Nittany Jack

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Back when the Nittany Valley was iron mines and furnaces, an old bachelor named Moses Mifflin rented half his one room cabin to one Willy Nixon, a miner recently arrived from Huntingdon County. Though the men were not exactly friends, they made decent company. Both were rather deaf, Moses from childhood earaches and Willy from the repetitive “chunk-chunk” of the pick digging iron ore out of the bank, but a certain degree of shouting compensated, and at least they could not hear each other snore.

One October Sunday the two men, setting no serious store in the promise of salvation or life eternal, elected to skip church and went hunting on Bald Eagle mountain. They had no luck. Game was shy, black clouds blew in from the west, and it started to rain. In the downpour they missed their trail and got turned around on the mountain. By the time Moses and Willy called it a day, they were lost, drenched, and hungry.

Moses and Willy found a spring, bursting fresh and foamy from a hillslope, and followed it, knowing that water knows its way down a mountain. Willy, being younger, and troubled by a wet hole in the toe of his boot, went faster. Moses trudged behind.

About halfway down the mountain, Willy drew up short. “I’ll be d--ned if I don’t smell kitchen smoke!” he exclaimed. “And hot bread!”

“Aren’t but a few cabins up here,” Moses said. “The fellows that live on the ridge ain't sociable.”

“You head down the mountain if you like," Willy said, "but I aim to have a biscuit and some dry time in front of a fire before I go any further.”

“Good luck coaxing a free meal out of a Bald Eagle hermit," Moses replied. He headed down the slope as Willy went sideways, but before the men were more than a few strides apart, Moses remembered a piece of local lore that he thought Willy ought to know, and likely didn't, seeing as he was lately from Huntingdon. He turned and hollered “You watch out, now, Willy! If that cabin belongs to Nittany Jack, they say he hates a liar!"

“Well of course he hates a lion, Mose!” Willy bellowed back. “Don’t know anyone that likes them things!”

Both believing themselves understood, the two men proceeded on their respective courses. Moses arrived home around evening. He stirred up the embers of the fire, took off his boots, and wrapped himself in a blanket while he heated up a portion of beans. It continued to rain on and off. Just as Moses was mopping his plate with a stale johnnycake, the door rattled and in came Willy, wet as an otter. “You want some beans?” Moses asked. “There’s still a few in the pot.”

“I may be wet but at least I ain't hungry,” Willy replied. “I was well treated by the fellow whose cook-smoke we smelled up there on the mountain.” Willy kicked off his sopping boots and belched. “That cabin had a full Sunday dinner all set out on the table, ham and gravy, fresh bread, butter. Apple fritters, even, like my Aunt Liz used to make.”

“That sure does beat these stale beans,” Moses replied. “Whose cabin was it?”

“Well, the thing is, Mose,” Willy said, eyes sliding towards a corner, "I don't know. Cabin was empty when I got there. I hollered a bit, but no-one came, so I helped myself.”

Moses, soured by this departure from right dealing but in no mood to scold, said nothing. The rest of the day passed in the silence the two old bachelors preferred. A new kettle of beans and pork was set up for the week. Moses whittled a new pipe stem and sharpened his axe. Willy, being the more literate of the two, read a newspaper passed along by another miner. After the evening meal, Moses and Willy drew the curtain across the room, and retired to their now-separate spaces for sleep. Moses, pleased to find his boots dry as toast, slipped them on before bed, as armor against the chill. As Moses listened to the crackle of the dying fire, he heard Willy speak. “I know you don’t approve, Mose, but that was the best meal I ever did eat. And the strangest. I didn’t tell you, but that cabin? Ceiling was twelve-foot-tall if it was an inch. The table? Up to my chin. When I sat down on a chair to eat, my feet dangled.”

Moses shivered. “Oh, that was Nittany Jack’s cabin, then, for sure." he said. “I ain't seen him but they say he’s a giant of a man. You’d best hope he don't find out it was you, Willy. He’ll pound you into butter.”

“Can’t see how he’d know it was me, seeing as I did holler,” Willy sniffed. “And no-one come running.”

Moses pulled the blanket around his ears. “Just remember, Willy, if he does ever come for you, he’ll abide a thief, but they say he hates liars like poison.”

But again Willy misheard. “I don’t know why it matters much what sort of creatures he hates," he muttered.

That was the end of the conversation.

Sometime east of midnight, Willy felt a weight settle in against him. He sat up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “What you want, Mose?” he asked, and then, in the starlight shining through the cabin’s lone window, saw the giant figure seated at the foot of his bed. Willy startled so hard that his bladder cramped. He drew the blanket over his nose, like a child hiding from a bad fairy, knowing that the man on the end of the bed could only be the man whose requirements included a twelve foot ceiling.

The massive head turned towards him. Willy saw the eyes flash red, like a dog’s eyes catching lantern light. “I followed your tracks all the way here,” Nittany Jack growled. “But there’s two of you in this bean fart cabin, and only one set of footprints going to my house. So, what I'd like to know is, which one of you ate my dinner?”

Willy saw the ham-sized hands flexing in the dark and having twice misheard Moses' warnings about Jack's hatred of liars, decided that strict truth was not to his advantage. “I been down here almost all day, Mr. Jack. But... But my friend over there, he did stay longer up on the mountain. I suppose it was him.”

The giant’s head swiveled towards the curtain, through which Moses’ whistling snores could be heard.

"That so?” Nittany Jack said. His fiery eyes turned back to Willy.

“Yes sir, I do believe he did,” Willy lied again. “He didn’t want no beans when he came in. Said he was full.”

The giant leaned in close and Willy saw that his eyes weren’t reflecting light but burning with a deep interior fire. “If old whistle-nose is the one who helped himself to my table,” he rumbled, his reeking breath hot against Willy’s cheeks, “Then why is he asleep in sound, square-toe boots, and you the one lying next to a pair with a hole in the left toe?” The giant’s hands closed in so fast that Willy never saw them coming.

In the morning, Moses Mifflin rose up and found himself alone in the cabin. Assuming that Willy had gone to work early, he dressed, spooned up a plate of beans, and went out to empty the slop pail. A churn of footprints overlapped in the wet earth before the door. There were Moses' own, square-toed boots, and Willy’s footprints, with the holed left toe, and also a third pair of prints, these ones monstrous, the size of a barrel and pressed so deep into the earth that a mule could have drunk its fill from them. Bending closer to look, Moses saw that the huge tracks going away from the cabin were deeper than those going to it, as if the one who left them had been carrying something heavy as he walked away, perhaps the weight of a man. Moses followed the footprints far enough to confirm that they did, indeed, head up Bald Eagle Mountain.

"D--n fool," Moses muttered, "I told you he hated liars."

A month later, Moses met a schoolteacher in need of habitation, and they agreed to share the cabin for a fair split of financials and chores. The new man had an unfortunate church-going habit but on the whole was no worse company than the late and unlamented miner from Huntingdon County.


Image of The Witching Hour


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