Authors: Melville Davisson Post
Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries
Melville Davisson Post
The pioneer was not the only man in the great mountains behind Virginia. Strange aliens drifted in after the Colonial wars. All foreign armies are sprinkled with a cockle of adventurers that take root and remain. They were with Braddock and La Salle, and they rode north out of Mexico after her many empires went to pieces.
I think Doomdorf crossed the seas with Iturbide when that ill-starred adventurer returned to be shot against a wall; but there was no Southern blood in him. He came from some European race remote and barbaric. The evidences were all about him. He was a huge figure of a man, with a black spade beard, broad, thick hands, and square, flat fingers.
He had found a wedge of land between the Crown's grant to Daniel Davisson and a Washington survey. It was an uncovered triangle not worth the running of the lines; and so, no doubt, was left out, a sheer rock standing up out of the river for a base, and a peak of the mountain rising northward behind it for an apex.
Doomdorf squatted on the rock. He must have brought a belt of gold pieces when he took to his horse, for he hired old Robert Steuart's slaves and built a stone house on the rock, and he brought the furnishings overland from a frigate in the Chesapeake; and then in the handfuls of earth, wherever a root would hold, he planted the mountain behind his house with peach trees. The gold gave out; but the devil is fertile in resources. Doomdorf built a log still and turned the first fruits of the garden into a hell-brew. The idle and the vicious came with their stone jugs, and violence and riot flowed out.
The government of Virginia was remote and its arm short and feeble; but the men who held the lands west of the mountains against the savages under grants from George, and after that held them against George himself, were efficient and expeditious. They had long patience, but when that failed they went up from their fields and drove the thing before them out of the land, like a scourge of God.
There came a day, then, when my Uncle Abner and Squire Randolph rode through the gap of the mountains to have the thing out with Doomdorf. The work of this brew, which had the odors of Eden and the impulses of the devil in it, could be borne no longer. The drunken Negroes had shot old Duncan's cattle and burned his haystacks, and the land was on its feet.
They rode alone, but they were worth an army of little men. Randolph was vain and pompous and given over to extravagance of words, but he was a gentleman beneath it, and fear was an alien and a stranger to him. And Abner was the right hand of the land.
It was a day in early summer and the sun lay hot. They crossed through the broken spine of the mountains and trailed along the river in the shade of the great chestnut trees. The road was only a path and the horses went one before the other. It left the river when the rock began to rise and, making a detour through the grove of peach trees, reached the house on the mountain side. Randolph and Abner got down, unsaddled their horses and turned them out to graze, for their business with Doomdorf would not be over in an hour. Then they took a steep path that brought them out on the mountain side of the house.
A man sat on a big red-roan horse in the paved court before the door. He was a gaunt old man. He sat bare-headed, the palms of his hands resting on the pommel of his saddle, his chin sunk in his black stock, his face in retrospection, the wind moving gently his great shock of voluminous white hair. Under him the huge red horse stood with his legs spread out like a horse of stone.
There was no sound. The door to the house was closed; insects moved in the sun; a shadow crept out from the motionless figure, and swarms of yellow butterflies maneuvered like an army.
Abner and Randolph stopped. They knew the tragic figureâa circuit rider of the hills who preached the invective of Isaiah as though he were the mouthpiece of a militant and avenging overlord; as though the government of Virginia were the awful theocracy of the Book of Kings. The horse was dripping with sweat and the man bore the dust and the evidences of a journey on him.
“Bronson,” said Abner, “where is Doomdorf?” The old man lifted his head and looked down at Abner over the pommel of the saddle.
“âSurely,'” he said, “âhe covereth his feet in his summer chamber.'”
Abner went over and knocked on the closed door, and presently the white, frightened face of a woman looked out at him. She was a little, faded woman, with fair hair, a broad foreign face, but with the delicate evidences of gentle blood. Abner repeated his question. “Where is Doomdorf?”
“Oh, sir,” she answered with a queer lisping accent, “he went to lie down in his south room after his midday meal, as his custom is; and I went to the orchard to gather any fruit that might be ripened.” She hesitated and her voice lisped into a whisper: “He is not come out and I cannot wake him.”
The two men followed her through the hall and up the stairway to the door.
“It is always bolted,” she said, “when he goes to lie down.” And she knocked feebly with the tips of her fingers.
There was no answer and Randolph rattled the doorknob. “Come out, Doomdorf!” he called in his big, bellowing voice.
There was only silence and the echoes of the words among the rafters. Then Randolph set his shoulder to the door and burst it open.
They went in. The room was flooded with sun from the tall south windows. Doomdorf lay on a couch in a little offset of the room, a great scarlet patch on his bosom and a pool of scarlet on the floor.
The woman stood for a moment staring; then she cried out: “At last I have killed him!” And she ran like a frightened hare.
