In researching details about the history of Plattekill Clove in the northern Catskills I came across an amazing short story, one of adventure, regret and friendship. I will not share any details here, so as to not give anything away, but needless to say I was captivated. It was written by popular author Laura Winthrop Johnson (1825-1889) and was first published in the December 1878 issue of the St. Nicholas publication (Volume 6, no. 2.). The story was then republished in numerous newspapers across the country including in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin and more. The events of the reportedly true story took place in the year 1821.
“Afraid? No! Father told me to stay here, and I’m going to do it.”
Illustration by James E. Kelly.
Paul Jones of Overlook Mountain. (A True Story.)
By Laura Winthrop Johnson.
“My children, would you like to hear an old man’s story? Then gather ‘round my great arm-chair, and listen.
“Do I remember the Revolutionary war?”
Not quite, I must say; but I can look back to the time when this century was a very young one, and younger than any of you. I will tell you a story of something that happened to me when this same century had just come of age, –that is, in the year 1821.
I was then about eighteen years old, and my father had hired me out to a lumber merchant at Glenn’s Falls, who had sent me down the river into the Catskills as one of a gang for cutting timber and getting out hemlock-bark. It was hard work, but we had jolly rough times, and I liked the life, and the dry, cold air of the mountains. There was always something going on in our lumber-camp. It was fine to hew down the great trees, and to hear them fall with a crash that seemed to shake the hills, and we liked rolling the great logs, all singing in chorus, and the building of roaring campfires at night, with plenty of songs and stories and jokes as we sat around them. We were simple young fellows, and very small jokes lasted a long time, and could be used over and over again, while the dark woods rang with our uproarious laughter.
The river then was very unlike what it is now. There is still plenty of wilderness among the Catskills, more than there was twenty or thirty years ago. For then there were tanneries in every valley, but now they all have disappeared, and the big hemlock-trunks, stripped of their bark, lie rotting in labyrinths on the long slopes, covered with a dense new growth.
At that time, however, half the course of the Hudson was a wilderness. Here and there at long intervals were small towns and villages, and farms and manors were seen, where the banks were less high and shaggy. No railroad trains rushed along the shores; no steam-whistles broke the silence; no great three-story steam-boats thundered by, thronged with people. The river was a quiet place in those days. Light, graceful sloops, and slow-moving barges and arks were all the craft we saw on its waters, excepting the little steam-boats, not much larger than one of our small tugs, that came up sometimes, and were still looked upon with a touch of wonder.
As for the great ice-houses, the factories, the fine country-seats and pretty villas that now crown the shores of the broad river, they had not been dreamed of. The scream of the eagle and the blue-say alone broke the silence.
Our boss was a first-rate fellow, and one Christmas-day he let us have a holiday and a big sleigh-ride. All the girls of the country round were invited, the snow lay just deep enough, and the sleighing was capital.
But I was sulky and would not go, because I’d been ‘cut out,’ as we called it, with the girl I wanted to take. I was very fond of still-hunting, and in my vexation I went off to look for deer. Beyond the Kauterskill Clove, I didn’t know the country very well, but an old man told me they often crossed the pass above Plauterkill and I went to look for them there.
I hunted all day, and found no deer; they had grown shy and scarce, and had gone away, over the mountains toward Hunter. I had a long chase over their tracks, up the Clove to Hayne’s Falls, and away over the top of Plauterkill Clove, and then along the pass by the shoulder of Indian Head, to the side of Overlook Mountain. It was coming on toward night, with a wild sunset blazing, and gusts of wind springing up, and I began to think of getting back, or, at least, of finding some place to sleep; for, in my eagerness for deer, I had gone too far to return to Catskill village that night. I thing I might get as far as Plauterkill or Haynes’ Falls, where there were a few houses.
I was turning to go up the pass again, when, just on the edge of the hemlock forest, under a ledge of rocks on the mountain-side, I saw a small quarry, where a few paving stones had been taken out, and close by a smoke curling into the air. I looked sharp, and, sure enough, there was a little hut tucked under the ledge; just a shed, so rough that it seemed like part of the rock, with a stone wall, and few slabs and boughs to roof it over.
