The Haunted Valley

Ambrose Bierce

02 Apr, 2014 09:47 PM


1: How Trees Are Felled in China

A HALF-MILE north from Jo. Dunfer's, on the road from Hutton's to
Mexican Hill, the highway dips into a sunless ravine which opens out on
either hand in a half-confidential manner, as if it had a secret to
impart at some more convenient season. I never used to ride through it
without looking first to the one side and then to the other, to see if
the time had ar- rived for the revelation. If I saw nothing--and I never
did see anything--there was no feeling of disappointment, for I knew the
disclosure was merely withheld temporarily for some good reason which I
had no right to question. That I should one day be taken into full
confidence I no more doubted than I doubted the existence of Jo. Dunfer
himself, through whose premises the ravine ran.
It was said that Jo. had once undertaken to erect a cabin in some
remote part of it, but for some rea- son had abandoned the enterprise
and constructed his present hermaphrodite habitation, half residence and
half groggery, at the roadside, upon an extreme corner of his estate; as
far away as possible, as if on purpose to show how radically he had
changed his mind.
This Jo. Dunfer--or, as he was familiarly known in the
neighbourhood, Whisky Jo.--was a very im- portant personage in those
parts. He was apparently about forty years of age, a long, shock-headed
fellow, with a corded face, a gnarled arm and a knotty hand like a bunch
of prison-keys. He was a hairy man, with a stoop in his walk, like that
of one who is about to spring upon something and rend it.
Next to the peculiarity to which he owed his local appellation, Mr.
Dunfer's most obvious character- istic was a deep-seated antipathy to
the Chinese. I saw him once in a towering rage because one of his
herdsmen had permitted a travel-heated Asian to slake his thirst at the
horse-trough in front of the saloon end of Jo.'s establishment. I
ventured faintly to remonstrate with Jo. for his unchristian spirit, but
he merely explained that there was nothing about Chinamen in the New
Testament, and strode away to wreak his displeasure upon his dog, which
also, I suppose, the inspired scribes had overlooked.
Some days afterward, finding him sitting alone in his bar-room, I
cautiously approached the sub- ject, when, greatly to my relief, the
habitual aus- terity of his expression visibly softened into some- thing
that I took for condescension.
'You young Easterners,' he said, 'are a mile-and- a-half too good
for this country, and you don't catch on to our play. People who don't
know a Chileno from a Kanaka can afford to hang out liberal ideas about
Chinese immigration, but a fellow that has to fight for his bone with a
lot of mongrel coolies hasn't any time for foolishness.'
This long consumer, who had probably never done an honest day's work
in his life, sprung the lid of a Chinese tobacco-box and with thumb and
forefinger forked out a wad like a small haycock. Holding this
reinforcement within supporting dis- tance he fired away with renewed
'They're a flight of devouring locusts, and they're going for
everything green in this God blest land, if you want to know.'
Here he pushed his reserve into the breach and when his gabble-gear
was again disengaged re- sumed his uplifting discourse.
'I had one of them on this ranch five years ago, and I'll tell you
about it, so that you can see the nub of this whole question. I didn't
pan out par- ticularly well those days--drank more whisky than was
prescribed for me and didn't seem to care for my duty as a patriotic
American citizen; so I took that pagan in, as a kind of cook. But when I
got religion over at the Hill and they talked of running me for the
Legislature it was given to me to see the light. But what was I to do?
If I gave him the go somebody else would take him, and mightn't treat
him white. What was I to do? What would any good Christian do,
especially one new to the trade and full to the neck with the
brotherhood of Man and the father- hood of God?'
Jo. paused for a reply, with an expression of un- stable
satisfaction, as of one who has solved a prob- lem by a distrusted
method. Presently he rose and swallowed a glass of whisky from a full
bottle on the counter, then resumed his story.
'Besides, he didn't count for much--didn't know anything and gave
himself airs. They all do that. I said him nay, but he muled it through
on that line while he lasted; but after turning the other cheek seventy
and seven times I doctored the dice so that he didn't last for ever. And
I'm almighty glad I had the sand to do it.'
Jo.'s gladness, which somehow did not impress me, was duly and
ostentatiously celebrated at the bottle.
