as sunset glowed,
And my flesh crept with horror. Up we trod
Our mountain snow-path speedily. At length,
To where the narrow opening in the woods
Led from the road, we came. ‘Twas at this spot
I stood, and watched the form and flashing axe
Of him, the lost. We passed within. The moon
Threw on the little clearing a full flood
Of radiance. There the crusted wood-pile stood;
There was the walnut with a ghastly notch
Deep in its heart. A ledge of rock rose up
Beside the wounded tree, and at its base
A space of blackest hue proclaimed a chasm.
No life was stirring on the brilliant waste;
The trees rose like a wall on every side
But where the ledge frowned darkly. As I checked
My footsteps at the half-hewn walnut, drops
Thick sprinkled round—the snow stamped down—an axe
Lying upon the high wreathed roots, my gaze,
As with a charm, arrested. From this spot
Large prints and a broad furrow stretched along
To the black chasm within the rocky ledge.
We clustered round the mouth. A low, deep growl
Came from the depths. Two orbs of flashing fires
Glared in the darkness. Brace, the hunter, aimed
His rifle just between the flaming spots,
And fired. Fierce growls and gnashings loud of teeth
Blent with the echoes, and then all was still.
The spots were seen no more. A few had brought
Splinters of pine for torches, and the flint
Supplied the flame. With one hand grasping tight
A hatchet keen, the other a bright torch,
The dauntless hunter ventured, with slow steps,
Within the cavern. Soon a shout we heard,
And Brace appeared, with all his giant strength
Dragging a lifeless panther. In again
He passed, and then brought out a human form,
Mangled and crushed. A shriek pealed wild and high,
And, swooning, sank the wife upon the snow,
Beside the dead. With silent, deep-felt awe
We bore both to the hut. A sudden cloud
Rose frowning from the north, and deep and fierce
Howled the loosed tempest. From her death-like swoon,
Roused by our care, the hapless wife poured out
Her cries and wailings. Through the livelong night
We heard her moans and screams and ravings wild,
Blending with all those stern and awful tones
That the scourged forest yields. But morning dawned,
And brought the widowed and the broken heart
The peace of death. Beside the lonely hut,
Two graves were opened in the frozen snow,
And silence then fell deeply on the spot.
No more the smoke curled up. No more the axe
Rang in the mountain; and a few short years
Leveled the cabin with the forest-earth,
Midst spreading bushes, fern and waving grass.