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"Lover's Leap" from Harper's Monthly Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Harper's Monthly Magazine
Lover's Leap
by Ellis Parker Butler

This was back in the years when I was going about the country getting up "Beautifuls." That was what we called them. They were really local write-ups with about six half-tone engravings of Main Street and bits of local scenery that we got nothing for, and half a hundred or more portraits of prominent citizens, pictures of oatmeal-mills, banks, and so on, that cost us five dollars and for which we collected twenty-five dollars apiece, sometimes more. There were twenty or so of us in the business, working on salary, and sent out by the Cities Beautiful Company, of Lima, Ohio. We went into a town, made a contract with some local newspaper, and set to work. Usually there were ten pages of local history and general "write-up" stuff, followed by all the way from forty to one hundred pages of paid advertising, either display or in the form of write-ups.

We stuck pretty close to sample in all cases. Every book was a "Beautiful" -- Kalamazoo Beautiful, Oconomowoc Beautiful, Columbus Junction Beautiful, and so on. The six half-tone engravings followed a rule, too. There was always "Main Street Seen from the Corner of Third Avenue and Elm Street," or something of the sort; there was always the High School; there was always the City Hall. Nine times out of ten one of the three remaining pictures -- which were scenic -- included a Lover's Leap.

Lover's Leap was a good card, always. There was always an Indian legend, and always the same one. If there was no legend we wrote one, and it was again always the same one. It was our only way of getting romance into the "Beautifuls," and it made a hit with the ladies. It helped the sale. American towns are utilitarian, and for that reason admire anything romantic that can be hooked up with the local history. It was always safe to ask where Lover's Leap was when we struck a town, because there always was one if there was a side hill ten feet high. And it was always the same Indian lover and his dusky sweetheart and her cruel father that took part in the ancient tragedy.

I'll bet this is one town that hasn't a Lover's Leap.

One August I struck a town in Kansas -- Kildare, I think it was -- that was situated in the middle of a stretch of prairie that was as flat as a table. You could ride fifty miles in any direction without coming upon a dip or a rise as prominent as a wrinkle in a tablecloth. I made my deal with the editor and owner of the newspaper to print and bind the Kildare Beautiful book and then, jokingly, I said to him:

"I'll bet this is one town that hasn't a Lover's Leap."

"Oh yes, it has!" he said. "Every decent town has one. If there isn't one, the City Council votes one."

I thought he was joking.

"Did the City Council vote this one?" I asked.

"No, sir!"

"What did the fearless Indian hero jump from?" I asked him. "The top of the High School?"

"No, sir!"

"Well, listen, Briggs," I said, that being his name. "Is it a thing I can photograph? Because, if it is, I'm going to have it in Kildare Beautiful."

"No, don't!" he said.

"Why not?"

"Well, no matter why. Don't do it. It would make this book ridiculous. Put in a picture of the cemetery instead, showing the new fence. That will please old Hillis. He gave the fence. You can say that, and he will give you his own portrait to print, and a picture of his lumber-yard."

I was busy a few days, rushing around the town signing up the first twenty display-pages that were needed to make the book a safe go, and I forgot about Lover's Leap awhile, but one day, after dinner, I came out in front of the Kildare Hotel and pulled a chair into the shade. Old Billy Mifflin was half asleep in the only occupied chair, so I handed him a cigar. He looked like an oldest inhabitant or something of the sort, and somehow it reminded me of Lover's Leap.

"Uncle Billy," I said, "there's only one thing this town needs."

"What might that be?" he asked, getting ready to declare that Kildare did not need whatever it was.

"It needs a Lover's Leap," I said.

"No, it don't, nuther," he declared. "It's got one."

"No, you don't understand me," I said. "I said a Lover's Leap. A spot where Unconquerable Love and Fearless Bravery brought Two Fond Hearts together forever."

"I knowed what you said the fust time," he said, peevishly. "I said we got one. We got a Lover's Leap. I don't know as it ever fetched two fond hearts together, but it fetched one of 'em."

"Unconquerable Love --" I murmured.