'About five years ago I started in to stick up a shack. That was
before this one was built, and I put it in another place. I set Ah Wee
and a little cuss named Gopher to cutting the timber. Of course I didn't
expect Ah Wee to help much, for he had a face like a day in June and big
black eyes--I guess maybe they were the damn'dest eyes in this neck o'
While delivering this trenchant thrust at common sense Mr. Dunfer
absently regarded a knot-hole in the thin board partition separating the
bar from the living-room, as if that were one of the eyes whose size and
colour had incapacitated his servant for good service.
'Now you Eastern galoots won't believe anything against the yellow
devils,' he suddenly flamed out with an appearance of earnestness not
altogether convincing,' but I tell you that Chink was the per- versest
scoundrel outside San Francisco. The miser- able pig-tail Mongolian went
to hewing away at the saplings all round the stems, like a worm o' the
dust gnawing a radish. I pointed out his error as pa- tiently as I knew
how, and showed him how to cut them on two sides, so as to make them
fall right; but no sooner would I turn my back on him, like this'--and
he turned it on me, amplifying the il- lustration by taking some more
liquor--'than he was at it again. It was just this way: while I looked
at him so'--regarding me rather unsteadily and with evident complexity
of vision--' he was all right; but when I looked away, so'--taking a
long pull at the bottle--' he defied me. Then I'd gaze at him
reproachfully, so, and butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth.'
Doubtless Mr. Dunfer honestly intended the look that he fixed upon
me to be merely reproachful, but it was singularly fit to arouse the
gravest apprehen- sion in any unarmed person incurring it; and as I had
lost all interest in his pointless and interminable nar- rative, I rose
to go. Before I had fairly risen, he had again turned to the counter,
and with a barely audible 'so,' had emptied the bottle at a gulp.
Heavens! what a yell! It was like a Titan in his last, strong agony.
Jo. staggered back after emitting it, as a cannon recoils from its own
thunder, and then dropped into his chair, as if he had been 'knocked in
the head' like a beef--his eyes drawn sidewise toward the wall, with a
stare of terror. Looking in the same direction, I saw that the knot-
hole in the wall had indeed become a human eye-- a full, black eye, that
glared into my own with an entire lack of expression more awful than the
most devilish glitter. I think I must have covered my face with my hands
to shut out the horrible illusion, if such it was, and Jo.'s little
white man-of-all-work coming into the room broke the spell, and I walked
out of the house with a sort of dazed fear that delirium tremens might
be infectious. My horse was hitched at the watering-trough, and untying
him I mounted and gave him his head, too much troubled in mind to note
whither he took me.
I did not know what to think of all this, and like everyone who does
not know what to think I thought a great deal, and to little purpose.
The only reflection that seemed at all satisfactory was, that on the
mor- row I should be some miles away, with a strong probability of never
A sudden coolness brought me out of my abstrac- tion, and looking up
I found myself entering the deep shadows of the ravine. The day was
stifling; and this transition from the pitiless, visible heat of the
parched fields to the cool gloom, heavy with pun- gency of cedars and
vocal with twittering of the birds that had been driven to its leafy
asylum, was exquisitely refreshing. I looked for my mystery, as usual,
but not finding the ravine in a communica- tive mood, dismounted, led my
sweating animal into the undergrowth, tied him securely to a tree and
sat down upon a rock to meditate.
I began bravely by analysing my pet superstition about the place.
Having resolved it into its constit- uent elements I arranged them in
convenient troops and squadrons, and collecting all the forces of my
logic bore down upon them from impregnable prem- ises with the thunder
of irresistible conclusions and a great noise of chariots and general
intellectual shouting. Then, when my big mental guns had over- turned
all opposition, and were growling almost inaudibly away on the horizon
of pure speculation, the routed enemy straggled in upon their rear,
massed silently into a solid phalanx, and captured me, bag and baggage.
An indefinable dread came upon me. I rose to shake it off, and began
threading the narrow dell by an old, grass-grown cow-path that seemed to
flow along the bottom, as a substitute for the brook that Nature had
neglected to provide.
