From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 419-423.
BY E. O. LAUGHLIN
The hired hand was Johnnie’s oracle. His auguries were infallible; from his decisions there was no appeal. The wisdom of experienced age was his, and he always stood willing to impart it to the youngest. No question was too trivial for him to consider, and none too abstruse for him to answer. He did not tell Johnnie to “never mind” or wait until he grew older, but was ever willing to pause in his work to explain things. And his oracular qualifications were genuine. He had traveled — had even been as far as the State Fair; he had read — from Robinson Crusoe to Dick the Dead Shot, and, more than all, he had meditated deeply.
The Hired Hand’s name was Eph. Perhaps he had another name, too, but if so it had become obsolete. Far and wide he was known simply as Eph.
Eph was generally termed “a cur’ous feller,” and this characterization applied equally well to his peculiar appearance and his inquiring disposition. In his conformation nature had evidently sacrificed her love of beauty to a temporary passion for elongation. Length seemed to have been the central thought, the theme, as it were, upon which he had been composed. This effect was heightened by generously broad hands and feet and a contrastingly abbreviated chin. The latter feature caused his countenance to wear in repose a decidedly vacant look, but it was seldom caught reposing, usually having to bear a smirk of some sort.420
Eph’s position in the Winkle household was as peculiar as his personality. Nominally he was a hired servant, but, in fact, from his own point of view at least, he was Mr. Winkle’s private secretary and confidential adviser. He had been on the place “ever sence old Fan was a yearlin’,” which was a long while, indeed; and had come to regard himself as indispensable. The Winkles treated him as one of the family, and he reciprocated in truly familiar ways. He sat at the table with them, helped entertain their guests, and often accompanied them to church. In regulating matters on the farm Mr. Winkle proposed, but Eph invariably disposed, in a diplomatic way, of course; and, although his judgment might be based on false logic, the result was generally successful and satisfactory.
With all his good qualities and her attachment to him, however, Mrs. Winkle was not sure that Eph’s moral status was quite sound, and she was inclined to discourage Johnnie’s association with him. As a matter of fact she had overheard Johnnie utter several bad words, of which Eph was certainly the prime source. But a mother’s solicitude was of little avail when compared with Eph’s Delphian wisdom. Johnnie would steal away to join Eph in the field at every chance, and the information he acquired at these secret séances was varied and valuable.
It was Eph who taught him how to tell the time of day by the sun; how to insert a “dutchman” in the place of a lost suspender button; how to make bird-traps; and how to “skin the cat.” Eph initiated him into the mysteries of magic and witchcraft, and showed him how to locate a subterranean vein of water by means of a twig of witch-hazel. Eph also confided to Johnnie that he himself could stanch the flow of blood or stop a toothache instantly 421 by force of a certain charm, but he could not tell how to do this because the secret could be imparted only from man to woman, or vice versa. Even the shadowy domain of spirits had not been exempt from Eph’s investigations, and he related many a terrifying experience with “ha’nts.”
Johnnie was first introduced to the ghost world one summer night, when he and Eph had gone fishing together.
“If ye want to ketch the big uns, always go at night in the dark o’ the moon,” said Eph, and his piscatorial knowledge was absolute.
They had fished in silence for some time, and Johnnie was nodding, when Eph suddenly whispered:
“Let’s go home, sonny, I think I see a ha’nt down yander.”
Johnnie had no idea what a “ha’nt” might be, but Eph’s constrained manner betokened something dreadful.
It was not until they had come within sight of home that Johnnie ventured to inquire:
“Say, Eph, what is a ha’nt?”
“Huh! What is ha’nts? Why, sonny, you mean to tell me you don’t know what ha’nts is?”
“Not exactly; sompin’ like wildcats, ain’t they?”
“Well, I’ll be confounded! Wildcats! Not by a long shot;” and Eph broke into the soft chuckle which always preceded his explanations. They reached the orchard fence, and, seating himself squarely on the topmost rail, Eph began impressively:
“Ha’nts is the remains of dead folks — more ’specially them that’s been assinated, er, that is kilt — understan’? They’re kind o’ like sperrits, ye know. After so long a time they take to comin’ back to yarth an’ ha’ntin’ the precise spot where they wuz murdered. They always come 422 after dark, an’ the diffrunt shapes they take on is suprisin’. I have seed ha’nts that looked like sheep, an’ ha’nts that looked like human persons; but lots of ’em ye caint’ see a-tall, bein’ invisible, as the sayin’ is. Now, fer all we know, they may be a ha’nt settin’ right here betwixt us, this minute!”
With this solemn declaration Johnnie shivered and began edging closer to Eph, until restrained and appalled by the thought that he might actually sit on the unseen spirit by such movement.
“But do they hurt people, Eph?” he asked anxiously.
“Not if ye understan’ the’r ways,” he observed sagely. “If ye let ’em alone an’ don’t go foolin’ aroun’ the’r ha’ntin’-groun’ they’ll never harm ye. But don’t ye never trifle with no ha’nt, sonny. I knowed a feller ’t thought ’twuz smart to hector ’em an’ said he wuzn’t feared. Onct he throwed a rock at one —”
Here Eph paused.
“What h-happened?” gasped Johnnie.
“In one year from that time,” replied Eph gruesomely, “that there feller’s cow wuz hit by lightnin’; in three year his hoss kicked him an’ busted a rib; an’ in seven year he wuz a corpse!”
The power of this horrible example was too much for Johnnie.
“Don’t you reckon it’s bedtime?” he suggested tremblingly.
Thenceforth for many months Johnnie led a haunted life. Ghosts glowered at him from cellar and garret. Specters slunk at his heels, phantoms flitted through the barn. Twilight teemed with horrors, and midnight, when he awoke at that hour, made of his bedroom a veritable Brocken.423
It was vain for his parents to expostulate with him. Was one not bound to believe one’s own eyes? And how about the testimony of the Hired Hand?
The story in his reader — told in verse and graphically illustrated — of the boy named Walter, who, being alone on a lonesome highway one dark night, beheld a sight that made his blood run cold, acquired an abnormal interest for Johnnie. Walter, with courage resembling madness, marched straight up to the alleged ghost and laughed gleefully to find, “It was a friendly guide-post, his wand’ring steps to guide.”
This was all very well, as it turned out, but what if it had been a sure-enough ghost, reflected Johnnie. What if it had reached down with its long, snaky arms and snatched Walter up — and run off with him in the dark — and no telling what? Or it might have swooped straight up in the air with him, for ghosts could do that. Johnnie resolved he would not take any chances with friendly guide-posts which might turn out to be hostile spirits.
Then there was the similar tale of the lame goose, and the one concerning the pillow in the swing — each intended, no doubt, to allay foolish fears on the part of children, but exercising an opposite and harrowing influence upon Johnnie.