ONCE there lived a peasant whose only daughter, Martha, had eyes as blue as corn-flowers and long hair like the silk around an ear of corn. All the lads of the village were after her, but she cared only for John, a young huntsman, who was called by her father an idle vagabond, and sent away from his cottage in disdain. Now, the village where they lived was at the foot of a high mountain covered with a dense forest, into certain portions of which few were found to venture, so wild and lonely they were. One day Martha went, unknown to her father and mother, to ramble in the forest. She said to some of her friends that she meant to gather flowers and pick berries, to sell to a rich lady who lived near them; but the truth was, that a week had passed without John having set foot in the village, and she was anxious and uneasy, and wished to visit some of her lover's favorite haunts, to see if he might be there. It was no uncommon thing for John to be absent for several days, while trapping and hunting. He could sleep as well on a bank of moss as on his pallet at home, and he loved to go to rest under the broad canopy of the sky, studded with bright stars, and to be lulled by the music of falling waters.
Martha, dressed in her brown cotton frock, with the scarlet handkerchief knotted over her fair hair, was seen to go up a rocky pathway on the mountain-side, where the firs and larches made a bower overhead; but that night she did not come home, and next day, when John came into the village with a splendid string of birds he had shot miles away from there, in an opposite direction to the one Martha had taken, it was to hear the sad news of the poor girl's disappearance.
John's face grew pale and his stout heart grew faint; he thought of what all the others were thinking of—the Wild Woodsman, against whose magic his gun and staff might avail nothing!
The mountain above was believed to be the haunt of a mysterious being, half man, half brute, fierce and cruel, from whose den no living creature might ever be rescued. The Wild Woodsman, for so the natives called him, took many a shape to trap unwary travellers, and a fair young girl like Martha would be a rich prize for him. John had long vowed to capture the Wild Woodsman; and now he was filled with a mad thirst to seek him at once. Without stopping to hear more, the young man rushed off up the steep mountain path, bounding like a chamois from rock to rock, as the villagers, awe-struck and tearful, gazed after him and crossed themselves in superstitious fear.
Through brake and brier, John darted on; he was soon in the dark recesses of the forest, where the undergrowth was like a jungle. His fleet foot never tired in the chase, and, erelong, he spied a little red handkerchief upon the ground. Recognizing this to be Martha's, he gazed about him, and saw, by the token of broken bushes, that the girl had been dragged away from that spot up a rocky wall, which it seemed to him no foot could scale.
Struggling to keep down his sickening dread, John
determined to follow. He began to climb the steep
rock. His faithful dog, who had kept close beside him,
suddenly gave a low fierce growl, and the hair on its
back bristled up in fury. John was already half-way
up the cliff, when, on looking down, there, just where
"Hallo, there!" roared John, for he suspected mischief.
The old man looked up, and John saw that he had a young and rosy face with hair as gray as a badger's. The odd creature made signs that he was stone deaf, and beckoned John to come down. All this time, the dog was growling fearfully, and John took warning from the sign. He levelled his gun without more ado, and said:
"Answer, you fellow. Who are you that have cheeks so fair, and an old man's locks?"
"I?" said the old man, hopping up with a dreadful grin, "you will know me soon enough, sirrah, for I am the devil's grandfather."
He stretched out an arm that grew longer every minute, and his hands changed to the claws of a beast. John lost no time, but taking aim fired at the Wild Woodsman, for he it was, and none other. Bang! The friendly bullet made straight for the creature's heart, and though it did not kill him outright, the Wild Woodsman was sorely wounded. He fell over a log, groaning pitifully, and prayed John to come to the aid of a poor old man. John said, "That I will with another bullet," when the Wild Woodsman darted from the spot, and was lost in the thicket.
After him went the dog, after the dog went John. Such a hunt there never was! Through spots in the woods where man's foot had never penetrated, into bogs, and into serpents' lairs, past the caves where bears were lurking; but no animal would touch John, for the Wild Woodsman was their deadly enemy.
At last they came to a cleft in a little green hillock. Here was a hut covered with moss, and the Wild Woodsman, uttering a frantic yell, fell dead upon the threshold. John heard a shriek within the hut, and, dashing down the door, saw Martha, lying, bound with ropes made of plaited willow, in a corner.
He flew to set her free; but, to his surprise, Martha did not appear to know him. She let him take her by the hand and lead her from the fearful spot where the inner walls were built of the bones of the Wild Woodsman's victims. She looked up into his face and smiled, and John saw she had lost her reason. He did not stop to pick up the jewels and gold, stolen from murdered travellers, with which the hut was strewn, but made all speed to leave behind the horrid place. He lifted Martha in his strong arms and carried her down a path along the far side of the mountain. A great storm arose, and the earth trembled under his feet; but he kept bravely on his way, and looking back saw the cleft in the hills widen; then a great gulf opened, fire and smoke burst forth, and the hut of the Wild Woodsman was swallowed forever from sight.
John gave a shout of joy, and began singing a hymn in his clear young voice. The storm ceased. The clouds parted. Down in the valley below was their own peaceful village, and the sound of the evening bells came floating up to him. Martha, who had lain in his arms as if asleep, stirred, and recognized him. Her strength returned, and she asked to walk beside him. Strangely enough, she said nothing of her late adventure, then or ever afterward. Not a trace of it remained in her memory.
When they reached the village, all the people came out to meet them, rejoicing. John told them he had rescued the lost girl, but the true history of his chase of the Wild Woodsman he kept to himself. Martha's father and mother greeted her with tears of thankfulness; and before another year had gone by John and Martha were married in the village church. From that day forth, peace reigned upon the mountain-side; but when stories of the Wild Woodsman were told to Martha's grandchildren, they little knew the share their hale old grandsire had in ridding the country-side of such a scourge.