The trees among which the path straggled were ordinary, well-behaved
plants, a trifle perverted as to trunk and eccentric as to bough, but
with noth- ing unearthly in their general aspect. A few loose boulders,
which had detached themselves from the sides of the depression to set up
an independent existence at the bottom, had dammed up the path- way,
here and there, but their stony repose had noth- ing in it of the
stillness of death. There was a kind of death-chamber hush in the
valley, it is true, and a mysterious whisper above: the wind was just
finger- ing the tops of the trees--that was all.
I had not thought of connecting Jo. Dunfer's drunken narrative with
what I now sought, and only when I came into a clear space and stumbled
over the level trunks of some small trees did I have the revelation.
This was the site of the abandoned 'shack.' The discovery was verified
by noting that some of the rotting stumps were hacked all round, in a
most unwoodmanlike way, while others were cut straight across, and the
butt ends of the cor- responding trunks had the blunt wedge-form given
by the axe of a master.
The opening among the trees was not more than thirty paces across.
At one side was a little knoll-- a natural hillock, bare of shrubbery
but covered with wild grass, and on this, standing out of the grass, the
headstone of a grave!
I do not remember that I felt anything like sur- prise at this
discovery. I viewed that lonely grave with something of the feeling that
Columbus must have had when he saw the hills and headlands of the new
world. Before approaching it I leisurely com- pleted my survey of the
surroundings. I was even guilty of the affectation of winding my watch
at that unusual hour, and with needless care and delibera- tion. Then I
approached my mystery.
The grave--a rather short one--was in some- what better repair than
was consistent with its obvious age and isolation, and my eyes, I dare
say, widened a trifle at a clump of unmistakable garden flowers showing
evidence of recent watering. The stone had clearly enough done duty once
as a door- step. In its front was carved, or rather dug, an in-
scription. It read thus:

Age unknown. Worked for Jo. Dunfer.

This monument is erected by him to keep the Chink's memory green.
Likewise as a warning to Celestials not to take on airs. Devil take 'em!
She Was a Good Egg.
I cannot adequately relate my astonishment at this uncommon
inscription! The meagre but suffi- cient identification of the deceased;
the impudent candour of confession; the brutal anathema; the ludicrous
change of sex and sentiment--all marked this record as the work of one
who must have been at least as much demented as bereaved. I felt that
any further disclosure would be a paltry anti-climax, and with an
unconscious regard for dramatic effect turned squarely about and walked
away. Nor did I return to that part of the county for four years.
2: Who Drives Sane Oxen Should Himself be Sane
'Gee-up, there, old Fuddy-Duddy!'
This unique adjuration came from the lips of a queer little man
perched upon a wagonful of fire- wood, behind a brace of oxen that were
hauling it easily along with a simulation of mighty effort which had
evidently not imposed on their lord and master. As that gentleman
happened at the moment to be staring me squarely in the face as I stood
by the roadside it was not altogether clear whether he was addressing me
or his beasts; nor could I say if they were named Fuddy and Duddy and
were both sub- jects of the imperative mood 'to gee-up.' Anyhow the
command produced no effect on us, and the queer little man removed his
eyes from mine long enough to spear Fuddy and Duddy alternately with a
long pole, remarking, quietly but with feeling: 'Dern your skin,' as if
they enjoyed that integu- ment in common. Observing that my request for
a ride took no attention, and finding myself falling slowly astern, I
placed one foot upon the inner circumference of a hind wheel and was
slowly ele- vated to the level of the hub, whence I boarded the concern,
sans ceremonie, and scrambling for- ward seated myself beside the
driver--who took no notice of me until he had administered another in-
discriminate castigation to his cattle, accompanied with the advice to
'buckle down, you derned In- capable!' Then, the master of the outfit
(or rather the former master, for I could not suppress a whim- sical
feeling that the entire establishment was my lawful prize) trained his
big, black eyes upon me with an expression strangely, and somewhat un-
pleasantly, familiar, laid down his rod--which neither blossomed nor
turned into a serpent, as I half expected--folded his arms, and gravely
de- manded, 'W'at did you do to W'isky?'
My natural reply would have been that I drank it, but there was
something about the query that suggested a hidden significance, and
something about the man that did not invite a shallow jest. And so,
having no other answer ready, I merely held my tongue, but felt as if I
were resting under an imputation of guilt, and that my silence was be-
ing construed into a confession.
