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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Silver Bullet

By Clara Florida Guernsey (1836–1893)

[Born in Pittsford, Monroe Co., N. Y., 1836. Died in Rochester, N. Y., 1893. The Last Witch—Old and New. 1873.]

IT was late in November, and time to expect rough weather and shipwreck all along the wild New England coast, from where the breakers on the Isles of Shoals howl and rage like so many white bears for their prey, to where Nantucket sands crawl out into the sea and lie in wait for what they may devour; but nevertheless the Colony was going to New York with a cargo on which Captain Ezra expected large profits. Keturah was uneasy in her mind, and her annoyance was by no means diminished when, on coming ashore from the schooner where she had been to carry a warm blanket, she saw old Lyddy Russell standing on the wharf with her eyes steadfastly fixed on the Colony.

“Ho! ho!” said old Lyddy to Keturah as she drew near; “it is you, is it?”

“Yes,” said Keturah, gathering up her will, and all the combined forces of her Puritan and Indian blood, to resist the sort of chill that was creeping over her.

“Keturah,” said Lyddy, “you have good blood in your veins,—too good to be serving such people as the Coffins. I knew your great-grandfather, at least, I knew about him, and if you choose I could put you in a way of business that his granddaughter need not be ashamed to follow. We have a great deal in common, you and I. Come! Shall we strike up a bargain?”

Now Keturah understood perfectly well that the bargain in question was nothing less than an alliance with the evil one, and though she was startled, if the truth must be told she could not at that moment help feeling a sort of regard for him as an old friend of her family, and a little flattered that this agent of his, or perhaps himself in person, should think it worth while to make overtures to her.

Lyddy saw her advantage, and began to whisper in the old woman’s ear words of wild and wicked import, which were I suppose the mere ravings of the unhappy old body’s distorted mind, but which nevertheless had a horribly real sound.

“Ah, Keturah!” she said, “just think how delightful it would be to fly through the air and ride the wind instead of hearing it howl round the old chimney. And if there were those whom you hated, how delightful it would be to give yourself up to the wickedness in you and let it have full swing, and come out honestly on the devil’s side, instead of being his only half-way, as you are now,—and ten to one he will have you in the end, for you do hate people, Keturah, you know you do, with the real fine old savage hatred that cries out for blood, and will not be satisfied with less. You know you wanted to kill Peter Sturgess when he cheated you about your yarn, and were glad when he was brought before the church, for taking advantage of Widow Macy. You know that you’d have been dreadfully disappointed if he’d turned out innocent after all,—and that’s the real, genuine fiend, Keturah. He’s made lodgment in your soul in spite of you, and you might as well have the comfort of giving yourself up to him and be done with it.”

“Lyddy, you let me alone,” said Keturah, shaking herself free from the influence that was beginning to steal over her. “I’m part Indian, and the Lord won’t expect any more of that side of me than he knows it’s capable of; and then”—she added with a queer sort of regret she could not wholly subdue—“I expect there’s too much of the Indian in me to give me much power with your white Satan. He’s stronger than ours, that my great-grandfather used to talk to”; for some-way Keturah had it firmly fixed in her mind, that even in the realms of darkness there was a distinction in color. “And besides all that,” she said, suddenly bethinking herself of her religion, “I’m a Christian woman, and I’ve listed on the Lord’s side, and I’ve got too much of the old Coffin stock in me to desert my colors, though I may grumble and fret about the way things go on in the world now and then. Go your ways, Lyddy Russell, or Lucifer, whichever you are, and let me and mine alone.”

“Ah-r-r you!” cried Lyddy, with a fierce sort of snarl, like an angry cat that dares not strike. “It was you put up Ezra Coffin. But wait, wait! The Powers of the Air! The Powers of the Air!” And muttering to herself she vanished in the gathering dusk.

The next morning the Colony sailed with a fair wind for New York. She pursued her way prosperously until she entered the sound which divides Nantucket from the Cape.

November as it was, the sky and sea were calm, and the sun had just gone down in a clear golden sky, while all along the east lay a pale rose flush, passing into soft gray at the horizon. The schooner was slipping softly through the water with all her sails spread to catch the light though favoring breeze. In all air or ocean was no sign of danger.

Suddenly, out of the sea, as it seemed, grew up a darkness that gathered from moment to moment,—a darkness that could be felt.

The captain was not on deck, but the mate thundered out his orders to take in sail; but he was not obeyed, for, struck breathless, the men stood with blanched faces, gazing at something that came sweeping towards them down the wind from the northward.

Was it the whirlwind bearing the thunder-storm on its wings, was it a gathering water-spout, or was it something more dread and terrible still, that tall column that came rushing onward over the sea towards the doomed ship, seeming as it drew near to take human shape,—a shape with wildly tossing hair and vengeful hands uplifted in act to strike? Was it only the wind that howled and laughed?

Captain Ezra Coffin had rushed on deck at the first sign of danger. To the mate’s surprise he gave no orders, but flying back to the cabin reappeared with his gun in his hand.

The old Berserker strain which lurks somewhere in many of us who have Northern blood in our veins was up in Captain Coffin, and though he made no doubt that he was fighting the devil in person, he was reckless of the awful odds, and was conscious of no feeling but hatred and defiance. There came a flash; the sharp report echoed and re-echoed, and rolled away over the sea; but before it had died came a sound like a scream of anguish, as a sudden, furious gust of wind rent into ribbons the schooner’s topsail.

The next instant the sky was clear, and the ship was steadily gliding through the long bars of gold and rose that yet lay upon the sunset sea.

“The twenty-fifth of November, at twenty minutes to six P.M.,” said Captain Coffin as he made an entry in the log; “I wonder what has come to pass at home.”

“Well, Keturah, what’s happened?” asked Captain Coffin, when a month later he stood by the kitchen fire, safe returned from a prosperous voyage.

“Nothing particular,” said Keturah, “only old Lyddy Russell is dead.”


“Her body was washed ashore on the morning of the twenty-sixth of November. Folks thought she’d been out fishing and got drowned. She had a long torn rag of canvas, a bit of a sail, clutched in her hand.”

“Drowned was she?” said Captain Coffin, turning away; and then he asked the curious question, “Who laid her out?”

“I did,” said Keturah, with a strange look. “No hands but mine touched her. You’re a good shot, Ezra Coffin, and a brave one. Ah! when the devil comes in bodily shape you’ve got to resist him with hands as well as heart, and teach your hands to war and your fingers to fight, in spite of the Quakers going round aggravating folks with their peace principles till they’d provoke a saint to box their ears. Ah! the silver bullet did its work.”

When the Captain had gone, Keturah hid something carefully away in the farthest corner of her iron box, but I cannot say whether the silver bullet ever came down to young Tristam Coffin, or whether it was buried with its owner in the lonesome, windswept graveyard where Keturah’s bones have lain for more than seventy years.