The sun was setting angrily down the valley, behind the distant Shandaken range, and pouring on the near mountains great dashes of orange light; and the purple chasms between, and the black pines and hemlocks stood out against the heights where the snow was sky-blue and gold, –all had a strange and stormy look. I was just thinking how handsome those mountains were, and yet what dangerous faces they had, as if they meant to have a wild night of it among themselves. Overlook had his white cap on, and the others were gathering mist around their tops. The day had been still, but now a strong wind blew from the hills, and drove the loose snow in fine powder before it. I was just noticing all this, you know, and saying to myself that there was not a moment to spare, and I must hurry, or the storm would be upon me, when I heard a little voice near me, calling out:
“Mister! Have you seen my father, anywhere?”
I started with surprise to see in that lonely wintry place the figure and face of a pretty little boy, about ten years old, suddenly standing out against the sunset sky.
“Your father? No, my boy,” said I. “But what are you doing here, miles away from any house, all alone at this time of day?”
“Why, you see, sir,” said the boy, as cheerful as a chipmunk, “my father told me to stay till he came back. He went down this morning to Woodstock to get news of mother who is very sick. If she’s no better, he’ll come up tonight and take me home tomorrow, but, if she is better, he’ll want me to stay here with him, and help get out some more stone.”
“But, my boy,” said I, “there’s a heavy snowstorm coming. Look down there toward Shandaken. Look at the queer colors in that sky. If you stay here tonight you will be covered in with drifts till next summer and never come out alive. Have you got food?”
“Enough for tonight,” said the brave little fellow.
“And are you not afraid of ----” I stopped short. I was going to say bears, for I had seen plenty of their tracks that day.
“Afraid? No! Father’s sure to come. He told me to stay, and I’m going to do it.”
I went into the little cabin and found a tiny stove, a few armfuls of chips, a pitcher of water, a bit of bread and cheese, and a pair of tattered blankets; that was all. My heart sank. Fuel, to be sure, was plenty, but how was that heroic little fellow to bring enough to keep himself from freezing if his father did not come.
It seemed almost certain death for him to remain there in the lonely pass through such a storm as was close at hand. It was growing dusk in the high valley; light flurries, forerunners of the tempest, were beginning to sweep down from the heights and long lines of white clouds were filing through the gorges.
“Come with me, my boy,” I cried. “Come at once! We may get across the head of Plauterkill before the storm bursts, and we shall me more sheltered in the woods. See how dark it grows all of a sudden.”
“I must mind my father,” said he. “He told me to stay, and I’m going to stay. He’ll be sure to come.”
“Who knows,” thought I, “but your father may be drinking all this time in the old tavern at Woodstock? Yet so sharp a boy would have learned already not to trust such a father as that.”
“Look here, my little man,” I said; “you’ve got to come with me. If you won’t, I shall carry you. I must not leaved you here. Come along! You’ve got to go!”
As I started forward to take hold of him the boy gave a shout of laughter, and springing through the door-way vanished among the woods in a twinkling. I drew a long breathe of wonder, and ran as fast as I could in the direction in which he had disappeared, but though I searched the mountain-side for nearly half an hour, so cunningly had he hidden himself away in the bewilderment of rocks and fallen trees, that my search was vain. He knew too well, all the caves and fastnesses of Overlook, and was laughing at me, safely hidden away in one of them, like a little Puck, or mocking mountain sprite. The powdering drifts that were flying about had already hidden his small footsteps. The twilight was nearly gone, large flakes of snow began to fall thickly, and an ominous roar could be heard in the tops of the pines. The storm was upon me. I though it best to take care of number one, as I had lost the half one, but I was sorely troubled and could not bear to leave that boy behind. Yet, though my conscience smote me, I hurried on as fast as possible through the pathless woods, often straying out of my course in the whirling tempest, till I reached, I hardly known how, the charcoal-burners at the top of the pass. There I got warm and rested a little, and then go on a little further to Plauterkill Falls, where I spent what was left of the night.
Next morning I started early to get back to my work, though it was a very hard tug, and the storm not much abated. But I did not want the boss to think that I had been carousing overnight. I valued my character a great deal, and meant to keep it up. I tried to persuade the people at Plauterkill to go over for the boy, but they would not go out-of-doors that day, they said, for Jones’s boy, or any other boy. He might take care of himself.