Just then a cold shadow fell upon my cheek, and caused me to look
up. We were descending into my ravine! I cannot describe the sensation
that came upon me: I had not seen it since it unbosomed itself four
years before, and now I felt like one to whom a friend has made some
sorrowing confession of crime long past, and who has basely deserted him
in consequence. The old memories of Jo. Dunfer, his fragmentary
revelation, and the unsatisfying explanatory note by the headstone, came
back with singular distinctness. I wondered what had become of Jo.,
and--I turned sharply round and asked my prisoner. He was intently
watching his cattle, and without withdrawing his eyes replied:
'Gee-up, old Terrapin! He lies aside of Ah Wee up the gulch. Like to
see it? They always come back to the spot--I've been expectin' you.
At the enunciation of the aspirate, Fuddy-Duddy, the incapable
terrapin, came to a dead halt, and before the vowel had died away up the
ravine had folded up all his eight legs and lain down in the dusty road,
regardless of the effect upon his derned skin. The queer little man slid
off his seat to the ground and started up the dell without deigning to
look back to see if I was following. But I was.
It was about the same season of the year, and at near the same hour
of the day, of my last visit. The jays clamoured loudly, and the trees
whispered darkly, as before; and I somehow traced in the two sounds a
fanciful analogy to the open boastfulness of Mr. Jo. Dunfer's mouth and
the mysterious reti- cence of his manner, and to the mingled hardihood
and tenderness of his sole literary production--the epitaph. All things
in the valley seemed unchanged, excepting the cow-path, which was almost
wholly overgrown with weeds. When we came out into the 'clearing,'
however, there was change enough. Among the stumps and trunks of the
fallen saplings, those that had been hacked 'China fashion' were no
longer distinguishable from those that were cut ''Melican way.' It was
as if the Old-World barba- rism and the New-World civilization had
reconciled their differences by the arbitration of an impartial
decay--as is the way of civilizations. The knoll was there, but the
Hunnish brambles had overrun and all but obliterated its effete grasses;
and the patrician garden-violet had capitulated to his plebeian brother
--perhaps had merely reverted to his original type. Another grave--a
long, robust mound--had been made beside the first, which seemed to
shrink from the comparison; and in the shadow of a new head- stone the
old one lay prostrate, with its marvellous inscription illegible by
accumulation of leaves and soil. In point of literary merit the new was
inferior to the old--was even repulsive in its terse and sav- age

I turned from it with indifference, and brushing away the leaves
from the tablet of the dead pagan restored to light the mocking words
which, fresh from their long neglect, seemed to have a certain pathos.
My guide, too, appeared to take on an added seriousness as he read it,
and I fancied that I could detect beneath his whimsical manner something
of manliness, almost of dignity. But while I looked at him his former
aspect, so subtly unhuman, so tantalizingly familiar, crept back into
his big eyes, repellent and attractive. I resolved to make an end of the
mystery if possible.
'My friend,' I said, pointing to the smaller grave, 'did Jo. Dunfer
murder that Chinaman?'
He was leaning against a tree and looking across the open space into
the top of another, or into the blue sky beyond. He neither withdrew his
eyes, nor altered his posture as he slowly replied:
'No, sir; he justifiably homicided him.'
'Then he really did kill him.'
'Kill 'im? I should say he did, rather. Doesn't everybody know that?
Didn't he stan' up before the coroner's jury and confess it? And didn't
they find a verdict of "Came to 'is death by a wholesome Christian
sentiment workin' in the Caucasian breast"? An' didn't the church at the
Hill turn W'isky down for it? And didn't the sovereign people elect him
Justice of the Peace to get even on the gospellers? I don't know where
you were brought up.'
'But did Jo. do that because the Chinaman did not, or would not,
learn to cut down trees like a white man ? '
'Sure!--it stan's so on the record, which makes it true an' legal.
My knowin' better doesn't make any difference with legal truth; it
wasn't my funeral and I wasn't invited to deliver an oration. But the
fact is, W'isky was jealous o' me'--and the little wretch actually
swelled out like a turkeycock and made a pretence of adjusting an
imaginary neck-tie, noting the effect in the palm of his hand, held up
before him to represent a mirror.
'Jealous of you!' I repeated with ill-mannered astonishment.