"That, or a blat like a sick sheep," said Uncle Billy. "What I say is we got a Lover's Leap. There ain't no modern improvements this town --"

"Where is this Lover's Leap?" I asked.

"Out yonder," he said, indicating a spot beyond the corn-elevator on the other side of the railway track.

"Want to walk over and show it to me?"

'There she is,' he said

He got out of his chair and led the way. I tried to see something that might be a hidden depression into which a love-mad Indian might have leaped if there had been such an Indian, but I could not. Old Billy trudged along half a step ahead of me. We crossed the railway and entered the unfenced field. There was nothing in it but weeds and a pile of decayed timbers, thrown together, hit or miss, and left to rot. The old fellow led me through the weeds until we reached the rotten boards and two-by-fours.

"There she is, " he said.

"I don't see anything, " I said.

"Well, that ain't no fault o' mine. There she is. There's Lover's Leap. If you don't take a fancy to her, it ain't no fault o' mine. All I done was fetch you, and if you don't like her it ain't no fault o' mine."

"But I don't see anything," I said.

"Well, she's sort of hid by them boards, and that's a fact," he said. "When she stopped blowin' --"

"When what stopped blowing?"

"Th' well."

"Oh, it's a well!" I exclaimed. "The fond lover jumped down a well!"

"Nothin' o' th' sort! And he wa'n't no fond lover. He was a fugitive. That's what he was -- a fugitive."

"I see! He hid in the well --"

"No, he wasn't ever in no well. Not that I know of, anyways. "

"Then the girl was in the well, and --"

"She wa'n't no girl, and she wa'n't in no well. Neither of 'em was in the well. It wa'n't that kind of a well. It was a 'tesian well."

"An artesian well? But how --"

"It was a bored well. I ought to know because I was the feller what bored it."

"Uncle Billy," I said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you a dollar if you will tell me why this is called Lover's Leap, and what happened. I'm not in much of a hurry. I expect to be here quite a while. I have time. But I'm impatient. I want to know about this thing some time during this century."

"Well, this here man by name of Joe -- that was what I allus called him -- Joe. This here man by name of Joe come to town and aimed he would set up in business here. I didn't have nothin' ag'in' him. He was a likely feller, but meeklike. He was sort of scared-like, as you may say. If you popped out at him, sudden-like, 'What's your name?' he would go red and say, 'Ah -- ah --' like that. So this here Sally Hodgers she made up her mind he was goin' to wed her. I guess so. She acted like it, anyways. She done her hair up in curl-papers and took the papers out afore noon, anyways. She acted kittenish when he come around. I guess she made up her mind to grab him. Leastways, I know she did.

She up and proposed holy wedlock to him.

"So this here Joe feller he got scared at last. For a while he didn't know what Sally was up to -- he just thought she was crazy or the like of that -- because he was sort of young and Sally wasn't. Not what you would call so. She was forty and more. She was what I would call a dad-basted old vinegar-cruet, that's what she was. I've told her so more 'n once. 'Sally,' I says to her, 'you're the dad-bastedest old vinegar-cruet I ever laid eyes on.' I have so. And she was. Nobody needn't tell me nothin' else.

"So when she got this Joe feller scared of her she up and proposed holy wedlock to him. I guess she did. That's how I understand it was. I been told so. Anyhow, that day this here 'tesian well I was borin' come in. She come with a rush and blowed all my contraptions sky-high, only she didn't come in with water -- she come in with air. She was an air-well. She blowed out air like all-git-out. Like water out of a fire-hose nozzle. That's how she blowed.

"That was June eighteen, and I remember it mighty well, because J. C. Burling, what I bored that well for, never paid me a cent. So along about nine o'clock this Joe feller snuck out of the back door of the hotel and started across country for Minnesota or the North Pole or somewheres where Sally wa'n't. He run like the dickens and fust thing he knew he run right into this here dry 'tesian well o' mine, and up he went."

"Up he went?" I asked Uncle Billy.