Our lumbering stopped for a while by that storm, and our gang was sent over to Rondout to ship timber, and from there back to Glenn’s Falls, and I never knew what became of that boy. I always blamed myself for not staying with him for the night, or at least till his father came, and for my cowardice in caring more about losing my place, or possibly my life (for I came mighty near being lost in that storm), than for the safety of that fine, manly little fellow, whose bright face haunted me for many a day. Well, time went on. I was married to the very girl for whose sake alone I took to the woods that day; I tried to gain some education and read all the books I could get; I rose to be a partner and then to be a boss lumber-man myself. I grew rich, and middle-aged, and old, and still I heard nothing of the boy, though I made many inquiries after him. I never had any children of my own, to live, and I kept wishing I could adopt that boy; for, strange to say, it never occurred to me that if he were alive, he would a middle-aged man, only eight or ten years younger than I. He always appeared to my fancy as the fine, handsome child of ten whom I had seen darting through the cabin-door into the forest, dim with winter twilight. I used often to go up and down the river then on business, but I never much fancied to pass by the Catskills. I don’t know it was, but it seemed as if that little fellow had somehow got a hold on my heart, and wouldn’t let go. One day I was on the Albany boat, –it was in the fall of 1860, –and when about noon, or later, we came in sight of the fine old mountains, looking just the color of blue-bells and periwinkle flowers, I turned my back to them. There was a handsome man, with hair just turning iron-gray, standing near, who looked at me rather hard, as I wheeled short round, as if he wondered what I was about, for I suppose I looked as if I had something on my mind.
So I said to him: “I don’t much like to look at those splendid old fellows, because I have been always afraid that I may have been partly the cause of the death of a little chap, away up there by Overlook, many years ago.”
“Why, how was that?” said the gentleman, as polite as possible. Then I told him all the story, just as I have told it to you, and he listened, with a query twinkle in his eye; but the water stood in them, too.
“Then,” he said, “my friend, don’t trouble yourself any more about that boy. You were not at all to blame. He is still alive, to my certain knowledge; for here he stands before you, and his name’s Paul Jones.”
I could scarcely believe my senses, and it was a minute or two before I could take it all in.
“You that boy!” said I, and starting back, I nearly went over the guards in my wonder. “Why, you must be Rip Van Winkle himself! But, do tell me about it.”
“Well,” said he, “I was tickled enough when I found I had outwitted you, and saw you go away beaten. I knew my father would come, for he never broke his word to me, and in about an hour he did come; but he’d had a very hard time getting there. My mother was better, and it wouldn’t do to try, he said, to get home that night. I tell you we had a rough time in that hut, all snowed in and nearly frozen; but we managed to hold out till the next afternoon, when the storm abated a little, and hunger started us back to Woodstock. We managed to struggle through. My father carried me most of the way on his back; there were a few farm-houses at the foot of Overlook to rest in, and, though we were almost frozen again, we reached Woodstock before night-fall. I was as much troubled about you as you were about me; for I did not think you knew the woods as well as my father. I was right about my father, you see? I was sure he would come, and come he did; but we didn’t get out any more stone for a good while.
“He did not care for danger, my father didn’t; if he’d given me his word he kept it, and I kept mine. So here I am, Rip Van Winkle if you like, and you may make friends with our jolly mountains, who are good friends of mine, too. Why haven’t we both made our money out of ‘em, –you in lumber, I in stone? I was brought up among them, and I’m fond of them. I know every nook and cranny of ‘em, and I could have told you that day where to find the deer you were after. I even knew of a famous bear-hole, where if you’d wanted, you could have found a bid she-one with cubs. My father got them some time afterward with me and the dog. And now, if you’ll land here, at Rondout, you’ll find my team waiting, and I’ll drive you over to my house, beyond Kingston toward the quarries, where you’ll find my wife, as pretty a woman as any on the river, and as fine a family of boys and girls as you’d wish to see. We shall be just in time for a good old-fashioned early tea, and a good appetite.”
The end of it was that he persuaded me to accept his invitation, and I went to visit my old and new friend, Paul Jones. And there, among the children of the household, I found a little Paul, –a manly boy of ten, –who seemed the very same whom I had left along in the mountain-pass forty years before.
He has always spent a great deal of time with me ever since, and I have considered him as my child.
I should be very lonely now if it were not for my friend, Paul Jones, and his charming family. They form quite a large colony, and I am always quite at home among them; for the best friend of my old age is the boy whom I found and lost on the side of Overlook Mountain on that wild winter’s night of 1821.”