'That's what I said. Why not?--don't I look all right?'
He assumed a mocking attitude of studied grace, and twitched the
wrinkles out of his threadbare waistcoat. Then, suddenly dropping his
voice to a low pitch of singular sweetness, he continued:
'W'isky thought a lot o' that Chink; nobody but me knew how 'e doted
on 'im. Couldn't bear 'im out of 'is sight, the derned protoplasm! And
w'en 'e came down to this clearin' one day an' found 'im an' me
neglectin' our work--'im asleep an' me grapplin' a tarantula out of 'is
sleeve--W'isky laid hold of my axe and let us have it, good an' hard! I
dodged just then, for the spider bit me, but Ah Wee got it bad in the
side an' tumbled about like anything. W'isky was just weighin' me out
one w'en 'e saw the spider fastened on my finger; then 'e knew 'e'd make
a jackass of 'imself. 'E threw away the axe and got down on 'is knees
alongside of Ah Wee, who gave a last little kick and opened 'is eyes--'e
had eyes like mine--an' puttin' up 'is hands drew down W'isky's ugly
head and held it there w'ile 'e stayed. That wasn't long, for a
tremblin' ran through 'im and 'e gave a bit of a moan an' beat the
During the progress of the story the narrator had become
transfigured. The comic, or rather, the sar- donic element was all out
of him, and as he painted that strange scene it was with difficulty that
I kept my composure. And this consummate actor had somehow so managed me
that the sympathy due to his dramatis personae was given to himself. I
stepped forward to grasp his hand, when suddenly a broad grin danced
across his face and with a light, mocking laugh he continued:
'W'en W'isky got 'is nut out o' that 'e was a sight to see! All 'is
fine clothes--'e dressed mighty blindin' those days--were spoiled
everlastin'! 'Is hair was tousled and 'is face--what I could see of
it--was whiter than the ace of lilies. 'E stared once at me, and looked
away as if I didn't count; an' then there were shootin' pains chasin'
one another from my bitten finger into my head, and it was Gopher to the
dark. That's why I wasn't at the inquest.'
'But why did you hold your tongue afterward?' I asked.
'It's that kind of tongue,' he replied, and not another word would
he say about it.
'After that W'isky took to drinkin' harder an' harder, and was
rabider an' rabider anti-coolie, but I don't think 'e was ever
particularly glad that 'e dispelled Ah Wee. 'E didn't put on so much dog
about it w'en we were alone as w'en 'e had the ear of a derned
Spectacular Extravaganza like you. 'E put up that headstone and gouged
the inscription accordin' to 'is varyin' moods. It took 'im three weeks,
workin' between drinks. I gouged 'is in one day.
'When did Jo. die?' I asked rather absently. The answer took my
'Pretty soon after I looked at 'im through that knot-hole, w'en you
had put something in 'is w'isky, you derned Borgia!'
Recovering somewhat from my surprise at this astounding charge, I
was half-minded to throttle the audacious accuser, but was restrained by
a sud- den conviction that came to me in the light of a revelation. I
fixed a grave look upon him and asked, as calmly as I could: 'And when
did you go loony?'
'Nine years ago!' he shrieked, throwing out his clenched
hands--'nine years ago, w'en that big brute killed the woman who loved
him better than she did me!--me who had followed 'er from San Francisco,
where 'e won 'er at draw poker!--me who had watched over 'er for years
w'en the scoun- drel she belonged to was ashamed to acknowledge 'er and
treat 'er white!--me who for her sake kept 'is cussed secret till it ate
'im up!--me who w'en you poisoned the beast fulfilled 'is last request
to lay 'im alongside 'er and give 'im a stone to the head of 'im! And
I've never since seen 'er grave till now, for I didn't want to meet 'im
'Meet him? Why, Gopher, my poor fellow, he is dead!'
'That's why I'm afraid of 'im.'
I followed the little wretch back to his wagon and wrung his hand at
parting. It was now nightfall, and as I stood there at the roadside in
the deepen- ing gloom, watching the blank outlines of the reced- ing
wagon, a sound was borne to me on the evening wind--a sound as of a
series of vigorous thumps --and a voice came out of the night:
'Gee-up, there, you derned old Geranium.'

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