"Up was what I said," said old Billy, "and up it was. He went up and he stayed up. Hain't you ever seen one of them jets of water that keeps a leetle glass ball a jigglin' around on top of it and don't let it drop? Say, didn't you ever see a boy stick a pin half through a pea and put the bowl of a pipe in his mouth and blow, and send the pea dancin' and jiggin" in the air over the top of the stem? That's what that Joe feller done. He run right into the colyum of air that was shootin' out of that dry 'tesian well and it shot him straight up one hundred and fifty-two feet and kep' him there, kickin' and tossin' and yellin'. Yes, sir!

"I sort of heard him yell myself. I says to my wife, 'Somebody is drunk and yellin' like blazes.' But I never thought what it was. Nobody would. So nobody knowed this Joe feller was bein" tossed and jiggled up there in the air one hundred and fifty-two feet. Nobody knowed it until next mornin' when I went out to see if maybe the well had changed its mind and started to give water.

"I come out of my house and started for the well, and the fust thing I see was something black bouncin' around right up yonder in the air one hundred and fifty-two feet. This Joe feller had been up there all night. I run to the well here, and before I got here I seen it was a human bein' and I turned back and got a gang of fellers together.

"I knowed how serious it was. You can't tell nothing about them 'tesian wells. This one might keep on for seven thousand years, and by that time this Joe feller wouldn't be nothin' but bones, so to speak.

"Every once in a while he let out a weak sort of yip, but for the most part he was bein' tossed and turned head-over-heels. I got a barn door and us fellers slid it over the well, but the air was too strong for us. It wrested the barn door away from us and the barn door flew up and hit this Joe feller a wallop and then skidded off and come down.

"We done everything we could think of to fetch him down. We tried a rope, but when one end would get up a ways it would get out of the air current and the whole caboodle would come down. It was right pitiful to hear him yip once in a while, and it looked like he would stay up there until he starved to death and then keep on right where he was. We tried tossin' victuals into the air-current, but it wa'n't what you'd call successful. They went up all right but, bein' lighter than this Joe feller, they went right on beyond him. In no time at all we had a sort of bouquet of victuals bouncin' and jiggin' ten or twelve feet above his head, but it didn't do him no good. So it looked like the best we could do would be to get a gun and shoot him. There wa'n't no use lettin' him die of starvation.

And grabs her well-intended by the foot.

"It was whilst Orley Morvis was goin' for his rifle that this Sally person come to where he was. The news that this Joe feller was gone but not forgotten had come to her and she come with all speed. Right away she begun to blat like a sick sheep. It wasn't nothin' but, 'My dearly beloved!' and, 'Save him! save him!' and blaw-blaw-blaw. That woman sure did git on my nerves.

"'For the land's sake, shet up!' I says, when I couldn't stand it no longer. 'If you don't,' I says, I'll chuck you into that air-shoot with him.'

"'My Joseph!' she blats, and what does she do but jump right into the air-current! My stars! I give one grab for her, but it was too late. Up she went!

"Up she went, and I says, 'Now there's two of them!' but as she went shootin' up past him she reaches out a hand and grabs her well-intended by the foot and clings on. For a second or two they was all one ball, and then down they come. Gradual. Slow and gradual. They was too heavy for the air-current when together that way, and down they come. So that's why we call this here lot Lover's Leap. This Sally person leaped up and saved this Joe feller."

I looked at old Uncle Billy, but he did not bat an eye. He gave me stare for stare.

"Is that the truth?" I asked.

"Ask anybody," he said.

"You mean every one here believes it? That it is the legend that clings to this ground?"

"I don't know nothin' about legend," he said. "It's whut happened, like I'm tellin' you."

"Well, I say it is a good story," I said. "I say I'm going to use it in Kildare Beautiful. It is as good romance as any Lover's Leap story. I don't see why Briggs objected to my using it."

"Well, mebby" -- said Uncle Billy, slowly, -- "mebby one reason is he was the Joe feller that got h'isted. Mebby that sort of influenced him ag'in' the facts in print. His wife Sally might not favor it. She kind of thinks it was undignified to be shootin' up in the air like that before a gang of us fellers. Well, I don't know!"

"You don't know what?"

"Well, I don't know but what it was, seein' as she went up feet first," said Uncle Billy.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:04:23am USA Central
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