The two men closed the door and went over to the couch. Doomdorf had been shot to death. There was a great ragged hole in his waistcoat. They began to look about for the weapon with which the deed had been accomplished, and in a moment found itâa fowling piece lying in two dogwood forks against the wall. The gun had just
been fired; there was a freshly exploded paper cap under the hammer.
There was little else in the roomâa loom-woven rag carpet on the floor; wooden shutters flung back from the windows; a great oak table, and on it a big, round, glass water bottle, filled to its glass stopper with raw liquor from the still. The stuff was limpid and clear as spring water; and, but for its pungent odor, one would have taken it for God's brew instead of Doomdorf's. The sun lay on it and against the wall where hung the weapon that had ejected the dead man out of life.
“Abner,” said Randolph, “this is murder! The woman took that gun down from the wall and shot Doomdorf while he slept.”
Abner was standing by the table, his fingers round his chin.
“Randolph,” he replied, “what brought Bronson here?”
“The same outrages that brought us,” said Randolph. “The mad old circuit rider has been preaching a crusade against Doomdorf far and wide in the hills.”
Abner answered, without taking his fingers from about his chin:
“You think this woman killed Doomdorf? Well, let us go and ask Bronson who killed him.”
They closed the door, leaving the dead man on his couch, and went down into the court.
The old circuit rider had put away his horse and got an ax. He had taken off his coat and pushed his shirtsleeves up over his long elbows. He was on his way to the still to destroy the barrels of liquor. He stopped when the two men came out, and Abner called to him.
“Bronson,” he said, “who killed Doomdorf?”
“I killed him,” replied the old man, and went on toward the still.
Randolph swore under his breath. “By the Almighty,” he said, “everybody couldn't kill him!”
“Who can tell how many had a hand in it?” replied Abner.
“Two have confessed!” cried Randolph. “Was there perhaps a third? Did you kill him, Abner? And I too? Man, the thing is impossible!”
“The impossible,” replied Abner, “looks here like the truth. Come with me, Randolph, and I will show you a thing more impossible than this.”
They returned through the house and up the stairs to the room. Abner closed the door behind them.
“Look at this bolt,” he said; “it is on the inside and not connected with the lock. How did the one who killed Doomdorf get into this room, since the door was bolted?”
“Through the windows,” replied Randolph.
There were but two windows, facing the south, through which the sun entered. Abner led Randolph to them.
“Look!” he said. “The wall of the house is plumb with the sheer face of the rock. It is a hundred feet to the river and the rock is as smooth as a sheet of glass. But that is not all. Look at these window frames; they are cemented into their casement with dust and they are bound along their edges with cobwebs. These windows have not been opened. How did the assassin enter?” “The answer is evident,” said Randolph: “The one who killed Doomdorf hid in the room until he was asleep; then he shot him and went out.”
“The explanation is excellent but for one thing,” replied Abner: “How did the assassin bolt the door behind him on the inside of this room after he had gone out?”
Randolph flung out his arms with a hopeless gesture. “Who knows?” he cried. “Maybe Doomdorf killed himself.”
Abner laughed. “And after firing a handful of shot into his heart he got up and put the gun back carefully into the forks against the wall!” “Well,” cried Randolph, “there is one open road out of this mystery. Bronson and this woman say they killed Doomdorf, and if they killed him they surely know how they did it. Let us go down and ask them.”
“In the law court,” replied Abner, “that procedure would be considered sound sense; but we are in God's court and things are managed there in a somewhat stranger way. Before we go let us find out, if we can, at what hour it was that Doomdorf died.”
He went over and took a big silver watch out of the dead man's pocket. It was broken by a shot and the hands lay at one hour after noon. He stood for a moment fingering his chin.
“At one o'clock,” he said. “Bronson, I think, was on the road to this place, and the woman was on the mountain among the peach trees.”
Randolph threw back his shoulders.
“Why waste time in a speculation about it, Abner?” he said. “We know who did this thing. Let us go and get the story of it out of their own mouths. Doomdorf died by the hands of either Bronson or this woman.”
“I could better believe it,” replied Abner, “but for the running of a certain awful law.”
“What law?” said Randolph. “Is it a statute of Virginia?”
“It is a statute,” replied Abner, “of an authority somewhat higher. Mark the language of it: âHe that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.'”
He came over and took Randolph by the arm. “Must! Randolph, did you mark particularly the word âmust'? It is a mandatory law. There is no room in it for the Vicissitudes of chance or fortune. There is no way round that word. Thus, we reap what we sow and nothing else; thus, we receive what we give and nothing else. It is the weapon in our own hands that finally destroys us. You are looking at it now.” And he turned him about so that the table and the weapon and the
dead man were before him. “âHe that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword'. And now,” he said, “let us go and try the method of the law courts. Your faith is in the wisdom of their ways.”